One of the most universal concerns of tourists is, paradoxically, how not to look like a tourist.
Think for a minute about the fundamental absurdity. Does a student take pains to cover up his notebook and backpack, lest he be identified as such? Does the plumber sidle into your building in a tuxedo, the better to avoid detection?
Take, even, the business traveler, a closely related tribe to the tourist, though a far less self-conscious one. Does he show up at JFK in a flannel work shirt and whittle during the flight? He does not. He bravely whips out his netbook and shows the world that he’s not afraid of a spreadsheet. He stays at the InterContinental and eats at the Four Seasons. He is interested in closing deals, not blending seamlessly into a foreign culture.
Yet that is precisely what many tourists attempt to do, usually without success. The chameleon impulse is understandable: it’s a desire to travel in a less disruptive, more culturally sensitive fashion, a backlash against the “Ugly American” image of the clueless, bumbling foreigner.
Nobody wants to be that guy with the Reeboks and fanny pack, Nikon bouncing against his belly, squinting up at a cathedral dome. But I have news for you: to some degree, that’s how we all look when abroad. We like to think of ourselves blending in with our black clothes and baguette along the Seine, or sporting a sombrero in Guanajuato. But the tourist’s mannerisms, his palpable sense of wonder and novelty — along with that irresistible urge to look up at the buildings, and why not? — invariably give him away.
(According to my husband, that giveaway can be something more mundane. “It’s your teeth, honey,” he told me when we traveled through Eastern Europe for the first time. “You open your mouth, and you have these straight white rows of beautiful American teeth. Plus, only Americans grin so much.”)
In sophisticated circles, the pressure to avoid looking like a “tourist” has reached ludicrous extremes. It’s not enough, anymore, to go to Buenos Aires or Venice and simply enjoy being there. You have to avoid at all costs looking like you might be gawking at a gondolier. You have to starve all day so you can show up at the fashionable local dinner hour of 11 p.m., lest you be taken for a —gasp — tourist!
And above all, you want to avoid places where tourists go. This is, in a word, quixotic. Guidebooks highlight those restaurants and beach towns that are deemed to have fewer tourists — but once they’re published, it’s already too late.
We all want to experience the true culture. But in grasping for some rigid idea of authenticity, people stress themselves out and forget to have fun. We romanticize an ossified, outdated version of a culture: an Italy of nonnas and cobblers, not an Italy of made-in-China imports, Albanian grape pickers and fast food.
We risk losing sight of how fast our world, and our destinations, are changing. There was a time when eating McDonald’s in Paris would have seemed culturally gauche, but nowadays a hamburger is a very Parisian — or Roman, or Spanish — thing to eat.
I’m continually annoyed at foreign guidebooks that list only “local” cuisine, the idea being that if you schlepped all the way to Mexico, naturally you want to immerse yourself in the “true” culture by eating only Mexican food. But in the past decade or two, cities around the world have grown more international, and it’s entirely possible that some of the best restaurants in Mexico are Italian or French. Sampling the nouveau wares of a talented local chef can be just as authentically cultural as a trip through gastronomic history.
And I remember when wearing shorts in Europe automatically branded you as a tourist. But this summer, I saw shorts everywhere: teeny denim versions on Scandinavian teens, knee-length specimens on men throughout the Mediterranean. There are still guidebooks that advise American women to dress in skirts to fit into more conservative cultures, but as H&M spreads like a global virus, it’s harder and harder to look truly out of place.
None of this is to say that cultural sensitivity isn’t important — just that one has to be realistic about how much blending in is really possible. The urge to appear inconspicuous has lately taken on a practical dimension. In the age of terrorism, people want to know how they can avoid being targets.
Remember, after Sept. 11, how some Americans traveling abroad would pretend to be Canadians? It may be plausible, but what’s the point? Anywhere but Canada, Americans will seem … foreign. Their stomachs will rumble at noon in Spain, while locals are digesting breakfast with a cigarette. They will visit a hidden spot known only to local cognoscenti in Athens, but spend twice as much as any local would (and tip three times more).
Dress modestly, speak quietly, learn a few local expressions anywhere you are, and above all be respectful. And then relax and embrace your accent. As an American abroad, I am nearly always identified as such — and I’ve had little but warm welcomes.
Note to readers: For an upcoming column on anti-Semitism abroad, I’m interested in hearing about people’s experiences as Jews in foreign countries. Have you encountered anti-Semitism or anti-Israel sentiment, directly or indirectly, that made you feel uncomfortable? How did you handle it? Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org, and specify how you want to be identified.