How to Be Invisible

By Stevenson, Seth | Newsweek, April 19, 2010 | Go to article overview

How to Be Invisible


Stevenson, Seth, Newsweek


The 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.

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 cafe 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? …

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