Locals make a destination memorable

Posted on July 19, 2010


Here is my contribution for the 6th Blogsherpa carnival, hosted by Camden of Brink of Something Else. Make sure to check out all the other great travel stories on her blog.


Travelling through a country in the company of a local is just pure magic. I know that when you read this, you will start protesting and say defensively that not everyone is lucky enough to have contacts across the globe, but no matter how much you deny it, you just know I’m right. Locals can make you step into dark, uninviting holes you would never have ventured in otherwise and make you have the time of your life. They can somehow make you consent to do completely irresponsible things you’d never even consider in your home country (like accepting a tour of the city in a stranger’s car, read on – or taking embarrassing pictures). Most importantly, locals let you into a world far more complex than static buildings and must-see sites. They cause you to think about a country from political, economical and social point of views and enrich you culturally in the process. Having worked as an English teacher in Malta for three years before starting to travel properly, I was lucky enough to establish a few lasting friendships from across the globe, people who I love reconnecting with in their home countries whenever I get the opportunity.

The more I think about it and the more I realise I owe my most splendid and fond travel memories to locals.  While sitting in a traditional South Korean eatery in Seoul and enjoying a meal of grilled meat and banchan (side dishes), I conversed with my very good Korea friend Sue about the relevance of Korean tradition in modern times. She admitted that society was still very much hierarchical and elders needed to be respected under every circumstance. As an unmarried woman, Sue could not leave her parents’ house before finding a husband, and she also admitted that arranged marriages were still practised as they were considered better than remaining single. She also confessed her own dilemmas about whether to get married or focus on her carrier instead. Doing the former would please her parents, but she suspected that choosing the latter would make her happier.  In Amsterdam, my best friend , who has been living in Holland since September 2009, showed me both the pot-and-prostitution centre of the infamous city but also the more authentic Northern suburbs where she lived, a world of modern housing developments with back gardens overlooking little canals, where children played, carefree, and adults had lunches in their lawned spaces and socialised in the sunshine. ‘Amsterdam is not Holland’, Krista had very aptly told me.



Then there are, of course, those locals you inevitably end up meeting along the way, who sometimes add little anecdotes to your adventures and other times entire chapters. In Seoul, I was practically ‘abducted’ by a kind middle-aged Korean man while I was on my way to a particular site. Eager to practice his English, he had offered to take me on a short tour of the mountainous area to the North of Seoul with his car. In my own country, I would have never accepted a ride from a stranger, but in this case I did not even mildly consider the possible dangers, and ended up having a memorable day, despite the fact that the man’s driving and random-parking skills were questionable.  In Switzerland, I befriended a retired Sicilian book writer when a student recommended me to him since he was looking for an Italian-to-English translator. During one of our conversations over coffee and tea, I asked him what his favourite place in the city was, and he answered the question by offering me an impromptu guided tour with plenty of historical anecdotes along the way. His passion for the city he lived in rubbed onto me,  and my previous dissatisfaction with my inability to get under Zurich’s skin turned into a quest to get to know more and more about it, eventually making me grow especially fond of it.

The little vignettes I remember from my travelling constantly feature local people; an old man in London, prancing around to the tune of Celtic music in a short brown pleated skirt, calling himself the Grand Prix Priest and proclaiming the second coming of Christ; a semi-comatose waiter in Holland who acted pretty much as if my friends and I were offending his every bit of being by having chosen to sit at his restaurant’s table and therefore causing him the inconvenience of having to serve us; a little Korean school girl, still in her uniform, wandering the streets of Insadong in Seoul, looking for foreigners with whom she could practice her English; an old man in Switzerland encountered on my train journey home, who showed me a little wooden object he was fiddling with and in broken English, proceeded to explain how he had made it.


But the most important local I’ve ever met, the one who ended up contributing that all important chapter in the story of my life, is Ferenc, my Hungarian partner who made me fall head over heels in love with him and then somehow managed to convince me to go live with him in his country of birth, Switzerland, where he’s been essential in helping me understand the cultural and social differences of a county which might at first glance seem merely European, but is in fact, a complex, singular nation with its own particular set of cultural and social rules.

There are many locals I’ll cross paths with in the future; some good friends in Turkey in this September’s trip to Istanbul; Ferenc’s parents whom I will be meeting for the first time this Christmas in their house in Hungary, close to Lake Balaton (and who don’t speak a word of English); my sister and her future American husband in San Diego sometime in the future; a Panamanian friend I once was on my way to reaching before destiny hijacked me to a different corner of the globe and pretty much changed the course of my entire life.

I will repeat it once again, and I don’t care what you think. What really makes a destination memorable and magical is locals.