An Online Primer for Budget Exploration
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III. CULTURAL INTEGRATION
If you are looking for more than a Disney World episode, your best travel experiences and memories are gained from those you meet: the dizzying array of fellow travelers as well as tourist office personnel, restaurateurs, hoteliers and many others connected with your travels. It can be more difficult meeting average Europeans, but it is often more rewarding.
Some tourists travel with a partner (or partners) who never leave each other's side. A travel partner offers comfort and security, but do not let your intimate world be so closed that you miss sharing with others. Once you find your "travel legs", spend a day or so apart periodically, to build both confidence and a variety of experiences to share, and to ensure you don’t end up driving each other totally bonkers.
Let's face it: quaffing the local brew in some boisterous pub or drinking too much wine along the Riviera with your fellow vagabonds is one of the not-so-subtle joys of travel. (Make sure to learn some of the drinking songs of each country.) But to add a bit of depth to your journey, you need to chat with the locals, especially those who do not come in daily contact with visitors. Often they are just as shy as you, but you possess one surefire ice-breaking line that works every time.
"Excuse me, do you speak English?" Spoken with a slight hesitation, a hopeful smile on face. Speaker should be at least marginally presentable.
The conversation should fall into place from there. Most people in Europe speak a little English; many speak a lot. (The stock reply to the no-fail line; "Oh, a little bit.") Trust me; it’s that basic and simple. I use it shamelessly often. It is an amazingly easy way to hit on members of the opposite sex, too. If they don't want to chat, you will know soon enough.
At this point, though, the key error most travelers make is to rely on the local person to continue to speak English. Big mistake.
When you rely on others to speak your language, you immediately distance yourself from a huge chunk of the native population. Perhaps the number one travel blunder of native or fluent English speakers is to assume that "Everyone there will speak some English". Use English only to get things rolling.
The most important travel items besides your passport and perhaps money: a dictionary and phrasebook. With them you can go anywhere, do anything, ask a question, obtain directions, insult a rogue. This really seems obvious but most people do not use them. (Some carry them, but too many travelers are too intimidated or lazy to use them.)
There are many dictionaries and phrasebooks available. Berlitz publishes a travel phrasebook of 14 different European languages. It was for me second only to my passport as a travel necessity. With it I shared vodka with Poles, talked about fishing with a Swede, berated traffic with an Italian truck driver, spoke about politics (sort of) with a Russian, insulted a Finn (oops, a mispronunciation), and tried to get below the surface of English-speaking tourism.
OK, so you probably can not discourse deeply on Dostoyevsky but at least you are making an effort. Very rarely have I met someone unwilling to take the time to slog through dictionary-generated conversations. On the contrary; most Europeans are delighted you actually want to speak their language rather than rely on them to speak yours. And you may surprise yourself at how quickly you can pick up a few words of each language.
There are a few tricks to learning basic travel vocabulary, but here is a good one: don't learn opposites, such as good and bad. Simply learn the word "no", and put it front of a positive word to make it negative. Learn "good", "pretty", "happy", etc. Then, instead of learning bad, ugly, and sad, just say no pretty, no happy and so on. That way you only have to learn half as much relative vocabulary.
I find mnemonic tricks are a big help. You won't learn enough in a short time to yack at a normal pace. But if you break conversations down into the core ideas, it is possible to exchange ideas and meanings with a little time and patience.
My first stop in a new country is the bookstore; that way I'm not lugging a bunch of dictionaries around. Send them home before you leave the country, or give them away; they generally are much-appreciated gifts or a good way of saying "thank you".
The most important words to learn: Hello, Please, Thank You, Where, When, How Much, Good, Where is the Toilet, and of course, Holy Crap, That Costs Way Too Much!
Even as you pick up a little vocabulary, there will be communication problems. A shared language can prove difficult as well: put a Texan, a Scot and a Queenslander together into a conversation and see how they get on.
Besides simply making your trip more interesting, talking with locals has other benefits. As we have mentioned before, by asking for tips on the best places to eat, stay and visit, you gain an insider's knowledge to an area. The information is, for the most part, up-to-date and accurate. And don't be surprised if you receive, after an animated conversation with someone, an invitation to a home-cooked meal or some other hospitality. The Europeans are proud of their countries and are often pleased to show foreigners their way of life. Interacting with the locals is a key difference between travel and mere tourism, and it is one of the main points of this little e-guide.
It does take work to get by using another language, and this can lead to another difficulty--being misunderstood. Knowing some language is not enough at times.
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