Guest Post By Fran Wickner, Ph.D., MFT, speaker at 2012 Meet Plan Go San Francisco on October 16, 2012.
Round The World Travel (RTW) works well for some people on a career career sabbatical, but being able to “Go Local” by staying in one place is another excellent option for those taking career breaks. Staying in one place for a period of time (vs RTW travel) allows for a slower, deeper form of travel. You learn how the locals live, how life in your adopted town ebbs and flows. It doesn’t mean you won’t travel, you can take great day trips (or short mini vacations) from your home base. It’s like the best of both worlds: traveling and then returning to the comfort of your “home”.
Living local let’s you experience life like the people who live there, eating in the cafes they go to, shopping in the stores they shop in, hanging out where they hang out, and in my case (living in Cinque Terre, Italy) going on the breathe-taking hikes that the tourists don’t have time for when they only come for a few days.
This article will help you learn how to get a local cultural experience vs just a tourist experience, how to meet and make friends with the locals and why renting an apartment in a non-tourist section of town is conducive to this.
1.Learn the language
Before you leave is a good time to start; you can go to classes at a local Adult Education program, a language school, or get some language tapes at your library.
Then, when you arrive at your destination, find someone to trade English and the local language with. My language partner helped me meet lots of his friends. If there is a language school nearby, take some classes.
Even if you are going to a place where many of the people know English, still learn some of the language. When I lived in Denmark for a year, the Danes were so happy that I took the time to learn their language that I made many more friends than I would have speaking only English (and no excuse that “all Danes speak English”. They loved that I would try to talk in their native tongue).
2. Before You Leave, Learn about the Culture
Read books both fiction and non-fiction. Go to events in your area before you leave that are sponsored by that culture. Watch movies. Talk to people from that country.
Note from Kristin: I really like Goodreads for book recommendations on a place and then Lonely Planet’s lists in their guidebook on what to read and see before going.
Then, when you are there, follow the local culture rules and customs. Where I lived in Italy, the townspeople did everything they could to not stand out, and I followed that, too. In Denmark, the Danes are not pushy, they don’t brag, their supermarkets tend to be quiet, people wait in line. So when I lived there and then visited recently again, I made sure I followed the customs.
3. Rent an apartment
Live where the locals live, not where the tourist section is. You will be treated like a visitor, not a tourist. You’ll be part of the real life of the townspeople rather seeing what the tourists are doing.
To rent an apartment, I recommend Google “vacation rentals” and look on sites like Trip Advisor. Then negotiate a rate based on your longer stay. The woman I rented from lowered the rate because I rented in advance and paid most of the rent up front, thus saving her from having to rent it out week by week for all the time I was there.
4. Go in the off-season
When it’s not busy, the locals will have more time to talk to you. The owners of the cafe I went to regularly in my recent trip to Italy (living in a small town) loved when I brought in my Italian language book and they were a great help in learning the language and talking to me about life there.
5. Have a routine
We go abroad to get away from our routines, but to go local, it is helpful to have some routines in order to meet the locals. If you go to the same cafe around the same time each day, you will meet the locals who also go around the same time each day (and you will get to know the owner). Walking to the café in the morning you will see the same shopkeepers opening their stores each day. Go to the same grocery store and befriend the owner. Visit with the same four old Italian men on the same bench every night. Even the sameness of the animals, the same cat sleeping on the moped in the alley near my apartment, the dog that walked with his owner every evening.
I had a routine I did every night in Monterosso right before I would go to bed: I would stand on my balcony and listen to the sounds of the town (really loud from the one bar on weekends, very quiet every other night), look up and see how many stars were out and what phase the moon was in, and always took time to look at the Mediterranean Sea. I was living there, saying good-night to my town.
6. Find an Expat
All places seem to have at least one ex-pat who lives there. They can often be your “in” into the local culture. Ask around, the locals know the other Americans living near by.
7. Go to local events
These are the things tourists would not go to. I went to hear the local choir in the church and saw all the regulars from the town. Not only was it culturally a great way to learn about the people and place I was in, but it helped me make friends, too. I went to some off beat events: a fish fry, an independence celebration, a religious march around the town square, an opening of a new café.
Using the above suggestions will help you meet locals and get a deeper understanding of the culture. I found that once you meet one person they happily introduce you to the others in town. You are a celebrity and they get celebrity status just knowing you. And the smaller the town or more remote the area, the more you get treated like an extinct animal, very special. The older man I traded English for Italian with got this celebrity status because he was my “professore”. His buddies would punch him when I started walking up, and then loved it when we would do the Italian hello (kisses on each cheek). They all wanted to practice their English and would have me sit with them on the bench (and since this was a small town off-season, it was the evening entertainment for all of us!).
Don’t underestimate this specialness; within a day or two of my arrival, most of the town knew that there was an American woman living on Via Magenta. It led to meeting more people, like my friend Alisia who came up to me and said “Hi Francesca” as if we were already friends. Or when I was sitting in the square, people saying hi and my name. And it felt good when I was leaving when townspeople I didn’t even know said things like “Buon viaggio domani”. (Have a good trip tomorrow).
Living local for your career break is an ADVENTURE! Be prepared to have surprises come up. And be prepared for changes, concrete and tangible as well as personal.
Local culture/local events
Fran Wickner, Ph.D., MFT is a therapist near Berkeley, California who helps individuals, couples and families deal with transitions, stress, relationship concerns, separations, parenting, anxiety, addictions and job issues. She helps people move towards solutions, such as taking career breaks when they are having burn-out at work or helping those who love their jobs and would like to take a break so they can return with a renewed sense of well being and creativity.