I had an interesting experience recently when I was laid over in the Istanbul airport on my way to Bulgaria for a friend’s wedding. Generally speaking I think I’m pretty easily identified as being American when I travel. It’s not that I’m overly loud, boisterous, or any of the other American clichés - I just think there are subtleties to the way one dresses, moves about, etc. This can have its advantages and its drawbacks depending on where you are sure. The conversation I ended up having though, was much more interesting. It went something like this:
I’m sitting at a bar in one of the most frequently trafficked part of the airport getting in some quality people watching while feverishly writing work emails and scribbling notes on my legal pad. I’m sitting alone at a counter facing the pedestrian airport traffic when a complete stranger sits right next me. He has a shaved head, long black beard, lower lip piercing and tattoo on his throat. “Stan” he says in a thick accent as he extends his hand. Five empty seats to my right, six to my left. “Buckle up” I think to myself as I’m left wondering what is happening. Instinctively I casually wrap my foot around my bag under the table and check that my wallet is still in my front pocket. This guy “Stan” was definitely about to try and rob me. Stan asks me where I’m travelling to and whether or not I was meeting friends during my travels. I start answering his questions and responding with a slew of questions of my own – where is he from, why was he in Istanbul, etc. Maybe I’ll rob him instead.
My initial tension starts to subside after a while, but I still wonder why Stan keeps going on and on. We talk about his Belgium girlfriend, and his work as “the machine implementation guy” for his company. I still never fully understood what kind of work he did, other than he “installed machines” all over Europe. He starts dogging on the USA and Niagra Falls, mentioning that the Canadian side of it is much more impressive and beautiful – I agree as I recalled seeing photos from friends trip there years ago. We talk about our favorite places to travel. I tell him about my trips to Ireland, Budapest and Tanzania. He tells me about his love for the south of France and his passion for anything extreme sports related. “Do you speak French?” he asks me at one point before launching into French sentences. I stare blankly and mutter the only French phrase I know, followed by laughing at myself. “Oh, you’re not one of those” he says. “What the hell was that supposed to mean?” I think to myself. We go on for the better part of an hour – Stan buys me a beer and a hamburger. Just two old friends catching up.
I eventually close my work laptop as I realize I’m not going to get anything productive done. Work emails can wait a couple hours I uneasily tell myself. I still wonder why Stan keeps going on and on as it was obvious I was in the middle of something – I had a laptop out and had been in the middle of scribbling notes down when he approached. As I’m thinking about this some more, Stan asks me a question – “so, where in Canada are you from?”
“What?” I reply utterly confused.
“I said, where in Canada are you from?”
“Oh man, I’m wearing my Canada hat aren’t I?” I think to myself. Yep, I sure was.
Long-story short, one of my favourite (see what I did there) baseball hats is a Toronto Blue Jays hat with a huge red Canadian Maple Leaf on the front – I’m not sure a more Canadian looking hat exists actually.
Embarrassed I laugh a bit and tell Stan that I’m in fact not Canadian, and I’m American. “American!? No way man, you are from Canada.” I laugh, pull my passport out of my pocket and slide it over to him – wait, wasn’t this guy trying to rob me a minute ago? I casually grab my passport back and stuff it into my front pocket again. “You’re too nice to be American, and no way have I come sit here if I know you are American.” Curious, I ask him why. Ah, Canadians are the best, nicest people to talk to when travelling. You always got to be nice to a Canadian guy, you know? “I’m a nice guy and I’m American” I protest. “Yeah, but it’s not the same you know?” He laughs after saying this and we continue to chat for a few more minutes. The tab comes and in insists on paying. “First time I buy a hamburger and beer for an American” he mutters to himself while smiling. “Always buy a beer for a Canadian” he goes on. I don’t really know what to do, so I apologize for being American and thank him again for picking-up the tab. We’re both laughing and having a good time with it – we shake hands and we depart in opposite directions.
When I finally arrive in Bulgaria, I meet up with my other friend’s also out to attend the wedding. I recount my story, and to my surprise, two friends tell very similar stories about times they travelled and were accidentally mistaken for Canadian – one of them even ended up being invited to stay at someone’s home free of charge for the week! Again, no real point, but next time you travel, don your best maple leaf hat and see if you end up having some interesting stories you wouldn’t have had otherwise – maybe Stan will buy you a burger and a beer.
Also, if anyone has seen my credit card, please let me know.