This week we caught up with Sam, one of the great guides we work with, to talk about his experience as a private guide in Berlin:
Q: Would you like to introduce yourself?
I am Sam. I’m a tall English person who was born between the rolling hills of the South Downs and the seaside in West Sussex. I have a bachelor’s degree from King’s College London and moved to Berlin in 2012 having become jaded with life in London. Aside from being a guide I’m also a writer, mostly working on my own fiction but also for small publications here and there in the city. I spend my spare time studying Aikido and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, making pizza, and hiking in beautiful places.
Q: What inspired you to become a guide?
Honestly, I rather fell into tour guiding. I was finishing up in an editorial role that wasn’t stimulating me anymore and was looking for an active job that allowed me to indulge my interests for the summer. I had friends who were guides, and through them ended up becoming one myself. So I guess it’s more a case of what inspired me to continue working as a guide: the freedom; the active and social nature of the job; the storytelling; my keen interest in German history; the forever changing nature of the city; other guides that I have learnt from. Those are but a few of the things that keep me inspired.
Q: Have many tours have you led?
No idea. I’ve been guiding since 2013 and on a full-time basis since 2014. I’m going to give an educated guess and say around a thousand. I mean, who counts the number of days that they go to work? I know I don’t.
Q: Which tours do you specialise in?
Q: Can you remember your first tour?
Yes, vividly. I was rather dropped in the deep end, so to speak. I was working as a chaperone, bringing a group of tourists to meet their actual guide for a public tour – my first tour with that particular company was scheduled for later that week. The group turned out to be enormous and company policy was to split large groups between two guides. Thus I was persuaded to conduct my first ever tour then and there on the spot. I’d prepared, obviously, but wasn’t prepared to do it that particular day. After a shaky start I found my groove, then got a migraine half-way through and couldn’t really see and felt very nauseous for the second portion of the tour.
Q: Can you recall a particularly memorable (positive) experience from your tours?
Generally speaking, all my tours are positive experiences for me – otherwise I wouldn’t be working as a guide at all. Very recently I did a tour made up of several different groups of people. One group had two young girls, aged 4 and 7 I believe, with them. The tour was 6 hours long, and at the very end I asked the entire group a question pertaining to an explanation I’d given much earlier in the tour. No one could answer and then the elder of the two girls put her hand up and answered the question perfectly. Everyone gave her a round of applause. It was wonderful.
Q: If you were to visit Berlin again for the first time what three things would you want to experience again for the first time?
Walking into the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park for sure. The place is just so overwhelming, I’d love to experience the awe of seeing it for the first time again. I’d also, were I a bit younger, like to experience Berlin’s nightlife for the first time again. I remember it being so different and so much more exciting than anything I’d ever encountered before elsewhere. And for number three I’m going cheat and say a few restaurants/foodie places that I’d like to rediscover for the first time: Stranero, Lava and Thai Park.
Q: Do you have a particular book or movie about Berlin that you like to recommend to clients? Why?
The book I usually recommend to people is Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada. I think the novel paints a great, if bleak, picture of the lives of regular citizens under National Socialism – the quiet heroism of some, the ruthless opportunism of others. I also have a lot of time for the BBC three-part documentary Berlin by Matt Frei – the narrative is really well crafted and weaves together different aspects and eras of Berlin’s history deftly. More recently I’ve been getting into the TV series Babylon Berlin, and always recommend people binge on that. It perfectly captures the excess, the sex, the nihilism, the economic hardship and the political instability and intrigue of 1920s Weimar Berlin.
Q: What advice would you give a new guide?
Be yourself. It sounds cliché to say so but that’s what I always tell people when I’m training them. Find your own voice, share your personality with people – that’s when they will relate to you. You will communicate more effectively if you speak with your own words about something you have a passion for, and for me communication is the most important thing about being a guide.
Q: Which Berlin museum do you think would be the best to spend the night in? (If you were accidentally locked in and giving the chance to explore)
I’m going to go with my heart here and say the Natural History Museum. I’m basically a big kid, and still really just want to spend my time looking at giant creatures that don’t exist anymore pretending that they still exist. There’s the massive dinosaur skeleton in the entry hall, all the taxidermy, and the endless halls of bizarre sea creatures set in formaldehyde and illuminated by spooky green light. Plus their solar system exhibit is wonderful during the day – in the dark of night and with no one else around to bother you it would be spectacular.
Q: Do you have any memorable client stories from your tours?
One particular example springs to mind. I had an elderly gentleman on one of my tours who had been born in a concentration camp. His mother was a Polish Catholic who had sheltered Jews and was deported for doing so. He spent the first seven years of his life in the KZ – first as an infant prisoner and then several more years as a displaced person when the camp was converted after the war ended. He finally managed to emigrate to the US. His mother had already died. His wife had brought him back to Germany, to Berlin first then to the site of the former KZ, for catharsis. He obviously and understandably still held a lot of anger and in many ways was quite challenging to deal with as he was quite disruptive for the other guests. Ultimately though he became comfortable enough to share his story with the group. It was a special moment.
Q: What’s the best tour you’ve ever taken, as a tourist, and why?
I spent two months travelling around the Balkans in 2015 and in Mostar, Bosnia took an all-day tour organised by the hostel I was staying at on recommendation from a friend. It was incredible. Bata, the man who led the tour, was a force of nature. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone so entertaining and with such infectious energy before or since. We loaded up in his van and cross-crossed Mostar and the surrounding countryside. We swam in waterfalls, ate börek hot off the coals, drank homemade tea and cordials with a grandma in a near-abandoned village and wandered through partisan monuments. Bata was by turns hilarious and serious, challenging our perceptions on the breakup of Yugoslavia. The tour ran from ‘Majda’s Hostel’ (run by his sister) in Mostar. Go stay there, go do Bata’s tour.