For whatever travel teaches you about another culture, equally valuable is what it teaches you about your own. Freshly returned from three weeks in the Czech Republic, where opera singers stage impromptu recitals on the Charles Bridge and every church in Prague hosts the same cookie-cutter afternoon chamber music concert, I’ve been thinking a lot about being a stranger in a new place and what it takes to get comfortable in a foreign society.
Cheesy and clichéd as a lot of the classical offerings are at the height of the tourist season, the crowds were clearly loving it. When an orchestra set up in the center of Old Town Square for an afternoon concert, sightseers of every stereotype stopped to listen. (American college boys previously spotted whooping it up over pints at the corner pub being my personal favorite classical cross-overs.) It seems everyone visiting town just assumed that this was Prague, and classical music is what you do here.
It helped tremendously that listening didn’t require much planning or participation on the part of the spectators beyond stopping in their footsteps. There were no schedules to follow, tickets to purchase in advance, no dress codes to negotiate. The barriers to entry and the assumptions about who you had to be to listen to classical music were absent. We were all just outside on a sunny afternoon: camera-toting teenagers, museum weary grandparents, and about 30 very well trained musicians with folding chairs.
For those of us usually living inside this social and artistic circle, I think we may forget just how intimidating it is. Consider this as it relates to another aspect of travel in a non-English-speaking country: negotiating restaurants. Not the ones by the hotels with menus in six languages. I’m talking about the places were no one is all that interested in helping you decipher the specials, locate the bathroom, or smoothly pay your bill and tip your waiter. The learning curve can be sort of nerve-wracking, to the point that you might choose Pizza Hut Paris over dinner with the locals just so you don’t have to worry that you’ll embarrass yourself.
Your music not reaching all the people you’d like it to? Think about it from a tourist’s perspective and evaluate the value of the trappings. It might not hurt the quality of the food to translate your menu for the new kid on the block. Maybe give out a few samples in the street and leave the door propped open.