He points at me – no, past me. A blast of German.
“The train station is closing”.
I turn around and head back out of the Alexanderplatz U-Bahn, running just far enough ahead of the advancing officials to buy a sandwich from a kiosk. I’m dimly aware I have a good walk ahead of me. How full is my water bottle? Oh – not very. And I’ve had a few beers, so I’ll start dehydrating soon. Maybe I should get a taxi?
NO, says an adventurous, tight-fisted and gently sozzled part of my brain.
I head west, through cool, wide streets draped in mist that looks like bad camera work. The last few days have been bitterly cold but tonight – and I don’t think it’s the beer speaking – it feels much warmer. I have gloves and a woolly hat, I’ve had dinner, I’ve just had something analogous to a croque monsieur but with a distinctly Germanic, sausagey tang to it, and I have a map, a real paper map that won’t run out of power. My hotel is in Charlottenburg. I start walking.
This isn’t a post about that walk. That’s for another time.
This post is about ignorance.
When going somewhere new, I’m never quite sure what to do about the reading. Logically, it should be a no-brainer: pick up a copy of the appropriate Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, Google yourself silly on keyword searches of all the places you’re staying, plunder the blogs of travel bloggers who have been there and done that…fill a notebook really, really full of enthusiastic, tightly-spaced, frequently-underlined scribbling. In short: prepare. And doing anything else is stupid, surely?
But what if “preparing” is really another word for “programming”? One way to improve your chances of having a particular experience is to visualize it beforehand. That’s what pre-reading is meant to do – it focusses you on particular things. Problem is, if you’re (loosely) following a script inside your head, or from a guidebook in your hands, you’re probably less likely to see the things that fall outside that script. And so it could be that you’re less open to what is actually there, right now.
That’s the tension I feel every time I buy a ticket somewhere new. I felt it for Austria in 2011, and put aside my Lonely Planet to see what would happen to my brain, but…I cheated, because I had a good guide to rely on – a safety net that fed me cake until it hurt.
For Berlin, I had that tension forced upon me. I decided to go to ITB at short notice while snowed under with work of all kinds, and I left myself with no room to prepare. I was experiencing Germany like a newborn – which is appropriate, because it’s where I was born, in a British RAF Hospital in 1992*.
And that’s why I walked right across the centre of Berlin, east to west, on a route that 25 years ago would have taken me from the East to the West – or more correctly it wouldn’t, because I’d have been arrested or shot. If I’d done my reading, I’d have learned the operating hours of the Schnellbahn and Untergrundbahn public transport systems, and I might have left the bar I was in before midnight and caught the last train home. I wouldn’t have strained my knee from walking for 3 hours. I wouldn’t have felt like reheated crap the next day.
And I might not have fallen in love with Berlin.
I adore travel guide books. I have a bookcase bulging with them. When I was tooling through the Cyclades, my copy of the Rough Guide To Greece saved me a ton of money and filled my stomach with terrific food. There’s plenty of talk in travel circles about a perceived waning of the usefulness of these guides, using the same arguments laid against paper-based news vs. the online variety. It’s clear that traditional print media is evolving (not dying – that’s an injustice to the many, many veteran writers who have embraced all the different forms of new media, and those who continually stroll back and forth across what some people seem to regard as a Berlin Wall laid across the publishing world). Guide books are going to evolve along with it. What probably isn’t going to change is their quality, which is usually excellent, and their authors, who are exactly the people you should be taking advice from.
It’s my belief that if anyone is visiting somewhere new in the world, the very smartest introduction they can give themselves is to pick up an appropriate guide book (I’ve mentioned my two preferences above). And that isn’t going to change anytime soon.
However. When you go somewhere new, don’t be afraid of putting your guidebook down, folding your map up, turning your smartphone off and ensuring you have absolutely no prompts whatsoever. It’s important. It’s how you feel you’re truly somewhere Foreign and, from your point of view, Unexplored. It’s part of why you travel – to struggle to understand, to experience. Guide books are full of answers, but it’s important to encounter the questions yourself.
So, I went to Berlin, knowing next to nothing about it. And I spent 3 hours walking across a city I only knew from reading John Le Carre and Len Deighton. I missed almost everything there is to learn. I felt faintly stupid.
All I had was what my senses told me.
And they loved it.
* I occasionally lie about my age. It’s just my way. Don’t judge me too hard.