Last week while waiting for a flight to Rome, I watched a group of first-class passengers (and I use that term strictly as a seat assignment reference) complain about going through security. All four women carried designer bags, wore bright leather jackets and glowed with enough jewelry to light their own exit paths on the aircraft if there was an emergency. Apparently they were incensed when their jewelry set off the security alarms and they were treated like terrorists.
"That jewelry is going to set off more than security alarms when they're climbing the Spanish Steps," whispered my old flying partner who was traveling with me. "They'll be lucky if they return home with any of it. They might as well be wearing signs that say, "Hi, I'm rich. Rob me."
She was right. With anti-Americanism flying higher than most aircraft and world economy at it's lowest, international travelers dressing to the nines are asking to be the target of jokes or something more serious. Here are some ways to not stand out in a crowd:
Dress unadventurously. "Think black," said my old flying partner. By sticking with neutrals you're more apt to blend in with the natives. It also has the added advantage of cutting down on your packing. With a few changes of shirts, one pair of black slacks can take you through several days.
When my daughter left for a semester in Italy, she was told to never wear clothing that makes a statement. Leave the logos at home. Sweatshirts with college names or t-shirts with political statements may create more attention than you want.
Be discreet. Cameras scream "Tourist!" Instead of keeping yours in your camera bag that reads Nikon or Cannon on the side, pack it under your coat or in a nondescript bag.
If you're touring on your own, jot down your directions before you leave your hotel. If you need to check a map, step into a shop or hotel where you will be less noticed.
Ask questions. Before you leave your hotel ask the concierge about the safety of the areas you plan to visit. Find out if there are rules you should know. Some churches require you to have your shoulders and knees covered before you enter. Some restaurants require men to wear coats and ties.
Learn language phrases. You don't need to be fluent in a language but a working travel vocabulary can help through some rough spots.
Many years ago, when I was touring in a rental car with my flight crew in Frankfurt, a policeman yelled, "Anhalten!" Our driver chose to ignore and drive forward. The policeman rapped on our window and in a perfect Brooklyn accent said, "Hey Buddy, 'Halt' means stop in any language. I lived in New York for 12 years."
Know local traditions. Behavior that is considered acceptable in our culture may not fly in another culture. Giving a two-thumbs-up sign to a person in the Middle East is akin to flipping a different finger sign to a driver on the Dan Ryan.
For many of us, submerging ourselves in a foreign culture is the greatest adventure of travel. In today's world, going native has much to do with safety as it does with learning a new culture. Travel is not the time to be decked out in jewels and your finest clothes. It's much better to take notice than be noticed.
• Gail Todd, a freelance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 30 years. She can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.