Own your ignorance; tips for the US American tourist

It may seem harsh referring to US American tourists as ignorant. (Remember that “ignorance” means “lack of knowledge.”) But Americans aren’t the only ignorant tourist group. I think anyone going abroad will have varying levels of ignorance, depending on how many times he/she has traveled, with what intention, curiosity about the destination, etc.

I write this post calling out US Americans because I am one. And, I am so pleased that other US Americans want to come visit and learn about Italy. But, I ask you, please, to stop pretending like you “know” Italy, or that you “love” Italian food, or even that something in the US is authentic Italian because the item/person in question has Sicilian heritage. It’s embarrassing.

I recently lead a couple of groups of US Americans through some key cities in Northern Italy. They were on an “educational” program. The premise is that they are not mere tourists, but learners. Many of these people have been on multiple programs of this nature and are no better traveled. I was rather taken aback at the questions and expectations from a group that sees themselves as above the average tourist.

“Is the water safe to drink?”

“Are US Dollars accepted here?”

“What are the major restaurant chains here?”

“What is the difference between ‘ice cream’ and ‘gelato’?”

“It’s against the law for children to drink wine (alcohol) back home.”

Like I said, it’s embarrassing.

So, allow me to give you some information before you travel to Italy (or anywhere, actually).

  1. Italy is a very new country. The ONLY thing that is “Italian” as one might know it is their love of food and history. Italy became the republic that it is today in 1861 (the state of Oregon became a state in 1859), and the northernmost region, Trentino Alto Adige (previously Austria) only joined the Italian Republic after the first World War. Italy is still very much a bunch of little countries joined under the umbrella of “Italy.” It’s like Texas, they want to be their own little country, but they operate under the umbrella of the US. Every region has their regional dishes and products and theirs is the best! Parmesan cheese comes from Parma but the cheese, grana, is made everywhere in Italy. Wine is produced throughout the country, but each region has its own specialties. Valpolicella, for example, in the region of Veneto, is well known for the Amarone wine. Each community has their way of making pasta, and there are a bazillion different types of pasta. Don’t insult someone by suggesting you had tortellini somewhere and it was delicious. If you didn’t have it in it’s birth place (Emilia-Romagna) then you didn’t have anything worthy of it being called tortellini. This is a very typical mentality, and definitely a characteristic that makes Italy charming.
  2. Unlike English, the Italian language is not learned from birth by everyone. There are so many “dialeti” which vary from near-Italian to a completely different language. One can be raised in a small village and never hear Italian. And, if you head up to Trentino Alto Adige (former Austria) they speak German, Italian, maybe Ladin, and most likely some other “dialeto.”
  3. The US is known for having every kind of food from around the world. But much of it has been modified since it left its home country. Despite a recipe being passed down from generation to generation, a once-Sicilian recipe does not constitute now-authentic Italian cuisine. American BBQ in Italy tastes NOTHING like American BBQ tastes in the US. People change things. People change. Authentic Italian food exists in Italy. Period. So try what is offered. It might sound funky or look different from food of the same name back home, but isn’t that why you’re traveling? Get out of your bubble and try something new!
  4. Everyone in the US hails from either: Indigenous roots, slavery, refugees, or immigrants. So, everyone has some heritage(s) from 50-300 years of mixing up DNA. Unless your parents came from another country, stop referring to yourself as “Italian,” “English,” or, “Spanish,” etc. Interestingly, I only hear Americans use this when referring to European decent. I have yet to hear someone of Chinese decent from 200 years ago refer to themselves as Chinese. You are now American. You know nothing about the culture, the history, the pains or wins of this land you claim heritage to. You sound like a fool to those who are actually from these countries. 

In summation, do your homework, have no expectations that your travel destination will be anything like “home,” get out of the bubble, be vulnerable, and most importantly, be curious. Travel is an adventure; it takes courage. Otherwise, you’re just tourist (and that’s ok – just own it).

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