Let's begin by stating the obvious: connecting with the locals is key to live authentic experiences. Speaking from experience this is the one best advice I can give to people traveling and looking for authentic experiences.
While this may sound obvious, the dynamics enabling experiences that are authentic are not. Over the past 6 years I lived in 6 cities in 4 different countries and there is only one thing that turned an experience from good to great: putting effort in connecting with the local people.
Let's start from the beginning. When I was in high school a guest speaker came to speak to us about our future and career and everything you are supposed to learn in high school. I was 17 so to me and most of us the speech was just numbing, and for the whole duration all we wanted to do was leave and go hide smoking cigarettes and do all the things we weren't supposed to do. As he continued unaware (or pretending not to notice) our indifference, he said something that caught my attention and stuck with me until today: “you only find opportunities in people and nowhere else.” He said that in Italian so there are probably a million better ways to word it in English but the message does not change: He was trying to tell us that what matters the most, or at least what should matter to us the most is people. He was speaking to us about career and future, so in that context he meant that when trying to build a career you should look for opportunities in the people you meet. The sentence resonated with me so much though that I felt it was true in almost any context or situation. I started think of all the past experiences and opportunities and how they were all possibile thanks to the people I met or my interactions with them. It came as an epiphany and it changed the way I would experience the following six years abroad.
Let's look at this in the context of traveling. When planning a trip, a book will give you the opportunity to learn the history of the place you will visit. A blog will give you the opportunity to read about “the 10 things you must do when you visit”, and a museum gives you the opportunity to learn about the past of that place. Now think about all the opportunities that being open to people around you unlocks.
When you decide to rent a room in town, talk to the owner, go out in the morning for a coffee and begin your day with the idea that amazing opportunities await in the people you will meet, you set yourself for the most memorable of adventures.
Connect with the locals you will meet during you stay in Italy.
I travelled for many years to a number of cities. My 6 years away from Bergamo had its highs and lows. The highs all involved people I met on loco—locals. The best moments I experienced, or the most authentic experiences I lived are all linked to me interacting with the locals. The best memories involve being offered help by a group of people in Dublin after getting lost and go with them for a beer, or discussing life with police officers in Chicago while they give you a ride home after being scolded for walking alone late at night. Some of the best moments abroad involve eating hangover soup in a 24h restaurant in Seoul with people I met a few hours before after a night out. All these experiences where possible because I decided to let the locals change my plans and redirect my experience.
How being open to the people you meet changes the course of events for years
I want to share a story I always go back to thinking when I need regain that mindset. I met one of my closest friends on Craiglist. I was about to move from Bergamo to LA to attend university and I was looking for someone to rent a bedroom with as rent was so expensive. I didn't know where to find someone willing to share a place near my soon-to-be university and so I went looking on a website that, a that time, didn't know was of questionable reliability. We chatted for a month or so and when the time for me to fly there arrived he picked me up at the airport. I think it's important to mention that at that point I never met him in my life and had no idea of what kind of person he was. Agaisnt all my fears he actually showed up and was very nice. We became roommates and are still great friends today, 7 years later.
Meet locals to change a simple trip into your new, authentic, memorable experience
Locals can offer help and make you feel part of a new community. That can make you part of their daily life, a life that may look completely different from the one you are used to in your homecountry. And this becomes especially important when your stay is as short as a week or two and your time is limited and must make the most of it. I know I make it sound easy, and that it won't always feel very natural, but sometimes it's enough to meet someone on the street, maybe someone offering help. Try to srike a conversation, be genuine and soon enough you will find yourself walking to the nearby bar for a coffee or beer togheter.
Authentic equals unexpected
The best and most authentic adventures are those we didn't expect or plan. And that is also the best part of opening up to people living there. Sometimes I need to attend trade fairs in Italy and abroad for work. Early this year I was at HOST in Milan, a hospotality trade fair held there every year when I met potential clients from China. After discussing details I immeditely realised there was no business for us to do. I decided to keep chatting as they seemed keen and interested in some relaxed chatting. As we kept talking they confessed to me they could not wait to leave and go party in Milan, where they were staying for the night. I laughed and offered some recommendations. They asked me to join and I immediately thought of refusing. I was working, I didn't know them, and my colleague was right next to me, I thought I shouldn't. Maybe I am just getting old, but then I thought why not? Opportunities come with people and I accepted. My colleague folowed and later we had a great time sharing stories, a meal and good times in Milan.
Some things are insightful but predictable: museums, books, guides. People aren’t.
Sometimes, if you are open to opportunities, a quick exchange translates into dinner, and dinner into new friends and memories. Just like that, an average day traveling has the potential to become the best story to share with friends and family. You can make this happen by choosing between sitting in a restaurant found on Instagram, ordering what TripAdvisors users tells you is best, or sitting at a local restaurant where waiters only speak dialect and you must ask your new friends what to order and what to avoid because they have been going there for 10 years.
What people want, like or look for can vary greatly, but if you read up to this point it's very likely that you are in some ways very similar to me. If you are, you care greatly about bringing home stories to share and create memories to treasure later in life. Don't you find the opportunity to live experiences such this one very valuable? I learned to apply what a random guest speaker said at my school to my everyday life, especially when in a new place, and I began experiencing the extraordinary that comes with being willing to connect with others. The best time for this is when you find yourself in a new place and all the people living there are people you can connect with.