Prior to coming to Scotland, I had big ideas of the different places I’d travel to during my stay in the UK. Every person I talked to gave a different recommendation for where I should visit or what I should see.
London would be beautiful at Christmas time. You have to go to London!
Belfast is a beautiful city and less than an hour flight from Glasgow. You have to make it to Belfast.
Nessie! Go visit Loch Ness and look for the monster!
You have to see the castles of Scotland. Do a castle tour!
Yes, I thought, I do want to see all of those things and I really do (although I’d imagine a sighting of Nessie is probably outside the realm of possibilities). In fact, if I was here purely as a tourist, I would have been to and seen those places already, but I’m not and I haven’t. I’ve not been to a single city other than Glasgow and Edinburgh and the only touristy thing I’ve done in the whole six weeks is visit the Edinburgh Castle. Is that a bad thing?
Every weekend I wrestle with this dilemma: to be a tourist or not to be a tourist. That really is the question. Should I be booking a flight to a different part of the UK every weekend? Going to visit famous monuments, buildings, museums? For some reason, the very thought of being a tourist has left me feeling completely exhausted. There is so much pressure to see and do it all, to make an itinerary and plan out the days.
In Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, he writes about an invitation to a conference in Madrid and his decision to stay a few extra days so he could visit the many attractions he had been told about on several occasions. Upon waking for his exciting Madrid weekend, he feels anything but excitement. He feels only lethargy and lack of enthusiasm for seeing all these things a ‘normal’ visitor would be enthralled to see.
“On the desk lay several magazines provided by the hotel, offering information about the city, and two guidebooks that I had brought from home. In their different ways, they conspired to suggest that an exciting and multifarious phenomenon called Madrid was waiting to be discovered outside, promising an embarrassment of monuments, churches, museums, fountains, plazas and shopping streets. And yet the prospect of those enticements, about which I had heard so much and which I knew I was privileged to be able to see, merely provoked in me a combination of listlessness and self-disgust at the contrast between my own indolence and what I imagined would have been the eagerness of more normal visitors.”
Every weekend I find myself riddled with guilt that I’ve been given this great privilege to be here and see things and I’m not taking advantage of it. But is it wrong to simply enjoy being where I am right now instead of jet-setting or train hopping to a list of possible destinations and attractions?
Every other adventure abroad I’ve had, I’ve been a complete tourist and I’ve never really had the experience of living abroad. Technically I lived in Cyprus during my study abroad experience a few years back, but I never actually lived the Cypriot life. I stayed in a flat with American students and travelled around Europe doing just about every touristy thing I could possibly do. You see a lot as a tourist and have a lot of different experiences, but you only merely scratch the surface of a place without ever truly getting to know a city, a culture, or country.
My time in Scotland over the past few weeks has been completely opposite of every other abroad experience I’ve had. I’m not hanging out with fellow Americans, visiting tourist attractions, and doing pub crawls with backpackers. I’m living in a Scottish residential community, eating Scottish food, making Scottish friends, and working at a Scottish company (not to mention learning the Scottish ‘language’). I’ve become completely immersed in the culture here and for the first time, I’m truly getting to know a place.
So I’m doing it… liberating myself from the shackles of tourism. If the question is to be or not to be, I’ve chosen to be an American, living and working in Scotland… and not to be a tourist. And I think I’m happy with that.