George gets a lesson from Santos on how to be a tourist while sampling some of the sweet local muscatel in Figueres, Spain.

Tourist Shock

We weren’t prepared for the change in our travel identity that occurred when we got to "The Continent." Although we were excited about seeing the places that are part of the collective European conscious and our American mythology, we had problems adjusting. We were in places that were easier to navigate, but we suddenly missed the casual encounter, the surprise, the danger real and imagined that serious travel provides.

Simply put, our identities changed from travelers to tourists. We were no longer regarded as people on a journey, but as part of the everyday mix of invading vacationers. Gone were the casual encounters that resulted in open conversations and open doors. It was difficult to make the personal connections that had been so easy on most of our trip. Our lack of fluency in other languages hadn’t been an issue before–just another interesting problem to get around. But here, we were just another one among the herd to shuffle through a café or museum or park. Just another tourist. Just another American.

Part of the cause was location: we were visiting comfortable, cultured accessible Europe, and mostly the great cities. It is almost too familiar, too safe, too insular. But a larger part of it was timing: April 1 marks the beginning of "the season" (and I don’t mean the social season). The first swell of tourists, particularly American tourists, hits the Continent with a vengeance around Easter. We were no longer a rarity. It would take time to overcome the sheer numbers, to find the out-of-the-way places that allowed breathing room. We were running out of time and money.

Snowflake, the world's only known white gorilla (not an albino!) at the Barcelona Zoo.

We did make connections with Basques and transplanted Moroccans in Spain, and with a number of wonderful people in Switzerland and France, but none so deep as those we had made along the way in places like Thailand, Greece and India. It was as if we just couldn’t be a part of this neighborhood.

We filled the void by dodging tourists and finding time and space with other ‘displaced travelers’. It was easy for us to spot each other. Our "seasoned," slightly road-weary countenances, tired clothes, worn single backpacks, torn "Lonely Planet" guide books and open conversations were a dead give away. All of us were having the same problems dealing with the tourist hoards and the sadness of trips coming to an end. We’d all chosen the easy travel of Europe as the dessert for our long lingering journeys. Little did we know, there would be a price to pay for that sweet treat.

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