Last week at the kick-ass US Represented staff party, my colleagues and I had an interesting conversation about travel. Eric, our esteemed editor-in-chief, told us he’s planning a trip to Greece next summer and wanted to know whether he should rent a car and strike out on his own or hang with a tour group. Pretty much everyone was in agreement with him that going solo instead of being the “typical American” on a tour bus was his best option. (My sister-in-law said something similar after she took one of those Viking River Cruises to Russia. She hated the confinement and structure of it all and thought her fellow American travelers were lazy and unwilling to mingle with the natives.)
I was the lone dissenter and couldn’t imagine anything more ghastly than driving in a foreign country. Hell, I get road rage about the traffic bottleneck at Powers and Research every workday morning, so I’d probably cause an international incident if I attempted to navigate a roundabout in some busy foreign capital. A surly Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s European Vacation comes to mind.
Oh, I get the argument that “cultural immersion” is superior to hyper-organized tour packages that limit your choices and time at intriguing places. I also understand the complaint that you aren’t out on the streets interacting with the people as much. However, in my pleasantly vituperative opinion, those are some of the finer selling points of tour packages!
First, there are so many things to do and see on a foreign holiday that it’s impossible to visit every site in seven to fourteen days. A tour provides a structure–and often a theme–so that you aren’t just going out, willy-nilly, and exploring randomly (or getting lost and wasting time). For instance, when Mike and I were in Europe on our Stephen Ambrose Band of Brothers World War II tour last year, we didn’t have time to see the Bayeux Tapestry while we were in Normandy. However, we did see other off-the-beaten-path locales, like Brecourt Manor, site of fierce post-D-Day fighting, where the bloodstains of wounded soldiers are still visible on the stone floors. Chris, our historian and tour guide, had developed a personal relationship with the manor’s owner over the years. As independent travelers, Mike and I would never have been granted permission to tour the residence. In Holland, our tour group visited a farmer who was just a boy in the fall of 1944, when American paratroopers landed in his father’s fields before Operation Market Garden. Now an old man, he still finds war artifacts on the land he inherited.
Call me a jerk, but I think the notion that independent travelers have a more positive and “real” feel of the culture is overstated. I say this as someone who spent a year teaching English in China twenty-five years ago. I immersed myself in Chinese culture–the good and bad of it. I lived in a quaint Chinese guest house and stayed in locals’ homes. The Chinese people were kind and gracious. On the other hand, I also toured the markets in Guangzhou (Canton) and saw the whole roasted dogs for sale. I saw cats crammed in cages on top of each other with no room to move, probably hoping to trade their agony for a merciful death in a stew pot. I lost $500 to a pickpocket. I ate in a dark corner of a “quaint” (Read: hygiene deficient) local Jaozi restaurant, only to look down and see two large rats crawling across my feet to savor the food scraps the Chinese patrons deliberately dropped on the floor. (The owner simply used a water hose to wash down the place at COB.) Some people bought “I Climbed the Great Wall” t-shirts. I needed one that said, “I Barfed Over the Great Wall” because when I visited the ancient landmark, I was reeling from food poisoning.
Granted, the year in China was good learning experience for a young woman in her mid-twenties, but I’ll confess that after about three months, I spent more time talking shit with European businessmen at the nice western hotel bar in town than I did sampling the local sights, sounds, and smells. For some temperaments, too much cultural immersion can be just as problematic as no cultural immersion at all. I was dreadfully homesick but stuck it out for the whole academic year. I’m glad I did it, but I would never do it again.
Now that I’m in my fifties, I make no apologies for being a “typical American tourist.” I want to travel abroad in as much luxury, comfort, and ease as my U.S. dollars will buy me. I love seeing the picturesque landscapes and old churches and cemeteries in European villages. I’ll just take the people in smaller doses than my colleagues would. In fairness, how many Europeans or Asians are interested in sampling the fried chicken and potato salad at a Welcome #1 Missionary Baptist Church picnic in the community where I grew up? I don’t see many foreign tourists coming to the United States to experience the Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival in Indiana or immerse themselves in the culture of rural Appalachia. They’re headed to the Grand Canyon, Hollywood, or Rockefeller Center.
Before anyone accuses me of xenophobia, though, let me say I’m even more snotty about the Americans I encounter when I travel domestically. Charles Bukowski said it best: “I don’t hate people. I just feel better when they’re not around.” Unfortunately, even in the good ol’ rich U.S.A, luxurious, comfortable travel seems as antiquated as quilting and blacksmithing. Far too often, we’re stuck in traffic or delayed at airports with a festering pus pocket of humanity. As travelers, we’re a miserable lot.
Nothing epitomizes the inelegance of domestic travel more than the free hotel breakfast buffet at lodging establishments typically found off American interstate exits. Indeed, before I even began blogging routinely, I published a regular column on my Facebook page called Hotel Breakfast Buffet Nightmares, just to amuse all my friends with observations of people I saw in the breakfast line at Hampton, LaQuinta, Holiday Inn Express, or other major hotel chains. I’ve collected some of those observations here:
March 26, 2012, Albuquerque, New Mexico:
Well, the pajama brigade was out in full force again at the powdered egg cheese omelet and faux pork sausage stand. Even some dude as old as Mike had on his plaid jammy pants. (The guy would be so much more fun to ridicule if he had been sporting Scooby Doo or Hello Kitty sleepwear, though.)
Personally, I hate it when somebody invades my personal space at the coffee counter and then says, chirpily, “You’re ok!” when I move over to give the person room. Yes, I am ok …You are the Serengeti wildebeest that can’t wait its turn at the watering hole.
March 25, 2013, Santa Fe, New Mexico:
A sight that strikes fear in the heart: A huge tour bus parked outside the hotel entryway, a sure sign that no less than 150 people will be crammed into the little kitchenette, breaking all kinds of local fire code ordinances, as they line up to use the dumb Easybake waffle machine that never works properly and burns the batter to hell and back. Why this is such a novelty for travelers is a mystery to me. These hotels should just buy frozen Eggo waffles in bulk. Using the toaster is about the limit of their cooking skills. We gave up on the free breakfast and ended up at IHOP, where I got a REAL waffle without having to glop batter at some self- service counter. If you want the best, you just have to pay extra.
March 24, 2014, Cortez, Colorado
The Men of Breakfast Buffets (A new calendar, perhaps?):
So this late 50ish-looking cowboy/rancher guy–we’ll call him Chet–was all smiles and flirtatious and stuff, which sort of made my day, until it dawned on me that he was only being friendly because he couldn’t find the Promise faux-butter spread and wanted this here little missy to help him. He was just as flirty with Rosita, the buffet server gal. (That was her real name. She was wearing a name badge.) I was hoping Mike would fight Chet to defend the honor of his woman and that we could start a buffet brawl reminiscent of the Old West saloon fights, but Mike tuned out the whole thing and said, “I didn’t see any cowboy.” So I just ate my unsweetened oatmeal with raisins in a sulky silence, my only consolation being that I bypassed the cheesy eggs and sausage and saved a few calories.
March 27, 2014, someplace in Utah:
The popularity of mini-waffle machines continues to mystify. This hotel has three of them, which was fortunate because one mother of five was monopolizing the counter space as she whipped up a gourmet breakfast for her brood. What do you want to bet the kiddos get cold cereal or yogurt every morning at home? Only at La Quinta does she turn into Wolfgang Puck. Hey, lady, even Wolfgang has gone to bagged food, so get a grip.
March 28, 2014, someplace in Utah:
Fun morning because Mike and I were eating primarily with highway construction workers. One big, burly guy accidentally dropped a stack of Styrofoam plates on the floor. He stood there for a few seconds after he picked them up, not knowing whether to throw them in the trash or put them back on the main stack. I could see that he was really mulling over this ethical dilemma. Finally, he opted for placing them to the side of the plate rack, not back on the stack–a perfectly middle-of-the-road option I would have chosen myself. He didn’t have to worry about anyone yelling at him for throwing away perfectly good plates or for putting plates that had been on the floor back on the main stack. Nobody eating in the room would be horrified, and the server could simply stack them back later, for tomorrow’s unwitting breakfast crowd. Well played, breakfast buffet brother, well played.
May 16, 2014, Edwardsville, Indiana:
Sorry I am late reporting. I drove the first shift and had no time to post earlier. At breakfast today, we had the unfortunate luck to sit by one of those aggressive, know-it-all moms who probably shouts obscenities and brawls with other kids’ parents at school events. She expressed her frustration that her child’s band director was a wimp and not pushing the color guard hard enough. “He needs to instill discipline or they’re going to suck again this year!” Her father, a marine whose jacket indicated he earned a Purple Heart at Khe Sahn, offered a calmer perspective: “So what if they sucked last year? They had fun, and nobody died.”
May 17, 2014, Lexington, Kentucky:
It was senior citizen day at the buffet, and they were feeling pretty empowered and entitled. Give some people AARP membership and Social Security, and you’re in for trouble. First, my bagel wasn’t toasting fast enough to suit one lady, so she stood right behind me, kind of invading my personal space, just to intimidate me into moving along. I wanted to wrassle her to the ground to teach her a lesson, but I’m not one to disrespect (or assault) my elders.
Then of course the feeblest one of them had to start messing with the waffle machine, which made me a nervous wreck. I just knew she was going to burn herself to death, or I would need to rush in and render first aid. I checked my purse to see if I had any burn ointment but only found Chapstick. It would have to do in a pinch. Fortunately, at that same moment, I made eye contact with Chad, the thirty-something-looking buffet staff member, who winked at me and patted the key ring hanging from his belt. It held a tube of Neosporin to Go. Never again will I say a bad word about Millennials. America’s future is in their capable hands.
May 26, 2015, Someplace between Montana and Oregon:
The Breakfast Buffet Toaster: How come when you’re making your own eggs or omelet at home, the toaster always pops before you’re ready, but it’s like living through all of geologic time when you are waiting on the breakfast buffet toaster to pop so you can eat your faux eggs? This happens no matter what the toaster setting is.
May 30, 2015, Missoula, Montana:
What Would Jesus Do at the Breakfast Buffet? He wouldn’t crowd at the coffee counter. Ok, so Mike had us booked at the Econo Lodge last night. Normally, he is expressly forbidden from picking such establishments because they are too low-end for my liking. (I’m not being snobby here. I live with a dog, so I only get a fair to middling ranking on cleanliness. It’s just that with our luck, when we stay at a Motel 6 or anything “economy,” we get the room right next to the crazies who are cooking fish guts—or worse, meth—in their room’s microwave.) I prefer Best Western, La Quinta, Holiday Inn Express, or Hampton Inn. However, the Econo was the only hotel with a vacancy because there are about 800 conferences going on in Missoula right now. Luckily, the room was very clean (though the decor was a dated mid-1980s style). We turned out to be the crazies who set off the room’s smoke detector from the shower steam.
The fun did not begin, though, until the breakfast buffet, when we encountered some of the other patrons from two distinct groups. The first was a bunch of old men in cheap suits who sell small casino slot machines. I was surrounded by about fifteen Willy Loman types. The second was a group of religious folks wearing “Invite Jesus” badges. Where they were inviting Jesus they did not specify, but the cordiality of the message led me to believe they were hospitable, polite people. Unfortunately, one of the women cut me off in the coffee line. I started to go all redneck and body slam her against the counter, but I opted instead for muttering an inaudible, “Bless her heart, in the name of Jesus” southern prayer for her to be saved from the scourge of poor manners before it’s too late.
June 2, 2015: Someplace in Wyoming:
Mary Katherine Gallagher makes a “superstar” waffle. You know how you have to flip those waffle machines after you pour in the batter? Unfortunately, when a breakfast buffet patron neglects to read the directions, she ends up flipping the waffle by touching the round waffle receptacle and burning her hand. The burn then causes a chain reaction: flailing hands that upset an entire shelf of plates, cups, utensils, and a bowl of cling peaches that all crash to the floor. I witnessed the entire spectacle as I sat innocently eating Raisin Bran and pondering why people feel the need to make fools of themselves for a lousy free waffle. The clown patron was not seriously harmed, but I was disappointed that she didn’t do the “Superstar!” pose after the mishap.
June 7, 2016, Topeka, Kansas:
Throw seven tables and a counter with some food on it in a space the size of my laundry room and call it breakfast. The Best Western is just itching for a gunfight to break out during the morning cornflakes run. I had what I thought were Cheerios, but the little O’s were coated in sugar, so I don’t know what the hell they were. Then I ate what I call a conference muffin, those little delicacies you’re given at every single horrible work meeting you’ve ever attended. Seriously disappointing.
June 26, 2016, Ann Arbor, Michigan:
When your three-year-old pajama-clad boy cannot resist touching his junk repeatedly in public, you might consider discouraging him from picking up the faux sausage links with his hands. Although I’m no child behavioral expert, I think the young man may have already developed a phallic fetish of some kind. The other patrons were the typical folks who roll out of bed and sleepwalk toward the scent of food. As my high school English teacher, Mr. Randal Simmons, used to say about the seventh-grade boys headed to the lunch room, “They don’t eat….They feed.”
September 5, 2016, Pell City, Alabama:
Why is it that I think it’s charming when a dog begs for food at the table, slobbers on my new slacks, and sheds enough fur to carpet the world, but the sound of a happy child in the morning sets my teeth on edge and makes me crabby? I was just down at the Comfort Suites chow line getting my Raisin Bran, and this little girl was running around, very joyful about the prospect of a “waddleful” with “budda” and syrup. Then she was all, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommmmmeeee. I want a white donut, too!” I didn’t actually want to throat punch her, but I did think about subjecting her to some emotional abuse. “What are you so happy about? You’ll be singing a new tune, little sister, when you get acne and have to live in Mommeeeee’s basement until you’re eligible for Social Security at 70. Yeah, good luck collecting on that!”
See, that’s wrong, isn’t it? I think I’ll fit right in as the grumpy old bat at the memory care center who only smiles when they bring in the comfort dog to gnaw my dissolving bones, or the Grim Reaper Cat (a feature of so many old folks homes) comes to sit on my bed to tell me it’s time to depart.
I should have been raised with wolves, though I suspect their incessant howling would have annoyed me, too.