I was sitting on a curb with Parker the other day waiting for Quimby and Samantha to use the toilet, when two older French women approached me to ask directions. They asked if I spoke French (they knew immediately I wasn't from these here parts) and I said en Francais "a little". They proceeded to ask in French where the Bois du Bologne was and I said as best I could, "take a left and go about 100 meters. It's on the right." My French is absolutely terrible and believe me, this was just about the limit of my abilities. The women thanked me and began to walk away. Just before they turned the corner, one of the women turned and asked "Canadian?" "No," I said in French again, "I am an American." She stood there for a moment and looked at me quizzically, her eyes scanning me. After a moment, she shrugged and said "huh," then walked away in disbelief.
On the days when I would take the Tube from Parson's Green to Knightsbridge, I would pass the time (there was plenty of it--there seemed to be constant delays) by playing a game of "spot the foreigner". Spotting the foreigner usually wasn't hard, the hard part was picking out where they were from and straining to hear the language or accent to see if you were correct. I had to look carefully for the tells for all but the Americans. They were a piece of cake.
As soon as she walked away, I looked myself over and went through the list. It wasn't a slam dunk, but thought I fit the American profile reasonably well. And yet, this woman was pretty sure I wasn't. What was throwing her off? If there had been any doubt, my accent surely gave me away. But choosing Canadian? Nine times out of ten you'd be wrong with that guess unless there was something that clearly didn't fit the American stereotype. My guess is that because Canada has a significant French-speaking population, Canadians may be more willing to fumble in French than Americans. Most Americans (I suspect) would simply say "I don't speak French" and be done with it. Quimby has a different theory. She thinks it was because I was alone. "Americans," she says, "tend run in packs, especially when their language skills are as poor as yours." Booyakasha! I told you my French was bad. We'll never know, but it was a fascinating little exchange. If you want to look a little less American (maybe a little more Canadian?) the next time you're out and about in the world, here's my list of American "tells".
1) You smile too much. Americans are the smiliest people in the world. Everything is "awesome" and the more uncomfortable we get, it seems the smilier we become. We're like the labrador retrievers of tourists; we knock things over and generally make a mess, but because we're smiling all the time, people seem to like us anyway.
2) Your teeth are too white. Americans love their perfect, straight and oh-so-white teeth. When you smile (which is all the time, see above), it's like an atom bomb just went off. Before you go abroad next time, spend a week gargling espresso and red wine before bedtime. You'll look just that much less American.
3) Hawaiian shirts. If you're wearing a Hawaiian shirt, 100 out of 100 times you're American. Game over.
4) You're wearing a fanny pack. These are an exclusively American accessory. If you want to make a Brit bite his lip in restrained laughter, refer to your "fanny pack" repeatedly in conversation.
5) You're covered in advertising that isn't football (soccer) related. If that's not enough of a giveaway, if it's golf advertising, then it's done. American. All. Day. Long.
6) Americans run in packs. You'll often see groups of college-age or younger nationalities in herds, but after a certain age, that seems to fade out. Americans do the couples-en-vacance thing. Also, the less we know of the language, the more we Americans run in groups. Big, awesome, smiley, Hawaiian shirt-wearing, fanny pack sporting, groups of Titleist-capped Americans.