The Ugly Americans

The Ugly Americans

I have met many delightful Americans while travelling in foreign lands, but I think it is safe to assume that collectively Americans go abroad less and are generally less well liked overseas than travellers from comparable countries because of their sense of superiority and belief in American exceptionalism. They may just be TOO exceptional for foreigners to appreciate. I encountered two of the most exceptional while hitchhiking around Europe in 1971.

A few weeks earlier I had met a wonderful young Norwegian named Terje in Amsterdam and he invited me to come up and stay with his family in a small village outside Oslo, Norway, called Hon, or Høn – with a line through the ‘o’. I hitchhiked to Oslo a week later and we had a lot of fun together.

National Theatre, Oslo

Terje’s parents were kind and cultured people and his father was a well-known architect. The first night I arrived at their home, his mother cooked me a wonderful meal and his father gave me a ride to the train station, plus directions for where to meet Terje in Oslo. The plan was for the two of us to attend the Norwegian National Theatre production of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist masterpiece, Endgame, which was a genuine treat. What a great start to my visit.

Photo from a Norwegian Television production of Endgame (NRK TV), 1969

Often at night we all sat around and talked about literature, travel and politics, which I thoroughly enjoyed, except for one embarrassing moment. One night Terje’s mother asked me how cold it got in Edmonton. I said 40 below zero. She said yes, but that was 40 below Fahrenheit, not 40 below Centigrade. I smiled and said that they were the same because 40 below was the meeting point of the two temperature measurements. The room went silent for a few seconds and then she nodded and smiled, the way people do when they think you’re an idiot, but politely decline to say so. I changed the subject, but have always wondered if at some point after I left she looked it up and blushed. Of course those were the pre-Google days, and besides, they were incredibly kind to let me stay in their home.

One evening Terje and I went to a party in Oslo where I encountered some joyless Norwegian university students with starter beards who kept demanding to know why I was having so much fun travelling around the world instead of staying home to help organize the working class in Edmonton. I tried to deflect their pompousness with humour but they were totally humourless. I told them I was a pro-union lefty, but unlike them I was born and raised in a very poor, working class home and promised them I’d do my best to get the revolution going as soon as I ran out of money and flew back home. They were not amused.

I went to Oslo on my own on my last night before leaving and hitchhiked back to Høn after dark. I quickly got a ride from a couple of very tipsy young American males who regaled me with tales of their local sexual conquests. They bragged, for example, about how they had met a couple of hot young Norwegian girls that night and had a partner-switching orgy. To them Norway was a kind of erotic paradise. They were not as impressed with Norwegian gas stations, however. Their rental car was running out of gas when we pulled in, and the boys sat in the car waiting for a Norwegian pump jockey to come out of the station and fill er’ up. Nobody came. They were shocked to learn that they actually had to get out of their car and fill the tank themselves. Self-service was clearly not in their vocabulary. That brought on a burst of obscenities about useless Norwegians, the women presumably excepted. It got worse. They were doubly shocked to discover that they were also expected to get out of the car and come into the office to pay. That was the last straw. It was apparently time to teach those backward Norwegians a lesson by starting to drive away. They laughed hysterically as one of the station attendants came desperately racing out of the office to collect their money. They enjoyed humiliating him. By this point I wanted to hide under the back seat, but they were heading to my destination, so I held my tongue.

I know, I know. I should have gotten out of their car right then, walked over to the highway and tried to hitch a ride with a local driver, but I didn’t, so maybe I got what I deserved. It wasn’t a long ride to Høn and I assumed it would turn out okay. The Americans were not totally blotto, but were well over any legal limit and the driver began to go faster and faster, literally blazing down the road, scaring the crap out of me. I believe he was working through his anger from the gas station fiasco or was just too drunk to know any better. He was gunning the car at a ridiculous speed when we reached a long, sharp curve in the highway with a concrete divider separating us from oncoming cars. We hit that winding curve way, way too fast and in a desperate effort to keep the car on the road the driver cranked the wheel to his left as hard as he could. The car held the pavement for a few terrifying seconds and then violently flipped at high speed, bounced off the divider and skidding upside down along the road for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably ten or fifteen seconds at the most, before finally grinding to a halt to the tinkling tune of broken glass from the windshield and every car window.


Then a tentative voice from the front seat. “Is everyone okay?” Incredibly, we all were deeply shaken, but not injured as far as we could tell. I flexed my arms and legs and they seemed all right. Then I began crawling out the back window and began pulling shards of glass off my jacket, my pants and even out of my hair. I stood up and concluded I had no serious injuries. I wasn’t even bleeding anywhere. Same for the Americans. While we were extricating ourselves from the car a huge number of locals stopped to see if any of us were hurt. They were very courteous and friendly. In fact, a group of men walked over to the car, rocked it a few times and with a huge heave managed to turn it right-side up. As they did, an empty whiskey bottle shot through the glassless front passenger window and went slowly rolling across the highway, jingle-jangling all the way. I feel as though I can still hear that bottle in my mind, clanging along the road, signaling our shame. After a moment’s silence the entire crowd chorused something that sounded very much like, “Uh Oh.”

Norwegians were then and still are, far, far more serious and strict about drunk driving than Canadians or Americans and I realized immediately that we were in for some real trouble. An impaired driving conviction means at least one night directly in jail and a fine even for being only slightly over the legal limit of 0.2., and our driver was probably 10 times that drunk. If my estimation is correct it would likely result in a jail sentence of a month or more. In addition there was the rental car, which was surely totaled, which they were going to have to explain. I seriously doubt an insurance company would cover the damage to the car caused by a drunk driver.

It occurred to me that I should get the Hell out of there pronto. Probably I would get a break from the police because I was just a sober passenger who committed no crime, but I likely would have been held up for a long time, so I approached one of the Norwegian men, explained that I was a hitchhiker, and asked him if he was headed my way. He was, and he offered to give me a lift, bless him. I happily climbed in his car and he steered around the broken glass and headed off just as the first sound of sirens could be heard in the distance.

Road sign on the entrance to Hell, Norway

Those ugly Americans definitely needed a lesson and I hope the local police and courts gave them a good one. What they really needed were character transplants. I presume the driver got his just desserts, but his pal might have gotten off easy because the legal status of a drunk passenger is uncertain. The driver likely had to call on mom and dad for significant financial help of one kind or another. Hopefully he learned something. I certainly did. That was the last time I ever took a ride from a drunk driver.

I was on my way the following day, hitchhiking with Terje’s lovely American girlfriend, who was on her way southwest to Germany, while I was headed west to catch the ferry to England. I discovered that I hadn’t escaped the accident completely unscathed as I had a very sore shoulder for a few days, which the adrenalin probably concealed immediately after the crash. But I admit that once in a while I wonder what became of the two Americans and whether their terrible experience changed them in any way. I am fairly sure they didn’t go back home and start organizing the working class.

Photo of a Norwegian gas station, circa 1970s by Chris Harrison

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