Actually make an attempt to learn the language.
Natives of any country don’t expect you to be a master linguist, but they sure appreciate it when you try. Instead of giggling at the unfamiliar words, or worse, talking very loudly and slowly at locals in English, take your time to learn and pronounce a couple key phrases to the best of your ability.
When taking photos, remember, it’s about the landscape, not you.
Naturally, everyone is going to want their picture taken in front of the Eiffel Tower, and I won’t deny that I have a few there myself. But trust me, my favorite photos from abroad are of the country. When you simply take pictures of what you’re experiencing instead of manufacturing yourself into some contrived recreation of semi-reality, you’re forced to think about your surroundings, all the angles, dimensions and ancient meanings.
I would even recommend putting your camera away at times. As a photographer, I know that I can become too obsessed with getting my settings just right and framing the scene perfectly to actually take in what’s before my eyes. Some of my favorite moments abroad were when photography wasn’t allowed. You feel kind of naked, without a phone in your hand or a lens to peer through, but trust me, that vulnerability allows you to take everything in a way that’s so raw, you won’t forget it. Memories are what travel is for after all.
Do not use a selfie stick. Just don’t. I didn’t think my opinion of them could get any lower, but then I saw a group of girls using a selfie stick and almost knocked a guy into the Grand Canyon. So I repeat: avoid the selfie stick.
Appreciate the culture.
Traveling is not about you. It is an activity in which you have very little importance. You are actually quite insignificant when you think about the hundreds upon thousands of years of history behind the places you visit. With that said, please don’t make traveling about you. You are in a new place to learn about a completely different culture and people. Take it all in, but do not feel the need to “leave your mark.” Travel is supposed to leave its mark on you. And frankly, trying to leave your mark is illegal and the epitome of being an asshole. Countless Americans have been arrested for vandalizing sacred places or being naked and trying to have sex in sacred places. Even though we come from a culture where it may be okay to spray-paint some stuff and be naked and have sex in some places, it’s probably safe to assume that isn’t acceptable in other places.
Respect cultures and traditions that have been upheld for centuries, and just be appreciative of the fact that you get to be a part of this history for a few moments. Paris and Milan and Cairo do not have the pleasure of hosting you; recognize that it’s a blessing for you to be in these countries in the presence of such rich cultures. Don’t make a mockery of them or yourself.
A country’s awesomeness is not defined by its drinking age or number of clubs.
Don’t get me wrong, drinking abroad is pretty awesome. You cannot say you’ve been to Germany if you didn’t have any beer there. But it’s important to understand that most countries view drinking quite differently than we do here in America. Throwing up and blacking out are not badges of honor and are looked down upon in many places in Europe. Drinking is more casual.
I highly encourage you to try local drink specialties, whether it’s wine in Italy or champagne in France, and experience the nightlife a couple of times, but please, do not center your whole traveling experience around how many nights you forget because you drank too much. (Remember that whole, “traveling is for the memories” thing?)
Try something new.
Aside from being cliché, this brings us back to my third point: travel is supposed to change you. But travel can’t change you if you don’t let it. If you ever have a chance to do anything that you’ve never done before, something outside your comfort zone, say yes. Don’t you dare turn your nose up at eating snails or adorable little piglets (unless you’re vegan/vegetarian, which in that case, eat some weird vegetables I guess?). Part of why you travel is to go somewhere different, so do different things when you’re abroad.
As humans, we often gravitate towards security. We surround ourselves with safe things and familiar faces to feel protected. We clump up and whisper nervously when faced with something new and unfamiliar. Well, when you’re abroad, don’t do this. No matter how averse you are to jumping off cliffs or surfing in a kayak or feasting on alpaca, you should go ahead and throw yourself into that situation and see what happens. It’s time to put your big girl britches on, venture out into the world and see what happens. Adventure is out there waiting for you.
Elizabeth has written both internationally in Costa Rica and gastronomically for Edible Baja Arizona, a local food magazine. She dreams of someday being paid to travel the world and eat expensive food, but in the meantime, she spends all her money on food she can’t afford. Oh, and on all the champagne too, because let’s be real, every day should be a celebration.
Photo credit: Elizabeth Eaton