My Turn: How I Became a Better World Traveler

Recently, while circling the earth for a travel book, I experienced one of my greatest thrills as a globe-trotter: I was mistaken for a German. Don't misunderstand. I am no Germanophile. It's just that wherever I journey, I try hard to blend in with the locals. So when a German woman stopped me in the town square in Cologne and asked me for the time—in German! clearly assuming I was also German!—I couldn't help but congratulate myself on a job well done. I'd successfully melted into my surroundings, shedding my Americanness the way a snake sheds a sheath of dead skin.

Now, I can hear you asking: Seth, why would you want to pretend you're not American? Are you ashamed of your country? Far from it. I adore America. The reason I disguise my nationality is mostly anthropological. Think about those nature photographers in the wild who camouflage themselves, not wanting their presence to alter the behavior of the animals they're observing. Now imagine me, people-watching from a table at a café in Antwerp, or Quito, or Cape Town. If I've got my NFL jersey on and my white tube socks pulled up to midcalf, I turn myself into an object of curiosity for the locals. Their behavior changes as their eyes are drawn to my blinding white hosiery. I'm no longer the watcher, but the watched. Remember, as you shake out your duffel bag for a summer on the road, the great joy of travel is to let different cultures seep into your identity. It's not to bring your own culture with you so you can inflict it on the native populace.

So how do you avoid coming off American? In general, you should shun corporate logos, stick to blandly neutral colors, and—I can't emphasize this enough—don't ever wear white tube socks. In particular, don't wear them with knee-length shorts and a pair of overdesigned running shoes. That outfit is a dead giveaway that you hail from the land of the free and the home of the brave. (Also known as the land of the baseball cap and the home of the baggy khaki trousers. Better ditch those, too.)

Of course, no matter how you dress, you will still bear indications of your nationality. Your haircut. Your jewelry. Your American-flag tattoo. Perhaps the biggest tip-off is the way you walk. We walk big—swinging our arms, letting our legs amble wide—in a manner that's fitting for folks from a country with plenty of empty space. Citizens of densely populated Europe exhibit a far more compact posture, with elbows and knees tucked tight and arm swings restrained.

The longer you're on the road, the easier it becomes to disappear into foreign environments. It just happens naturally. If you've packed light—as you always should—you'll end up buying a new shirt or two somewhere along your journey. Maybe a new pair of shoes. Probably some socks. Eventually your wardrobe turns into a hard-to-identify collage of the places you've visited. Over time you'll lose track of what's going on back home and instead start following the local news. And then one day you'll stroll through the town square and a woman will ask you the time in German. But since you don't speak German, you'll just hold your watch up to her face.

Stevenson, a contributing writer for Slate, is the author of  Grounded: a Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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