Photo by Lola Akinmade
When in Rome, do as the Romans. But what do the Romans do? Our top 10 list goes beyond the obvious tips—speak the language, learn local customs and etiquette, and don’t wear a camera around your neck—and helps you learn how to really live like a local, whether you’re around for five hours, five months, or five years.
10. Read the paper. Nothing gives you insight into local culture like reading the newspapers of the area. You’ll learn about what’s important right now in a place that’s probably overlooked by your own newspaper, cluing you in to a community’s attitudes, interests, and worries.
Local newspapers may introduce you to political, social, and cultural personalities and events that you wouldn’t find in a guidebook. Be sure though to look at more than one local paper—most cities, at least, have multiple dailies, each of which tends to reflect a particular political slant. Many papers also have English language editions—especially online—so don’t let a language barrier keep you from trying this tip.
9. Learn local politics. An understanding of the political system, parties, and figures in a particular place can help you understand a great deal about an area and is likely to help you recognize symbols and slogans that might otherwise go over your head. This holds true even in your own country; regional politics can vary dramatically.
8. Talk with people.Taxi drivers are good. So are street sweepers, security guards, restaurant servers, musicians, and people without obvious distraction or diversion (people waiting at bus stops, for instance). Most people enjoy talking about themselves and what’s important to them; everyone likes to be an expert. Invite people to talk about themselves, their community, about something you notice in the immediate environment. Use their responses as lead-ins to other questions.
7. Walk light. A large bag or backpack not only makes you conspicuously not of the place, but it also weighs you down. Walk light and you’ll have an easier time going off the beaten path. Keeping a pen and small notebook handy is always a good idea for jotting notes about the people and places you’ve seen.
6. Eat outside the box. The best spots are where you see locals, which are not places generally written up in guidebooks. Stroll around your temporary home… where do you see people congregated? What do you see people eating? What do they recommend?
5. Travel like a local. What’s the preferred mode of transportation where you are? Subways are generally inexpensive and expedient means of transit in big cities, but rickshaws, bicitaxis, and pedicabs, are some of the many other options. Walking is also a great way to get to know people and places that you’d miss from a vehicle.
4. Issue an invitation. Don’t wait to be invited into the locals-only club. Look for opportunities to invite others to share time and local knowledge with you. Whether over a beer at a bar, a dance in a dive, or a coffee in a café, taking the initiative can be a powerful sign that you’re ready to live like a local. Also look for opportunities to invite yourself into the local experience when appropriate. In Sintra, Portugal, my friend and I had an unforgettable experience when we stumbled upon a local annual Night of the Camelias Dance at the town hall, and though we were lost, we asked if it would be ok for us to stay awhile. We were welcomed warmly with free glasses of port and passed from arm to arm for dances and by the end of the night we’d made new friends of all ages.
3. Don’t overlook details. Learning the local time, currency, and dialect may be tedious for some people, but getting a grasp on these details can determine the difference between living like a local and living like a tourist. The more you can familiarize yourself with the seemingly mundane and quotidian aspects of a place, the more you will feel immersed there.
2. Ask questions. Respect answers. If something piques your curiosity, ask questions. While walking in a small rural town in southeastern China, my friend Julia and I saw a house that was open to the street, the front room of which appeared to drop into a cave. While we didn’t speak Mandarin and the people sitting in front of the house didn’t speak English, we were able to communicate by gestures to ask about the unusual structure. We were invited into the home and led into what was indeed a cave, where the town’s food was stored. Recognize that not every question will result in an answer or an invitation though, and respect the response.
1. Acknowledge you’re an outsider. Difference—whether actual or perceived—can be powerful, both for better and for worse. Don’t ever try to fake being a local. The more authentic you are, the more people will be interested in you and welcome you into the local circle. Being yourself no matter where you are is always the first step to becoming local.
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