When I was traveling around Europe in the Autumn of 2008, I spent a few days in beautiful Freiburg im Breisgau in Germany. I stayed with my friend Mirjam and her family. They welcomed me with open arms and were wonderful, gracious hosts.
One of the best things about staying with a local German family in Freiburg was that I really got to experience what everyday life was like for Mirjam. Of course, she took me to the tourist sites of the town, such as the Freiburg Minster and the Schauinsland, and I loved them.
However, she also took me along with her on her daily classes, appointments, and activities, giving me an insight into the life of this young German woman. I ended up in places and situations that I would never have experienced if I was a mere anonymous tourist.
Here are some of the things that I ended up doing in Germany:
Getting thrown around in a Judo class.
Mirjam is a very active girl, and Judo is one of the activities she enjoys. When I tagged along to her Judo practice, I thought I would be watching on the sidelines. Oh no, I didn’t get off that easily! Soon I was wrapped in a white gi and thrown right in the middle of it. I spent a good hour getting slammed down onto the blue plastic mats by sweaty German dudes, and in the end I had learned a few techniques of my own.
Shopping for leather in a Medieval city centre.
Mirjam’s boyfriend is the baggy metal band t-shirt, long haired, metal-studded-everything type of guy, and when I met up with her in downtown Freiburg he was after some leather in order to weave some handmade necklaces. I tagged along into a leather store, where I marveled at the amazing elaborately hand-carved belts and enjoyed that characteristic smell as he negotiated with the shopkeeper in German. Would I have found that cool little shop on my own? Probably not.
Following along with a modern dance routine.
This adventure made #3 on my list of Top Five Most Random Things I Have Done in Foreign Countries. Click the link to read more.
Dug a ditch near a shack in the woods
Mirjam and her family told me that they owned a cottage near Mulhouse, France, and asked me if I wanted to come with them for the day to work on it. I thought, “why not”? and soon found myself up to my elbows in French mud, digging a trench to drain water away from the property. The “cottage” was little more than a tiny shack with no water or electricity, similar to what I imagined Thoreau living in when I read Walden. There was barely a road to it, and we had to drive down a path and then approach the building on food. It was so peaceful and quiet out there in the forest, and I felt by contributing my physical labor I had left a bit of myself behind in Europe.
How to Travel Local-Style
There is something truly wonderful about staying with a local and letting them include you in their daily life. Whether it’s cooking meals, shopping or extra-curricular activities, these experiences will be much more memorable and unique than your average historical walking tour.
When you are traveling, list the friends, relatives or other people you know in foreign countries and ask if you can visit them. Most people love showing off where they live, and will be happy to let you into their life for a few days.
If you don’t know anyone in another country, don’t despair. Why not try Couchsurfing, which allows you to connect with cool people all over the world and crash on their couch or spare bed? Another great program is WWOOF, which stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and links travelers with farms in the UK, Europe, New Zealand, Australia, North America and elsewhere. You volunteer for a few hours per day, in exchange for room and board with a host family, and it is a great way to immerse yourself in your host’s way of life!
What is ordinary and commonplace to someone living in Bangkok, Thailand will be very different to the every-day routine of someone in Madrid, Spain or Austin, Texas. Letting a local involve you their day-to-day routine just might expose you to something you have never experienced before. And isn’t that what traveling is all about?