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tacky touristThis week, satirical Web site The Onion took aim at the “ugly American” travel stereotype in its News in Brief:

“CHICAGO — Recent college graduate Tyler Hill announced Monday his plans to single-handedly shatter European ideas about American travelers during his upcoming three-week trip to France and Belgium. … ‘They’re going to meet me and think, “Wow, it really means a lot to me that he took the time to learn a couple of useful phrases in our language.”‘ Hill added that over the course of the trip, he hopes to meet some Europeans who aren’t just a bunch of effeminate, chain-smoking elitists.”

While having a chuckle at the Onion’s piece, I realized I was laughing at myself too. I’ll admit it: I’m guilty of masquerading as some kind of international globetrotter with impressive foreign language skills while traveling. In one particular situation, my attempt to fit in with the locals led to the extreme of pretending to be one.

On a trip to Amsterdam this summer, a local woman approached me in the Tassen Museum of Bags and Purses, pointed to the display in front of us and, with a mischievous grin, uttered some clever remark in Dutch. She began laughing, and I laughed with her as if I had understood what she had said — but I don’t speak a word of Dutch.

My charade fell to pieces when the woman continued to try to strike up conversation as I toured the museum. I had already indicated that I spoke Dutch, and there was no going back. I spent the rest of the evening nervously avoiding the woman, ducking behind cases of couture handbags whenever she came near.

Why was my first instinct to act like moronic Tyler Hill? There’s nothing wrong with being a tourist, but sometimes it’s nice not to feel like an outsider while traveling — if only for a few moments. Travelers interested in fitting in while on the road should check out our 20 tips for blending in with the locals (none of which suggest pretending to understand an unfamiliar language).

How do you blend in with the locals while traveling? Do you even try? We want to hear your stories!

– written by Caroline Costello

5 Responses to “Now You’re Speaking My Language”

  1. SeaMarmot says:

    If there’s one thing I Hate doing (deifying hate), it’s looking at a map in a foreign city. Feel like such a shmuck doing that … thankfully, getting lost, which I’ve made an art of, is my favorite way to travel.

  2. For the most part, I’m not worried about being seen as a non-local — I just try not to do anything really stupid(and I have — details of which I’m too embarrassed to mention). When I do make a concerted effort to blend in, sometimes I’ll start walking at a brisk pace, looking staight ahead as if I know where I’m going — and then often miss seeing the place I wanted to go!

    It is a very nice feeling when you do reach a confidence and knowledge level where you are blending in with the locals. But I think that often comes with spending time somewhere — you can’t always just start out that way.

    In fact, I have a post on my blog about the city tour buses that, of course, immediately label you as a tourist, but are a good way to get your bearings in a new place.

  3. Shay says:

    Of course there’s nothing wrong with being a tourist! I think the main things are to respect local customs and to be polite to people. Try new things! Don’t turn your nose up to some local delicacy (i.e. yelling ewww, when offered a plate of iguana, or any other random protein), treat service people rudely or expect everyone to speak English.

  4. Tuula says:

    No problems at all when travelling, I speak 4 languages fluently and few more not so fluent…I am Scandinavian, we learn languages when we are young.

  5. Jan Zimmerman says:

    I am American and speak 2 foreign languages, Italian and French quite well. I minored in French in college many years ago and have visited Italy so often that after a short travelers course before my first trip, I since studied on my own and practiced while traveling. While I may not always be perfect, the citizens of the country are especially friendly. And often they will help you learn the language. I have also employed bits of German and Swahili consisting of greetings, compliments and thank you which they truly appreciated. We travel independently, not tours (except Africa, and learning a language has allowed us to travel “the road less traveled” where very little if any English is spoken.

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