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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Travel Tuesday - Making an impression

Let’s face it people like to put things in categories; it makes us more comfortable to think that we understand/know where everything is in relation to everything else.  Forget the old saying – you can’t judge a book by its cover – if someone doesn’t know you they are going to judge you by ‘your cover.’  American’s are brash and crude, French are rude, English are stuffy, Italians are the best lovers and the Swiss make great clocks. . . .

Think about it, Americans are different. I bet most of us could spot a non-American before they even opened their mouth to say something.  And American’s are certainly easy to spot outside of our own country (except for maybe Canada . . .)  We are separated from most of the world by vast oceans and until very recent history it took weeks or months to get here. Coming to America was a big undertaking and you had to be willing to take risks, to go outside of your comfort zone, and to leave everything that you knew behind for a better life.  And while a good majority of us are from families that have been here a long time, there are many who are not. 

My daughter and my younger brother’s kids are first generation Americans.  My daughter’s paternal grandmother didn’t speak any English when she arrived here about 5 weeks after my daughter was born.  Imagine leaving everything behind, your friends, your grandchildren and coming someplace literally on the other side of the world where you don’t speak the language. 

Is it surprising that the rest of the world thinks that we are a little too outgoing and uninhibited?  They got to keep their long standing traditions, we had to leave ours behind and create new ones.

As travelers we are representatives of our country, and I think that it is important to leave a good impression.  Here are some of my travel rules -

Travel rule #1- Be polite and courteous. 

Try to research the customs and practices of the country that you are visiting.  Learn some key phrases if you don’t speak the language, you don’t have to be perfect, remember the old saying – A is for effort.  If you are visiting a place of worship (church, mosque, synagogue, etc) dress conservatively and be respectful.

Travel rule #2 Go Local

It’s ok to check out the local McDonald’s or Starbucks to see how they are different (when I was in high school we were amazed at the beer on tap.)  But don’t make a habit of eating at American chain restaurants.  Really if you want to spend your time eating at the same places that you eat at when you are home why did you leave?

Travel Rule #3 Ask advice

Studying up in advance and reading guides books are great before you travel (or maybe for quick reference while you are there) but a real person who lives or works in the area can probably give you some good advice on where to go, and can give you more information then can fit in a book.  Really guide books are general and cover a lot of ground and as such can only give a very short description about places.

If you see something on a menu that you have never had and have no idea how to eat it or what it is – ask!  You will learn something new and maybe acquire a new favorite food. Or if you have no idea what to order, admit that you have no idea and ask for suggestions. And isn’t learning new things one of the reasons why you traveled to a different country?

Travel Rule #4 Be Flexible

Make sure that you plan for flexibility.  If you don’t speak the language, don’t know the customs and are unfamiliar with the geography you have to be flexible because unexpected things are bound to happen.  You missed your stop on the Metro, your taxi driver misunderstood you and now you are on the wrong side of town, you forgot to set your watch for the different time zone and the store is closed, you wanted decaf with soy and got a regular with cream.  Whatever happens, relax, take a deep breath and go with the flow.  Many times it is the unexpected that makes for a memorable experience.

Travel Rule #5 Be a little reserved

Remember that American’s are thought to be ‘brash’. Treat everyone as if you were in an important business meeting.  Personal questions rarely come up in business meetings.  Most people won’t want to hear your life story, and they don’t want to tell you theirs.

Travel Rule #6 Relax

Relax and enjoy yourself, that’s the whole point of a vacation.  Even the President has to work at starting an international incident.  The worst that will probably happen is that someone will have a new ‘crazy American’ story. 

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