April 15, 2010

Beyond Your Frommer's Guide

Everyone who has travelled has cringed at the culturally oblivious American family complete with fanny packs, comfortable walking shoes with white tube socks pulled up mid-calf, maps, and passport necklaces tucked underneath their t-shirts. When travelling they are not sensitive to the customs of the country they’re in, because they are too determined to satisfy their sightseeing agenda.

While most of us are not stereotypically rude American tourists, Frommer’s guides and all, just having a preconceived notion about we should experience in each country is limiting. If before arriving to Paris you are determined to see the Mona Lisa, take a picture in front of the Eiffel Tower, visit Notre Dame, and eat a croissant in two days, you probably will not have an authentic Parisian experience. The way to understand a country is to be comfortable not having a definitive plan. Let yourself be guided into the local restaurant by the smell of butter permeating the air. Follow the hustle and the bustle. If there are locals crowded in front of a restaurant waiting for it to open or all headed in the same direction towards an event, it’s probably because there’s something exciting happening that’s worth being at. Don’t be afraid of the locals. Despite cultural differences, there are nice and rude people everywhere, there’s not a greater chance you will encounter someone unwelcoming abroad than in America. People love to share themselves with others, including their culture and where they live. As long as you are genuinely interested in learning, they will most likely be eager to teach. If you do not speak the language, try to speak English to the locals. English is so prominent nowadays that most speak at least a little.

All of these tips are a result of one overarching way to get a local experience abroad- be observant. It is natural to become sensorially overwhelmed when in another country because the environment is so unfamiliar. You’re smelling new things, seeing new things, hearing new things, all while trying to get to your next sightseeing destination safely and smoothly. While trying to stay on your agenda you’re passing countless minute details that hold cultural significance. Every day destinations like grocery stores, gas stations, convenient stores, and pharmacies can teach you more about a country than the most famous statue or museum. In China, supermarkets are four or five stories with each floor the size of Costco. There is a whole aisle dedicated to different flavors of Ritz crackers: seaweed filled, lemon filled, chocolate filled, strawberry filled, etc. The seafood department has fish tanks with live fish, turtles, sharks, crabs; pretty much every form of marine life that will fit in a small tank. Spanish supermarkets on the other hand only have only carry the basics for the rare occasion that someone wants to make a quick one-stop shop. Usually the Spanish go to specialized stores (i.e. the bakery, the butcher, the fruit/vegetable shop, etc.).

The best way to ensure you pick up on the small things is to leave time to STOP so if you do see a pretty park or cafĂ© that piques your interest while in Rome you can go without missing your 3:00 tour of Peter’s Basilica, your 4:00 tour of the Coliseum, and your 6:00 dinner reservation. Set aside at least a day in each city to just roam.

No matter what we do- as Americans- we will always be faced with the stereotype of “the rude American.” Regardless of whether or not it’s fair, it’s the reality. Be open-minded; don’t be afraid of places or people just because they’re different. Have a respect for difference. The American way isn’t necessarily the better way- it’s just a different way. Many criticize the Chinese for eating dog, but think about it- why shouldn’t they? Are dogs more worthy of life than pigs because we decided they were cute and domesticated them? Despite cartoon characters, pigs are actually very clean animals. They are more intelligent than dogs, do not oink more than dogs bark (by the way, side note: has anyone ever actually heard a dog say roof or pig say oink?), and can play games like catch! Try to understand why things are done differently in other countries, because maybe, it will allow you to consider a perspective you had not.

Trying national dishes, seeing world-famous tourist sights, and shopping is great fun and has value in and of itself- but there is so much more to be reaped from going abroad. You will begin to not only appreciate different kinds of people and places but also notice the similarities. Despite mentalities and cultural customs, in many ways, people are just people and life is just life, everywhere.

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