I was watching a Rick Steves travel show on television, and he said something that’s one of his travel mantras — that the most memorable experiences come from meeting local residents. Strangely, my initial reaction was that I’d never have the guts to approach someone like that. I say “strangely,” because it took me only a moment’s thought to realize that my reaction made no sense: I’ve actually been taking his advice for years, though without consciously deciding to.
When I think of the travel stories I tell most often from my own journeys, I realize they’re not usually about museums and architecture and spectacular scenery; they’re about interactions with the people who live and work there.
When I was in my 20s, I spent a long weekend in Jamaica with a boyfriend. The waterfalls at Ocho Rios were lovely, and I enjoyed learning about the history of the island. But two events stand out in my mind more than anything: giving a lift to a teenage girl who needed a ride back to Montego Bay, and hiring a local tour guide to show us around town.
The girl was about 16, close enough to my own age at the time so that we had an easy rapport. In the car, she braided my hair Jamaican-style, while we discussed her family, her desire to travel, our jobs at home, and islanders’ views of the U.S. I know she probably began walking along the road between Ocho Rios and Montego Bay in hopes of getting a ride with rich tourists so she could ask for money for braiding someone’s hair. But I didn’t feel taken advantage of. I felt like I got at least as much out of our interaction as she did. And I loved what she did with my hair.
The other person I remember spending time with was a man who offered to be our personal tour guide for the afternoon. He was not with any kind of tour company; he was definitely a freelancer. We were game, and he showed us some of the expected sights of town. And then he guided us to a back street, and took us to a bar where we were the only tourists. So we had drinks with a bunch of his tour guide friends, feeling like locals.
A few years later I was part of a group of seven American watercolorists on a painting retreat in the south of France. We rented a house in a village too small to have a hotel, and where only two people in town knew English. I’d always been told that the French were rude to Americans. Not in this town. One couple insisted (as translated by the one fluent French-speaker in our group) that three weeks wasn’t enough time for me to get to know the area, that I should really stay all summer. And they offered to let me live in the wing of their house that was empty since their grown kids had moved away. If I hadn’t had a job to get back to, I might have taken them up on it.
The town was filled with delightfully eccentric characters. One stooped old man was infatuated with a statuesque blonde woman in our group. One evening, he abandoned his nightly game of boules in the town square and followed her home, his little dog trotting behind him. Both he and the dog followed her right into our kitchen! He was intrigued by the makeup of our group, two men and five women, and kept asking about the relationships among us. In his mind, the numbers should be equal so we could pair off, regardless of the fact that this was a painting retreat, not a singles club.
But what confused the old man the most was me, because I was much younger than the rest of the group. He actually asked our translator if I was the maid! She gasped as if he’d committed a terrible faux pas, and chastised him for such an insult. Then she told him I was a famous American scholar! He treated me with respect after that, and often came over to sit in our kitchen and talk about village history and gossip. We learned a lot from him about the village’s past glory as a center for the pressing of olive oil, but over the years, more modern presses sprung up in larger towns, so that the local olives were no longer processed in the village but sent away to be turned into oil.
My husband and I traveled to Alaska together a few years later because I had to attend a conference. While I was in meetings, he looked up a local man who had been a friend of his mother’s decades earlier. They went salmon fishing together. When I finished my meetings, he invited us both into his house, told us stories about what it was like to have moved there from the Midwest half a lifetime ago, and took us to a restaurant where he introduced us to some really amazing seafood, including the best halibut I’ve ever had. Two weeks later, after we’d toured other parts of the state, we returned to Anchorage and stopped by to see him — and he’d cleaned Bob’s salmon, shrink-wrapped it, and packed it in dry ice in a cooler for us to take home, along with some of his own halibut.
On another Alaskan adventure 15 years later, I found myself alone in Homer and was intrigued by something I read in a magazine about remote villages of Russian Old Believers. I chose one and headed out in my rental car to find it.
The article had said the residents tended to be shy about speaking with tourists, except for Nina, the owner of the Samovar Cafe, who wanted people to know the history of the town. So I sought out the Samovar Cafe, where Nina welcomed me warmly, made me cream puffs, and spent all afternoon showing me Russian artifacts and dressing herself — and then me — in traditional costumes. I had a lovely time, and left feeling like I’d learned a lot.
I visited Italy with a small tour group — there were seven of us, all friends, accompanied by a tour leader and her assistant. The group was fantastic. But so many people besides my travel companions helped create cherished memories. Fabriccio, our tour guide in Florence, was a tall, curly-haired professor of Medieval and Renaissance Art History who spent days with us, explaining the paintings and history behind works at the Uffizi and other museums.
Sometimes at night we gathered in the hotel bar, where Vinnie the bartender looked after us. At first Vinnie seemed a bit taken aback, even scandalized, by our raucous jokes and lack of inhibitions. He was a sweet guy, but straitlaced and reserved, even as he demonstrated the proper way to dip biscotti into vin santo without spilling a drop. By the end of the week, we were teaching him to dance the time warp. These sorts of cultural exchanges are so enriching to both cultures.
After the group tour ended, I left Tuscany to spend some time by myself in Rome. A man on the street there gave me some personal experience with the much-vaunted technique by which Italian men try (unsuccessfully in his case) to seduce American women. Seriously, I never expected it. I’d figured I was way too old to be the target of such attentions. Besides, I had always assumed Italian men weren’t really this forward, that it was just a stereotype. But there he was, stopping me in the street to introduce himself as Umberto and tell me I was so beautiful, and would I like to accompany him to a hotel? I told him I was married, and he said that was not a problem, so was he. He said my husband did not appreciate me the way he would. He went on extensively about my beauty and sensuousness.
In the U.S, this would be totally creepy. But in Rome it was not. He never seemed threatening or sinister. I never felt there was the least bit of danger. He was just an Italian guy doing what Italian guys do. I never felt under pressure to go along with him, and I never for a moment considered taking him up on his offer. In truth, I found it funny. Being propositioned by an Italian man felt like a quintessential thing to experience in Italy. (Climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa, check. Explore the Colosseum, check. Get seduced by an Italian, check.) I’m grateful to Umberto for letting me see how an Italian man propositions a woman. Eventually I found an excuse to get away from him and go into a cathedral — leaving him, I suppose, to look for another American to attempt to seduce.
In Assisi, I struck up a conversation with Francisco, who runs an olive oil shop. He spoke excellent English, and said it was because he practiced it with his daughters who live in the U.S. — both of them here in Northern Virginia, it turned out. When I told him my son plays violin, he tried to sign me up on the spot for lessons with the daughter who’s a violin teacher. He gave me tastes of all sorts of oils and vinegars, and I guess he figured we’d progressed beyond a purely retail relationship, so he pulled out his private bottle of grappa to drink some together. It was only after I wrote my full name on an order slip for olive oil that he realized I was a Petrini and told me that my relatives used to own the hotel across the street — the hotel where I was staying, it turned out. I’d had no idea. I still get a Christmas email from him every year.
I love travel. I love art and architecture and history. I love gazing at spectacular scenery and sampling local food. I like seeing both the important cultural and historic sites and the offbeat parts of town where only the locals go. And one of my favorite things to do while traveling is to find a piazza or cafe where I can sit and sip the local libation while just watching the people go by and being part of the scene. For me, the best kind of travel is the kind that lets you immerse yourself in a place and glimpse a tiny fraction of what it might be like to be a part of that life. The best way to do that is to watch people, to meet people, and to talk to people — and, more importantly, to listen.