JOSEPH H. MEYERS was born in Cincinnati and until recently taught English at Purdue University. He now lives in Delray Beach, Florida.


ON OUR first trip abroad my wife and I found ourselves altogether unprepared to cope with the guides, touts, souvenir venders, and the like who prey on tourists. The best of them were a nuisance when we didn’t want their services, as we seldom did. The worst were blackmailing fiends who completely spoiled our pleasure.

The guards in the Italian museums gave us a particularly bad time. The moment we appeared they would pin us down before some exhibit, force their worthless patter on us, and top the outrage by demanding a tip. They nearly maddened us sometimes until one day, under pressure, my wife recalled The Innocents Abroad.

On a Mediterranean cruise that he took in 1867, Mark Twain, you may remember, grew tired of being dragged about by little men who pointed mil the obvious to him and recited facts he could find in Ins guidebook. So he and a friend of his worked out a system for discouraging guides. They simply adopted an altitude of idiot unresponsiveness and dead-pan heckling. When a guide in Genoa proudly showed them a piece of Columbus’s own handwriting, they remarked that in America there were children of fourteen who could write better. But it was the handwriting of Columbus, the guide repeated. Who was Columbus? they asked. What did he do? Was he dead? Parents living? When another guide started lecturing them about a mummy, they listened submissively and after he had finished stared in silence at the mummy for as long as they could hold out—five minutes, ten minutes. Then one of them asked, “Is he dead?”

The system sounds so mild, so harmless, that unless you have tried it you are likely to think it wouldn’t repel a May moth. But we found out that it works — almost invariably and when nothing else will.

It was one day in Milan that Ginny suddenly remembered Mark Twain. We were in the Brera and a guard was holding us against our will before Raphael’s Wedding of the Virgin. Raphael, he told us, was great artist.

“Oh, yes, said Ginny in her moment of Inspiration. “He was an American too, wasn’t he?”

“Che?” asked the guard, brought up short.

“Raphael was an American, just, like me,”said Ginny with simple patriotic pride.

“No, no, no!” said the guard. “Was Italian.”

“No, no, no, no!” said Ginny. “Was American.”

“Certainly he was,” I joined in with delight. “ Born in Philadelphia.”

“Of course,” said Ginny. “We knew him personally.”

The guard opened his mouth, then closed it. Muttering disgustedly to himself, he moved away.

Soon we were using the Mark Twain system regularly. By degrees we developed our own variations.

Most of the people who prey on travelers, we found, are linguists. They speak at least a smattering of several languages, and they are extraordinarily shrewd at guessing the nationality of their intended victims. So when a guide edged up to us in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie and started reciting, “This picture called The Last Supper. Is famous painting. Is by Leonardo da Vinci. Was great artist,” I turned to him and said in Italian, “I don’t understand.”(It was one of the few things I could in Italian.)

“No American? he asked. “No English?”

“Non capisco,” I repeated.

“Spreohen Sie Deutseh? Dieses Bild Das Letzie Abendmahl heisst.”

“Non capisco.”

“Frangais? Parlez-vous frangais?”

“Non capisco.”


“Russo,”I said loudly. And turning to Ginny I asked her, “ Dariou kai Parisalidos gignonlai duo panics?”

“Skohlianka,” she replied.

“Ah!” said the guide, looking startled. “Non parlo russo. Scusi,’ and withdrew.

It would have been better, of course, if I had really known some Russian. But fortunately I remembered the opening line of Xenophon’s Anabasis, which I had studied in high school, and it served just as well. From that time on we used this device wherever we went, to drive off pests of every sort.

We also learned how to get rid of guides simply by beating them to the punch. For instance, when one of them approached us in the Uffizi, I grabbed his arm and started telling him, “Is here Primavera. Primavera by great artist Botticelli, was real name Alessandro dei Filipepi. Born 1444 question mark, died 1510.”All this was on the frame. “Is famous painting. Symbolical as anything,”I continued. “ Now come, is over here another one, called Birth of Venus, is by same man —

But no one would let us tell him about more than one picture. Resentful but baffled, they would free themselves and hurry away.

Still another modification of the system helped us to drive off peddlers of antiquities. We used it first, I recall, at Can huge, where an especially persistent Tunisian followed us about trying to sell us what he claimed was an authentic Punic lamp. At last I consented to examine the thing, but after one glance I returned it to him.

“Ça?” I said contemptuously. “Passée! Démodée! N’avez-vous pas une lampe punique électrique?‘”

A bit wildly the antiquarian started to explain. ‘Then he stopped. “Ah! Vous vous moquez de moi!” he said bitterly, and withdrew in a dignified huff.

The chief merit of this type of cold warfare is that it can be endlessly adapted to meet almost any situntion. It has served my wife and me for many years. If you are going abroad, I recommend it to you: it may save you from a nervous breakdown.