If you’ve done any traveling abroad, no doubt you’ve seen him. The Ugly American. He’s the inexplicably loud guy wearing a baseball hat, an American flag t-shirt and jorts, with glow-in-the-dark white sneakers. He’s in the middle of a meltdown because the Parisian cafe he’s chosen for lunch doesn’t have ice cold Budweiser and loaded potato skins.
The term Ugly American was most likely coined by William Lederer in his 1958 book, The Ugly American (which would go on to become a film starring Marlon Brando in 1963). Lederer may have named The Ugly American, but Mark Twain described that guy in his 1869 travel book/guide, The Innocents Abroad.
Twain and some other Americans traveled to the Mediterranean and Europe aboard the cruise ship, Quaker City (a decommissioned Civil War ship). The Innocents Abroad details their travels, providing humorous, often satirical observation and critique on the different countries and cultures they visited.
To wit, here is how Twain describes being a stranger in a strange land:
The people of those foreign countries are very, very ignorant . . . In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language.
One night, while enjoying a meal in Marseilles, Twain has a brush with The Ugly American.
Twain has just finished explaining that his traveling group has grown accustomed to the “lingering routine” of French dining — they’ve even embraced it.
Enter The Ugly American.
A preface — on their own, these words are pretty benign. A little pretentious, but not especially jerky. You need the full context to really appreciate the encounter, so I’ll hand the mic over to Mr. Twain . . .
We were troubled a little at dinner today by the conduct of an American, who talked very loudly and coarsely and laughed boisterously where all others were so quiet and well behaved. He ordered wine with a royal flourish and said:
(which was a pitiful falsehood), and looked around upon the company to bask in the admiration he expected to find in their faces. All these airs in a land where they would as soon expect to leave the soup out of the bill of fare as the wine! In a land where wine is nearly as common among all ranks as water! This fellow said: “I am a free-born sovereign, sir, an American, sir, and I want everybody to know it!” He did not mention that he was a lineal descendant of Balaam’s ass, but everybody knew that without his telling it.
Balaam’s ass? I mean it seems pretty insulting, but I wasn’t sure exactly what a Balaam’s ass was, so I had to look it up. Balaam’s ass is a talking donkey in the Hebrew Torah, and apparently, not an especially flattering name to be called.
The Takeaway: When I’m visiting France this summer, I’ll try my best not to be a Balaam’s ass.
I do, however, know fourteen words of French, so I’ll see if I can get those idiots to understand their language while I’m there. 😉
P.S. Twain’s story reminds me a bit of The Drunken Cyclist’s OhMyGod! series. If you haven’t checked it out, you should. Funny stuff.
Text and Photo Credits: The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain