Creativity is piercing the mundane to find the marvelous.
Wine poured freely in our clanking goblets as we pulled the skin off the delicately seasoned roasted hen we were served on rustic, metallic charger plates, the ones you often find at Pier One Imports. But alas, they were not from Pier One; they were simply a more third-rate set of kitchenware served at Medieval Times. And it was not Medieval Times next to Disneyland in California but Medieval Times in a small Northern Italian town off Largo di Garda. Yes, Medieval Times Italian-style, hence the abundance of wine. We sat there, in a fake 11th century castle within a European country housing actual Medieval, if not really old, architectural structures. Unlike the commercials found on television where hordes of children and their parents sit on different sides of a forum in a jovial uproar cheering for their knight to capture the queen, it was just me and two of my girlfriends who egged on our knight while a family of five on the other side of the stadium rallied behind theirs. Crickets, apart from the intermittent narration of the knights “clashing their way to Queen’s champion” ringing from the loud speaker. The anticipated excitement from watching the knights jousting was quickly subdued by their measured attacks against one another while they attempted to stay in sync with the trilingual narrator recounting the heroic Medieval battle in Italian, English, and German – in that order.
Many wondered, why would you go to Medieval Times in Italy when you can go in the US? Or more poignantly asked, why go to Medieval Times period? A place so gimmicky, so…American. This was surely not the way to explore another culture, much less, Italian culture. After all, we were graduate students “studying” at the University of Trento. We should be cooking pasta in our student apartments, going to local art museums, skiing in the Dolomites, touching the stone cold breast of Juliet in Verona, or at least making out with our Italian boyfriend of the week (or day).
It is exactly this dilemma that cuts to the heart of what it means to best experience another culture, travel “deeply”, and live like a local. Part of the reason people travel is to experience something different, something authentic, but we all tend to disagree on what is considered an authentic cultural experience. No matter how you want to use the term, “culture” is constantly used to define something exceptional and unique. Culture is that thing that makes people go “I am like this and you are like that”. Anthropologists study culture ad nauseum by deconstructing the very notion of it. We often look at culture through the looking glass, as one says, by observing the ordinary and participating in the mundane, rather than what is simply and conspicuously exceptional to a culture. After all, does visiting the leaning Tower of Pisa necessarily teach you more about Italian culture than Medieval Times?
But as travelers, we are not anthropologists by default; however, if we want to gain richer travel experiences, we need to start acting like one. Often times travel magazines, books, and professionals stress experiencing a place “like a local”. This, of course, is held to be the ideal, but lest we forget, locals don’t often live happy-go-lucky, carefree lifestyles that we seek to have when we go abroad. They are too familiar with their familiar. Remember, they live and probably work there, just like you live and work wherever you are. They are just as bored with their lives at home as you are (I’m kidding, a little bit). If you talk to many Californians, they will probably tell you that they don’t often make it to the beach despite the fact that they live fifteen minutes away. As proud as they are of their history, most Cairenes will not take a trip to Giza to ride a camel and enter the very narrow passageways inside a pyramid.
Of course, if you are visiting California you should go to the beach. And of course if you go to Cairo you should probably see the pyramids. When I say mundane, it does not necessarily mean boring, nor are mundane activities necessarily particular to one culture; they are mundane because you can do the same activities at home. As travelers, we stress out too much over doing what is particular to a place or culture that we become more of a tourist and less like the local we so desperately try to embody.
Here are few mundane activities you can do to deepen your travel experiences:
- Drive a car: As I travel back and forth from Orange County to Los Angeles every week, I am very familiar with the parking lot that is Southern California. It is only natural that when I go on vacation, I wouldn’t want to drive a car; I’d rather take advantage of public transportation or use my legs and feet. But often times driving in a foreign city will teach you more about cultural norms and body language than visiting another cathedral. I was in Beirut the other month, for example, and realized that the car’s horn was mainly utilized to politely warn other cars that you are approaching so they are careful not to hit you. Here in LA, any honk is an injustice to your very being. If someone honks at you in LA you’ll simply want to slash their tires. Or is that just me?
- Take a yoga class: Yoga now is an international activity. There are various types of yoga practices that become more varied when you practice them in different cultural contexts. Instead of a beachside yoga wellness retreat taught in English (although I would love to do that), go to a foreign city that offers yoga in a language you don’t understand so you can rely on your other senses to follow the movements in the class. Who knows, you may learn that flatulence doesn’t carry the same awkwardness in other countries.
- Go to a local gym: Scope out the people who workout there, the trainers pretending to train, or even take a spin class. You should also try the showers and sauna! But a note to Americans: this is 2019, so, after your sweaty workout, please take a shower and get naked (not in that order) before you enter the sauna. And remember, this is a cultural experience, not a license to be obnoxious by going to the gym every day on your vacation.
- Go to McDonald’s: I know you are rolling your eyes now, but believe me, McDonald’s in another country can be quite the cultural experience. Walking into a McDonald’s in Budapest, I was met with all smiles and a very welcoming staff. They were so nice I thought I was walking into a five-start resort. The manager even carried my tray of food to a table for me. In Brussels, however, I once ordered a Big Mac with fries and they told me they were out of fries. It was like walking into a bar that ran out of alcohol.
- Explore a market: And I mean any kind of market, from cutesy outdoor farmer’s markets to big supermarkets. The products’ packaging alone will entertain you enough to create lasting memories.
It is only through the mundane, the ordinary, the commonplace, that we realize how special, particular, and complicated other cultures are. In Italy, my friends and I somehow knew that cultural authenticity was illusory. We wanted a different experience and the best way to do that was to do something so familiar, so close to home, in a different land. We wanted to do something that defied the many experiences we were supposed to have abroad.
The point: We need to not only seek what’s outwardly different but also what is the same because difference often hides in the crevices of the seemingly familiar. After all, why chase the real and authentic when you can experience the surreal and bizarre?