Looking for stories in Berlin

What You Might Be Missing When You Travel To Berlin

I was riding on Berlin's rapid transit system, known as the S-Bahn, when I happened to overhear a chat between a middle aged couple from the States.

A few minutes later, I got off at my station feeling a bit sorry for them. Map in hand, they were trying to get to "the church" and tick it off their list of "Big Berlin Sights." I had taken a stab in the dark and guessed they were talking about the Berliner Dom, the massive Lutheran cathedral which dominates the city centre. I gave them directions and made sure they knew where they were going, but that wasn't why I was feeling a tad sad.

Maybe I was reading too much into a fleeting moment, but I sensed this couple was going to miss the story. Not just the story of that particular building, mind you. I sensed they were about to fall victim to the lack of storytelling that plagues modern "tourism" in general.

Yes, everybody travels for their own reasons. No, not everybody should travel the way I do, just because I throw my suggestions out there. But, I suspect that after spending your precious annual vacation time and in all likelihood a giant sack of cash on your trip, you want to come back with memories and insights. You want to carry that thrill of discovery with you and let it influence the way you see the world. That's one of the secrets of great travel, right?

So what do I mean by this "lack of storytelling"?

Well I picture that couple marching off to the Dom and taking a few pictures of it. They'll probably be impressed by its squat bulk. They'll read some facts about it (date of construction, date of restoration, the fact that it's the largest Lutheran cathedral in the world) and then happily move on to the next sight. Soon enough, they'll go home, post the pictures on Facebook and tell people Berlin is an interesting place and perhaps wheel out some of the facts they happen to remember from the guidebook.

But is that the story? The facts are important, but they often miss the tale the sight is trying to tell. Replying only on guidebook facts is like being told your height, weight, date of birth and then being told that's all there is to know about you. Would you settle for that?

No, you wouldn't. Those facts, while important, tell almost nothing about you, about your story. So if you wouldn't settle for this as a description of yourself, why would you settle for it as a description of the very thing you've spend thousands of dollars and your precious time to see?

I'm going to invent two terms here, to make things easier. We have the "objective story" which simply means the actual historical story of the place and the "subjective story," a more abstract idea meaning the story which any given place tells you, individually.

If you visited the Berliner Dom, you'd notice that it dominates the square it sits on, overshadowing the nearby Royal Palace, the Armory and the Old Museum. The Dom was the product of Kaiser Wilhelm II's overheated imagination. Upon becoming Kaiser in 1888, he set about dismantling the works of his predecessors, undermining the alliances built up by Bismarck, and generally making an enemy of his European neighbors. He fired Bismarck, got rid of talented civil servants and replaced them with yes-men, sidelined parliament, viewed himself as Germany incarnate, recklessly lurched from one policy to the next, sparking off one crisis after another until he involved Germany in the horrors of World War One, which ultimately brought down his nation and his dynasty.

You can gaze up at Wilhelm's church and see it as an expression of arrogance and conceit, as a monument to folly and egotism, written large on the Berlin landscape. When you look for stories like this, the Dom goes from being just another church to tick off on the list of things to see, and becomes something deeply relevant for a better understanding of the world we live in and the foibles of the human condition. Indeed, the story is relevant to us in the modern world, not only because Wilhelm's impulsive ego helped shape the world we live in, but also because we all know at least one Wilhelm, we all seem to have a Wilhelm in our lives. Which means that, yes, when you look at the Dom, when you see this outsized monument to one man's ego and folly, we are also looking at something we can relate to personally. We chuckle at Wilhelm's arrogance because it's something we recognize, it's something we've had to deal with personally one way or another in our lives. Suddenly, this Berlin landmark is telling us something about not only the city or European history, but about the human condition.

And that when it's just a short step to what I call the "subjective story." This storytelling technique moves us away from the historical facts, and instead moves us directly into our own reaction to the monument. Look at the Dom again. What does this place tell YOU? If you can make the monument relevant to your own life, you'll remember it for years to come. Allow yourself free reign. Does the fact that the Dom is the largest building in the Lustgarten symbolize the dangers of religion in society, or does it underline the importance of it? Does the fact that the church quite literally looms over the neighbouring Palace stresses the importance of keeping church and state apart? Or does it suggest the opposite?

The wonderful thing about this little reflection is that it seals the building or monument or site in your mind. By making its message a personal one, by involving the building in your life, by letting it shed light on your own life, you make the building your own. If we leave this history to one side, this type of personal interpretation is neither right nor wrong. It's just you and the monument having a chat about life, sharing experiences and opinions, so to speak. And it's wonderful.

To me, these ways of looking make travel a much richer experience than just starting, and finishing, with the facts. So next time you travel, give it a try. Start with some facts, but then LISTEN to what the place is trying to say. That's memorable travel.
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