Thursday, August 9, 2007

When In Rome....(Or Venice)

So, Venice has decided that it's high time that rude, brutish tourists pay the price for their indiscretions. The locals who have to deal with tourists all the time are finally recouping punitive damages for having to do so by inflating prices on menus for tourists who irritate the hell out of them. After over 20 trips abroad where I've witnessed some particularly embarassing encounters between tourists and locals, I can't say that I blame them.

Look folks, I'm going to be blunt here. You leave this country to experience the culture and see something different from home. You're leaving home. Thus, you shouldn't expect it to be like home, and as guests somewhere else, you should treat your hosts and host's home as you'd want yours treated. You know, that whole "do unto others" thing? That applies outside the US as well.

That means not tossing your trash on the ground (now a crime punishable with a stiff fine in Piazza San Marco). That also means not YELLING at the locals in Paris because...gasp...they don't speak English. Despite popular myth, they don't understand you better if you just pump up the volume. (And really, do you expect to be yelled at by a Parisian when they visit Boston because you don't speak French?) And further still, this means accepting that there's no such thing as iced tea, nary an ice cube for your Coke, and no face cloths or shower curtains in the bathroom. Adapt, adjust and move on with your vacation. No amount of lamenting, complaining or griping is going to change any of the above. That's just the way it's done there, and just because it's not how you do it at home doesn't mean it's wrong. You won't perish on a week's vacation because you're drinking warmer than usual Coke. And you know what, if you let that influence your experience, then you're more shallow than I ever imagined.

So, what can you do to avoid being the disgruntled, brutish, rude tourist? Just a few simple things will help, not requiring much work on your part. Pick up a guidebook for where you're going. Any reputable travel author will tell you a few survival tactics:

Learn basic phrases in the destination language -- at least make an attempt to greet shop and restaurant owners in their language, even if they seem to speak English...then ask if they can speak English for you. "Please" and "thank you" in their language are a good idea too, regardless of whether the person you're addressing speaks English.

Learn how things you take for granted work over there -- how to buy train tickets, how to get gelato (pay first, then order, showing your receipt to the scooper), how to behave at the theater and on the road, how to queue for the Underground, what the money looks like and what the denominations are. None of this is rocket science, but you're completely ignorant if you don't learn this before you leave home.

Read about the scams and stay alert to them -- any guidebook or reputable online travel forum will warn you about gypsies, pickpockets and the seemingly nice looking local who helps himself to your belongings while he's chatting you up. Know them and then stay keen. You wouldn't leave your fanny pack unzipped behind you at home, would you??? (Oh yeah, and leave the fanny pack at home...)

In addition to these more obvious suggestions, let me add my own:

Research your hotels and restaurants -- you get out of it exactly what you put into it in terms of research. Don't expect The Olive Garden, it's really better in Italy if you know where to eat. Really! Hint: restaurants with names like "The Pilgrim" really aren't a good idea, despite how US-friendly they might seem. Break away from places loaded with Americans and eat where locals do (if you've learned some basic phrases, you will be fine if you at least try!) and savor the differences. You can live without the Big Mac for a week, believe me.

Use some common sense -- "ruins", by their nature (aka "old"), are run down, decrepit and probably dirty, so don't be surprised to see them as such; not all people of a particular country are sad, depressed or terrorists just because they don't want to move to the US with you; a cafe in Vienna or Paris might be a better experience than a Starbucks.

And lastly, don't do anything you'd be embarassed to do at home. Just because the breakfast is buffet style doesn't mean loading your pockets with rolls and jam for a mid-morning snack. As tempting as it is to extend an included breakfast into an all day brunch, it's really not attractive.

My inspiration for writing this post is partly selfish. You see, I automatically get lumped into the "Ugly American" category before I even utter a word abroad. Enough of you have gone over before me and paved the road with your behavior that I have to work extra hard to prove otherwise. Ok, it's a challenge, and I'm certainly up for it. But I think you'd get a lot more out of your experience if you at least made an effort and avoided a nasty encounter that will have you proclaiming from the hilltops "All Parisians are rude" when you get home. God knows, a lot of us seasoned travelers who know otherwise are sick of hearing it. And if you don't even bother to try, then I have no sympathy when you find yourself on the receiving end of a menu with grossly inflated prices.

No comments: