Recently I spent a weekend in Paris before flying to Togo, where I'll be volunteering at a hospital for a few months.
I had a layover in Ethiopia, so I sat on the floor with my laptop and wrote a list of 10 ways to spot an American in Paris, drawn from recent observations.
1) They're wearing a beret.
2) They're talking about 20 decibels louder than anyone else.
3) They're wearing a fanny pack.
4) They're wearing a souvenir t-shirt purchased at the tourist site they're currently visiting.
5) They're complaining about small portion sizes. Loudly. To a server they keep referring to as 'garçon.'
6) They begin every question with, 'parlez-vous English?'
7) They pronounce the 'z' in 'parlez'.
8) They're wearing white sneakers and high-waisted jeans.
9) They're arguing with their partner or their children. Loudly. In the middle of the street.
10) They pass up a dozen local cafes because they're looking for the McDonald's.
Yes, its was snarky. But I was bored and hungry and sleep-deprived and I enjoyed the laugh. Especially because it's a list of things that I don't think I do when I'm traveling abroad.
I boarded my flight to Togo, and after another six hours of flying, landed in the capital city of Lome.
A driver picked me up from the airport and took me to a guest house, where I was staying for a few days before making the drive to the hospital, in a rural northern town.
Once I got to the guest house, I found that the chef and the groundskeeper, two Togolese guys in their 20s, only spoke French.
I didn't realize how rusty my French was until, in less than 24 hours, I managed to tell them
-- "Your WiFi is unemployed," instead of saying "Your WiFi isn't working."
-- "I have a wife (j'ai une femme)," instead of "I'm hungry (j'ai faim)."
-- "Aren't I beautiful?" instead of "Isn't the weather is nice?"
For breakfast, they served me scrambled eggs, a mug of hot water, a basket with tea bags and instant coffee packets, as well as a container of sugar cubes. There was also a small bowl with yellow powder that tasted slightly salty. I thought it was Parmesan cheese. So I sprinkled it on my eggs.
In the afternoon, when they again served me the mysterious powder with hot water and tea bags, I realized it was creamer -- which would explain why the groundskeeper looked at me so curiously while I was eating breakfast.
Before leaving for Togo, I had read recommended food preparation for Americans to avoid getting sick from foodborne illnesses here. There are the obvious guidelines like, use bottled water to brush your teeth, don't eat raw vegetables and only eat fruit that you can peel.
But the guidelines also said that even if you buy baked bread from the market in Togo, you have to bring it home and bake it again or "pass it through a fire" before it's safe to eat.
Last night, when the chef asked me what I'd like to eat for dinner, I told him some fish, some vegetables and some bread.
Except I couldn't remember how to say "cooked" vegetables, so instead I told him, "Please boil the vegetables. Salad is bad for me."
I had no idea how to explain the bread thing, so I said, "You have to set my bread on fire."
When he looked completely baffled, I just said, "Nevermind. No bread."
I thought I was savvy about blending in with other cultures, but here in Togo, I am the awkward American. I do and say stupid things -- sometimes because I don't know any better, and sometimes, because I simply don't know how to do any better.
After dinner, the chef asked what I'd like for dessert.
"Nothing, thanks," I said.
Because I was already full of humble pie.