Exploration has driven humans to expand to new frontiers for millennia. The pull of the unseen and the unknown has been enough to convince intrepid travelers to give up the comforts of home and set out for the great beyond.
The problem is, the great beyond now seems to be filled with selfie sticks and tour buses.
I stood in line for my first passport at the not-so-tender age of 19 because I could feel the idea of travel weighing upon me. But never having left my home country, that same idea felt completely out of reach. The passport booklet, filled with its 40 pristine pages, was the essential first step to seeing the world that lay beyond the boundaries of my hometown.
To break in my new found freedom, I booked a trip to Italy. The 10-day tour took us from the canals of Venice, through the Renaissance streets of Florence, and straight into the picture-perfect ancient mishmash of modern Rome.
Everything was new, exciting, and borderline infuriating.
Here’s why: around every corner was yet another line for yet another monument. The sites themselves were stunning, but being forced to wait behind throngs of tourists destroyed some of the grandeur.
Our attempts at dining sometimes fared no better. White-aproned hosts beckoned to us with tempting English language menus, but we left the red-checkered tables unconvinced we had really been served authentic home cooking.
We walked the cobblestones streets wondering if this was really what travel was all about – selfies and social media check-ins.
Following that fateful trip, I have since moved to Rome and stood in line at the embassy to add more pages to that same passport. On a plane or a train nearly every two weeks, I have realized that there will always be other tourists.
However, I prefer to leave them to the bucket list sites and chart my own path in every new city.
Dare to say yes
Travelling has taught me that a lot of the experience is about taking a risk and saying yes. Yes to the plane tickets, yes to the off-the-beaten track neighborhood, and yes to the invitations to see sites that are off the beaten path.
That was why I said yes to the lunch invitation from the front desk girl at my hostel in Marrakesh. One hour and one horse-and-cart ride later, we were watching her brother’s wedding video, sipping mint tea and eating couscous with her entire family in their 800-year-old Berber home.
Able to communicate mainly through pointing and smiles, it was one of the best meals of my life.
Wandering through countries and continents, I have learned that I prefer to skip the typical guidebook must-sees and take a seat at the table. And food is undeniably the best gateway into a new city.
The dinner table is where you go to be nourished, but also where you can learn the norms of a new culture, including how to fare la scarpetta (sop up the sauce) at the end of your homemade pasta dinner.
The flavors on the plate in front of you represent the history and traditions of a given place. At the same time, each meal is a chance to simultaneously make very new and very modern real-world connections.
This simple travel tip holds true away from the table as well. I have found that the best place to feel the pulse of a city is at the market rather than at a museum. While you will find few Romans waiting in line at the Vatican, I guarantee you will find every local sitting down for a meal each day. The next step is to be invited to join them.
Social media (and selfies) keep us connected to home while traveling, but it is the unpretentious of act of eating that makes the experience of escape more unique. That’s why my FOMO (fear of missing out) has more to do with tracking down a rare craft beer than it does with a major monument.
Plus, everyone knows that the best way to see the Colosseum is from a private dining room table.
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Tired of doing the typical touristy stuff? Go beyond clichés and selfies in your travels by dining in a home restaurant instead.