When my sisters went to Europe over 30 years ago they told me that it was an advantage to be a Canadian. They said that displaying the maple leaf almost guaranteed better treatment and a kinder greeting when meeting new people. The myth is that people from around the world sew a Canadian flag on their backpacks so they will be taken for Canadians, not Americans. When I recently travelled to London and Ireland I was sure that this was all a relic of the past and that this prejudice no longer exists. I was quite completely wrong - this particular prejudice is alive and well.
I noticed it first in London, where no one asked where we were from. It was assumed from our accent that we were American, and initially I didn't realize what a problem this was. It wasn't until we were sharing a picnic table at Hyde Park with three generations of an English family that it became very clear. We had shared the table for some time and they never spoke to us once. It wasn't until we were leaving that one of the men turned to me and said "So, I suppose you've come from America for Christmas in London?". I replied that yes, we had come for the holiday, but that we were Canadian. The change in their attitude was nothing short of astonishing. Suddenly they all wanted to speak to us. The elderly grandmother told me how her father had come to England from Canada during WW I, met her mother, and never returned to Canada but always spoke so wistfully of it that she felt she knew it, too. A younger man quickly engaged my husband in conversation about Canada, and they all expressed regret that we had to leave so soon - and yet moments before I suspect they had felt we couldn't leave quite soon enough.
This experience led to an epiphany. I needed to establish very quickly in every meeting of a new person that I was Canadian. I quite literally began conversations with "Hi, I'm Theresa, and I'm from Canada". And you know what? It worked. Suddenly people were friendlier than they'd seemed before. They were interested in Canada, and in why we had come to London - did we have family or friends to visit? When they learned we came just because we wanted to spend our holiday there they often seemed very pleased.
I thought perhaps it would be different in Ireland, but alas, that was not to be. When I spoke to the lead singer from the band that played for us on New Year's Eve I thanked him for performing some Michael Buble and told him it made us Canadians feel at home. His response? "Oh, we LOVE Canadians!". At various traditional sing-songs we attended the musicians dedicated songs to "their new Canadian friends". When I told an Irish friend that we'd been mistaken for Americans he said he couldn't imagine that as we clearly weren't American - we "looked European" and were "vivaceous, not boring". Ouch. Those Americans have garnered quite the reputation, apparently, and it doesn't appear to be a favourable one.
Regardless, the approach I took in announcing my nationality worked for me on many levels. While it was proactive and avoided any confusion it also appealed to my very proud Canadian side. You see, I am absolutely proud to be Canadian, and always have been. We have a wonderful nation, and I am proud to represent it when I travel. I don't have a problem with Americans - they are our neighbours, and I have met many that I liked a great deal. I think, though, that Canada has a gentle patriotism and sense of humour that is well suited to European and British ideals, and they recognize it.
I don't know if this is the same all over Europe, of course, and I don't pretend to know all the reasons for it. I do know, though, that when my daughter leaves for her backpacking trip through Europe and the UK in a few years she will do so with the maple leaf sewn onto her backpack, and a rehearsed greeting of "Lovely to meet you - I'm Canadian!".