A Londoner with German heritage, Maisie Hitchcock became smitten with Germany while living in Berlin as a student. For the past 10 years, she's been giving tours of Berlin, teaching architectural history, and doing some journalism work — including co-presenting a podcast about the city. Her years away from "the mother country" haven't diminished Maisie's British sense of fun, and she leads her Rick Steves tours of Germany, Austria & Switzerland, the Best of Switzerland, and Munich, Salzburg & Vienna with passion, enthusiasm, and humor.
What sparked your interest in travel?
I grew up in London and I will always feel like a Londoner, no matter where I live. But as long as I can remember, I've always wanted to travel.
England in the 1980s was much grayer and more drab than it is now. When I was a kid, most restaurant food was terrible (with the exception of curry). I think this was directly related to the fact that people traveled far less back then, and they didn't know any better. While London had some cultural diversity, once you hit the provinces, it was very monocultural, very traditionally English. To me that meant toad-in-the-hole (sausages in batter), cream teas, and seaside holidays in the pouring rain. Those things actually appeal to me now (except the last one), but back then I couldn't wait to get away from them.
I was lucky enough to be able travel a bit, and I remember savoring every moment of our family trips to France: the thrill of getting on the ferry on a sunny day and crossing the English Channel, and the smell of hot croissants wafting outside the boulangerie. Traveling to the US as a teen was perhaps my biggest culture shock — I think I never recovered from the moment a local in Brooklyn high-fived me because I was wearing a Run-DMC T-shirt. It was like being on Mars! Those experiences planted a seed in me, which led to a profound interest in all things foreign and far away.
And why Germany?
Although I have German heritage, it pretty much died with my grandfather. My mother wasn't taught German, as speaking it in postwar Britain wasn't really the thing to do. I felt very disconnected with the German side of my family. Maybe that's why I became fascinated by German culture in my teens — contemporary music and art, in particular. I also liked the sound of the language, believe it or not. That's probably what led me to choose to spend a year in Berlin as part of my undergraduate studies in art & architectural history.
I loved being in Berlin. There was so much space, and the architecture was grand and imposing. History wasn't some distant thing. The Cold War had only finished a decade previously, and it was still very present in the mentality of the people and in the cityscape.
When I returned to London to finish my MA, I got a job working as a broadcast assistant on the BBC's flagship radio news show. But life in London was getting increasingly unaffordable, and I realized that a full-time desk job wasn't for me, so I decided to escape back to Berlin — my city of Currywurst and Weissbier. I used my knowledge of German history to get a job as a local guide, giving walking tours of Berlin and Potsdam. A few years ago, I began leading longer tours through the German-speaking countries, plus Eastern Europe and the UK. And that took me straight in the path of Rick Steves!
What perspectives have you gotten from living in Britain and Germany?
Although England and Germany are nearly neighbors (or let's say cousins), we are quite different — even polar opposites, in some respects. In Britain we're practically born saying "sorry!" even if (as my German friends have pointed out) it's not always sincere. The Germans' directness took some adjusting to: We Brits will do practically anything to avoid confrontation, whereas the Germans tend to say what they think, even if it can be a bit painful. I remember once being 15 minutes late to meet a German friend and getting a proper dressing down. A Brit would tend not to say anything, even if they were annoyed.
It's a cliché, but things are more efficient in Germany. In the UK, things seem much more antiquated and, well, a bit slapdash in comparison. Back home, an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality prevails. This can be charming, but also frustrating when you can't find a qualified builder for love nor money.
And I've learned to like the German way of confronting things head-on to solve problems, rather than dance around them like the Brits. Socially, there is more of a sense of collective responsibility. For example, they have a more comprehensive welfare state, which looks after the less fortunate, so it's harder for them to fall between the cracks. There are also subsidies for kids, and rents are more regulated.
Whilst I cherish our focus on individuality and nonconformity in England (without it we'd have no punk or Monty Python, for sure) the downside of that is a more atomized society, where there seems to be less of a sense of looking after everyone as a whole. Margaret Thatcher once said, "There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals and their families." I think this way of thinking has had a long-term impact on British society.
What do you love most about the tours you lead?
I absolutely love the variety of the Germany, Austria & Switzerland tour. We visit three different countries in 14 days, which means a lot of different landscapes — which also happen to be utterly beautiful. You get an ancient Roman city right on the border to Luxembourg, then the fairy-tale environment of the Black Forest, followed by the Alpine scenery of Switzerland and Bavaria, Munich, then the lakes of Austria and then finish up in Vienna — a city built at the crossroads of Europe, and the former center of the Habsburg empire. Each place is a microcosm of history. The countries have a shared history to a certain point, yet they consider themselves very distinct from one another. Never call a Swiss a German! The Munich, Salzburg & Vienna tour offers nearly this much variety in a shorter space of time. It also shifts the tour's focus more to Austria, which I enjoy.
Here's what Maisie won't tell you…but her tour members will:
"Maisie was delightful! She was very knowledgeable, articulate, helpful, and had a great sense of humor. She was one of the highlights of our trip. She made sure we experienced some of the local culture in each location. She made sure every tour member had choices of experiences that matched their abilities. Maisie was an outstanding guide and helped make our tour experience memorable."
— Peggy in Spokane, WA