More From the Other Side of Tourism

I spent almost half a year working in an airport. I was a customer service representative. I checked people in. I boarded them onto flights and checked their tickets. I communicated with the largely Quebecois flyers in my broken French. And I got yelled at by more people than I can possibly count.

So I have for you here insider tips on making your travel day go smoothly.

If the passenger’s bag was only three pounds over the weight limit, I let them go without slapping on the 50 dollar fee… but only if they had behaved pleasantly thus far. If they broke rules or spoke rudely (or in one case tried to direct me by whistling for my attention), they paid the fee. We’ve all been told that being kind gets you a long way, but that’s all the more true in an airport where you are at the mercy of the person who you might be yelling at.

Tip 2: if you don’t want the people boarding the plane to get angry and be extra tough on you and everybody else as you board, do not ever line up to get on the plane before they call you to. You block them from bringing wheelchairs forward and can even block the flow of terminal traffic. Staff won’t be nice once that starts to be happen. And don’t you want them to have a cheerful day, too? You’re probably headed for vacation, maybe even warmer climes, so just kick back and enjoy your own patience.

Tip 3: If you’re aggressively late and it’s not your fault and there’s an airline employee available, go to them before you sprint to security. They’ll vastly increase your chances of making the flight. My favorite memory of helping a passenger was a family with 10 month old twins whose car broke down on the way to the airport and they had a half dozen bags and bundles. We helped carry their bags through security, radioed to the gate agents not to close the door, and ran up the stairs with them. They made their flight. You can to if you ask for help and don’t panic.

Please feel free to ask me questions about being an airport employee!

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Standing on the other side of Tourism

This month I became a museum volunteer. Every other Sunday I take the DC metro to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I spend the day answering questions (mostly “Where’s the bathroom?”) and giving elevator speeches. It’s stunning to think that so many times in the past I was the stunned person, wandering through a museum, asking questions and soaking everything in. The tables have turned and I think I’m gaining even more satisfaction from answering the questions.

The topic of the holocaust museum may be somber, but the mission is important. I feel fulfilled when I’m there. I hope the employees and volunteers were gaining the same satisfaction in the foreign museums I visited. Everybody deserves to have a deep experience like this in their own town.

Next goal: find friends as easily in my new home city as I did in hostels!

How do you seek fulfillment when you’re not traveling?

US Holocaust Museum in Washington

Permanent Part-Time Tourist

I visited New York City seven times in twenty years and I have been living here for nearly a month and a half now. I love this city and I almost never get lost. I can locate any type of cuisine I want and figure out how to get to it without sparing much thought. I know at least a little local slang and I can recognize accents from certain parts of the city.

You’ve been waiting for a “but” and I’m never one to disapoint, so here it is…

…BUT I am still a tourist in this city and I might be that way even if I lived here for the rest of my life. The truth is that we all kind of have a tendency toward being a tourist on occassion in New York. There’s so much going on and so many new opportunities that no single person can be constantly in-the-know. I regularly check the internet and chat with my roomates about what’s going on each week and yet when I go into the office after the weekend ends, I frequently find out about a host of other events I had no idea had happened. But I didn’t really miss out because I was partaking of some other NYC offering. No person can truly be a pro at handling the plethora of activities that is NYC.

What’s more is that activities typically prescribed as “tourist activities” really can’t just be ignored by locals. It would be folly to live in this city and never go to Ellis Island or go to the top of the Empire State building. You would be missing out on huge opportunities just for the sake of declaring yourself a “non-tourist”!

Therefore, it is with little regret that I can anounce that I spent this weekend attempting to catch a glimpse of a movie star, winding through the Guggenheim, and touring the Rockefeller Center. I enjoyed myself and embraced the need to simply be a part-time tourist while living here.

But NYC isn’t the only place where people actually live and try to ignore the touristy spots. Do you occassionally visit the tourist places in your own town, county and state? I know I grew up a stone’s throw from Niagra Falls and didn’t catch a glimpse until I was 19. Lesson learned: take advantage of the tourist zones closest to home because you can’t garuantee you’ll live there forever and you don’t want to miss your chance!

I’m proudly going to be a part-time tourist for my entire life- I hope you’ll join me!

It’s the journey, not the destination

“It’s the journey, not the destination” is a common phrase that’s applied mostly to life in general, but I think it’s also important to keep that in mind when making a literal journey. It’s so easy to start viewing a trip as a series of specific locations that you want to see. Paris, London, Copenhagen…. and forget that you’re going to make all of the memories on your way to your checklist items.

In Paris the Eiffel tower was stunning, but the story I tell is about how my friends and I misjudged the distance between it and Notre Dame cathedral and wound up walking three miles at night in Paris, and maybe getting a little lost too.

In London it felt like all of my dreams were being fulfilled when I stood at platform 9 3/4 with my friends and took several photographs, but it was the flawless way we had navigated the Underground to get there without “adult” help that we were proud of.

And today I leave for Copenhagen. I’m dreading the journey. It will take me over 16 hours on trains to reach my destination. I will sleep in a train, squished in a little compartment with 3 or 5 strangers. There couldn’t possibly be anything good about that, right? How can I have  a positive attitude? But I just need to remind myself that I’ll probably create some wild story in the course of this trip, or when the sun rises I will be treated to wonderful views of the Danish countryside. I can’t judge the journey before it happens and I need to remind myself that without the journey, there is no destination.

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The Homeland Phenomena

According to family lore, and a great deal of genealogical research on the part of my Great Aunt, about half of my family (My dad’s side) stems from England, having immigrated to the New World even before the United States won it’s freedom… and as far as I know nobody in the family has been back since.

Until now.

Technically my genes make England the homeland for me, but I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived in a land I had only dreamed of for my entire life (Thank you J.K. Rowling and a host of other British authors). Should it have felt like coming home? Or was my ancestry far too distant? At what point does an ancestry become far too distant to feel a connection? I certainly felt more of a literary connection than a cultural connection!

I should have felt comfortable there than other places I’ve travelled (which I did to some extent thanks to the familiar sounds of English surrounding me in every direction for the first time in four months), but overall I felt like more of a tourist in England than I did anywhere else. I gawked at the cars driving on the “wrong” side of the street, insisted on eating “fish and chips”, and took a tour to stare at Big Ben and all related landmarks. Perhaps it was just my excitement that made me so touristy, but it certainly wasn’t the reaction of an English girl at last making the voyage to her homeland.

Oddly enough, I felt more “At home” in Israel last year than I did in England, even though the last ancestor of mine to live in Israel isn’t even remotely within recorded family history, probably having left in the diaspora thousands of years ago. In Israel I speak about ten words of the local language- a striking comparison to England where I’m almost fluent in the language (Really, British English and American English do have some interesting points of divergence- I still haven’t figured out what “busking” is). Yet despite the lingual divide, Israel feels more like home.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that the sense of home really is a highly subjective matter. For me, perhaps the practice of Judaism in my home kept the link to Israel much stronger, whereas the roots in England had to be rediscovered and never contributed to any familial practices. And in the end, I suppose the fact remains that I’m simply an American abroad- and an American who will be re-entering American soil at the end of May for the first time in nearly five months. What a weird feeling that will be! The feeling of home will likely smother me then!

Bonus tidbit: I got a good laugh two days later in Dublin when an Irishman saw my last name (Brown) and my freckles and promptly welcomed me “home” to a land which I had zero connection to, but soon found I liked very much.

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Conversion

You know you’ve converted to a local… when you stop mentally converting the currency.

I don’t know when it happened… but at some point over the last few months I have stopped mentally switching my spending from Euros to dollars to understand my expenses. I became used to it and eventually started comparing prices to other european prices I had encountered. Five euro for a sandwich? When I arrived, in January that would instantly have looked like 7 dollars. Now, five euro just looks like more than the 3 euro sandwich I can buy at my preferred sandwich shop.

Sure it’s a shock every time I look at my bank account, but in the moment there’s no mental math to bother me. I’m accustomed to prices here, just like I am accustomed to jam and bread at breakfast every day (as opposed to oatmeal or bacon with eggs). The fact that the money is colorful and each bill is worth more than the green paper I used to work with has become simply a fact that I brush off as I make my transactions.

Does no longer gawking at the money and asking if it’s from a monopoly game make me a local? Perhaps. It’s probably just one factor among dozens on the subjective spectrum of how Europeanized a person is. I’d like to think that it’s a key indicator though.

Unfortunately, over the next month I will be making forays into other European countries with different monetary systems, so I will find myself converting again. But what currency will my mind compare it to? Will I revert to the dollar in my head or will my more recent encounters with the Euro surface first? And then at the end of May I will return to the US… my real home (little though I want to admit it at the moment) and land of the green money. I wonder if I have become so adjusted to the Euro that I will suffer a readjustment period. Perhaps I won’t… and it will be the beginning of being able to operate equally in two monetary systems. There’s only one way to find out, so I will hope that adjusting to my own government’s money will not be a part of reverse culture shock when I hop back to the other side of the Big Pond.

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