Monday, September 11, 2006

"Becoming Local"

Think back to the last vacation you took. Now, can you recall the rough itinerary? Of all the things you did and places you saw, how many of them did you share with a host of tourists following itineraries similar to yours?

If your answer is "all of them," which it probably is, then you may not be quite ready for becoming local

Before I continue, I should clarify one possible mis-interpretation: I am not dissing tourist traps. Not completely, anyway. The Eiffel Tower, Fenway Park, Golden Gate Bridge, Washington Monument: these are “must-see” sights, no two ways about it. However, the cities those landmarks call home are far more interesting once you get away from the Midwestern family wearing socks with their Tevas, the Japanese tourists taking pictures of every concrete square in the sidewalk, and the college students weighed down by oversized backpacks.

In mid-August, Normal Girl and I embarked on a road trip to New York. As the pictures above may imply, we ascended the Empire State Building along with scores of tourists clad in I (heart) NY tee-shirts bought for $50 in Times Square. The wait wasn’t fun, but we found, somewhat to our surprise, that the view from the top justified every painful minute. Beyond the view, we learned a thing or two about the neighborhoods below us, knowledge that would serve us well the rest of the weekend. I highly recommend the audio tour, even if it is a little corny…

So, there: before I begin to advise you to look past the guide books, you have my admission of guilt. I am not immune to the traditional landmark. Hell, there is a photograph of the Eiffel Tower from Trocadero in my bathroom.

However, one of the true joys of trip-making is to do things the residents do. After all, who the hell wants to hang out with other tourists? You take a long flight / cruise / drive someplace and go to a club where you become giddy to learn that all the other people there are from your hometown? Seems kind of silly when you think about it.

(For more on this, expect a future column about the Señor Frog’s phenomenon…)

Two years ago, I came upon this realization. I had already visited Paris and had gotten most of the major tourist traps out of my system. Although I planned to revisit a few carefully selected places—I am incapable of resisting the Musée d’Orsay—the trip seemed to me an opportunity to explore a strange city that was also somewhat familiar.

With my laminated subway map tucked in the back pocket of my jeans, I navigated to Métro stops I had not heard of, took the long way to choice landmarks, and sat in cafés asking for “what s/he is drinking.” (From this experiment I learned that Pernod is kind of yucky and French people drink a lot more American beer than I had expected).

I explored residential neighborhoods and took magazines to remote parks. I perused neighborhood pastry shops and bookstores where I laughed at the translations for popular "airport" novels. It was a great time, even if it created some tension when folks back home asked what I’d seen…and I had to hem-and-haw more than they were expecting.

For most of the last two years, I was on a project in Puerto Rico. There I really embraced this notion of becoming local. Admittedly, this tactic was not wholly rooted in free will; since we worked all day and flew to our stateside homes for the weekends, the typical attractions were rather out of bounds. By the end of my sojourn there, I was an expert in the nightlife and shopping, even if I couldn’t tell friends of mine visiting the island what beach to go to…

So the next time you land at your destination, take some time to hang out with the locals. Ask at the front desk where local people eat. Find out where your cab driver shops for his mother’s birthday. Open the local newspaper and find out if the nearby college is playing at home. See which way the tour bus goes, and turn one-eighty.

- Normal Guy

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