Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Legend: An American tourist picked up pacing outside a foreign hotel is mistaken for a streetwalker; she avoids going to jail by purchasing a license to practice prostitution.
Origins: The second example quoted above provides an idea how old this legend is — it comes from a Reader's Digest anthology published in 1941. The actual tale, however, is older than that, because as that 1941 anthology notes, Reader's Digest took the item from an issue of The New Yorker published sometime in the previous twenty years. An anecdotal report dating it to the 1920s pushes the frontier back even further,
Usually told as having happened either in Mexico or France, the legend conveys typical traveller's fears in a laughing manner. Though the culture clash related in this story is resolved fairly easily, underneath the laughter one is left with the reminder that tourists can easily end up in foreign jails as a result of either linguistic misunderstandings or unfamiliarity with local laws. 'Travel is not without peril' is the message.
We're also reminded policemen in different cultures have been rumored to put the squeeze on helpless tourists. It's said the threat of languishing in a distant jail has opened many a reluctant wallet.
The tale also pokes fun at the seemingly incomprehensible bureaucracy of foreign lands, as well as their focus on what is seen through American eyes as the wrong priorities. That a hefty fine or incarceration could be avoided by purchasing a permit to commit what would be a jailable crime back home is a dig at how other countries manage their affairs. One is left with the self-congratulatory sense that the American way is superior; justice back home would be more concerned with dealing with the crime of prostitution than with making sure all the paperwork had been properly filled out.
Part of travel is reassuring oneself that one's own country is far superior to any of those visited. This story plays into that, and the inevitable framing and displaying of the offensive license in the tourist's home is not only a souvenir of a trip abroad, but also a visual reminder that home is best of all.
Barbara "pay up whore else!" Mikkelson
Last updated: 5 July 2007
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