I’ve traveled my whole life—as an American boy spending summers with family in Greece; as a young man living in Paris for seven years; and now, as a writer in northern Italy with my beautiful Italian wife working on my first novel. And as someone who has spent a lifetime observing others and being seen as the other himself there is no secret to not coming off as a tourist, no trick or some not-to-do list. In a foreign land, you will always be foreign. But there is a way to be a better tourist. And it is simple because it is based on a lesson we’ve all learned, a universal lesson that doesn’t dissolve on the other side of a border or change once a culture or language does. We’ve come to know it firsthand from our elders when visiting someone’s home, especially for the first time: Be on your best behavior.
A tourist is nothing more than an invited guest into someone’s homeland. And just like you would never show up to someone’s home empty-handed, you don’t come to someone’s country empty-headed. You take the time to learn about the culture beforehand (customs, traditions, behavioral norms), and you make the effort to learn basic expressions in their language. That is the gift you bring to them, an awareness of who they are.
And just like you would never show up to your host’s doorstep dressed slovenly in the name of comfort or flamboyantly in the name of fashion, when in a country for the first time you attempt to look like you made a conscious choice with your attire. That may mean walking around in a blazer or heels in the streets Milano during fashion week, and not flip-flops. It might also mean leaving your $200 sneakers at home in a country where $200 can feed a family of six for an entire month.
When it comes to food, you eat what your host offers you. If you’re a selective eater, chose simple dishes at a restaurant, and if you are an annoying one with particular tastes and sensitive allergies, just grocery shop. That way you can prepare your food just the way you like it instead of having the chef and staff wonder why you even came to dine with them. But be aware you may be missing out on a culinary adventure. Snails are delicious and sea urchins even more so. As for drinking, it’s best to err on the side of moderation for your safety and to save yourself from embarrassment. Don’t get sloppy in public. It’s simply bad form. Just like you must keep it together at someone’s home as a sign of respect, you must restrain yourself in someone’s country for the same reason. And if you must get tight, wait until you get back to the confines of your hotel room where the damage can be more easily controlled. There is a caveat here: This drinking rule does not apply to you if you become incredibly funny and charming under the influence of wine or whiskey. But that has a caveat as well: There comes a point after a night of drinking where the only one that finds you funny and charming is you.
At the end of your stay, whether at someone’s home or country, you want to ensure you leave with the possibility of a future invitation being graciously extended. We often feel that because we’re on vacation that the rules of tact and etiquette do not apply, that we can let loose and be free because “hell, I’m on vacation.” Wrong, very wrong. When wearing the title of tourist, especially in a foreign country, your level of self-consciousness should be heightened, not dulled by wine or ignorance. Be aware not only of your surroundings but of your actions and your appearance and even (or rather, especially) the decibel of your voice. Tone it down…in all aspects of your being when abroad. Blend in by observing those around you and adapting to their environment. Remember, they’ve let you into their homeland, so thank them by learning something from their way of life. And if all this sounds like too much work for a vacation, then pass on your Paris getaway and instead, go visit your Aunt Ida who probably misses you and who’ll love you no matter what.
What’s your advice on being a better tourist? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
The Golden Rule of Traveling: How to Be a Better Tourist | Christopher Troy ©