by Janet Di Nola Parmerter
Now that summer is near, though COVID previously put a damper on traveling overseas, I thought I’d share a bit of travel talk.
First, let’s discuss an attitude of some people in third-world countries. When you really need help, don’t act like an entitled American. People may be indifferent about work, or helping a foreigner get things done. People like to feel important, so use the words, “Oh please, I really need help; are you the one who can help me.” It never ceases to amaze me when people feel they have the power, they are more willing to prove that power by helping. It is AMAZING how those few words cause someone to reply, “Yes, I am the one who can do it.” I have seen that work many, many times.
Then what about the reputation of American travelers? Being in the travel industry for over 40 years, I must admit, Americans don’t have a great reputation for tolerance. Unfortunately, with regards to almost everything, including accessibility issues, many Americans think the world should be on an equal plane with the United States. Some travelers cannot understand why ice is not added to drinks, why butter is not put on the table with bread, why shops close in the middle of the day, why people dine with their pet dogs, and last but not the very least, why everyone does not speak English. Of all the comments written by travel writers, my favorite line was written by Sydney Clark. His exact words were, “Americans walk the face of the earth expecting universal mastery of the English language to precede them wherever they go!” In that one sentence, Sydney Clark beautifully summed up the attitude of numerous inexperienced travelers.
Having been an international tour guide for decades, I would be rich if I had a dollar for every time I heard an American tourist say, “Don’t let them kid you, they know exactly what you’re saying!” But the truth is, they don’t really know what you are saying. The only exception to that rule may be in France.
In addition, too many times American tourists expect everything to be just like home. Far too often I have heard comments like, “At home we get, or at home we do this or that, or at home it’s not like this.”
As a tour guide who loves historic and charming European cities, walking the narrow cobblestone streets of a 15th century city with 18-inch-wide sidewalks can be frustrating. Not because the sidewalks are so tiny and a small truck may brush against your shopping bag, but from listening to uninformed visitors complain about the sidewalks. They fail to realize the streets were made for walking and perhaps a horse or two. So, in the 20th century, those few inches are all they could take away from the street to allow the small modern-day cars and trucks to drive on the narrow cobblestone street. Therefore, before considering a trip overseas, I offer two suggestions. First, buy flat crepe-soled shoes to prevent twisting your ankle on the cobblestone streets. Then order some books to learn about wherever your dream trip will take you. If you are an educated, knowledgeable tourist, you will not be easily blindsided by the inevitable, yet unexpected different situations.
When I was 18 years old, I was in Europe for the very first time, and wanted to prove I was all grown up. I wanted to use the restroom alone, but failed on my first attempt. Blaming my poor eyesight, or perhaps my Italian was worse than I thought, I returned to the table and once again asked the waiter for the second time where the restroom was. This time I felt sure I understood the directions. But once again, there wasn’t any restroom. The third time I asked, the handsome waiter walked me right to the same door I just came from, pointed to the sign which read, “WC,” and said, “Cabinetto” and walked away. Did WC mean woman’s cabinet? I was so confused so I went into the room supposing there might be another door inside, but there was nothing. At this point, my bladder was telling me if I didn’t immediately find the restroom, the WC would mean wet clothes! I had no other choice but to go back to the table and ask my parents for help. My mother took me right back to the same door and explained that WC meant water closet. Now I was ready to cry and moaned, “But mommy, I have been in there three times and it’s not a bathroom.” Calmly she took me inside, pointed to the floor and said, “Do you see those two ceramic feet? Put one foot on each, squat down, aim for the hole in the floor and try not to wet on your shoes.” I was stunned. I returned to the table a bit embarrassed, but my shoes were dry. That experience was the beginning of my learning to accept, embrace and love the differences of other countries.
As for individuals with special challenges and service animals, much of Europe is ready, willing, and able to help with both. To assist travelers with special needs, Rick Steves wrote a wonderful book which includes an excellent rating scale for accessibility levels and the helpfulness of hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions. Still, in European restaurants it is not unusual to see pet dogs, not service dogs, inside restaurants alongside their owner’s chair. Being a tour group director, I was accustomed to the European experience of dining with dogs, but that was not so for my American clients.
One evening after skiing Mont Blanc in Chamonix, France, for dinner I brought my tour group to a quaint little French bistro. Our group used almost every table; only about three tables had other patrons. Under the table nearest mine, someone’s large, furry pet dog was quietly sleeping. All of a sudden, the dog lifted its head, glared out from under the floor-length tablecloth, and began a low, constant growl. At first, many of my American clients were surprised by the unleashed and growling dog under the next table, but when the low growl turned into full-blown barking, they became a bit frightened.
All the French patrons in the restaurant seemed oblivious to the disturbance until I got up to go to the restroom. Immediately, the dog leaped out from under the table and went after my feet. In a second, it attacked my white furry, knee high, goatskin boots. Apparently, throughout dinner, this giant dog had been watching them from under his table. Each time I moved either foot, the dog began growling. When I stood up to go to the WC, that was it. The dog pounced on my leg. Being visually impaired and in a dark restaurant, I had no idea what was happening and screamed with terror. That made the disinterested diners pay attention. Without a single word to us, the owner called the dog’s name, and the sulking canine returned to its spot under the tablecloth.
Perhaps they were embarrassed, but any gesture of concern in French would have calmed my pounding heart. So, in that terrifying moment, I almost lost my temper, I lost a wad of goat hair off my boots, and I lost my appetite. And as we left the bistro and began walking toward our bus, a little rat-size dog bit my leg. This time, one of my clients was videotaping the gorgeous snowcapped mountain when he heard my second scream. He lowered the camera just in time to catch the old French owner of the mangy mutt hitting my leg with her cane. I only wish I knew what she yelled in French when her feisty pooch bit my leg.
Up to that point, I thought the problem was that French dogs hated my boots. However, a year later in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, our tour group stayed at the Hotel Vittoria Parc, and the owner of the hotel had a dog that absolutely loved my goat-hair boots. I couldn’t walk through the lobby without that dog thinking his lover was running away. I’d be walking toward the front door for a relaxing evening stroll, and the dog would come running from behind, wrap his two front paws around my knees and wouldn’t let go. When we returned from skiing, I would try to sneak through the lobby. If the dog’s owner saw me, she would pull him into her office and shut the door. Unfortunately, the door was glass, and when he saw me, he would begin howling and slam his body against the door.
This one-sided love affair became the evening entertainment for my tour group. Our clients began waiting with their video cameras to record the dog’s hilarious attempts at amore. If I knew how to post a video, I would definitely post the evening I came into the lounge for a glass of vino. As I walked in, the dog leaped from behind the couch and attached himself to my right leg. I almost fell over. As I caught myself on the couch, would anyone help me? Of course not — everyone was too busy laughing and filming the dog. I pushed him away, but he chased me around the couch three times and jumped onto my right leg. As soon as I pulled that leg away, he leaped onto the other leg. When I got them both free, he chased me around the room. When he leaped across the floor and wrapped all four legs around my knee and thigh, I dragged him across the floor limping like the hunchback of Notre Dame. Did anyone try to help me get the lovesick dog off my leg? No! They were bent over laughing.
Finally, this big dog knocked me over, and when I pulled myself up, I began pushing him off with my right arm. At that point, his face was in my elbow, and in a second, he wrapped himself around my arm and wouldn’t let go. Amidst the laughter, I yelled, “This dog is nuts! Hey, let go, this jacket cost a lot of money!” After jerking my arm away, once again, the dizzying race around the couch was on. When his mortified owner caught sight of that fiasco, I was in the lead, but in frustration and failure, she dragged him away to doggie jail.
From that point on, I decided I would keep those goatskin ski boots out of Europe and relegate them to ski areas within the United States. In these ski resorts, well-behaved service dogs are allowed, and good little pet dogs stay at home!