Culture shock. You’re picturing people hesitantly trying to get the hang of squat toilets, being confronted with otherworldly foodstuffs and careening through the chaotic streets of heavily populated cities, right?
Until recently, these were the default images that sprang to my mind upon the mention of this unnerving phenomenon. After all, it’s not so often you hear stories of travellers struggling with culture shock in highly marketed European capitals.
Despite working in the local travel industry and having the privilege to occasionally zip off to new destinations, I was thrown off kilter during a week-long stay in a lively European metropolis that attracts millions of tourists every year.
Part 1: Expectations
I read up on the city and the local way of life prior to my trip. My spare moments were spent scouring websites, blogs and guidebooks, and pestering friends for tips. I even listened to a handful of podcasts extolling the countless virtues of my oh-so-magical destination.
Sometimes the best bits of a city really are hidden from plain sight – down seemingly dodgy alleyways, deep within leafy courtyards, behind greasy façades – and even the most savvy of travellers pass them by without a clue.
Photo credit: Alejandro Escamilla
I realise my efforts may seem somewhat pedantic, but this was my first real vacation in years and I was not going to miss a beat. You see, many moons ago I jetted off to another fair European capital without having given a thought to planning besides the bare essentials: booking flights and finding somewhere to sleep.
I considered planning to be a sure-fire way to stifle spontaneity, but soon learnt that it can also help to heighten the travel experience. Sometimes the best bits of a city really are hidden from plain sight – down seemingly dodgy alleyways, deep within leafy courtyards, behind greasy façades – and even the most savvy of travellers pass them by without a clue. And I did. And I didn’t want to again.
Part 2: Reality
So, the planning was soon overtaken by the present and I spent six days soaking up the city. I enjoyed the sights, I enjoyed stepping off the tourist trail and checking out places recommended by our wonderful community of locals, I enjoyed getting around with public transport and I especially enjoyed the national beverage.
I was polite, respectful and friendly, I was mindful of where I spent my money, I was open to new experiences and was still unprepared for what greeted me time and time again – hostility and palpable contempt.
Sure, my Airbnb host was hospitable and the mouths of the staff at the main sights momentarily morphed into shapes that vaguely resembled smiles.
Off the tourist trail, however, my travel companions and I were met with stony stares, sneers, utterly unnecessary lectures (all you baristas out there, if people want to spoil their coffee with sugar – let them – it’s nothing to lose your temper over, plus I’m sure you commit equally if not more offensive acts outside your field of expertise) and a level of inflexibility that I found impossible to comprehend.
Photo credit: Ryan McGuire
I’m not talking about insisting the meat be removed from my meal of choice in a restaurant exclusively catering to carnivores, mind you, but being chided (and on occasion turned away) for not having the correct change every time I decided to bother someone by attempting to purchase something they apparently didn’t want to sell. And no, I wasn’t toting around impossible-to-break bills.
All you baristas out there, if people want to spoil their coffee with sugar – let them – it’s nothing to lose your temper over, plus I’m sure you commit equally if not more offensive acts outside your field of expertise.
Part 3: Disillusionment
Questioning my traveller capabilities and sapped of self-esteem, I consulted Big Brother (ahem, Google) to find out what the hell was going on. Much to my relief, I quickly unearthed a solid stash of articles, blog posts and forum threads dedicated to the topic, many of which were authored by disillusioned locals.
Despite being reassured by friendly Internet folk to not take it personally, I was still shocked to not have been equipped with this information in advance. In content-saturated 2016, why did I have to plug negative keywords into my computer to learn about the unfavourable aspects of a much-touted travel destination?
Photo credit: Ryan McGuire
Spend some time scanning travel-related media and you’ll surely stumble upon articles detailing how to stay safe in X, how to not get scammed in Y and how avoid food poisoning in Z. Chances are, though, you’ll find not many, if any articles outlining the daily struggles of locals and how these struggles manifest in behaviour.
WHY? Is it because deeper societal issues aren’t saccharine enough to attract the interest of the typical tourist? Or is it because these issues are difficult to talk about, let alone acknowledge?
In content-saturated 2016, why did I have to plug negative keywords into my computer to learn about the unfavourable aspects of a much-touted travel destination?
This is precisely the information I want to be exposed to and not have to hunt for, disillusioned, midway through a trip. I don’t want to head back home thinking “what a miserable bunch of [insert preferred expletive here]”. Instead, I want to understand what’s behind the perplexing moods and mannerisms I encounter, and I want to be empathetic. But to be empathetic, I have to be informed.
Part 4: Enlightenment
So, dear readers, this is where you come in.
Is there something you think visitors to your city aren’t aware of, but should be? Are the locals known for being being rude/disagreeable/reserved/something else entirely? Can you share some insight into why this might be the case? Have you ever experienced culture shock in a place where you didn’t expect to?
Leave a comment below or join the conversation on Facebook.
p.s. Always. Have. Coins.