Right after we got married, I went down to Kmart to replace my diamond wedding ring with an inexpensive gold band.
“It’s just for the duration of our trip to India,” I reassured Rich. “In a place where people have so little, it just doesn’t seem appropriate — or safe — to wear good jewelry.”
“Why wear a ring at all?” he asked.
“So they’ll know we’re married,” I said. “I don’t want people to think I’m cheap.”
“Great. Now they’ll think I’m cheap.”
Today, I no longer bother with a fake wedding ring. At my age, I’m more likely to excite admiration than censure if people think I’m engaged in amorous dalliance. But I am still conscious of the fact that people I meet on the road take one glance at my attire and make assumptions about who I am and whether they want to get to know me better. It’s human nature. In Seville and on the road, I find life is easier, more fun, and likelier to involve friendly encounters if I refrain from making certain fashion statements.
1. Shirts with political slogans. Yes, you have a perfect right to parade around Paris in a t-shirt that reads: “Snails don’t have a backbone. French leaders eat snails. You are what you eat.” And the French have a perfect right to take offense and shun you.
2. A vest with multiple exterior pockets. Outer pockets bulging with cameras, wallets, and designer sun glasses shout, “Easy pickings! Get there first!” When shopping for a travel vest, look for one that lets you tuck away valuables discreetly in zippered compartments on in the inside.
3. Safari wear. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of khaki, but showing up in a sophisticated city like Milan or London wearing an outfit designed for big game hunting in Tanzania suggests that you are seriously out of sync with local culture.
4. Sweatpants and gym shorts. Like safari gear, workout clothes are not commonly worn on the street in many parts of the world, and people may consider them odd and inappropriate.
5. Porn star-style clothing. Appearing on the streets of a socially conservative town dressed as if you were auditioning for the lead in a remake of “Debbie Does Dallas” may force you to waste time fending off unwanted attention from strangers, including the police.
6. Expensive jewelry. A bit of low-cost bling is fine, but flashing around serious gold and gemstones invites attention from thieves. It can also be a barrier to connecting with locals who make less in a year than you spent on your smallest nose ring.
7. Brand new shoes or hiking boots. Hobbling around with break-in blisters is never fun, but it’s a lot worse during long days of sightseeing or nights painting the town. It's painful for you and everyone who sees you. Besides, you really don’t want to have to cut short your only chance to tango in Buenos Aires because, as we Americans like to put it, “your dogs are barking.”
Fashion varies wildly from place to place and year to year, so it pays to do your research. When I first arrived in Seville, no one over the age of 18 would be caught dead wearing blue jeans or sneakers; today, both are European wardrobe essentials. As a young girl I was told, “No gentleman should ever see a lady’s undergarments except for erotic purposes.” Now bra straps peek out from clothing everywhere, even in church. But friendliness is always in style, and I suspect you’ll still find it easier to enjoy yourself abroad if your wardrobe says “cheers” instead of “huh?” or “merde.”
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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