By Melissa Andersen
“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.” — James A. Michener
I’ll never forget my first trip outside of the United States. A 17 year old senior in high-school with a zealous desire to see the world. My Mother organized our European vacation with her friend and friends granddaughter. Allow me to mention now that our vacation guests were not seasoned travelers.
Arriving in Paris, we immediately sought out traditional french cuisine. Choosing a bustling family owned cafe near to our hotel, we eagerly crammed into a corner table. Aromas of freshly baked baguettes lingered in the air as my mouth began to water with hunger. Opening the menu we realized that it was entirely in French (as it should be, when in France). The dainty waitress approached our table with pen in hand, ready to take the order. I excitedly pointed to the french onion soup on display. “S’il vows plait”, meaning “please” in French, I sweetly murmered while daydreaming of dipping warm bread into the comforting meal. My Mom held up two fingers, politely requesting the same. Then it was our guests turn to order. It all went downhill from there.
My face brightened in a red glow as our travel companions rudely drilled the waitress on gluten levels, calorie content and temperature of the food, in English. This conversation quickly turned into an argument as the waitress lost all patience. Offended, she threw up her hands and asked us to leave. My dream of a delicious french lunch melted away as we sluggishly walked back to our hotel to order room service.
1.Don’t expect locals to speak your language
News flash, everyone in the world doesn’t speak english! Its extremely rude to expect other cultures to comprehend your native tongue. So how do you get by? One way is body language. Many studies show that well over half of language is nonverbal. I once backpacked with a group through Spain that hardly spoke a word of English, and they ended up becoming close friends. It’s possible! Also, take some time to learn some commonly used words and phrase, like “please” and “thank you”. Other cultures typically won’t assume you to speak their language, but trying earns respect.
2. Talk to strangers
This is easier when traveling alone, as you are more approachable. However don’t forget to keep the doors of communication open when traveling with friends. Mingling with the locals can prove to be the best way to experience a new destination, even if they don’t speak your language. They have the best insight on food, sites and authentic local activities. You might even get an invite for a night out or a home cooked meal, creating a life long friendship. Most foreigners are extremely helpful and kind when you display interest.
3. Explore “outside the box”
Throw away your generic guidebooks and say no to overpriced tours! Study your travel location beforehand, research the history. Know where you are going. This will make every step of your journey more meaningful. Visit some “off the beaten track” restaurants and shops. Explore areas not overcrowded by tourists. Once again, talk to strangers. Ask advice from locals on the best spots to see. I’m not saying don’t visit the Colosseum when exploring Rome, I’m saying go with the elderly Italian man you befriended over pizza and red wine, with his own story to tell about the ancient amphitheater.
4. Be open to improv
“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans”- John Lennon. Take advice from this legendary Beatle, and just live in the moment. Let your trip unfold organically. There is no need to plan every minute. Its best to have a grey idea of the hot spots you want to visit, and leave the rest open to improv. This is where all the magic happens. I once did an entire week road-trip this way, and it lead me to places I’d never even heard of. So throw out your travel agenda book, and just let life happen.
5. Bring your walking shoes
Walking is one of the best ways to experience a new place. You slow down and take the time to observe your surrounding. Plus, you burn off some of those travel indulgence calories. Most major cities have free walking tours. Hiking and trail walking are also great ways to experience a getaway. For example, Bergen, Norway is surrounded by 7 mountains that are walkable from the city. Do research on your destination and explore the great outdoors. And best of all, walking is free.
So roam the streets of lands afar. Talk to the locals of all ages. Respect the language and culture while going with the flow. Venture outside the guidebooks, because that is where life really happens.