5 Ways to Not Feel Like a Tourist Abroad
Two years abroad taught me a lot about making the most of whatever city you’re in. It taught me how to find connections with places and people that at first might feel foreign and above all how to avoid the unnerving and unsatisfying sensation of being a tourist.
I grew up in the Northeastern United States, and went to college about 30 minutes from home (which, when you’re talking about the US, is essentially next-door). When I graduated, I decided it was finally time for a change and moved to a small village outside of Paris to practice my French and teach English in the local high school. I later moved to London to start working for the Kaplan International content marketing team.
It took a bit of practice for an American from the New England suburbs to feel fully at home in the bustling capitals of two foreign cities. Here are some lessons I discovered along the way.
1. Take a deep breath and learn a little at a time
On one of my first days in London, I got lunch with another American I’d met. When we went to pay, he nervously held up several people in line as he tried to figure out the coins in his pocket. He clearly wasn’t from the area (although, in his defense, the values of British coins aren’t exactly obvious).
The small differences are sometimes the most shocking in a new place. You expect the city to feel different, but it’s when you struggle with basic comforts like money or saying hello that you’re most likely to feel like a foreigner.
Don’t expect yourself to know everything right away – learn a little at a time, and be proud of small improvements rather than frustrated at failures. Start by memorizing that the thick gold-colored coin is a pound, and the weird 7-sided one is 50p. That’s enough to get you by, and every coin after that is a bonus!
2. Get lost early and often
The biggest difference between a tourist and a local is that a tourist wants to get in, see the things his guidebook told him to see, and move on.
It’s only when you let yourself wander that you really get to know a city. Take a quick look at a map to discover the different areas and recognize place names you’ll hear. From there, give yourself a chance every week or two to wander around with no particular goal. Get off at a subway stop you’ve never heard of and see what you find – whether the Gantry Plaza State Park in New York, old movie locations in San Francisco, or the statue of Amy Winehouse in Camden.
3. Get to know real locals
Even in cities whose inhabitants might at first be slightly more reserved around strangers, it’s not hard to interact with people who can give you an insider’s knowledge of the area. In cities with particularly friendly personalities, it’s almost hard not to meet people!
My first few weeks in London, Kaplan let me stay in one of our homestays while I looked for my own apartment. Leaving St Pancras International a bit nervous about getting used to such a big city, I found a welcome comfort staying with a real British family. They told me about everything from how to use an Oyster card to which bars were popular amongst people my age. Homestays are a great way to have a friendly home and a constant stream of advice.
In Paris, I used a website called Conversation Exchange to arrange one-on-one conversations with local Parisians. The site matched people who wanted to practice foreign languages (French for me, English for them). There are plenty of sites and mobile apps that let you meet people in the area, so be sure to take advantage. Otherwise, there’s always the old fashioned way in person, which is easier than you might think.
4. Embrace not knowing things and share your story
Sometimes it can feel exhausting to be a foreigner learning a new culture. That’s not a bad thing, though – in many cases, it’s actually an advantage!
As a foreigner, you’re new and interesting. People want to talk to you, especially when you show that you’re trying to learn their language. It’s a great opportunity to ask people about themselves and their country. You learn things a tourist would never hear and also make a few friends along the way. They’ll also likely be curious about where you’re from and what brought you to their country.
There will be days where you want to be with your old friends and family or to be in your home city. For me, it was hardest on Thanksgiving, one of the most important family days of the year in the US that passed exactly like any other Thursday in the UK.
Even though I may not have eaten my traditional turkey at 4pm, I must have explained a dozen times why poultry, gravy, and football amounts to one of the most important days on the American calendar. So, while I was clearly not in my home country, I still experienced my own culture by sharing it with others.
5. Don’t let fear of being a tourist prevent you from doing things
You might first realize you’re really not a tourist when you find yourself glaring at actual tourists who block walkways and stop abruptly for selfies. There is a difference between seeing touristy things and acting like a tourist.
You have the advantage of seeing landmarks at unusual times when the tourists won’t be so overwhelming. Even if you somehow end up caught in the crowds, just act like someone who knows the city and don’t get in the way of others.
With more time to work with, you can also see a much wider variety of things.
Did you know that there is a Counterfeit Museum (Musée de la Contrefaçon) in Paris, or a Cartoon Museum in London? Quirky attractions like these are usually pretty cheap and give you a much broader view of the city.
If you take away nothing else, remember that a “tourist” is just a state of mind. Do your best to understand the city, don’t expect too much of yourself, and go out of your way to learn as much as you can, and you’ll never be a tourist again.
Want to share a story of when you realized you were no longer a tourist? We’d love to hear it in the comments. If you are interested in learning more about how to learn English abroad, contact one of our advisors for more information.