Travel, when undertaken with the correct élan, can be as much about reinforcing national stereotypes as breaking them down. One of the great and unique advantages of being in a place where no one knows you is that you can choose to be whatever or whoever you would like. When I was younger, and more idealistic, I was mildly obsessed with proving to people in foreign countries that I was the opposite of what they supposed me to be: a brash, gun-slingling hooligan who drove a Hummer, voted for Bush and was generally hell bent on annexing everything in his whisky- and tobacco-soaked path…However, it quickly becomes tedious repeating the same canned, leftist speech to every foreigner who demands that you answer for your nation’s sins. Also, said foreigners are always disappointed to find that they have met someone who shares many of the same views about America as they do.
“Oh. You aren’t one of those Americans,” they say, trying the keep the disenchantment from their voices. It’s the same disenchantment someone might have if you claim to come from Disney Land, but turn out not to be a cartoon creature with a giant head.
For their sake and my own amusement, I often act like one of those Americans when questioned about my country. The Brits swooned like they were getting their first glimpse of John Merrick when I told them that I was an avid deer hunter, especially if I could do it from the front seat of my Dodge Charger. The Spanish grinned at each other knowingly when I claimed a complete ignorance of soccer and proceeded to bounce the ball like a basketball. A few South Americans actually squealed with glee when, fielding questions at a party, I said I was part of Operation Condor part II. Sure that she had found the American villain of her dreams, one woman blurted out: “I was happy to see the twin towers fall!” You could tell she had been saving that one for the right person.
It turns out, though, the only thing better than meeting a foreigner who defies all your expectations is meeting one that confirms them. Which is a truism that came rushing back to me in a moment of need a few months ago in Bournemouth on the South Coast of England.
Sometime between the fourth and fifth pint in the local pub, one of the Bournemouthians raised the question of American Confidence. It’s spelled with a capital C because most British people seem to believe that is is a proper noun.
“Englishmen need a few pints ‘for they can even look each other in the eye, but you Yanks…” said James.
“It’s that American confidence, innit?” interjected his girlfriend, Louise. “You’re not all awkward around each other like we are.”
“Yea!” James, jumped back in. “You Yanks, at least from what they show in movies and on the telly…it’s like you just say whatevah you’re thinking and do whatevah you feel.”
American Confidence. I thought about that a few hours later, standing on the veranda of the Urban Beach Hotel in the nearby suburb of Boscombe, shaking the locked front door handle and wondering why the hell my key was sitting behind the unmanned front desk. The pubs in most of Britain shut early so there was no question of drinking till sun-up. It was damp and cold so curling up on the doorstep — a traditional British maneuver in these circumstances — was also a bad choice. Plus, notwithstanding a recent civic rehabilitation, Boscombe is primarily known for its marauding bands of heroin addicts.
“What would a confident American do? “I mused tilting my head back to take a deep breath.
The windows. They were all open. If I could crawl through one that lead to a hallway I would be home free.
Britain has more CCTV cameras per capita than any country in the world, which means there is probably a video of me climbing up a rickety wooden fence, hopping onto the roof of the hotel, then poking my head into a dark window. It was pitch black inside the room, so I pulled out my cell phone and slid it open. The pale blue light that it cast revealed the shape of a person, fast asleep in bed. I jerked my head out of the room so fast I almost tumbled off the roof. All I could think, as I sat collecting myself and listening for cars or approaching pedestrians was that my mother would be mortified with me right now. But that still seemed preferable to sitting on the street.
The roof gave way to the top of the veranda which was composed of wooden beams with four foot gaps between them. I hopped from one to the next, Super Mario style, blissfully unafraid of falling because my sense of height had been effectively subverted by my sense of booze. When I reached the window of the linen closet, only the upper of two panes was open, so I had to squeeze myself through it, careful not to kick in the bottom pane, or put too much pressure on it from above and have it come crashing down beneath me. I grabbed hold of a shelf just inside the window and hauled myself through until i reached the inevitable point where the only way to get my legs through was to simply let go and catch myself on my face. When the world stopped spinning, I picked myself up and sauntered triumphantly to the door.
Which was locked. With a key. Something told me I was one breaking and entering and a half voyeur charge past the point of no return, so I turned on the lights and went rifling through linens, tools, vases, silverware, soaps, and towels for a key that would open the door. All I could find was a screw driver, so I said, “what the hell.” That’s not a turn of phrase, either, I was literally talking to myself at this point. The plan, if you could call it that, was to remove the door handle — one of those Victorian dealies that that looks like a question mark rotated clockwise ninety degrees — let myself out, then screw the entire contraption back on. The reality was that I took the screws out, the handle on the other side thumped to the ground, the bolt stayed in place and I was left with a locked door, a screwdriver in one hand, and a heavy metal question mark in the other.
And so I found myself contemplating one of life’s quintessential questions: is it better to sleep int the linen closet or jump out the window?
I ended up back on the ground, screw driver in my back pocket, pounding on the front door. Eventually the Polish cook, who apparently slept in a room just off the kitchen, woke up and let me in. Back in the closet, I had left the door handle and the screws in place, hoping I could retrieve the handle on the hallway side and reattach it so that no one would be any wiser. At this point, its almost redundant to say that it didn’t work. So I went to sleep that night/morning with a doorknob and a screw driver beside my bed.
In the morning, I lay, staring at the ceiling, wondering whether or not to say anything to the management, or just ditch the evidence and get the hell out of town. As long as the hotel didn’t have any cameras and everyone assumed the doorknob unscrewed itself, I would be fine. But my guilty conscience wouldn’t leave me in peace. I imagined hundreds of different ways that the suspicious management could find out that I had broken in.
And what had I gotten up to? Uh, nothing, Officer, I swear. I didn’t tell anyone because I, well, that is to say…What’s that? This doorknob and screwdriver? Oh, these are for um…
Sweet Jesus, things were looking bad. A breaking and entering charge was the last thing I needed in a country that would be more than happy to ban me for life. They probably wouldn’t stop there either. My picture would go up in airports in every country in the commonwealth. I would never be able to go to Fiji.
So I decided to tell them; If these Britishers wanted a confident American, I would give it to them.
I marched downstairs and matter-of-factly informed the young lady at the front desk that I had broken in the night before and removed the knob to the broom closet, and that they should really inform visitors that there is no one working at night.
“Erm, oh, gosh. I’m erm, ever so sorry…” she stammered, eyes wide in disbelief. “You’re absolutely, right,” she actually blushed. I had scaled the building, climbed in a window, and vandalised the broom closet and she was embarrassed. I decided to pile it on a bit.
“I really expected more from this place. After all, I’d heard so much about it, and all the service had been exemplary up until that point.”
“You’re right, you are absolutely right,” she said, looking increasingly mortified as I picked up steam.
Now I was starting to enjoy myself, but worried that when I left she might do something drastic, like self flaggelate, so I handed her the door handle and the screwdriver and mumbled an apology for any inconvenience.
“Oh, no, it’s fine,” she said. “I’m just surprised…that’s to say…how did you get into the broom closet?”
I shrugged with all the American Confidence I could muster. “I’m American. We’re all very competent climbers.” —Ted Endo is currently looking for booze, big waves, and trouble in the Southern Hemisphere.