The Day I Became An Ugly American.

By Posted in - Europe & Featured Post & Italy on March 16th, 2011

Hanging in Rome before I became an ugly American.

I have a confession. Come closer, I’d hate for this to get out. (Deep Breath) O.K., last September, on a sunny day in Rome, I became an ugly American.

Not only were we running really late for our train, but the smallest bill in my pocket was 20 euro. In America, a $20 bill is the accepted cutoff for making change. Not so in Paris and Italy, where clerks seem to loathe making change of any sort. I knew this and I knew I was pushing my luck by not changing it the night before.

So, as Beth and I powered our way down the early morning sidewalk with our rigged luggage wheelie thing and Beth’s bulging backpack, and then into the deep underground station. There were several flights of stairs we rushed down (me carrying the ridiculous luggage contraption) to get the platform. I prayed…I prayed for a working 21st century ticket machine.

No dice.

Either, the Soviet-era machines weren’t accepting credit cards, or they were not dishing out change. I jetted from machine to machine getting more frustrated with each one. So with limited time to spare, I took to the streets and left Beth below ground with the bags. I was sweaty, my blood pressure was rising. Out of all train rides on the entire European leg of the trip this was the one we couldn’t miss – the only one. The train would bring us to the middle of Tuscany where we were meeting with our wwoof farm host and if we missed it, we would miss our ride to the farm. Without a cell phone or wifi we would have no way to get in touch easily with our host.

Speaking in generalities, if Americans love fast food, then European shop clerks love their coins. And you know what, I get it. I love using change too; it’’s quick, easy and efficient, but sometimes–like this situation–you just don’t have any.

I entered the corner cafe with one purpose: break my bill by buying a bottle of water. Seconds later, I left the store empty handed and pissed. What transpired in those seconds pushed me over the edge; the teenage clerk refused the sale because of my bulging 20 euro bill. Have you ever been denied purchasing something because you had too much money?! I thought it was the other way around. I started to panic.

Storming onto the avenue, my hands flailed and I muttered obscenities to myself as I headed across the intersection to the tobacco store. In addition to smoked goods, phone cards and snacks, the Italian tobacco shops (Tabacchi) also sell public transport tickets.

Inside the shop, I pounced on the clerk with my ticket request in broken Italian. “We don’t have tickets,” she said. “I know you sell tickets,” I shot back forcibly in English. “You can’t fool me.” Again, she repeated she didn’t have any (it hit me later that she probably meant she was sold out). Livid now, I grabbed three bags of Ritz Bitz, threw my 20 euros on the counter and angrily said, “How many of these will it take to break this?” I guess three was the magic number, because she broke it.

As I scurried back to the underground, I felt bad, really bad. Seriously, did I really just yell at a woman who probably doesn’t even want to sell bus tickets? But it was too late to turn back and apologize, I had a train to catch.

We made it! The Pontessieve train station.

Have you ever lost it on the road? Or, do you have any tips for dealing with those moments when everything comes to a head in a hot mess? If so, we would love to hear them – feel free to let us know in the comments below!

*Please remember all photos on this website are copyrighted and property of, & Bethany Salvon. Please do not use them without my permission. If you want to use one of them please contact me first because I do love to share and I would be flattered. Thanks!

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(35) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Brooke vs. the World -

    March 17, 2011 at 12:12 am

    I too have a hard time trying to wrap my head around a situation where people don’t want your money. What a freaking joke, hey?! I don’t think you should feel bad — everyone has days where too much is too much, and if I were that lady, I probably would have taken it with a grain of salt (she works with people all the time, so she probably has seen it all). Anyways, I haven’t lost it like this no, but I have broken down crying on the streets of Bishkek while my poor Kyrgyz student aid helper stood there not knowing what to do. Ugh.

    • Bethany -

      March 17, 2011 at 11:05 am

      I know it’s bizarre. We encountered it a few times in Italy. Even at a pizza shop where they just didn’t feel like making food at that time. In a strange way it is a relief because it shows you that money is not a priority for everyone else in the world. I spent 1/2 the time in Italy wondering how people live there. Things aren’t cheap, yet people don’t care about losing sales. I asked some of my relatives and it seemed (though there was a language barrier) that they don’t have much in the way of debt or student loans. It’s a weird (yet probably better) lifestyle than the U.S. where no one ever refuses a sale. @Brooke vs. the World,

  • kelly -

    March 17, 2011 at 3:24 am

    I’m not sure if its so much of an american thing. Everyone gets frustrated while traveling sometimes, esp when you’re in a rush!

    • Bethany -

      March 17, 2011 at 11:06 am

      Thanks for commenting Kelly – I know Randy is feeling better with some support from the travel community. 🙂@kelly,

  • Rebecca -

    March 17, 2011 at 7:57 am

    You know, the situation isn’t really different than the kind of thing that happens at home. Bad situation = stress and often results in an inappropriate explosion, hopefully only a minor one. Then, afterward, the remorse of taking it out on an undeserving person. It just feels worse when you’re in a foreign country because you know it contributes to the stereotype and sometimes, as in your situation, you’re moving on and don’t have a chance to apologize.

    We’re all only human, though, so I think you’re entitled to cut yourself some slack if it serves as a learning experience. Maybe the unpleasant memory will be enough to make you *always* have change when you need it, and you’ll be less likely to yell at someone else who happen to be in your path during a difficult situation. There’s nothing you can do now about what’s in the past, except to try and make sure you don’t repeat the bad parts.

    Believe me, there are many people who wouldn’t even feel bad about the whole episode. And *they* are the real problem.

    Happy travels!

    • Bethany -

      March 17, 2011 at 11:07 am

      True, Thanks Rebecca – you are right 🙂 @Rebecca,

  • Christine -

    March 17, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    Couldn’t help but laugh about the change thing–I have SO been there in France! They totally guilt trip you for having too much money! I think we all have those moments–and it’s more about being frustrated than being an ugly American because I think it goes across cultures. I’ve definitely had a few where I’ve huffed and puffed in awful hostels.

    • Bethany -

      March 18, 2011 at 11:37 am

      hahah! I know it is the weirdest thing! It’s like what is wrong with you – take my money! so funny you can relate! @Christine,

  • Kim -

    March 17, 2011 at 8:33 pm

    Oh, I have so been there. It doesn’t sound like you were THAT bad. I mean, it could have been worse. Keep your head up. If that was really as Americans get we could all rest soundly.

    • Bethany -

      March 20, 2011 at 9:03 pm

      True ‘dat Kim. Sorry couldn’t help myself! Thanks for commenting 🙂 @Kim,

  • Sofia – As We Travel -

    March 17, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    Haha oh boy have I been it this situation before…

    I remember buying a ring only to break some money for a taxi ride and paying a crazy overprice because I couldn’t be bothered to bargain (I needed a bathroom urgently), and every time I passed the shop after that they were so eager to make me buy from them again, haha!

    • Bethany -

      March 18, 2011 at 11:38 am

      That’s funny – I’m sure you were there favorite customer!In the US people would bend over backward to make change, not sure in europe! @Sofia – As We Travel,

  • Christy @ Ordinary Traveler -

    March 18, 2011 at 11:49 am

    I don’t know that I have any tips on how to stay cool in situations like these, but I wish I didn’t let myself get so upset. We had a situation in Laos where a hotel owner was sure we had not paid for our two night stay with him. We paid cash and had two separate receipts and could only find one of them. We didn’t have time to look for the other one because we had already booked a bus out of town and we had to leave right then. I got really pissed at the guy, but we were forced to pay another night. I found the receipt 2 hours later in our guidebook, but we were already on the bus!

  • Erica -

    March 18, 2011 at 11:56 am

    The thing that drives me insane about coin based societies is that you end up walking around with a giant bag of small change from breaking the bigger coins. When I left Japan we tried to spend as much as we could but we still ended up bringing a crap ton home because the exchange refuses to take change. ]

    Kill me.

    • Bethany -

      March 19, 2011 at 9:38 pm

      I know – I have the same from mexico and europe but I have to say I like it! I always think that it means i have to go back sometime soon to spend them. 🙂@Erica,

  • jill – Jack and Jill Travel The World -

    March 18, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    Oh, I bet that’s frustrating!! No, no tips from us because we’d probably handle a similar situation with less grace than you did. Travel days are the most stressful.

    • Bethany -

      March 19, 2011 at 9:39 pm

      They are, you are totally right. I think travel days are the toughest and even if you plan on arriving somewhere early in the day it’s always best to have nothing planned for that day at all. @jill – Jack and Jill Travel The World,

  • Chishikoff -

    March 19, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    Good article, thanks. 🙂 Good Design

    • Bethany -

      March 19, 2011 at 9:39 pm

      Thanks for commenting Chiskhikoff. Glad you liked it 🙂 @Chishikoff,

  • Amy -

    March 19, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    When I was in Italy, I took regionale (regional) trains as much as I could since I wasn’t on a time constraint and they are a lot cheaper than the faster trains. But what would take 2 hours on a fast train might take 6 on a regional train. Sometimes their schedule leaves you with an hour stopover in a city or a 5 minute rush to another platform.

    My most memorable change was in Bologna, a decent-sized station, where I had a fast change. My train arrived on the ‘short’ tracks (that don’t reach all the way to the main part of the station) on one side of the station and I had to run down to the main station (detoured by construction, of course), then across what felt like a million tracks to the very last one. The first time I did the change, I got to the platform JUST AS THE TRAIN WAS PULLING AWAY. It was my birthday, so I wasn’t that happy about missing my train, but luckily I had been to Bologna before, so I walked around and found a nice place for lunch while I killed the hour until the next train to Padova.

    The next time I made the change, I got there about 20 seconds before the doors closed and I was so happy and proud of myself! 🙂 Sweaty and exhausted, of course, but happy still. Lesson: plan ahead or be flexible. 🙂

    • Bethany -

      March 20, 2011 at 9:04 pm

      So true! We learned that the hard way – planning ahead is not my strong suit but a def. necessity to riding the trains in Italy unless you want to pay a lot more! @Amy,

    • Kelsey -

      April 8, 2011 at 2:21 pm

      @Amy, Even though I haven’t been on one in 13 years, I still remember Italian trains as being a form of torture.

  • Chishikoff -

    March 21, 2011 at 2:21 am

    This is soo cool !! I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks so much for your photos! Good Design !

    • Bethany -

      March 21, 2011 at 8:37 pm

      Thank you for commenting. I’m glad you like the blog! @Chishikoff,

  • Jilianne @ Luxury Cotswold Cottages -

    March 21, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    I would have been scared if I’m that woman 😀 But luck was on your side and you did catch the train for your farm adventure. Hope you enjoyed. I really don’t know what advice I could give you to somehow forget that experience who have with your 20 euro bill.

    • Bethany -

      March 21, 2011 at 8:38 pm

      Thanks for commenting Jilianne! You wouldn’t have been to scared of Randy – he is even 100 times nicer than me on a good day, even when he is mad! We did make the train and then wouldn’t you know we sat around for like 2 hours because the person who we were supposed to meet was late. hahaha 🙂 @Jilianne @ Luxury Cotswold Cottages,

  • Andrea -

    April 5, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    It happens. I got a bit shirty in Spanish at the counter-people at KFC in Valdivia last month (it doesn’t get more ugly American/Aussie than that, eating at KFC in the first place, eh?). They were completely ridiculous though, one burger and fries was sitting on the tray for fifteen minutes while the other was being made and our beers were getting warm and flat. I didn’t yell but let them know that it was unacceptable to have half a cold meal. The way I see it, I would have done the same if I was in one of my home countries. People are the same everywhere at the end of the day and I try to be more patient when travelling but sometimes it isn’t a case of you being foreign and them being local but a case of trying to get what you are paying for.

    • Bethany -

      April 8, 2011 at 9:39 pm

      Shoot – don’t know how I missed your comment before but this is a great one! You are totally right – if you’d do it at home it’s probably acceptable. There’s just something about being a jerk while traveling that seems to stick in your mind more. @Andrea,

  • Tonya -

    April 6, 2011 at 12:13 am

    Awww! I feel for you! I had the exact same thing happen to me in Munich (and their machines are a lot better than in Italy) but still…none of them accepting bills. I went to buy a pack of gum with a 20 and the guy refused. What??? I actually ended up just getting on the train with no ticket…haha. Dont feel too bad, happens to the best of us!

    • Bethany -

      April 8, 2011 at 9:40 pm

      Wow Germany too? I guess all of Europe hates to make change! Thanks for sharing this – glad you didn’t get caught w/out the ticket. I was so tempted to do that but at one point we saw a guy in Italy get busted and he started crying. Of course Italian men are emotional but still it was enough to make me want to buy a ticket for the rest of the trip. hahah 🙂 @Tonya,

  • Kelsey -

    April 8, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    I had a moment like that in Switzerland. I had missed two buses, had sticky hands from a bottle of shampoo coming open in my bag, and I was standing at the train station in a small town, with the address to the hostel in my hand. I asked three separate people how to get there, and every single one of them gave me a blank stare, despite having asked in German, English, and French. Eventually I got angry and stormed off into the town, dragging my bag behind me. I found the hostel eventually, but my day had been soured.

    • Bethany -

      April 8, 2011 at 9:42 pm

      Not to laugh but you told this story so perfectly it was like I could imagine being there. Of course the sticky hands can only make things so much worse! Sometimes traveling just takes it out of you. @Kelsey,

  • Rebecca -

    April 15, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    Argh, I felt so stressed reading this! There’s nothing worse than running late for something. I don’t think you were too much of an ugly American – I would have become an ugly Australian in the same situation! 🙂

  • Canyoning Wales -

    April 25, 2013 at 4:12 am

    I would have stayed dignified and polite as a British Gentleman. Never once breaking the cold face.