Hanging with the Locals, I Got Both a Lesson in Scottish Pride, and a Beer-soaked Shirt
There’s a lot of talk among travel writers about trying to experience the “real” destination when you travel. These travel writers and travel TV hosts gush about ensuring you get “off the beaten path” and away from the tourist hordes to get a real feel for your destination.
For the love of God make sure that when you’re a tourist you don’t spend any time with any of those other tourists. You’re good. They’re the fanny-pack-wearing slack-jawed yokels, but you, my brave explorer, you are authentic! While these sweaty masses stand cheek-to-jowl at the usual tourist traps, buying souvenir t-shirts and craning their selfie sticks just so, you will be peering around as-of-yet unseen corners of the globe and blending in with locals like a passport-stamping chameleon.
Telling people to try and “not be a tourist” and to “get with the locals” when on vacation is, at the same time, bad advice, good advice, and impossible advice:
It’s Bad Advice: It’s bad advice because getting with the locals on those “off the beaten” paths can be dangerous. Sure, the touristy areas can be dangerous too (watch out for pickpockets!). But just be careful when you’re trying to get away from the masses and remember that you don’t know these neighborhoods, or how dangerous they can be.
It’s Impossible Advice: It’s impossible advice, because you cannot help but look like a tourist, and that’s as it should be. Unlike the 2.4 million smartly-dressed, stone-faced commuters briskly walking through Shibuya station in Tokyo, you have to step aside to stop and marvel at the near-endless sea of humanity utilizing what is the one of the busiest subway stations in the world. That’s partly why you’re there, along with trying to get across the city. This is why we travel, so that we can wear loose-fitting clothing and saunter at a leisurely pace, gawking the whole way. Why do you think all those commuters are rushing off to work? They’re trying to get to the weekend so they can do the same thing you’re doing, only someplace else.
It’s Good Advice: It’s good advice — outstanding advice really — even though it’s become a bit cliched. Doing your best to try and understand other cultures when you’re abroad is the most important way you can spend your time in another country, however short that time may be, and no matter what way you try to do it. Let’s be realistic, you’re not going to truly understand a culture after a week walking its streets, eating its food and talking to its people. But you will know more than when you arrived. But even more than what you will gain in knowledge, there will be something profoundly important in just the trying. In doing so, you are making a declaration as a citizen of the world — that there is more to gain from crossing bridges than building barriers, that you understand there is much for us Americans to learn still, and that others know how to do some things better than we do(See: croissants, France. Also, sports cars, Italy. Also, organization, Japan. Also, Libertarianism, Holland.). In another post I talked about all the wonderful “everyday ambassadors” I met along my travels who so wonderfully represented their homelands, and I emphasized the need for more of these ambassadors to represent our towns, our states and our country to visitors. But along with representing our home countries, there’s another side of an ambassador’s role — both for the real diplomats stationed around the world as well as my everyday ambassadors that’s just as important. It’s the role of listening and learning from people in other countries and bringing that knowledge back home.
The other, less weighty reason why it’s a good idea to embed with the locals is that it results in great stories for when you return home.
I knew that the Scots love football (American translation: soccer). This is an obvious fact. I also knew that the Scots don’t particularly like the English. This is a more nuanced and complicated issue, steeped in centuries of history. But I came to understand both these facts in a way I didn’t expect by trying to spend time with the locals while we were in Aberdeen, Scotland.
Our friend Scott had joined my wife and I for the Scotland leg of the trip, and the three of us were trying to plan out our day of mostly tourist-y sites to visit. It just so happened that Scotland’s soccer team would be playing in a World Cup qualifier that afternoon. The match was being played about three hours away in Glasgow, so we decided to find a local pub where we could expect to see some locals watching the match on the telly.
We made sure we weren't wearing England's colors, and headed to a nearby sports bar The Adam Lounge. By the start of the match it was packed with local fans.
It turns out the long-suffering Scottish football fans had good reason to dislike the English — they hadn’t beaten England in a football match at home in more than 30 years. This game was expected to be another blowout, but Scotland had managed to tie the score 1-1 late in the second half. The crowd at the bar was filled with hope, when, with only one minute to go in regulation, Scotland was awarded a penalty kick. I decided, “what the heck, why don’t I record this, just in case the unbelievable happens?”
As you can see, we couldn’t help but get caught up in the celebration, nor could we help but get doused with another enthusiastic patron’s beer, which went willy-nilly in all the excitement. I think I understand Scotland a little better now — at least the football fans anyway. Sadly, England managed to tie it up in extra time, forcing a draw and giving us an opportunity to hear new and unique profanities in that signature Scottish accent.
There’s a time for the tourist sites, and a time to try and act like a local. Save time in your travels for both, and you’ll be doubly rewarded.