Interview with Torben Brown

Torben Brown was born in Heidelberg and raised on (as he puts it) the mean streets of suburban Long Island. After high school, he took his can-do New York attitude back to Germany to pursue a graduate degree in modern history. Having settled for good in Berlin in 2000, he now divides his time between guiding locally in Germany's capital and taking his show on the road for Rick in the summertime, leading the Best of Germany, Austria & Switzerland, the Best of Germany, Berlin, Prague & Vienna, and Munich, Salzburg & Vienna tours.

Growing up, did you feel American or German?

Both. My mom is German and my dad is American. Although I grew up in New York, it was very important to my mother that I speak German at home and that I visit family in Germany regularly. Now that I have a son of my own, I really want him to grow up speaking English, but it will be a challenge. I know from experience that raising a child bilingually is very, very hard. You spend all day at school speaking one language and then you come home and are expected to speak another. That's not as easy as it sounds, so the parent can get lazy with enforcing it.

How did you end up in Germany?

I had the opportunity to attend university in Heidelberg, Germany. I wanted to study European history (and the tuition was free) so it made sense. I love living in Berlin today, but my ending up here isn't the result of some master plan. I could see myself living in the States just as easily.

What struck you when you moved from Long Island to Heidelberg?

I had to get used to the fact that Germany is so densely populated and there isn't as much open space. I was used to big backyards and soccer and softball fields that were accessible to everyone. Here, arranging a pick-up soccer game with friends can require real organization. On the other hand, I soon found that the flip side of this is that, with people living in close quarters, there is so much public space to explore. People aren't isolated in cars and offices and houses on half-acre properties all the time. They're on trains and in parks and cafés and beer gardens.

At the same time, I miss the informal, effusive friendliness you find in the States. Strangers are on a first name basis with each other in a heartbeat, waiters check in on you after they've brought you your food, and people are quick to apologize if they accidentally bump into you on the street, even if they aren't at fault. Coming from that world, Germany can take some getting used to. I think it has to do with the fact that Germans tend to be guarded and private, particularly during the work day. Interactions with shopkeepers and waiters can be a little terse by American standards, and it's important not to take it personally. On the other hand, I find that the nightlife in Germany is less tense than in the US. It makes sense: Germans haven't had to grit their teeth, pretend to be in a good mood, and be super-friendly to everyone all day.

What can visitors to Germany expect?

Variety! Northern Germany is flat with a long coastline along the North Sea and Baltic. In central Germany you have rolling hills, in the south you have mountains. Parts of Germany were settled by the ancient Romans, you have beautiful walled towns from the middle ages, but many of the cities — badly bombed in World War II — reflect the modern character of their postwar reconstruction. When we think of Germany in the US, the image we have is usually that of Bavaria: pretzels and beer halls and lederhosen. Northern Germany is very, very different. Let's just say that wearing lederhosen in Hamburg won't endear you to the locals.

But when I say variety I don't just mean geography. We sometimes forget that Germany is in many respects a very young country, younger than the United States, in fact. Until 1871 it didn't exist as a nation-state, but instead comprised dozens of principalities, small countries of their own. It wasn't until the end of the World War I that there was such a thing as a German passport. Instead, there were Prussian, Bavarian, Hessian passports. And after World War II, of course, Germany was divided between East and West. The passport issued by a nation state called Germany has only existed since 1990.

How does the fact that it unified so late inform contemporary Germany?

It means that you have a very strong federalist tradition here, and one that is staunchly defended. Not everything gravitates to the capital. Berlin doesn't represent Germany the way Paris does France or London the UK. The seat of the German central bank is in Frankfurt; its supreme court meets in Karlsruhe; the German defense ministry is still headquartered in the old West German capital of Bonn. If you want to get to know Germany, it's not sufficient to only visit Berlin.

And this federalism is reflected in the cultural life of the country, as well. We have no equivalent to the Louvre, for instance. Instead, we have excellent art museums in cities all over the country, the collections often originating with the princes who once resided there. Berlin, Munich, Dresden, Frankfurt, but also more obscure cities like Kassel, Karlsruhe, Schwerin, Braunschweig all boast fascinating art museums as well as theaters and operas and concert houses. And the best thing is, they tend to be less crowded than elsewhere in Europe.

You're a new dad. How do you plan on exposing your son to the world of travel?

I want to begin traveling with Viktor as soon as possible. Traveling plays a central role in my life and I of course want to share with him those things that are important to me. And I know from my own experience the lasting impact that traveling can have. When I was five or six I was visiting my grandparents in Frankfurt and we took a trip in their camper to the Harz Mountains. That's a region in what is today the center of the county but was then right on border with Communist East Germany. I still remember that trip vividly, in particular seeing all the security at the border and an excursion we took to the ruins of a medieval abbey. I was fascinated. Later I'd be inspired to study history at university and become a tour guide. (But don't worry: If you want your kid to become a lawyer, I don't think traveling will do too much damage.)

Did you decide you wanted to become a tour guide at an early age?

Definitely not. When I moved to Berlin for graduate school I began looking for a job to pay the bills. I didn't imagine that the job would become a career but I couldn't have chosen better. I've been a local guide in Berlin for over a decade and as such, I got to know Rick Steves groups when they passed through town. Taking Rick's groups through Berlin was a pleasure; everyone was so engaged and interested. When I got the opportunity to lead some of Rick's tours across Europe, I jumped at the chance.

What do you like about guiding?

One thing that is so wonderful about working for Rick is that you can reveal connections between cities and countries that aren't always obvious. On our Berlin, Prague & Vienna tour you discover just how intimately related those three cities are. And the same holds true for the other tours. It's my goal as a guide to show that history doesn't simply exist in a vacuum but informs the world we live in today. We have been so privileged in the United States and (at least in recent decades) in Germany that we've begun to forget that the world isn't stagnant. We are a product of a very dynamic, very complex history full of transformation and upheaval. That history hasn't ended. Germany and the US are changing and we should remember that they can change for the worse or they can change for the better.


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

"Torben was an exemplary guide. He was very knowledgeable, friendly, personable, and willing to address any and all of our concerns and needs. His skills and knowledge helped to bring all visited locales to life and enriched the entire trip experience. Torben is a 10+!"

— Thomas in Voorheesville, NY