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A Foreigner In A Foreign Land

Bay of Bengal

Dawn near the Bay of Bengal. Photo courtesy of b k.

“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign” – Robert Louis Stevenson

This is a great travel quote, and one that greatly reflects the issue I have with many travelers. Why do people, when visiting other cities and countries, think the destination should change itself to cater to them? It’s something I think many travelers do without even realizing it, and can be detrimental to allowing yourself to really experience and appreciate a destination as well as have true cultural immersion.

I can think of one example off the top of my head that occurred during a trip through Europe with a girl named Kate. One day in Vienna we went to a McDonalds so Kate could get a tomato and mozzarella salad, only the cashier didn’t speak English. We had thought she had understood the order, but brought over a Caesar salad. Instead of just eating the salad and getting over it, Kate turned into Mr. Hyde, snapping at the girl as if she had acted out of line.

“THIS ISN’T WHAT I WANTED,” said Kate, a little (read: a lot) too loudly for my taste.

The cashier looked confused, most likely because she didn’t know what Kate was saying but could comprehend she was angry.

“Kate, just eat the Cesar salad and we can go somewhere else if you’re still hungry,” I begged, feeling the people around us staring.

“No!” she shouted. “I really want that salad.” Turning back to the girl, she said sternly, “I ordered a mozzarella salad! Do you understand me?!”

Then she turned to me and uttered the five words that make my blood boil: “Why doesn’t she speak English?”

Because we’re in Vienna! In reality, the real question should have been why didn’t we speak Austrian? This city may have seemed odd to us, but in reality we were the odd ones, an American and a Canadian from thousands of miles away who didn’t speak the language, didn’t have the same diet and knew nothing about classical music. I almost wished the cashier would turn to Kate and toss the salad in her face and scream, “Learn to speak Austrian!”

bodrum castle

Bodrum Castle. Photo courtesy of HBarrison.

Another incident occurred in Bodrum, Turkey, when I shared a taxi with an extremely obese traveler. While I didn’t really know her and had only just met her at a taxi stand, I ended up having to help her walk to the attraction we were both interested in seeing: The Bodrum Castle. I didn’t mind helping her, that is, until we got to the ticket line. After ranting and raving how the price of admission was too high and that Europeans all wanted to rip you off, she then berated the ticket seller for not having an elevator in the castle for people who were “handicapped.” Then, when the cashier wouldn’t accept U.S. Dollars — the sign clearly stated “Turkish Lira Only,” which shouldn’t have been too surprising as we were in Turkey — the scene became too ridiculous and I had to walk away.

The last example I’ll give — and I have many more — occurred on a recent Holland America “Ancient Mysteries” cruise. Turkey, Greece and Israel were supposed to be the countries visited, however, because of the timing of the tour and a hostile situation with Syria, the Israel ports were replaced with more time in Turkey and Greece. Sure, we were all disappointed, but you can’t blame Holland America for making a decision that is in the best interests of everyone’s safety. Unfortunately, that’s not how everyone saw it, especially one woman who was planning to stay in Israel with family for two months and then catch another ship home then. She had done a lot of paperwork to be able to do this, and now it wasn’t going to happen.

She whined on and on to be about how Holland America didn’t care about anyone, and how they should have made special arrangements for her specifically to get to Israel since she had so much riding on the visit. I guess she couldn’t remember the ship had about 2,000 passengers they also had to think about. While this isn’t exactly an example of how people can’t assimilate to a local culture, I think it’s a great instance of how many travelers become egocentric and forget the world isn’t catering to them.

Trust me, I also get frustrated when there’s a meal I want and I can’t figure out how to order it, or if my travel plans get changed; however, you have to look at the big picture. You’re lucky enough to have the experience of traveling to a unique place and immersing yourself in the culture — something not everyone gets the chance to do. Before stepping off the plane in your new destination wipe your mind of any prejudice or pre-conceived notions and make a vow to roll with the punches and take things as they come.

Go to a restaurant that doesn’t have an English menu and randomly point to an item, allowing yourself to be surprised with what local dish you end up with. When an attraction isn’t set up the way you want it to be don’t be disappointed, but think about how this makes it different from what you’re used to at home. It’s these differences that make travel exciting. Because if everywhere you traveled to was like your home city, what would be the point?

Have you ever traveled with someone who wasn’t adaptable to the local culture? Please share in the comments below.

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4 Comments

  1. Jac on November 26, 2013 at 4:41 pm

    Great post Jessie! I think one of the most valuable lessons from travel is that it forces you to have some perspective, and your examples here just refuse to accept that, unfortunately! I mean why bother to travel somewhere different if all you want is the same thing…

    But maybe hindsight is 20-20 – sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the moment, especially when you’re feeling more vulnerable as a traveller – hopefully they can look back and realize what asses they were being back then!

    • jess2716 on November 26, 2013 at 4:45 pm

      @Jac: Absolutely! Sometimes I don’t realize exactly what I’ve learned until I’ve had time to really reflect back on the situation.

  2. Alyssa on November 28, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    This phenomena actually to surprise me more those who consider themselves seasoned travellers. They travel around the world and yet learn nothing, and I can’t comprehend how that happens.

    I have a friend who has been to 40 countries or so, but can still be quite ignorant. I don’t expect people to change or that “nomadic epiphany” but I would have thought backpacking Europe and Southeast Asia would be somewhat eye opening.

    Now that I think about it, maybe it is, but the problem is that those impressions don’t last once you return home…

    • jess2716 on November 28, 2013 at 2:04 pm

      @Alyssa: Great point! It does often seem that we have these “life changing” moments on the road, but quickly revert back to our old habits. I also think many people tend to be egocentric without even realizing it, and their actions can reflect that, sadly.

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