“Please be a traveler, not a tourist. Try new things, meet new people, and look beyond what’s right in front of you. Those are the keys to understanding this amazing world we live in.”
My first international trip was in 1993, and I remember…… nothing because I was two years old.
Luckily, since then, I’ve traveled quite extensively–especially throughout Italy and Europe–and I can’t help but compare past habits (those developed, of course, years after my toddler travels) to my current ones.
As I’ve written before on this blog, my parents brought my brother and me to Italy quite often during our childhood to visit family. However, my first trip exploring beyond the perimeters of my parents’ modest hometowns was after my freshman year of high school. Orchestrated completely by my mother, we flew into Fiumicino Airport and spent a week sightseeing in Roma before we headed to the south. Sadly, I was in prime teenage I’m-too-cool-for-culture mode and wasn’t too enthralled by the Colosseo, Fontana di Trevi and Piazza di Spagna as I was when I studied abroad there six years later. I remained quite unimpressed by the Roman landmarks and history that week, and–two years later–when my mom and I visited Venice for the first time, I shared similar sentiments. However tiresome I found them at the time, though, those trips provided me with my first, real taste of traveling… and I’m eternally grateful for my amazing mother for sparking within me that flame of curiosity that has been burning ever since.
It was that exact flame that led me to the decision to study for four months in the Eternal City during my junior year of college.
Although Italy was not considered a foreign country to me, I vividly recall clinging to many aspects of my American way of life that semester. I remember as soon as I arrived, I tried accessing my Netflix and Pandora accounts, only to find these services were unauthorized in Italy (my, how times have changed!). I remember logging into Twitter daily, back when I had one, to see what all my friends and favorite celebrities were up to. I remember yearning for greasy, late-night hamburgers when my friends and I didn’t feel like cooking, unbeknownst to us that delivery services in Italy were non-existent.
I know that these are all normal symptoms of homesickness (and being a teenager) for study abroad students, but I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me a while to snap out of it and really embrace the Roman/Italian way of life. Actually, it wasn’t until years later that I learned to stop searching for home in foreign places.
This concept is really fascinating to me, and I see it all the time from citizens of the U.S.! My biggest pet peeve is the people with no food allergies/intolerances whom travel across the world just to eat avocado toast, pancakes and burgers throughout their trip. Hell, I’ve been guilty of it, too! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dined at Burger King, McDonald’s and Starbucks while traveling. Or how often I’ve caught myself complaining about the lack of luxuries in my hotel, hostel or B&B. Or how frustrated I’d become when no one spoke my language in a foreign city.
When you’re placed outside of your comfort zone, it is so tempting and easy to revert to what you know. Luckily, I’ve (mostly) abandoned the above-mentioned habits, but it isn’t something that occurs overnight. To transform from tourist to traveler, it is imperative to have an open mind each and every time you visit a new destination. Some planning is required, but–ultimately–it is up to you whether you desire a more structured itinerary or if you prefer to wing it. Personally, I try to incorporate at least one tour (I’m a big fan of free, walking tours in Europe!) to learn some history and gain some valuable insight from locals about where I’m visiting.
I explained in my last post that I like to utilize TripAdvisor and other websites for travel recommendations, especially on where to dine. Recently, however, I came across an insightful interview with my favorite New York chef and travel expert (..and overall human in general..), Anthony Bourdain, whom advised to actually avoid relying on such websites for food! What he says makes perfect sense–everyone has a unique palate and his or her own preferences, so Tommy’s judgement and dining experience will be entirely different from that of Tammy.
His advice, instead? Explore in person and try to seek crowded, yet unassuming spots, where locals far outnumber tourists. (He also said if you see a large group of Americans in there, run LOL) His approach also made me wonder about the days before TripAdvisor. Before the Internet. Before technology pervaded our everyday lives. How did travel enthusiasts who ventured abroad know where to eat in the seventies? Of course, there were books and that good ol’ word of mouth, but–above all–they allowed their curiosity to guide them, asking and discovering as they went.
While the technological advances and rising influence of social media are wonderful, I often wish I had a time machine to transport five decades back (I’m currently obsessed with Mad Men…) and see what it was like to travel abroad without checking first the B&B reviews on Booking or scoping out picturesque coffee shops on Instagram. Could you imagine? Today, we are so both spoiled and fortunate to have all this information at our fingertips; but, when does it start to become excessive and almost obsessive? This is actually something I’ve been actively working on lately, both in Italy and beyond–to log on less and trust my instincts more.
Speaking of instincts, I’ve also learned that it’s perfectly okay to be both a cautious and curious traveler. Most of the time, the most cherished moments won’t be the ones at an overly congested, famous landmark, but–rather–the smiles exchanged with the kind butcher at the neighborhood market or the local cuisine enjoyed with new friends over roars of laughter. It is equally important, however, to remain vigilant and be aware of any scams or danger that may arise. Traveling to a country where the customs and language may not be your own leaves you extremely vulnerable, but also incredibly intuitive and wise.
My advice on how to avoid sticking out like a sore thumb while traveling? Look, act and speak like a local. Try to get a sense of the general dress code beforehand, then prepare appropriate clothes for your trip. In doing so, you’ll be less of a target for potential scams or shady interactions. Becoming familiar with a country’s laws and norms, apart from clothing, is also crucial when preparing for a trip. Once there, you should exercise good judgement and also have some common sense regarding what behavior is legal and/or socially acceptable. (AKA don’t be like this lady!) It also doesn’t hurt to learn some key words and phrases in the national language. Locals appreciate that more than you know!
During my semester in Roma, my friends and I were so obviously North American, it hurt. Nowadays, I’ve adopted a more European style, but only after I’ve been stared at and felt slightly ashamed (Italians are very judgmental) for my attire throughout the years. Recently, however, it seems that the Italians have borrowed a couple of style tips from us (knee-length riding boots for women, Yankee hats, sweatsuits, more cozy fits, etc.), so sometimes it’s even hard for me to differentiate who’s who. Let’s be frank, though; majority of the time, it is so ridiculously clear whom the Italians are since they are usually impeccably dressed to the nines and just exude Italian fashion excellence wherever they go!
I definitely didn’t intend for this post to be this long, but it is a topic that is important and dear to my heart. Traveling is a privilege, and–if you have the means to do so–can be a tremendously rewarding and enriching experience. It takes time to evolve from a tourist to a traveler, but–once you do–your trips are guaranteed to never be the same!