When I went to Australia I ate kangaroo. I tried super strength beer in Belgium, attempted to speak the lingo in Austria, and, when I once found myself at a hippy house party in a country mansion, I ate a squirrel and danced on the tables.
Fitting in with the local environment wherever you are – or at least trying to – is one of the most fundamental aspects of travelling. Holidays are all about new experiences; new sights, new food and new ideas. They’re a way of widening your perspectives, understanding different cultures and challenging the way you think. Why is it then, that we are so insistent on taking our own culture on holiday too?
The stereotypical image of “Brits abroad” is, quite frankly, terrifying. We drink to excess, our attempt at languages peaks at shouting slowly and all we want to eat is burgers and chips. Holidaying in popular ex-pat destinations like Spain has become increasingly like visiting a slightly sunnier Britain, with row upon row of British restaurants and no need to utter even a syllable of Spanish.
Yet we are not alone in wanting every country we visit to become akin to our home nation. This week the Paris Chamber of Commerce and Industry launched a new guidebook on the city called 'Do You Speak Touriste?'. But unlike other guides advising tourists on the cultural highlights of the French capital, this new project instructs the tourism industry on how to make the foreigners feel more at home.
Americans like to eat at 6pm we’re told. They expect Wi-Fi everywhere and will be on first name terms within minutes. The Chinese, on the other hand, are obsessed with shopping and consider a friendly smile the key requirement in any conversation. And what about us Brits? Well, we insist on eating at an absurdly early hour and expect all activities to be “playful”, of course.
Yet while the rationale behind making foreigners feel at home makes sense – after all, whichever business most appeals to our xenophobic minds will rake in the financial rewards – that doesn’t make our expectations right. Holidaymakers of all nationalities need to drastically rethink their mindset about travelling. Equally, foreign tourism industries need to stop catering people who refuse to step outside their comfort zone.
Understanding the cultural values of the places we visit is important. Isolating ourselves means we lose the ability to emphasise with people, promotes ignorance and exacerbates tensions between locals and visitors. There’s no excuse for being an idiot abroad; respecting the local culture is neither hard or costly. Checking out a phrasebook from the local library, doing a quick spot of internet research or just simply being open to new ideas and experiences are all free, and ridiculously easy to do. No one expects you to become an instant expert, but a level of respect is just common decency.
Of course to some people travelling isn’t just about seeing the world. It’s about taking a break from the everyday nine to five and having a well-earned rest. You might even argue that in order to properly relax you need home comforts, like a good old English roast or sandals and socks.
But if your cultural values are so rigid you refuse to accept anything other than Earl Grey and fish & chips perhaps you should rethink your choice of holiday destination. I’ve heard that Devon is quite British.