I went to Berlin last weekend to reunite with my favorite city, see the illustrious Edwin again and pick up the bicycle I left there last summer. It was wonderful, nostalgic, surreal… and kind of abusive. As much as I love this city, I’m constantly reminded that it doesn’t love me back.After a 6-hour train ride from Aarhus, I ended up at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof (main train station) with just a backpack full of clothes and a 5-euro note left over from last summer. I hadn’t eaten dinner, so the first thing I did was grab some cheap, deep-fried food at the station for 3,50 euro. I marveled at how cheap it was compared to Aarhus (though, honestly, when you count in the exchange rate, it’s not that much cheaper. It just feels that way.)
I realized my mistake as I plotted my next course of action. I needed to take the train to get to where we were staying, but a one-way train ticket was 2,60, and I only had 1,50 left. Oh well, I thought. When I did a semester abroad, I’d only gotten my ticket checked three times over the course of four months. I figured I’d test my luck “schwarzfahren,” or riding without a ticket. No big, right?
WRONG! I wasn’t two stations away when I heard the magic words: “Fahrkarten, bitte!” (Tickets, please!) I was in shock. I had forgotten that the BVG inspectors wear civilian clothes so they catch you unawares (in Aarhus the ticket checkers wear uniforms). I decided to book it to the other end of the train and hope they didn’t get to me before we stopped and I had a chance to get out… until I realized there were two of them, one at each end. So I booked it to the middle of the train and stood with my nose against the door and hand poised above the button, heart pounding, not letting myself look left or right. Technically the fine is only 40 euro, but after they tack on all the administrative fees and interest and whatnot, it winds up being more like 70 euro, which I was NOT keen to dish out after I’d already signed away my last paycheck to the Deutsche Bahn in order to get there.
The train stopped, the doors opened, and I booked it out of there without looking at anyone. When I finally dared to look back, I saw the inspector talking to a very unhappy-looking Japanese tourist. I’m ashamed to admit, but in that moment, I felt a very German emotion: schadenfreude!
Not willing to risk “riding black” again, I hung around the station begging strangers for change until I had enough to buy a ticket. Great. But I made it to my destination without incident, a really nice big house out in Lichterfelder that a friend of a friend was housesitting. Edwin met me at the station, which was awesome because the house was a good 25-minute walk from the station. We had a lovely dinner, rested a while, then donned our fancy duds and got ready for a night out on the town.
If you don’t know, Berlin is a city that never sleeps. Yeah, you can go to bars at any hour of the day, but to go out dancing proper, the party doesn’t start til midnight. You can show up at 11pm, but there will be like five people there. Good thing, because it took us forever-and-a-half to get back to the city center.
We decided to go to Mehringdamm, a street in the heart of Kreuzberg, the ‘old’ party neighborhood. Edwin and I went to a very flamboyant gay bar up the road a ways and talked and caught up and had a few drinks. Afterwards I was keen to go dancing, so we left and tried to figure out our next course of action.
There is a really famous vegetable kebap place on Mehringdamm called Mustafa’s. It’s a little food stand and the line is always extremely long, often stretching an entire city block. But it was 3am and there were only 5 people in line, so we decided to see what all the hype was about. I must say, the vegetable kebab was good, but not worth waiting in line for a half hour for. INSIDER TIP: There’s also a place on Yorckstraße (between the S- and U-Bahn stations) that sells excellent vegetable kebabs and doesn’t have nearly the wait, and they’re just as good. But they close fairly early at night.
We met some Brits while waiting in line and it turns out one of them was DJing at a club just around the corner. So we decided to go to the club. But entry was 12 euro and they were playing L.A. hip-hop, which is definitely not my scene, so we wound up joining the other drunks hanging out outside the club and complaining about how expensive it was and trying to figure out what to do.
The rest of the night was spent wandering and talking to random people, like you do. We never did go to a club, but we met some interesting people we’ll probably never see again, and we had a good time, so there you go. We got home around 5 a.m.
The next day we slept late and went out for a late brunch at this excellent cafe Edwin had heard of. I’ll have to ask him again what it’s called and where it is, because it was also something of an insider tip. The service wasn’t great but the food was quite good, and you know, nothing cures a hangover like a late brunch.
That weekend also happened to be Folsom Europe, which Edwin was quite keen to check out, so we headed to Nollendorfplatz (a notoriously gay area of the city) to see what was up. If you’re not familiar with Folsom Street in San Francisco, I suggest you look it up. It’s the heart/origin of the whole gay leather movement. I’m not sure what I expected, but when we got there, I realized I was a) virtually the only female in probably four city blocks and b) the only one not dressed in black leather or combat boots. I like to consider myself pretty open-minded, but there are only so many hairy man-asses I can look at hanging out of assless chaps and assless underwear before I start to get queasy. I left Edwin to it and went shopping at IKEA, because everything is cheaper in Berlin and I needed some stuff for my apartment.
Going to IKEA on a Saturday at 5pm was not one of my best ideas, but I got the stuff I needed and made it home safe. It took so long to get “home,” I barely had time to set my stuff down and change clothes before it was time to go out again.
I met my former landlord, Mark, for a veggie burger in Neukölln and we caught up a while. Another insider tip: Berlin Burger International, or BBI, located on Sonnenallee and Pannierstraße, near Hermannplatz. They have THE BEST 5-euro burgers, including veggie burgers, that are huge and filling and delicious. It was good to be back in my old stomping grounds.
After we finished, I went to meet my dear friend Jacinta for drinks on Flughafenstraße, one of those streets that used to be quite sketchy but is now being hipster-ified and then gentrificized at an alarming rate.
I actually met Jacinta through this blog last summer, when she read that I was looking for a room in Berlin and she had a room she was trying to rent out. I had found my new apartment by the time she contacted me, but I found out she was British and wrote for a couple of publications in Berlin, so I jumped on the chance to do some professional networking with a fellow native-English speaker. She invited me to a poetry slam, where I read my article about the lack of drinking fountains and public toilets in Berlin.
It was fun catching up with her, she’s a hilarious person with a great personality. When we left, we passed by the Suzi Fu bar, home of the emotional cocktail (have I written about those here yet?) and I insisted we go inside. But it turns out, the former owner of the bar, an old lesbian who was an excellent psychoanalyst as well as cocktail connoisseur, was gone, and I heard it was under new owners. I was saddened and had to remind myself that change isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just different. They weren’t doing emotional cocktails anymore, which was my favorite part about the bar, but there was a guy in a dress with a little keyboard doing some sort of comedy/music/entertainment type thing, who turned out to be a friend of Jacinta’s, so we stayed to watch his show.
Afterwards Jacinta insisted on going home because she had a column to write the next day, but I hung out with the keyboard guy because he was going to some underground club I’d never heard of. (So hipster.) The “club” turned out to be his apartment, where a couple of guys were smoking hash, and I got super creeped out and made up some excuse to high-tail it out of there. They did wind up going to a club, but I didn’t go with just because I was getting weird vibes. I met back up with Edwin and one other guy from one of the bars, and we walked around Neukölln for a while and I kept shouting things like “That’s the Netto where we always went grocery shopping!” and “That’s the bar I went to with those Finnish lesbians!” We decided to go out clubbing and to just walk there since it wasn’t far, but we were on a different street than I thought and wound up walking a really really long ways before just deciding to take the U-Bahn.
The three of us spent the rest of the night dancing on one of my favorite clubs on Köpernicker Straße. At about 6am we decided to call it quits and we went our separate ways. I had just enough time to pick up my bicycle, change train tickets, go home, shower and pack, and go back to the main train station, meet a friend for coffee, and hop on the train. I was pretty wrecked by the end of it. Edwin and I were competing to come up with the most creative analogies for how we felt. “I feel like death on a stick.” “I feel like somebody scraped me off the bottom of their shoe.” Etc. Overall, I was feeling very resentful of, but still very in love with, this crazy, crazy, crazy city.
So that’s what I mean by an abusive relationship. You come to the city all roses and flowers and think, “Berlin, du bist so wunderbar!” And you drink a Berliner Kindl on the U-Bahn and meet up with your old friends and everything’s wonderful, but just when you think it’s perfect, the city decides to take a crap on you, and ticket you for riding without a ticket, or give you a horrible hangover (yes, that’s the city’s fault!) or a sleepless night, or be extremely rude to you for no real reason.
That’s one thing I didn’t miss about Berlin: The people. There’s this thing, the Berliner Schnauze, which literally translates to Berlin snout, but it’s the concept that people are just really, really rude. They don’t think of themselves as rude – they just think of it as a really direct way of talking – and I guess that’s correct, if by “direct” you mean “entirely without manners.” For instance, there was an empty seat on the U-Bahn, but there was vomit on the floor so it stayed empty. This crossdresser person went to go sit there, and I said (in German) “watch out!” and they snapped “Yeah, I know already!” Like, seriously, some people might be like “thank you” or whatever. But not Berliners. But anyway… until next time!