That is the question. Remember in Sex in the City, when Carrie rags on her boyfriend for having a character in his book who’s a New Yorker running around town in a hair scrunchie? This was back in the late 90s, and while they were popular, they weren’t chic and no proper New York woman was wearing one. The boyfriend taps the lady in front of them, who’s wearing a scrunchie, and says something that prompts her to say “Wow you thought I was a New Yorker? That’s so flattering.” You get my point, locals and tourists dress differently, especially in cities known for their fashion. In this post, I’m going to cover the top three ways that acting like a tourist can affect your trip, fashion being one of them. In my last post about Paris I discussed knowing how you like to travel and you may be a "to be a tourist" traveler and not be concerned with any of these things. But I'll ask you to read on and see how there are some very simple fixes, and if it is something on your radar, hopefully these tips will help.
I’m part of a group of women that was founded by Alexandra Jimenez the Travel Fashion Girl (check out her blog, it’s amazing). The whole point of the group is to share travel tips as well as lively discussions on what is and is not fashionable when traveling. The top debated items are your bag and your shoes. Shoes are the number one way to identify a tourist verses a local. The second is your bag. Both signify either you’re on vacation or you’re just living your life. Remember Clemente, from Secret Food Tours? He quietly made fun of Americans in their sneakers and giant backpacks looking like they were going hiking. Many of you are thinking so what? I want to be comfortable while walking long distances and I need to carry a lot of stuff around with me in case of whatever might happen. That’s fine, you can dress how you want but three things will happen in a place like Paris. One, they’ll make fun of you behind your back and sometimes to your face. Two, you’ll get treated like a tourist, which means paying higher prices and getting worse service. Most importantly, three, you’ll get pick pocketed. It’s so easy to cut hole or just cut the straps off of a regular backpack.
Here’s the good news, you can be both comfortable and safe while still being fashionable. These three words will change your life: Rebecca Minkoff Julian. This is a sleek leather backpack with a security zipper pocket against your back. It’s a bag that looks stylish almost everywhere but has lots of functionality. I can get my raincoat, umbrella, water bottle, lipsense, lactaid, ibuprofen and a tampon in there with room to spare. Since I learned about this fabulous bag from the Travel Fashion Girl, I am sending you to her page on this bag for extra details and a purchase link. You can also read about anti-theft crossbodies and other styles of bags with security features but frankly any bag with a lock on it reads “I’m a tourist.” Amazon makes a Julian like convertible anti-theft backpack that is an affordable alternative. Pat carries a sleek little backpack that has an anti-theft compartment for his camera. This is not the exact model but it's quite similar.
Shoes are an easy fix too. White sneakers are in, everywhere. Want to look like an American off duty model? Get Nike Air Force 1s. Want to look like a European off duty model? Get Fila Disruptors. Want to look like an influencer? Get some Golden Gooses. Yeah I know the price on those is a bit out there (Poshmark for the win) but we can go celebrity and bring the price back down. Want to look like Kate Middelton? Get some Superga Cotu Classics. Want to look like Megan Markle? Get yourself some Veja Esplars. I can do this all day. I know you’re thinking “but they’ll get dirty!” so wipe them down at night, you’re Nike’s were getting dirty too. I really love to travel in Ecco Soft 7s, which I have in black and white. I made Pat travel in plain black Nike’s that you can’t really see the logo on, the last time we were in Paris. Since coming home from that trip he’s stepped up his game to a sleek low profile leather Reebok sneaker in his daily life so I suspect they will be on hand next time we travel. I personally am little bit extra and I bought gold rhinestone Dune’s of London sneakers at Selfridges that I wore around London and Paris. Still not a touristy shoe though and I got a lot of compliments. You may also have noticed I’m wearing black booties in most of my pictures from Europe, they’re Blondos and we’ll touch on that another time.
So that is how you avoid looking like a tourist. How about sounding like one? My favorite thing about the Germans is how much they encourage you to try to speak German. They will help you through it rather than mock you for your poor pronunciation. France is somewhat of a mixed bag. People whose livelihoods depend on tourists are very supportive but other Parisians are less so. I’m not a huge fan of the new show on Netflix, Emily in Paris, although I am more open to it after Darren Starr said this isn’t about Paris, it’s about a young silly girl’s impression of Paris. From that perspective it is rather accurate, when you act like you don’t care if you’re saying it incorrectly, they won’t be kind. The street where we stay is not touristy and just like everywhere else in the world there are some very friendly people and some who are more judgy.
Pat used Duolingo for 6 months before we went and he learned just enough to get himself in trouble every time he tried to say anything even remotely complicated in French. For example, the first day he tried to order us coffee to go, the barista looked confused. Pat was trying to literally translate the words “coffee to go” when the proper French phrase is “to take away.” However, another patron said he’s teasing you because you shouldn’t take it to go, you should sit down and enjoy it. They almost certainly would have teased us if we had asked in English too. I tend to learn the very basics: hello, goodbye, please, thank you, and “champagne s'il vous plaît.” The first phrase my German friend Ute taught me was “Ich gehe einkaufen, kommst du mit?” I’ll let you look that one up. I didn’t get anyone to try to trip me up with my less than basic french and generally people appreciated that I made the effort to say please and thank you in their language. It’s a basic sign of respect to say thank you in a way they are sure to understand.
Here is a side story because I live to fall down a rabbit hole. I am using Duolingo now because I want to move to Paris, but I am not doing particularly well. Scarlett started Mandarin at the same time. Her Mandarin isn’t better then my french but her french is already better then mine, just by over hearing me. “Oui is pronounced WE, Mom. Why can’t you remember that???” By the time we move to France I suspect she will be well prepared when she comes to visit.
Finally we have arrived at what not to do if you want to avoid being a tourist. This one is the hardest, because most of the cities you go to on vacation have some fabulous touristy places that you simply must visit. Can you go to the Louvre and not look like a tourist? Should you skip Versailles in order to avoid the sardine like experience? Can you take a picture under the eiffel tower and not be mocked by the Parisians? The answer is no, but you should probably do them anyway. We bought advanced tickets to the Louvre with a timed entry but we did not buy the private viewing of the Mona Lisa. Actually we didn’t even stand in line to see it straight on. We walked up to the side, took a picture to send to Scarlett and moved onto other parts of the Louvre that are absolutely fabulous and not full of tourists. I highly recommend Napoleon III apartments (Pictured below).
We did a mixed day of Versailles and Giverny. We paid for a guided tour and were surprised when they gave us headphones and what looked like a tape player, but it was actually a audio receiving device. This little thing was amazing. As we walked around Giverny we could avoid the most densely packed areas and still hear the tour guide. I was impressed with how nicely people waited to have their pictures taken in the most ideal spots and helping others out by snapping their shots. I will say though, generally speaking, I deleted most pictures taken by other people and kept the selfies. They won't take 25 shots to get your best side. We were also there the second week in October, the very end of the tourist season when very few flowers were still in bloom. Yet, the bathroom line was still ridiculous, so I can’t fathom going in July.
You can not avoid the sardine situation at Versailles, ever. If we didn’t have those little radio transmitters (note the red wire hanging from ear in the next picture) we would have learned literally nothing. As for the fabulous light Louis XIV achieved, it’s not bright enough for a decent picture anywhere but the hall of mirrors. It really makes you wonder how miserable the lighting was before he spent millions of dollars on venetian chandeliers. You should probably still go, there’s really nothing else like it and you’ll understand why the French Revolution happened as soon as you see the gold encrusted gates. There’s really no way to avoid touristy behaviors in a place like Versailles. But what you can do is respect your tour guide and the other tourists. Don’t be late to get back on the bus, don’t stand in front of Marie Antoinette’s bed for 10 mins trying to get the best picture, and don’t bring a tripod or a selfie stick. All of these places are amazing and should be seen at least once but they’re not on our to do again list. Maybe in a few years we can go in the early spring and see the gardens at both Versailles and Giverny, or it’ll just have to wait till I retire to Paris.
These were the only three very touristy things we did last year. We spent the rest of our time doing very small or private tours and tastings. We were clearly still American tourists so we endeavored to be polite and respectful. A willingness to try everything and to respect the experts is huge in France. Again, ragging on Emily in Paris, but the customer is never right in France. Order whatever the special of the day is because the chef spent hours on that and everything else that day may lack luster. Everything is cooked the way the chef thinks it’s best eaten. We were in a wine tasting class and some other Americans asked for a recommendation of a wine to buy a case of from their daughter’s birth year to save for her wedding. The Sommelier was genuinely irritated. Most wine is not meant to be aged. The winemaker releases it when he thinks it’s ready and that’s when it should be drunk. I bet this couple did it anyway and that's fine but know, it's generally not the way the french do things. It's the same as the barista telling us we should really sit down and enjoy our cafe au lait.
The moral of my stories is that the secret to “not to be a tourist” is respect. This seems obvious but I think people overlook some of the ways you can disrespect a culture or people. Fashion can be a subtle way to show and/or gain respect. Italian churches won’t even let you in without a head covering. People in my travel group will always talk about making sure you bring a shawl to Rome, but often ignore how casually American’s dress in other situations in societies where that is not the custom. I will write an entire post about both Pat and my European travel wardrobes, what we got right and what we got wrong, but for now you’re just going to have to take my word that how you dress can affect your experience. As can the way you speak, the food and drink you consume and how you order it. No one ever gets it completely right, myself included, but I challenge you to not act like an American tourist and see how different your experience can be.