Interview with Carlos Meissner

The son of a Costa Rican diplomat and a German civil servant, it's always been Carlos Meissner's nature to make the best of both worlds. Although he grew up in a rural hamlet near the former West German capital of Bonn, Berlin was the home base of his family, which was separated by the Wall. After studying history in England, he settled in Berlin to complete his PhD. The transition to guiding was a natural one as he loves sharing his passion for Europe, history, and culture with Rick Steves tour members on our Germany, Austria & Switzerland in 14 Days tour and Berlin, Prague & Vienna in 12 Days tour.

When did you start traveling?

Travel always has been an integral part of my life. My mother is a Costa Rican diplomat who was married to a German civil servant. They wanted my sister and me to get to know the best of both worlds. I was born in Germany, but visited Costa Rica for the first time when I was just a year old. My first living memory is of Siena, Italy. I was two and a half years old when my parents allowed me to feed pigeons near a church. I failed to let go of the bread and the birds pecked at me incessantly! (I've never liked Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.)

Growing up in Europe, we frequently visited different countries, such as England, Switzerland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, and Greece. Some of these were just a day trip away. And times were different then. We had to cross borders that were actually guarded, have our passports, and carry wallets with different currencies. It's so much easier today with the EU borders being more open, the euro, and more people speaking English — not to mention the absence of walls!

How did your family experience the division of Germany?

My father hailed from what became, after World War II, the German Democratic Republic, better known as Communist East Germany. Bit by bit, his family left for West Berlin in the 1950s, before the Wall was built. Because of his work later in life, my father could not maintain contact with his relatives behind the Iron Curtain. The end of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and German Unification in 1990 allowed him to reconnect with his roots. It was only then that I could meet relatives I otherwise had only heard of.

Losing one's home and appreciating the value of seeing the world today was a common ground my parents had. As a child, my mother had to live in Mexico and Guatemala, in exile with her parents and younger brothers. As much as these fates were forced upon my parents, it broadened their horizons. We should never take the places we call home, and the places we can travel to, for granted.

What was it like growing up with two nationalities and cultural backgrounds?

You obtain an insider-outsider perspective and, eventually, learn to appreciate it as a privilege. At first, you can feel a little different wherever you are. In the little hamlet where I grew up, I was a minority as someone with a foreign parent. You could feel picked on in school for being different, sometimes without people realizing it. And this kind of behavior was not specific to Germany, as I experienced it in different forms in Costa Rica, England, and the United States. It taught me that people ultimately are the same in that they have values, mindsets, and prejudices, and that there is hope. The somewhat closed Germany I had perceived when I left for university in 2000 was different from the one that embraced its diversity when I returned eight years later. Today, I feel at home in both Costa Rica and Germany.

What was your inspiration for guiding?

Guiding is therapy for me! After graduating from an international school, I studied history in England. Owing to the inspiration of my former teacher, and my parent's love of history, I was very passionate about the subject. However, over the course of completing my PhD, I learned that this can be very solitary work. My situation at the end of the process was somewhat ironic. I was writing up my thesis in Berlin, where there is so much history, but where I did not know my way around the sites and did not have the opportunity to share my passion with other people on the ground. After obtaining my degree, I yearned for some hands-on experiences with real (and above all sane) people. You can go mad being stuck in libraries and archives for five years! And I have loved guiding since. I get to teach and learn from people from all over the world. There is a very appealing performance and lifestyle aspect involved too. I suspect that all tour guides are closet rock stars.

What brought you to Rick Steves' Europe as a guide?

It was a very happy coincidence. As a local guide, I was trained at Original Berlin Walks, which still provides the walking tours of Berlin on Rick's Best of Berlin, Prague & Vienna itinerary. I simply happened to be the local guide available in 2011 and got on very well with the tour groups. The Rick Steves tour guides I met encouraged me to consider guiding for the company. A few years later, here I am, one of them!


Here's what Carlos won't tell you…but his tour members will:

"Carlos was really an excellent guide in every respect. He was very conscientious about his job, always making an effort to explain everything carefully. He gave us a very good perspective of the historical context of the places we visited — and he had a great sense of humor!"

Sivaramakrishnan in Encino, CA