The ambiguous traveler, or, why I sometimes pretend not to be English

“So which part of Australia are you from again?” asked the drunk boy from Leicester.

“Sorry, what?” I looked up from my computer. It was five in the morning, I was working the night shift at the hostel and I was pissed. Monday nights were my favourites at that point, not least because the popular Barcelona bar we took our guests to offered an hour of unlimited beer or sangria. I’d spent the night folding laundry, watching Netflix and being grumpy because the boy I liked was out, probably having more fun than I was. The drunk boy from Leicester and his equally drunk friend had returned early from the evening’s festivities and were conducting a perilous expedition to the back of the communal fridge. Both were covered in spaghetti. All I wanted at this point in the evening was to go to sleep and I was contemplating how easy it would be to slip out for a nap when they began questioning me.

“Which part of Australia did you say you were from?” He said, flicking his new spaghetti fringe out of his eyes. And just like that, my evening picked up. Apart from the impending spaghetti clear-up operation, of course.

Despite being almost comically English, I’ve always been able to get away with blending in to a certain extent when I travel, avoiding the dreaded ‘Brit abroad’ label which haunts my fellow countrymen/women/children/pets wherever they go. With the exception of my trip to China in 2013 (for obvious reasons), I’ve been able to move through crowds without being singled out as a tourist, a potential target for overpriced souvenirs, pickpockets and all manner of madness. This is not to say I am in any way racially ambiguous – I’m extremely white, due in part to my exotic Scottish heritage.

When I first arrived in Barcelona, struggling across Sants station with my bags, a Swedish family came over and spoke to me in Spanish, asking for directions. When I explained in halting Spanish I’d just arrived myself, they laughed, and said they’d assumed I was a local. Being not even remotely tanned at this point, I was extremely flattered. In Athens, a cashier in a clothing store once fired off a bunch of Greek at me because she thought I was a local. In Germany I’m practically a local. Once a guy thought I was American ‘because I had nice teeth’ (disclaimer: my teeth, while nice, are not up to the standards of American dentistry). For some reason, nobody places me as English, which is something I’ve come to like and find useful, especially in the current climate.

I have no idea why this happens but each time I feel a sense of achievement at having successfully blended in. In a world of ludicrously dressed stag parties and A Level students projectile vomiting onto a pavement somewhere near the Adriatic, I take it as a compliment. No handkerchiefs tied around the head for me, thank you very much. No complaining about the heat or asking loudly for ketchup. It’s incredibly unfair to place all British tourists in this camp, of course, but I use the unfortunate stereotype here as an illustration. No smoke without fire and all that.

I enjoy this inexplicable ability to become a pseudo-local, even though I can’t put my finger on what it is about my appearance or character that makes it so. Physically I’m tall, blonde, average build (if you discount the somewhat unexpected bodacious rear view which seems to run in my family), reasonably tanned for at least six months of the year. I don’t look particularly anything except white and probably European – I’m not quite blonde enough to fit the Scandi stereotype, my body type is a little larger than is common in the Mediterranean, my dress sense is very much homeless Jesus, gap yah, ‘I’m a citizen of the world daahhhling,’ which could place me as anything from a Dutch exchange student to a lost American. I’m not quite stylish enough to be French. I don’t own a North Face jacket, which rules out North America. I drink gin, I swear a lot and can be found quite frequently wandering around with a large paper map, scratching my head and uttering unmistakably British exclamations like ‘OH BUGGER’. Despite this, however, nobody ever thinks I’m English.

Being an ambiguous traveller can be extremely useful. You’re less likely to get robbed or targeted with absurdly priced taxis. You’re able to go off the beaten track in a fairly low key manner if you wish. It can even keep you on the right side of the law – a Moroccan police officer who thought I was French (thank you, remedial GCSE language skills) decided against arresting my then-boyfriend, who he suspected to be an illegal immigrant.

Seeing as I seem to have fallen into this by happy accident, I’m not sure I can offer advice to my fellow travellers on how to do the same. Speaking the language helps, even if it’s a few words as does your body language – try to look like you know where you’re going. Otherwise, don’t wear a t-shirt that says ‘Lads on Tour’ and you should be alright.

Sitting at the desk during my graveyard shift, I smiled and mentally ticked another country off the list of ‘fake nationalities I can use someday’. “I’m from Melbourne, mate,” I said in a mock-Aussie accent. At that moment, a group of real Aussies tumbled through the front door in search of kebabs, followed closely by my crush du jour (now boyfriend, G if you’re reading this, hello!)

The drunk boy from Leicester said goodnight and exited the kitchen, tripping over an imaginary step on his way out and sending spaghetti flying across reception.