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Real life: Meet the locals

If you want to live and breathe a destination, a crop of accommodation schemes let you hook up with a local for a more authentic experience

Real life: Meet the locals
Image: Laus and Dirk Lehnartz GbR Lehnartz

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Lying on a furry carpet, I’m resting my elbows on the shaggy material and staring at a screen showing a pulsating potato. It sounds bonkers but that’s the best way of describing this particular moment at Berlin’s Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art (KW). It’s just one of the pieces on show at KW’s One on One exhibition — over a dozen rooms, each designed to allow just one visitor at time to interact with the art on an intimate, one-to-one level. The idea behind this is that crowds can spoil the viewing experience. (If you’ve ever tried to glimpse the Mona Lisa at the Louvre you’ll be able to relate to this.)

During my visit, I’ll sit alone with a humming fridge, steal a Milky Way placed on a pedestal with the word ‘Nein’ on it, and jump out of a room as I realise the figure in the corner painting army figures on a bloody battleground is actually human, rather than some animatronic creation.

This is one bizarre, intriguing afternoon — and an experience it’s unlikely I’d have discovered were it not for my ‘plus one’.

I’m a guest of Plus One Berlin, a short-term accommodation service that acts like a platonic dating service, hooking guests up with a local, based on shared interests. Whether you want to party until the wee hours in one of the city’s superclubs, take a cooking lesson, or seek out an underground speakeasy with a street art exhibition, founder Clare Freeman will enlist one of her 40 locals to entertain you for anywhere between half an hour and five hours. “It’s a curated experience,” Clare explains. “You’re getting a Berliner’s inside view — and not just some random guide who doesn’t know what they’re doing.”

Clare set up her business in 2012, gutting and renovating a studio apartment in the Kreuzkölln district — an up-and-coming hipster hangout — transforming the space into a lofty, one-bedroom retreat, with quirky brass fittings, local art on the walls and a kitchenette. Here guests of Plus One Berlin can catch some shuteye before heading out with their chosen local.

The concept is simple — guests pick whom they’d like to meet and schedule an appointment online. You might become chummy with a music journalist, an astrophysicist or a vintage shop owner over an afternoon drink, as you probe them about the best restaurants. Or you could spend half a day with them on a guided city tour. Past outings have included flea-market haggling for vintage furniture, pop-up film screenings and a city planning trip with an urban design student.

So that’s how I find myself, glued to the spot and staring at the pulsating potato. I was brought here by the kooky Shuah, a self-professed art-mad local, who says she isn’t as much of a night owl as she used to be, “but when I go out, I go out big”.

It had felt like I was preparing for a blind date before my Saturday afternoon meet-up. Strolling around Kreuzkölln, map in hand, I was looking for the tapas bar where I was to meet Shuah — a complete stranger — and spend the next few hours in her very capable hands. Having logged onto Plus One Berlin’s website earlier that day, I’d scouted out which locals were free for fraternising with. There’s not much to go on, other than a picture and a paragraph about their special interests and credentials (it’s very much like a dating site in this respect) — but I quickly decided on Shuah, with her blaze of blonde hair and cheeky smile.

We exchanged several emails — I said I liked food and art, she said she’d sort out an itinerary. Easy. And thankfully, she crafted a great day. During our five-hour rendezvous, Shuah took me to some of the more established galleries in Mitte, to the aforementioned KW, and to the Museum of Contemporary Photography — a beautiful building that, she explained with sadness, is due to be torn down.

Were it not for her, I’d have been wandering the streets in freezing temperatures, sipping on coffees in between random strolls across the city — no doubt gravitating to mainstream shops I could easily visit back home in London. She was also a gold mine for suggestions on other attractions, like the East Side Gallery, and where to go for dinner and drinks, recommending farm-to-fork fixture Little Otik, in the heart of Kreuzkölln. Born out of a monthly supper club run by two native New Yorkers, it’s an attractive place, where I dined on a fabulously rich lamb shank with white beans beside flickering candlelight.

“It’s easy for me to take people round the city,” said Shuah. “I’d be doing these things anyway, so I might as well take someone with me. It also means I’m always up-to-date with what’s happening across Berlin, so I can show travellers a good time.

“And every experience is different — you never quite know who you’re going to be spending time with and what they’re looking for.”

Beyond Berlin

The concept behind Plus One Berlin isn’t new. In 2010, former BBC and CNN journalist Alice Kuntz Moura set up a similar website, Rent A Local Friend after growing frustrated at having to plan her own escapes from foreign tourist traps while on holiday.

“Many independent travellers don’t want to feel like tourists,” Alice tells me. “However, most of them do look for some sort of local assistance at their travel destination, regarding what to do, where to go, communication and general trip planning. Rent A Local Friend bridges this gap between traditional tourism and exploring the local culture.”

She believes this ‘meet the locals’ notion will continue to increase in popularity as more and more travellers seek to escape the confines of group tours and set itineraries and have the flexibility to take part in activities linked to their own interests.

Recent requests have included hidden bar crawls, gadget shopping, gay-friendly spots and places to entertain kids.

It’s not surprising similar websites are popping up all over the internet. According to a 2012 study of British travellers byAlpharooms.com, 92% of respondents said they enjoyed making friends with locals. But here’s the thing — we’re often told to ‘get off-the-beaten track’ and ‘live like the locals’. In reality, though, it’s not that easy. We can’t just stroll in to a bar during a city break and expect the patrons to suddenly turn round and entertain us. True, travel can open doors and lead to weird and wacky experiences with a friendly local, but it’s not a common event. So where’s the harm in seeking a little extra help?

“If you don’t want to do touristy things, there aren’t many alternatives,” says Aigerim Shorman, founder of Triptrotting.com, which connects travellers with locals for advice and activities like bike riding in Beijing or a photo tour of New York landmarks.

Aigerim adds: “If you think about it, what would you like to bring home with you? A picture next to a touristy sight similar to what millions of other tourists have, like holding up the leaning tower of Pisa, or photos of you checking out a private art collection in a small gallery that only local arts students have access to?”

A University of Southern California graduate, she believes many travellers no longer want to settle for the generic touristy experience — which is where Triptrotting comes in; using an algorithm, created by the former chief scientist at dating site eHarmony, travellers are matched based on qualities like interests, personality and profession.

On a recent trip to Taiwan, Triptrotting user Anne Marie Gillman from Washington was shown round Green Island by university worker Henry, as part of an excursion with his exchange students. “He included me, even though I wasn’t at the university, she says. “We rode motorcycles around the island, went snorkelling, and enjoyed hot springs on the beach. It was a really special trip and something I wouldn’t have been able to do on my own.”

Another of Anne Marie’s Taiwanese hosts, Rani, took her for a restaurant meal in Taichung with her parents. “We tried some local specialities and I sampled some frog legs, which I probably wouldn’t have ordered on my own. It was a great chance to practise my Chinese and to be in a family atmosphere for a night.

“The Triptrotting experiences have always offered more than I expected. The generosity and kindness is always overwhelming and it’s a great reminder of the goodness of humanity to see how much the Triptrotting hosts will go out of their way to help you have a great visit and learn a bit about their culture and home.”

This positivity is echoed by numerous users of all three ‘meet a local’ websites. It’s a delicate balance, though — Plus One Berlin, Rent A Local Friend and Triptrotting all stringently vet potential ‘locals’, but essentially they live or die by the charm and integrity of the hosts.

That said, Freeman is on a roll; preparing to roll out her concept in other cities — including London, Paris and Amsterdam — under the My Plus One banner. “My Plus One will offer guests the opportunity to meet up with a like-minded local in the city where they’re staying. The service will only be accessible to people staying at certain hotels, serviced apartments and select properties. In this way, My Plus One will become a platform that not only gives people authentic, insider travel experiences, but helps them find the most interesting, one-of-a-kind places to stay around the world.”

In a world where tourists are increasingly anxious to avoid the well-trodden paths and to discover the road less travelled, I can’t see any reason why the concept shouldn’t take off. After all, I found it surprisingly easy to spend an afternoon with Shuah, a complete stranger. Interestingly, like me, this was her first meet-up through Plus One Berlin  — something she only revealed as we bid farewell. I’ll certainly be trying it again. How else would I have discovered a pulsating potato in the centre of Berlin?

ESSENTIALS

Meet the locals

More info

www.plusoneberlin.com

www.rentalocalfriend.com

www.triptrotting.com

Best of the rest

www.likealocalguide.com: Website and offline app that takes you away from the tourist traps, with content created by up-to-the-minute locals.

www.spottedbylocals.com: A series of mobile and online city guides, with tips by locals in 47 cities in Europe and North America.

www.bigapplegreeter.org: Spend the day discovering the ‘real’ New York with a ‘greeter’.

www.londongreeters.org: Free, personalised tours of the capital’s local neighbourhoods.

 

Published in the Jul/Aug 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)