Nobody wants to be a "touristy" tourist
No one wants to be a cultural idiot on vacation, but it’s easy to become one while away. Just ask the Californians I once met in Athens who asked a taxi driver what the religion was in Greece (his response: socialism). Or, for that matter, anyone in America who’s expected a decent or non-embarrassed tip from a Brit (sorry guys).
Nobody expects you to be an expert on their country, but to avoid causing offence by not knowing the basics; you need to know a little. Here’s how to mug up with minimal hassle.
Novels: You don’t need to read huge academic tomes to get a feel for the history of a place – a novel set there will give you an idea, and give you a heads up on the culture as well. These days I never travel anywhere without having read some kind of book on it, whether it’s a historical novel set in wartime Greece or a Harlequin romance based in Vegas.
Films: Like books, films can be a great way of getting a handle on history, especially the darker moments in countries’ past. There’s a whole genre of Spanish films dealing with the Franco years, for example (start with Carlos Saura) and watching Godard or Cocteau films will give you a better feel for the Paris of old than any book can.
Guidebooks: Don’t chance it without a guidebook – unless you’re on a scheduled tour, you’ll need one. You don’t need to follow it to the letter, obviously, but it’s good to have suggestions to hand – but more importantly, the background reading in the history section is a great précis of what you need to know.
News: Check up on what’s going on in that part of the world before you arrive – it’ll not only help you make conversation, but you’ll understand the feel on the streets. For example, you shouldn’t be getting on a plane to London any time soon without mugging up on the most exciting General Election in generations. Once you’re there, find the local English language newspaper and see what’s going on.
Language: Even if it’s just bringing a phrasebook with you, it’s good to have a bit of knowledge of the local language. A different culture seems much more within your grasp when you can communicate – in however basic a way – with the locals.
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