Playing Tourist at Home and Abroad

Growing up, I always wanted to be one of those free spirits, traveling the world and finding fulfillment in the incomparable experience of contact with new people and cultures. Travel is a wonderful thing – it opens your mind, it forces you out of your comfort zone, and it enables you to learn and grow in the most enjoyable way.

I have been doing quite a bit of traveling recently. I’ve gone far out of my comfort zone, learning new customs and languages and seeing sites I couldn’t even dream of before seeing more of the world. The United States can claim some of the most beautiful nature and interesting culture, and I am proud to be an American. But even so, I had never seen anything that compares to the Sierra Nevadas of Andalusia. I have seen some lovely churches in the states, some quaint and some spectacular, and yet I must say that nearly every city and town in France boasts a cathedral more spectacular than any you can find in the much-younger Americas.

Not to mention these incredible castles – it’s no wonder that Disney based some of their castles on these French sites – like the island-surrounded-by-quicksand Mont Saint-Michel:

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It is humbling to realize how little of the world I had seen before, and how little I have seen even yet. It has reinvigorated my desire to travel, to experience, to learn and grow.

But travel can also be scary.

You can find plenty of people that speak english in most countries nowadays, but the language barrier can be daunting nonetheless. You feel stupid. You often get odd looks from people, and if you’re a bit anxious like me, that can convince you that everyone knows that you have no idea what you’re doing. It can feel like you don’t belong, and for most of us, belonging is one of the most important feelings.

Besides language, even the most similar cultures have drastic differences in lifestyle and attitude. You’re never going to visit a new country, or even a new part of a country, without having to adapt to a new schedule, a new palette, a new everything. And when you inevitably demonstrate your unfamiliarity, you will often out of place again. That said, these looks you get, these anxieties you have, are rarely if ever as bad as you think: people might notice that you’re not from there, but rarely will they genuinely be judging you so harshly – even if you are a loud, uncultured American like myself.

So it has always been hard for me to accept being a tourist. Like all of us, I want to belong – I want to be a part of the place I’m in, regardless of where I’m from. Foreign visitors are usually noticeable – you see them in your hometown (if you live somewhere touristy, as I did for a number of years) with their fanny-packs and their cameras, walking on the wrong side of the sidewalk and giggling…a part of you knows that they’re having so much fun, that this memorable experience will stay with them, but at least for me, I have to squash down a feeling of superiority. This is my place – look at you, so excited about the path I walk to class every day. Look at you, not belonging. It’s a terrible way to think of people, but I think we all do it at times.

Nevertheless, I have to accept being the tourist. Even playing tourist in my own town – how many years did I live in Washington, DC, and yet only ever visited the Smithsonian a handful of times? There’s so much to see. When you live in a place that people travel great distances to visit, you have an obligation to take advantage of those things. Your hometown can easily become absorbed by your day-to-day: this is where I work, this is where I go to school, where I eat lunch and brush my teeth. This isn’t where I go out and learn and enjoy.

But shouldn’t you be learning and enjoying the most in the place where you’re most comfortable, in the place where you spend the most time? I guarantee you, however long you’ve lived in your current city or your hometown, you do not know everything there is to know. You have not visited every interesting site, restaurant, or brewery.

It’s important to travel. New places will force you to have new experiences, and those experiences will often be much more different from any you could have at home. But it’s equally important to truly understand and experience your own culture – because it is so comfortable and familiar, you probably take it for granted. There may be aspects of it that you’ve never experienced or considered, and even those aspects you are most familiar with, you may never have truly contemplated the nature of it, the way in which it shapes you and those around you.

So I encourage you to travel. I encourage you to experience. And above all, I encourage you to approach every place and culture with that discerning eye, to look for and consider what makes this place unique, what makes it the way it is.

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