So You Think You Can Pass for a Local?
by Mark Ellwood
When I travel, I agonize about what to pack. Despite a decade of professional airport hopping (first as a tour guide and now as a travel writer), I still haven't perfected the carefree, carry-on-only style of jetsetting. That problem was solved for me when I spent five weeks in Europe this spring filming a new TV show, Local Currency. I had one outfit per city, repeated for each of the five days we shot. That meant five identical shirts, plus a blazer and some jeans (courtesy of my friends at Club Monaco). Problem solved — even if it was Groundhog Day-ishly disconcerting to never quite know what day of the week it was.
The idea behind the show was simple. When we travel, cliché as it may be, we want to be mistaken for locals. (I think of it as having "Directions Face," the open knowingness that makes strangers ditch their maps and ask you instead.) In the show, I was going to five European cities — Valencia, Vienna, Zurich, Antwerp, and Amsterdam (the so-called Cool Capitals) — to meet residents and learn from them what it takes to pass as a local. At the end of each episode, I was tested to see just how well I could fit in. In Zurich, that meant doing as locals do when they're short on change for the tram: You ask a complete stranger, panhandler-style, for the balance. Hidden cameras tracked me as I brazenly tried to blag cash from the Swiss. (You'll have to watch to find out how I fared). In Antwerp, before I could try out my pidgin Flemish, I had to be made over to look as fashionable as homegrown talents like Margiela. I wish I'd thought ahead that morning about my potential makeover: I'll forever be memorialized on film wearing skivvies from the "eh, it's laundry day tomorrow" stash we all keep at the back of the drawer.
We made a decision before we starting filming that we'd break the fourth wall and champion, rather than conceal, the fact that we were making a TV show. We featured my three crew members on camera as needed: producer/director Graham, camera honcho Matt, and camera/edit maestro Alex. I could never quite shake the feeling that people must have mistaken us for rather enthusiastic (and old) backpackers as we schlepped our equipment from train to plane to hotel, four guys with guidebooks in hand, earnestly checking out everything we saw, and shooting each other with the enthusiasm of a pack of paparazzi. The crew ate paella with me in Valencia and schnitzel in Vienna (handily packaged to go, given its giant size, in a flatpacked shopping bag). When we couldn't find a high enough vantage point to grab a beauty shot of Amsterdam's skyline, the four of us piled into one cabin on a giant Ferris wheel downtown, cameras in hand. Graham modeled designer glasses we found in Vienna, and we celebrated his birthday with a Middle Eastern meal in Amsterdam's grungy De Pijp. (For that one, we left the cameras behind.)
But goofy as the show's premise might have been — and pratfallish as some of my failures certainly were — the experience reminded me of one truism: Not that we all want to be mistaken for locals when we travel, but that most locals will still be welcoming, even if we stick out like fresh-off-the-boat tourists. When I barked some garbled German at a server in Vienna, she stopped, smiled, and spent two minutes explaining what I'd done wrong, correcting my grade-school grammar. It made me want to come back to Vienna stat. Though next time, I might come incognito.
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Local Currency debuts July 1 on Plum TV.