on (not) being a tourist

It’s an odd thing, living in a tourist destination. I’ve done it only once before, during the five years I lived on Capitol Hill on Washington, DC. But because so many of the tourists in DC are American, it’s not quite as jarring as it is in a place like Dubrovnik (or at least I don’t remember it as being so).

When I arrived in Dubrovnik, it was at the bottom of the low season–January and February the town is pretty much empty, with the majority of restaurants closed, stores operating at minimal hours, and almost no tourists to be seen. The few restaurants that were open were uncrowded, the proprietors happy to chat. It was cold, yes, and often rainy–but it was a great way to learn my way around the town. The first day that I wandered down to the Old Town, I met a charming restauranteur who told me that most of the city “work like dogs for nine months a year, then play for the other three.”

The tourist season here starts Easter weekend, and slowly ramps up until the craziness of summer. Already, it’s not unusual to have 5,000+ cruise ship passengers here on a weekend day–along with those who’ve arrived by plane or bus (there no trains here in Dubrovnik, much to the surprise of people who assume that everything in Europe is connected by trains). Everything’s open, and everyone’s busy. There’s far less time for leisurely chats across the bar, and it’s a lot harder to grab the prime tables at the cafes along the Stradun.

I’ve found that I’m particularly happy to be greeted warmly by waiters who recognize me, to be extended the local discount at the ice cream parlor, to have the clerks in the grocery stores speak to me in Croatian (even though they do then switch immediately to English when they see my lack of comprehension). This past week in Paris, I was talking with someone who was quite emphatic about *not* being a tourist, and I’ve seen a number of photos posted from others who were at the conference that make ironically self-deprecating comments about “obligatory tourist shots” of the city.

What is it, I wonder, that makes so many people I know (myself included) resist being seen or labeled as a tourist? It’s not just the “ugly American” stereotype, though I’m sure that’s part of it. There’s more to it than that. There’s a message we’re trying to signal, one that has both positive aspects (“I’m attuned to your culture and respectful of it”) and negative aspects (“I’m more worldly, less banal, than those pesky tourists”). It’s a performative thing–as was my selection of “just the right page” from my passport as the header image for this post, to be honest.

I tried to hit a middle ground in Paris. Both there and here I’ve tried to avoid dressing like an American tourist, because I find I like that more stylish, less utilitarian look. But I carried a camera around with me, and was quick to tell waiters “Je parle seulement un peu de français!” (Which has the benefit of making me feel less presumptuous about their speaking English while still admitting my inability to speak more than the tiniest bit of French.)

While I was there, I did take pictures. But not of monuments (well, except for one or two to commemorate Foursquare checkins…). Instead, I took pictures of flowers. Because Paris in the springtime is full of gardens in bloom, and I wanted to capture and remember the colors. The photos don’t capture what it’s like to be surrounded by the flowers and their perfume, of course, but they can help me to remember that feeling.

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