Sunday, September 12, 2010

The National Zoo, and the Reason American Tourists are Loathed by the French

I walked into the Smithsonian Institute National Zoology Center (a fancy way of saying, the big zoo in DC) yesterday afternoon around 2pm. Within three minutes and fifteen seconds I was ready to fight my way back against the throngs of pale flabby arms and legs and run across the street to hide in the "charge-you-$3.50-for-a-teabag-in-water" Starbucks.

Why this sudden panic, you ask? Answer: the family of obnoxious American tourists who, armed with their fanny packs, expensive cameras, strapped-to-their-wrist-projectile-missile-sized water bottles, food bags fit to feed a small nation, and piercing nasal accents, managed to precede my every move in the zoo.

They were at the sloth bear exhibit, rapping on the glass, smudging their pudgy, Little-Debbie-cake-filled mouths up against the glass, and shoving smaller children out of the way so the eight year old girl could "film" it with her new sleek red HD video camera. Wait, let me say that again. The EIGHT year old girl needed to FILM the zoo with HER own, new HD video camera. Something is definitely not right.

They then preceded us to the clouded leopard area, where two exhausted looking cats sprawled on logs, doing exactly what my sore, blistered feet were screaming at me to do. This family and their sweaty T-shirts jostled to the front of the line, snapping pictures, banging the pull-out info cards on the clouded leopards' habitat, endangered status, and diet. I thought about leaning over to the boy, who couldn't have been more than 10 years old and saying, "Hey, wanna find out if you taste good to a clouded leopard?" and then tossing him in with a ferocity that would initiate shock and surprised cheers from the watching crowd. I restrained myself, however.

It got harder as we neared the bridge overlooking the elephant field where they can roam and get exercise. Now elephants are some of my favorite animals. They are so gentle and powerful, and they always seem a bit surprised to be as big and strong as they are - like they woke up one morning with a long trunk that can rip branches off trees and tusks that can gore lions and said, "Oh gee! Look! I'm big!" So I was excited to see the beautiful baby elephant. But of course, who should be in front of me as I angled my old family camera close to the bars but The American Tourist Family From the 9th Circle of Hell. Of course. And as my elbow was jerked off its perch by the grubby, clutching hands of the two children, and my camera snapped a picture, not of the beautiful elephant spraying water into the air, not of the rolling hill and his sweet gray leathery skin, but of my shoe. MY SHOE! I have a picture I could have taken back in my house in Massachusetts, instead of my National-Geographic-worthy shot of the elephant romping in the National Zoo. At this point I am near boiling. These people have shoved little children, sweated profusely, smudged the glass, provoked animals, talked at an ear-splitting decibel, and ruined my photograph of the elephant. As far as I am concerned, these things warrant eviction from the entire Metro DC area.

But just wait - this family makes my visit to the Zoo even better. As the eight year old brat runs in front of her mother screeching, "COME ON I WANNA SEE THE FLAMINGOS NOW!" the mother, who sports a dark blue polo shirt and shorts that are too short for her hefty frame, suddenly loses control. Apparently her children, who have successfully tortured the entire zoo guest book for the day, have finally gotten to her. "CAROLINE!" she yells. Caroline pauses in her trek to the flamingos, her camera clutched in her hand. "Caroline, get ova heah. Now. I don't wanna tell ya twice. Get ova heah and if I see ya runnin like that again I sweah, I will make you stand in a cohnah of the zoo and we will leave ya theah!" I'm sorry - what language, precisely, is that in? Is that comprehensible English? Have I gone temporarily deaf to the letter "r" at the end of your words? Are you secretly related to some of my favorite New England families that throng Crane's Beach in the summer? Did you and your Boston accent follow me to Washington, D.C. to remind me that I will always be a Yankee at heart?

Caroline, instead of looking appropriately shocked and horrified (the look I was sporting at the mention of leaving a child in a zoo alone), stuck her tongue out at her mother and slouched forward. Everything in her body language screamed, "I do it because I don't care, not because you told me to." The mother ran her overly manicured hands through her dyed red hair and called for Ed and Bradley to join her and they'd all go see the red panda. Thankfully, we were headed to the bird house so I was spared seeing this family interact with a red panda, though I can picture it: girl shoves her brother out of the way to "film" the panda (which actually looks like a fox) and then losing interest after three seconds, the overweight dad being bristled that the mom has no control over the children and silently munching on snack crackers out of his backpack, and the mother trying valiantly to document their trip to the zoo without realizing that snapping a picture in front of glass with the flash on doesn't work.

Why is this family what I remember from the zoo? Because it's a reminder that, for the most part, Americans are horrible travelers. We demand English, efficiency, friendliness verging on instant bonding, and our every whim satisfied. We expect taxis to know where to take us before we get in them. We expect strangers to accommodate what we are accustomed to, and give us many Kodak worthy moments to take home to our families.

I've spent some time in France in my young life, and I remember always having the same conversation about culture before we would depart. My high school emphasized learning from the host culture and attempting to appreciate and participate in their ways, rather than demanding our own. So we'd haltingly ask for "une baguette avec un peu de fromage, s'il vous plaît" in a café, or say "Excusez-moi mademoiselle" when we bumped someone on the labyrinth of the Parisian metro. And though I've yet to meet a French person I did not like, I can imagine that the Tourist Family from Hell would sing a different tune. I've always wondered why tourists are snubbed in the "City of Lights" - and why people look surprised when I talk about how much I love traveling to Europe. Now, having met the people who have both the financial luxury and time on their hands to travel to my beloved France, I'm not so surprised "American tourist" veers towards a four letter word.

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