Book Review: attractive unattractive americans

attractive unattractive americans
If you travel abroad, “attractive unattractive americans” is worth a look.

American travelers trying to pass themselves off as Canadians is an old story. I’ve seen them with Canadian flags sewn onto their backpacks – but I haven’t heard them going so far as to claim to be from Moose Jaw or pepper their speech with an "eh" every few sentences.

That’s because there’s still a perception that the world doesn’t like Americans – that people from other countries think we’re loud, impolite and dumb.

Author René Zografos tries to get a handle on this in his book attractive unattractive americans: how the world sees america.

I should mention a little problem up front: Some people from the Americas might have a problem with the title. As a friend from Brazil likes to say, he’s an American, too. I see his point, so I would’ve called it how the world sees the united states.

attractive unattractive americans
A Canadian, or a faux-Canadian?

Zografos – who has an interesting half-Greek, half-Norwegian background – sets an interesting and nearly impossible task for himself here. He seems like the kind of guy who’s a great conversationalist. You’d want to run into him in a bar or a cafe and hang out with him. He clearly is good at getting people to chat with him, and at preserving the essence of what they say.

People from a long list of countries gave Zografos their thoughts on the United States and its people. Ultimately, I can’t see any clear-cut conclusion. I didn’t really expect him to reach one, though. I just expected to be entertained by the journey.

I also expected a few surprises along the way. Well, the people Zografos interviewed delivered. I was particularly shocked by some of the sweeping generalizations. More than a few people wrote off everything about the United States and rejected the possibility that there’s anything good about it – crude pursuit of wealth, crude language, crude dress (one person painted a picture of the entire United States running around with its pants collectively sagged).

I completely expected the United States to take its lumps in this book. I didn’t expect some of the criticism I saw, but I expected a good bit of it. I really enjoyed how one person skewered how the U.S. is addicted to superlatives – we love everything and think everything is awesome. And yes, we’re definitely way too oblivious to what’s happening in other countries.

There are a few things that caught me off-guard that I just can’t agree with:

  • Scandinavian and Nordic seem to think they’re cold and unfriendly. That’s their perception of themselves. Well, my Scandinavian and Nordic friends, this visitor doesn’t think so at all. From Iceland to Finland, people started conversations with me. They were quick to help with directions. Maybe they’re not as ebullient as Australians -- they’re more chill and relaxed. But they’re still genuinely nice. I have nothing but good to say about Scandinavian and Nordic people.
  • Speaking of friendliness, people from the U.S. have a reputation for friendliness. Some of the people interviewed for attractive unattractive americans accurately perceived that much of it is reflexive but insincere politeness rather than friendliness. I could probably write a book that deconstructs American friendliness for what it really is. That’s not to say we don’t have genuinely friendly people. But they’re the exception.
  • There’s also a perception that the United States is optimistic. I definitely question this. There was a time when each generation was expected to be more prosperous than the previous generation. Those days are over in the United States, and we know it. We lag behind the rest of the world in health care and paid time off (sick leave, vacation time, etc.). More of us work part-time and are mired in student debt. We’re over-caffeinated, overworked, overfed and over-tired. So, what reason do we really have to be optimistic?

Overall, I had fun reading attractive unattractive americans. I think future editions could use some improvement, though. One of my big quibbles is the book’s organization. I’d get into the flow and just be reading and reading -- and I’d lose track of who’s speaking. Between long interviews and short quotes from people he’s met, Zografos interjects with some ideas and opinions of his own. Sometimes, I had to backtrack a few pages because those transitions could be far more effective. That could be a design issue in the book’s layout. But it could also be solved with the author making a better effort to craft a more distinct voice.

If you travel, attractive unattractive americans is worth a look. It might help you realize a few things about yourself and your home country, and I see some learning opportunities that will help you connect with people you meet when you travel. And that is true no matter where you’re from.

A Look at Beliefs About the French

I don’t highlight passages in books. I just don’t. First off, it makes a mess on my Kindle screen. And usually, I don’t know -- the spirit just doesn’t move me.

But a passage in They Eat Horses, Don’t They? by Piu Marie Eatwell had me scrambling for a highlighter. Unfortunately, a pen was the best I could do – anyway, the section I highlighted on page 53 made me laugh loud and hard; I won’t spoil the surprise for you, but I will say it involved a  McDonald’s franchise in France, bricks, angry French farmers and Roquefort cheese.

Eatwell’s book is subtitled The Truth About the French. She takes beliefs about the French and dissects them based on her research and experience living in France. She gives a conclusion about whether the belief is true or false.

Beliefs about the FrenchI’ve heard many of these beliefs about the French before, but Eatwell has a access to a few unfamiliar to me -- probably because she’s English.

The myths range from France’s ranking as garlic and cheese consumers, to the alleged style sense of French women. And oh, yes – there is a section on sex. These are all pretty commonly known beliefs.

The beliefs that were unfamiliar to were the "archetypal Frenchman wears a beret and striped shirt and rides a bicycle festooned with onions." That, and the view that France is a very egalitarian society. I’d never once heard that before, and it was something that even my good French friend of more than two decades has never hurled at me in claiming Gaelic superiority. When I think of egalitarian, I think of the Scandi-Nordic countries. Oh, and the belief that the French eat horses – news to me, as well.

Eatwell digs into these many beliefs about the French over about 300 pages; she has a distinct English flavor to her writing -- there’s a bit of almost ironic formality sauced with smirky humor. I really enjoyed her style, and she seems like she’d be an extraordinarily amusing dinner guest.

beliefs about the French
You might feel like eating a chunk of Roquefort cheese after reading this book. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Francophile visiting my home earlier this year read some of the book, and agreed with some parts while disagreeing with others. I found many of the objections, though, typical of the over-romanticizing of the French. Americans indulge themselves in this bad habit about a great many foreign countries, so I wouldn’t put too much stock in that. Eatwell has the advantage of research of the most valuable type: time in-country. Lots of it.

Here’s the best measure of whether Eatwell succeeds with They Eat Horses, Don’t They?: She made me – a traveler who really doesn’t care about visiting France and is content to leave it to the unadventurous – laugh often. I read it straight through with no cheating interludes with other books.

Matching Gone Wrong – His and Hers Lingerie in Korea

The thought of wearing undies to match my special lady friend's doesn't sit well with me.

I hope my eyes have malfunctioned. I rub them with my knuckles, blink rapidly, shake my head like a dog shaking water from its fur. And then I re-focus.

Nope. I still see them: Two mannequins, one male, one female. They wear matching lingerie.

I leave the storefront, amazed. And I fervently hope it’s an aberration.

But soon, another storefront. Another set of mannequins in his-and-hers lingerie. Out comes the camera – without proof, nobody will believe me. Being behind a shop window and armed only with the point-and-shoot hampers me (Go to this grrrltraveler.com post for better photos of matching Koreans, plus some other quirks. It’s a very fun post!).

This repeats itself several times a day during my stay in Korea. Once the horror wears off, the amusement sets in.

Then for the coup de grace. I’m at Incheon International Airport waiting to board my Asiana Airlines flight to Los Angeles. I take a short stroll -- and I notice a young Asian couple dressed in matching outfits. And another. And another. And another.

Several couples in, I started counting. Within five minutes, I arrive at my gate. During that time, the count hits 22. I whip out my compact point-and-shoot digital, surreptitiously trying to capture photographic evidence. The late-evening light and attempted stealthiness hamper my effort, and I barely get anything clear.

The winners: a couple wearing matching hoodies emblazoned with Marmite jars and the words "We Like It!".

I have to assume they are the target demographic for the matching lingerie.

Please, please, please – do not let this trend come to the United States.