Washington Square News

Prague: Worrying About Being a Tourist Makes You an Even Worse Tourist

Jordan+Melendrez+for+WSN
Jordan Melendrez for WSN

Jordan Melendrez for WSN

Jordan Melendrez

Jordan Melendrez

Jordan Melendrez for WSN

By Mariah Melendez, Contributing Writer

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Why is it so “bad” to be a tourist?

We’ve all been there. It’s the first week back at school and you feel like a fish out of water. You fumble around searching for your NYU ID, forget which subway to take and mistakenly think you can get your Starbucks order in the five minutes between classes. After the initial shock of being back in the city, you begin to feel at ease and pretty soon you feel like a New Yorker again.  

Studying abroad is like that first week amplified by 1000. You have no idea where you are, where you’re going or how to get there. Everyone speaks a different language from you, uses a different currency and actually knows where they’re going. You, with your dollar bills and city map, scream “tourist” everywhere you go.

I expected this novelty to pass just as quickly as it does when I return to New York after being gone for a while, but it’s been almost a month in and I still feel like I stick out.

As a self-proclaimed New Yorker, I’ve often scoffed at people who took photos in front of the Washington Square Arch and walked slowly on the sidewalks. But now in Prague, I find myself consciously making decisions about my behavior in order to seem more Czech and, more importantly, to not seem like I’m from America.

The other day I bought a pair of boots in a Czech shopping center and I couldn’t have felt more out of place. As I brought the shoes up to the counter to pay, the cashier began speaking to me rapidly in Czech. Embarrassed, I muttered “English?” but this had no effect on her Czech rant. She continued to speak to me in Czech and I continued to stare blankly at her, hoping that I could somehow telepathically figure out what she was trying to say. After about a minute of her speaking and holding up a bottle of shoe cleaner, I managed to figure out that she was telling me that there was a promotional deal where I would be getting the shoe cleaner for free. After that incident I began thinking about how “touristy” I must’ve looked floundering at the cash register.

When I am in a bar and I order a Czech Pilsner their national beer and the bartender smiles and nods at me, I give myself an internal high-five for assimilating even though I dislike light beers. When I am on the metro and see two drunk people having a relatively “loud” conversation, I try to look at them with an exaggerated amount of disdain because I read in a book that Czechs don’t really talk on metros — I just want to fit it. When I am in the Old Town Square, I hesitate to take pictures of the gorgeous architecture because I don’t want local Czechs to think I don’t belong.

The truth is, I don’t belong. I am an American from a small town in Connecticut wandering aimlessly through the cobblestone streets of Europe because I am too proud to ask for directions. Somewhere between trying to get rid of my “American-ness” and striving to become Czech, I forgot why I’m really here, which is to see a part of the world that I’ve never been to.
It is okay to act like a tourist when you are a tourist. It is also okay to take photos of beautiful buildings because they are beautiful, whether or not you are a local. My fellow abroad students and I need to recognize the language barrier as a learning experience, not as the mortifying mark of a tourist.

Email Mariah Melendez at [email protected]

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3 Comments

3 Responses to “Prague: Worrying About Being a Tourist Makes You an Even Worse Tourist”

  1. Jiri Maixner on March 1st, 2016 4:33 pm

    As czech person I am really ashamed of that lady in the shop. Literally everyone is taking english classes in school, it’s not so hard to learn at least a few words…
    And good luck by the way

  2. Annalisa on March 2nd, 2016 10:11 am

    I really appreciate this article. I get frustrated with people chasing “authentic” experiences or bragging that they got to “see the REAL {fill in the blank].” Fact is, foreigners do stick out. And what even is an “authentic” experience besides an exocticising fantasy?

  3. Tina on March 9th, 2016 10:23 am

    Hi Mariah. I think the main issue with American students abroad is that they pretty much refuse to adapt to cultural norms. It’s widely known that Americans aren’t very well liked by natives of pretty much any other country – we can be loud and rude, and expect certain treatment that we simply will not get anywhere outside of the states.
    You definitely don’t have to change your behavior – as I said, “adapt” is a better word. After all, Prague is a touristy city for all nationalities, so I think picture taking is expected. Heck, I even take pictures in New York myself! Of course foreigners stick out. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s rather courteous to embrace local culture.
    Feel free to learn some elementary Czech – I’ve found saying “Hello” and “Do you speak English?” makes the person I’m talking to more open to speaking with me. As for money, I’ve taught myself the different amounts and such, if only to respect other customers in the store. You’re right about the metro, and it’s annoying to hear classmates speaking so loudly, so unnecessarily! There’s no need to look with disdain upon other people who don’t embrace Czech culture… that’s their problem. The only thing you can do is to not act like that yourself.
    Best of luck and I hope you enjoy Prague!

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