In the mental haze of my third (exam-taking) year of graduate school I developed a brief but intense fascination with the State Department travel website. Certainly it contains a wealth of useful information for travelers, particularly those visiting countries that are not widely visited by foreign tourists. The site has probably guided tens of thousands of college kids and adult tourists through the process of acquiring visas and passports. As far as government websites go (*cough*) it has to be among the best.
However, it is also hilarious. Unintentionally hilarious. Its country-specific reports are full of colorful and in some cases, I assume, overly dramatic warnings about the common use of pistols to resolve minor disputes in the streets of El Salvador, the Bronze Age condition of the roads in Brazil, the dilapidated condition of medical facilities across Africa, and the borderline psychotic driving habits of the Southeast Asians (OK that one is probably fair). I understand why the State Department writes its reports in this manner; by the standards of the average American tourist – picture some relatively wealthy Connecticut suburbanites or Studying Abroad college sophomores – much of the rest of the world must indeed appear remarkably Dangerous and Scary and Dirty and Dilapidated. Conversely, for bohemians who consider themselves to be expert globetrotters beyond any need for advice, the website's stern warnings about dangerous parts of the world may be a helpful reminder that no matter how intrepid you think you are, it's probably best to skip that trek through rural Yemen.
I often wondered, though, how other countries must describe the United States on their own versions of the State Department website. I recall years ago clicking through a few English-speaking nations' sites, which consisted mostly of droll warnings about duties on certain imported goods and the lack of useful public transit outside of a small number of major cities. Today, however, the Washington Post has offered a brief but entertaining rundown of sixteen American cities about which foreign governments warn their citizens. Surely foreigners must look at the State Department's warnings and take occasional offense at the description of their nations as dangerous or dirty or primitive. Or do they? Reading through these foreign warnings as an American, they look…pretty spot on to me. When visitors to Chicago are warned to "Stay away from the West Side and anywhere south of 59th Street" I feel no surge of patriotic pride urging me to respond, but only a sober realization that even Chicago residents largely heed that advice. No matter how much we might want to be upset at the tony French casting aspersions on our cities, it's pretty goddamn hard to argue with the logic inherent in "Avoid Cleveland Heights."