With a cappuccino on the table in front of me, I watch the world go by from the front of a tiny café. Sneaking out before the morning rush, I fold the newspaper I was reading, tilt my head up and say Ciao to the waiter, who smiles and waves.
“See you tomorrow Bobbi,” he says.
I’d love to stay but I have a busy day ahead: a stop at San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale to shop for dinner, a few hours with my language partner and a meal with friends I made at an art gallery opening last weekend.
And to think, I only just arrived in Florence one week ago.
Many travellers are fascinated with the art of going local in a foreign place. If you think about it, it’s sort of ironic to want to transition into a similar routine as you have at home while you’re on vacation. But once you feel like you’re a part of the everyday norms of a new place and culture, you completely understand the lure of it.
Many tour companies and guide books market themselves as having insider tips and showing people where the locals hang out. While a lot of them do fulfill that, you’re never going to actually feel like a local until you close that guide book and start living like one. It might seem impossible upon arrival, but there are a few ways to make it happen.
You’re never going to fully understand a destination by only spending a few days there. To truly get to know the culture and become a part of the lifestyle, one must spend weeks, maybe even months there. Think of one country you’ve always wanted to learn about more in depth. Whether it be closing your eyes and pointing to somewhere on a map or heading to the sort of area you usually enjoy, pick one city or small town in that country and plan to stay put for at least three weeks. What you’ll lose in not constantly moving around to see more sights, you’ll gain in personal interactions and deeper lessons into the lifestyle by watching it day to day.
Rent an Apartment
Staying long in a place isn’t enough. You need to live like the locals and that’s not going to happen at a Holiday Inn. There are so many flat or apartment rental services available to travellers today that you won’t have a problem finding one. Plus, it might even be more affordable than staying at a hotel. Make sure your flat has a kitchen so you can shop at local food markets and try cooking the cuisine of the region you are visiting.
Become a Regular
When the waiter at a café brings you your coffee or breakfast without you even having to order, you’re getting somewhere. The biggest part of going local is actually getting to know the locals, and you can start doing this with your morning coffee. A familiar face is nice no matter where you go and frequenting the same café creates that. You can learn so much by just starting a conversation with the staff or other regulars at an establishment, and the more they see you, the more they’ll open up. You might even make a friend. Plus, getting into some sort of routine, whether it be the same café in the morning or bar at night, creates the idea that you belong there.
Volunteer or Take a Class
If following a routine and getting to know people is your goal, there’s no better place to do that than in a group setting where all the people involved are trying to achieve the same thing. Whether it be a one-month language course or three-week volunteer project, this will allow you to build relationships and friendships while also learning about the country. You’ll meet a mix of locals and travellers like yourself.
Build a Social Calendar
Grab the local paper, look at a bulletin board at that café you’ve been frequenting or visit an events website for the location you’re visiting. Look to the next happening in your area of interest whether it’s art, nature or food. Go! This will this give you something new to try, but it will also allow you to meet people with similar interests to your own. It’s a chance to open up conversation with people and maybe even join a circle of friends
Whether you only use one of these recommendations or all of them, each will allow you to dig deeper into a culture than you would on the traditional trip. It’s easy to look at a place from the outside—all you need is money and eyes. To truly feel a part of it? That takes a bit more effort on your part. But those experiences and moments with new friends will stick with you far longer than any building or church everyone said you had to see.
by Bobbi Lee Hitchon