Going local: It's easier than you think

BY RICK STEVES Published: May 29, 2012
I’m not naturally a wild-and-crazy kind of guy. But when I’m shy and quiet, things don’t happen, and that’s a bad rut to travel in. The meek may inherit the earth, but they won’t enjoy it.

When you're traveling in Europe, make yourself an extrovert, even if you’re not. Be a catalyst for adventure and excitement — and don't be intimidated. Generally speaking, Europeans enjoy getting to know Americans — all it takes to connect is a friendly smile and genuine curiosity. Here are a few tricks I use to connect with the locals:

Be open to encounters as you visit a city. At most major sights, you’ll meet more people in an hour than you would at home in a day. Cameras are good icebreakers; offer to take someone’s picture or ask a local to take a picture of you. If you are lonely and in need of human contact, take out a map and look lost. You’ll get help. Perceive friendliness and you’ll find it.

Take a class at a cooking school. These give you not just a taste of the culinary traditions of the area you’re visiting, but also a hands-on feel for what happens in European kitchens — along with a skill you can take home. Many include a trip to local markets. You can find one-day European cooking classes at the International Kitchen (www.theinternationalkitchen.com).

Across Europe, some large cities and even small towns (such as Germany’s Rothenburg) have informal English-language conversation clubs, usually meeting weekly or monthly in a public space (search online or ask at the tourist information office). You may well be the only native speaker there — if so, expect an especially warm welcome.

Several European cities have English-speaking volunteer greeters who belong to the Global Greeter Network (www.globalgreeternetwork.com). Greeters are screened extensively, but aren’t trained as historical experts. Instead, they introduce visitors to their city by spending a few hours sharing their insider knowledge — their favorite hidden spots, how to navigate public transit, where to find the best bargains, etc.

A few bigger cities have more formal programs that put travelers in direct touch with locals. In Dublin, the City of a Thousand Welcomes brings volunteers and first-time visitors together for a cup of tea or a pint (free, www.cityofathousandwelcomes.com).

In Paris, the group Meeting the French organizes dinners in private homes and workplace tours to match your interests or career (fee, www.meetingthefrench.com). Visitors to Copenhagen can enjoy a home-cooked meal with a family through Dine with the Danes (fee, www.

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