The man looks at me shyly, and then looks away. I smile politely and go on talking to Lisa while holding on to one of the handles in the Ubahn (Berlin’s subway system) as the subway car jerks around I sway with the movement. Soon the young man stands up and says ‘Excuse me’ with a foreign accent – I smile, he was clearly a visitor to Berlin like myself. He proceeded to ask me directions about which subway stop he needed to get off at. I thought about it and then rattled off the answer as if I were a local. As he got off the subway he once again thanked me and we exchanged polite good-byes.
Inside I beamed with pride – the fact that a tourist had asked me for directions in a city I was also considered a tourist in meant one thing to me – I was fitting in. And after a month in Berlin trying to understand what ‘living local’ meant to me I realized that fitting in was the root of what I desired when I throw around the term ‘traveling local’. Granted, I’m sure he knew that I wasn’t a local Berliner, but apparently I looked at ease and confidant enough to ask about directions. I must have looked like I knew my way around – and quite frankly – I did. We were riding ‘my’ subway line – the U5 – the one I took practically every day from my apartment in Friedrichshain. Maybe , just maybe, my Living La Vida Local experiment was working.
After living and breathing the travel industry for the last 6 years I come across the term ‘local’ more and more. It’s the new trendy travel word that everyone is throwing around. When Lisa Lubin, Go with Oh Holiday Apartments, and I decided to team up and look into this concept further I honestly had no idea what I would find. I always knew that local experiences were very important to me as I traveled – but I had never really thought about why they were important or how I go about finding them. So we put on our labcoats and the experiment began – we would have one month in Berlin, to understand and find local experiences. We set up a base in a Go with Oh apartment in Friedrichshain, threw a few dinner parties, got a local transportation pass, and set out to observe, ask questions, and simply live and explore like I would normally. We did daily journals on our experiments that you can see here on the Go With Oh Lab page – and of course I’ll be writing more extensively about these experiences over the next few weeks.
I quickly learned that I needed to reel myself in on this topic and put some boundaries to it – this experiment for me was not about how to be an expat or how to live in a place – that’s a whole different ball game. Instead, I wanted to think about this in the sense of a traveler – a visitor for some period to the city. My visits to cities may be 4 days or 4 weeks – it doesn’t matter. But as a visitor is it ever really possible to have true local experiences, and more importantly – why exactly do I want to have local experiences – what am I after?
I tried to examine my thoughts on the subject by answering a few questions throughout the month:
What does it mean, practically, to have local travel experiences?
For me it means that I fit into a culture and don’t stand out like a tourist. I want to explore a city and go unnoticed, fitting into its natural ebb and flow. The most horrific thing for me to view is big tour groups following around a guide holding a paddle with a number on it – and them with their matching number stickers on their shirts – there is nothing natural about that.
I want to be a part of a culture – yet I know that without the language skills I will never likely really fit in – but that doesn’t mean that I can’t still experience the culture in a more local way. I want to connect – get a feel for a place beyond its tourist sites and historical stories. I actually love to travel in the present – and spend more time learning about how people operate now rather than the past.
I look for a unique experience in a location. Deep in my core I’m always looking for something new and I think that’s probably the root of my quest – I don’t want to do what all of the other tourists are doing and seeing. It’s easy to skim the surface of a country as a tourist, but it’s more challenging to dig into a country or location – I’m after the challenge I guess.
Others I talked to said that for them it’s about meeting other locals, or being able to converse with locals in their language. These are also things I enjoy – but after thinking about this for a month I realize the core of what local means to me has to do with fitting in.
Where and how do you find local experiences?
Riding local transport and shopping at grocery stores are two of the easiest and quickest ways to fit in for me. I was once told that the less money you spend, the closer to the ground you travel and I have to agree 100%. Taking cabs and going out to eat every day is easy – and costly. But having to figure out your way around a city via local transport (bike, subway, buses, trams, by foot) and shopping for your own groceries is a real adventure – and you will definitely meet and observe locals along the way!
I did successfully master the transportation system in Berlin, I had a month pass and could get anywhere – however my biking experience was a big fail thanks to the weather. Even though I had a bike in Berlin via Fat Tire Bikes, it snowed most of the month making it about impossible to ever really use it. I only used the bike 3 times the whole month – and it was cold! However I can safely say that there weren’t many other tourists out riding bikes around Berlin this March – so I definitely felt more local – albeit freezing.
I think one of the best ways to have/find local experiences is to actually meet locals who will show you around. I was lucky enough to have a few friends in Berlin to do that for me. By meeting with locals outside of a tour situation but instead as more of a social situation is a great way to learn about fitting in. My friend Sam not only showed me around a few neighborhoods by foot. As we caught up on each other’s lives he peppered in a little history and trivia about the area. It was casual, relaxed, and I felt as if I fit in like a local as I walked around with Sam. I also took any opportunities I could to make new local friends like Anthony and Thomas who I met at a travel conference the first week I was in Berlin.
Reading local (English) magazines and newspapers as well as attending local events is also a great way to get more immersed. However do be aware that when you try to go off the tourist track to find more meaty experiences then you also run the risk of more disappointment and struggle. I experienced this at the Long Night at the Museums event in Berlin. I picked up a brochure about the event and how it worked and went by myself. I knew what I was getting myself into – I wanted the challenge – but after 3 strikes , the cold weather, getting lost, not being able to read the brochure/decipher it, and frustration of the challenge of communication – I just gave up half way through and went home instead.
Having local travel experiences doesn’t mean that you can’t be a tourist and go on tours and see sites. I did plenty of sight seeing during my month in Berlin. However many of the tours I took were lesser known and more about the current culture or a specific neighborhood. I went on a great evening neighborhood tour of Prenzlauerberg’s restaurant scene with Gastro Rallye . For an evening a guide led us around the neighborhood stopping at restaurants and learning more about the local restaurant and bar scene while eating and sampling the food. I also went on an excellent and extensive Vive Berlin tour of Kreuzberg with a local Berliner/historian who focused on helping me understand the unique culture of the neighborhood before and after the wall, the gentrification concerns, and the current East Side Gallery controversy.
As an attempt to find more local experiences, I went on a lot of German based tours which is an interesting and effective way to meet other locals or other Germans. Since I didn’t speak the language I normally took a German speaking friend along with me to help translate, or many times the guide or other guests spoke enough English to get me by. By doing more German based tours, I actually met more locals and learned more about the city
However on the other hand there are many tours out there that are just that – regular tours packed full of tourists teaching you the history of a city like the Berliner Unterwelten tour I took. There’s nothing wrong with these – but they probably didn’t get me any closer to being local – even if the marketing material did tout that the tour was led by a ‘local guide’. I still enjoyed them and learned more about the city that way.
Do people actually want realistic, local travel experiences?
For me one of my biggest joys of traveling and staying somewhere is doing the mundane things – but I’m not like most travelers. Figuring out the grocery store, learning how to get around, finding a jewelry repair store, understanding how garbage pickup works – most people don’t want to deal with this stuff when they are on vacation. Therefore I personally think that vacationers aren’t necessary looking to LIVE local – but they want to MEET locals. Whereas travelers do have more of a desire to live like a local.
The definition of ‘local’ is different for everyone. There is a trend towards using the term ‘local’ in much of the travel marketing today as that’s what the industry thinks people want. And quite frankly marketing campaigns are great at making you think you want something. Thanks to this, the local trend will continue to grow in my opinion. In addition, as more and more people travel the world and tick sights off their lists, they too will start to look for something different out of their travels.
Does staying in a rental apartment make it easier or more difficult to achieve?
I firmly believe this answer to be “easier” – staying in a rental apartment it is one of the better ways to have more local experiences. From shopping to learning about the local recycling processes and schedule – you can’t help but learn more about the day to day lives of Berliners. And typically by staying in a holiday apartment you establish a routine which instantly makes you feel more local.
However – I also think that staying with locals is a great way to get more immersed in a culture – and that can be achieved by services like Airbnb.com and Couchsurfing.org too.
Motels and Hostels just don’t offer as much exposure to the locals as apartments and these other local lodging options. You have to work harder at finding local experiences if you are staying in traditional accommodation.
After a month in Berlin – what’s the conclusion – was I more local?
Will I ever be a local in Berlin – no. Will I ever fit in and have local experiences in Berlin – yes. This is exactly what my month in Berlin was about – fitting into the local environment and finding some unique experiences.
I was successful in some areas such as transportation, understanding various neighborhoods, meeting locals, and learning the ins/outs of grocery shopping in Berlin. However I failed in others such as learning the language (not even a little) and establishing a routine.
Overall – The experiment was fun and a success! I think I did learn more about the Berliner culture, and I definitely felt like I fit in more after spending a month in the apartment and had a number of local travel experiences. But in order to really be living like a local – you need more time than a month in my opinion.
I’d love your opinion on these questions – feel free to answer in the comments below:
1. What does it mean, practically, to have local travel experiences?
2. Where and how do you find local experiences?
3. Do people actually want realistic, local travel experiences?
4. Does staying in a rental apartment make it easier or more difficult to achieve?
Want to see what my roommate, Lisa Lubin, concluded – then check out her wrap up post here
This topic isn’t finished – over the next two weeks you’ll be getting a lot more details about some of my attempts at local experiences so stay tuned!
Disclosure: The Living la Vida Local experiment is in partnership with Go with Oh. However all opinions expressed are my own.