The Foreigners Among Us

A fair number of tourists from Britain and the Continent did, no doubt, respond to our government’s blandishments about how cheaply they could travel and see the sights over here. One assumes that, aside from the trickle of gold thus induced to flow westward, some theory of public relations underlay the scheme, along the lines of Mme. de Stael’s old saw, “Tout combrendre c’est tout pardonner.”

Such a theory is, of course, not without its risks. Would the touring Frenchman, for instance, forgive the quality of most American coffee (outside the state of Louisiana): one pound of coffee to every five hundred gallons of water? What would be his sober afterthought about the New Haven Railroad’s “grill car”? Did he expect to find café life for himself and his family on the evening he was forced to spend in Nirvana, Ohio?

It may be years before we learn what impressions the tourists took home with them. First reports are likely to be erroneous, for few travelers like to declare on their return that they were bilked. They tell their envious friends, instead, about air conditioning or the Pennsylvania Turnpike or Mount Tamalpais; if they refer knowingly to Saugus, Mass., or Evansville, Ind., it will be casually, as befits the globe-weary wanderer, and without much disclosure of what these towns are really like. What, never been to Saugus? Ah, well. . . . Or: “We were in Evansville one evening. That’s in Indiana, you know, and it’s what is called the county seat of Vanderburgh County. . . .”

The tourists from Germany will get along all right, as they do on the Continent, where they solve all local questions simply by making a Germanic island of themselves. One sees the family in their hiking clothes, rucksacks ranged around them, occupying two or three tables at a café. There is a small drink in front of the father, nothing for the rest of them, and they are all reading German tabloid newspapers with dashing illustrations in rotogravure. The waiter is watching them disconsolately.

Whether they are in a French village, or on the beach, or on a train, the Germans always seem copiously supplied with their newspapers, and one can only conclude that they carry enough to last the trip when they leave Germany. If no daily or weekly Blatt is available in the Garden of the Gods, the German trippers will prove to have brought some along.

We need not worry at all about the British. They have a way of extemporizing their familiar comforts wherever they may be. I have no trouble envisioning the touring Briton as he settles in for the night on one of the tributaries of the Hackensack Marshes: the folding camp furniture, the mosquito netting, the paraffin lamp, the gin, the hamper from Fortnum’s, and, of course, the tea (with a tablet of halazone to kill the germs). The Englishman looks like what he is, and he is thus readily identified in any foreign land as a tourist. But of all tourists, he is the most reluctant to act like one: if observed at Old Faithful or aboard the Maid of the Mist, his posture is that of a man who merely happens to be there, one who was just passing and stopped for a breather. He is acting out the remark attributed to Dr. Johnson about the Giant’s Causeway: it may be worth seeing, but it’s not worth going to see.

The Dutch are aggrieved by the two-dollar haircut. The Italians probably won’t be coming in large numbers. But the French deserve our sympathetic interest. They are eager sightseers, a camera-happy breed, unabashed in their belief that there must be more to a Lover’s Leap or a Spouting Rock than first meets the eye. Their tourist world is full of marvels, but one suspects their gusto may flag after the eighth or tenth prefrozen (two months earlier) Blue Plate Special, reincarnated by a three-minute sojourn in the radar oven of a turnpike kitchen. One airport is much like the next, only some are worse than others; and the same is true of motels, once the travelers are immured in their airconditioned bedroom, without sight or sound from the world outside. Let us wish them pleasant dreams, and with no nightmarish memories of what the same money would get them at a rural French hotel with a restaurant that Michelin thinks is worth one star.