“I feel like a local today,” my husband said to me as we walked to the local cafe we had been to the previous day. We didn’t have to check directions on our phones, ask for help, look around helplessly. We knew where we were headed.
I wondered what it meant that he said he felt like a local. Of course, I thought, he meant that he felt like a person who knew where they were going. He wasn’t lost or unsure. His sense of direction had finally clicked into place, landmarks had become familiar, Google Maps was no longer necessary.
But what was more interesting than the thing he said was the way he said it. It came out with a broad smile, which seemed incredibly out of place in retrospect. We were huddled together under a single umbrella that turned inside-out with every gust of rainy wind that swept underneath it.
But together, we splashed through puddles in our sturdy boots, hurried confidently across streets even when the street signs told us not to.
He was right. This was as close to feeling like a couple of locals as we had come the entire trip. It was fun.
After our usual coffee and pastry (we’ve been here a week), he headed off to the Metro to his company’s Paris office near the Louvre and I stayed in the cafe avoiding the rain. Soon, I braved the rain alone, wandering with some purpose but not much, phone out every few blocks, backtracking and circling around to find this or that museum or this or that cafe, I realized my localness had faded.
I reflected on this as I allowed myself to gawk at towering Parisian facades, traipse through gardens and plazas that were out of the way just because they were cute. I was back to playing the tourist, yes, but the streets were empty, and surely the frequent glances at my digital map could have been easily mistaken for incoming texts from hoards of Parisian friends asking about my plans were for the weekend while they stood outside their offices having a smoke.
Ducking into another cafe — this one more familiar with its simple, Brooklyn-coffee-shop vibe — it was still bugging me. Surely, there’s a reason we travel with the idea of seeming like a local, but where does that come from? What is the purpose of wanting to blend in with others, and why do we strive for that?
I wondered if it was an American-ism, a sort of backlash to oppose the embarrassing stereotypes we seem to carry with us around Europe — we’re loud and brash and impolite. Maybe, I thought, the desire to slip into Parisian life is the desire to go unnoticed, to hide the embarrassing parts of Americanness.
Along the same lines, I reasoned, we’re disappointed when we hear other Americans, or any other tourists for that matter, chattering away at tables next to us at the hyper-local restaurant we found on Yelp or Eater or the New York Times. We’re occupied with getting an authentic experience, and we don’t want our foreign presence to shape that experience. We want the real Paris.
But are we not inextricably linked to the experience we’re having, at all times? Are the Parisian facades not considered beautiful because there are people there to gawk at them, whether we’re local or not? Otherwise, what was the point of making such attractive things? As the third-most visited city in the world, this is certainly a place where tourists are woven into the cultural tapestry in Paris.
But these questions bring me to my point: We don’t travel just to look at things. We travel to feel things. More specifically, we travel to feel different things than we’re used to. We go places and we imagine life a different way. We imagine what it would be like if we lived here for real.
Of course, of course, the real deal would be different. We know it wouldn’t be what we imagined if we had to commute to work with throngs of people (many of them tourists, ugh), sit at a desk all day, visit our parents on the weekends and contemplate the cost of our rent every month.
But that’s what makes traveling — being a tourist — so unique. It’s this full exploration of our imagination. It’s grown-up playtime. We think about being a local, but the magic is in the dream itself — just like the magic we feel when we think about what life would be like if we lived 100 years ago or under the ocean or on Mars.
We walk around the streets of Paris with our imaginative brains on fire.
And we’re allowed to do that when we’re tourists. When we’re visiting a place, as opposed to becoming part of its human architecture, we are outsiders. Being an outsider allows us to pretend, to create our own ideas about what it’s like in Paris.
Being an insider, on the other hand, means we wouldn’t be exercising our imagination as much. When “that gorgeous building” becomes our workplace or “that cute cafe” has way too many tourists at lunchtime, they become less abstract and more real. Our practical brains take over, tells us how things really are, and play diminishes.
So, by extension, when we’re taking in new sights, sounds, cultures, ideas, smells, and everything that goes along with traveling to a new place, we’re actually doing creative work.
Traveling evokes creativity, allows us to act like children and forget our very adult, practical responsibilities waiting for us at home. It’s a privilege to be able to experience this, so next time I wish I looked more like a local, I just have to remember, it’s the wishing that has the magic.
Once we become truly local, Paris could turn out to be something else entirely: It could turn out to be real.