How to be a Tourist without Behaving like a Tourist

Written by Katie May 25, 2016

I get it. It is almost impossible to not stick out as a foreigner when traveling within a different country. Our clothes don’t match, our dialect sounds strange, and our behavior, in general, simply does not line up. Hiding in your dorm room is not the solution to avoiding this reality. You can go out, see the world, and grasp everything it has to offer and simultaneously remain conscious of your actions as a student abroad. Regardless of the potential misfortunes, it is extremely possible for you to do everything you want to do while conforming to the social standards that a young person should uphold abroad.

First and foremost, learn the language.

I did not know a lick of Italian prior to studying abroad aside from “ciao”. When I say learn the language, I do not mean attempt to become a fluent speaker in a matter of short time. Instead, familiarize yourself with Italian words and phrases. The people of Italy appreciate your respect and attempt to conform to their culture. Speaking solely in English may come off as you trying to act superior and this is not the persona you would like to embody while living in a new country.

Look the part.

For some, it is quite obvious that you are not a native and this is indicated by your physical appearance. On campus here at CIMBA, it is secluded enough to wear whatever you would like when in the learning environment. Once you leave the gates of campus, things tend to change. Wearing graphic t-shirts and American logo apparel is not the wisest choice when traveling. One, it could possibly make you a subject of pick-pocketing or something even more severe (hate to think about it but it happens) because Americans tend to stereotypically have money and other valuables in their possession. Two, wearing the typical, casual clothing from home can, once again, make you seem as if you are trying to be superior or merely too lazy to observe Italian culture. The European culture is a bit more formal and modest and you should be respectful and adapt to these communal standards.

Observe, then act.

The simplest gestures in the United States mean so much more in Italy. It is not always pleasant when learning from mistakes, so try to make observations prior to acting for more immediate successes. One example comes from everybody’s favorite: coffee. In the U.S., many enjoy large frappuccinos, iced coffees, and hefty mugs in the mornings. Here, coffee is served in extremely small portions and certain kinds are only acceptable at certain times of the day. Take a look around you in the bar (here this is equivalent to a coffee shop), notice the portions, and refrain from asking for a large cup… you may look silly. Another example comes from my rainy trip to the bank. In America, I would normally shake off my umbrella in the doorway, wrap it up, and walk inside with it. This is not the case in Italy. Without even thinking, I brought my wet umbrella into the bank, and there I received many unusual and rather disappointed stares (mostly directed at my umbrella). I turned around, and at the doorway there was a large cylinder basket filled with everyone’s umbrellas. It would have been nice to notice this ahead of time, but now I know. Just remember that the smallest gestures make all the difference when abroad.

Don’t be the “Ugly American”.

This is a rather broad yet universal concept. I am focusing on how to not be an “Ugly American” by the way you physically present yourself, especially when traveling. Don’t have loud, rowdy conversations on trains. Always refrain from profanity. Don’t get into loud, upset conversations when something does not go your way. For example, on a trip this past weekend to Rome (which, by the way, was the best weekend of my life), my friends and I initially faced some adversity. The hostel we had booked for our stay never actually received our reservation, and for a small while, we were going to essentially be stranded in this enormous, eccentric city. We witnessed travelers experience similar predicaments, and they threw fits that made even me feel embarrassed of my country (which is very difficult). Regardless of the major freak out occurring in our heads, we remained completely calm, asked for other recommendations, and searched elsewhere. The hostel worker appreciated our feedback, thanked us for our composure, and lead us in the right direction. Everything ended up working out perfectly, and this may not have ever happened if we had acted as “Ugly Americans”.

Don’t be typical – try new things.

You’re out of the country. DO NOT refrain from everything Italy has to offer! There is a world of possibilities. Ask your waiter what he recommends. Go to places not on your schedule. Interact with the locals. Get lost and be okay with it – figure it out! Nothing can be predicted nor 100% planned. Roll with the punches and live your Italian life to the fullest.