Tuesday, March 25, 2008

London Calling and the American Traveler






With the Swedish bank holiday season approaching, and a quickly dwindling personal vacation time, it’s important for me to use every last holiday to continue the exploration of Europe during this unique and still surprising season of life abroad (and hence the delay in this week's Linköpinglivin' entry, which I don't think anyone cares about nearly as much as I do).

During the long Easter weekend in Sweden (Good Friday and Monday off), it was the perfect time to return to London to finish off that itinerary that only grew longer during my first visit at Christmas time. And don’t you worry Sweden, there are always enough Swedes in London for me to continue working on my Swedish – in fact, the first two nights I randomly sat next to Swedes for dinner, which is always fun to surprise them with my Swedish though they hear instantly that I am in no way actually Swedish…

London is arguably the world’s most international city. Yesterday, I had the privilege of having lunch with a group of people representing 10 different countries (and there were only 12 at the table). In London, one is surrounded by people from virtually every country of the world at almost all times, but of course, I spot all the Americans instantly, which has become a fun game while I’ve been living abroad. On that note, I recently wrote a travel column for a paper in Southern California, which spoke to different things I’ve observed that Americans can remember in order to travel the world in a more culturally-aware and self-aware manner.

Aside from the most obvious, tennis shoes and white socks which give Americans away instantly – this is Europe’s little secret – here’s a few things perhaps not just for Americans, but maybe all travelers to remember in order to help make travel not just a sight-gawking fascination, but a deeper and richer experience of local people and differences of culture:


1. Consider your accommodation. High-priced hotels tend to protect you from rewarding personal experiences. Consider the local economy and locally-owned lodging such as family-run Bed & Breakfasts, places that supplement their main industry (farming, wine growing, etc.) with lodgings such as the Agriturismo phenomenon throughout Italy, private homes, hostels (not just for “youth” anymore) or even apartments that can be rented in a city center.

2. Consider your food choices. Food can be a rich experience of other places and people. Indeed throughout Europe, locals often stop everything for the right meal at the right time in the right place. By choosing a restaurant, market or picnic spot that is not in a tourist trap or on the main square, you can have a natural environment for interaction and cultural discovery over everyone’s favorite thing, food!

3. Take every opportunity to reach out and speak with locals and other travelers. Sometimes you will make new friends, other times it may not be welcomed, but the reward of getting to know the people who live in that region or country far outweighs the benefits of staying introverted. One is drawn to Europe in particular by famous sights and sounds (for instance, the sounds of church bells throughout Europe just never gets old), but one often leaves with an unexpected impression of people and perhaps some new international friends.

4. Know some history and background to your travel destination before going. What places or areas are considered important and why? What famous people have come from this region or country? Is this place most known for its art, literature, science, food, drink or all of the above? This will pique your interest and give a context to that monument or historical building. The research, planning and anticipation of the trip can be half the fun of travel.

5. Know current political and social trends and tensions of your travel destination. Opening yourself up to these discussions in a curious and open-minded manner can enliven even the already-exhilarating European excursion.

6. Self-awareness in various settings with regard to clothing, language and cultural expectations is important. One of the criticisms Americans get while abroad is that we often just don’t realize how loud we’re speaking in a quiet place or that what we’re wearing just isn’t quite appropriate for the season, time of day or occasion. The “ugly” American starts with a simple lack of self-awareness. Reading up ahead-of-time on local tendencies can make a big difference during the trip.

7. Know some key words and phrases in the local language. Don’t expect everyone to speak English, but be pleasantly surprised when they probably know enough to get by. Try hello, good-bye, please, thank you, excuse me and Do you speak English to start. Learning to count to ten for money purposes is probably wise, too.

8. Have a guidebook and use it, but only as a starting point to your travel experiences. For some travel fun, ask locals where they eat and what they do on a sunny, summer afternoon in this or that locale…

9. Make the decision ahead of time to not be defensive about the U.S. Try to dialogue with people about life in their country. You’ll find that people want to know about Americans and life in the U.S., but I have yet to meet anyone who wants to actually be an American.

10. Know your pre-conceived notions enough to give them a chance to be proven wrong. As surprising as this comes to many Americans, many French people are very friendly, but if you expect them to be a certain way, you’ll probably find some that are…

Pictures above:
1. St. Paul's Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge across the River Thames.
2. Big Ben in the famous London fog.
3. The London Eye is the best view of London, and the longest queue, in the whole city.
4. The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum is the archaelogical discovery that led us to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics and opened up that whole civilization to be known by us in today's world.
5. The British Pub...

4 comments:

Todd said...

Living in New York and working at a tourist attraction, I see my fair share of European tourists, so it's only fair that I reverse this sound advice:

1. "Consider your accommodation." Good advice, but in Manhattan, DO NOT consider a Bed and Breakfast...while I've never seen one, I'm sure they exist...and I'm sure "bed" and "breakfast" don't actually mean Bed and Breakfast.

2. "Consider your food choices. Food can be a rich experience of other places and people." Sean's correct here, but I would avoid the curbside NYC hotdogs...commonly referred to as "street meat." You'll have a rich experience, just not the experience you want.

3. "Take every opportunity to reach out and speak with locals and other travelers." THREE WORDS: Don't do it!!! I'm just kidding....you should spend LOTS of time talking to NY locals...especially the "street meat" vendors. They LOVE talking to tourists...especially in different languages.

4. "Know some history and background to your travel destination before going." Not necessary since everyone in the world knows the history and background of New York.

5. "Know current political and social trends and tensions of your travel destination." This works. If you know any Americans, ask them about the current political situation. Just ask for a simple, unbiased breakdown (in other words, don't ask our father).

6. "Self-awareness in various settings with regard to clothing, language and cultural expectations is important." You know those pants European's wear that go 3/4 down your leg...like you're preparing for a flood? Don't wear those. You know that hair cut that is suppose to look like a little mohawk, but actually looks like a bad hair cut? Fix that before you arrive in New York. Thanks!

7. "Know some key words and phrases in the local language." Probably a good idea, but I can't put these words in writing here.

8. "Have a guidebook and use it, but only as a starting point to your travel experiences." Fine, get a guidebook...but don't read it while walking and then stop. It's very difficult for tall, broad Americans walking at a brisk pace to stop instantly. Trust me....or, better yet, trust that poor woman I leveled last week.

9. "Make the decision ahead of time to not be defensive about the U.S. Try to dialogue with people about life in their country." Agreed! Be open to hearing why America IS such a great place to live. Again, I would avoid the street meat vendor on this one.

10. "Know your pre-conceived notions enough to give them a chance to be proven wrong." In other words, don't pay attention to #1-#9 above since they are all pre-conceived notions.

Doin’ my best to re-enforce stereo-types...

Helen i Valla said...

I do.....care...but as we say in Swedish: den som väntar på något gott väntar aldrig för länge or, as we also say: den som väntar på något gott väntar ALLTID för länge. But it was all worth waiting for, as usual. Thanks for blogging Sean and thanks for your comments Todd, always fun to read

Lisa said...

Hi Sean, love the blog! I am an American moving to Linköping the end of April to attend LiU. I decided to finally drop a comment because I have been reading for a while now, and I love your entries and reading your perspective on life in Sweden and Europe in general. I would love to have fika some time when I arrive!

Oh and...Hahaha, you crack me up, Todd!

When my Swedish boyfriend came to visit my family in Florida he wore those pants that go 3/4 down the leg... yeah.... well, I never said anything per se. Just asked him to please, please, please, wear the jeans for goodness' sake!

chris2x said...

SIlly me, I thought this was an article about me.

I did like it though :-)

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Chris Christensen
Amateur Traveler podcast - http://AmateurTraveler.com
Tripinator - Travel 2.0 - http://tripinator.com