Today marks one month that I've been in Europe. My monthiversary, if you will. It’s gone by really quick and it’s been pretty darn good.
In the past year I’ve traveled more than I ever have in the rest of my life, including traveling internationally—twice. The funny thing is, I’m not super into #wanderlust like the rest of you. This is just a thing that happened to me and I’m rolling with it.
The thing that I’ve noticed, though, is that while I’m traveling, I don’t want to be a tourist. I don't want to stick out as someone who obviously doesn't know what they're doing. I don’t want to do gimmicky things stemming from a superficial understanding of places. I would rather wander along the back streets and see what real people are doing then stand in the middle of a crowd in some famous piece of architecture. (Though let's be real, I definitely do that too.) Travel > Tourism, am I right?
And so, based on my limited travel experience and assuming that other people have the same desire to not be tourist-y, here is my not-so-definitive guide on—
How Not to Be a Tourist.
1) Embrace the deep abiding fear.
So the past couple weeks have been pretty good. The first couple of weeks were not.
I was very very nervous and very lonely. Iceland was sort of a disaster. When I got to Munich going to work was my saving grace but when I went home at night I sat in my room and didn’t talk to anybody. My temporary Airbnb lady wouldn’t let me use her kitchen and I was very hungry. Also it was cold and it rained a lot.
But worse than that was the fear, the fear. I was living in a nice little neighborhood but my unfamiliarity with the city and inability to speak German gave me super intense social anxiety. The reason I was so hungry was because I was too scared to order in restaurants (which I’ve always hated doing anyway) and it felt super rude and presumptuous to make other people speak English to accommodate me. So it was easier to go to the little supermarket next door and buy yogurt, bananas, and gluten-free oats, basically the only gluten-free food they had that didn’t require cooking.
I’m not sure what I was afraid of besides OTHERNESS. Of not knowing the rulebook and somehow being wrong. The fear kept me from exploring the city, talking to people, taking public transportation—anything but walking from work to my room.
It was terrible, but it was also very not-touristy, so, in summary, how not to be a tourist: Hide in your room every evening. Don’t go see anything in the city. Don’t talk to anybody. Embrace the deep abiding fear.
2) Spend an absurdly short amount of time at popular travel destinations.
After my first week of not really getting to know Munich, I made the wonderful decision to travel to London for the weekend. I met up with three of my BYU Industrial Design friends who were hanging out there a few days before the start of their study abroad.
I had work until 6pm Friday night and I had work at 9am Monday morning. Luckily for me, I found a $120 flight on Easyjet that perfectly accommodated both of those time constraints...
...So I had a fairly stressful journey to London on Friday night that involved almost getting on the wrong train, setting off the metal detector at the airport, having to throw out my beloved water bottle, watching a drunk guy get arrested on the flight, arriving in London at midnight, finding out that the tube was closed for some reason, and accidentally getting into the only taxi in London that didn’t accept credit card, and I had no cash. Definitely not the right way to start a weekend trip, but everything worked out in the end and Hannah came out of the hostel at 1am with cash to pay the taxi driver and saved the day.
I then spent all of Saturday and half of Sunday with my crew wandering around London. Which is not a lot of time to enjoy a very famous and interesting city. More details below.
So, how not to be a tourist—don’t give yourself time to be one.
3) Completely disregard popular tourist attractions.
During my exceedingly brief time in London, I wandered around the city and listened to Hannah’s fun facts, but I did not see any of the tourist destinations I’ve actually heard about, like Big Ben, Kensington, Westminster, those palace things...
(Disclaimer: I am not really a London person. Unless you count 19th century London and them I am aaalllllll over that.)
Okay, okay. I did do some tourist things. I rode a double-decker bus, went to the Tate Modern, walked across the Tower Bridge, and ate Indian food, but if you didn’t see Big Ben, did you even go to London…?
(Also if you still have no idea what Kensington or Westminster are, did you even go to London…? Asking for a friend.)
I have also completely disregarded any Munich tourist attractions. Like, I literally haven’t looked up a single tourist-y thing here besides museum opening times. I wandered past a big church once that I think was important, but are there specific attractions that people come to Munich for…?
In short—if you don’t want to be a tourist, then don’t go to touristy things. Problem solved.
Okay. So obviously I am the worst traveler ever.
(Am I, though…?)
Okay. I’m seriously not.
In my quest to blend in and not be noticed and not seem like a foreigner and not seem like a tourist (constantly thwarted by my inability to dress in neutrals), I have actually figured out some ways of traveling without being touristy.
And so…I present to you...
How to ACTUALLY Not Be a Tourist
1) Pay attention.
This is my design philosophy, my life philosophy, and apparently my travel philosophy.
I think the most interesting thing about traveling isn’t the destinations, the monuments, or even the food, but the subtle cultural differences I’ve seen and then tried to replicate.
Paying attention is how I learned that in France you have to say “Bonjour” and “Au revoir” when you get in and out of elevators. That everyone offers you juice when you go to their apartment. That people think it’s weird to eat dinner before 7pm. I came back from France with the habits of wearing dresses and eating with both a knife and a fork and I’ve stuck with them since.
Paying attention is how I learned that in Germany you ride in the bike lane if you’re going the same direction as the traffic but if you’re going to the other direction you ride on the sidewalk. That people wait for the light to cross the street even if no cars are coming. I’m obsessed with the shoes they wear when it rains and they all wear dark blue but I’m sorry, I just can’t stop wearing colors.
(Honestly, the most interesting thing so far about all the countries I’ve been to is to notice how people cross the street.)
It’s nothing profound but I just like to pay attention and figure out the little rules. To fit in when I can so I can stand out when it matters. Paying attention will keep you from looking dumb and it will also teach you subtle interesting things about the country and their ways of being. I guess it works cause someone told me that just from looking at me they couldn’t tell I’m American, so I guess they just have to wait until I start talking about peanut butter in my American accent to judge me for that.
2) Start small.
When I went to Paris, I threw myself in. It was a baptism by fire. I walked 20 miles on the first day. I tried to see everything all at once. To drink from the fire hose. This is a very touristy thing to do.
When I came to Munich this summer, I decided i wasn't going to do that. I was not here to be a tourist—I was here to live, and work. I was not going to stress myself out over touristy things.
Also, let's not forget that for my first two weeks here, I was scared. I didn’t want to go anywhere. (Except work.) I didn’t want to do anything. (Except work.) I didn’t want to talk to anyone. (Except at work.) I didn’t want to take the public transportation. (Irrelevant, because the place I was staying at the time was a five minute walk from work.)
But I had to force myself to do stuff, like get food. After a few stressful attempts at ordering döner, I went to the little organic grocery store, where I could hand them my credit card without a word and be on my way. But once I made that little store one of my “places,” if you will, then I could go back without feeling as much like I was going to die.
Sometimes this practice made since and sometimes this didn’t—I ate at a döner place by the train station once, so one night for dinner I walked past two other döner places to get to my “safe” one. It didn’t make sense but hey, I was doing what I could, okay.
So I slowly slowly slowly began to expand my repertoire. Sometimes it was from forcing myself to find a drugstore for some dental floss. But the best was when I had other people in Munich show me around, take me to places, make that a new “safe” place that I could come back to later.
I’ve been very very very lucky two have two great communities here in Munich, my IDEO people and my Mormon people. Both of them have adopted me and taken me around and eaten food with me. So thanks, guys. Thanks thanks thanks thanks.
3) Don’t Forget Where You Came From.
Munich is really great. It’s clean and pretty and quiet and lovely. My job is wonderful. I feel like I’ve known my new friends here for longer than just four weeks. But that doesn’t mean I’ve eschewed Provo.
Sometimes it’s easy for me to get so caught up in the rapture of my Next Big Thing that I mentally abandon what I did before. But I cannot, even for a few months, cut myself off from what has shaped me. Maybe it’s cause I’m suddenly the only American but I talk about Utah and Colorado all the time. I miss American peanut butter and mountains outside my window.
I knew this would be a long and lonely four months if I wasn’t careful, so I put control measures in place. I’ve had a chance to text and Skype my actual family and my BYUID family. I put pictures of my friends on the wall and I look at them a lot and it makes me feel good.
Listen. Last year after a month in Paris all I wanted was to go home. That's not how I feel this time.
So thanks, friends. Thanks thanks thanks thanks thanks.