Don’t Travel Like An American
When you travel, don’t act like an American. Americans try to see everything at once, and they end up not seeing anything. When I was a kid, my dad’s idea of seeing the country was to have us look out of our car windows at scenery passing by at 80 MPH. We didn’t stop until we got where where we were going. If that was 3,000 miles away at Disneyland, then so be it.
The problem is that a “once in a lifetime” trip is no longer that. Air travel is cheaper now than it has ever been relative to what people make, so don’t fall into this trap. As a Pittsburgher, I wouldn’t plan to visit St. Louis, Chicago, Memphis, Niagara Falls, Washington, and New York in a week long marathon where I spent half my time driving from place to place. That would be nuts. So don’t do it when you go overseas.
Americans go to Europe, get a week-long EuroPass train ticket, and spend one day in Paris, one in Berlin, one in Brussels, one in Amsterdam, etc. You can’t see anything this way. When you talk to them later about their European vacation, they’ll tell you how much they loved Paris. If you asked them about the Louvre, Montmatre, the Tuilerie gardens, Les Invalides, they will give you this blank stare and say, “I saw the Eiffel Tower, so I saw Paris”. Better to go to Paris and spend a few days. Get the feel of the place and see the main sites. If you want to see everything, get on one of those open-air tour buses. You WILL see everything. Even better, make a list of the things you really want to see and plan your days around it. The absolute best way is to have friends who live there. They will want to make sure that you have a good time in their country or city and you will.
Lots of Americans go on tours. I can see the sense in this. You don’t speak the language, you don’t know your way around, but you are again at the mercy of an artificial schedule. Far better to wing it. Get a list of places that you want to see and drive. Stop where you want, stay at interesting little hotels, eat in great little bistros. Use the buses or metros. You will always find people who are proud that you took the time to come thousands of miles to visit the exact place where they live, and will do everything they can to make your trip enjoyable. A smile is the same in any language.
My dad, on one of these whirlwind Europass trips, took my mom to Paris. She wanted to see Notre Dame, so they took the Metro, stopped at a small shop to get a bottle of wine (and a corkscrew, don’t forget the corkscrew), a baguette, some cheese and some sliced salami. My mom wanted to attend Mass (we’re Catholic), so they waited for the right time by sitting on their coats under a tree across from the cathedral and had a picnic lunch. Just then a big tour bus came up and stopped, disgorging its cargo of Americans. A couple gets off, sees my folks picnicing under the tree and the man remarks in a Texas accent, “See Mabel, we should do like the Frenchys do and bring our own lunch. Made my parents’ day.
Don’t be Intimidated By Language
Americans are arrogant. We require the entire world to learn English if they want to talk to us. All the international engineering conferences I go to are in English regardless of where they’re held. Of course the Brits are just as bad. We are products of our crappy school systems. Most of us “take a language” in high school, but without being forced to use it, we quickly forget it. The US is just too damn big and linguistically homogeneous. 3000 by 1000 miles of country and we all speak the same language. If you go 100 miles in Europe, you’re likely to pass from one language to another. So all Europeans speak two or more languages.
So we’re stuck with our English handicap. But don’t let that slow you down. If you did take French in high school, by all means give it a go. The French LOVE it when Americans try to speak their language, and they will make it their mission in life to help you, even in the snottiest parts of Paris. You sound like a kid in kindergarten, but you will find that bakery.
If you find yourself in a place where you don’t know word one, don’t despair. Most places just love to interact with Americans. It gives them an opportunity to use the English they learned in school so long ago. And, especially in Europe, a lot of the words are similar. Saying the English word with a French accent may seem stupid, but it often works as the words may be similar.
You have to be careful not to get cocky. In Paris once, I was in a small restaurant for lunch and tried to order beans (les haricots) but I mispronounced it as les apricots and got apricots instead. No big deal, I like apricots.
So don’t worry about your lack of language skills.
Also, if a Frenchman asks you, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?”, he is asking, “What is this?”. The correct response is not “Psycho Killer”.
Have Friends (or Family) Who Live There and Impose Upon Them
This is easily the best thing you can do if you go to an exotic place. First, they will likely insist that you stay with them. Second, they will appoint themselves as both ambassador from their country and tour guide, making sure you see the best places and taking you around personally. Of course, you must return the favor when they visit the states.
As a Westinghouse nuclear engineer, I have been lucky enough to make friends all over the world. I have people I can impose in the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Latvia, Ireland, South Africa and Japan. I worked with these people over the years, and many have returned to visit me here in Pittsburgh. They would be offended if I were to travel near them and not make plans to see them. It is a great way to see the world.
I’ve even been on the other side of this. Westinghouse sent me to the UK for a year, and I had about a dozen people come visit. I love being a tour guide (hence the blog).
But don’t let it stop you if you don’t know a soul. People are the same everywhere. They take it as a huge compliment that you have chosen to spend your holiday where they live, and will be friendly and helpful. Most visitors to the US would say the same thing of us.