Wednesday, June 28, 2006

How to be a Good Tourist

Dimanche.

Walking around Nantes today, I saw quite a few American tourists en plein air. I guess tourist season has begun because I haven’t seen any of them for three weeks, and today they’re suddenly everywhere. They’re usually easy to identify, just like I am actually. As I’ve said, very few French people over the age of 14 wear tee-shirts, so whenever I’ve seen a group of people in their 20s walking my way in tee-shirts, I could predict with great accuracy that they would be speaking English. Also, they tended to be a bit chunkier than your average French person. I know it’s a stereotype, and they weren’t nearly as large as the stereotype suggests, but they were a bit softer than what I’ve seen around here. On the other hand, I’ve seen some French women who were downright skeletal, so I’m not convinced that a little softness is a terrible thing. Lastly, something I notice whenever I cross from Canada into the US, and it holds true here too- Americans are louder than anyone else. And again, the French are reserved and aloof, so when you hear a crowd having a loud and boisterous conversation, and they’re not in a pub, it’s generally in English.

One funny thing- almost all of the tourists that I’ve seen were college aged kids and every group of them that I passed this morning (five or six) was having exactly the same conversation: this one time they saw a guy who did something really stupid and looked like an idiot. “Dude, did you totally bust on him?” “No, but I totally should have! What a dick!” I started thinking that maybe they all know the same person!

Tourists tend to annoy locals, and to a certain extent, what they provoke are just petty resentments. It might be true that Americans are chunkier and more gregarious, or that Japanese tourists move in larger groups, or whatever, but being offended by these things seems fairly trite. It is true that groups of similar people are often dismissive, or downright hostile to outsiders, but this doesn’t mean that their gripes are especially legitimate. Just as there are ugly tourists, there can be ugly locals too. Sometimes, people really do need to lighten up.

There are, however, some fairly legitimate problems that people have with tourists. Many tourists forget that people actually live where they’re traveling, and can behave like these places are their playgrounds. Since most American tourists are college kids, a certain percentage of them are used to an educational experience that frankly amounts to a four-year chartered booze cruise, and want to continue the party wherever they go. Most tourist areas I’ve been to have had the problem of loud drunken kids, who of course, are just as often locals. But, when you live in a certain place and you see the Auslanders drunk and pissing in the alley, it tends to chafe a little.

The other problem is that different countries have very different ideas of “customer service”. French pâtisseries are staffed by some of the friendliest women in the world, but French train stations expect that their travelers can take care of themselves for the most part. And some shops are simply run by clerks who do not feel like being friendly to their customers. The older American tourists that you see tend to be much more put off by this than the college kids are. One of the more amusing scenes I’ve witnessed was a woman at the Paris train station who had missed her train and was hyperventilating at the ticket desk girl. “But I have little ones with me! Why didn’t anyone tell me that the train would leave so soon?! What kind of place is this?!” Needless to say, this sort of behavior is not particularly endearing to locals.

Lastly, fair or not, it’s usually a very good idea to know a little of the local language. Certainly, there are plenty of French people who know English, but walking up to a stranger and saying: “Excuse moi. Où est la banque?” breaks the ice much better than strolling up and saying, “Do you speak any English?” in a loud voice, which I’ve also seen a tourist do.

The most common problem that people have with tourists is one that actually goes back to the beginnings of organized tourism. Tourism really begins in the mid-1800s in Europe, and is tied to the development of the steam engine, and railroads. Before this, there had been travelers, who would make voyages of a year or more to various locations around the world, but they tended to be a bit rarer, and arguably more serious about engaging with the places they went. At least, this is how they saw themselves. Eugene Fromentin, a Romantic painter and author who spent a year in the Sahara in the late 1850s complained that there was a critical difference between voyageurs and touristes, namely that voyageurs allow themselves to be moved by the places they visit, while touristes barely see them. This is a very romantic way of phrasing it, but it gets at a perennial complaint about tourists- they’re more interested in experiencing themselves touring than they are in the places they’re visiting. Their obliviousness tends to stem from a real and surprising lack of interest. “Point me to the Hotel, and the bar, and maybe show me some funny locals, and I’ll be just fine.

But, again, I think that people should travel and experience as much as they possibly can. We’re still a lot freer than we realize, and maybe some of us will even “go local”. Therefore, I offer a few tips for the tourist:

1) Get one of those corny travel books that tell you how to ask for things in the local language. People are much happier being asked questions in a lousy version of their language then they are having a stranger approach them speaking a foreign lingo. And, there are a still a lot of people who don't speak any English.

2) Pay attention to the people around you. Don’t crowd them, or force them to step off the sidewalk to get around you. Don’t wander out into traffic, or start talking loudly in a quiet building. Try to remember that you’re a guest and act accordingly. Be polite!

3) Understand that employees of foreign businesses are not there to take care of you and make sure that you’re happy. This is a commonplace of the American service economy, and again, if the local clerk is going to glare at you coldly while ringing up your postcards, it’s really nothing personal.

4) Step outside of your comfort zone a little. You don’t need to eat every meal at McDonalds and refuse to see any movies because they’re in a foreign tongue. You don’t need to always travel in packs. Take time to wander down lonely roads that aren’t in the shopping district. Be attentive and be present in the world.

This is good advice anywhere actually.

5 comments:

The Pagan Temple said...

Anyody that travels to France and eats in a MacDonalds should have their passports revoked.

clairev said...

listen,

in french mcdonald's, they have orangina ON TAP. i defend the right to go in there and experience my most favorite of beverages in large quantities.

the food is the same, so it doesn't really matter, but i will keep my passport, as well as my orangina on tap (a huge lovely wonderful novelty), and y'all can bite me.

c

The Pagan Temple said...

Well, I guess as long as you don't have to ask for directions there.

Rufus said...

What's weird about France too is that, if you don't plan it well, there are a lot of times when you have to eat at McDonald's because it's the only thing open. Claire will attest that you really have to prepare for Sundays, or you end up like I did having to eat McNuggets because everyone else is closed.

The Pagan Temple said...

I would be vary of going into a MacDoanlds at night, in France, when everything else is closed, especially in Paris.

But thanks to the download I got to answers.com on my Firefox browser, at least I know what Orangina is.