The only time I really dislike traveling is when I feel like an outsider, a true “tourist.” My most interesting experiences tend to be unplanned; things that seem ordinary for locals seem extraordinary when I learn about them. Thus, whenever I am wearing the “tourist cloak,” I feel inferior. Case in point: our lazy day on the beach.
As soon as we walk off the ferry and onto the Aegina shore, I feel the anxiety kick in; others watch as our group takes selfies in front of the scenery. We are the stereotypical American teenagers: big sunglasses, brightly-colored bags, addicted to Instagram filters. The whole package.
And as we continue aimlessly up the hill—to an area that gradually becomes less “beach-town” and more residential— I realize just how much I dislike "looking like" an American. Too exhausted to wander and unable to connect to WiFi for more specific directions, we flag down a bus; one of the girls manages to convince the driver to let all of us on. Twenty minutes later, we arrive at a beach worthy of a magazine—several miles away from the port and on the other side of the island.
The beach boardwalk does not look much different than ones back in the States; rooftop bars and expensive hotels overshadow more humble structures further inland. As I look past some abandoned buildings, I wonder what real life is like for the locals who grew up on the island. Though many likely live off tourism, I cannot imagine they enjoy it.
When I mention this to the people I meet, however, I am pleasantly surprised. Unlike other Europeans I have met, these people do not harbor bad feelings towards Americans—or if they do, they sure hide it well.
Each person I talk to is more than happy to make conversation. The taxi driver asks me which state I am from, and tells me he once dreamed of moving to America. I ask him if he thinks there are too many tourists here. He laughs. Then I say, “No, really. Are we annoying?” He laughs harder. Expecting him to agree, I am surprised with his answer. “I admire the way Americans live. They make it so that the young are independent and free.”
His description of American college students, free-thinkers who move away from their families and even travel by themselves, is not unlike my own experience. I realize as he talks that the opportunities I have truly are unique. His description of the custom “extended family model” is quickly illustrated when I meet Helen.
The storeowner of a souvenir shop, Helen makes conversation with me as I sample pistachio butter and look at hand-painted sailboat figurines. Her two little boys wrestle playfully with their grandfather in the outdoor space behind the shop, and I realize this space doubles as their home. Seeing me watch them, she apologizes for her “big, noisy, Greek family,” but I smile because their closeness is refreshing to witness.
I leave the store knowing even less than before. I understand why the taxi driver spent seven years pursuing a green card; living in America has given me more than I can comprehend. But I also crave the closeness that comes with living together; if their laughter is any indication, Helen’s kids have built in best friends.
All in all, I plan to step away from the black and white view of life. Perhaps the people here secretly despise Americans, perhaps they do not. The question does not need to be solved but rather simply experienced. And I can experience this while still embracing my nationality—not hiding it.