Blending In

Some things are inescapable. Some people stick out like a sore thumb. If you are tall, blonde, and fair-skinned in a country of small, dark-haired, brown-skinned people, you become a curiosity. And if you are American, or European, or an Asian tourist far from home, you will attract attention.

Some people go looking for it. They wear their home team’s sweatshirt, baggy shorts, revealing tank tops, dress the kids in their school jacket. Those are the people who make the pickpockets smile. The merchants in the market make a note to raise their opening price ten percent — no, make it fifteen.

The best compliment I’ve received in my travels is when people assume I am French. People leave the French alone. I dress to disguise where I am from: No crazy t-shirts, never shorts in a city, an appropriate jacket for the elements. Nothing that screams “I’m from the USA. Come take my money.” I try not to attract attention. I try to act like I belong there. Pretty soon I start believing it.

Try to fit in. If you can pass for a local, try to do so.It doesn’t work everywhere. The shoeshine boys of Egypt and South America go after all foreigners equally. But the only time anyone tried to hassle me in Europe was when I wore a t-shirt and shorts to the National Palace in central Madrid. This guy in a park tried to run a gypsy cop sting by chasing off a kid who was trying to sell me something and then asking to see my passport. I just kept walking.

Ever since, I’ve stuck to fairly simple, generic clothes: a bland sweater, an inconspicuous shirt. When it’s cold, a scarf and long, herringbone overcoat — my European coat. I’ve had that coat for so long that the pockets are completely useless from being patched too many times.

It’s best to be discreet. Try to fit in. If you can pass for a local, try to do so. If you can’t, try to act like you’ve been there before, as if you are an expat. Watch what the locals do, follow their lead. After a while you start to get it. The longer I’m in a country, the more I feel at home. At least try to appear less of an easy mark. By all means, be courteous and respectful. People will be nicer to you, and you won’t be such a curiosity.

Photo: Charles Bridge, Prague.


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