To Live Like a Local: My Summer of Slow Travel

Summer vacation is only 207 days away–where will I spend it?

While I loved the ability to be spontaneous in my travel planning during my year off, all good things must come to an end.  It’s mid-November, I’m back in the classroom, and all spontaneity has flown out the window.  Because of my limited-to-holidays travel schedule, planning in advance is crucial; I’m not made of money, and the best budget options fill up quickly during high-demand times.  I have a trip booked for Thanksgiving break, another trip already booked for Easter break, and I’ve officially determined that–gasp–I’m staying at home for Christmas Break (because flight prices are insane).

And summer vacation is only 207 days away.

I’d like to change up my travel style and attempt to do my own version of slow travel during summer 2013.  I no longer take time for granted, having both had the luxury of near-limitless time and the confines of completely-limited time.  And I realize that, as a teacher, it really is great that I can spend six or eight weeks every summer going somewhere.  But that doesn’t mean that I have to be going the entire time.  And thus, the idea for the anti-trip was born.

You see, lots of people talk about living like a local when traveling.  And while yes, this is an appealing–and intelligent–travel strategy, I feel like it is a concept that exists more in theory than in practice.  For example, let’s take a look at the godfather of live-like-a-local travel: Rick Steves.

I need only to turn my head slightly to my left and I can count–counting–five different Rick Steves books on one of my bookshelves.  I can reach out my right hand and grab yet another one–his first and most popular book, Europe Through the Back Door.  In the preface of this book, he explains his ‘back-door’ approach to travel thus:

Traveling this way, we become temporary Europeans, members of the family–approaching Europe on its level, accepting and enjoying its unique ways of life.  We’ll demand nothing, except that no fuss be made over us. –Rick Steves, Europe Through the Back Door.

Ok.  That all sounds great.  I’d love to be come a temporary European.  Or even a temporary Texan, Washingtonian, or Quebecois.  But how does one do that?  Let’s take a look at a sample Rick Steves itinerary.  Pictured right is one of the Rick Steves ‘Europe in Three Weeks’ itineraries.  I included it as a photo because the text description was way, way too long.  The first week looks like this, typed out:

Day 1: Arrive at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, and stay in the nearby town of Haarlem (2 nights).

Day 2: Using Haarlem as a home base, day-trip to Amsterdam.

Day 3: Cross the German border to the Rhine River Valley; Explore the quaint riverside town of Bacharach (2 nights).

Day 4: Cruise the best stretch of the Rhine (between Bacharach and St. Goar, then tour St. Goar’s Rheinfels Castle. Return to Bacharach by train.

Day 5: Take the train to Rothenburg and sightsee (1 night).

Day 6: After a morning in Rothenburg, take the Romantic Road bus to Munich (1 night).

Day 7: Spend the day in Munich, or consider day trips: a bus tour to “Mad” King Ludwig’s fairy-tale castles, or a train from Munich to Salzburg (1.5 hours each way). Take a night train to Venice.

While I’m not bashing this itinerary in any way (heck, I love Rick Steves;I’ll even include another link to his website right HERE) I don’t really see how anyone can become a temporary local in such a time frame.  One afternoon, one night, and one morning in Munich?  With a possible tour to Salzburg?  I guarantee that’s not how the locals live.

I also guarantee that’s not Rick Steves’ ideal trip, either.  In fact, I’m willing to bet that, were I able to ask him, Mr. Steves would agree that a trip like that attempts to squeeze far too much into far too little time.  But it’s a trip created for the average American–and the average American has far too little vacation time during which they can travel.

So this year, while I still have the luxury of an eight-week summer break, I’m going to spend all eight weeks of that break elsewhere.  And in one general location.  However, as of now, that ‘one location’ is literally all over the map; in the past week, I’ve been researching everywhere from Barcelona to Boulder (seriously–I’m not just trying to be alliterative!)

Here are the things I’m looking for–can anyone help me nail down a destination?  Because, again, summer break is only 207 days away!

The Suitcase Scholar’s Summer of Slow Travel: My Destination Requirements

Somewhere near a state or national park would be nice.

-Somewhere near nature.  I’d like to spend as much time as possible outdoors this coming summer.  Winter in PA is cold, dark, and long; I don’t need to be warm all summer, but I do need to be outside somewhere.  ‘Nature’ can include anything from mountains to desert to beach.  But I’d like there to be a lot of it to explore.  And I lean more towards ‘mountains’ than towards ‘beaches’.

-Somewhere in or near a unique city or town.  While hiking or checking out beaches is all well and good, if I’m going to live somewhere for an extended period of time, I need variety.  And I need good food.  Markets, cafes, and restaurants are key (see also:  Bar Harbor, Portland, Maine).

-Somewhere with a slightly different culture.  When I say ‘culture’, I mean that in the broadest sense possible.  I’ve spent pretty much my whole life living in this same area–a not-quite-rural, not-exactly-suburban area directly outside a small, depressed city located between Philadelphia and New York City.  I’d like to experience life in a slightly different place and meet slightly different people.  This should be the easiest requirement to fulfill, as I’ve traveled as not-far as central Delaware and southern Vermont and experienced a noticeably different lifestyle.  And don’t even get me started on West Virginia.

-Somewhere that is either walkable or featuring quality public transporation (see also:  San Francisco, Paris).

-Somewhere that offers a good home-base for weekend-trip explorations.  You didn’t think I was just going to plop myself down and not move from one location for two whole months, did you?  Living like a local involves short breaks outside of town; I didn’t feel like I truly lived in my Paris apartment until I left to spend a night in Amsterdam (see also:  London).

However, I also need access to great food. Somewhere with a market (or five) would be nice.

-Somewhere not-insanely-expensive.  Because I’m looking to stay for such a long period of time, I’m obviously looking for a house or apartment rental–not a hotel room.  Thus, I’d like to pay house or apartment rental rates–not nightly rates.  Ideally, I’d be paying around $1,500 per month for a rental; I’m fine with small spaces, but I’d like at least a mini fridge and a two-burner stove.

Bonus Features

Please note:  the following are obviously in direct opposition to each other.  Thus, they live here in bonus-land.  If one of the two is met, I’m happy.  I don’t really see how I could fulfill both.   

-Somewhere that English is not the primary language.  I’d love to learn a new language–ideally Spanish, simply because I could use it in so many of the places I’d like to visit.  Because I’m planning so far in advance, I’d obviously make a concerted effort to learn a bit of that language before leaving.  Again, this would be super easy if the language were Spanish for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to the fact that I have both 1.  a medium-level ability to read (but not speak) Spanish and 2.  several students for whom Spanish was their first language; I’m sure I could convince them to practice speaking it with me fairly easily.

Somewhere to which I can drive and take my not-yet-acquired puppy.  The one thing about traveling so much is that it makes it difficult to do things like, say, get a puppy.  But I’d really like a puppy; I have two small dogs, but I want a large-breed dog to take running and hiking.  If the destination I choose is located anywhere in North America, I’m driving there.  With the puppy I will procure as soon as the trip is booked.

-Ideally, I’d choose somewhere I’ve never been before.  However, this is not a deal breaker.  I’ve already been to some great places (see also:  Cape Cod and the Islands, coastal Maine) that I wouldn’t mind spending (a lot) more time exploring.

So–all of that being said–can someone help me?  Where should I go?  Please make suggestions in the comment section below.  Thanks! 

EDIT:  It’s a few days later, and I feel compelled to provide an update.  First, I clearly crossed off that whole puppy thing.  I think I’m going to give up that dream; it’s just too hard to find anywhere that accepts pets.  So no puppy for me.  And second–I’ve found it necessary to focus more on a few geographic areas for research and budgeting purposes.  I am currently looking at:

5.  Asheville, North Carolina

4.  Budapest, Hungary

3.  Barcelona, Spain

2.  Boulder, Colorado

1.  Quebec City

Yes, Canada is once again at the top of my list.  And yes, I totally named North Carolina and Hungary right next to each other.  When has that ever happened before?  I felt kind of silly even typing it!



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