It’s All About the People

Some of my most valued readers are those who have an email subscription to this site and therefore get new posts delivered to their inboxes. I accidentally made an e-mail faux pas when contacting these readers. It was unintentional and a mistake, and I have been feeling like an idiot since…so it seems appropriate that my next post celebrates people, in this case people who have made a difference in my travels.

I have been thinking a lot about “quality travel” and how we can get more from our experiences while also treading lightly on the places we visit. One of the most important components of creating such travel experiences is connecting with local people.

I first fell in love with travel while studying abroad in Italy in 1995, but it wasn’t until I first went to the Czech Republic in 1996 that I really fell in love with the people of a country. The hospitality shown by the locals was so powerfully positive that I felt like I never wanted to leave…so I moved there.

wine cellar czech republic

Sharing conversation and laughs with Czechs in a wine cellar

That warmth and hospitality didn’t end when my time in the Czech Republic ended because I have found it, in various forms, in every place I have traveled, including places where it was a bit unexpected. The wonderful hospitality that I was treated to in Germany helped make my stay in Munich one of my favorite travel experiences.

Connecting with locals changes an ordinary travel experience into one that creates lasting memories. It gives you a better understanding both of their culture and of the ways in which we all are the same.

flower arrangements Bali

The beautiful work of preparing flower arrangements every morning in Bali

Connecting with locals is also a gold mine of information. I found that on my latest trip to Italy, I learned so much more by asking questions. Often a question would turn into a long conversation, sometimes about the history and culture, other times about what life is like nowadays in Italy. All of it fascinated me, but none of it would have happened if I had not asked questions and listened with keen interest.

santa maria novella pharmacy

At the historic Santa Maria Novella pharmacy in Florence, I asked the woman questions, and I was rewarded with detailed stories and plenty of samples.

Locals also provide the best recommendations for where to eat, what to see, etc. I always ask local people for restaurant recommendations, and this especially paid off in Florence.

Sometimes we can make a little extra effort to seek out locals and thereby learn about the heritage of a place. When I was in Florence, I asked around for recommendations for artisans to interview. My initiative paid off with fascinating discussions with three artisans. I learned so much about the role of artisanship in Florentine culture and history and got to watch the process of making some beautiful products, too.

Florentine paper

Making the famous marbled Florentine paper

artisans Florence

Paulo Bruscoli, a fourth generation artisan in his workshop, telling me about the history of his family’s business

Sometimes learning about the local people can involve just watching them by going to a less-touristy area and observing. Markets, shopping districts, cafes, and town squares makes great places to observe local life. I still cherish this memory of what was really just a simple moment…a local woman walking her dog down a quiet street in the Oltrarno district of Florence one night.

Florence-048a

Brazilians have been called the friendliest people on the planet. I wouldn’t disagree with that though I know that it’s impossible to compare the world’s peoples in this way. However, I love this line from New York Times writer Seth Kugel about meeting people in São Paulo: “I’ve often said I’d just as soon drink with five Brazilian strangers than five American friends.” They really are a lot of fun, and just being around them and feeling their friendly, laid-back manner makes me love them. (In fact, I will forever feel grateful to Brazil for the excellent care the doctors gave me when I had a medical emergency there.)

After asking this guy questions about the market, he came out from behind the counter and posed for photos. Looks proud, doesn’t he?

Brazilian strangers often seem like old friends: the friendly coconut and corn vendor on the beach in Guaruja, Brazil

Brazilian strangers often seem like old friends: the friendly coconut and corn vendor on the beach in Guaruja, Brazil

But connecting with locals doesn’t only happen in a foreign country. I love to talk to local people when I travel in my own country, too. From the docents who volunteer their time to answer questions in state parks to the lovely tasting room managers in California’s wine country, local people are the best source of information about a place. Asking them questions and connecting through a conversation and smiles results in better travel experiences, understanding of the place, and, of course, memories.

Napa Valley wine bars

What have been some of your favorite experiences connecting with local people while traveling?

22 Comments

  • It just doesn’t feel like a complete trip unless I’ve experienced the locals and their culture – one of the reasons I really don’t completely enjoy resort all-inclusive vacations or cruises – although there’s nothing against a simple vacation that helps a person get away from it all – it all depends on the person’s intentions and what they want to get out of their travel.

    As for my own favourite experiences – I really enjoyed staying in Italy for 4 weeks for an art history course. We stayed in a religious college dorm and got to know some of the students well. It also revealed the cultural differences – us Canadian girls wore shorts and tshirts since it was so hot out and we quickly found out that the Don of our floor disapproved of our wardrobe. The flirtation of the Italian guys was a very different experience that in Canada where men are not nearly as upfront.
    But we all got a along and had a great time exploring Verona and the small towns of the Veneto.

    (ps. I receive your blog posts and am not sure what you mean about the faux pas)

    Murissa
    The Wanderfull Traveler recently posted..ArtSmart: Artist as Comedian in Vicenza, ItalyMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      I had a great time during my study abroad time in Italy, too. It would be fun for us to talk about that sometime! 🙂

  • Andi says:

    For me, meeting and interacting with new people while traveling is the best part for sure!
    Andi recently posted..Highlands, North Carolina: Day 1-2My Profile

  • So true! and yet another reason to travel independently – skip a resort area, but stay in a local , historic district or lesser-known town or neighborhood . Rent an apt, for example, where you need to shop for yourself, etc. This will give you so much more opportunity to bump into and mix with locals!
    monique at bringingtravelhome recently posted..sugar sammyMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      I like having a daily routine that includes shopping when I travel. As you said, it provides so many more opportunities to interact with the local people.

  • Completely agree! Connecting with locals is an important part of the travel experience. If people only travel to see places and things, then they are missing out. While I can be a bit quiet and introverted, I still make an effort to connect with locals.

    A couple of years ago, I wrote a post called “5 ways to connect with locals when you travel” because I believe that this is an important part of the travel experience.

    (Hope it’s OK to share this as it is relevant to what you wrote – http://www.budgettraveladventures.com/traveltips/5-ways-to-connect-with-locals-when-you-travel/)
    Jeremy Branham recently posted..My next destination: a Pittsburgh RenaissanceMy Profile

  • Most definitely. Local bus rides are a great way to meet locals in their element.
    Charles McCool recently posted..A Visit to White Sands National MonumentMy Profile

  • Katherina says:

    Connecting with people is one of my favourite things of travel. I have got amazing memories of talking for hours with locals on a street market in Montevideo, being invited for dinner at a real cuban home in La Habana or having a drink with a brazilian in Fernando de Noronha. I am sure that the memory of these experiences wouldn’t have been the same without the people in them.
    Katherina recently posted..Essentially London: London’s Inside Out BuildingMy Profile

  • kami says:

    Meeting locals on the road is one of the best aspects of travels for me! That’s why I value couchsurfing so much! Even if I’m not that much into surfing people’s couches these days I’m definitely up for meeting with them for a coffee or drink and an interesting conversation! but the best experience so far I had in Georgia, the country, the most hospitable people ever live there! In a little village close to Gori I was invited to some random people’s house, they were not the richest one and survived the war just 3 years earlier yet they gave me everything they had, the table was full of food and drinks and they even got angry when I didn’t really want to eat all that much 😉 We’ve had some problems with languages yet managed a deep and meaningful conversations, about USSR, war and the friendship between Poland and Georgia. And I’ve heard so many similar stories from Georgia!
    kami recently posted..What kind of traveller are you?My Profile

  • Kate says:

    Loving the photo of the girl with the dog walking through the alley.
    Kate recently posted..5 Awesome Things to Do on a Weekend Break to LondonMy Profile

  • Tricia says:

    Jenna, it’s so true that the people of a place really make it special! Here in Albania just yesterday, we had splendid interactions. First, we visited one of the 600,000 bunkers dotting the country’s landscape, and soon a family descended upon us, wanting to say hello. They were also curious about the rare visitors in their neighborhood. And then, we stopped at a café frequented only be older gentlemen, and they insisted on treating us to an Albanian energy drink. Before the visit was over, I was wearing the accordion and playing an American tune.

    How lucky you were to see the Florentine paper being made! 🙂
    Tricia recently posted..Just Another Day in Kotor, Montenegro: An Archaeological Dig, Friendly Felines & Mammoth StrawberriesMy Profile

  • All so true, Jenna, and great photos BTW. I especially loved the one of the butcher posing beside his loaded counter, a counter to be proud of, for sure. The pic also reveals a lot about the local diet! Great post.
    Lesley Peterson recently posted..Rijksmuseum reopens! AmsterdamMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      At first, the guys behind the counter told me to put my camera away “because of security” but when my mother-in-law explained that I was taking photos for a blog, this guy really wanted me to take his photo. very proud indeed 🙂

  • Angela says:

    It’s about those small encounters that will leave you smiling as you walk away. Sometimes it’s as small as a old local woman laughing as you walk by. Any positive interaction with local people makes me happy!
    Angela recently posted..Places we love: The Mugshot CafeMy Profile

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