One thing we talk about on this blog a lot is “living like a local,” in a foreign environment. I think it’s really important to try to immerse yourself in local culture when traveling abroad. This is part of why I was so eager to work with Go With Oh in Rome and Berlin: their current Living La Vida Local campaign.
Which got me thinking: how DOES one actually “get local?” In places where I’ve spent months, like London, Xi’an and Buenos Aires, it was really easy to ease into local living. I had a routine, friends, a favorite restaurant or bar. But what about when you’re only somewhere for a week? How do you really delve into the local experience?
If I were going to make a mathematical equation, I would say that the amount of time you spend in a place is proportional to how easy it is to immerse yourself in the culture and personality of said place. So the less time you spend somewhere, the harder it is to get that local experience. Even so, I really tried in Rome, then again in Berlin a couple of weeks later, to get as local as I could in just one week.
In Berlin Go With Oh put me and four other bloggers up in a cozy apartment in Kreuzberg. The place was all white walls and minimalism, very German (or at least how I imagined Germany- this time in Berlin was my first introduction). All they asked of us was that we explore what it meant to “live like a local,” in Berlin.
Here is what I found:
Not surprisingly, the first thing that comes to mind for me is food. Cuisine can offer such an insight into the local culture, history and agriculture of an area. I think it’s one of the quickest and easiest windows into local life.
In Berlin this mainly meant a LOT of international food. Berlin is like the New York City of Europe in terms of it’s international feel: on a typical street you might see Vietnamese, Thai and Moroccan restaurants lined up. And of course kebabs, so many turkish restaurants and kebab shops. So, my local eating consisted of all of these things, plus an interesting mexican-polish fusion dinner that was surprisingly good!
Whenever I take the train or bus in a new city I instantly feel more local than I really am. The anonymity, the routine every day experience that so many people have- it’s an instant equalizer. Plus, most public transport systems are easy to figure out so it’s an instant confidence boost in a new place.
Berlin in particular has a really complicated, absolutely immense public transport system. I was totally paralyzed by it on my first day there but by the end of the week I was taking the U-bahns and S-bahns with (mostly) ease.
Getting to Know Your Neighborhood
I loved our neighborhood, a tree lined canal street in Kreuzberg, one of the most happening, multicultural areas of East Berlin. The day we arrived was warm and sunny and dozens of students sat along the water eating pizza, smoking and chatting. Although the weather didn’t allow that to continue (see below), I still spent loads of time just wandering the neighborhood checking out the cool street art and old buildings.
Meeting the Locals
Probably one of the most important things you can do and one that I am not so great at, particularly on short trips. You can’t really get more “local” than hanging out with people from the area, doing the typical local things.
This trip to Berlin was mostly for business but I did get to go to some local parties and dinners. Mike even went out barhopping and clubbing to experience some of the local night life (I was at home sick of course).
There are a lot of great ways to meet up with locals in a new city, even if you don’t personally know anybody there. The couchsurfing website is a great place to start, as is Meal Sharing (which I haven’t tried but intend to soon). I’ve also met all kinds of people via facebook and twitter.
Local Weather (ugh)
If nothing else you can get the local weather experience without even trying. This is most fun when the weather is pleasant and sunny and people flock to outdoor parks and cafes. We didn’t exactly have that experience in Berlin. The weather was primarily below freezing and snowing- thank goodness we still had all our long johns from Finland! I wasn’t really a fan of the weather but it did give me some insight into what life is like in the city.
I think that living like a local not a long immersive experience necessarily, but small snatches of insight. If you make enough effort to explore, eat and listen, you can grab tiny moments of insight into what local life is all about. It’s fleeting, but it’s one of my favorite things about travel.
How do you get local?
Special thanks to Go With Oh for hosting us in Berlin. All opinions are my own.