Berlin Diaries

Ich bin ein Berliner: NOT! 

I had wondered what JFK meant by “Ich bin ein Berliner”, and only since coming to Berlin have I come to appreciate the gastronomic metaphor in that phrase. A Berliner is in fact a fried piece of dough injected with a red sugary substance having the consistency of glue. But don't ask for a Berliner in Berlin because it only answers to that name outside of Berlin.

After fifty days in Berlin, I would hazard to say that Berlin is not so unlike a jam donut. It might not look strikingly pretty, but once you delve beyond the surface there is a good chance of discovering a welcoming warmth, a sense of fluidity, a feel-good vibe that you just have to experience to understand. 

While my initial impressions of Berlin were far from glowing:
        “What a grey city and look at all those cranes lining the horizon.”                                                                            “When will it stop raining? I feel really sick after eating that Turkish pizza”.                                                             “I can’t breath; my nose is frozen.” 

I'm happy to say that each friend who has come to visit so far has expressed much enthusiasm for this city, and Ev's Berlin Fantasy Tour can only get better! So what are you waiting for?

Erica Hung’s visit (August 11-13)

Prior to Erica’s anticipated arrival (my first visitor), much time was spent Googling the Net for a mountain running race I could impress her with. I need not have bothered. Berlin is as flat as a pancake compared to Hong Kong. However we managed to devise a running tour that included all the sites Erica had on her “must see” list (all two of them).

I spent some time pondering over the extent of my obligations to introduce Erica to the local cuisine.  Did I have a duty to take her to a currywurst stall? (It is impossible to walk for more than ten meters without confronting a curry sausage vendor). Worst still, was I expected to accompany her in eating this Berlin speciality? To my surprise and relief, Erica requested to eat at a Thai restaurant. A general principle of mine is to avoid any “Asian” restaurants located outside Asia, with the exceptions of metropolitan Australia, Vancouver and San Francisco. However, extreme situations call for extreme measures – Erica had not eaten papaya salad in the ten days she spent in Spain prior to coming to Berlin.

Thanks to Erica’s allergy against beer, I was also saved from having to reveal my inadequate education regarding this national drink.  However after slurping through my Mojito a little too quickly at a popular salsa hangout, I was reminded that I would have to suffer the "beetroot face" syndrome alone.

Erica & Ev at the Monument Commemorating the Murdered Jews 

Daniel McCracken-Hewson’s visit (September 11-12)

For some extremely inconvenient reason, my German mobile phone network does not receive or transmit SMSs to the Optus network in Australia (but all others). Fortuitously, Dan Mac did not immediately assume I was ignoring him when I failed to respond to his text messages, emails, and home phone calls.  Thankfully he managed to reach me by calling my mobile, the last remaining mode of instantantaneous communication, and who could imagine a world without it now?

German service is in general nothing to write home about, but it felt almost like we were invisible at Gorki’s Park (a cosy bohemian Russian café bar) on Dan Mac's first night here.  After we had been chatting for some time without having received the menus, a waitress asked if we had seen the menu. “No, but that would be nice.” A little while later another waitress came by, but after taking orders for two beers, she walked away before I could say in German, a freshly squeezed carrot-beetroot-apple juice please.  Meanwhile we saw the first waitress hop on her bike and peddle away.  There was no sight of the beers for sometime, giving me ample opportunity to mentally rehearse “Ich nehme einen kleinen karrotte, apfel, rote beete saft bitte” a few more times. 

A brief stop to admire the French Dom (or was it the German Dom?) 

The next day, Dan Mac and I went on the inaugural Ev’s Flat Tire Bike Tour. Sorry Dan, not only did your bike make rather disturbing noises, I think the tires could have benefited from a little more air.  Berlin is a great city to explore by bike, and I demonstrated on more than one occasion, how NOT to cross the road when there is no pedestrian crossing, how NOT to cycle in the wrong direction of a one-directional platz, and how NOT to ride around in mini circles when trying to decide between turning left or right. Meanwhile Dan Mac made a point of pointing out to me every cyclist that wore a helmet while cycling slowly, since I had earlier commented that as helmet wearing is not mandatory, only people who cycle fast wear helmets. (Don’t worry mum, I actually wear a helmet most days when I’m in cargo pants and Birkenstocks and don’t mind looking daggy.)

I had thought that Dan Mac was the testee for the next level of my fantasy tour but in fact I was the one being tested on my knowledge of Berliner history and trivia. Why is Charlottenburg called Charlottenburg? Why does the French Dom look exactly the same as the German Dom and which one is which? Why is Checkpoint Charlie not directly located near the site of the former Berlin Wall? What are the demonstrators saying?  Naturally, I have since acquainted myself with the answers to the first three of those questions, but perhaps I should start memorizing the boxed trivia passages from the Lonely Planet guide.

Charlottenburg Palace, named after Queen Charlotte

That night we had Italian style pizzas (that should be a tautology but unfortunately pizza has been bastardized, think eg New York) at the Twelve Apostles Restaurant.  Our waiter was so friendly and jovial we thought he might have been gay, and certainly not German.  Thankfully at dinner, Daniel, the true blue Berliner after all, was able to satisfy some of Dan Mac’s appetite for local anecdotal history, the German parliamentary system, and German beer recommendations.  It was great to see you again Dan Mac. Keep practising those German phrases, ja?

Sonia Harb’s visit (September 13)

When we met for lunch at one of Germany’s several franchised bakery branches, Sonia had just completed a three-hour walking tour of Berlin and was therefore able to tell me a little about the city I’m living in.  I’m afraid I was not able to inflict any aspects of Ev’s Fantasy Tour on Sonia, due to her rather stringent Kontiki tour timetable.  Nevertheless it was very nice to sit and chat while munching away on solid, wholesome, German bread, enjoying what can only be the last few warm sunny days before winter sets in.