Become a temporary European

By Rick Steves
This item appears on page 59 of the August 2010 issue.
Visiting the Frauenkirche in Dresden is great, but it’s even better to attend a service. Photo: Steves

Many travelers tramp through Europe like they’re visiting the cultural zoo. “Ooh, that guy in lederhosen yodeled! Excuse me, could you do that again so I can take a picture?”

When I’m in Europe, I become the best German or Spaniard or Italian I can be. I consume wine in France, beer in Germany and small breakfasts in Italy. While I never drink tea at home, after a long day of sightseeing in England “a spot of tea” really does feel right. So on your next trip across the pond, resist the urge to look at Europe through a lens, and find ways to really be there.

One of the best ways to connect to the culture is to play where the locals play. That means choosing destinations busy with local holiday-goers but not on the international tourist map.

For instance, while tourists outnumber locals five to one at the world-famous Tivoli Gardens, Bakken, Copenhagen’s other amusement park, is enjoyed purely by Danes. Disneyland Paris is great, but Paris’ Parc Astérix amusement park is more French.

Hang out in a city’s fairgrounds and parks, which are filled with local families, lovers and old-timers enjoying a cheap afternoon or evening out. Or visit one of Europe’s wonderful public swimming pools, called “leisure centers” in Britain.

Once you figure out where the locals hang, check out where they live. Ride a city bus or subway into the suburbs and then wander through some neighborhoods to see how residents live when they’re not wearing lederhosen and yodeling.

Visit a supermarket. Make friends at the launderette. Or mill around area schools and universities, checking out the announcement boards and eating at the cafeteria. Be alert and a little bit snoopy. If you stumble onto a grade-school talent show, sit down and watch it. You can even visit a university’s English-language department and ask about hiring a student (who’s learning English) as a private guide.

Even if you’re not a regular churchgoer, consider attending a European worship service. An hour in a small-town church provides an unbeatable peek into the community, especially if you join them for coffee and cookies afterward.

I’ll never forget going to a little church on the south coast of Portugal one Easter. A tourist stood at the door videotaping the “colorful natives” (including me) shaking hands with the priest after the service. You can experience St. Peter’s by taking photographs — or you can do it by taking a seat at Mass.

Walking is big in Europe. Across the south, in countries such as Italy and Spain, community members have a paseo, or stroll, in the early evening. Stroll along.

Join a Volksmarch in Bavaria to spend a day on the trails with people singing “I love to go a-wandering” in its original language. Visit a hiking center. Many areas have alpine clubs that welcome foreigners and offer organized hikes. Hikers enjoy staying at the many mountain huts and “nature’s friends” huts across Europe, which are filled mostly with locals.

Keep indulging your interests and hobbies while you’re abroad. If you belong to a service club, bridge club, professional association or international organization at home, make it a point to look up your foreign mates. If you like games or sports, seek out locals for a battle of brawn — or brains. Campgrounds are filled with Europeans in the mood to toss a Frisbee with a new American friend (pack along a lightweight nylon version).

In Greece or Turkey, drop into a local teahouse or taverna and challenge someone to a game of backgammon. Watch as the gang gathers around, and what starts out as a simple game becomes a fun duel of international significance. You’ll instantly become the star of the local café or bar scene.

Wherever you go, don’t just be a spectator. Join in. When you go to the town market in the morning, don’t just browse; pick up some daily produce for breakfast or lunch.

You can stand by and watch the pilgrims drinking the healing water at Lourdes — or you can volunteer to help wheel the chairs of those who’ve come in hope of a cure.

If you’re traveling through the wine country of France during harvesttime, offer to pitch in and become a local grape-picker. Get more than a photo op. Get dirty. That night at the festival it’s just grape-pickers dancing, and you’re one of the gang.

If you’re hunting cultural peacocks, remember: they spread their tails best for people, not cameras. Once you take Europe out of your viewfinder, you’re more likely to find it in your lap.