It’s possible to create your own opportunities by chatting online with residents at Virtual Tourist (a website with some 700,000 members worldwide) or e-mailing an “insider” at BootsnAll. The other alternative, of course, is to rely on serendipity. You’ve probably heard apocryphal tales about the traveler who gets swept into a Greek wedding and, before you know it, is blissfully breaking plates and shouting “OPA!” Well, I don’t hold my breath waiting for this to happen. Nevertheless, I do have a few strategies that help me improve the odds.
One of the quickest ways to connect is by dumping tour buses and taxi cabs in favor of public transportation. It’s amazing how much I can learn about a culture by joining the ranks of commuting workers and school children. Plus, if I pick the right above-ground route, it’s still possible to see the big-ticket sites. In London, for example, the Number 11 bus takes me by Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, and Paul’s Cathedral; and, when in Rome, I can do as the Romans do by boarding the Number 16 bus, which starts at the Vatican and then inches its way around the Eternal City.
The other beauty of buses is that I can hop off whenever I please. You can do the same, so when passing through an intriguing area, always be prepared to jump. In residential neighborhoods, especially, it is easy to fall into the rhythm of daily life. Stop at a mom-and-pop restaurant (one that doesn’t have a multilingual tourist menu) and actually linger over a meal. Drop into a market, even if it’s only to shop for picnic supplies. Suss out a sporting event or festival. Park yourself in a park or, if you have kids in tow, spend an hour or two in a playground.
Once in the locals’ “natural habitat,” the next step is to strike up a conversation. Trite as it sounds, learning some of the lingo goes a long way. (It also saves the embarrassment of having to play charades to get a point across.) Although fluency isn’t required, it is important to make an effort. So I typically arm myself with one of the wallet-sized phrasebooks that can be printed off for free at Single Serving. All cover the basics (“Hello,” “What’s your name?” etc.), and some even feature companion audio files that can be downloaded to an mp3, so I can get the pronunciation down pat.
Whether my goal is to consciously seek out “cultural immersion” experiences or simply make the most of opportunities that present themselves, the quality of any encounter depends on the amount of energy I’m willing to invest. Taking the time to engage with those who know my destination best may mean that I have to skip a site or two. But that’s fine by me because travelers don’t get bonus points for ticking off every attraction listed in their guidebook. Besides, it seems like a fair deal when I weigh what is lost against what is gained: namely a fresh perspective on both the place and the people who live there.
Related Story: Livin’ La Vida Local: Make Yourself At Home