Bicultural Urbanite Brianna Walk this way: Tour Guiding in Berlin

Tourists taking photos on an Alternative Berlin walking tour.
Tourists taking photos on an Alternative Berlin walking tour. | © Brianna Summers

The year is 2008. You’re young, new in Berlin and your German vocabulary consists of ‘Guten Tag’ and phrases gleaned from ‘Inspector Rex’. Your employment options are fairly limited, but you’re so determined to stay that you’ll happily serve beers to noisy backpackers or scrub toilets to make it happen.

These days it’s a lot easier for monolingual Australians to find meaningful work in Berlin, thanks in part to the burgeoning start-up scene, but back then, your best bets for scoring an income (and a visa) were to start teaching English or to become a tour guide.

I first came into contact with Berlin’s English-speaking tour-guiding diaspora over ten years ago, when I was working as a receptionist at a youth hostel. Guides dropped in every day to pick up guests for their free walking tours. For some, the work was simply a means to an end. They spent their tips on cheap booze and EasyJet weekends before moving back home after a year or two. Others, however, have built careers around the perambulatory promotion of German history and are still here today.

Bicycle tour guide Merren at Tempelhofer Feld. Bicycle tour guide Merren at Tempelhofer Feld. | © Merren McClean Taylor and Merren are two such guides. Originally from Victoria, these successful chameleons have adapted to their new environment and found their ideal niche. They’re passionate about showing holidaymakers around their adopted home and although they occasionally toy with the idea of getting a “real job”, both doubt they will ever return to Australia.

TEACH ENGLISH, WORK IN A BAR, OR BECOME A TOUR GUIDE

Nearly every day at work, someone asks Taylor how he ended up in Berlin. “And it’s not even a good story,” he claims. “I just came here as a tourist and I loved it.” After arriving in 2009, he was impressed by how Berlin’s extraordinary history is so visible and tangible. On his jogging route he would criss-cross the former border between East and West, marvelling at this everyday interaction with sites that changed the course of history. “Workwise, I didn’t speak any German, so it was either teach English, work in a bar, or become a tour guide,” he explains. After being knocked back by various tour companies, Taylor ended up tapping beers at an Irish pub. After a long cold winter, he was just about to pull the plug and look for a “real job” in the UK when he was finally offered a gig as a walking tour guide.

Walking tour guide Taylor with a group at the Gendarmenmarkt Christmas Market. Walking tour guide Taylor with a group at the Gendarmenmarkt Christmas Market. | © Sophie Banks These days Taylor is grateful that the company took a chance on him despite his lack of historical knowledge. “If you’re skilled, have a history degree, all that sort of stuff, then you can get a job straight off the bat with one of the more reputable companies. But one thing [this company] did do, was they picked up people who maybe had potential and weren’t gonna get a job elsewhere,” he days. Taylor was likely hired on the basis of his performance background (he has a degree in film and theatre), given that keeping your group engaged is just as important as imparting historical facts. He reckons at least half of the English guides he currently works with have tried their hand at either acting or playwriting. “So if you like history and you fail at becoming a professional actor, this is a pretty good second option,” he says.

BERLIN BAPTISM OF FIRE

Merren always had her sights set on Berlin. She and her half-German husband Chris are lucky enough to hold EU passports and were keen to use Berlin as a base to explore Europe. Merren’s grandparents migrated to Australia from Reutlingen in the 1950s and her mother was raised bilingually, so Merren was exposed to German cooking, culture and language from a young age.

Merren with a tour group at the Brandenburg Gate. Merren with a tour group at the Brandenburg Gate. | © Merren McClean Despite her German heritage, when Merren arrived in 2013 her German was “pretty non-existent” and she fell in and out of a variety of jobs. “I did the Berlin baptism of fire, from working for a start-up to working for a [bilingual] kindergarten, I did all that. You know, you just fish around, get a job wherever you can,” she recalls. Merren is incredibly affable and “always up for a beer”, so it’s easy to understand why she describes getting into touring as the best accidental career decision she ever made. Like Taylor, she already had the “entertainment factor”, so simply had to develop her historical knowledge by visiting museums, reading and attending other guides’ tours. She appears to have found the sweet spot between facts and fun: “on tour a couple of years ago a customer called me an infotainer…I don’t know if I’m flattered or not,” she laughs. These days she speaks fluent German and is a Guide Manager.

NO SHORTAGE OF TOURISTS

Despite their disparate backstories and motivations, the two guides share a desire to stay in Berlin and continue pursuing their accidental career path. They find guiding rewarding and fun, yet both made references to the possibility of one day “getting a real job”. “If I go back to Melbourne,” says Merren, “I don’t know if I’ll feel like I should go back to real life and career progression.” Taylor is more adamant about his desire to stay in Europe. If he ever ended up in Australia again, he says he would pursue another line of work, suggesting that Australia’s history pales in comparison to the world-changing events that took place in Berlin: “There is absolutely no way I would be a walking tour guide in Australia. ‘Cause what am I gonna say?”

Berlin’s tourism boom continues unabated. According to Spiegel Online, Berlin is now the third most popular European destination for overnight stays and the number of passengers arriving at Schönefeld Airport has more than doubled in the past ten years. So if they decide to stay, Merren and Taylor will certainly have no shortage of work.