“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.”
― G.K. Chesterton
As I reflect on my time spent in Amsterdam and Berlin, I remember the tourist sites- the places full of crowds wielding selfie-sticks and maps. Touring the Anne Frank house, taking a boat tour through the Amsterdam canals, and getting a panorama view of the city at the top of the Berlin Cathedral were once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
But I also had meaningful moments that were not part of these large, orchestrated tourist events.
One night, my group was invited to attend a “second look tour” put together by members of a youth organization in Berlin called Gangway. Gangway works with youth through street college workshops. Students who might not perform well in formal education settings can learn skills through other means like art, rap, music production, and dance. The students created a tour for people who visited Berlin but wanted to get away from the touristy souvenir shops and sites. The tour took us to the more authentic Berlin; we explored the places where these young people live. We learned about their favorite parts of their neighborhoods, the challenges the faced, and what daily life looked like for them.
The students of the program created an interactive map where people can see their neighborhoods and hear them rap about their experiences.
The most thought-provoking thing I saw was a house built in the middle of a neighborhood to protest the rising costs of rent due to gentrification. The locals who were giving the tour talked about personal instances of resistance in the community as corporations moved in and the poor had to move out. The area is very similar to parts of Detroit — a somewhat artsy, edgy space that was once home to starving artists and is now becoming a cool place for young, wealthy professionals to settle. We also saw a McDonalds that took 5 years to build because each night after the construction workers built part of the structure, neighborhood activists would come and tear it down. They fought the construction every step of the way. I truly got a feel for the grit, strong-willed, tight-knit, take-action attitude in this area of Berlin that made it unique. I would have missed this without the tour from people who lived in this area for all of their lives. People in my GCC group are working on a similar project with Detroit, where visitors can hear about the city from youth in the area and view neighborhoods that might not be on TripAdvisor.
I encourage all people traveling to find ways to get personal. My professor, Dr. Larry Gant, refers to this new type of observation as “looking out of the sides of your eyes.” Instead of focusing on the visible, flashy things made for tourists to spend money, seek out the local perspective. Maybe this means getting lost for a little bit and getting outside of the city center. When possible, talk to locals to hear the real story. The tourists sites are cool but the personal stories are what you remember.