The Ugly American in Italy, ca. 1950

This humorous passage about the storied ugly American traveler is taken from the 1955 travel book American In Italy.  It could have been written yesterday:

I first heard of the two women from St. Louis from a bellboy who told me they had hung their laundry on the chandelier.  When the manager discovered it had washed off the decorations he tried to make them pay.

“Like hell,” they told him.  “If you can’t make your decorations meltproof you can pay for them yourself.  We don’t pay for any decorations in a lousy hotel like this.”

“Lousy!” the manager echoed.  “What means lousy?”

“My God, can’t you understand English?” said one.  “Lousy means lice.”

The manager was very upset.  “Oh, no,” he assured them.  “At the Excelsior we have no lice.”

They had not been in Florence two days before they were a legend.  Wrapping themselves in the stars and stripes, the two ladies were never shaken in their faith in the superiority of everything American.

I saw them for the first time under an umbrella at a sidewalk café and recognized them at once from the bellboy’s descriptions.  One was smallish and feminine, with graying hair and a billowy cotton dress.  She gave the impression of quiet demureness that was in contrast to her friend, a tall bony woman with faded blond hair and a loud brassy voice.  Both were in their early forties. They ordered a glass of water.  The waiter stood and stared as if he hadn’t understood.

“A glass of water,” the tall one said.  “What’s the matter, can’t you understand English?”

Doubtless the waiter could, but it was the first time in his experience anyone had ordered only a glass of water and he didn’t seem to believe it.  “Perhaps a caffé, after the water,” he said.

“No,” the small one said firmly.  “I don’t want any coffee.  Italians don’t know how to make coffee.  It’s lousy.”

Since Italians are famous for their coffee, the waiter was naturally astounded.

“What are you waiting for?  Can’t you even understand sign language?” the tall woman said.  The waiter opened his mouth to speak but she stopped him.  “Now don’t ask me what I’m going to do with the water.  Just bring it and you’ll see.”

In a daze the waiter went for the water.  The women saw me watching.  “Hey there!” the smaller one called.  “You American?”

I said I was.

“You are?” echoed the tall one.  “How the hell did you ever get to this hick town?” They introduced themselves and seemed eager to talk.  The smaller one was Sybil, a telephone operator.  The taller was Laura; she had a job winding armatures for electric motors in an appliance factory.  Their six-weeks’ tour, arranged by a St. Louis travel agency, was taking them over most of western Europe.  “All we got to eat in England was fish,” Laura said. …

Paris was sort of pretty,” said Sybil.  “But no one could talk English.  We had the lights on in our room all night because we couldn’t find the switch and no one could understand us when we asked where it was.  The second night I telephoned downstairs.  It took me fifteen minutes to get the operator, so I said, ‘How the hell do you operate this telephone?  I’ve been a telephone operator for twenty years and I want to know.’ They sent a man upstairs but he couldn’t talk English.”

“I told him, ‘For Christ’s sake if you’re going to run a hotel the least you can do is learn English,’” Laura said …

The waiter brought two glasses of water.  “What the hell, don’t you have any ice in this whistle stop?” Laura said to him.  This time he did not understand.  “Ice, ice.” Laura rapped on her glass.

Ghiaccia,” I translated, and ordered some coffee for myself.  The waiter went off in a sort of stupor.

“These damned foreigners are all robbers,” Sybil said.  “In Rome a girl with us got her pocket picked…She called the police, but if you ask me it was the police that picked her pocket.  You can’t trust foreigners.  I tell you it will be good to get back tot God’s country again where you can trust people.”

“In the hotel here we have a private bath with lots of shining knobs and no hot water,” Laura said.  “I told the manager, ‘How the hell do you expect us to take a bath with just knobs and no hot water?  For the money we’re paying there ought to be hot water.  If you were in America you’d learn how to run a hotel,’ I said.”

The waiter returned, and in the glasses the slivered ice glistened.  The women drank the water and got up to go.  “Well, I guess we’ll be seeing you around,” Laura said. “Can’t help running into each other in this hick town.”  I drank my coffee and left the waiter a hundred-lire tip.

Read the full book review here.  Excerpted from American In Italy by Herbert Kubly, 1955.

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