I realized something very important while abroad with the family: our definitions of vacationing seem to differ quite a bit. So much so that I began to wonder if it was a generation gap thing: has the idea of vacationing changed within a generation, or am I just unique (ha, I’d like to think) in my interpretation?
For me, it’s experiencing the life of a local. Perhaps I’ve been too influenced by Eat, Pray, Love and similar hipster philosophies, but my goal when traveling abroad is getting as much of the local experience as possible. Nothing gives me more of a thrill than going abroad and slipping into a local’s skin—I enjoy immersing myself in different cultures and, if only for a moment, pretend that I live there; imagining what life would be like there. It’s a similar process, I believe, that actors take on when in character. I like playing the role of the local.
Whenever at restaurants, I would always try to pronounce the items to the best of my ability; when they corrected me, I would absorb this new knowledge and try it again the next time. I picked up on cultural cues, such as saying “ciao” in the Italian lyrical way when arriving and leaving a store. If I wasn’t able to pull off local, I would try to pull off recent immigrant—and this smoothed out my reception too by the locals.
On top of that, I like talking to people, getting semi-settled in an area and forming connections with locals and fellow travelers. Cities can all blend together in your memories, but I the taste of a city’s culture helps in differentiating between each city. For example, Venetians are all very friendly in touristy areas as well as less-touristy areas—as long as you try to fit in, whether through appearance, personality, or language. Parisians, on the other hand, are less friendly even when you do try, and quite fast paced.
None of this bothered me; it was my job while traveling abroad to learn all the small differences of a culture.
Much to my dismay, my family ran away with the opposite idea. Never did they try to interact with locals other than at restaurants, much less other travelers. When ordering at restaurants, the best they would do is point at the item and smile politely at the server. During worse times, they would skip the foreign word overall and say it in English. I felt as if we surrounded ourselves in a bubble-wrap made of America and looked outward at our surroundings as if we were in a museum.
Funny story, my dad now has a lasting resentment of certain European attitudes regarding American travelers.
They were obsessed with the typical monuments, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Arc du Triomphe. Not that I’m saying that you should forego these things when going, but that you shouldn’t make it the point of your trip.
I’m aware that everyone has their own ideal vacation and their own approach to traveling abroad, therefore I guess this can also serve as a precursor to the Europe 2012 series that I will be writing; it will give you an idea of what I value when visiting foreign places.