Sipping a refreshing Kronenbourg while watching the sun set over the Seine. Eating home cooked Swedish meatballs by candlelight while cold winter socks lay drying on the hearth. Walking a dusty red path to the local village to buy fried plantain and ripe pineapple to share. Singing a rallying chant as the crowd cheers for their favorite fútbol team, encouraging them to victory.
What makes these ordinary moments extraordinary? Connection. To the people, the place, the culture. More than checking off a bucket list, collecting mementos, or visiting museums, connecting with locals is the best way to not only catch a glimpse into the daily life of another culture, but to become part of that daily life.
Here are 10 easy ways you can connect with locals and leave the tourist hat behind, if only for a moment:
Do the Macarena.
Dance is an integral form of expression that needs no translation. It is rich with history, emotion, and the very essence of connection. Some of my favorite experiences have involved watching a flamenco dancer in Barcelona, enjoying the Ballet Folklórico in Mexico City, or seeing a whirling dervish perform in Istanbul. Have two left feet? Try taking a beginner’s class or going to a local nightclub. If all else fails you can always whip out your best Macarena moves!
Ride a donkey.
Paddle a kayak. Use the metro. Ride the chicken bus. Take a ferry. Hop on the back of a piki-piki. Try carpooling with Bla Bla Car. The best way to blend in? Imitation. Notice how the locals get around and follow their lead. You will most certainly have some crazy adventures, curious conversations, and make some wonderful connections.
Eat something you can’t pronounce.
When you’re surrounded by the unfamiliar, eating something you’ve never even heard of can feel like being pushed to your last limit. Try it anyway! Ordering a meal from a street vendor can be a great way to practice the language and try the flavors the locals love. If you’re lucky enough to be invited to share a home prepared meal in a family setting, even better. Who knows, you might discover you really like smoked guinea pig, after all!
Speak the lingo.
Sure, you might not have time to master a new language before you jet-set around the world but any effort goes a long way. Try learning how to say ‘hello,’ ‘please,’ and ‘thank-you,’ in the local dialect on Duolingo. Pick a funny word or phrase that’s unique and will be a good conversation starter or make others laugh. Once locals see that you’re trying, they’re more likely to warm up and show you their own language skills, helping you both communicate and connect on a deeper level.
Even if it’s just for a few hours. The truth is, you’re more approachable when not surrounded by your posse or hanging onto your significant other. Exploring a new city alone might feel vulnerable, but it also makes you more open to chance encounters, opportunities, and authentic experiences. Shifting your focus away from your friends will give you a deeper appreciation for what you see and add an element of presence that might lead to a happy surprise, or two!
The last thing you want to do is work while you’re on vacation, right? But what if a few hours teaching English, weeding the rose garden, or cleaning a chambre d’hôte meant you could live with a family, eat three delicious home cooked meals a day, and explore at your leisure without spending a dime? Welcome to the world of Workaway— a magical world where community, connection, and culture collide in an experience that promises to be life-changing.
No, but really. Pick one day to leave the guidebook and the maps behind. Oh, and don’t forget about your expectations, too. The only tools you’ll need are your intuition, a good pair of walking shoes, and a fair amount of trust. Find yourself wandering in circles? You’re off to a good start. Now’s your chance to ask the locals for directions, advice on a good lunch spot, a nearby park, or a favorite dive bar.
Follow your gut.
We’re so used to using our logic and intellect to make decisions, but in a new environment this can be especially challenging. Try using your other senses, instead. Notice the spontaneous ideas you have, the butterflies in your stomach telling you you’re on the right path, the alarm bells going off when you’re not. Use common sense and remember there’s a difference between being out of your comfort zone and feeling unsafe.
Put Down the Selfie Stick.
True story. I once sat on a beautiful beach, watching the sunset paint the sky with golden hues of purple and crimson. In the distance I saw dolphins playing and jumping around a group of paddle boarders. I saw tiny crabs crawling in and out of their holes in the sand, peering up at me with their big and funny eyes, full of curiosity before they scurried away.
I also saw a handsome couple missing all of this beauty– their backs turned to the sunset, the dolphins, and the ocean while they spent half an hour taking posed photos of a vacation they weren’t actually experiencing. If you want to capture the moment, try asking a local to snap a photo for you. It might not be perfect, but it will be real.
People like to talk. They like to share the pride they feel about their country, traditions, and family. They like to know that you’re interested and open to learning about the way they do things, even and especially if it’s different from how you do them. It’s natural to want to talk about where you come from too, and to make comparisons. But just for a moment, try to let that go.
Allow yourself to be fully present in the act of listening– listen to the colours around you, to the textures, to the intonations of the voices in the crowd. Listen to the call to prayer spilling out of the speakers from the mosque down the street. Listen to the choir singing in the church. Listen to the sound of the ambulance, the traffic, the street vendors. Listen to the beat of your heart and notice how it slowly begins to synchronize to the rhythm of a new place.
There’s nothing to prove, but everything to gain. <3