The stereotypical tourist, clicking away on an oversized camera while wearing a Hawaiian print shirt and sandals with socks, can be found anywhere. Maybe the Hawaiian shirt is traded in for an obnoxiously Swedish sweater, and the sandals are garishly colored rubber boots, but the principle is the same: Becoming a classic tourist, being willing to have yourself branded as an outsider from the moment you set foot off the train, takes a certain kind of courage. Taking part in tourist-traps, particularly parting with obscene amounts of money for some useless trinket, makes me break out in metaphorical hives. Clicking away on a camera at completely normal things, like a street sign in a foreign language, gives me the near uncontrollable urge to avert my eyes and run.
Thanks to some new friends, on a recent trip to Russia I was able to unleash my inner tourist.
Fellow American Courtney Robinson, from Colorado, put the inner-tourist matter most poetically.
“It’s going to be cheesy and awful, and I’m going to love it,” she said.
The bags of “Love from Russia” type merchandise she was carrying only added to the proud declaration of her inner stereotypical tourist.
Another outing, headed by Amber Russo, Swedish-American, presented an aspect of classic tourism I hadn’t realized. People’s reactions when presented with tourists are hilarious.
Under Amber’s fearless leadership, we headed into the St. Petersburg metro network. The look on the face of the ticket attendant as she tried to explain how to buy metro tokens in broken English clearly stated, “In no way am I paid enough for this.”
As a horde of exchange students descended the ridiculously long escalator, their inner tourists all started manifesting simultaneously. Locals watched in disbelief or ignored us, hoping we’d all just go away, as we took pictures of the escalator, the advertisements, the students going up the opposite escalator and the janitorial staff.
A theory developed; when faced with a tourist, locals will avert their eyes and pretend said tourist doesn’t exist in the hopes they will eventually go away, sometimes to the point of blushing with embarrassment at the sight of the tourist. In the last days of our stay in St. Petersburg, I asked fellow students to help me test this theory.
Amber and I teamed up and went grocery shopping as if we were locals, doing the best we could to blend in. We also needed to stock up on some Russian vodka, but our primary mission was testing a scientific hypothesis. No one stared at us or tried to speak English, so we counted it a success.
After putting our merchandise away, we walked a few stores down before whipping out a multi-colored tourist information map and loudly debating the best way to the Neva River and the Palace Embankment. I was for going on foot, while she wanted to take the metro again.
The bubble of empty space around us grew dramatically as soon as we whipped out the map, everyone quite content to pretend we didn’t exist. As the argument grew more heated, uneasy glances and occasional flushes of embarrassment started appearing. The bubble also expanded.
We then put the map away and walked on. After a few more stores, people forgot we had been tourists and let the bubble collapse. The experiment appeared to be a success. Other students reported in and only one group actually had a local talk to them during the flamboyant tourist phase.
Since the group was trying to pay for a drink with a 500-ruble piece when most places had trouble breaking a 100, I decided that was an extraneous case.
The amount of fun I had acting like a classic tourist was surprising. I doubt I would have had so much fun if I hadn’t been travelling with people at the time, but the fact that indulging in this type of behavior actually brought some entertainment surprised me. Since half the entertainment was in watching the local’s reactions, it raised the question of whether the classic tourists I see (and avoid) are really just in it for the people-watching that results.