Going local: It's easier than you think
I'm not naturally a wild-and-crazy kind of guy. But when I'm shy and quiet, things don't happen, and that's a bad rut to travel in. The meek may inherit the earth, but they won't enjoy it.
When you're traveling in Europe, make yourself an extrovert, even if you're not. Be a catalyst for adventure and excitement -- and don't be intimidated. Generally speaking, Europeans enjoy getting to know Americans -- all it takes to connect is a friendly smile and genuine curiosity. Here are a few tricks I use to connect with the locals:
Be open to encounters as you visit a city. At most major sights, you'll meet more people in an hour than you would at home in a day. Cameras are good icebreakers; offer to take someone's picture or ask a local to take a picture of you. If you are lonely and in need of human contact, take out a map and look lost. You'll get help. Perceive friendliness and you'll find it.
Take a class at a cooking school. These give you not just a taste of the culinary traditions of the area you're visiting, but also a hands-on feel for what happens in European kitchens -- along with a skill you can take home. Many include a trip to local markets. You can find one-day European cooking classes at the International Kitchen (www.theinternationalkitchen.com).
Across Europe, some large cities and even small towns (such as Germany's Rothenburg) have informal English-language conversation clubs, usually meeting weekly or monthly in a public space (search online or ask at the tourist information office). You may well be the only native speaker there -- if so, expect an especially warm welcome.
Several European cities have English-speaking volunteer greeters who belong to the Global Greeter Network (www.globalgreeternetwork.com). Greeters are screened extensively, but aren't trained as historical experts. Instead, they introduce visitors to their city by spending a few hours sharing their insider knowledge -- their favorite hidden spots, how to navigate public transit, where to find the best bargains, etc.
A few bigger cities have more formal programs that put travelers in direct touch with locals. In Dublin, the City of a Thousand Welcomes brings volunteers and first-time visitors together for a cup of tea or a pint (free, www.cityofathousandwelcomes.com). In Paris, the group Meeting the French organizes dinners in private homes and workplace tours to match your interests or career (fee, www.meetingthefrench.com). Visitors to Copenhagen can enjoy a home-cooked meal with a family through Dine with the Danes (fee, www.dinewiththedanes.dk). With Helsinki's Meet the Finns program, you can match your hobbies with a local -- and suddenly, you're searching for Marimekko tea towels with your new Finnish friend (fee, www.cosyfinland.com).
If you're a techie, try meeting up with locals through social media. Like-minded individuals can find one another on www.meetup.com, whose worldwide members welcome visitors to wide-ranging events such as photography walks, happy hours, and weekend skiing. Twigmore, a Facebook travel app (www.twigmore.com), connects vacationers and residents through mutual "friends" -- just type in your destination, and Twigmore will tell you if a friend of one of your Facebook buddies lives in the city. CouchSurfing is known for its sleep-for-free network, but it also lists "day hosts" who are happy to just meet up with like-minded visitors and swap travel stories (www.couchsurfing.com). Also consider joining a hospitality-exchange network, such as Servas (www.servas.org).
And there's the old-fashioned, face-to-face option of meeting people during their everyday routines. Take your laundry and a deck of cards to a launderette and turn solitaire into gin rummy. You'll end up with a stack of clean clothes and interesting conversations.
You're always welcome at a church service; stay for the coffee hour. Or get caught up in a sporting event. Whether enjoying soccer in small-town Italy or hurling in Ireland, you'll be surrounded by a stadium crammed with devout fans. Buying something to wear or wave with the hometown colors helps me remember whose side I'm on.
Play with kids. Thumb wrestle. Learn how to say "pretty baby" in the native language. If you play peek-a-boo with a baby or fold an origami bird for a kid, you'll make friends with the parents as well as the child. If you are shy about connecting with families, pal up to a pooch -- you will often find they are happy to introduce you to their owners.
Connecting with people carbonates your travels. When I read over my past trip journals, I'm always impressed by how often the best experiences were meeting people; these are the kind of souvenirs you'll enjoy for a lifetime.