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When visiting, how a city isn’t a country

Posted by Christopher Wink on Nov 12, 2008 in Commentary |

WDSTL at Tour Eiffel by We Don't Speak The Language.

I haven’t really been to the United Kingdom or England or whatever you’d like to call it. I spent less than a week in London, the country’s most populous city and de facto capital. That doesn’t offer much insight into the English mentality. Come to think of it, five days doesn’t allow me to know much about London itself.

I am on year five living in Philadelphia. I started out in a secluded dormitory for the city’s largest university, before renting out the ground floor of a fine rowhome in the Lower Tioga neighborhood.

I don’t know Philadelphia.

Forgive me, but I think this is a lesson I can actually empart. If you take the oft-criticized jet-setting tour like we’ve done, bouncing between big, aged, international cities in Europe, those most trafficked of locales, you won’t have the time to come near to any deep cultural understanding of the places you visit.

That would be fine if people - even those who have had similar experiences - would understand that.

In high school, I studied French, classes that largely revolved around norms of France and culture of Paris. I spent three days in that global center, a few more in Lyon - the second largest city in the country.

Still, I would be a fool to think I can speak educatedly on even those cities I visited, forget the country as a whole. As I say again and again and again - ask Sean - I wouldn’t want anyone to think they know or understand or have insight into Americans because they visited Philadelphia, or Chicago or even Des Moines.

Peeping at the Eiffel Tower, or the Liberty Bell or visiting a Cracker Barrel doesn’t let someone come near to the complexities of a country. Too many travelers of all ages are quick to pass themselves off as experts because they followed a Lonely Planet guide for a few months - and often even less.

I was ecstatic to speak French in Brussels. If I fell into such a trap, I may have been surprised to see so much French was spoken in Belgium. Of course, Brussels is the northern exception in a country mostly divided between Flemish and Francophones. I’ve never been in Belgium; I spent a few days in its capital.

Travel. If you have to - and understand you aren’t doing more than seeing a surface layer - visit places for just a few days, but remember, you are a casual tourist. Don’t fancy yourself anything more. Next time someone engages in cultural stereotypes, be wary to join in - even if asked - as if you offer anything more than brief experiences.

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