Your visit to a foreign country can be a deeper, most lasting experience if you try to learn a bit about the culture. Cooking lessons, guided historical walking tours, movies filmed in the place, and novels that give you a sense of place are all ways to get a sense of the foreign culture.
Food as Culture
I love learning about a culture through its food. Before visiting a new culture, I try to find restaurants that specialize in the region’s cooking and shop at grocery stores that sell the region’s products. Its flavors can give clues about its conquerors and places it conquered, its geography, climate, and other influences. While in the region, I try to be open to regional cuisine – though I am queasy about tripe and other gizzards.
Cooking as Culture
On a trip to Sardinia, a pasta cooking class was also a lesson in the island’s friendly culture. My teacher, Patrizia Frau, focuses on traditional Sardinian food (her class is Corsi di pasta fresca e dolci sardi). We used her grandmother’s pasta cutting tool, made from a Sardinian coin. We seasoned the ravioli filling with lemon and mint from her garden – Sardinians often grow their own. We used fruity olive oil from her family’s olive grove. Sardinia is mostly rural and has 3 million sheep, and we stuffed the pasta with different kinds of sheep’s cheese.
Since I did not have access to a kitchen, my teacher arranged for her friend to serve us the pasta at his restaurant. The restaurant, the excellent Dr. Ampex, has no menu but each evening serves a selection of the best fresh offerings at the fish and other markets that morning.
Patrizia does not speak English, so a talented cultural tour guide, Michela Mura (firstname.lastname@example.org) both arranged the class and translated for me.
Guided Walking Tours as Cultural Introductions
In the hands of a thoughtful guide, a walking tour can bring a region’s history to life. A walking tour of Krakow, Poland, covered medieval history to the role of Pope John Paul in assisting the Solidarity movement (Jacek Gladki, email@example.com, was our guide). My guide to Cagliari, Sardinia, Gabriela Fanni (firstname.lastname@example.org) explained ancient Punic and Roman history, as well as the “modern” periods of domination by Pisa, Spain, and the very recent Fascist period. She also showed me a fish market frequented only by locals. A Communist walking tour of Budapest culminated in our guide showing us her favorite childhood board game, where players were rewarded for “factory productivity.” (Absolute Walking Tours and Yellow Zebra)
The ruins of a Roman town and of a town dating from 1500 BC were brought to life for us in Sardinia by our knowledgeable guide (Michela Mura (email@example.com). Not for everyone, a highlight of a family trip to London was the Jack the Ripper walking tour that helped us imagine the rigid class structure of Victorian England, the grime and darkness of poor neighborhoods, and the grim prospects for most young people.
Novels and Stories Bring a Culture to Life
Before a trip, you can find stories set in the location to get a sense of the people and what is important to them. Detective stories like Donna Leon’s set in Venice, or the Sherlock Holmes stories set in London can give a sense of place, class, and atmosphere. Before a trip to Mexico my kids and I read traditional Mexican folk tales adapted for younger readers. The lyrical Sardinian author Marcello Fois helped me grasp how isolated parts of Sardinia were from the modern world even in the mid-20th century and how sheep herding is central to this ancient mountain culture.
Movies Help Envision Societies in Action
It is easier to envision the crowd and the gruesome uses of the Roman Colosseum if you watch a Hollywood version first, like the Oscar-winning Gladiator. The movie Troy, loosely based on The Iliad and starring Brad Pitt, helped make ancient Greece more accessible for my family. The rich colors of Mexico and its mix of indigenous culture and Spanish conquistador influences come through in Frida, a biopic of the artist and political radical Frida Kahlo. (The free Mexican art museum in Chicago, here, is another pathway into the culture.)
Wherever you are going, you can Google stories and check Wikipedia’s entries for Films Set in [Fill in the Country]. Some guidebooks list books and movies that suggest a sense of place.
History Helps Understand Culture
My kids and I both enjoyed reading the Horrible Histories series that make history fun for young readers by focusing on the gory bits; The Terrible Tudors helped bring to life the castles and fortresses we visited in England. Popular history, like The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain about the 700-year occupation of Spain by the Moors, helps give context to the architecture, language, and food you’ll experience in Spain. Before a trip to St. Petersburg in Russia, Robert Massie’s popular biography of Catherine the Great helped me appreciate how dramatically her reign and Peter the Great’s had changed the country.
Talking to Locals
If you get the chance, speaking with local people can give great insight into a culture. The emotional highlight of my family’s visit to Budapest was meeting a friend’s mother who has lived there all of her 90 years, through Nazis and Communism. Via Facebook, I found friends-of-friends who lived in Madrid who shared their love of the city. Also through Facebook, I located a group of Sardinians interested in practicing English and met up with them for a delightful traditional meal. Private tour guides can also be cultural guides. I’ve been lucky to teach briefly in other countries, allowing me to meet and learn from my students and from my Spanish and Italian colleagues.
Another way to approach a culture is through volunteering. A primer from a Traveling Mom on traveling to volunteer on social service projects is here.