Writer Rachel Chang presents her golden rules for tapping a European attitude to wanderlust
The first time I flew to Europe on my own, I found everything so odd. Whether or not we realize it, as Americans, we’re often subtly conditioned to expect our view of the world to be the norm. And being born and raised in the United States, I admittedly was guilty of that.
Looking back at that first trip across the Atlantic in my early 20s, I remember thinking: Why can’t they drive on the same side of the street as we do? Why can’t they spell words the same way as we do? And, after visiting a McDonald’s, why can’t they stop talking so funny?
Now that I’ve visited 21 European countries — including many as a solo traveler — I’m completely horrified and embarrassed by my worldview at that point in time. And of all places, as you’ve probably guessed, I was in London… really not that different from my surroundings back home.
Throughout my European travels, I’ve learned to adopt an open view of our global community — in great part by observing how Europeans visit their neighboring countries. Channeling the Euro travel spirit has made my globe wandering far richer. Here are five ways you can do so as well (rest assured, visiting foreign McDonald’s locations is not on the list).
Avoid checklist travel
As Americans, we are very focused on action items. So on a trip to Paris, we might say: Eiffel Tower? Check. Arc De Triomphe? Check. Eat a baguette while wearing a beret? Check. Being checklist travelers, means that we come in with preconceived notions (and bread-and-beret stereotypes) of how France should be in our heads. The danger in that? We only see what we want to see.
In fact, Europeans have even caught on to our habit of being overly focused on “what” we are seeing. But the more I met and got to know European travelers, the more I realized they come with an open-mindedness and blank slate, curious to understand the heartbeat of another culture. Maybe it’s because their borders are so close to one another, they’re more aware of other lifestyles.
Instead of jumping in front of a static scene, they immerse themselves into its fabric and become part of it — therefore really getting to understand the unspoken innuendos that keep a nation ticking.
Learn to speak the local dialect
I’m not naming names, but I have been in a group of American travelers, where certain people truly believe that speaking English louder and slower will make anyone understand it. And it’s happened more than once.
In our defense, it’s all we know. While more than 60 percent of Europeans speak a foreign language, only 20 percent of Americans do (that’s why our foreign language education is hugely lacking).
When we travel with other Americans, that cycle continues since we’re just communicating with our travel companions in our mother tongues. However, when you travel solo, you’re forced into a language immersion since it’s all you’re hearing. You pick up the words, tones, and even melodies of a language.
Learning the local dialect, even if it’s just a few essential words, like “hello” and “thank you,” indicates to the locals that your intention is to understand them — not impose on them, thus giving you a more authentic experience.
Pay attention to international news
Watch a half hour of the news in the US and then turn on a half hour of news in any other country — and you’ll be shocked how self-centered we seem. The majority of the news stories will be America-focused, whereas other countries tend to have a far broader worldview.
Chat with any European while traveling and chances are, they know exactly what’s happening in American politics. But the chances that we know anything about the current happenings of Italian or Polish politics? Unlikely. And in that very “American” habit, we might think, “Well, we’re a much bigger country and far bigger power.” But the truth is, the size of your home country is completely irrelevant. It’s all about how all the pieces of the world fit together.
Think of it this way: Would you go into a meeting big corporate meeting without doing all the proper research? It’s the same thing. If you’re going to visit a country, the only way to truly understand what’s going on is to do your homework. Follow their news and get a feel for how they fit into the bigger global community.
Blend in instead of sticking out
Yes, we should be proud to be Americans, but it doesn’t mean we need to wave that flag everywhere we go. After all, as a house guest, would you walk into someone’s home and immediately tell them how you do things in your home? Of course not.
Be the model global house guest and travel gently. Absorb the environment around you, after all, just because you read about it in a book doesn’t make you an expert. It’s literally the lives of the people there. Let them be your expert hosts and treat them as such. Respect the culture and they’ll let you into it even deeper.
Ditch the sneakers
When I was younger and would go back to my family’s native Taiwan, I’d be shocked when my grandmother told me that I was “so obviously an American.” What did that mean? In my eyes, I literally looked just like my Taiwanese relatives. But she added that it was from the way I walked and the clothes I wear.
Then I realized, I did the same thing. It was always clear to me in the US who a native Taiwanese visitor was, why didn’t I think reciprocity existed?
As it turns out, one of the surefire ways of spotting an American traveler is that we tend to wear sneakers. While our serious focus on foot care should be commended, it’s a clear giveaway that we’re not from around there (in fact, the very fact we use the word “sneakers” instead of “trainers” is another giveaway.)
Obviously sneakers should be the go-to footwear on long days for comfort sake, but if you’re looking to delve deeper into a country, then change it up and hide the American travel uniform — and you just might find you blend in a bit more and see the world in a slightly new way.