Interview with Fabian Rueger

"That you could have two such extremes within one city — a zone of freedom here and utter oppression there — left a lasting impact on me. It's no accident that today's Berliners are very sensitive to injustice anywhere."

He's what you might call a German-American-German-American. Raised in West Berlin, Fabian Rueger traveled to the US to attend Stanford University, then returned to Berlin. There he met his American wife, who brought him back with her to Maine, where Fabian hangs his stein today — unless he's away leading a Berlin, Prague & Vienna or Germany, Austria & Switzerland tour.

How did you find your way from Berlin to the US, and then back and forth again?
I lived in West Berlin in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. The fall of the Wall and all the events happening around me at the time got me interested in history, so I ended up studying history, which in turn eventually brought me to Stanford, California, where I did my Ph.D — on the history of the Berlin Wall. Now I'm married to a wonderful American woman, and for most of the year we live up in Maine.

And how did you cross paths with Rick Steves?
After doing my master's at Stanford I returned to Berlin to write my dissertation, and there became a professional tour guide for Original Berlin Walks, which happened to be the tour company that provides local guides for Rick's tour groups coming through Berlin. One day the office called and told me that Rick was in town, and that he needed an update on some of the changes happening in the city and its restaurant scene. So I gave a tour to Rick! It was great fun, and Rick's guides had always seemed to be the happiest I had met in the industry. At the end of that walk I had the gall to ask him whether he needed another guide. I guess the rest is history.

What was it like growing up in a divided Berlin?
I first moved to West Berlin when I was a high school student. At the time, West Berlin was an isolated island inside communist East Germany. The only way to get there was by train or car through East German territory. Their passport control was an intimidating procedure that made you want to avoid that entire country, so living in West Berlin felt like living in a cool metropolis surrounded by a forbidden zone. From a West Berlin perspective, by the 1980s East Germany mostly felt like it just didn't exist. The Wall was like a dirty rocky beach around the island, and you didn't want to acknowledge it, so you ignored it.

It sounds almost surreal.
I remember in 1987 I went to a concert at Berlin's Reichstag, the pre-war parliament building, to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the city. Ronald Reagan had visited the city just a few weeks earlier on that occasion, and Genesis and the Eurythmics were playing right in front of that historic building. While Phil Collins was singing "Mama," a stone's throw behind the Reichstag and the Wall, East Germans were gathering trying to listen to the concert, and Stasi agents tried to stop them from being "perverted" by all that Western stuff. It turned into one of the first moments when young East Germans acted up publicly against the Stasi, the much-feared East German State Security. And there I was, free and safe — standing less than a mile away from a police state.

That there were 16 million East Germans trapped behind the wall became only noticeable to me throughout 1989, as they began openly demonstrating against the regime there. It was on the news every day during the summer of '89, until the Wall suddenly opened in November. That you could have two such extremes within one city — a zone of freedom here and utter oppression there — left a lasting impact on me. It's no accident that today's Berliners are very sensitive to injustice anywhere.

And the wall represents just a fraction of what the city has been through.
Let's say you're picking a world capital for each century of human history, a city whose events have most influenced the rest of humanity in that century. You would probably pick Paris for the 18th century, London for the 19th, and, without doubt, Berlin for the 20th. We've had World War I, the European liberal interwar period with the sudden rise and fall of democracies, World War II and the Holocaust, and the Cold War with its beginning, high point, and ending. Berlin was at the center of all of that, and it's enshrined in every corner of the city.

German stereotypes abound. Any thoughts?
The biggest misconception that persists is the old wartime cliché that Germans are shouting militarists, sticklers for rules, and without a grain of humor. I've met humorless people all over the world, but when you have learned a stereotype, you start to recognize it even when it isn't there. We all do that. If you meet a person from Britain who is utterly without humor, most people go: "Oh, he has that real British stiff upper lip! Keeps calm and carries on!" Nobody goes: "He must be German!" So, when a German train is on time, people notice and see the pattern proven, that "Germans" are "always punctual." When the train isn't on time, the pattern machine in your head tells you "Surely that's an exception!" and you just forget that your pattern was just proven wrong. The most unpunctual person on the planet, I'm afraid, is my German brother (sorry, Zeb!). And he is a comedian... See, even there he just can't follow the rules... tssk.

What's it like for you living in the US? Anything you miss, or don't miss at all?
I now live in Maine, with my lovely American wife Jill, who teaches German Studies. I keep telling her that her German is better than mine, and she keeps correcting me on that. In German, of course.

Anyways, things I miss: German bread! It still seems to be impossible to get a nice, dark German-style rye bread at a decent price. And, sorry to say, German and Austrian pastries and cakes still beat their American equivalents. (Try a Black Forest cake and then a Whoopie pie, you'll know what I mean.) American carrot cake, though, is fantastic.

As for beer, those new American microbreweries have come a long way and can compete with Europe's beers easily. So that's not such a big an issue for me anymore, though I do have to travel a bit in Maine if I want a Kölsch or an Alt beer. (And to the Rhineländers reading this: Yes, I do like both.)

I do not miss German winters! Maine has gorgeous blue skies even in winter, while bald eagles circle above. Berlin can be truly miserable in winter, with the sun hidden behind a low ceiling of gray clouds for two to three months, not even peeking out once. The German Christmas markets are lovely, but they go by much too quickly.

Another thing is that Germans tend to be very direct. This has its pros and cons. If you ask "How are you?" in Germany, you might get a long-winded reply about the person's actual feelings or, worse yet, their health issues. Sometimes it's nicer to live in a culture in which people beat more around the bush.

You lead tours of Berlin, Prague & Vienna and Germany, Austria & Switzerland for Rick Steves. How would you help a person decide between the two?
On the Berlin–Prague–Vienna tour ("BPV") we focus on four important cities of Central Europe (Dresden is not part of the tour title, but we stay a night there as well). We visit the museums, see the art and architecture, and discuss the deep history that connects the four regions — Prussia, Saxony, Bohemia, and Austria — of which Berlin, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna were the respective capitals. I guess you could call it the "urban exploration tour" of Central Europe.

The Germany–Austria–Switzerland tour ("GAS"), on the other hand, is about the western and Alpine regions of the German-speaking lands. We travel through the once-Roman parts of Germany, beginning in Trier, then go south through the Black Forest into Switzerland, and from there through Bavaria to Vienna. It's a slightly longer tour and covers more countryside and smaller cities, with the urban exceptions of Munich and Vienna. The historic regions are the Palatine, the Duchy of Baden, Helvetia, Bavaria, and Upper Austria.

Really, the only overlap between both tours is Vienna, but the city is covered differently by each tour (we visit different museums and restaurants and spend different amounts of time) — so booking both tours, even back to back, would make sense.

So, your advice would be...
Seriously, why labor over choosing between the two when you would be so much happier doing both?