“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.” – Paul Theroux
Last week a friend and I took a stroll down the beach (yes, it was warm enough in Massachusetts to walk on the beach!) and I said that I strongly disliked traveling in large groups of people–a fact that is slightly problematic seeing as I will be with a group of about 24 people for about four months, all traveling together. I supposed I’ll get used to it. I don’t so much mind driving around towns with large groups of people, but I really don’t like very much flying in a large group of people. (Regardless, I’m still excited to meet all of my fellow Italy-adventurers when we meet in the airport in D.C.) My friend asked me why it was that I so disliked flying in large groups. Although there are several reasons, the one that I gave was this: so often, large groups of people are associated with tourism. You either have camera-happy tourist snapping a picture of the millionth stray dog you’ve seen, or billions of whining kids who are hungry and want something to eat, or the obnoxiously loud American tour group with no regard to cultural differences. I would rather not be associated with any of these stereotypes.
But more importantly, as I think ahead to the four months that I will spend in Italy, I don’t want to be a tourist. You can be a tourist with or without a tour group, and I would rather not be one in either situation. I think I realized this first when I was visiting Chiang Mai, one of the tourism centers of Southeast Asia, if not the world. For that city, tourism was a legitimate industry. And tourists flocked to it. I still enjoyed Chiang Mai, but the feeling that I was constantly being ripped off because I was American got old very fast. People see you differently.
At that point, I realized that my time in Italy could be spend in different ways. One of the ways was to approach it as an American tourist. And here I use the word “tourist” not just to represent people who take pictures of everything they see. As a tourist, I could enter Italy, be in awe of the art and architecture, history and literature, people and food, take pictures of it all, travel every week that I can to another country in Europe, disregard cultural differences and blame it on myself being American, but never build relationships with anyone or get to know the town itself, or enjoy it for what it is in its own right.
Or I could enter Italy as a visitor. A foreigner, yes, there’s no way to get around that. But as a visitor who is intent upon engaging in the town for itself, learning it’s history and norms, embracing its culture. Pictures are still valuable and important, but it’s the experiences that become the focus, and the relationships that you form with people that make an impact on you and stay with you for ever.
I opt for the latter choice. There is not getting around traveling in groups–and I look forward to the friendships that I will make in my group–but I think it is partially the attitude that you go in with, as well as the choices that you make, that determine whether you will experience a country as a tourist and an outsider or as a foreigner who becomes the fabric of a town’s life. I will always carry some touristic attributes with me during this trip, and I will only be there for four short months, but hopefully I will be able to experience the town more as a native than as a tourist.