When most people go on a trip abroad, they strive to integrate with the locals. This is a wonderful way to travel – the truth is, to really learn about another culture, it’s best to actually immerse yourself in that culture, rather than observe it as a bystander. The trouble, of course, is that you are not a local, and customs, language, and basic opportunity often stand in the way of real interaction. But it’s not so hard. You just have to plan your trip as a local, instead of as a tourist.
Before you even get on the plane, learn some basic lines of your destination’s native language. Contrary to what you may hear, everyone doesn’t actually speak English, and even if they do, most locals appreciate the effort to accommodate to them, instead of the other way around, which is viewed as pretentious – a sure way to alienate anyone.
Don’t just learn words, but customs. In America, we wave hello, but in other countries, hand gestures have different meanings – some can translate into something offensive. It’s also important to know how to enter a store, a restaurant, the proper way to initiate a conversation, and other basic manners that are important to learn no matter what, but particularly if you want to speak with the local.
Explore as a Local
Just as New Yorkers don’t go to Times Square, most cities around the world have tourist centers that the natives avoid, and then there are the areas where the locals really live and work. So, if you want to integrate with the locals, you really need to be in those less than flashy neighborhoods – the ones without museums, where the menus don’t have English translations for the dishes, where the guide book never mentions you should venture. Locals are more welcoming in these areas, actually, since you’re on their turf – you’re really looking to know a place, and most people embrace that kind of attitude.
Engage in Daily Activities
It’s not that you shouldn’t do the tourist thing, but to really experience a city as a local, you should try to go about the local routine. That means skipping the museum or the ballet and doing something you love to do at home. Some great ways to engage include going to the movies, partaking in a yoga class, finding a dingy concert hall with a band you’ve never heard of, attending lectures, or poetry readings. The grocery store provides a fun way to interact with the locals, as well as check out the regular foods that people eat in that part of the world. Live life as a local, and you’re sure to engage with all kinds of natives.
Volunteer or Work
In some countries, you can volunteer, or work for housing, and this is a really great way to meet some of the locals. Harvesting wine, olives, or vegetables is a popular way to meet locals who run their farms (and they can give you some insider info for the next leg of your trip, if you have one). In Paris, the venerable bookshop Shakespeare and Company lets you sleep in the store in exchange for work. Being an employee in the store allows you to engage with shoppers, who are usually native, and also the bookstore staff, who are Parisian. Do some research and set up a stint working in your city of choice.
Utilize the Ex-Pats
These brave souls have sowed their oats and really live among the locals. What’s helpful about ex-pats is that they know locals personally, and they know the ins and outs of navigating a new city – they can tell you right up front what you should or shouldn’t do as a tourist. They can also give insight on ways to integrate, things that can be both fun and authentic to the country you’re visiting.
With the internet, it’s fairly easy to find ex-pat events in any city. Start with a meet up, or happy hour, something that allows you to easily dip your toe in the foreign water, and get some unique travel tips from ex-pats. Check your shyness on this one; all that you require is some nerve and a willingness to say hello to strangers.
What’s your best experience with locals overseas? How did you meet locals?