All About Americans

Harris is an Arlington, Vt., free-lance writer.

The scene:

One rainy day in Tafraoute, Morocco, two couples spend the afternoon in front of a fireplace. Barbara, a tour guide from France, lets it all hang out--the problems and pleasures of leading tour groups through Europe.

"You get a fix on a tour group right away," said Barbara, an intelligent Parisian in her mid-30s.

"I meet them at the airport when they're tired from an overnight flight. But by the time we've gathered all their baggage and arrived at a Paris hotel for the first night in Europe, I have most of them sized up."

Funny how easily strangers become friends when traveling. We open up, say things we seldom would back home.

If a downpour hadn't caused most of the guests at the Grand Hotel du Sud in Morocco to spend the afternoon around a stone fireplace in the high-ceilinged salon, we might never have talked with Herb and Barbara from Paris.

Seven Months of Tours

Barbara spends seven months every year traveling with tour groups on package tours of Europe.

Sometimes she hops over to London to meet clients at Heathrow, but most of her groups land in Paris.

"While we're checking in to, say, the Hotel Meridien where many groups stay, I can tell which ones will give me trouble later on."

"What sort of trouble?" my wife, Phyllis, asked.

"Not really trouble, but out of every group a few will be demanding: European coffee is too thick and not like coffee at home; nobody in France knows how to make a gimlet--that sort of thing.

"And of course while we're collecting their luggage at the airport, I notice they've all brought tons--two or three big heavy suitcases.

"Some of them have even paid the airline for extra baggage. I still can't understand a person on a week's summer tour taking two suitcases plus a flight bag.

A Lighter Load

"They are always surprised at my luggage for the same trip--one small suitcase and a briefcase, and the briefcase is paper work for one tour.

"I always take several basic skirts and lightweight blouses, all packed carefully and never jammed in. One nice thing for an evening, and a swimming suit and a lightweight raincoat. A sweater in case the air conditioning gets too cold. What else do I need?

"Even with their big suitcases, they bring the wrong things. The women, especially the first time to Europe, pack too many formal things, brocaded gowns and so on. I mean, we do go out at night, but the places where you need to dress up nowadays are very limited.

"I feel embarrassed in Hamburg when we're going to the Reeperbahn to have a look around at the sleazy bars and my people in the Atlantic Hotel lobby are all decked out in formal gowns.

"I try to get them to change, but usually there isn't time so they end up feeling uncomfortable all evening.

Wild and Crazy Guys

"The men are just as bad. Back home they probably dress in ordinary suits much of the time, but once they're off on vacation, they take all sorts of yellow and green golf slacks and wild shirts.

"There are still a few parts of Europe where middle-aged men out for an evening dress in dark suits with white shirts.

"I'm not saying that my people have to go that far, but clothing that is OK in Hawaii just doesn't seem right in a city like Zurich, which is still conservative.

"I have to be tactful and can't dictate dress. It's their own right, but I don't want them to feel uncomfortable.

"You'd be surprised the number of women ready to go to the Vatican in slacks. Or shorts! I have to tell them that in Europe people are a little more formal.

"They don't wear hair curlers outside, things like that."

Further Commentary

The rain continued. We ordered more tea and beer, and encouraged Barbara to continue.

"I don't get many Japanese because they have their own tour guides, and besides, I don't speak Japanese," she said.

"But sometimes I have a few who speak some English and they are models of perfection, always punctual and soft-spoken--I would say American tourists are the loudest of all--and well-dressed.

"Sometimes I wish I spoke Japanese and could tour with them exclusively! I like most of the Canadians I get. I especially like family groups.

"I do very little drinking on the tour, but I have a problem with some of my clients. I just can't believe they drink like that at home.

"It's hard getting them back to the hotel at night, and of course they can't get up in the morning. I try to be sympathetic, but sometimes it's difficult.

"Americans don't realize how strong European beer is until they've had three or four bottles. Then it hits them. Beer is really a problem on a tour.

"I like my job. It's better than working in a bookstore, which I did for four years.

High Marks for Teachers

"I really like some of my clients, especially women teachers who've saved up all winter for a summer trip. They're also the best with language, always trying to learn new words, making notes and trying to read signs.

"In general, most Americans seem to have no language ability. Of course, I get second-generation Italian-Americans who've heard Italian around the home and maybe pretend in America that they didn't know Italian.

"Suddenly in Rome they're talking Italian!

"Most Americans will learn one or two words, generally thank you , and they'll go all through France saying merci or Germany saying danke schoen . That's the extent of it, even though they may have studied language in school for a couple of years.

"It's hard to believe they haven't learned more. They are always amazed that I know five languages (French, English, German, Italian, Spanish), but that's common in Europe.

'They're Always Eating'

"I think my clients get sick because they eat and drink too much. Americans especially always seem to be eating.

"If we stop at a museum, for instance, they'll quickly down a soft drink and perhaps a chocolate bar just while I'm arranging tickets for the group to go inside.

"Honestly, they eat and drink all day long--ice cream, beer, candy--I'd be sick if I ate like that.

"Another thing that gets to me is the way they throw wrappers around. I've been to New York City and seen it and especially the subways, so I know where they get the habit.

"But I try to tell them gently on the bus sound system that we should all notice how clean the streets are, that people in Europe don't make a habit of throwing papers onto streets.

"Smokers are a real problem. We now prohibit smoking on the tour bus but somebody always tries it anyway--and I have to stop them.

"One minor problem I have. The tour brochures often show men escorts in their photographs and the descriptions read, 'Your knowledgeable tour guide has at his command four or five languages. . . .'

"So when I greet them at the airport they can't believe I'm the tour guide, a woman! They've been thinking of some handsome man.

More Women as Guides

"At first they're disappointed, but after I've helped them through a few language problems and politely told them they can't mail post cards in Switzerland with French stamps, they come around. I think there are now more women tour guides than men.

"We keep busy all the time. Most nights we have something planned, a dinner or a nightclub. If we go to a Paris nightclub, Herb joins us.

"But you know, I sometimes think we do too much chaperoning. It gets so that if we have a free evening, my clients don't venture forth without me.

"I'm their security blanket. Perhaps tour escorts are so protective that we smother their sense of adventure.

"Don't misunderstand me, it's a good job. I work only six or seven months of the year. When I get home from a tour, I generally sleep about 14 hours a night for a few days.

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