Way back in 2013, we were at the Washington DC Travel and Adventure show, where we saw a presentation by Andrew Zimmern, of Bizarre Foods fame. One of his talking points that really rang true with us was this: Andrew says many people ask what the “most bizarre” or the “weirdest” or “most foreign” food he has ever tried is, and he refuses to answer. His reasoning is that while the things you see him eat on TV may seem strange to you, for those people it is the norm — this is what they eat every day. So, calling this stuff weird or bizarre is an insult, because, for them, it’s perfectly normal and natural.
So, What is foreign about a foreign country?
When you’re abroad, you are what is foreign. Most people will go about their daily lives in the same way they would if you were not there. People commute, eat, talk, drive, love, relax, and live just as you would if you were at home.
Even though you are what’s foreign when you travel and have a lot of changes to take in, that doesn’t mean that you can’t blend in a little bit. No, you might not be able to speak the language, but knowing a few key words like “Please,” “Thank You,” “Hello,” and “Goodbye” are nice. And ask questions! People are generally nice and want you to love their city. Ask for help, ask how you pronounce something correctly, or what a signs says. It is okay to be a tourist. Most of us have traveled somewhere unfamiliar and needed a little help, and people understand that.
The biggest piece of advice we can give is: When in doubt, watch the locals!
If you are at a restaurant or cafe, and you are not sure whether to sit or wait to be seated, and there is no sign, take a step back and watch what other people do. In Amsterdam at least, many outdoor cafes want you to seat yourself then the server will find you. At some spots, you order at the bar, then seat yourself and they deliver the food. Of course, this is another situation where you can always just ask.
Similarly, you may not know exactly how to use the transit system, but the locals certainly do. In Amsterdam, there is a tap-in/tap-out system, which we picked up on from watching other people in the trams. We learned to hit the green button to open the doors (they don’t open automatically), and the red button to signal a stop (this is pretty standard). Note which doors they enter and exit from (the symbol for “do not enter” or “not an entrance” is pretty universal). It is super embarrassing to watch when the driver gets on the loud speaker and says “LADY! That’s not an entrance!” three times before the woman who entered through the exit door figures it out.
If you want more of a local experience, stay in an accommodation that is not a hotel or hostel. We use Airbnb pretty much every time we travel. In our experience renting apartments we think that they really add to the overall feel of a place and you have a built-in local contact since you are renting from a person and not a company!
Follow the suggestions above and hopefully travel will go smoothly for you! I don’t think I need to say this, but just to cover my bases, be respectful to everyone you meet!!