Crossing Cultures in Stealth Mode


Have you ever been overseas and wished that you could just blend in—going unnoticed, attracting no stares?

Sometimes, that’s hard to do:

But other times, you’re in a place where you look as if you could fit in. For instance, that could be me in England, where my ancestors are from. I have the genetic foundation for looking like a Brit, but it’s the extra things—the add ons, so to speak—that are harder to manage.

Below is an interesting video featuring Jonna Mendez, the CIA’s former chief of disguise. In it, she says that her goal in the agency was to help people disappear in plain sight. “You want to be the person,” she explains, “that gets on the elevator and then gets off, and nobody really remembers that you were even there.”

But a physical disguise can only go so far. Especially, it seems, for those of us from the States. According to Mendez, “Americans are oblivious to what it is that reveals them to a foreign crowd, or a foreign intelligence service, when they’re out in public.” She then goes on to point out how we use silverware differently than Europeans do (they cut their meat and eat with their forks staying in the left hand, while we switch our forks to the right hand to put food in our mouths), how we hold cigarettes differently (they put their smokes between the thumb and first finger, while we put it between our first two fingers), and even how we stand (Europeans tend to stand with their weight evenly balanced between their feet, while we put most of our weight on one foot or the other).

Of course, clothes can be a giveaway, too. If you’re an American in Europe and don’t want to be a target for those who prey on tourists, she suggests, you could wear clothes that you’ve bought from a local store or put a local pack of cigarettes in your pocket.

Ladies, if you want to blend in in France, here are seven clothing non-nons from Marie-Anne Lecoeur, author of How to Be Chic and Elegant. I must say, I love her accent, especially as she describes tip number two, “No plunging necklines.” I’m pretty sure she says you don’t want to wear a top where “a lot of your bust is explosed.” How appropriate.

Lecoeur is something of a fashionista. American travel guru, Mark Wolters, is nothing of the sort (something he is eager to point out in this next video). But he does have apparel tips for Americans traveling in Europe, aimed mostly at the male population over 35.

Of course, this all requires that you don’t blow your cover by opening your mouth and saying something.


Once, in London, I was taking a ride on a red double-decker bus and saw two women, fellow visitors also enjoying the sights. Wanting to strike up a conversation with some fellow Americans, I asked, “Where are ya’ll from?”

“Well,” one answered. “Now we know where you’re from. We’re Canadians.”

I can’t even blend in with the tourists.

[photos: “Moth in Stealth Mode,” by feck_aRt_post, used under a Creative Commons license; “Double-Decker Bus,” by Kevin Oliver, used under a Creative Commons license]


Paris: The City and the Syndrome

from Trey Ratcliff at

Though I often looked for one, I finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris.

These are the opening words of Paula McClain’s novel, The Paris Wife. Told from the viewpoint of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, the book shares the story of the young couple as they dive into life in Jazz-Age Paris.

I’ve not read the book, but I’ve read the first page, on the back of the most recent issue of the travel magazine Afar (which, by the way, I purchased with frequent-flier miles). The page is part of an advertisement, displayed on a Kindle Paperwhite held by a tourist overlooking the iconic white and blue buildings of Santorini, Greece. The caption for the ad reads, “Perfect for Getaways.”

It seems that some Japanese travelers have the same view of Paris as Mrs. Hemingway: It’s a condition in need of a remedy.

Back in 2006, BBC published an oft-quoted story about a phenomenon called “Paris Syndrome.” According to the article, each year, a dozen or so Japanese tourists have a psychiatric breakdown of sorts upon visiting the French capital. First identified by Hiroaki Ota, a Japanese psychiatrist in France, the syndrome is brought about when the realities of Paris don’t match the visitors’ romanticized expectations. While some of the symptoms sound like culture shock, others, such as delusions and hallucinations, are more extreme.

While some deny the existence of an actual syndrome, BBC reports that the Japanese embassy in France has set us a 24-hour hotline to help deal with the situation.

Below is a short documentary from John Menick, Paris Syndrome (2010). It takes a more in-depth—and sometimes sceptical—look at the condition, including interviews with French psychiatric professionals. Besides Paris Syndrome, the video also touches on such topics as Stendhal Syndrome, psychiatric portraiture, and historical views of travel-related mental illnesses. It even looks at Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the inspiration for the movie The Terminal.

So . . . what is the cure for Paris? While some are searching for one, most see no need. The author Gertrude Stein, a friend of the Hemingways from their time in France, saw the City of Light as a place that nurtured her creativity. “America is my country,” she said, “and Paris is my hometown.”

(Paula McClain, The Paris Wife, New York: Ballantine, 2011; Caroline Wyatt, “‘Paris Syndrome’ Strikes Japanese,” BBC News, December 20, 2006)

[photo: “Another Summer Day in Paris,” by Trey Ratcliff at Stuck in Customs, used under a Creative Commons license]