I’m in the middle of planning a three-week trip to France and Germany right now (with a little London thrown in for good measure), and I absolutely love planning it. If I could do it all day long, I would. I get obsessed with train schedules and timelines and figuring out the best way to make the best use of my time. That’s not to say that I don’t want to spend time just relaxing at a cafe or on a park bench or that I have a strict itinerary that must be followed. My travel style is to plan and research as much as possible before the trip (down to all the fine details) and then when I’m actually on the vacation, I can be flexible because I have everything researched already.
During the research stage, though, I keep coming across well-meaning blog posts like this one from Cup of Jo about how not to look like a tourist. Or I read about “seeing the real (insert town/country).” Or about how to avoid tourist traps. Look, let’s get something straight. When you go on vacation, you are a tourist. By definition. And it’s ok. I want people to reclaim the word tourist and feel fine about it. Would you honestly go to Paris and not see the Eiffel Tower? or the Louvre? Would you really go to London and not see Big Ben? Or go to New York City and not visit… well, everything?
In fact, I find the idea of “seeing the real (insert town/country)” to be rather condescending. Can you really get to know the complex culture of an entire country, or even a city or a neighborhood, in just three, four, or even seven days? No, you can’t. You might see a jazz funeral or a second line on your visit to New Orleans. Or maybe you caught some beads at Mardi Gras, but don’t tell me you saw the real New Orleans after that. If you want to know “the real town/country,” you need to live there, buy groceries, walk the same streets, talk to people multiple times. You need to live there. And then you are a local, not a tourist.
So let’s look at some of the ways to not be a tourist (from the blog post) and my thoughts about it in italics:
1. Don’t stare. Even if a woman in a tiger suit crosses your path.
So basically, don’t engage with anyone or notice your surroundings. No thanks.
2-4. Dress appropriately for the situation.
I’ll probably dress the way I always do because it’s part of who I am, and I will wear comfortable shoes because I am probably walking a lot more than an average person going about their daily business. And also, since when is it so important to blend in? Did we give up the notion of creating your own distinct style?
5. Don’t stand in the way of other people while you’re doing your touring.
6. Know how to use your metro card.
7. Don’t complain about the prices.
8. This was a random compliment to tourists about how they “look up” and actually see the skyscrapers. So I guess it’s ok to do that.
9. Fold your pizza.
10. Don’t ask a celebrity for an autograph.
Basically, the rest of these could be summarized as: Don’t be a jerk. Be aware of the people around you. (And a random one about pizza. We get it, New Yorkers, fold your pizza.)
What people are really saying when they encourage you not to dress/look/act like a tourist is to not think the city/town/country you are visiting exists just so you can visit it. But that should just be called, “Act like a human being.”
So why not embrace being a tourist? Because really, it’s not all bad. When you’re a tourist, you are excited about seeing a new place. You look at everything with fresh eyes. When you are a tourist, you are sampling new food, going to places you’ve never been before, challenging yourself to try new things.
I believe in being a tourist, even in your own city. When I was in New York, I met a woman in her 50s at the conference who was born in Manhattan and had lived there her entire life. She commented, “This is nice. I’ve never been as far up as 116th Street before.” That just made me really sad. It’s so easy to get stuck in our normal, everyday routine and eat at the same restaurants, shop at the same stores, take the same routes, and never look with curiosity at all of the other options around us.
For me, I’m happy to be a tourist in my own city, and I can’t wait to be a tourist in France and Germany this fall.