Black women traveling abroad: Learn a foreign country’s social mores, customs before you go

August 9, 2009

During our trip to Florence, Italy, my friends Carol (far left), Karen (far right) and I embraced the Italian way of life. And as you see here, we found ourselves embraced right back by the super-friendly waiter at Grillo Parlante, a small, locals-only restaurant.

During our trip to Florence, Italy, my friends Carol (far left), Karen (far right) and I embraced the Italian way of life. And as you see here, we found ourselves embraced right back by the super-friendly waiter at Grillo Parlante, a small, locals-only restaurant.

Visiting a country like France, Italy or Spain? Stop into a local market, like the bustling Mercat de la Boquería in Barcelona -- but ask FIRST before handling the merchandise. In many cultures, touching the produce -- or the designer bags and shoes before first asking permission -- is seen as rude.

Visiting a country like France, Italy or Spain? Stop into a local market, like the bustling Mercat de la Boquería in Barcelona -- but ask FIRST before handling the merchandise. In many cultures, touching the produce -- or the designer bags and shoes before first asking permission -- is seen as rude (and in the case of food, simply unsanitary).

Knowing the social mores of a foreign country or city -- especially when it comes to dining, shopping and socializing -- can make or break your overseas trip. Here I am, finishing lunch at the famed Laduree tea salon in Paris.

Knowing the social mores of a foreign country or city -- especially when it comes to dining, shopping and socializing -- can greatly impact the experiences you have when traveling abroad. Here I am, finishing lunch at the famed Ladurée tea salon in Paris.

At the recent Travel Blog Exchange conference in Chicago, a fellow blogger and I found ourselves discussing why African-American women—even those with the financial means and interest in traveling abroad—don’t do it more often. I often think about this, as I always feel it would be GREAT to see more sisters when I’m running around Italy or Spain either in a group or solo.

For many of us, it’s fear of the unknown. We don’t speak the language; we don’t know anyone in the country we’d like to visit. But in countless conversations I’ve had with African-American women over the years, it comes down to wondering how we’ll be perceived as black people. Even without realizing it, being black in America—whether dirt-poor, comfortably affluent like “The Cosby Show” Huxtables, or “movin’ on up” like the Jeffersons—means wearing the subconscious burden of potential discrimination on our backs like the latest designer dress.

Any time a salesclerk at a store is slow to help us, we often assume it’s because we’re black. Get a bad table in a restaurant? The hostess must be a bigot. Living in America, we spend more time than we’d like to admit wonder when the legacy of centuries of racism will smack us in the face. So there’s little wonder that when we DO leave the United States those of us who can afford to travel would rather jet off to the Caribbean, where islands teem with brown-skinned folks just like us, rather than potentially inviting discrimination (and in languages we don’t understand, no less) by flying off to Europe or South America or Australia.

But after countless trips abroad, I’m convinced that one reason we sisters sometimes feel we’ve been slighted overseas is because we don’t understand “how to be” (I’m borrowing this phrase from the book penned by author and Ebony Magazine Creative Director Harriette Cole) or understand how other folks ARE.

I think about a trip to Paris some years ago with two close girlfriends, when we often found ourselves stared at by Parisians in bistros and on trains. We laughed and talked loudly everywhere we went; after a meal, we’d whip out our compacts and lipstick and powder at the table. I figured those Parisians just couldn’t keep their eyes off these three beautiful black sisters out on the town. I later found out—probably years after the fact—that French women rarely reapply cosmetics in public. Instead, they slip out to the toilette to prettify themselves. And in a country where privacy is prized, conversations—even animated ones—are kept to a much lower decibel so that an entire room isn’t privy to a stranger’s every word.

That’s why I love Ricki Stevenson of “Black Paris Tours.” Besides showing folks on her half- or full-day tours where Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright used to live, write and perform, she ALWAYS gives a little social primer first. She advises her guests to say, “Bonjour, madame” or “Bonjour, monsieur” upon entering a store or restaurant, and to always say “Au revoir” upon leaving. It seems like a small thing, but it’s HUGE to French people who pride themselves on their civil society. And like it or not, we do represent “our people” and our country when we travel abroad, so why not become positive ambassadors while we’re there?

But back to the confab between my fellow Travel Blog Exchange seatmate and me. She told me about some black friends who’d recently visited Paris and came home feeling they’d been ignored and treated rudely by the French. But she and I wondered: Did they do the small things, acknowledging the salesclerks when entering and leaving a store? Did they walk right into boutiques or up to a food market and start touching the merchandise without first asking permission? (I know—it sounds foreign to us in the States, but that’s what EVERYONE does in countries like Italy and France as common courtesy.) Did they at least TRY to speak a few words of French before launching into questions in English? (But Lord knows it’s not just us black folks guilty of doing that overseas!) And did they realize that just because waiters don’t hover over your table or return frequently as they often do in the States, they’re not being rude but giving you unhurried space in which to slowly savor your meal?

Just as we don’t like it when foreign tourists stand too close to us on American buses and streets, we should do a mental role-reversal when we travel to OTHER folks’ lands and try to find out what’s appropriate and what’s not before we board that plane overseas. Now if we TRULY feel we’ve been discriminated against, then we should by all means speak up and complain. But let’s not automatically assume that every perceived slight has a racial tinge to it. A little understanding can go a long way to shrinking global differences—and to ensuring that your trip abroad is a fabulous one!

I’d love to hear from you: Have you ever unwittingly found yourself violating some “social code” overseas? How did you find out that your behavior was outside the norm—and were you able to change it during that trip? We’ve all been there, so please share!

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22 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. Daniela  |  August 10, 2009 at 7:50 am

    Ciao Maureen!
    I’ve got your name and blog address from Roz Cobbs. I’m her Italian friend, the one who spent a couple of years in the Chicago area on an internationa assignment within my previous company.

    It’s nice to meet you and exchange experience. I may not check my email box regularly, but still we can touch base from time to time. And if you ever come back to Italy, please remember you’ve got a brand new Italian friend!

    Take care.
    Daniela

  • 2. urbantravelgirl  |  August 10, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Ciao, Daniela — SO glad you visited my blog and got in touch!! PIACERE MIO!!! Yes, Roz speaks fondly of you often — I really hope she’ll get a chance to travel to Italy one day soon to visit you.

    I would love to be able to exchange experiences with you, also. Roz tells me that you now live in Sardinia, yes? I have never visited there, but it is definitely on my list of places within Italy to go. I hope to get back to your beautiful country next year some time, and perhaps will get a chance to visit Sardinia. OR perhaps you will get back to Chicago first??!!

    A presto,
    Maureen

  • 3. blackandabroad  |  August 10, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    Hi there,
    Just stumbled upon your blog, and I’m loving it so far. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this article. I’ve been living in Holland for the last 10 years, and I still love seeing other sisters stepping outside their comfort (and time) zone. Your blog will definitely do a lot to inspire more black women to just do it.

  • 4. Karen  |  August 10, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Ciao Maureen…
    Great piece and dead on. One small experience I had in Italy (traveling with you, darling) is dining at a friend’s home where her parents didn’t speak any English. Well, Dad spoke some and could basically say “I’m Hungry.”

    Anyway, I went out on a limb and practiced my two-months worth of Italian on him and the other guests. He challenged me by asking if I could say the days of the week. Passed that test. Then the months of the year. Passed that test. I couldn’t tell you the smile that crossed his face and the loud “Bravo” (or is it Brava?) that I got.

    So, the lesson I learned is not to be too self-conscious and to always put yourself out there when traveling… basically, meet people half way.

    Buona sera,
    Karen

  • 5. urbantravelgirl  |  August 10, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    Hey there, Black and (A)Broad! So glad you visited and that my post resonated with you. You’ve been living this life overseas for years, and I’ll bet you’ve also found some resistance from friends and family who wonder if they’ll be treated OK in Europe, or if they’ll run into rampant racism. So glad you’re there in Holland as an example of what’s possible outside the United States.

    OK, in the “small world” department: I heard about you from your old IU roomie Lisa, who’s a very good friend of mine!! We will HAVE to stay in touch and meet next time I’m on your side of the pond (which I hope will be soon!).

    Maureen

  • 6. urbantravelgirl  |  August 10, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    Ciao, bella Karen — SI, I sure DO remember that wonderful dinner at my friend Monica’s home! And what a HUGE difference it made by you having learned some Italian before you left home and being willing to TRY and speak it once we arrived in Italia. Yes, I DO remember her dad applauding you (it certainly was “Brava!”) and being very impressed.

    You’re SO right — meeting folks halfway is what can transform a trip from a tourist excursion to one where you feel like you’ve absorbed the culture and are able to take home lifelong memories. A good lesson for us all!

  • 7. eileen  |  August 16, 2009 at 8:46 pm

    yeah, all of this (and hey! that was me you talked about!), and also it’s hard to know what’s happening to us because of who we are or how we look/sound/act and what is just the way people react to others. I’ve only ever been me, and I only have my subjective lens to look through. If I feel put-upon because I get flirty comments on the street where I live (downtown in Santiago, Chile), I have to wonder if it really happens to me more than it happens to Chilenas, or if it just upsets me more because, you know, it’s me!

    keep talking, we’ll listen. Even if my goodness American women are loud!

  • 8. urbantravelgirl  |  August 16, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    Eileen, so true that we ALL have our own subjective lenses through which we view the world. And if we’re over-analyzing every experience we have when we travel, we’ll go nuts. But it’s still smart to keep in mind that “when in Rome,” it’s a good idea to behave as the Romans do. And YES — that means lowering our good ol’ American voices a decibel or two! LOL

    Maureen

  • 9. Betsy Talbot  |  September 2, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    On my first trip to Italy I was the loud one and the one who handled merchandise without asking. Since then I’ve learned my lesson and try to be a good guest in another country. When you think about it, it really is like visiting someone’s home for the first time. You wouldn’t grab the milk carton out of the refrigerator and start drinking out of it, even if you do that at home. So you have to tread lightly until you see what the local customs are so you can fit in and enjoy the place without irritating the locals.

    So glad to have discovered your blog and look forward to more about women traveling abroad…I wish every woman would do this!

  • 10. urbantravelgirl  |  September 3, 2009 at 7:02 am

    Ciao, Betsy — and thanks for visiting! I love your analogy about visiting a foreign country being akin to visiting someone’s home: until you know what you’re allowed to do, be gracious and ASK FIRST! It sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? But I don’t think (most) people behave badly when traveling abroad — they just don’t THINK about it. But we should all be thoughtful of how our behavior might affect others and their sensibilities (and yes, I think foreign tourists to the States should do the same!). It’s all about being a guest, and being one who’ll add positively to the social fabric of wherever one is.

    I’ll have to check out your “Married with Luggage” blog, too — I’m intrigued by the name!

    Bon voyage,
    Maureen

  • 11. Naomi  |  January 10, 2010 at 8:17 pm

    I ran into this site while searching on Google, information about black women traveling to South America. I have lived in Europe, particularly Spain for 12 months as an English Teacher. I had the opportunity to travel to several other countries within the continent of Europe. I’m surprise no one mention the negative side of traveling as a black female especially in European countries. One negative experience that I encountered were the sexual stares from men…it became so unbearable that I started wearing a wedding ring (and yes it did work)…Black females have a bad reputation in Europe due to sex trafficking of the African Women and other women from third world countries….So in their stereotypical minds, if you’re a black female you’re more likely to be label as a prostitute and you don’t have to dress like one… I can definitely assure you that a black female won’t come across this in London, Paris, and Geneva…why? There’s an ample amount of black professionals in these cities…

  • 12. urbantravelgirl  |  January 10, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    Hi, Naomi — and thanks for visiting!

    Yes, I have definitely heard some (but not a lot) of black women say that they have been approached in less-than-appropriate ways — or have heard of it happening to others — because guys in some Euro countries (including Italy) assume they must be prostitutes. But in all my getting around the continent, I’ve never had it happen to me (perhaps I didn’t understand the language well enough!).

    I’ve DEFINITELY been approached by foreign men, but it’s always been respectful — and if I haven’t been interested, I nicely acknowledge them, let them know politely I’m not, and we both move on.

    I’d love to hear comments from others of you out there. Have you — or has someone you know — encountered the attitudes Naomi mentions here?

    Thanks and safe travels,
    Maureen

  • 13. Pinoy Pride  |  January 19, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    I definitely enjoyed reading your insight and learning from your blogsite. Thank you for the interesting and informative article. – Pinoy Pride

  • 14. urbantravelgirl  |  January 20, 2010 at 7:33 am

    Ciao, Pinoy — and thanks so much for visiting my blog! I learn as much from you who share your comments and perspectives with me as the other way around. Please keep reading — and I’ll try to give you guys a reason to keep coming back!

    Maureen

  • 15. TravelEm  |  August 12, 2010 at 4:51 am

    Hola Maureen,

    I came across this site as I am researching black women travelling the world as I am embarking a mammoth trip in October this year which will take in South America, Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia. Firstly – love your blog and your get up and go attitude.

    Great advice on getting to know the environment you are going into and the ‘when in Rome’ attitude. I am always polite, try speak their language and a smile goes a long way. I am going to learn Spanish so I am ready for South America!

    I am a black british born woman and have travelled to Spain, Greece, Croatia and Germany in Europe. I haven’t encountered any major problems the odd weird look or whisper. In Croatia I was blatently ignored trying to buy some juice in a shop whilst my white friend got served immediately – I was non-plussed my friend was more annoyed.

    With regards to what Naomi has said about sexual stares, I have never seen this as negative and never felt like I was looked down on as a prostitute! A lot of these countries rarely get to see dark skinned women so that is why they tend to stare and make comments not because we’re percieved as prostitutes – you get prostitues of all races. Fair enough some people may think that but tarring everyone in Europe with the same brush is as bad as the people you speak of.

    I have constantly received stares and comments, mainly in Greece where they would shout ‘chocolate woman’ – my friend who lives in Greece said they are not being racist they just think dark skin is beautiful. The most times I have felt threatened is in the UK and America (New York) when black men have gone past the stares and approached me with ‘hey lady’ and ‘hey sister’ thinking because we are the same colour that they have a right to come into my space (this has included sitting next to me whilst I was on the internet/in a restaurant/on the street etc).

    Sorry for the long post -just wanted to get my point across. So looking forward to my travels and I know I may encounter stares, ignorance etc. but the good will far outweigh the bad.

    Keep on travelling! xx

  • 16. maria andros  |  November 28, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    Great work keep it coming, best blog on earth

  • 17. Julia  |  February 22, 2011 at 12:50 am

    Hey. I came across your blog somehow looking for more information on Italy. I am planning on moving there to study accessories design as an undergrad and was concerned about the perception of Black woman over there in Italy. Looking at a few websites and blogs (like yours) I have come to realize that I should have fun regardless of where I am and not to go “looking” for racism in everything. Thanks for posting :)

  • 18. urbantravelgirl  |  February 26, 2011 at 8:49 am

    Ciao, Julia –
    Good for you, planning a possible move to bella Italia!! And I’m glad you’ve got such a good attitude about it. I truly believe that if you run around seeking to be offended and treated badly, you will be. But if you travel with an open mind and genuinely expect a positive reception and to be treated with kindness and respect — no matter WHERE you go or who you encounter — you will!

    So go, girl — and have a great time!!

    Maureen

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  • 21. Theory  |  June 7, 2014 at 5:19 am

    I just wanted to comment, as I’m an American Black Woman that traveled to France and England in November 2013 for the first time. The French were more than polite and helpful and I couldn’t speak the language. The subway system took me two days to learn, but once I mastered that, I was all over France. I had a fabulous time!!! Once I arrived in England the subway was nothing compared to France. I rented a flat in Chelsea to experience how they live and I was all over London. I had a fabulous time there as well. In fact, I had such a good time, I plan to go to Germany, Prague, Poland and back to France next year. I did go on the internet and researched for months before travelling as I wanted to know the customs, things of interest in each country and I wanted to be safe. Personally, I waited for years to travel abroad, not because of fear, but because I didn’t want to travel alone. But now I have done it, forget that nonsense. I say to all American Black Women travel and experience the world!!!

  • 22. UrbanTravelGirl  |  June 8, 2014 at 8:22 pm

    Bonsoir, Theory — and SO thrilled to hear about your solo travel adventures. We cannot wait until we find suitable travel partners to hit the road … it’s all about getting out there, experiencing the world and letting it experience us right back. Feel the fear, then go anyway.

    So glad you did — and hope the rest of you UrbanTravelGirls will do the same!

    Bon voyage,
    Maureen

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