What is it about travel that you love? Taking a break? Recharging your batteries? Or is it experiencing a new place, new culture, and new people?
For me it has almost been the latter. Although relaxing by the pool is very nice, I bore of that very quickly and yearn to seek out more ‘local’ experiences (and eats!) when I travel. But what does that really mean?
I was fortunate enough to get to examine this by spending a month in Berlin with my good friend Sherry Ott of Ottsworld as guests of Go with Oh short term apartment rentals and be a part of what they called “Living La Vida Local” – an experiment to play around with this theme and investigate what it means, at least to me.
Getting Local vs. Being a Local
Of course, I think it is subjective and each traveler’s definition is different. And that’s just fine. I believe there is no way to actually be a local in a few months or even a few years. You really have to live in a place to be able to experience more of the issues and bureaucratic stuff, and have time for some of the sheen of the ‘nice’ people to possibly wear off…or the opposite, to be really let ‘in’ and make real friends. But to try to get more local is doable and here’s how I attempted it.
For me, the surest way to get more local is to…meet locals. Period. No matter how much I read in a guidebook and walk around and observe, I can’t truly get to know a place and its people without talking to them. Through locals you can not only find out where they live and where they eat, but what’s important to them, what they worry about and what makes them happy. I’ve had eye opening and enlightening talks with locals around the world – it’s these memories that stick with me more than any sight I have seen.
The first thing we did was get an apartment. Go with Oh provided us with a lovely flat in Friedrichshain, a neighborhood in former East Berlin full of artists, dreamers, tattooed and pierced activists, young people, and some older East Berliners. Living in a neighborhood rather than right in the city center is a great start to feeling more a part of the city as a ‘normal’ citizen and not a tourist. Also, being able to unpack my bag and not feel transient, nad having a kitchen in which to make meals definitely makes me feel more at home.
Having a Roommate
Something I am not used to since I am always traveling alone or live alone when home in Chicago, I am happy to report I fared well with having a roomie. Sherry and I both have some similar styles – especially how much we both have to work while traveling. So although we wanted to always get out and see and do, there was no pressure from each other (just self-induced pressure) to get off our laptops. We easily understood that it was our job. Just as others are in an office 9-5, we might have to be in our home office working just the same…or longer. We enjoyed some meals together and even had some movie nights, which I love as it makes me definitely feel more homey and relaxed.
I enjoy a mixture of going out and staying in and don’t feel the need to go, go, go when I’m traveling or else I will burn out. Traveling to me, doesn’t mean partying every night. It actually never has. I like to go out and have fun and meet people but also need days/nights to recharge my batteries and get centered again. I’ve never been one to feel like I am “missing out” if I am not partying ‘til dawn.
Sherry was a great listener and sounding board for some work frustrations or personal struggles. Being away this entire month in Berlin, came at a good time for me when I actually needed an escape…to clear my brain from accumulated fuzz and dust from the last year.
Working and Traveling
I did notice that because my freelance career has ramped up much more now than when I was originally traveling around the world, I now have a much harder time with that live/work balance. Whereas when I traveled before, I was much more free to go explore and wander much of the time and write about it only if and when the mood struck. Now I feel a bit of a reverse flip and have to work more than I am able to wander. And that can be frustrating. But then I remember how lucky I am to do what I love. If I do want to survive in this new life of making less and spending less, then I have to work a lot while I travel and that’s okay!
It’s About the People
So despite having a lot of work to do, I tried to meet up with as many new and old friends as I could. I scheduled lunches with some new Berlin locals and expats. I met up with an old German friend of mine who lives in Hanover. The cool thing is that we met 6 1/2 years ago during my first month of my 3-year RTW trip when I had no idea what my life would become! We originally met on a bus in Costa Rica and ended up sharing a room together. It was the first time I had done that with a stranger and he couldn’t have been a nicer guy. And still is today! More proof to me that travel (and life!) is all about the relationships we form and connections we make.
The best way for me to get more local is to meet locals. And the quickest way for me to do this has always been Couchsurfing. Since I already had a place to sleep, I used it in Berlin during my visit just to meet some locals and travelers for dinner. I am happy to find there is still something so special about this community that wherever I go, I can easily fit in with a group of new friends who openly welcome me. It is sometimes hard to describe this “inclusive” feeling I get from Couchsurfers – but that is what it is all about — being open and wanting to meet new people.
We also invited locals and bloggers over to our flat for a couple of dinner parties. There is nothing better than sharing food, wine, and conversation no matter where I am in the world. Being invited into someone’s home ups the ante even more, so being able to do this for our new friends was great. I will have an upcoming post (natch) about all my food adventures in this international city…so stay tuned for that.
And, through another writer, I was invited to attend a women’s writers group discussion. This was another lovely way to meet interesting locals with whom I also had a lot in common.
We had bikes to use all month from Fat Tire. I LOVE the feeling of riding a bike around a foreign city. Something about it gives me more confidence, makes me feel “closer” to the city, and makes me feel more local. The only problem we had? The weather. Unfortunately, it decided to snow most of March so we barely got to ride at all due to snow on all the sidewalks…even trickier to navigate when you don’t know the streets so well. This was pretty much a fail.
Since I couldn’t ride my bike around town, I got pretty familiar with the public transport system. I love maps and trains and using the subway everywhere I travel. Living on the east side of Berlin, there are also these awesome trams snaking through the streets. I figured out our local tram early on and then started to ride more of them, even taking them farther out on my own little custom tour just to see how the neighborhoods and landscapes changed. Riding with the Berlin masses on the S-Bahn and U-bahn just feels like real life to me. Knowing where I’m going and not getting lost helps too!
We took a few tours (being a local does NOT mean you can’t get to know the city more!) too. I really enjoyed the underground bunker tour with Berliner Unterwelten. It was a fascinating look inside life during the Cold War and how so unprepared they would have been if some kind of nuclear fall out happened. There were 23 bunkers in Berlin, which meant that less than 1% of the population had some chance of survival. Those aren’t very good odds for the Berliners. In the one bunker we explored, there was a filtration system installed, but if the power went out (um, kinda likely in the event of an atomic bomb), there was no backup generator. Another bunker was a u-bahn stop that could convert into a bunker. In fourteen days, the bunker would automatically open to let the survivors out. But sadly, if there had been any nuclear fall out while they were underground, they’d now die from the residual radiation anyway. So in essence, all of this was more to give the public psychological hope. One morbid travel marketing poster announced: “Buchen sie eine reise nach Europa solange es Europa noch gibt.”
Translated: “Book a trip to Europe as long as it is still there.”
Another fascinating tour took us up into the beautiful Grunewald Forest (love all the green forest and parks surrounding Berlin) to the eerie Teufelsberg. This former US spy station was used to collect intelligence from the Soviets in East Berlin. Nowadays, the abandoned buildings create a pretty eerie vibe.
Since I lived in East Berlin and have stayed there every time during my three visits to this city, I really wanted to discover the west side some so I took a Get Your Guide tour of West Berlin. We saw the posh shopping strip Kufursdam and some of the quieter residential streets of Schöneberg where a memorial to the Jews hangs from many of the street lamps there. It was pretty interesting despite, the fact that I was the only fool to show up on such a snowy, frigid day. My toes were numb ice blocks by the end…so I can’t say it left me with a warm feeling or that I absorbed as much as I wanted to.
After one month, I certainly knew my way around, could use the subway easily, could shop, and use the post office. I had become familiar with many of the local Berlin websites and blogs which is a pretty fast way to get dialed in to the city. I had picked up some German, and could use basic communication with shop keepers, etc.
While I was able to immerse in the city some, I have to say I wasn’t able to do it as much as I wanted. For one, a month is just too quick. Between work deadlines and other appointments, four weeks can fly by and certainly isn’t enough time to start to get a rhythm and to really develop friendships.
I had hoped to take German classes as I feel the language is intertwined with the culture and is a key way of fitting in more and having locals treat you more like one their own. There’s no need to be an expert and fluent (which would take a long time with German), but to be able to communicate some is respectful and enriches your experiences. Due to work and schedule conflicts, the classes I’d hoped to take didn’t pan out.
With desire and action, I believe it is possible to get more local. But you have to have time and dedication. Travel slow, talk to people, but more importantly, LISTEN to people. I love asking questions and just sitting back and hearing all about them.
Want to delve deeper in how we go local? Check out this fun chat we did with Sean Keener of Boots n All:
This is a series of posts on Berlin. Stay tuned for a food photo essay next (you didn’t think I’d get ‘local’ without food being a major focus, did you??)!