February 16, 2022

Travel as Ethnography: Being a Temporary Local (with a Kitchen)

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

When planning a trip to northern Italy last year, I stumbled upon a class of lodging I wasn’t familiar with: the condo hotel. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic meant limiting contact with others, so a traditional hotel was less desirable this trip. A refrigerator, and at the very least a microwave, was a must.

Because we happened to be searching for a weeklong place to stay, starting on a Saturday, all sorts of options appeared that hadn’t during previous trips we’d booked, where we stayed places for just a few nights rather than a whole week. We had looked for lodging in the same town previously and found very little available. That was because we didn’t do a Saturday-Saturday search, which we later learned was essential for this type of lodging.

The search turned up dozens of apartments, but this was different from Airbnb or VRBO, where individuals rent out part or all of their individual apartments. These condo hotels were often family-owned businesses for generations, and whole buildings were designed as short-term apartment rentals.

We’d previously stayed in an individual's apartment rental in Venice and regretted it. Not just because on the last night we were moved into the owner’s apartment, where other people were also staying, or  because there was no hot water at his apartment. There were signs around town protesting that short-term rentals made housing unaffordable for locals, so we felt bad contributing to this problem.

We carefully selected our lodging, the Ben Sté Residence in Ortisei, Italy, because it had a full kitchenette, including dishes and cookware, and was a few blocks from the center of town. We could easily walk to a bus stop, restaurants, and the grocery store, but were far enough from the town center that it was very quiet throughout the day and night.

Saturday afternoon was move-in day for everyone, as new guests were greeted, shown to their rooms, and given a parking space if requested. The following Saturday morning was move-out day, when people loaded their cars and the cleaning staff rushed in to prepare for the next week’s guests. The proprietor lived in town and offered her phone number in case we needed anything, but there was no regular desk clerk or daily housekeeping service. When we texted late in the week to see if she could print out the results of our negative COVID tests for the flight home, she brought them right to our door soon after we sent them to her.

Traveling to another country and staying in an apartment for a week allows for a traveler to “make the familiar strange,” a dictum that guides the work of ethnographers. Ethnography is traditionally a method used by anthropologists, who immerse themselves in the culture of a group to learn what it is like to be a member. Sociologists often use this method to observe interactions between group members, spending months or years embedded in the research setting. With travel, we usually have a much shorter time frame, but the tools of ethnography can help us learn more about what it is like to be a local.

It helps that the familiar is strange when you are somewhere where people speak another language. Basic interactions can be challenging, especially if you aim to communicate in the local language, as I regularly do. As I wrote about previously, it can be very humbling to stumble over basic requests, providing new appreciation for people who come to the U.S. and must learn English. Many people in Italy speak some English, so it was always a fallback option in case I couldn’t communicate.

In one sandwich shop, I had a question that I just couldn’t translate into Italian and asked, “Parla inglese (do you speak English)?” “Un po’ (a little),” replied the woman behind the counter. That gave me license to mix in English words when I didn’t know the Italian word, while still using Italian when I could. She smiled and enthusiastically and said, “Sì, sì (yes, yes),” when she understood my order.

We got the sandwiches we wanted. They came without condiments, and I took several packets of what I hoped were mustard or mayo from the counter. They were sugar, salt, and artificial sweetener. She must have wondered what I would do with those, and I felt a bit embarrassed after taking a good look at them with my glasses on. I came to learn that this way of eating a sandwich can be delicious, especially when heated up, so no more looking for condiments during the trip.

When you have a kitchen and plan on eating at “home,” you need to pay a visit to the grocery store. This has been one of my favorite experiences of travel—sometimes even in different regions of the U.S. stores stock very different items. First, most of the grocery stores I have been to in Italy are much smaller than the huge supermarkets we have in the U.S. There were lots and lots of fresh cheeses, pastas, and the cured meat speck, a type of pork similar to prosciutto, a staple in the region we stayed in. On a previous visit, an innkeeper sounded surprised that Americans didn’t have slices of speck for breakfast too (cured meats are a common breakfast food in many parts of Europe). I didn’t have the heart to tell her we just learned what speck was during that trip.

Produce choices were more limited. The square footage devoted to produce in my local grocery store was nearly the same size as the entire market in Ortesei. There were a few different choices of fruits and vegetables, and some items that I typically see were missing entirely. For instance, there were no baby carrots, instead big carrots with the stems on that I now seldom see in American supermarkets, except in areas where people buy them for their horses.

You are not supposed to touch any of the produce (this was the rule pre-COVID too), but instead use the plastic bags supplied to select and store your choices. You then have to weigh the produce on your own, and print a sticker from the scale to present to the cashier. When you check out, you will be charged for each plastic bag you are required to use, and you are expected to bag your own groceries. If you don’t have your own bags, you will be charged for those too.

Some small storefront shops sold only produce. If the market’s selection didn’t meet your needs, there was a farmer’s market twice a week. We perused both, and while the farmer’s market wasn’t too different from those we have here at home, a small shop with a few bins of locally grown fruits and vegetables was different. How can they afford to pay rent selling apples and lettuce, I wondered?

These are just a few examples of things you might observe while being a temporary local. When the familiar is strange, travel becomes a learning experience—in this case, a delicious one.


Travel is an important part of our life and I think this is the best way to create positivity in life. Travel to new places in the world is also a way to learn about new things in the world. I think it is best for health.

For example, Scott said that intentionally misleading others might have positive results, since it "glosses over the fractures of difficult ties and contributes to the seamless orchestration of daily life" (p. 275).

thanks for sharing!

Thank you for the article you shared. But I have a question: What is the difference between this text and a short travelogue? Can we really call this ethnography? As you mentioned, ethnography is immersing in the life of a group so that we can get a deep understanding and analysis of their behavior. Do we reach such a deep understanding in such writings?
I, of course, have just started writing travel ethnography myself. But I have exactly the same problems: where is the border between travelogue and ethnography? Since when can we say that this travelogue is close to ethnography? And many other similar questions.

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