When Did I Become The Ugly American?

by Ellen Barone

I sit tightly wedged into an economy class airline seat, braced for the long haul: a pashmina hanging from the seat back, a water bottle in the magazine flap, ear pods in the iPhone jack. A handsome Air France steward stops to stand beside my aisle seat. 

“Excuse me, madam,” he says, leaning into my view. “These two are mother and daughter,” he continues, gesturing to an elegant middle-aged woman in the row in front of me and the twenty-something blonde seated beside me. “Would you please exchange seats so that they can sit together?”

Suddenly, it seems, everyone in the cabin is looking at me expectantly. The lights flicker overhead, artificial and cruel, exposing the despair in the tired faces, the cramped conditions and dampened spirits of budget travelers resigned to discomfort.

Sure, why not?, I think. But then my gaze settles on the sweat-soaked giant of a man shoehorned into the middle seat adjacent to the mother. I notice the way his knees are crammed up against his chest though his seat is fully reclined. The way he compulsively fiddles with the air vent. The way he ignores the squirming boy beside him, and it occurs to me that the ten-hour flight to Paris might be a lot less miserable if I just stayed put.

I am surprised by the words coming out of my mouth. My voice sounds loud and unnatural. I stammer as I tell the steward, “I’d rather not,” then add, “Thank you,” not wanting to seem unfriendly.

I try to appear unfazed by the scowl of disapproval on the steward’s face, though I take some small comfort in the merciful nod of understanding that the mother gives me. When I look to the adult daughter, she turns away. My face heats up and I look down, embarrassed, ashamed. 

I feel as if I am letting everyone down, the steward, the mother and daughter, the other passengers. When the French businessman in the window seat agrees to the swap, I feel the full weight of my refusal mirrored in the faces surrounding me. When did I become the Ugly American? I muse darkly.

Maybe later I’ll explain that flying the red-eye from Mexico City to Paris hadn’t been in my travel plans when I’d arrived at the Guadalajara airport thirteen hours earlier for a trip to Copenhagen via London. That the day had begun promisingly enough when the driver arrived promptly at 6:30 AM, as arranged, to take me to the airport. That I’d taken this as a good omen until my iPhone dinged and flashed the words “Flight Canceled” across the display and almost instantly everything changed. And that now, with twenty hours of travel still ahead, I couldn’t stop feeling guilty.

I realize that I have always imagined myself as the sort of person who would give up her seat to a stranger without hesitation. Turns out I'm not, and I am surprised by how much this fact distresses me. I can’t let it go. I’m worried about having no humanity. I feel like an impostor in my seat— the artificial sweetener of the human race. 

In an age of canceled flights and shrinking airline seats, was my refusal simply an emotional survival tactic? Or, was it time to take a hard look in the mirror? 

It’s been months since that flight, and the answers to my questions are still nebulous – as insight gained through travel often is —but therein lies their power. There is something about travel, beyond the escape from everyday commitments, beyond the monuments and museums, that makes me question myself, and, at the same time, makes me feel most authentically myself. 

The questions make me look in the mirror, and what I see is me. Not the polite, accommodating me, but the hidden me who is complex, selfless and selfish, reacting differently to changing circumstances. The me that creeps out when I'm not trying to please, the me who says what matches up with what I feel. 

Sometimes I need to say no, and sometimes I need to say yes. It’s not about right or wrong. It’s that travel makes me respond honestly, it makes me be real, and it makes me feel.  If I don’t feel, if I don’t question, if I don’t put my true self into the world, I will never know the full range of the humanity I worry about not having. And if I don’t know how I express that humanity, I never will. 


Ellen Barone is the publisher and co-founder of YourLifeIsATrip.com. She and her husband are currently homeloose in Latin America, where she is at work on her first book, I Could Live Here, a travel memoir of home and belonging. 

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