Being self-aware while abroad


Don’t worry, everyone — I’ve finally made it to Budapest. I’d like to take this opportunity to draw on both my past and more recent travels: I have come to notice how being a tourist, both conspicuous and inconspicuous, can influence a traveling experience. I’ve compiled a guide of things I’ve been keeping in mind over here.

Now, to be clear, I’m writing this for how I prefer to take in a new place. I would rather avoid tourist traps and go about my business without being labeled as an oblivious foreigner — a walking target. For example, the U.S. embassy’s tourist advisory on Hungary warns of pickpockets and unethical billing practices at restaurants and clubs that target busy tourist areas.

1. Make plans before you go out so you don’t have to reconvene in unfamiliar and crowded public spaces to figure out the next step in your adventure. A group of loud, confused tourists is not only a target but also an obstacle, as they never seem to stake out a spot that’s not in the middle of the sidewalk.

2. Use common sense on public transport. First, keep track of every stop. Don’t be above doing this and listen to music or take a nap because you will end up missing your stop and going to the very end of the line — trust me! Also, make sure you are heading in the correct direction before you get on that bus, tram or subway car. Lastly, be aware of your space. Yes you most definitely accidentally touch hands with that stuffy older woman on the handrail during rush hour. There’s nothing to be done about it except grin, bear and keep your possessions on your person at all times.

3. Dinner is just an expensive lunch. What I mean by this is that usually a restaurant’s dinner options don’t differ from its lunch ones, except for the much higher prices. Save yourself the cost of a mediocre yet spend-heavy meal and go all out during lunch times when it’s cheaper, and then grab some pasta and chicken from the grocery store for a relaxed dinner in the comfort of your Airbnb or hostel of choice.

4. Bring a bag everywhere, because most other countries don’t offer free plastic bags with purchase. Jarring, I know. Keep a small canvas bag tucked in your pockets for when you decide to buy ingredients for the aforementioned dinner, and you won’t be completely flustered at the checkout and then have to juggle three wine bottles, a loaf of bread and three bags of Haribo gummies back to your place in the heat of a Hungarian summer. Not from personal experience or anything.

5. Be quiet and don’t wear clothes with words! Yes, there are many, many ways to indicate to people that you are not, in fact, a local. But branding yourself as a non-native speaker of their language is pretty high on the list. Wait until you have to speak before they know whether or not you’re a tourist.

6. Lastly — but honestly most importantly — go to a bank ATM, not one of those sleazy for-profit ATMs that charge exorbitant amounts and are conveniently located right around the corner from your hotel. Also, bank ATMs are usually indoors, thus more protected from shady characters who may be hanging around while you type out your PIN. Just make sure to plan ahead when acquiring your money because it may take you a while to spot one.

One a more personal note, I’d like to express the feelings I’ve had about traveling while here in Budapest. While I’m here on a program with the Council on International Educational Exchange, there are about 20 other American students who take classes with me and live with me. I haven’t had a chance to get very close with any of them yet because I’ve decided to make this adventure about me.

I’ve never really traveled alone. Usually, I’m with my 60-year-old parents, making compromises and being ungrateful when things don’t go my way — which was too often. But having company — especially with people who understand you well — in an unfamiliar place is a comfort that I am starting to miss.

As a result of this, I really have been forced to learn my own traveling likes and dislikes. I do what I want. I can eat whatever food I’m feeling like. Hell, I got gelato three times just yesterday. It was great. I can show up to the train station an hour early to quell my nerves about travelling. I can pop into each and every vintage shop that catches my eye without my dad impatiently huffing on the sidewalk.

I’ve also learned some tough lessons. Hungarian is a hard language to learn — “fürdőszoba” is the word for bathroom! — especially for a perpetually shy individual such as myself. After about two weeks, I’ve gotten into the habit of reminding myself that I am only limiting my own experiences by being too scared to order a pastry or ask for directions. The worst that’s happened is that I had to show a bus driver my phone to confirm that I should get on. He didn’t mind. I just have to keep telling myself that NO ONE CARES!

XOXO, Evan