The word tourist conjures up certain irrevocably uncomfortable visions. Middle-aged American couples. Matching Hawaiian shirts. Mild obesity. Digital SLR camera drooping from necks. Unnecessarily large lenses. Socks and sandals. Obnoxiousness.
Sadly, my family comes from a long lineage of tourist blood. I have flicked through countless photo albums of various relatives in the throes of commercial tourism. My grandparents in front of assorted landmarks; Grandpa nursing an elephantine camera he barely knows how to use, Grandma standing content beside him; the both of them happily sporting the matching red baseball caps given to them by the tour company.
There’s my Dad, polarfleeced and touting a backpack with the clips done up, grappling with a map the size of a bedsheet. There’s my Mum in the seventies, smiling goofily in front of a Contiki tour bus with other high-waisted, corduroyed Australians and Kiwis, in various shades of orange and brown and various stages of inebriation.
So I proceeded as many children do when trying desperately to forge their own sense of identity: gauge how their parents act, then run determinedly in the opposite direction. This, coupled with the ingrained fear of looking like I don’t know what I’m doing – of looking like a fraud – informs my style of travelling. I journey with a little voice in the back of my head constantly whispering Blend in…Walk how the locals walk…Talk how the locals talk… The latter of which proves difficult when in a country where the language looks to me like someone has simply mashed a keyboard haphazardly with their fist and run with it.
I snatch sneaky glances at my map when I think no one’s looking; only asking somebody for directions when on the point of desperation and probably, by this stage, miles away from my destination.
I turn my nose up at other tourists. When passing people pouring confusedly over a bedraggled map, I think to myself, Pffft, tourists. Mentally spitting out the word like it’s cheap chewing tobacco (but only if I am in a country where it’s cool to chew chewing tobacco).
In Frankfurt I couldn’t bare to whip out my German-to-English dictionary in public. So I sheathed it beneath what I thought was a much more respectable-looking cover. The Complete Works of Goethe. That should do the trick.
When I try to blend in, or ‘pass’ as a local, and do it successfully, I thoroughly enjoy the feeling of the saggy American ladies on the train regarding me curiously like I’m part of the city landscape; another monument they can stand in front of and grin uncontrollably while their beer-gutted husband snaps the picture. Then, like missionaries sending photos home of war-painted tribal people, they will write to their relatives, “See, look at their strange local traditions…”
But really what they are probably thinking when they stare me up and down is something along the lines of, “Wow, that girl really needs a shower and a haircut” (Berlin) or, “That black sweater is nice, but it sure shows up the dandruff” (Paris).
Ahh Paris, your world-wide reputation for rude locals and wafts of effortless cool precedes you. The blackness, the skinny legs, the cigarettes. I want to be you. And so I try. But not too hard. Never try too hard. That’s so un-Parisian.
It was one grey day in Paris, when I was strolling along with calculated insouciance and pretending to be Audrey Tatou, that a man tapped me on the shoulder and blurted, “Poureu, lesele sdaiusouldere.” I started at him blank-faced. “Oh Sorry, I thought you were French,” he said in English, and added “…you look very French.”
At this my eyes almost welled up with tears of happiness… Really, you mean it? I’m one of you? I wanted to hug him and die from joy. Is this the part where you give me a handcrafted membership badge and teach me the secret handshake? Oh do say yes…
Yet, alas, my cover was now blown, and as the conversation ensued I realised I may as well ‘fess up to the full extent of the horrific reality of the situation.
“Actually, I’m from Australia.”
At first this initiated mild interest from the Parisian man, but as I continued, his expression quickly shifted to one of confusion and his brow furrowed deeply.
“Yeah, instead of macaroons and croissants, we eat yeast extract on toast and pies with all of the bits of the cow in them. We don’t wear Louis Vuitton or Chanel,” I continued, “We prefer trackies and ugg boots with leggings. Or thongs. Even in wintertime. We also drink a lot of red wine, but instead of a bottle, it usually comes in a box and a silver sack…Yep, Australia.”
At this point the French man swiftly looked at his watch, stammered something incomprehensible and shuffled nervously away.
As I stood there on the Parisian street, alone and exposed, this was about the time I realised my fear of being found out coincided with something deeper. It was a fear of making mistakes; a deep-set fear of failure. So, I decided, it was time to learn stop worrying about what the locals thought of me. It was time to learn how to make mistakes. And to look like a fool. This is something which comes naturally to us as children, but is bred out of us by the social water torture of high school and puberty.
And I realised my situation read exactly like a teen movie parable; girl tries desperately to be part of the cool crowd, then upon realising that they are shallow, emotionally-void people, girl reclaims rightful place among fellow, poorly-dressed social maladroits.
Thus, I will laugh when the locals sneer in my direction. I will ponder maps and timetables for as long as it takes. I will take cheesy, holding-up-landmarks-with-my-bare-hands photographs. I will ask people for help when I get lost, even if I am not lost, just to prove I am not ashamed of looking like a tourist.
I will march onwards, map firmly in hand, camera proudly slung around neck. I will show my children my goofy photos. And they will roll their eyes.