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Do you learn about politics and culture before travel?

I've traveled to Scotland many times in the last 15 years and have become fascinated with learning about the current cultural and political events. When I first visited Germany as a student I was really clueless about current German policy. And when I visited other countries it was the same. But now, I'm older I seem to want to delve into understanding of what the current country is all about in addition to the history. For example, I'm reading Neal Ascherson's book Stone Voices to try and understand how Scotland got to the point where they were voting on independence in 2014 near the Bannockburn anniversary. Here's an older article by Ascherson from the Guardian. As I read this book and this article my understanding is evolving. Certainly, this gives me more to ask about in the pub than the best walks in the area. Are others doing this as well? Do you see advantages beyond deeper conversations in the pub?

Posted by
6017 posts

I usually try to learn enough to be aware, certainly cultural norms, customs, maybe current events and the political situation, all part of just researching where I am going and what to do. I am not sure that I would feel comfortable discussing politis, other than a passing comment. I find most conversations tend to center on where I am from and about them and the area though it is nice to understand the background.

Posted by
5669 posts

I guess I might expand the question to ask whether or not it makes a difference if it's a second or third or later trip to the country.

Posted by
5789 posts

Deutsche Welle offers an interesting insight into current issues: http://www.dw.de That said a general understanding of a country and region's contemporary history should be an essential start at appreciating the country visited and its people.
Unless you just want to be a stereotypical tourist just checking off the top ten sights. Not that that's bad.

Posted by
5262 posts

I enjoy knowing something of the current politics and issues in a country I'm visiting, as well as the history and culture. In Edinburgh two years ago we visited the Parliament and I quizzed one of the information people about how they're set up as part of the UK, what an independence referendum could mean, etc. The conversation was easier because of the same language and because he was a professional question-answerer in a government building. On the other hand, I remember being harangued in a Midlands pub a week or so later by a couple of well-lubricated guys who were, shall we say, a bit racist vis a vis immigrants. It reminded me why it's not good form to talk politics (or religion) with people you don't know and want to get along with, at least till you know them much better. The best pub conversations, to me, involve exchanges of what we like about each other's countries, useful information from the locals to help our travels, and as much humor as possible. Of course they're easier without a language barrier. Though I remember a well-lubricated evening in the Loire Valley many years ago where several of us achieved mutual understanding that transcended our three languages (a Pole was involved)..... :)

Posted by
1427 posts

My husband and I both like to know a variety of things about a country before we travel there. What continues to surprise us is when we speak to anyone, they always indicate we are Americans - we don't feel we have accents, but they know right away. From there, it's been common for them to ask us about our current president and give their views on U.S. politics. They seem to know quite a bit. It was so interesting when we took our two granddaughters to London, Sweden and Copenhagen last month, a number of people indicated we were Americans, and our granddaughters were totally intrigued by this - how could they know they wondered.

Posted by
1427 posts

One other thing: Though we don't initiate political conversations, we typically have questions coming at us. And, when they ask where we're from in the U.S. - when we say California they are usually very excited. I think they are thinking movie stars, etc. As a matter of fact, one of my cousins from Sweden just visited the U.S. and had to see Hollywood - was very disappointed when he and his wife did not see lots of stars.

Posted by
98 posts

It depends on the country I am visiting. To give two examples of my favourite destinations. Italy provokes me to read a lot about culture and history but their politics seems to other Europeans totally strange where Berlusconi has regularly been elected where in many other countries his antics would have led to a much different outcome.
Cuba on the other hand would be incomprehensible if you didn't take an interest in the politics as well as culture and history.

Posted by
3936 posts

I find before I go on a trip I like to read up on what is happening and such in whatever country(s) we are visiting - I've always been interested in Italy anyways, but our first trip there in 2008, we stayed with a fellow in Genoa and we had some good poli convos about Berlusconi et al (he was even familiar with some Canadian politics)...and we are heading to Cali (less then a month, yay) and on one of my ipad apps (Zite - it's pretty cool) I have California and San Fran (as well as Rome, Italy and Venice, lol) liked - and I look at the news and what's going on...environmentally, politically...but I find that stuff interesting anyways. I find the articles on the Zite app great as well because they cover everything - including 'hidden gems', great places to eat, areas to visit (or avoid)...

Posted by
11973 posts

For maybe a year prior to a trip (if I have that much advance notice), I'll add the country, cities and a few prominent political names to my Google news search. That gives me some current perspective on what's happening. I like to add some history too - history is part of what makes the current culture.

Posted by
2280 posts

In all honestly, I'm much more interested in the history of the places I visit than the current events. I do like to have some understanding of the culture though. It's interesting and helpful to understand the people. I also generally stay somewhat informed on what is going on in Europe as it's necessary for my job and interesting to me. But I'm not about to do a deep dive into the politics of countries I am planning to visit. I can barely stand the politics in this country, and the last thing I want to do on vacation is discuss politics or even read about it.

Posted by
6877 posts

Hi Pamela, great thread! Absolutely, I think doing so really enriches your experience on the ground and helps you connect the dots in a more meaningful way. I don't look at it as an external reward (being able to make small talk with folks or showing them how much I know), but rather it's really a reward for me that would make my trip much better and increase my education. There was a recommended book on the RS site related to a Turkey trip I was taking; the book was amazing (it became one of my favorite books of all time) and really got me interested in reading other Turkish authors and learning more about Turkey. It really set the context for my trip and helped me gain a lot more from my travel than otherwise (i.e. you don't really understand Turkey unless you know Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey). Similar circumstance before I traveled to Bosnia and Croatia - reading about the history and political context of the Balkans was invaluable. Not everyone finds politics or history interesting, but I sure am glad I do. Ps. It doesn't matter to me if it's my first visit or 3rd or 5th, but obviously the more interested I get as a result of reading and time on the ground, the more likely I am to return. And I like politics and have no problems discussing it with whoever is interested.

Posted by
11450 posts

I admit to not bothering to learn much about the local politics ,, but I do go out of my way to learn about the customs and cultural norms of a place. I focus on that and the history mostly. Frankly politics bore me, and in some cases they are rather depressing, here and abroad, so on holiday hardly something I want to think about ( unless I was going somewhere that politics could disrupt my visit ,) I know very little, but just enough about some countrys politics that I would never choose to visit under any circumstance, refuse to support regimes that oppress and abuse its citizens. China is a big no no for me, won't even buy stuff that says "made in China" .. so until their politics change they don't have to worry about me.

Posted by
15045 posts

For me, spending 2 or 3 weeks away from Israeli politics and "exciting" current events is a big part of relaxing. I enjoy meeting locals and learning about their individual lifestyles and challenges but I don't want to talk politics and when I don't see a news broadcast for a week, I start to feel like I'm really on vacation.

Posted by
9110 posts

How can you stand to go somewhere without knowing as much as you can about it? The world is not an endless chain of museums.

Posted by
11450 posts

Well Ed, fact is life is not all politics either , and no one on this thread said only museums, reread, I clearly said customs and culture as well as history ( which would include some politic run down of the day ) Its funny how those who seem the keenest to learn about politics are quick to judge and label others for not caring much about politics on holiday..

Posted by
9110 posts

......and I mentioned politics where, exactly? I thought I was responding to Pam's question in its entirety and not to somebody else's response.

Posted by
21855 posts

Ed and Rose. Now that is a combination.

Posted by
922 posts

Frank, when someone says something smart, to the point, and in my opinion directly on the mark, it deserves to be seconded.

Posted by
12040 posts

I like to know most about the country's history since WWII, since that's the period when virtually everything about these societies changed, on both sides of the old Iron Curtain.

Posted by
826 posts

Well obviously some people are more interested in current affairs and so on than others, but at the same time I think you need to have some understanding of the current affairs and culture of the country you are visiting, if you are going to be able to put your experiences in to contex? How can someone say I'm only interested in history and yet fail to understand how that history has shaped the nation they are visiting. Or why has a nation decided to put certain elements of it's history on show for you while ignoring other aspects - all history is someone's vision at the end of the day.

Posted by
8995 posts

In the spirit of learning about cultures....there was a fascinating documentary on the BBC last week about a British family moving to Germany and trying to live like a "typical" German model family. It was fascinating viewing about contemporary Germany: http://youtu.be/wwTu7HOOVaQ

Posted by
5262 posts

Jim makes a good point about the history "on display." The Hungarians make much of their long occupation by the Germans and Soviets, but not so much about their government's alliance with Germany in the prewar and early war years. The Czechs explain how rural the Sudetenland is by its longtime Iron Curtain border status, not by the expulsion of Germans after the war. And on and on, every nation and continent, not least among them ours. The most "history display" I've encountered was in China, where travel for most of us is in a bubble and guides fluently, confidently, and reasonably explain that, for example, Mao is now considered to have been 70% right and 30% wrong (they love numbers). If you've done some independent reading or study beforehand, you can put the displayed history in context and better understand what's going on now in the country's politics and economy. That can't help but enrich the travel experience. And I still love old ruins and museums and art galleries and such.

Posted by
9110 posts

The loser doesn't get to write the history.

Posted by
2349 posts

I love reading local newspapers whenever I am. The smaller the better. Reading about local town board meetings is so much fun when you don't care. I love disputes over fence lines and weird memoriams and letters to the editor. Pictures of big snakes or dead deer are big bonuses.

Posted by
5669 posts

I know exactly what you mean! I try to carry it over to home by reading the Scotsman, but it's not the same as when you are there! And it can extend your trip for years! One of the more interesting evenings I had was at the Richmond Hotel in Strathpeffer. I was staying at a B&B and would wander over the Richmond's wee pub for a drink after dinner. By the second night I was best of friends with the the owner and his wife. And by the third night I was hearing about the issues of raising and English child (She was English, He has Scottish ancestry) in the north of Scotland. Do you put your child in Gaelic School? Are the teacher's discriminating against your child? What is the policy on the Gaelic language. It was fascinating. And today as I read Ascherson's book, I have my own insights into what Scotland was like in the late 1990's! Pam

Posted by
12986 posts

Most of the time I read up or know of the politics and history of the countries I intend to visit, but it depends too...sometimes not. It varies. Some places I go to, have visited, or will visit were/are mainly for the history/geography, not the culture. I also hit the museums, do a compare and contrast on them if they specifically focus on a common event/topic. When I am on vacation in Europe, I am not adverse to talking about the politics/history of over there or of the US, depending on how little/much I am familiar with the topic at hand. It depends upon if I am asked or whether I bring the topic up. Regardless of the political issue on China, we know it's a police state, a one party state with no allowance for political opposition. As Patty Page asked (to this effect) in 1970, "Is that all there is?" I still have to get to China since a good number of people I know have done just that as tourists since the early '80s. I agree with Dick's comments on historical accuracy. Good observations on East-Central Europe.

Posted by
826 posts

In the spirit of learning about cultures....there was a fascinating documentary on the BBC last week about a British family moving to Germany and trying to live like a "typical" German model family. It was fascinating viewing about contemporary Germany: http://youtu.be/wwTu7HOOVaQ I had a look at this and yes I think it made a lot of good points, although some of the are more a mainland European thing, while others are more Germanic and apply to Austria and Switzerland as well.

Posted by
12040 posts

Without even watching the video, can I safely assume that at least a portion of it deals with correctly separating the garbage?

Posted by
5669 posts

Well, Tom, its seems that the video has been pulled for copyright so we cannot confirm the garbage sorting. :)

Posted by
6877 posts

@Pam - I watched the video before it was pulled off and I can confirm the garbage sorting. I love that about the Germans!!! When I studied there in college for the summer of '94, that was the first time I've seen such care for the environment, including hefty taxes on needless packaging (e.g. toothpaste, consumer goods). At the time, the only place in the States that I recall was remotely close in consciousness was Seattle (that was the first airport where I saw that had recycling containers for plastic, newspapers, etc). I did not know prior to watching the video that German working mothers were considered "raven" mothers - fascinating! Yes, it's as bad as it sounds :-(

Posted by
12040 posts

"that was the first time I've seen such care for the environment, including hefty taxes on needless packaging (e.g. toothpaste, consumer goods)." Unfortunately, all is not so rosy with Germans and the environment. If you drive through the most populous Bundesland, Nordrhein-Westfalen, you see a lot of this on the horizons. Most of these power plants are fired by lignite, which is just about one of the dirtiest forms of coal imaginable. If you drive along the A4 between Köln and Aachen, the landscape is relatively flat, except for a few conscipous bare plateaus that seem to rise out of nowhere. I wondered exactly what these were... Now I know.

Posted by
1878 posts

I pay attention to current local politics in Europe when traveling only in proportion to the magnitude of the event, and mostly this means to the extent that it keeps me out of trouble. (For example I followed what was happening in Greece very closely, day to day, before our trip two years ago.) But then we are not inclined to get into political discussions with locals anyway. Like Pat, much more interested in history and culture. The history that survives to be retold is largely politics that has retained its importance over 700 years (or whatever) and so merits attention. It may have even impacted who we are today as a nation (not that we are monolithic by any means). The latest political controversy etc. in Europe I am not so worried about unless it's going to create riots or make me miss my plane (see: Greece). That said,I do pay attention to world current events even when I am not traveling, more with an eye towards economics than who wins the seat in parliament.

Posted by
5669 posts

I think it is this blend of history, culture and current politics that interests me about the places I visit. I wonder how did it come to pass that Scotland in 2013 is voting on its independence? Are they all really still chafing at the defeat of Prince Charlie? As I dig into the Ascherson bookone man's perspectiveI would say no, it's much more complex and has to do not only with Culloden, but with the clearances, and crofting laws, with the many years of Thatcher and Tory led Westminster Rule. By reading the history I start to understand why some Scots want devolution max, whereas others want nothing less than complete independence. I just read a section regarding what happened in the late 50's when the government took over some crofting areas on Uist for a missile range in defiance of crofting laws. A judge tried to stop it cold, saying enough is enough of this persecution, but he was later persuaded to retract citing the cold war. BUT because this brought a "colony of English" to the outer Hebrides, it sparked the development of the use of Gaelic in schools, in play groups etc. Ascherman also points out that it highlighted for many that Westminster put itself above the law and the locals had no control over their destiny. When you start to dig into these things you can watch current events such as the referendum on Independence in Scotland with greater understanding. When visiting you can ask a local for their perspective and not be a belligerent and maybe get even more understanding as you won't be assuming that every Scot should be painting their face blue and white and crying "Freedom!" Pam