On being ‘a local’ all over the world

by Anna Blanch on April 21, 2012

Whether in Paris, or London, or New York or even Brisbane, I’m often surprised by the way I seem to be mistaken for a local resident. I’ve been asked for directions, in french,  in Paris and spanish in New York, had locals wax lyrical in London about how not Australian my Australian accent is, and had no less than six people ask me about where to find things in and around the cultural precinct this morning in Brisbane. Maybe I just have the kind of face that makes me melt into the background and seem like part of the furniture.

I usually take it as a sign that I don’t look as much like a tourist as I fear I might. But then, what is so bad about looking like a tourist? Because I admit, looking like a tourist and being singled out as one isn’t something I relish.  Might it be that I value feeling like I belong in a place, even if only for a short time?  It could also be that I’ve internalised the fear that to look foreign means I’m likely to be singled out – whether by those seeking to take advantage of me, whether by stealing or otherwise.

A friend told me recently that I exude an air of competence  – I’m not entirely sure what that means, except that it could be an intangible reason for the assumption that I know where I’m going. Walking purposefully in a strange (to me) place is also a habit I’ve picked up traveling alone. The sense that you are less likely to be ‘preyed upon’ in any way if you walk as if you know where you are going, even if you don’t.

What’s with all the fear? Fear isn’t why I travel, and It’s not even a sensation I’ve ever really felt very often on the road. I like traveling alone, I enjoy it. Yet, whether by intention or osmosis, I’ve sublimated a whole range of behaviors as a response to avoiding situations that may never happened and are only fears. Fears that are a reality for women traveling alone. I’ve never really asked my male friends if they have accepted similar attitudes about themselves while traveling. I suspect some of them may never have been presented with the idea that they should or might.

I think I like the idea that for a time in a place I can experience it as someone who does so more usually. To be spoken to more familiarly and less as a business prospect. I like taking my time and visiting places not because of their ‘quick hit’ appeal but more because of their ‘vignette of the usual’ quality. Sometimes you have to get over yourself though and give in to the tourist experience – like in LA (when I unabashedly when on an open-topped car tour) or the many bright red sightseeing buses I’ve taken on first visits to London, Glasgow, Paris, and New York.

I like to think that I’m not viewing other people’s lives as exhibits in a Zoo. Having lived in a touristy town for the past three years it can feel very intrusive when others, however excited, intervene into your daily life.

I still like the idea of gaining a sense of what it means to be ‘a local’ and to be at home even where this is an impossibility. In many places, including the towns which I would call my ‘hometown’, to become a local is a generational proposition. It is not a label you can give yourself, but one which can take decades to acquire. Yet, this feeling of belonging is one I seek even when merely sojourning in a place.

Despite all of this desiring ‘local’ness I am aware that the objectivity, or at least distant subjectivity , I have when in a place for the first time is only possible because of my awareness that I am an outsider. Because all that I see and experience is new to me. And at this point the paradox turns in on itself and collapses.

And that my friends, is the wonder and experience of traveling.

 

Listening. Observing. Participating. Writing. Photographing. Reflecting.

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Traveller. Scholar. Photographer. Writer. Dreamer. Teacher. Anna Blanch is founder of Goannatree, and a PhD candidate in the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, Scotland. Overland to Oz is a crazy adventure marked with photos and word and inspired by the incredible women in Anna’s family, especially her late grandmother, whom she knew as Nan-Nan.

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