Having now worked at Rick Steves’ Europe for over a year, I have spent many hours with a phone wedged between my head and my shoulder or my hands planted on our front counter talking to people about travel. Together, we’ve covered topics from how to navigate the fjords of Norway to which Swiss rail pass to purchase to why no, you cannot quick pop into Amsterdam during your four-hour layover, Marsha!
Over the course of these conversations, I’ve become fascinated with how and why people talk about travel. I’ve observed the subtle differences between people’s genuine enthusiasm to share their experiences in Cinque Terre and their need to exploit their intimate knowledge of Rome to assert their superiority. I’ve caught the glimmer in someone’s eyes when they hear that we’ve both explored La Alhambra in Granada and noticed the disappointment when someone realizes that the walls of York are not something I need explained to me nor an experience on which they have a monopoly.
I’ve tasted all the subtle bouquets and flavors of travel talk, and, having refined this palate, in all my travel, there are a few phrases that always make me grimace like a sudden shot of vodka. These seemingly innocuous phrases in just a few syllables cut straight to the heart of what travel means, how we learn from it, and how we share those experiences with others. So, I would like to unpack a few of those phrases now and kindly ask that the next time you travel, you leave them out of your lexical luggage.
1. “Have to”
“You just have to eat at this gelato place I found near the Pantheon.”
“Have you seen the Venus di Milo in the Louvre? Oh, you have to.”
“My friends told me that I have to stay at this hotel near Trafalgar Square.”
Let me be clear: you do not have to do anything.
So often, I see soon-to-be tourists frazzled about travel because what they see ahead of them is two weeks of to-do lists and hoops to jump through. Travel becomes a laundry list of things that your friends have an opinion on and that you have to see so that you can have an opinion on them, too, so that you can fill the breaths between bites of steak with playful banter about whether the Uffizi or Accademia Gallery is a better use of an afternoon in Florence.
This is not to say that the galleries of Florence are not wonderful places to experience, but rather that they should not be experienced out of a sense of obligation, and chances are that if you don’t enjoy pacing past paintings in the United States, you probably won’t enjoy it much more in Italy.
This is also not to say that you shouldn’t try new things while you travel. It’s about how you frame what you do. If you love the outdoors, don’t spend your entire trip in cathedrals and history museums. Instead, fill most of your time trekking through the Cinque Terre, then pop down to the Vatican and try sampling the grandeur of St. Mark’s Basilica. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the distinct pleasure of seeing an important talking point in greater cultural conversations and feeling like you have touched on its history, but it’s important to remember that you don’t have to. Plus, I promise you—the Mona Lisa looks pretty much the same on Google as she does in person.
Pack instead: “want to,” “think it would be important to,” “get to”
2. “Worth it”
While not as common as “have to,” “worth it” is my least favorite pair of words in conversations about travel. It usually appears like this:
“Brussels has a decent city center, but it’s not worth more than a day.”
Oh, I see. Brussels—home to two million people, the capital of an entire country, the headquarters of the European Union—is not worth more than a twenty-four-hour blip in your illustrious life?
Let me be clear: if you did not like Brussels, that says less about Brussels’ worth and more about your interests. If you didn’t like Brussels, that’s fine! But then say that; don’t pretend that you know enough about Brussels after a single day there to make definitive judgments about what it has to offer any prospective traveler that may cross your path.
I understand what someone means when they evaluate a city’s “worth,” but when people talk to me like this, I can’t shake the gross feeling that we’re stereotypical construction workers assessing cities as they walk by, minding their own business, just going about their daily lives—catcalling Venice and muttering to each other that Athens has really gone downhill. Believe it or not, with the exception of a small delegation of tourism industry professionals, most people in most cities don’t really care if you have the best pizza of your life or if you’re impressed by St. Paul’s Cathedral. In fact, many major European cities these days are trying to reduce the tourism that clutters their streets and ratchets up their cost of living.
We tourists waltz into a city with our backpacks and our sunscreen, shove our way through museums, fill trash cans on the main promenades with our garbage then hop back into our tour buses and say that it was not worth the time.
So, instead be grateful for each city and recognize that it is home to thousands of people for whom it is worth a lifetime.
It is natural to compare places you visit, but do so through the lens of your personal preferences because it turns out that worth is highly dependent on the individual. I may not prefer a day in Leeds, England, but for someone who loves medieval weaponry, Leeds’ armory could be the defining moment of a trip. For most, Staphorst would be a small agricultural Dutch town to drive through, but for me, it’s the site of my great great great-grandfather’s house.
Every place has a dignity and magic all its own. You don’t need to appreciate them all equally, but don’t disregard their value.
Pack instead: “I preferred…,” “It’s great if you like…”
3. “Tourists” vs. “locals”
Inevitably when I schedule a consultation appointment for someone and ask what they enjoy when they travel, they will talk about “tourists” and “locals.” They want to avoid the former and go where the latter go.
I understand this. You want an “authentic” experience. You want to feel like a local. I actually admire this drive and won’t ask you to leave these terms at home, but I would like to ask you to leave this false dichotomy at home.
First, you are a tourist. Try as you might to stay in a quiet neighborhood far from the Eiffel Tower and eat at nondescript restaurants without English menus and avoid the Louvre like the plague, if you don’t take the metro to work every day and pay local taxes and attend kickboxing classes at the local gym, you are a tourist. Embrace it! Ask for directions, get excited about crêpes, wear a backpack! Even the most chic Parisians are tourists themselves the second they leave France. So, again, don’t feel you have to tick the traditional tourist checkboxes, but also don’t be ashamed to be a tourist or fool yourself into thinking that you’re anything other than just that.
Second, there are “touristy” things that are authentic experiences. When people say “authentic,” they usually envision themselves eating fresh-caught fish along the coast in Portugal’s Algarve region under charming string lights while locals dance slowly around them.
It turns out cultures are very broad, though, and many things can qualify as “authentic.” Reading a trashy British tabloid in a dingy laundromat while your clothes dry is an authentic experience. Walking through the storied Roman Forum is an authentic experience. Getting a Florentine traffic ticket is an authentic experience. Walking down Las Ramblas in Barcelona alongside children that are still awake at 11:00 p.m. is an authentic experience. So let’s stop using “authentic” to mean a quaint scene pulled straight from a movie and be a bit more specific about which types of authentic experiences we want.
Third, locals are not wild animals. While wanting to learn about local life in a culture is admirable, fetishizing locals and using them as a means to gain “an experience” is abominable. So, make sure that you are investing in locals by supporting small businesses, using public transport, and buying a beer for the Brit beside you at the bar. In short, make sure that the locals feel as glad to have met you as you feel to have met them!
Finally, a lot can be learned from other “tourists.” One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to stay at hostels where I can connect with fascinating travelers from all over the world—the German engineer, the Floridian studying World War II resistance movements, the Brazilian who offers you cookies. Travelers are fascinating people, and you can learn a lot about the world or your next destination by being outgoing and going out of your way to connect with them. So, make sure to immerse yourself in local life, but don’t forget to enjoy the surface-skimming pleasures of being a traveler.
Pack instead: specifics about the types of experiences you want rather than assuming “touristy,” “local,” and “authentic” have narrow definitions.
In summary, I think that if you leave these phrases at home and begin to change the conversations you have about travel, you will find that you have freer, more fulfilling, and more responsible travel experiences, and I think you’ll find that taking the time to investigate how you talk about travel truly is worth it.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) lives in Seattle, where he works for a European travel company and gawks at the landscapes and skylines surrounding him. In his free time, he enjoys practicing Portuguese under his breath on city buses, running far enough to justify eating an entire pan of cinnamon rolls, and faithfully implementing Oxford commas.