I wrote this during my first 2 weeks in Berlin, and am just now getting around to posting it. Enjoy!
Thanks to an amazingly interesting but all too brief talk I attended by the utterly fabulous Toma Haines (aka: The Antiques Diva) I learned about the aristocratic Grand Tour of Europe that was a staple of centuries past. Young Richie Riches would scamper about the continent soaking in all the cultures they encountered and searching for the perfect representation of them that often came in the form of a piece of art, furniture, or something else unique-ish and loaded with meaning to remind them of their tour upon returning. These pieces brought the young nobles and their families’ joy for years to come and were investments in future happiness, or at least that is one interpretation of what they were. You could also say that they were collected as bragging pieces for those who could afford not only to go out and find them, but also to bring them home and use them as parlor discussion pieces while the downstairs lot brought them their every wish and did all the dirty work. Let me stop the speculation before I tumble into grumblings of a skeptical and somewhat jealous sort. The grand tours of yesteryear sound absolutely amazing to most and were absolutely out of reach for the vast majority of the world at that time when the 99% was mostly living in squalor. The Grand Tour of Europe (GTE) most definitely still exists, though in a slightly different incarnation than those of bygone days. I have recently witnessed this new GTE firsthand, and this is my report from the Berlin stop. <Note: GTE should not be confused with the completely unrelated GTL!>
I was on the hunt for an apartment upon arriving in Berlin, so I booked 2 weeks in a youth hostel that had a free WIFI and a good reputation. I cannot recommend Wombat’sYouth Hostel highly enough. The atmosphere is amazing, and the staff is wonderfully friendly and all of them speak perfect German and English, with many speaking a third language such as Italian, Spanish, French, or Swedish to name a few. The facilities are outstanding, and they even have a cheap breakfast in an attached restaurant. All in all, this was one of the best decisions I made when I came here. The rooms were all cleaned daily and the sheets were free, which is more than I can say for other hostels where I have stayed previously. They really have thought of almost everything, including having a walking tour of the city pick you up at the hostel and having a bar upstairs in case you just want to consort with other travelers. I really loved my 2 weeks there, though I was very stressed out trying to find an apartment the entire time while being surrounded by young adults almost all on their GTE and having a great time.
This brings me to my point about the new GTE. Though I’m sure that in the bygone era of GTE there was plenty of wild partying and hedonism to be had, this seemed to me a different flavor. The magnificence of the GTE has to be experiencing things that you could never find at home and to trying to come to an understanding that there are an infinite possibility of ways that things can be accomplished and expectations for them. This GTE that I observed was more about not only blowing off steam, such as the many I saw who were in their gap year between school and work were doing, but also about collecting stories and self-discovery. Yes, there was an amazing amount of hedonism and copious amounts of alcohol being thrown around, but underneath it all, the undercurrent of it all seemed to be this quest for discovery and a brain filled with stories of wild youthful indiscretions and explorations. Many of these 20-something travelers had saved for years to be able to come on their expedition to the “old country,” and they most assuredly are going to have the best time of their lives. I met amazingly interesting travelers from all over the world, some more interesting than others, but all essentially searching for the same thing: an experience unlike they could find at home. All of these kids from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA, Brazil, China, etc etc etc are not going to be taking home any amazing artifacts from their journeys. The GTE of today is not about collecting things to remind you of your trip, rather, the stories are now the collection.
This most assuredly has something to do with the relative accessibility of this type of journey through a greater access to cheap travel options, and the shrinking of the world and all that fun stuff. I’m not going to even try to account for all of the reasons that there seem to be so many people from so many different walks of life (read: economic classes) participating in this new GTE. I went on my very own GTE as a young 20-something…several years ago, and the flavor of the tour hasn’t changed that much in the past __ahem__ years. What was different for me was the communication and continued connections with home. Part of the joy of the GTE for me personally, was being cut-off from home and trying to figure out how to navigate a whole new place all by myself. For me it was about learning to be self-sufficient and getting around in a place that I didn’t speak the language. The current GTE is much different, at least as I saw it in my hostel in Berlin.
The GTE kids in the hostel were very much connected and in communication with home, at all hours of the day. You could come to the lobby and see someone on their computer or phone skyping with their parents or friends back home. People were constantly checking their email and updating their twitter/blog accounts with stories from last night, as long as they weren’t too sick to actually sit-up and type. The iPhone and iPad were indispensable for these travelers who could happily look up the address of the place they wanted to visit put it into Google and watch as a blue dot guided them around a map to their desired destination. I marveled at their ability to move around without ever really having to ask random strangers on the street for directions. As a mother, I find the ability to communicate with home both comforting and a little sad. It is comforting knowing that by the time my girls are on their adventures it will probably be even easier and cheaper, and I’ll be able to check up on them and help them whenever they need it. The idea of constant communication is sad however, because I want them to be able to trust them and my parenting skills enough to know that it is important for them to not only learn self-sufficiency and independence, but to actively engage it. Isn’t that part of the point of the GTE in the first place? It was for me anyway.
What was most impressive about the kids that I met at the hostel on their GTE, was their openness and changing opinions based on their contacts with everyone they encountered. A constant source of conversation, small cultural differences were always interesting to discuss. All longed for the familiar and were happy to dispel myths about their homelands at every turn. They understood that cultural differences were primarily superficial and would happily laugh at the stereotypes about their own culture. In the years since I was on my GTE, the stereotypes of Americans have not changed very much at all, which makes me laugh and fondly remember my own perpetuation of these stereotypes at one time. (I’m not going to enumerate them here, as I should keep a few secrets for myself!) I still very sincerely believe that a GTE, or at least travel (to whichever destination you choose) is an essential component to any education, and I will force my children to go on travel adventures! (Obviously, we’re starting them out young with this trip!) Some things never change, and the individual, societal, and cultural benefits of travel are some of these eternal truths that I’ve found in my exploration here.