6 Ways to Travel Abroad Without Looking Like a Tourist
I have a dark confession to make: Even though I write a weekly column for an internationally read publication, until recently, I'd never even owned a passport. "But Gladstone," you say. "How is that possible when you're such a smooth and sophisticated man of the world?" I'll admit, it's puzzling, but the United States is not like Europe. Going to other countries here requires plane fare, and I didn't grow up with a lot of cash. By the time I had money, I had small children, and I wasn't going to have some European vacation dictated by infants.
"First we go to Prague!"
But a few weeks ago, an old friend of mine got married in Edmonton, Canada, and at the exact same time, I was invited to appear at the Edmonton Comic & Entertainment Expo. It was like a perfect storm calling me to a foreign land. (Shut up! It was a six-hour plane ride and it required a passport, so it counts!!!) I decided to take off to this exotic destination, but there was a problem. I was too old to be having this first experience -- much like Cracked's Soren Bowie, who had to ask a girl out for the first time at 27. (Before that, he'd relied on his now fading boyish good looks to get spontaneously molested by passing women.)
In any event, I decided to go abroad, but how could I do that without looking like a noob? I learned the hard way, but now you don't have to. Profit from my mistakes and follow these six tips so you can remain the confident, undetected tourist even when traveling abroad for the first time.
Get Your Papers in Order
The first thing you need to do is make sure you're legally allowed to travel. If you're a terrorist or currently serving a life sentence, that can create certain obstacles. But for the rest of us, you need official papers to go abroad -- even if you write for the Internet. I checked. Here's a tip: You don't need to go to the post office or Kinko's for your passport photo. Instead, save a few bucks by going to your neighborhood bodega. There, you'll find a charming dude with a camera and winning personality. Only such a talented individual will be able to capture your best features.
The best thing about my passport photo was that I was able to get Gabriel Byrne's left eye to make a cameo.
Once that's done, just fill out the forms at the post office and pay like 200 bucks to expedite. In three short weeks, you'll be on your way.
Pick the Right Country
Now, if you're a late-travel-bloomer like I am, you'll need to start small. You're not going to be able to pull off growing up in Wales and suddenly appearing like you're a super smooth world traveler in Beijing, China. Baby steps. If you're Spanish, try visiting Mexico. If you're French, try Quebec. And if you're American, try visiting anywhere in Canada that isn't Quebec. That's what I did. I left the familiar waters of the Northeast for the no-waters of Edmonton, Canada. Yes, Canada, our neighbor to the north. Some told me that Alberta is the Texas of Canada, but I've never been to Texas either, so it promised to be an exciting ride. And sure enough, when I got off the plane, I was greeted by something I'd never seen:
Yep, those Canadians sure know how to make baggage carousels festive.
But even though it was a strange and unfamiliar experience, I played it cool. Mostly because I only brought carry-on luggage.
Learn the Currency
Normally, going to a foreign country means planning ahead, perhaps by getting some walking-around money in that country's currency. But if you're a travel novice like me, you totally forget to do that. Now you have to starve to death in some foreign land because you failed to convert dollars into lira or pesos or zagnuts or whatever weirdos use. But because I followed "Step 5: Pick the Right Country," all of that was avoided. In Canada, I was able to use my good ol' American ATM card and get Canadian bucks from a cash machine. What about the exorbitant fees for such an act? I don't know. My statement hasn't come yet, and when it does, I plan to claim that I was mugged by a roving gang of Canadian thugs.
I had heard that Canadians were too laid back to sweat details like numbers and science, but their currency has numbers on it, just like ours! I was sure to have smooth sailing from here on out. So with some time to kill before the wedding and the expo, I decided to check out the Art Gallery of Alberta. After all, I knew how to keep my cool in any art gallery: Walk slowly, nod, pretend you understand the significance of what you're seeing and tell the alt chick sketching on a bench that you really think she has a bright future. I was positive that this was a universal.
For those of you traveling, you'll know that you've reached the museum when you get to the building that looks like it was left in your pants pocket during a wash.
So I went through an exhibit of pretty neat pencil and ink sketches of monsters that were hundreds of years old and everything was fine. No one had any idea that I was American or devoid of even a rudimentary understanding of art. It was perfect. But then I hit the gift store to get some souvenirs for the kids. No problem there, right? Just because Cracked's Chris Bucholz, the only Canadian I know, was hatched in a lab as part of a supersoldier experiment is no reason to believe that Canadians can't have children naturally, right?
I bought about $11 of fun art museum stuff for my kids and paid with my Canadian $20 like a champ, but the girl behind the counter gave me a $5 bill and a bunch of coins. So this is how it was. The old Canadian shortchange-the-Yank trick. Well, I might have been a novice traveler, but I wasn't having it.
"Excuse me, miss, but it was $11, and I paid with a 20, and you only gave me back a five and a bunch of-"
It was then that I realized that the ridiculous mass of cheap, clanging metals in my palm were nothing like American coins. Canadians had coins for dollars and even two dollars -- commonly called "loonies" and "toonies."
For example, this = $4.30. Messed up.
"Oh, sorry, my mistake. I'm American," I said. Cover blown. Dejected, I did what any American would do: I sought out alcohol. Turns out that's popular in Canada, too.
People all over the world self-medicate their failure with alcohol, so I headed to the closest bar, and I was in luck. Located right in the museum lobby was a restaurant called Zinc, and it had a bar. And not just any bar, but one that looked almost identical to the one I use as the backdrop on my Hate by Numbers video series. Clearly, it was a sign.
OK. Close enough when you're desperate for a sign.
I considered ordering something Canadian like a Molson, but I figured that Canadians must drink Jameson, too. The bartender brought me my drink, and I left a tip, because I wasn't traveling to one of those weirdo countries where they don't tip and whose people mock tipping in the comments to Cracked columns. So I got ready to tip a buck a drink when I realized that I'd have to tip with a coin. A loonie.
Pling! went the loonie on the counter, and though the Canadians I polled in secret later confirmed that it was an appropriate tip, it still felt more like bringing milk money to my kindergarten teacher than tipping a man for a grown-up beverage.
Find Familiar Destinations
My friend's wedding went off without a hitch, but it was filled with a bunch of his visiting American family, so blending in was easy. I still had to prove to myself that I could be the perfect undetected tourist blending in with the foreigners like a sophisticated man of the world. I needed to find familiar ground. But where would a dignified, cocksure, sophisticated world-traveling American be most at home? The answer seemed obvious. The mall.
Turns out the West Edmonton Mall is the largest mall in North America. So I investigated, and all was well. I bought some stuff, having recovered fully from the currency failures of the previous day. No one knew I was a first-time world traveler, and I was proud. This was a mall. No surprises. But then I saw an ice skating rink ...
... and a miniature golf course ...
... and a sea lion exhibit.
Apparently, there's an indoor water park, too, and, yes, my surprise showed. To the lovely folk of Edmonton, this was all old news, but even as a boy bred on the mall culture of Long Island, I gawked. I had failed again.
Nerds Are Universal
I'd touched down in Canada, and everywhere I went, I felt like a Yank tourist, incapable of blending in smoothly with the local people. The folks at the Old Strathcona fair politely hawked their homemade pastries and organic cat furniture, but I could tell that they knew I was just a traveling noob. And even though I was delighted to visit the Edmonton Expo and give a talk on my two favorite topics -- me and freelance writing -- I couldn't shake the feeling.
I met the lovely Burt "Robin" Ward. I got to tell Julie "Catwoman" Newmar that she made me want to go through puberty before I even knew what that word meant. I took a picture with Lee "Six Million Dollar Man" Majors while he held the Maskatron toy I've had since I was 4, and still, a sense of failure remained.
One's a Montana cowboy; the other, a New York blogger. Together they fight LA crime. Taggerty and Bloom, Fridays on CBS!
None of these niceties could distract me from the truth: I had not been fully absorbed through the Canadian membrane. I was a clear first-time tourist. I stumbled out onto the showcase floor, past the Star Trek booths and Doctor Who memorabilia. Beyond the newest in gaming and trading cards. I said excuse me to Princess Leias and Catwomen, some smoking hot, some putting an unfair amount of stress on their cosplay fabrics. And somewhere between a 50-year-old steampunk and a baby in a TARDIS stroller, I realized something: Nerds are universal. In every country, there is a douchebag who will need to inform you that "His name is 'The Doctor'; he's not called 'Dr. Who.'" There is no one homeland for girls who can only achieve orgasm when believing they are Harley Quinn. There is no nationality for gamers who dress up as obscure characters you can only see on Easter egg levels. They are everywhere. They are nowhere. I was home.
Hello, old friend.
I headed over to the TELUS Star Wars booth. Apparently, there's a new exhibit where you choose from dozens of pieces of data from the Star Wars universe, get exposed to rare artifacts from the Lucasfilm archives and make choices about yourself. Then, from the choices you make, it crafts your own identity in the Star Wars universe from literally millions of permutations. The actual exhibit wasn't open yet, but it didn't matter. I didn't need an exhibit to tell me who I was or what I'd become. I already knew:
Watch the season finale of HATE BY NUMBERS. Also, be sure to follow Gladstone on Twitter and stay up-to-date on the latest regarding Notes from the Internet Apocalypse. And then there's his website and Tumblr, too.