Picture of bathroom slippers in Japan

In a Japanese ryokan, savvy visitors know to wear bathroom slippers only in the bathrooms.

Photograph by Hervé Girod

By Daisann McLane

From the December 2012/January 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Everyone in the dining hall of the Amazon riverboat is staring at me. Actually, not staring, glaring. At first, I shrug it off. After all, I’m the lone non-Brazilian among the hundred or so passengers riding the slow wooden boat down the Amazon River. I’ve been trying my best to blend in. I even pitched my hammock on the crowded deck with everyone else to later sleep, shoulder to shoulder, under the equatorial stars.

But still I stick out. So I smile and nod as I seat myself at the communal dining table in front of my tin-plate meal of rice and beans—the modest repast that is included in my $60 ticket for the thousand-mile journey. I figure if I acknowledge, in a good-natured way, that all eyes are on me, everybody will stop looking at me and go back to the more important business of eating lunch. Right?

Wrong. “Senhora, senhora!” A wiry man wearing an undershirt is shouting and pointing at me. I can’t understand what he is trying to tell me. Another woman takes up the “Senhora!” chorus, and another, and they are all making the same odd gesture—patting a hand in the air next to their heads. My face flushes in embarrassment; I’m in a sea of disapproving strangers. What have I done to so upset my fellow passengers?

Suddenly, I feel a breeze whoosh over my head as the baseball cap I’d donned for protection from the harsh Amazonian sun lifts. I turn around, startled, to find it in the hand of the first mate. In his torrent of words, I understand three: comer não chapéu—eat no hat.

Then I get it. On a rickety slow boat on the Amazon it’s okay to eat lunch in your undershirt. And without shoes, even. But under no circumstances can you tuck into your beans in Brazil without taking off your hat. I make a mental note of this important rule and add it to that ever lengthening list: My Travel Faux Pas.

Really, I try very hard not to make them. I want the people I meet on the road to focus on me, not on my habits and behaviors. Before I go anywhere, whether to another state or another country, I carefully research the local dos and don’ts. Yet I still stumble.

A guidebook says, “At Caribbean parties, it’s polite to arrive late.” So I turn up an hour past the invitation time only to find my island hostess still marinating the chicken we’ll be eating two hours later—when the party actually starts. “A kiss on the cheek is the normal greeting in Paris.” Yes, but how many—one, two, three? I constantly misfire on the cheek-peck order; you can tell I’ve been to France by the bruises on my nose.

Embarrassing, culturally clumsy behavior has been a pitfall for travelers since people started leaving home. The French are the ones who have gifted us with the elegant phrase that describes it. Louis XIV, their Sun King, held lavish balls and was a fanatic about dance—so much so that he would banish from his court anyone who made a faux pas, or “false step.” For us travelers, the consequence of putting a foot “falsely,” or wrong, may not be as terrible as in the 17th century, but surely it is no less distressing.

I still blanch when I think of my linguistic whoppers. Foreign languages are one of the areas where it’s almost a given your foot will not just take a mistaken step—it will land in your mouth. I’ve never studied French, so I surf my way through the francophone world with a combo of Spanish and Italian grammar and food words à la française that I’ve picked up from cookbooks and restaurants. You’d be surprised how well this works. Until it doesn’t. I was on a roll one day in Corsica, when I stopped in a restaurant. “Excusez-moi,” I said to the maître d’ in my rudimentary French. “May I get a bit of lunch, not a big meal, just … un petit déjeuner?” He looked at me as if I were insane. It was only after I’d finished that I realized, with a blush, that I’d asked for breakfast.

For many of us, visiting Japan is like competing in the faux pas Olympics: Local customs are so nuanced and so specific that you are sure to trip up. I’ve studied and trained for my visits there; by the time I arrive, I could pass an exam in proper bathing technique.

On one trip, I settled myself into my ryokan (inn) and expertly followed the elaborate footwear routine required of guests. At the door, I would abandon my shoes for house slippers. Later, when the need arose, I would diligently change these for special toilet slippers the Japanese use when they need to step on the (presumably dirty) bathroom floor. No faux pas here: nothing but correct steps for me! With a flourish, I would slide my feet expertly in and out of slippers without pausing—except to note how cutesy my Japanese toilet slippers were, with their red vinyl uppers emblazoned with pink kitties and the word “Toilet.”

Two days, three days of this, and I was feeling the traveler’s pride of having conquered the Everest of etiquette, when I passed a pair of fellow guests walking down the ryokan hallway. The Japanese women looked at me, then looked away uncomfortably. What was wrong? Puzzled, I glanced down at my feet. Two shocking pink kitties smiled up at me.

Then the women began to giggle. And so did I. We all knew my traveler’s feet were faux pas—literally in the wrong place. But they understood my heart was not.

Editor at large Daisann McLane tweets from her travels. You can follow her on Twitter, @Daisann_McLane.

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