Proper Travel, Part 2

July 20, 2018 § 5 Comments

Okay, you know when I said I’d post some tips on how not to be a tourist? The bad news is that the only way not to be a tourist is to be an immigrant. The good news is that being a tourist is like being a #fake #bikeracer. With the right amount of preparation, delusion, and funny clothing, it can actually be fun.

Language tourism

This is the first time I’ve ever gone somewhere and enrolled in a language course as my primary travel activity. In this case I signed up for a 2-week intensive course at the Goethe Insitut, Germany’s global propaganda arm that spreads Germanic culture through language instruction and without panzer divisions.

The classes have various levels, A1 is the lowest and C2 is the highest. Before you leave home they ask you to take an online placement test which covers reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. It is a really hard exam; I only got 69% of the questions right, but that was still good enough to place me in the advanced C1 class. After day one it became clear that I belonged in a lower class, as my classmates are all phenomenal.

I’ll post a review of the Goethe Institut’s classes later, but so far they have been great. The classes are small, our teacher is cheerful and good, and the students have this in common: They want to be there. Think about language classes you’ve taken in the past where there were two students who were “into it” and everyone else was not, with NOT all in caps.

Language tourism has a lot of benefits. The only real down side is that you get locked into a schedule; more about that later. The advantages? Read on. (I can’t believe I just wrote “read on.”)

Reading on

Since tourism revolves around food, drink, and motion, these three problems must be re-solved multiple times every day, and doing so is expensive. This is why tourists find a place they like and tend to go there multiple times. Restaurants are expensive and since food is so important, who wants to pay top dollar for a shitty meal when you can pay top dollar for a mediocre one?

The same thing goes for getting out and doing things. There’s a reason that a city like Vienna or Bratislava has all of its tourism activities clustered in one small area, and the reason is cost and perceived convenience. Tourists are horribly lazy, insecure, cheap, and suspicious, so keeping them corralled where they can be bled dry of their teuros makes sense.

Signing up for a language course has an obvious up-front cost, but once you pay for the class, you automatically resolve most of the rest of the problems that confound tourists. Since the classes run from the same time, you don’t have to wonder every day where you’re going to grab breakfast and lunch: You’ll grab it every single day from the cheapest place that is close to the school. Moreover, the teachers and staff will tell you where to go and it will never be an overpriced shit shack filled with Usonians.

In my case, breakfast has daily involved great supermarket bread with butter and jam, and a stiff cup of home-brewed coffee. Total cost? Maybe one teuro, less than the cost of a cup of coffee at a cafe.

Another great thing about having a cheap breakfast routine is that it takes the emphasis off of food. I’m not opposed to food and in fact consume it on a more or less daily basis, but the fanatical obsession with what you eat while touring is weird. You should eat great all the time at home such that shitty food on the road is meaningless, but actually most people eat shit at home and therefore have unrealistic expectations about culinary experiences abroad.

The language program, with its set time and location, will quickly get you onto a schedule of eating what’s cheap and good and filling, and leaving the Yelp critiques for a different life.

Perpetual motion

Tourism is by definition perpetual motion, even if it only be shuffling from the bar to the beach to the hotel room and REPEAT.

My language program solved that, too, and in the most awesome of ways. Language programs know that you are there to study the language and to kill time, and they know that you want to kill the time in the target language. Voila, you have the pre-fab cultural itinerary. Mine is so awesome as to defy description, so I will simply post a photo of it here. Recall that this course costs 800 teuros, which seems like a lot until you look at all of the tourism activities that it includes. Were you to do this on your own, a) you couldn’t and b) it would cost way more and c) you’d run out of time trying to organize even a fraction of it.


The activities are a menu; unlike classwork you can attend or not as you have the time or interest. Since they’re included in the cost of the course, with a couple of exceptions, you don’t feel like you have to go unless it’s convenient.

I’ve gone to most of the morning tours since my class doesn’t start until 2:00 PM. It’s really cool to walk around Vienna with experts and learn about the city in German. This has to be one of the best things about language tourism. You study something that you like, and then you get to apply it immediately. I think you also remember things better when you have to concentrate fully on trying to understand what’s being said.

Yesterday, for example, we went to the Vienna Museum of WTF, my name for it, not theirs, and heard a fascinating lecture about WTF art and its history in the city. It’s not every day that you get to see a painting of a man with a vulva hanging next to a photo montage of a woman with a knitted gag being spanked in a park next to an installation of a giant orange tree wedged in between videos of people shaving their armpits.

Back to school

But by far and away the best part of being in school is being in school. If you are an old, brokedown, worn out shoe like me, there is something strangely comforting about being in a language class with people who are thirty years younger or more, and who continually reaffirm that a) I am a worn out shoe, and b) youth is wasted on the young.

I don’t care what anyone says, there is something truly awesome about slumming around Vienna with a little shoulder bag stuffed with a textbook, pen, notebook, and city map, feeling like a real student even though, at least in my case, it’s #fakestudent #allthetime.

My class has eleven students: Mathilda from Poland, Sara from Barcelona, Antoine from Switzerland, Mika from Finland, Anne from Strasbourg, Leone from Italy, Paula from Italy, Paula from Scotland, Vera from Switzerland, and Vasily from Greece. Vasily and Antoine are old dudes like me, although not as old, and everyone else is either a lot younger or way the fuck younger.

It’s astonishing to see how quickly people learn and how slowly I pick up even the most basic things. It’s also challenging in the most fundamental of ways in that everyone is there to improve, everyone constantly evaluates everyone else, and there is an iron standard of “mastering German” that none of us will reach, at least not in two weeks’ time, or in my case, ever.

Like any class, there are coalitions and synchronicities, but everyone gets along, everyone is polite, and everyone is there with a purpose. Compare that to your last trip … anywhere.

In that regard, language tourism is incredibly intense and in some basic sense, it is hard. At the end of the day my brain is completely drained, and it’s only the next morning that I feel like I made some incremental progress. A residue of learning and a sharpened appetite to return aren’t bad measures for travel.

Better, at any rate, than a hangover.



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§ 5 Responses to Proper Travel, Part 2

  • Doug A says:

    You’re very industrious. Or brave. Or something. I’ve been studying German on my own for about a year now, and there isn’t a week that goes by where I’m not tempted to give up and study some language without cases.

  • My non-blog-worthy story about looking like a tourist is going to an art show in East L.A. very many years ago and getting there before it opened. The guy looked at us and mentioned it is probably okay to let the Westsiders in a little early.

    I would think the best part of traveling language lessons is being with people whose orientation is aspirational, or expansive regardless of origin. It’s on my list for my next trip out of Amerkuh.

    • fsethd says:

      Yes, you are thrown in with people looking outward, not inward. It is awesome and beautiful.

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