This morning, before I left the apartment, I read Nomadic Matt’s blog post entitled Four Ways to Avoid Being a Tourist and you can read it here. For the record, I agree with Matt’s tips for dressing to minimize the risk of getting ripped off (and I thank him for his post) but I must have been thinking about the related issue of blending in – of appearing like the locals do – as I walked through Gracia in Barcelona on my way to my hair appointment. As I crossed the street I passed a woman with her knapsack on her front. Tourist? No, absolutely not. She was wearing the uniform of Gracia’s young hipsters – dreadlocks and baggy pants made from jersey knit. She was carrying her less than fashionable knapsack on her front to stop it from being stolen by one of our intrepid street thieves. If you lived in Barcelona, you would too! Next I passed a woman wearing a yellow t-shirt – a yellow that can be described only in terms of Tweetie Bird. I’m talking about canaries, here. Tourist, right? What self-respecting Spanish woman would be caught wearing this colour? Again, no. She was barking into her cell phone in rapid-fire Catalan. I spotted woman number three farther along on Gran de Gracia. At first glance, I assumed she was local. Chic black cotton top and long hippie skirt. Uber-cool German-inspired glasses. Stylish, metallic-coloured strappy birkenstok sandals. A large black leather bag worn diagonally across her body. So European. Wait! She was wearing a sweater tied around her waist. Nope. “Definitely not from here” was what I was thinking as she pulled a tiny digital camera from her bag and began to shoot a few pictures of the stain-glassed windows of the modernisme building across the street. I got that she’s not a local and I myself am not from Barcelona or Spain or Europe, even. But I do know that it was the sweater… that’s where she slipped.
Then it occurred to me. So what?
That’s an excellent question. It didn’t take me long to realize that I cannot abide by this notion that when North Americans travel to Europe that they ought to do everything in their power to blend in… to look European or, at the very least, less North American. Undoubtedly you’ve encountered stories of the scandalous reputation earned by the little white runner. I guess I can’t help but wonder who it is, exactly, we hope to please when we adopt this way of thinking. Europeans? If a detail as small as a sweater tied around a waist can betray your well-planned Euro-outfit, maybe it’s just not worth the bother. I think they know who we are! (They’re very smart.)
For two years I have lived in Europe. Europeans, in eight nation-states, have been mostly kind and helpful to me. At the very least, they have been tolerant of egregious language errors and unfortunate fashion choices. Enter my winter jacket. It is, perhaps, the most Canadian piece of outerwear ever made. The shell is periwinkle blue and black and it is meant to be worn over a fleece, the twin parts protecting me from snow and sleet and rain and locusts and temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees. Celsius. This is not a sexy coat but I’m a school teacher and I don’t lose too much sleep about this issue. I want to say that I have been warmly greeted in this same oh-so-Canadian coat in Paris, Budapest, the Cinque Terre, Rome, Lisbon, Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain (although, to be fair, in the small city where the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage ends, I was one of the better dressed people) and in Madrid where my wardrobe won no contests whatsoever. In all of our winter-time travels, my coat has only led to poor service twice; ironically we had both of our bad experiences at the same Florentine restaurant called 13 Gobbi (can you believe that I actually named it!) where the Maitre D’ treated me like a leper. He did not approve of my not-so-chic winter coat and he punished us for it by moving us after we had ordered and by being rude. (Honestly, you would think that I might have learned my lesson the first time!) At the end of the day, DP and I are hopeful optimists and only rarely disappointed.
I want to say that clothes don’t make the traveler.
The world is a large and mostly wonder-filled place to live. Some of us are fortunate enough to have both the desire and sufficient resources to travel to other corners of that world to see mountains, monuments and, most importantly, how people live their lives. Travel is a truly great pursuit. Rather than worrying so much about how your travel wardrobe stacks up against those of the women of Europe (let’s keep in mind that there are a lot of women in Europe and that they can’t possibly all be well-dressed) I recommend that you spend your pre-trip time doing the following:
1. Research… learn everything you can about your destination
Read blogs and books and magazines. Watch travel shows and movies. Before my very first trip to Europe, I read French cookbooks, a history of the French revolution, Almost French: Love and a New Life In Paris by Sarah Turnbull, and guide to all things French called Savoir Flair: 211 Tips for Enjoying France and the French by Polly Platt. Ms. Platt taught me that when I entered a French store I should always say hello. “Bonjour.” I practiced my chirpy little greeting. She also instructed that I should not, under any circumstance (no matter how tempting a piece of merchandise appeared) reach out and touch it! I should ask for assistance from the store clerk. So, when we visited Paris, I took her advice. No one mocked my high school french, my hiking boots or my Canadian coat. The French were perfectly lovely.
2. Buy (or borrow from your local library) a current travel guide
The travel guides that best suit our needs are Rick Steves’ guides to European countries, regions and cities. For you, the perfect guide might be Lonely Planet or Rough Guide or Eyewitness or Frommers. Buy the newest edition available. When you consider that you are about to spend hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on your trip, 25 dollars for a travel guide is a tiny price to pay, and one that can make an enormous difference. Now, read it from cover to cover. Use a a highlighter to keep track of sights, restaurants and hotels. Write notes in the margins. Make it yours… unless it belongs to the library.
3. Choose a hotel in a neighbourhood with “YOU” written all over it!
Read about the various districts or neighbourhoods that make up your destination city. Is there a particular neighbourhood that appeals to you more than others. How far is the neighbourhood from the sights? Don’t be afraid to choose a place that is a little bit off the beaten track… so long as you know how you will reach the city centre (metro, bus train), how long the ride will take, and how much transportation will cost. In Paris we stay in the Seventh District on Rue Cler because it is village-like and reminds us of home. (Actually, it is very much like Gracia, our neighbourhood in Barcelona.) We jump on the metro at Ecole Militaire and can reach most of the major sites within ten to 15 minutes. We can walk to the Eiffel Tower from our hotel and that little fact fills me with joy. The seventh is our district.
4. Plan only the beginnings of an itinerary
When DP and I travel to a new place, we normally have a short list of things we’d really like to see and do. If something requires a reservation (such as a special guided tour or a museum such as the Uffizi Gallery in Florence) I have already booked it from home. Then we just roll with it. This relaxed approach allows us to slow down when we want… to stay longer in Siena, to take an afternoon nap, to spend a decadent afternoon taking photographs of the neighbourhood of Trastevere in Rome. We are on vacation; the last thing we want is a holiday that starts to feel like work.
5. Pack for the trip you are taking
I recommend packing good quality clothing that will allow you to move, climb stairs and walk all day long in comfort. Same goes for shoes. Choose favourite pieces that can be worn with several other things in your trip wardrobe. The clothing and shoes you pack should be tried and true; do not try to break in a new pair of shoes on your trip. Make sure that you are prepared for cold and for rain; this goes back to researching your destination. Pack something suitable for visiting churches (no bare shoulders and no shorts is still the rule of thumb in most European churches). Bring something “nice” (however you define that) for dinners and special evenings out. Assemble a travel wardrobe that is truly you.
If travelling in Europe inspires you to take a bold new fashion direction – to wear scarves, to buy more skirts, to wear higher heels, that’s lovely. But the thing that matters to Europeans – just as it does to people everywhere – is that we are respectful when we visit their city. That we are not seeking North America in Europe (this includes North American coffee, food or toilets) or constantly making comparisons. That we are engaged fully with the place and the people we are visiting.
Don’t worry so much about your shoes. If you are enjoying your travels, everybody will be looking at your smile.