Americans who meet each other while traveling abroad almost inevitably fall into a kind of coolness competition, one-upping each other in conversations about where they have traveled, the scrapes they’ve gotten into and the things they have seen. I should know better than to engage in these contests because I inevitably lose.
I do believe, however, that I have discovered the winning strategies. I just don’t have the actual experiences to back them up. Not yet. (With the words "Not yet," please picture me scowling and shaking my fist, Scarlett O’Hara-style, at the heavens.)
First, Peace Corps. If you can start a conversation with "Well, when I was in the Peace Corps in [insert exotic place] …" you have won. This is a first-round knockout. Other strong contenders would be "When I was in the CIA … the Special Forces, the Foreign Legion, that Turkish prison" etc.
Excruciating cheapness. You can win big points if you can claim to have paid some ridiculously low amount for a hotel room, plane ride, burro or other travel necessity. My best shot is a $1.75-a-night room in a little hostel on an island in Lake Nicaragua where a bunch of guys played poker all night outside the window, a few feet from the ludicrously convex bed that I was trying to sleep in. Sadly, this is rarely the winning story.
Getting arrested. It’s tough to beat a foreign arrest story, and one that involves getting released on a bribe may simply be unbeatable. Still, these stories are rare. Just being hassled by the carbinieri or threatened by the policia can make an acceptable entry.
Name dropping. Not celebrities, mind you. Staying at the same hotel as Tom Cruise means you’re rich, but it doesn’t mean you’re cool. Names like, "Oh, don’t you know George, who owns that little hotel in Nairobi with his one-legged brother? I always bring him pistachios, so he gives me the best room."
Second language. There’s no doubt about it, throwing in some foreign phraseology is going to make you sound cooler. The romance languages are good, but Asian languages and Russian are going to slap them down every time.
Of course, you have to get all this across without appearing to try too hard. If you look like you’re competing, you lose.
And the truth is, there are plenty of people out there who win without even trying. They are kindly folks who’ve been everywhere and are happy to talk about it, but never brag. They listen to the people they meet and offer them guidance and advice only in an effort to help. Simply by trying to let others win, they win.
You’ll find people like that in all shapes, sizes and colors, but I’ve noticed that a lot of them have gray hair, battered luggage and big smiles.