By Laura Keil
My family just returned from a month in Europe. Most of that time was in Spain, with four nights in Poland to see the area where my Grandma grew up. It’s been a while since we took a big trip like that, both one so long and so far, and one in a country where we don’t speak the language. Your brain must perform mental gymnastics just to buy fruit at the corner store. It is humbling and occasionally humiliating. It makes you realize all the things you take for granted when you already know a place – how to get places, what things to bring, what certain things are in a restaurant. Things like visual menus, pedestrian street signs, and multi-language translations were a lifeline.
I got to speak with Tourism Valemount’s new executive director last week. She spoke about considering herself a “professional tourist” until she’s spent more time in the community. How smart, I thought. Unless you’ve experienced a place as a tourist, in all its dizzying complexity and omissions, it’s hard to really know how to improve it.
This was the first overseas trip I’d ever done with the comfort of cell phones, data plans and tech like Google Maps and Google Translate. And even with those things, navigating the city was often like trying to break out of an escape room. It took all our jet-lagged brain power and then some. Especially when things went wrong – a tree fallen on the train tracks for instance, which indefinitely delayed our train to the airport to catch our flight.
Having more language skills would have helped tremendously. We are lucky in the Robson Valley that so many tourists have a grasp of English. That said, what would it look like to dig deeper into our tourism identity? To help visitors feel even more comfortable? It comes down to our level of customer service, our signage, our willingness to flex into someone else’s culture to meet them partway.
I, for one, am ready to try it.