…usually to make someone else feel more comfortable, or happy, even though it’s our vacation, and we might very well be in self-gratification overdrive… and if not, then our minds are already full of plans and distractions, addresses and schedules. Sound familiar? Even if you consider yourself a “tunnel-vision traveler,” the kind that has their nose to the itinerary and way more interest in the sights around them than the people, you might find yourself spending more energy than you planned in order to make things easier or nicer for someone else. Personally, I never cease to be amazed by fellow tourists who struggle against their own impatience, social anxiety, discomfort, or pride in the name of kindness or sensitivity to those around them (or waiting for them at home). Here are some observations of how we often make things a little harder for ourselves abroad… and usually don’t feel bad about it.
Speaking the Local Language When You Know the Other Person Speaks Good English. Sometimes even perfect English. But not necessarily comfortable English. What’s the big deal? you ask. Can’t the thousands of underpaid and overworked hotel receptionists at all the Americanized hotels out there just help us in our own language so we don’t have to choke on a few recitations out of a Lonely Planet phrasebook? Of course. But does it sometimes irritate or tire them out? Yes, they’ve told me when I’ve actually asked. Personally, I’ve been amazed at how exhausted and disconnected I can feel from my own thoughts and feelings when I have to navigate back and forth all day between two languages. For some of us it’s natural; for others, it’s a major brain-drain, and can make a person feel downright lonely. If I see a depressed Parisian hotel manager hang up the phone after clearly losing an argument in English, I’m going to do my best to converse with him in my rudimentary French. Yes, it stresses me out. But it helps him regain his confidence and frame of mind.
Smiling at Service People. Should we smile at the maid for cleaning our room? Will she think it’s condescending? Should we smile at the TSA security guy who looks like he’s ready to drop from exhaustion? Will he think I’m trying to distract him? Should I smile at the Muslim couple running a convenience store in East London, who just helped me pick up all my spilled groceries off the floor (what’s to smile about? Will the man think I’m being too forward?) or should I nod and get the heck out of their way? Well, often we’re not sure… especially if we’re in a drastically different cultural setting.
Am I alone in getting pretty nervous over little things like this? Probably not. It’s taken me awhile to realize that even if someone doesn’t smile back, it doesn’t usually mean they dislike your nice expression. They’re just too taken aback or tired to smile back.
Offering to Take Someone’s Photo. Have you ever actually said no to someone who asked you to take a photo of them in front of a landmark? Maybe if you had a baby in your arms, or were in a mad hurry. I know I feel a little bad for the oddball solo male or female traveler standing in the grass in front of the Eiffel Tower trying repeatedly to center themselves in front of their own camera… which is why I stop and offer to take their picture. I’m always worried it will result in an awkward conversation, or the person will follow me asking me to take another photo, or that (worse) I’ll do something and actually break their camera… but it never does. And it actually causes me less stress to offer a photo than see someone ten feet away obviously trying to work up the nerve to ask me. Afterwards I’ll think, what was the big deal?… and then some 80-year-old guy from Alabama will nab me near the Louvre and want me to help him buy a metro ticket.
Bothering to Mail Postcards. We have email, and cell phones. Some of us have Skype, and most of us have blogs. You can now send “digital postcards” from a variety of websites. So why do I find myself in line with many other befuddled tourists in a foreign post office as we try to figure out how much it costs to send where, and how? Apparently I’m not the only one who has a sentimental thing for a mass-produced piece of cardstock with barely enough room to describe what I did for the day, much less how I feel about it. But I know that card is going to mean the world to a parent or grandparent who can’t find the power button on a computer, much less remember to be by their phone at midnight Central European Summer Time (CEST) when I try to call.
Yes, it’s often a royal pain to figure out the local version of the Royal Mail. For example, I’ve asked three different Correo attendees in Buenos Aires how much it costs to mail a card to the U.S., and gotten three different answers. I’ve heard of people wasting a good afternoon of touring trying to track down the DHL service in Moscow only to end up at the rather inefficient and expensive local post office. And I’ve had my share of beautifully-written postcards simply never make it to their recipients. To be honest, I have mail postcards on my to-do list for every city right under look up local embassy and do laundry. Yes, it can be a chore, and a source of possible stress. Some things on a trip just are. But most of the time we find them to be well worth it.
Ever been late to a nice tourist attraction while you fretted over whether the postcard that fits into the little box would actually make its way across the ocean?