A meditation on the search for authenticity in the German capital
It may be true that travel and tourism are related to spiritual pilgrimages, but I always knew that my time in Berlin would be more long-lasting than the typical study abroad experience, which is, in most cases, characterized by the knowledge that the stay is only temporary. This was intended as a permanent move, with study abroad as the stepping stone between college in New York and post-grad life in a foreign country, study abroad as the justification for getting a head start on the life that I wanted to have. While I never approached this as mere travel or tourism, the desire to experience the authenticity of Berlin, and of Germany, is certainly something that I feel.
Referencing Erving Goffman, MacCannel discusses the notion of front and back regions and the people who occupy each: performers appear in the front and back, audiences appear only in the front, and outsiders are excluded from both (590). The use of the word “outsider” struck me, because lately I have been feeling that it can be hard not to be seen as an outsider in Germany when you are not German. Though true that knowledge of the language is not a prerequisite to enjoying life in Berlin, German culture is impossible to penetrate without this. I don’t think Germans are afraid of outsiders seeing the back regions. I’m not sure if this thought even crosses their minds. I gather that there is no conscious mystification of authenticity going on here, it’s just authenticity is hard to access with limited language skills.
The so-called culture on offer to visitors here is perfectly described with the phrase “strained truthfulness” (591.) Ham full of chemical nitrates, and breasts full of silicone, are like the most stereotypical German biergartens, with their cheesy music, and their servers dressed in dirndls and lederhosen. It’s strained truthfulness because yes, there are people in Germany who wear those traditional items of clothing and listen to that sort of music, but certainly not in Berlin. In Bavaria, sure. But not in Berlin. Even Munich’s Oktoberfest, a.k.a. Disneyland for binge drinking enthusiasts, is a kind of staged authenticity. For visitors, this whitewashing of German culture is simply easier to digest than the authentic, nuanced reality.
If “touristic consciousness is motivated by its desire for authentic experiences” as MacCannel says, then maybe this is why I don’t often participate in tourism. I was, however, weirdly excited about the idea of living in a coal-heated altbau apartment in the former East Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg. “It’s very Easy Berlin,” is the way that I eagerly described my future new home to friends and family when they asked. The truth? Hardly anyone in Berlin lives like that. I thought I was going to have a very “real” Berlin experience by agreeing to live in this run-down flat, but the reality of trading up and down stairs with buckets of coal, and waking up in the middle of the night to throw more coal on the fire, was considerably less romantic. In this way, I was acting on the desire to “share in the real life of the places visited, or at least to see that life as it is really lived” (594).
The naive idealization of living with coal heating is indeed an example of me, a tourist of a somewhat strange breed, seeking out an experience that would not be routine. In choosing to live here long-term though, my time in Berlin thus far has meant seeking out experiences which are routine… just in a foreign setting.