The Spanish siesta is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest inventions of human civilization and justifiably famous around the world. What most people don’t know is that it’s usually followed by a small, delightful meal known as merienda, usually a coffee and pastry, often eaten in the company of family and friends in a congenial outdoor café. One of my earliest memories of Spain is sitting in a plaza one late afternoon, watching people talking and laughing and sipping their coffee at small wooden tables. Dogs lolled in the shade. Kids ran in laughing circles around the fountain. Everyone seemed to know each other. It felt warm and intensely tribal, and their very closeness underscored the fact that I was an outsider.
Spending time in a foreign country can feel like being trapped behind a glass wall. We watch people going about their lives, even interact with them, but all the while we may feel that we're separated from them by an invisible and impenetrable barrier.
Modern travelers are going to extremes in an effort to avoid that feeling of standing on the sidelines. We want to connect with locals in ways that provide deeper, richer, more social media-worthy adventures abroad. Google “authentic travel experiences” and you’ll find 831 million articles such as the Huffington Post’s How to Live Like a Local in Spain (siestas were featured; merienda wasn’t) and Forbes’ How Authentic Is Your Vacation? We read about people paying top dollar to spend an hour alone in the Sistine Chapel, go hang gliding in Nepal, have dinner cooked by Roman nuns… Today, anything (that you can afford) goes.
A generation ago, Billy Crystal’s run with the bulls in Pamplona seemed like the height of extreme tourism.
When this year’s encierro (as it’s known locally) takes place as part of Pamplona’s San Fermin festival, held from July 6 to 14, more than half of the 20,000+ participants will be foreigners. Going by last year's figures, this will include about 4800 Americans, 2200 folks from Australia or New Zealand, 800 Britons, and a mere 739 from Pamplona itself. The event Hemingway immortalized as quintessentially Spanish has evolved into a theme park action sport catering to foreign tourists. Like renting the Sistine Chapel for a private viewing, there’s nothing wrong with doing it, but if you’re looking for an authentic connection with locals and their culture, this isn’t the best place to find it.
So how do we connect with foreigners on their home turf? I believe the key is to be open to serendipity, a state writer E.B. White calls “willing to be lucky.” Travel is full of chance encounters — at the very least with hotel staff, bartenders, guides, drivers, shopkeepers, and fellow diners in the plaza. Make the most of these opportunities.
Of course, you can’t strike up conversations with strangers in a language you don’t speak. But when you can communicate, you'll often find locals are more than willing to reach out to you. I was recently on a bus between Gatwick and Heathrow airports, and as I sat down behind the young driver, I asked some random question like, “So have you been driving this route long?” He spent the next hour sharing about his life, his upcoming fatherhood, and his dreams; it was a fascinating and endearing glimpse into his world.
Next time I feel like an outsider, I’m going to remember that bus driver. He taught me that I don’t have to figure out how to break through the glass wall. Because the truth is, the glass wall doesn’t actually exist; it is entirely a product of my own mind. Our feelings of separateness are, as the Buddhists have been saying for centuries, simply illusion.
People are people the world over. Some are delightful, some are jerks, some just want to sell you a cheap bracelet and get on with their day – much like the people in your hometown. Afternoon snacks may vary, but whether they’re nibbling yak cheese, baklava, or fluffy Spanish pastries, the locals know that food tastes better in the company friends. And if you are willing to be lucky, you may find yourself invited to join that congenial circle.
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I'm an American travel writer currently living in California.
My weekly updates contain tips for keeping our mental equilibrium and living more authentically during these turbulent times.