On Saturday, our tour of the Moorish castle and the Palacio da Pena was haunted by a group of four young American exchange students. I knew that’s what they were because try as I might, I couldn’t help but overhear their loud conversations saying as much. The two girls were kitted out in skirts, leggings, big scarves, and tall boots, while the guys were dressed at their nattiest, with slicked hair, leather jackets, and fancy decals on the back pockets of their jeans. One of them was even wearing aviator sunglasses (on a rainy day) and a big cross pendant with fake diamonds. Nice touch.

At first, they were mildly entertaining. When they passed us on the way out of the Moorish castle, one of the girls was saying, “You know, Madrid and Barcelona were like, the same, so like, I didn’t care which one I went to.” Right. Two major European cities, with centuries’ worth of history. Exactly the same. Sure. We had a laugh over that, and forgot about them.

Until we ended up right behind them on the tour of the palace. They dissolved into laughter after peeking into one of the rooms on the ground floor, and one of the girls said loudly, “That painting looks like Abraham Lincoln naked!” Oh jeez. Really, I’m so proud to be an American, I can’t even tell you. We hurriedly bypassed them, skipping a few rooms, and went up the stairs in search of my half brother and sister, who had gone ahead of us while we bought tickets.

Unfortunately that wasn’t the last we saw of these four. Since we had left the palace after it closed, there was a huge crowd of people waiting for the bus to go back down to the city, and we couldn’t all fit onto the first one. So we waited around in the cold for fifteen minutes til the next bus came. When it did, I quickly pushed my way on and found a seat, and Gabe came to stand in front of me when he got on the bus some time later (I don’t deal well with waiting in big lines.)

To my regret, the two American guys ended up standing right beside me, so I was privy to both the blinged-out cross and their inane conversation. The girls got seats further back in the bus, so the two guys took the chance to gossip about them and puff their chests out a bit. “I think she likes me, dude. Why would she do that if she didn’t like me?” I didn’t mind at first, as I always think it’s funny to find out that guys talk about girls as much as girls talk about guys.

Pretty soon though, their conversation got obscene and really distasteful, and I gritted my teeth and grimaced out the foggy bus window as they got more and more crude. Finally, I’d had enough. I turned to them and said, “Hey guys, other people can understand your conversation here. Some of us speak English and know what you’re talking about, so why don’t you save that conversation for later, OK?”

The shock on their faces told me I’d judged correctly: they thought they were safe to talk like that on a crowded bus because they’ve grown used to assuming that no one can understand them. I remember doing the same thing when I was nineteen and living in France — my friends and I thought English was our secret language, and used it to gossip just as we did in French back at home. In a suburban community in the south of France, it was usually a fairly safe bet that we spoke too fast for most people to understand. But at a major tourist destination, it’s slightly different.

To be fair, although they continued talking about their girl friends, their conversation did clean up after that. I turned back to the window, embarrassed and somewhat shocked at myself. I felt like such an old prude, correcting young boys for their language, unable to handle their posturing and attempts to feel tough. But I had to say something, as I didn’t want them to think that treating girls that way was acceptable — and I certainly didn’t want that to be the image other people have of Americans!

In the past, I would’ve just continued to grit my teeth, no matter how much their conversation bothered me. But I think that our time here has raised my standards in terms of respecting women, and I couldn’t just let it slide.

European men are indeed more open about their appreciation, which I think puts a lot of Americans off. Yes they look, and sometimes they even flirt, as one of the trainers at the gym did yesterday. But other than the man who tried to grab my ass in the grocery store, I have been treated with nothing but respect and honor by every man I have encountered here. To me, that kind of open appreciation is a whole lot better than the sly, secretive perversion I heard from those two boys on the bus, which is more or less what I grew up with and took for granted for most of my life.

In fact, it wasn’t until I met Gabe that I realized it didn’t have to be that way. He is an exception to the American rule, an old-world kind of guy, one who opens doors, pays for dinner, and pulls out the chair for you to sit down. At first all of that bothered me, but I’ve grown to take it for granted now as a sign of the respect he holds both for me as a person and me as a woman.

It was with all of this in mind that I scolded those two boys, prudish and old lady-like as it made me seem. I’m sure none of what I said actually made a difference, but I felt it was my responsibility to show them just once that it wasn’t acceptable to treat women in that way. Unfortunately, the girls they were talking about probably had no such compunction, as so often in our culture, the bad guys do get the girls. Sigh.

Of course the four of them then ended up on the same train car as us on the way back to Lisbon, but thankfully they sat at the other end. Instead I was treated to overhearing another group of American students, who were sitting at the our end of the car. Although their conversation was innocuous, even their accents made me cringe. I was certainly not feeling proud to be an American at that point, and couldn’t wait to get back to Lisbon, where I could safely tune out all the conversations around me.

I’m telling you — kids these days. No respect for their elders. Or their women. Or themselves.

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