After three months living in Istanbul, I’ve gained a stable of a few dozen Turkish words to string into awkward sentences; learned some local intel on what soccer teams to root for, where to get the best mantı, and the best Turkish insults (maganda is the local equivalent of guido); and have come to avoid Sultanahmet with the same disdain I used to reserve for Times Square when I lived in New York. Then a funny thing happened while wandering the Asian side or the city with some visiting friends: I stopped worrying and learned to love being a tourist. Letting your guard down and realizing you will ultimately always be a tourist no matter how “local” and “authentic” you can live, no matter how long you explore a place, is remarkably liberating, even fun. The old traveler vs. tourist debate is one of the most pernicious and tiresome in the travel world, and while there’s a lot of truth and value in being an independent traveler, tourists are a good thing, and being a tourist can be a lot less annoying and worthwhile than the travel snobs would have you believe.
- Get unabashedly lost – When I make a wrong turn in Istanbul, I’m so self-conscious about being “caught” as someone who doesn’t belong here, I find myself hiding in alleys furtively studying maps, seeking out street signs from the corners of my eyes, and acting as if that wrong turn was entirely planned for and intentional. Yet on a recent trip to Prague, I was on the hunt for a cafe recommended to me by David Farley, and after giving up on the hopes of finding a wifi connection, I started going into bars and shops and asking directions. Eventually I found the (excellent) Meduza Cafe, saw some interesting dive bars/casinos along the way, and got over my shame of toting a map around.
- Do something you could do at home - Sure, you came to Paris to see the Louvre and absorb the cafe atmosphere, not to sit in your hotel room and watch pay-per-view movies, but seeing the everyday abroad can be a great window into another culture. I’ve wandered malls in Buenos Aires, gone to the movies in Turkey, and had coffee at a Chilean McDonald’s (I’m also a big fan of zoos). Each place I have been surrounded by locals and experienced a surreal clash of the foreign familiar.
- Eat foreign foreign food - Sushi is great in Tokyo, but so is Korean, Chinese, Indian, and Italian; pretty much everything other than Mexican, which for some reason is a total fail in Japan. Just because something isn’t a “native” dish doesn’t mean it isn’t widely enjoyed by locals or “authentic” to the region. If you are insistent on only eating the national foods, you could miss out on great pizza in Colombia or cheap French food in Lebanon.
- Speak English - Learning please and thank you in a foreign language will get you a long way and it’s always a good idea to know a few key words, but English has become the lingua franca of the world and using it abroad is often easier and can lead to good conversations. My fractured Turkish is often met with English responses and I’ve met shopkeepers, bartenders, and taxi drivers eager to practice their English, discuss politics (apparently many Turks would like Bill Clinton to be president of their country, who knew?), or ask if the cafe they frequented while studying abroad in Raleigh is still around.
- Stop, gawk, and take pictures of stupid things – Another thing New York instills in you is to not look up, watch street performers, or act as if even the most ludicrous spectacle is anything other than commonplace. Remember when virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell played in the D.C. Metro? I’d bet that more tourists than locals stopped to listen. Or what if I’d let my embarrassment prevent Mike Barish from taking a picture of this sign in my neighborhood subway station? Could have been tragic. Soak up as much of the sublime and the ridiculous as you can.
Maybe one day we can eschew the traveler and tourist labels, shed our fanny packs and backpacks, realize we’re all a little obnoxious, and embrace the wonder and fun of exploring a new place in whatever way we want.