Tired of the white beaches and sparkling water? Annoyed by local guides who put on shows and try to convince you that yes, really, the local inhabitants of the area really are old ladies who do nothing but all sit all day in their doorsteps clothed in checkered aprons, carefully crafting little lace napkins? (Yes, Bruges, I am talking to you. Go away oh European Medieval Disneyland town, you annoy me). Vaguely wondering whether crossing this is actually part of most Parisians daily commute?
Well, you’re right. All of the above is not really experiencing a country; spending a few days in a place, no matter how intensively you try to drown yourself in local culture and no matter how knowledgeable your guide, still will not give you a feel of what it’s like to actually live there. How can you hope to get to know the complex history and gain even a smattering of understanding about the richness of a country like Poland if you do the lightning tour with old-style Krakow for breakfast, the salt mines of Wieliczka for lunch, and Auschwitz for dinner? (Side note: If you ever go visit Auschwitz or any other of the Nazi death camps, which I think everybody should do at least once in their lives, do not plan anything at all for the rest of the day; I guarantee you will be reeling from the magnitude of human depravity and not have it in you to do anything else afterward).
Of course, visiting other countries is still worthwhile – every such trip, no matter how leisure-focused and as such by definition ‘unreal’ is a little glimpse into how people actually live, work and play in places far from our everyday interaction.
So how do you actually experience a country? How do you start to feel like a ‘local’? How do you see what their life is really like?
The answer does not lie in organized tours of cities; the answer does not lie even in homestays advertised as ‘close to the heart of the real country” (or the very popular late Polish invention: “agrotourism” for all you Polish farmers at heart!).
No, the only real way to get to know a city and its heart is one – get a job, move there, and then try to find a room to rent.
Only while you wander around an unidentified neighborhood, trying desperately to figure out why like in the Dire Straits’ song the ‘streets have no name” and why that strange man is following you and where that damn bus is stopping because it’s obviously not stopping where it’s supposed to that you actually start to experience a city for real.
Actually, I take that back. It’s only when you knock on the door, enter inside and meet your first potential landlord who talks more to her cats than to you, or tells you that it’s good that you are white/black/purple, or find half of a bed being offered to you as a living space that you realize that, indeed, this is the real kind of tourism, where you will break down whatever visage the city tries to present and uncover what really makes it – the people who live there and their quirks.
Stay braced for a whole host of stories – I once spent a few hours regaling my new Greyhound acquiantance with horror stories from various room searches in various European and American cities, so there is plenty of material.
But I’m too exhausted from getting lost in yet another not-quite-as-convenient-to-public-transport-as-the-ad-promised-neighborhood after sunset to write more today. Stay tuned!