Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Quirky Travel Tips for Cultural Adventure

The past few weeks I've been giddy and excitable.  Not just because we've had some beautiful weather in Edinburgh (interspersed, in true Scottish style, with some truly disgusting weather).  Nor because it's Easter time, and I've enjoyed enough sweets to quadruple my risk of diabetes.  No, I'm excited because my mom and dad are coming for a weeklong visit starting tomorrow.

After months of missing Dad's weekend pancake dinners, Mom's guilt-induced trips to church, family movie nights, and outings to my brothers musicals, I'll finally get to spend some quality time with them.  What's more, I'll get the pleasure of showing them around my new home- I love playing the Scotland expert and showing off my favorite hangs.

So, in addition to sun bathing and chocolate eating, the past month was filled with planning for Mom and Dad's big visit. Creating an itinerary for them has got me thinking about the way I like to travel.  In addition to typical tourist attractions and cultural hotspots you might expect, I've come up with some offbeat experiences that I think are key to truly experiencing Scottish culture, indeed any culture.  So now, I present you with Marie's weird ways to get know a place:

Public Transportation:  A necessity that's often pushed under the rug and not really talked about, trams, trains, buses, and subways can sometimes be uncomfortable, awkward, or just icky.  However, I think a place's public transportation speaks volumes about it's structure, leadership, and culture.

My home city of Rochester's flaws are evident in their disgrace of a public transport system.  Like the city itself, the RGRTA buses are outdated, messy, and a bit dangerous (in my younger, stupider days I had a few harrowing experiences on Rochester buses). When I think about Lothian Buses in Edinburgh, I feel proud of my how my adopted home values cleanliness, friendliness and efficiency. That isn't to say Edinburgh structurally supreme- the debauched efforts to build a tram system illustrate the City Council's obliviousness to the needs of its people.

Grocery Shopping: How do they sell their milk?  What are the popular varieties of breakfast cereal?  How many flavours of ice cream are there? You can learn heaps about a culture walking down the aisle of a grocery store. Even after living in Edinburgh for 7 months, every "quick trip" I take to Tesco, Morrisons, or Waitrose turns into a lengthy journey of culinary discovery.  Unlike tourist-packed High Street restaurants that cater to the perceived needs of international customers, grocery stories give an accurate illustration of what people actually eat.  And nothing says "You're in Scotland" like the logo on a Scott's Porage box. 

Bookstores:  Similarly, you can get an idea of what locals actually read at a bookshop-- and I'm not talking about Waterstones. Indie bookshops are full of personality, and because these small establishments can only afford to carry a limited selection, the books you see there are an accurate reflection of what locals enjoy.  I've also found that a lot of wee bookstores here have a "local interest" section, filled with books-fiction and nonfictions- about Scotland and Edinburgh.  Better yet, indie book shops are always hosting book groups, lectures, and author events- tonight, I'm going to The Edinburgh Bookstore for a book signing by newly-published local author Jen Campbell!

I'm also a big fan of hanging out in public libraries- one of the first things I did when I arrived in Edinburgh is get myself of local library membership.  Besides the free book loans, libraries are a gold mine for book recommendations. Librarians tend to be some of the most helpful, knowledgeable people around, so if you want to find the perfect local interest read, find the nearest library.

Fast Food: As a vegetarian, I'm no fan of McDonald's and Burger King, but stepping into a fast food joint while travelling can be an enlightening experience. Even the biggest multinational companies localize their products to meet the needs of various populations, and it can be really interesting to see how the Big Mac changes from one country to the next.  Did you know that in Japanese Pizza Hut you can get nori (seaweed), fish flakes, and mayo on a pie?  Or that in a French McDonalds you can have mini baguettes for breakfast?  In Scotland, the fast food chains aren't  wildly different from their US equivalents (although McDonalds here does has donuts and doesn't do Shamrock Shakes), but I don't think a trip to Caledonia would be complete without at least one stop at a chippy.

The lowest common denominator in my favorite places to explore in a new country is that they're all places where actual locals hang out.  As majestic and fun as Castles, Monuments, and Museums can be getting out and interacting with people is the best way to get a sense of place- I've argued it before and I'll say it again.  And again, and again.  Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off for a cultural experience at the grocery store- I need to stock up on porridge and breakfast tea before my parents arrive.

1 comment:

  1. "As majestic and fun as Castles, Monuments, and Museums can be getting out and interacting with people is the best way to get a sense of place- I've argued it before and I'll say it again. And again, and again."

    Mmm, I completely agree. Oh and by the way, at the Indonesian KFC you can choose french fries or steamed rice with your fried chicken-Indonesians tend to believe that you haven't really eaten until you've had rice.