Practical Travel Tips

3 Ways to Get Treated (Kinda) Like a Local in Europe

When the Husband and I lived in the Netherlands, we used the term “your people” when we saw badly behaved tourists.

This usually happened when we went to Amsterdam for the day.

Upon spotting a middle-aged guy wearing white sneakers, cargo shorts, and a t-shirt featuring a US sports team and loudly going on and on about “6 euros for a Coke and no free refills,” the Husband would kindly point out that this gentleman was one of MY people, i.e. an American tourist.

Then I would spy a gang of drunk young men with overly gelled hair and credit these guys to the Husband. They were HIS people, a group of young British men on a stag weekend.

Stereotypical tourists are an easy target for jokes.

But they’re also easy targets for poor service and pickpockets.

I’m not arguing that you should disguise yourself and your family as typical Parisians or Londoners.

I’m arguing that you should try to blend in.

Here’s how:

1. Dress like a European. Dress up…a bit. Leave the shorts at home and opt for comfortable, casual trousers. Swap your sneakers for a good pair of walking shoes. And wear mostly neutral. You can always wear add a pop of color with a scarf or a statement necklace.

2. Learn a few basic phrases of your host country’s language. A little effort goes a long way toward creating good will. That waiter who seemed to speak no English may suddenly and fluently recommend an affordable wine or bring extra cookies with your coffee if you’re courteous enough to attempt to use the local language.

  • In France, for example, it’s customary to greet the employee you see upon entering a store. If it’s morning or afternoon, you say, “Bonjour, Madame” or “Bonjour, Monsieur.” (Madame refers to a woman and monsieur refers to a man.)
  • In the Netherlands, you always say “Alstublieft,” or please, when you hand something, such as your credit card or cash, to a store clerk or waitstaff. Alstublieft translates to “If it pleases you.” You may see it abbreviated to “A.U.B.”
  • TIP: These two examples are specific to French and Dutch culture. Buy a phrase book for the country you’re visiting. A good phrase book will give you not only words and phrases but also insight into how to use them in context. I love Rick Steves’ guidebooks and phrase books. Lonely Planet books are also solid.
  • If you learn nothing else, learn hello, please, and thank you.
  • Check out this page from the Rick Steves website for lots of helpful travel apps, including some language ones.

3. Eat where the locals eat, whether it’s a picnic in the park or a quick lunch at a cafe off the beaten path.   We were in Paris a few years ago with my parents. It was lunchtime. We were hungry. We were also near Notre Dame and surrounded by lots of other hungry tourists. We stopped at one of the first cafes we saw, ready for some delicious French food. Then I saw the menu — a 2-inch thick binder with laminated pages featuring the menu in about every language you can imagine. NOPE. That menu signaled that we would not have a special or memorable (in a good way) meal. The multi-language tourist menu is the signal that you will pay a lot for an uninspired meal brought to you by harried wait staff, folks who have heard over and over again how Americans don’t pay 6 euro for a Coke.

Instead of settling for tourist food, we ignored our growling stomachs and walked down a quiet street. Within minutes we found ourselves at a small deli. We walked in, chose freshly prepared sandwiches from a display case, paid, and found a table. As we ate our tasty and affordable meal, we realized we were the only tourists in the place. Everyone else seemed to be an office worker picking up a quick lunch.  We enjoyed being off the tourist track and immersed in French life for an hour as much as we enjoyed our sandwiches.

The Husband and I make it a rule to avoid restaurants that cater to tourists. Instead, we step off the beaten path — and usually this is as easy as walking a block over to the next street — and we try a place that doesn’t go out out its way to attract tourists. These places are easy to identify: the decor is tasteful, and there are no signs or menus posted in any languages other than the local one.

What do we gain by eating at places like this?

  • Consistently good food
  • Consistently good service, especially if we do our best (even if our best is laughable) to speak the language
  • An opportunity to feel like a local
  • And, most important, an opportunity to show Little A how to be an engaged, immersed traveler, not just a tourist getting a superficial view of a culture

TIP: Google “Where do the locals eat in _____?” for ideas. Just keep in mind that other tourists are Googling this question too.

What about you? What do you do to immerse yourself in European culture?

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