Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Introverted Traveling

Travel guru Rick Steves has a mantra for travelers: "Extroverts have more fun."

Steves' philosophy of traveling is that the more widely you explore, and the more you talk to people, the more you'll learn about the culture, and the more embraced you'll be as a "temporary local."  To that end, he encourages Americans, when they visit Europe, to stay away from high-rise hotels and touristy restaurants and destinations, and to walk the back streets, stay in the smaller, family-owned inns, and try to learn some key phrases if the language isn't your native tongue.

Despite the extroverted bias, I admire a lot about his traveling philosophy, and when my wife and I went to France for 2 weeks last month, we rented a flat in Paris rather than staying in a hotel and stayed in a small inn in Avignon, in the south of France.  We sat in sidewalk cafes, often inside where it's cheaper, walked lots of back streets, and *tried* to speak the language.

My wife is an extrovert, but we didn't experience the tension about how to do the trip that I thought we might. She had been to Paris before and thus didn't feel the need to explore as widely as she has in the past.  I think if we'd been in a place that was new to both of us we might have had more disagreement.  I much prefer to have a home base and to spend a lot of time in that neighborhood, to take longer breaks in the afternoon, and to move slower throughout the day.  I have no innate need to "see everything" when I'm traveling, and we didn't even go to the Louvre because of the crowds (the Orsay is smaller, more intimate, has fewer people, and well, impressionism is awesome).

Here are a few observations from the trip:

1. French culture, on the surface, seems very extroverted, but I think it is actually more introverted. There are probably 10,000 cafes in Paris (NOT exaggerating) and they are always filled.  Seriously, I don't know how people make enough money to pay for all the meals they eat out.  The interesting thing is that though the sidewalk tables are always filled, there is very little interaction across tables.  In Paris people sit at meal tables with friends for hours but they don't talk to strangers.  People are engrossed in their conversations, but I almost never saw anyone from one table talking to someone at another table.  This is very different from American culture, where it is much more common to interact with new people, and it's not that unusual to see people striking up conversations with people they don't know.  What I experienced of French culture was very relational, but not very friendly or sociable.

2. The language barrier was both a curse and a blessing.  I had been led to believe that most people in France knew enough English to have a conversation, but that was not what I experienced.  The waiters knew enough English to understand what I was ordering, but that was about it.  I did my best to learn enough French phrases to get things started (my pronunciation is horrible) but conversations, I quickly learned, were out of the question.  My wife knows French pretty well, so she did most of the talking.  Truthfully, not being able to communicate was pretty frustrating at times, especially for someone who takes a lot of pride in my communication abilities.  The language barrier was nice, however, in that I just didn't talk that much to anyone other than my wife for 2 weeks.  As an introvert, this was a nice change of pace.

3. I don't find the idea of traveling alone very appealing.  I've read some things about introverts who love to travel internationally by themselves, but I don't think I'm one of them.  Especially in a culture where I don't speak the language.  Being in France for 2 weeks by myself, not being able to talk to people, would have been pretty lonely for me, even though I'm very introverted.  I actually really enjoy talking to strangers - when they're good conversation partners and when we have things in common - so perhaps if I were to travel alone, I would need to be in an English-speaking country.  But to share the experience with someone else - especially my wife - was really special and full of memories.  Memories are just better, I think, when they're shared.

4. I needed to insert a day of rest about every 5 days.  These were the days that we sat in cafes reading and took walks along the Seine and the Rhone.   I think some people might consider a day that doesn't include major monuments and sightseeing a waste, but for me, these were among my favorite days on the trip.

In the end, I think introverts and extroverts both can have plenty of fun when they travel, but it's just different sorts of fun. Some of us don't feel the need to search out every nook and cranny of a city and talk with scores of locals in order to have fun. So Rick Steves, if you're reading this, re-write your mantra!

If you want to read more about traveling as an introvert, Sophia Dembling at the Introverts Corner has written this article - Confessions of an Introverted Traveler -  and she's also writing a book on the topic.