Learning to Adapt to foreign cultures is easier than you might assume. It’s all about attitude rather than about studying the country you’re planning to visit.
Of course some people intensively study the culture, language and history of the place they’re visiting and I wouldn’t want to belittle their hard work –I admire their self discipline and intelligence – but there aren’t many people like that and I prefer to arrive at my destination with as little knowledge about it as possible (in a state of ignorance) so that everything I find out is new and fresh. It gives each journey a sense of excitement and discovery.
Once I get to know some people in a country I absorb their history and culture continually; they tell me about their nations history (a golden age when they conquered their neighbours is invariably highlighted). Then I start reading and I never stop learning about their culture until I leave it. In this way I learned the history, cultures and languages of Austria, Tibet, Bosnia and Romania.
My approach is the tabula rasa – a Latin term that means blank sheet (I think the literal meaning is an empty blackboard in a classroom and the implication is that a child comes to learn with a clear mind, and the teacher fills it with knowledge) – and it has worked wonderfully for me. Not only did places like Tibet become full of mystery and incredible monasteries that I discovered by chance, but it makes visiting places nearer to home more interesting too.
Recently I visited Milan, a city I knew nothing about, and I asked my mother for advice. “Visit the cathedral” she said and I did so on several occasions. It’s an incredible gothic construction that is so complex that I could only understand it by getting a postcard that showed an aerial view. I sent the postcard to my Mum.
I was in Milan on business, with the rehab clinic I work for, so I didn’t have time to explore the city properly. But I did have time to visit a gallery or museum and so I wandered into the old town with no particular destination in mind; there are so many galleries and museums in that great city that you would need weeks to visit them all and I know from friends that having a list of “must see” places to visit only results in disappointment – as you’ll never be able to visit them all.
I stumbled across an delightful little museum called “Bagatti Valsecchi”, a house of a noble family called Bagatti (which translates as “shoemaker”), a home that two Victorian brothers had built up into a gem of renaissance art combined with reproduction wallpapers, pillars and other features they had designed themselves. The brothers came across as eccentrics and this gave the whole place a lightness and sense of fun that is absent from most museums. What made my visit special was that one of the guides, a fascinating chap called Guido Codecasa, who told me the background story of the brothers, the house, the city and the region.
Guido took me onto the balcony and other areas that were closed off to the public , something that would probably not have happened if I’d not been alone, and gave me a lesson in Milanese history: Milan is the capital of the Lombardy region, is only 30km from Switzerland, had been occupied by the Austrians (who built the impressive city centre architecture) as well as France and Spain. Lombardy had only been part of Italy for just over 100 years and its historical credentials are utterly cosmopolitan. I never would have found any of this out had I not randomly wandered into that museum.
Last year I took off a month to work on my travel book and decided to go to a Greek island to get some peace and quiet, but also some good weather. I asked people what would be the best island to visit and got a dizzying list of options that got me no closer to choosing one. In the end I went to Crete as that’s the biggest island with a bit of everything (beaches, mountains, wilderness, historic buildings and so on).
I spent several weeks camping on a beach, writing a few pages of my book every day, wandering into the mountains and swimming in the chilly sea (it was springtime). As you can imagine I knew absolutely nothing about Crete but living on your own is the ideal stimulus to read lots of books. I found out that Crete is the fifth biggest island in the Mediterranean and had a particularly interesting history during WW2: it was the only place the Germans conquered with parachute troops, which they only managed to do because the British-led defense was so badly botched. But the German were given a rough time by the hardy Cretan resistance and English officers like Patrick Leigh Fermor, gentlemen soldiers who learned Greek and blended into the countryside with the peasants.
If you were asking my advice about this I would suggest you choose a destination but not read up about it. Go in with as little knowledge as possible but an open mind and the willingness to listen to people and learn their language.
And it’s not just locals you can learn from; ex-pats from your country who are living there are often brilliant sources of information and the British ones I’ve come across have the tendency to summarise the local situation (politics, history, culture) in a few sentences as if they’re used to briefing visitors at the airport or in a bar.
All that is required from your part is an open mind and the ability to listen.
Photo credit: Uli Zimmermann (Lhasa, Tibet in 1987)