My recent three-week visit to Sweden was my third time there, and I finally feel like I’m beginning to get a sense of the country’s distinct culture. I had planned to travel the country, but got stuck in Stockholm for all but three days – not that that is bad. I love the city, and have no problem sticking around to get to know it well. Plus, it afforded me the opportunity to spend extended time with my friends and learn the culture.
My friends took me to Swedish Easter at Grandmother’s house. There, I got to hunt for an egg (Grandmother insisted) and play a Swedish game called “tipspromenand.” It was like a trivia contest combined with a scavenger hunt. I also watched a giant bonfire ceremony for Valborg day – the Swedish celebration of spring. I got a lesson in red and green working days, and got schooled in Swedish fashion (Converse, red pants, and New York Yankees hats are really popular). I learned about local food. Best of all – my friends taught me Swedish. (Despite my failed attempt at finding a tutor, I managed to learn a lot of basic phrases.) Over all, the last three weeks provided me a lot of insight into the Swedish culture. Why? Because I know locals who have welcomed me into their private lives with open arms.
Reflecting on my experience, I can’t help but think about the old travel advice about how you should meet locals and experience local culture: get off the beaten path, experience local life, do as the locals do….and I can’t help but think about how unrealistic that advice is. It’s not to say that you shouldn’t try to hang out with locals. You should, but the advice conveys a sort of ease at which that is possible and frankly, it’s not.
Having traveled full-time for nearly five years, I’ve made friends from around the world. I can go to countless countries and stay with friends (locals) who are happy to show me around, friends who will take me to Easter at Grandmother’s house, to an impromptu town BBQ event, a birthday party, or Christmas at their in-laws. It’s easy for me to get a taste of local life because I have many people willing to show it to me.
But for your average traveler it isn’t that easy. Travel writing is often filled with stories of chance encounters in subways and at cafes, encounters that end up with the writer jetting off to some event or celebration that opens a window into local life that other travelers rarely get to see. While these are great stories, they create a romantic picture that makes people think that all travel is like that. If their particular trip lacks that experience, they run the danger of thinking they missed out. I commonly hear people talk about how they are going to get the local experience or wax poetically about meeting locals in the next town, city, or country.
Locals want to show the best their country has to offer. They offer advice, conversation, and a few pints at the bar. But that is different than being brought into their personal space. Bonding over beers with some guys you met at the pub is different than being asked if you want to join the family for dinner on Sunday. One is in a public space, the other in a private.
In five years of travel, I can remember being invited into this world only three times. Once each while in Amsterdam, Cambodia, and Taiwan. But in all three instances, I had met the person a few times before the invitation was extended; it was never after the first encounter. People like to know the person they are inviting first. Yes, a first time invite can happen but it is usually the exception not the norm.
My point here is that meeting locals is not as easy as it is often made out to be but still not impossible to have happened. Thanks to the Internet, there are a few ways to overcome the difficulty of meeting a nice local who will invite you to Sunday dinner.
For starters, Couchsurfing is a great site for this. While often considered a place to get free accommodation, there is much more to the site. This site has meet-ups, group events, and people who might not give you their couch but will gladly meet you for coffee and show you around. In my opinion, this is the best work around for being unable to meet locals on the street. Folks on this site are already ready to invite you into their private space. I had a brief Couchsurfing meet-up in Denmark that ended up with me at a family’s weekly dinner.
Moreover, I would check out The Ghetto Gourmet. This site is a place where people have underground restaurants and group dinners. Essentially, strangers get together and eat dinner at someone’s home “restaurant.” I have not tried it yet, but I’ve heard good things about it. There are groups in most major cities.
Meetup.com is another great site for meeting people. Out of the three, this site is the most formal, and the crowd here tends to be in their early 30s, but there is a wide variety of groups on this site where you can meet people with the same interests as you but in a foreign country! Love wine? Why not go to a wine lovers meet up in France?
Lastly, check out Travel Blog Exchange. There are thousands of travel bloggers from around the world and, as a general rule, travel bloggers tend to be a very, very social bunch of people who, if time permits, are usually more than happy to show other travelers around. After all, it’s what we love!
It’s not impossible to have that chance encounter on the street. But it’s also not that common. When I left to travel the road, I had visions of interacting with locals everywhere, but that didn’t happen as much as I wanted. Luckily, the Internet lets you kick-start that process. It takes more work, but if you really love France and want to meet French people, don’t wait for it to happen.
Make it happen.