“Yoo arh Ameriken… but yoo now leeve in France?”
In the four years that we lived in the French countryside, this was by far the most common statement in the form of a question that we fielded. No matter the social setting or amount of wine consumed, there was always someone curious enough to ask what every other French person in the room was thinking, “Why on earth did you move your family here?”
Each of these exchanges would have been innocent enough, were it not for the honest looks of bewilderment that came along with the question. Looking at the expressions of our French friends and colleagues, you’d think we’d just booked Hitler’s Führerbunker on Airbnb for the last week of April 1945.
After all, have they forgotten this is France people! France, one of the most sought after destinations in the world. Correction, THE most sought-after destination in the world, attracting over 86 million international visitors every year, according to The World Bank. This beats out America by over 10 million people, even though France is roughly the size of Texas.
Can you imagine 86 million visitors coming through Texas every year? If you’re Texan, you probably assume that many people do.
They don’t. Sorry, Texas.
“Why are you here?”
One of the best indicators that you’re experiencing something truly immersive, truly authentic as a world traveler is if the locals are asking or wondering the same question: “Why on did you come here?”
Note, this doesn’t mean that you have to seek out the world’s most dangerous destinations and get kidnapped to find your way off the beaten track. It does, however, mean skipping the world’s top destinations if you’re looking for a transformative personal experience.
This isn’t because cities like Rome, Paris, and New York aren’t beautiful. They’re all striking in their own eye-popping, nose-hair-curling kinda way. They’re also not lacking in things to see, being home to some of mankind’s greatest achievements in art, architecture, science, you name it.
Which is precisely why they’re each filled well past overflowing with strangers. Think “overflowing” seems a bit dramatic? Take a look at this graph:
This could explain why, when you’re walking down the street in Paris, or Barcelona, you’re more likely to hear English than Spanish being spoken (at least there’s a good chance your pickpocket is still local).
It might also explain the reasoning behind an overabundance of souvenir shops filled with random and obscene English t-shirts, empty Starbucks coffee cups left for dead in places you’d never expect to see them, and random dudes wandering in pedestrian zones whispering “want hashish?” in English, as you pass by. That last one might just be my problem, as I have a habit of dressing down and letting my hair go while traveling.
Stop being someone else’s job
How many times have you heard a return traveler complain about their rude French waiter or mean New York City cab driver? How many times have you heard a friend’s horror story about being pickpocketed in Barcelona or Rome?
It’s hard to judge a book by its cover, but people make assumptions about a population all the time based on what they’ve experienced in that country’s least authentic locations; tourist traps filled to overflowing with people who make their living from dealing with tourists.
Pickpockets aside, imagine spending all of your working hours catering to hoards of tourists, many of them “ugly tourists” and tell me that wouldn’t have an impact on your degree of job satisfaction.
“An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, [it never occurring] to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you.”— Jamaica Kincaid
For travelers, it’s a bit of a catch-22 when you travel to cities that have evolved over time to cater primarily to foreigners. Like a cog, you’re immediately inserted into the clockwork of the tourist trap, visiting the “top 10 places to see,” eating at the “top 10 places to eat,” and seeing the “top 10 sights.”
The problem is that you’re not a novelty in this state, you’re not even a human being. You are simply someone else’s job, a way to earn their living.
How to escape the tourist traps
The idea of authentic travel is catching on, which means that today there are plenty of ways to break out of the typical tourist treadmill.
Here are the four most effective ways we’ve found to have a more authentic, meaningful experience in our 16+ years traveling abroad as a family:
1. Book with locals
Services such as Airbnb Experiences, where you’re booking directly with a local or shop owner, are a great way to get off the well-trodden path in big cities.
Tip: For an even more authentic exchange, look for experiences that are new to the platform or have high reviews in small quantities. The more established the Experience, the greater the likelihood it is to feel “packaged,” thus decreasing the emotional and mental payoffs.
2. Stay outside the city
Staying in a smaller neighborhood outside major tourist destinations can be a great way to get a better feel for local life. You’ll not only get more of the “Why did you come here?” vibe, but you’ll probably also pay a significantly lower nightly rate. Some of those savings will be offset by commute time and tickets, but it’s worth it if you’re seeking authenticity over convenience.
3. Stop moving around
Most of the ugliness in tourism comes from our tendency to “veni, vidi, vici” the crap out of any experience. We show up, conquer the bucket list experiences (making sure to document on our social feeds), and then take off before we really know anyone or anything about where we’ve been.
Try staying put and enjoy the benefits of slow travel. Instead of planning daily itineraries around “Top 10 things to do” (most of which is stuff locals don’t do, ironically), let a destination take form as you settle in to more normal, everyday activities: an afternoon at the park, an evening out in a new neighborhood, a leisurely Sunday stroll along the main pedestrian area.
4. Get uncomfortable
If you’re looking to maximize your experience abroad, then don’t be afraid of getting off the tourist grid entirely. Instead of going to Rome or Paris to see what millions of other people have seen (that same day), go find a small village in the countryside and make a friend or go volunteer in an area of the world that needs your help (even just down the street).
Unsurprisingly, you’ll find that such exchanges will have a greater impact on your personal development than any Paris, Barcelona, or New York, because, unlike top tourists sights, they’re void of tourists and full of authentic human connection.
Travel for a change
Next time you’re booking a trip, consider carefully why you want to visit your destination. Not all trips to cities like Paris, Barcelona, or New York are fruitless, but there are plenty of cases of people going simply for the sake of checking off a bucket list item and coming back with little more than a a few hundred extra photos in the camera roll.
Scrap the bucket lists and, instead, make a new list: a list of the ways you’d like to have your next trip help you become a better spouse, sibling, or friend.
Coming from that approach, you’re guaranteed to get off the beaten path and find a more fulfilling, rewarding journey that you’ll cherish for years to come.