An American in Berlin
9 May, 2015
Generally when I travel, I try to keep some kind of journal. This has the twofold benefit of recording things which might otherwise be forgotten in the passage of time as well as of focusing the mind. In the past, I have tended to bring with me a small notebook, in which I might scribble on a park bench or a barstool. However, this being a longer journey than usual, and of an altogether different specie, I have decided to make periodic postings to my blog, that friends and relations, with whom I expect to have less than regular contact, though today’s technology makes connexion so much easier than in former times, might have a way to keep track of my adventures, should they so desire.12
Foregoing the tedious details of the flight, I begin at home, where all stories must begin. For the month of May, I took out a room on Airbnb. Though a reputable site, and vouched for personally by friends, it is still difficult to know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. You see some pictures of the place and have some brief exchange via email with the hosts, but that is all. And in this case, all the correspondence was carried out in German. So while I understood what was being said, I was unable to garner any nuance or feeling on my host’s part nor to give any on mine own. And while my intuition presaged something good, it was still only intuition.
Fortunately, any doubts were soon laid to rest. I was meant to show up at 1230, Wednesday. However, I was a bit late owing to getting a bit lost and being further slowed by my (absurdly, I see now) overstuffed suitcase. Lovely. Here I am in the Land of Punctuality, and I’m late to my very first appointment. Well, I finally arrive, and my host/roommate Anja couldn’t be nicer about it. Then, horror.
I begin to lug my case up the stairs,3 when after about two steps the handle breaks off. Scheiße! But I don’t want to ask for help, as this is clearly not her problem. Yet without missing a beat, she offers to grab one end and help me up the stairs. “Das ist einfacher, na?” Yes, much easier, thank you!!
We get inside and she shows me to my room. I set down my bags and heave a sigh of relief. I look around. The room is lovely. It’s old and well appointed. The furniture is all real wood. And there are two bookshelves, filled with books. Besides which, there is a dresser and a wardrobe. At the far end, the wall is all windows, floor to ceiling. Not much of a view, but so much light! I’ve never had so much light!4
Now Anja begins to show me around the place, explaining everything patiently in German. I’m getting most of it, but not nearly all. The most important things, I ask her to clarify in English, which she happily does. And good thing, too. For the most important things seem to be about which windows I can open and when, so that the cats don’t escape. Anything else I might have missed, I can pick up in due course.
The apartment is altogether lovely. Everything is old, but clean. It has the air of an antique or curiosity shop to it. But it’s very cozy. The kitchen is well stocked with pots, pans and spices. Apparently Mischa, the other roommate, who is at work, likes to cook. And I’m welcome to use whatever I like to cook as well. I couldn’t ask for better.
What’s more, we can smoke in the kitchen. That’s where I am now, in fact. At the kitchen table with my pipe and a bottle of wine. In fucking Berlin! I smile just to write the words.
Well, Anja leaves for work and I take a much needed shower followed by a much needed nap. Afterwards, I head out to see about a SIM card for my phone, but the shop closed at seven and I was too late.5 After a brief stop at home, I meet up with my friend Joschka in his neighborhood – Mitte – for dinner and the obligatory post-dinner drinks. Lovely, but nothing new there.
I get back to the apartment around 0030, and for the first time I notice how bloody loud and creaky the old wooden floorboards are. My first impression was, “oh, how lovely!” But now, I thought each step would wake the devil himself. Half drunk and exhausted from my travels, I got myself to bed and passed the fuck out.
The next day, Thursday, I awoke around 1030. Because I could. I left sometime after twelve. Again, because I could. First thing, I stopped into the Vodafone shop on Karl Marx Str. and got my SIM card sorted.
Now that was fun. You see, the clerk was bilingual. In German and Turkish. So we muddled through in German and when we got stuck, we’d see if either of us knew the English word. Well, let’s just say I had to get out my German/English dictionary app more the once. But in the end, we got it sorted. And I learned how to say “thank you” in Turkish: Teşekkür ederim. This last I mention because my ‘hood, NeuKölln, has a big Turkish population. So it seems like a good opportunity to learn a bit of Turkish as well, no that I don’t have my hands full with German. And in any case, omg, all the good foods! Yesterday I popped into a place and got a chicken doenner plate with fries and salad and by gods was that good! Now people who know me will know with what reverence I talk about the sandwich maker who cares about what he is making, who puts love into the sandwich. The guy who will choose for you the best piece of tomato, who will arrange the meat on the bread just so. It was like that. Some sort of powdered spice was added to the salad. There was a lemon on the plate. All was arranged lovlingly. All for seven Euro! Und alles war sehr lecker! It was amazeballz! In a way, I feel like I left Chinatown in NY and found the equivalent here, with some serious differences, which I’ll come to presently.
So this feast came at the end of something like six hours of walking. Berlin is fucking huge. And yet, most of the buildings never get much beyond six or seven stories. Why build up when you can expand?6
But the walk. Berlin is lovely. Parks everywhere. Trees everywhere. Cemeteries everywhere, only the cemeteries are like parks themselves. And birds! You walk down a tree-lined street – Hasenheide, in this case – and you just hear birds singing! Wunderschön! So I wandered through Hasenheide Park, and that was great. But then I found what I was looking for: Tempelhofer Feld.
So Tempelhof (THF) was the main airport in Germany for many years. It’s probably most famous for being the base of the Berlin Airlift. But there’s more to it. You see, much like Volkswagen or Hugo Boss, it has the unfortunate distinction of being essentially Nazi in its design and yet also being generally beloved. But today, that is neither here nor there. Now, the terminal is simply this magnificent – and massive – concrete crescent that flanks a massive grass field, which is now a park for the Berliners.
But in the midst of this endless grass, wide and open like nothing could ever be in New York, there remain the two runways from days gone by. And over these, the creeping grass has yet to lay any claim. Upon these also, people fly now with their bicycles where aeroplanes once gathered their strength to master the airs.
And so I traversed the concrete boulevards until I came to the far end of the field, which is nearer to my home. There I came upon a grassy path, fenced on both sides. And upon my left stood ancient towers, fighting against time and nature. The woods and grasses grew now about them, claiming them as iron trees in their organic realms. And atop these towers stand lights that no longer see, lights which not so long ago guided the landing aircraft home after so many hours aloft.
The path lets out onto the Hermannstr., which is the westernmost main road to my street. It was there that I found the Turkish restaurant. And from there I made my way home.
When I came in, I met Mischa for the first time. He was cooking and it smelled lovely. I said hello, but I was exhausted, and so went for a nap. But when I came back, I found that he had set aside for me a plate. Dude can cook, let me say that.
In any case, we sat and chatted and smoked and drank for nigh three hours. And he is a character. But he is also a sweet, sweet guy. And endlessly patient with my terrible German.
Now this was a humbling experience. You see, we talked, as I said, for probably three hours. And he did most of the talking. And I must confess, I’m lucky if I understood a third of what he said. And it was exhausting. The power of concentration which is required for such an encounter is uncommon. But I did my best, and he seemed to mind it not in the least. And if after one night I was exhausted and feeling as though I will never learn this language, then perhaps after many nights I will feel the reverse. Such is my hope, at least.
After midnight, Anja came home and the three of us sat and drank for a bit, and they showed me some of their music, which I must say was very cool. All in all, it was a perfectly lovely night, and all the more as it left me with a feeling that in my first month in this foreign city, I am with the right people.
Today I slept past noon. This is the life! I went for another long walk. This time up the Wilhelmstr. towards Potsdamer Platz. This was interesting, having just read Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The Wilhelmstr. was where the foreign ministry was, and so was central to the story. But of course it was mostly leveled during the war and so was generally not much to look at now.
Except for the Air Ministry Building. For that’s what it was at its conception, though now it houses the Finance ministry. But in the same way that in New York I would refer to the RCA Building or the PanAm Building, I refer to the Air Ministry Building by its original designation. It somehow made it through the war more or less unscathed. It is impressive, yes. But it is a foreboding monolith, a prime example of what somebody once called “Nazi intimidation architecture.”
It is an altogether creepy feeling to consider what this city might have looked like. A brief detour here, if you have the patience. It seems that there were plenty of people during the Third Reich who, while not nearly anti-Nazi enough by our standards, would nevertheless have gladly seen the downfall of Hitler’s regime, if only to secure a favorable peace. And so, one need not imagine a world wherein the Nazis had won the war, but simply one in which the war was brought to a premature end and so one in which so many of these menacing buildings had survived. It makes the skin crawl even now to think that official government business is conducted within such walls. There is a shadow there, and one which I do not fully comprehend. But it is cold.
But I moved on from there soon enough. And on my walk home I found more parks, and heard the voices of more birds. I bethought myself to stop upon the Kreuzbergstr. for a currywurst. But the line was ridiculous. Not long, just…not moving. And I had this thought: Fuck you. I don’t wait in line for pizza in New York, I won’t wait in line for currywurst in Berlin. So I got a falafel sandwich for 2.50 and it was delicious. Then I went home and had a nap, and here I am.
Some random follow-up thoughts:
You can drink on the street here. I love it. Go for a walk, grab a beer, the world is your oyster.7
There’s fucking parks everywhere. And trees. All of the greens!
I suck at German. I’ve been here since Wednesday. How am I not fluent yet?!
There is definitely a hipster thing going on here. Do I want to be a part of that?
Tonight I sat at the kitchen table, drank an entire bottle of wine, smoked my pipe, read Herodotus and wrote this bullshit. That’s the dream right? Drink and read Greek? It’s going to be a good month…
- Though the snarkier of the friends will doubtless – and with all due haste – point out that “nobody cares, Dave.” [↩]
- In homage to my new – for however long – home, Germany, I have opened with this ridiculously long and overly cumbersome sentence. Apparently that’s how we roll here. [↩]
- Thank the gods we are on the first floor, which in Europe is the second floor; only one flight of stairs is the point. [↩]
- Screw you, New York. [↩]
- What closes at seven? You win this round, New York. [↩]
- This joke makes itself hashtag Germany. [↩]
- Oyster? Erster? Örster? Gershwin? Anybody? #illshowmyselfout [↩]