Travel Snobbery

Recently, a friend shared an article titled “Your Wanderlust Is Inauthentic: The Real Difference Between Travel And Vacation”. While the article made some good points, those are shrouded in what I can only describe as Travel Snobbery. To the author, there is only one right way to travel, and doing otherwise cheapens the experience and makes it into a “vacation”, which has little merit.

For the author, vacations are trips of privilege. These are all-inclusive trips to a resort somewhere tropical and thus, exotic and worthy of bragging about. Vacations do not include public transportation or wandering very far. Vacations are experiences without culture shock or immersion. Because of this, “vacations” and “authentic” travel experiences are two completely different things.

I wholeheartedly disagree. Vacations are not separate from travel experiences.

The definition of “authentic” travel provided in the article seems to exempt the sort of tourist activities that can be an essential part of a trip. In the article, “authentic” travel experiences should be a quest to deviate from “the beaten path” and “search for the elusive history of a country and its people”. If learning the history of a place is your goal, it is not so elusive. People usually want to share their culture with you in ways that are accessible to many. Culture is preserved and shared in many ways– in museums with signs and souvenirs, in brochures at the local tourist office, and guidebooks to name a few. Those are all touristy, but no less important.

Meaningful travel should not keep you from experiencing the well-known, “brag-worthy” marvels of the world. In Rome, does “authentic” travel demand that you skirt the Coliseum to avoid the inevitable touristy atmosphere that surrounds it? Or do you make two trips to Rome? One should be a “vacation” where you stay at a ritzy hotel and travel by taxi to all the Meaningless Touristy Spots. The “authentic” experience would demand a stay in a hostel without air conditioning and stumbling your way through small talk “conversations” in jumbled Italian, walking down alleys that hold neighborhood pizza places, and wasting sleepy afternoons in streets that kind of all look the same. Are you “enlightened” about Italy based on these superficial experiences of Italian culture?

Any experience of foreign culture is based on your perspective as an outsider. An American in Rome will never have the same experience as an Italian who grew up there. Travel allows you to return home with a more well-rounded view of yourself and the culture in which you grew up. It is arrogant to suggest that your presence in another country can in any way impact that country more because you avoided the “touristy” things. Tourists make impacts on countries, especially economically, that are undeniably significant. On a smaller scale, people make connections to each other while traveling, be it through couch surfing at a local’s house or showing kindness to the cleaning person at your hotel.

Experiencing culture can take many forms wherever you visit, and “culture” is not something to be worn like costume. It is not simple, disposable, or made for a traveler to experience. Culture is complex and includes the traditions, beliefs, mannerisms, art, and history of a place or of a people. You will not become part of the culture where you are merely a visitor, no matter how much you try to act like a local.

People go to Paris to see and experience French culture. While it is certainly not representative of all of French culture, in avoiding the tourist attractions, you are missing out on that very culture. By not visiting the Louvre, you are missing out on seeing the masterpieces of French artists, not to mention all the other masterpieces that are collected there. In avoiding the Eiffel Tower (which would be quite a feat), you are missing out on a wonder of engineering. You are missing out on a story that is a part of France’s history.

The beaten path includes some of the most beautiful views and cultural landmarks. While the back roads might give you a glimpse into the life of the people that live in a city, it does not make you part of that city. The laundry hanging from the windows, the overgrown plants in window boxes—those cannot tell you the story of a country and of a people in the same way that their art can. That brief glimpse cannot tell you the history of a proud nation.

There is no right or wrong way to see the world or visit new places. Travel should enrich your life, whether you are visiting a beach you have been to a thousand times or a city that you have only dreamed about.  While it is wonderful if your travels enable you to see the world and people more complexly, traveling with the intention of leaving as a different person is incredibly limiting. Simply allowing yourself to experience and enjoy your trip is enriching on its own, regardless of how much exposure you get to the everyday experiences of the inhabitants.

To the author of the original article, I respect and understand your passion. It is wonderful that the way you travel makes you happy and provides you with enriching experiences. But your experiences aren’t the only valid traveler experiences. Everyone’s experiences are valid, whether or not you choose to travel off the beaten path or if you stick to what is safe and commonly visited. People travel for themselves and will find their own way. Many of them come back with their own passion and a case of wanderlust that is more than just a passing trend.

(Thanks to my friend Laura for helping me with this blog post! Originally posted on my blog on Students Gone Global.)

The Trip isn’t Over Yet

All of my friends from Finland have returned home. Most of the other people I know who were studying abroad in other countries have already made their way home, or are finishing up post-study abroad travels. The summer study abroad groups are out in the world, with the clock already ticking on their returns.

And my trip isn’t over yet. 

The Finland part of my trip has been over for a few weeks now (though I’m still working on the long list of blog posts about Finland), and I’ve only recently finished up the rest of my school work for classes there. But I’m not home yet, though my return is drawing closer.

I’m in the midst of what I jokingly call the longest layover ever. It’s not really a layover, since I had to go out of my way to get here, but it’s my pause between Finland and the United States. The real way of describing it sounds a bit pretentious: I’m spending the summer in France.

I’m incredibly lucky in this respect. I lived in France for seven months in 2010, and now I get to spend another two months in the South of France. It’s something like a vacation, though I’m really just living with family, working on various things (…mostly blog posts), with some traveling and exploring on the side.

It feels normal to be living in France. I’m staying with my dad, who moved here two years ago with his wife and my three stepsisters. I’m older than all three of them; they’re all taller than me. My dad and I talk in English; my stepmother and stepsisters speak in French. We all change between French and English and often end up speaking the bastard child of both languages: ‘franglais‘.

Life in France is a treat. There’s always bread and dessert with dinner (and sometimes, lunch). Saturdays and Sundays are American pancake days, even if we don’t eat the pancakes with syrup. Chocolate hour is between 4-6 pm daily. There’s always tea on hand, though these days my dad and I have been making sun tea. Iced and sweet, a truly American treat.

Days are hot and sunny here. Sometimes it’s so hot that the hills and mountains on the horizon gets blurry, obscured by smoggy heat. After months of living in Finland and feeling as though winter weather could happen at any moment, the Mediterranean summer is unyielding. I don’t think I’m quite used to it yet. I long for air conditioning and sometimes I miss my drafty Finnish room.

Aix on Provence is lovely, and getting to explore more of France makes me happy. I’m truly “Aly en France”, as I have been on the internet since 2009, again. And I have new stories and pictures to share, though I’m not quite there yet… I should finish telling some stories from Finland before I start rambling about the places I’m visiting in France.

Since I don’t have much else to do, expect those to start appearing more frequently. I hope to catch up on most of those before I head back to the US in July!

Tallinn, the Tijuana of Scandinavia

March 14 – 16, 2014

Sometime in February, an event appeared on the Facebook page for exchange students in my town: a trip to Tallinn. While I initially had little interest in going, many of my close friends wanted to go and after a while, I caved and signed up. A few weeks later, we were Tallinn-bound, my first trip outside of Joensuu since I arrived.

For those of you unfamiliar with this region of the world, this is what it looks like:

Joensuu is in the Eastern part of Finland, near the part of Finland that juts out towards Russia. Just for reference’s sake.

Tallinn is the capital of Estonia. I had never heard of it before, but it’s known for being a medieval city– the old town is a beautiful walled fortress and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a common tourist destination, easy to get to via ferry/cruise from Sweden or Finland. Tallinn is a popular place for Finns in particular– Estonia is cheaper than Finland, especially for buying alcohol and cigarettes. Apparently, before they get married, many Finns will come to Estonia to buy alcohol for the wedding. And of course, for exchange students, this opportunity to buy some cheap alcohol is worth the trip to another country.

The trip we were going on had a pretty loose itinerary: leave at 5 am from Joensuu for Helsinki (via bus, a trip that would take 8 hours), ferry to Tallinn (2 hours) and then check in at the hotel. We had 2 nights in Tallinn and then a stop at a big alcohol store before boarding the ferry back to Helsinki and then busing back to Joensuu. Luckily, the bus stopped at each of the common neighborhoods where exchange students live, which made the 5 am departure time slightly less inconvenient but no less painful. My street was one of the first stops (and later, the last).

I only packed my school backpack for this trip, since it would only be a couple days and I wasn’t anticipating buying much while there. Plus snacks. So many snacks– including blueberry scones which I shared with my friends. Eight hours on a bus is a lot of time to fill and while some of that time was early enough in the day that we could sleep, sleeping in cramped quarters on a bus full of exchange students (and a couple Finnish students) are not the best sleeping conditions.

At any rate, we amused ourselves well enough and by the time we made it onto the ferry to Estonia, we were sleepy and silly, talking about who-knows-what and munching on endless snacks to stay awake.

The first thing we saw upon arriving in Estonia was an alcohol shop. And right across the street from the ferry terminal, our hotel. This seemed rather indicative of the type of place that Tallinn would be.

The first night, my friends Carmen, Maja, Mareike, and I decided that we wanted to wander around a bit and check out some of the stores nearby. After some wandering, we ended up going to Vapiano, a (German) Italian (fast food) restaurant for dinner that Maja and Mareike promised would be good. It was delicious, and notably– cheap!

Me, Maja, Carmen, and Mareike

Then, we stopping at a random shopping center to pick up some drinks and yet more snacks on the way back to the hotel, which is how the first night was spent eating more junk food than we should have and watching MTV– the only channel we could find in English.

The next day the four of us decided we should explore the Old Town before going shopping. We met up for breakfast at the hotel and then headed off to Old Town. It wasn’t a far walk, but it was a gloomy and drizzly day, which made it less than ideal for exploring.

Carmen, Maja, and I

Carmen and I in front of an impressive-looking church door

Mareike, Maja, Carmen, and I wandered around, took a bunch of pictures, and stopped into a few stores to browse.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral – photo by my friend Mareike

The Estonian Parliament (across from the Cathedral)

We ended up going into the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and sitting for a while, watching what looked like a baptism or maybe just a small choir practice. It was beautiful inside– ornate gold, typical Russian Orthodox style. The ambiance provided by the choir made it even more beautiful as the voices echoed and a small crowd of people watched. An elderly Estonian woman scolded us for having our legs crossed, though we weren’t sure exactly why since we had no idea what she was saying. Estonian is close to Finnish– not that any of us speak Finnish, either.

Overlooking Old Town

Overlooking Old Town

Overlooking Old Town — featuring an overly-friendly seagull

Overly-friendly seagull

The Times we had

Mareike, Maja, myself, and Carmen at the overlook – photo from Mareike

We wandered back outside and over to an overlook of the Old Town and city. You may have seen it in pictures before, at least if you spend a lot of time looking at pictures of places you’ve never been– there’s a wall that says “The times we had.” It’s the sort of melancholic beauty that seemed fitting for the gloomy day, and a reminder to enjoy the time with my friends while we were there.

Town Hall Square

Wandering back down through the Old Town, we saw a sign advertising a sky lounge and coffee shop called Katuse Kohvik. Since it was a Saturday, and coffee and cake is something of a tradition for us, we decided it was a fine place to stop.

The barista in the coffee shop was a bit overly friendly, which was unexpected and frankly made us feel uncomfortable. We joked that maybe we had gotten too used to Finns who say little and don’t try to make personal connections with you. They also don’t call you “sweetie” or “honey”. It was a bit off-putting, but the drinks were warm and the view from the coffee shop was pretty cool. Of course, while we were there, it started snowing. While we grumbled and groaned because we were tired of snow, watching the snow drift down in waves from a warm rooftop coffee shop is the sort of magical thing that makes life beautiful.

Inside the coffee shop

Looking out the windows

Mmm, hot chocolate…

After finishing our drinks, we braved the snow storm to continue our way out of Old Town and to the shopping center. We ducked in an Estonian store and sampled some Moose sausage with cheese and admired the wood and wool work they were selling. For the record, I love moose, but it’s also quite tasty in sausage form. Besides, trying strange foods at random is one of the great joys of travel.

Samples!

Trying moose sausage

We finally made our way to the shopping area we had been exploring the day before and commenced our shopping afternoon. We all seemed to be buying summer-type clothing, which probably wasn’t the best decision, since summer weather was a mythical thing for us. Besides, who buys summer clothing when it’s snowing outside?!

When we got tired of shopping, we ended up back at Vapiano for dinner. This time I splurged and bought myself a glass of wine, a rare treat since wine is expensive in Finland and even then, it’s not particularly good wine. Eventually we made our way back to the hotel, already planning to meet up later with some of our other friends at a bar. Our one foray into the nightlife of Tallinn, and a pretty tame one at that!

Later in the evening after our nap/productivity break, we met up in the lobby and made our way to a medieval-looking bar in the basement of a building in Old Town called Porgu. I wouldn’t have even known it was a bar/restaurant from the outside. Honestly, it looked like a medieval dungeon or the sort of place that bootleggers would hide out in the 1920’s during prohibition. Maybe that’s just me though.

When the rest of the girls arrived, we took over a big table and everybody was delighted to find out this bar had a large selection of German beer. Even better, the beer was cheaper than in Finland, and far superior. I might not be the biggest fan of beer, but the one I had (a dunkel) was really good, and of course we all passed around our drinks for the others to try. Friendship is sharing beer, y’know.

Table full of beers – photo from Mareike

Carmen and I

Me and my friend Marie

The next day, we didn’t do much: breakfast and the stop at the “Super Alko”– there were many debates about which alcohol was worth spending money on– and then we loaded up the bus and headed to the ferry terminal.

And of course, the last thing you see before you leave Estonia… is another alcohol shop. After all, Tijuana Tallinn is the place you go to party with friends, where you explore your vices and stock up before returning to your everyday life.

(Originally posted on my blog on Students Gone Global.