10/29/2012 08:23 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2012

Relational Tourism

The problem with dating is that it's really hard to know who the person is when they are not trying to impress you. I mean when she removes the fake nails, fake hair, fake lashes, fake eyes, and fake lips claiming "Baby, I'm still the same person," you might start to believe her. But when she removes the fake face, you start wondering "Did she say 'still' or 'not'?" And it really stinks when he is always wearing an extra-small t-shirt having just arrived straight from lifting weights at the gym. You ask him "Do you have any shirts that fit you?" and he says something about the economic recession affecting weight lifters. You decide not to ask when he became a weight lifter.

That's the tough part about dating-to-know: dating someone you don't know and getting to know that person in a romantic context from the start. I prefer knowing-to-date: getting to know someone as a friend from the start with no expectations or strings attached; then if you decide you really like who that person is, you ask him or her to be your man or woman because you think that skinny boy looks cute in oversized shirts or that girl with the natural hair and rough nails, pencil lips, short lashes, closed eyes (is she listening?), and big face has a good heart.

Traveling is a lot like dating. I was reminded of this on a recent trip to Venice last month. A few friends warned me that I would hate Venice because it was too touristy and crowded. Another woman called it the Disneyland of canal cities. She prefered Amsterdam because she believed people actually lived there compared to "plastic" Venice. All my friends said it stinks, literally.

However, I had such a good time there. Maybe it was because I took the time to get to know Venice instead of dating her from the start. I try to do this with most cities I visit. In fact, Venice and I had such a good time, she decided to show me some of her hidden parts. Pondering why, I find relationships help me with most things I do, and tourism is no exception. Tourism rooted in relationships always gifts me with a more local experience rather than a tourist one. Here are some tips.

  1. Stay with friends or locals. Have you ever dated someone and never met his friends? There is a reason for that. When traveling it's the same; the best people to tell you about the city and country you are visiting are people who know the city and country--your friends who live there or locals. Hotels give you the tourist experience; if you want the local experience, stay with locals. If you don't know anyone there, try a quaint bed & breakfast with friendly hosts. In Italy, we stayed with friends, and I'm still friends with some bed & breakfasts owners I've met over the years.
  2. Try a house or flat swap. Have you ever dated someone and never seen her place? There's a reason for that; I just hope her husband isn't a large man. You can learn a lot about someone from their home. Travel is similar. If you can't stay with local people, the next best thing is to stay inside a local's home. You can learn as much about the culture of a place from looking at the landscapes and architecture from the outside as you can by looking and experiencing homes from the inside.
  3. Learn the language. One reason I prefer knowing-to-date is because, as a friend, you have the opportunity to learn the other person's language (including love language) before you ever think about dating. Otherwise, you have to work out communication issues while dating. Travel is similar. The largest and biggest part of any culture is the language. It is the entryway point to truly understanding the people and the place. Before traveling to Italy, I studied Italian for 4 weeks with LiveMocha.
  4. Talk to the locals. When dating, it can be easy for the heart of the relationship to be physical. The knowing-to-date paradigm focuses the relationship in the soul space where you really get to know the person. Travel is the same, my dear. If you want to live like a local, you've got to talk to a local. This is why learning the language is so helpful. But even if you don't know the language, it's very helpful to strike up conversations with locals if they speak your language. When I was in Venice and other parts of Italy, it was the conversation I had with locals that allowed me to find the local restaurants and local events like a wonderful, university student, classical music performance in a courtyard overlooking the center of Siena.
  5. Travel outside the city-center. When dating, many people are trying to get to the heart of who their dates are. Well, for many cities, the heart of the local experience is outside the city-centre. About 15,000 of the over 60,000 daily commuters into Venice come in to work but live outside Venice. All Venetians don't live in San Marco square or by the Rialto bridge. So I made sure to walk around the entire island and see some of the smaller non-touristy parts. I also made sure to visit the other surrounding islands, do a self-guided bike tour of one island, and visit the beach with locals on a surrounding island. I even discovered a surprising Francis Bacon art exhibit.
  6. See fewer places and stay longer. I don't know how many times a know-to-date person decides to try dating-to-know and, after a first date, says "he was a nice guy but I won't go out with him again because there were no sparks." I just shake my head because the same complaining person has often had sparks develop for a friend that she didn't think anything of when she first met him. The complaining friend has even had sparks-at-first-sight for someone who is quite horrible for her. What's the moral of the story? You may need to spend more time than just one date with him. It's the same in relational tourism. It takes time to build a relationship. And it's hard to do that when many travelers have a strong desire to see as much of the country as possible in a short time. Might I suggest that you see fewer places for a longer time than all locations for a shorter time? You can always visit again and see other places. This gives you more opportunities to spend time with locals and get to know a place. It also allows you to see the tourist sights and then gives you extra time to hang out at the park locals might use. In fact, I visited Italy twice in August and September, and I saw Verona and Venice on the second trip to give myself more time during the first trip in Tuscany and Rome where I had friends.
  7. Try a service trip. There something special about serving a person that allows you to truly see him or her. Whether painting a portrait of someone or just offering your time to teach a clumsy person how to hoe-down, serving gives you an opportunity to fall in love with another person. The same is true in travel. It opens you up to learn and be evangelised, and gives you an opportunity to fall in love with a people, a city, or a country. Moreover, it's an amazing opportunity to get a local experience as you serve alongside local people. So if you're looking for serious development you should try other routes as you won't be living in the community long enough to fully understand things, but you can always look for an amazingly community-empowered, community-owned, and community-maintained local project to join. Such relational tourism can be informal or through a program, ranging from agrotourism and farm work to ecotourism or biodiversity and conservation enterprise work.

Those are just a few tips. Of course some would disagree. And that's fine. You can definitely choose to do more superficial tourism. But if you want to get a bit closer to a city's hidden parts, remember it takes some relational commitment. It's like all those single ladies say, "If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it."