We hadn’t even made it back to the US when reverse culture shock slammed me in the chest. The couple sitting in the row in front of me, a young couple from Kansas stated “Oh, it was wonderful but we’re so glad to be going home.”
No, I thought. I don’t want to go back. Don’t make me go back.
We flew into Bergen, Norway, where we rented a car and drove to Oslo. The next day, we jumped on a ferry from Oslo Fjord to Kiel, Germany, where we rented a different car and drove from Kiel to Amsterdam, The Netherlands for one more night. Then, on to Brussels, Belgium for two nights. Then to St. Malo, France for two nights. Then, to Paris for one night for an early morning flight out of Charles de Gaul. From our takeoff in Denver to our landing in Denver, we had 10 days. This is not a good way to see and experience Europe, but it was the perfect way for us to be. We missed more than we saw, but it was perfect.
I traveled so much as a kid, that it’s ingrained in my muscle memory. The only thing more fundamentally comfortable, more soul-relaxing than being surrounded by a landscape and language I don’t know is skiing.
On this trip, I was with someone who had not been out of the United States since he moved here ten years ago. This was his trip, really, and it was my job to show him how to wander well. I shared what I know, my rules of international travel.
You’ll notice that a lot of these involve food. It’s funny, because the idea of “traveling to eat” confuses me. But. I am a hungry, hungry hippo who could eat her weight in French butter if given the chance. Being hot, tired, thirsty, and hungry is the worst state in which to be while traveling. You’re likely to do something stupid.
Never Eat Anywhere That Has Pictures of the Food on a Placard. They are often captioned in English. I don’t even understand why anyone would fall for this. The pictures don’t even look good.
Never Eat Anywhere That Has English Posted Prominently Outside. This includes: English phrases like “Best Coffee in Brussels” (I promise it isn’t), and exclusively in-English menu posted outside. This does not include: English translations of menus presented once you sit down.
Take Advantage of Specialty Shops. Find the bakery/cheese shop/butcher/wine merchant/farmer’s market stall with no photos or English displayed. Walk in. Do not expect anyone to speak English. If necessary, point to the things you want. Pay for them. Eat these things with your bare hands on a bench, in a park, on a stone wall. It’ll be the best god damn meal you’ve had all trip. Repeat tomorrow.
Never Go Anywhere Where Someone Speaking English Tries to Hustle You Inside. This includes: restaurants with food-picture placards, gift shops, things masquerading as educational tours. If it’s 2pm and the guy tries to hustle you into doing a tour immediately because the last tour is at 6pm, you leave. I’ve also noticed that this kind of person tends to speak very quickly (even if they speak perfect English) as if aiming to confuse you into compliance.
Look Closely At Positive Reviews. Just because a bunch of Americans “really liked” one coffee stop doesn’t mean it’s any good. In fact, that might mean that they specialize in the sugary, weird, five shots of flavored coffee drinks that Americans like. That said, use Google. Especially when you’re there. Especially for restaurants. Look for positive ratings. Look for positive ratings made by people writing in different languages. That, my friend, is where you want to eat. Do the same for attractions. I don’t really use Trip Advisor, but I’m sure this law applies there, too.
Not All Tourist Traps Are Created Equal. By this I mean, some tourist traps are entirely worth doing. Poo-poo city bus tours all you want, but if you want to get oriented to a city, there are much worse things you can do.
Get Lost. Take a wrong turn by accident. Pull off at a random roadside attraction you’ve never heard of before. Let plans fall apart or, even better, let them not exist in the first place. Take a nap on the side of the road. Lose yourself in the weightlessness of bombardment by words you don’t recognize. For what is perhaps the first time since you learned to speak, struggle to communicate.
You can debate forever the merits of travel. Whether it can really make you grow, expand your horizons, change your life, blah blah blah. I don’t think travel does any of these things. You are not more profound for getting your passport stamped.
The important part of traveling is learning to be comfortable with being misunderstood and comfortable in that you , too, will misunderstand. But, like a good existentialist, you must not accept this. You must try–struggle, even–to be understood and (most importantly) to understand.