I have had such a hard time putting my time in Berlin into words. It was four days as multilayered as the city itself, engulfed in history, expats, and affordability. My curiosity about this sprawling metropolis and those lost generation-ers among us who have given Berlin its claim to fame made for the perfect storm of a trip there. Though I wasn’t daring enough to take on their illustrious nightclub scene, I left, for lack of an actual word (see what I mean?), whirlwinded.
So my way in today? Food. And beer.
I was staying in an AirBnb in Schillerkiez, the third rental I’d made as the previous two cancelled on me within a week of confirming my stay. Superstitious me initially took it as an omen, but optimistic me settled on it being the way things were supposed to work out. And, seriously, it couldn’t have been a better endgame. Berlin is a mass of eclectic neighborhoods with their own flare, every one a puzzle piece that, together, create the elusive and attractive Berlin.
Schillerkiez is a quiet, trendy labyrinth of cobblestoned streets and delicately framed buildings and residential complexes that, on one end (my end), is home to Tempelhof Field; the other opens out onto the main road and a hub of eateries and shops. I wound my way in and out of its streets, locals chatting around tables spilling out onto streets and smoke curling up into the summer air. I’ve never been to Paris, but it seems fair to call this place its hipster sister.
Most of my day to that point was spent in the airport, having come from Copenhagen (and on a delayed flight), so after arriving at my rental, I swapped jeans for shorts and headed back out into the lingering summer solstice sun in search of dinner. On the corner of my street was an unassuming restaurant, Engels, and I popped my head into the front door, where I was greeted and told to sit anywhere.
I grabbed a table outside, sunlight glinting off of the windows above me, and decided to order a beer.
You should know that I am no beer connoisseur. I’m not even a beer drinker. Before this trip, I could count the number of beers I’d tried and the total number of beers I’d had on one hand. I’m 96.5% sure that I’ve had the drink as many times as it’s been said in this paragraph. Cider is more my style. But I couldn’t leave the country satisfied without going for a national treasure at least once.
So when my server came out to take my drink order, I asked for a beer recommendation, compelled to also admit my beer shortcomings. Holding up a finger, he said he’d be back with a sample size of something. A few minutes later, he returned with an eight-ounce glass of a sweet beer, a thick layer of foam topping the bubbles, whose name I can’t remember (and wrote down in my phone but that has definitely been erased), but that the server labelled as such and, according to him, was just like me. Well, when he put it like that, I knew it had to be my fermented soulmate.
I ordered a plate of bratwurst, and it didn’t disappoint. Sauerkraut, draped over fingerling potatoes, that once, up to that point in my life, I wrinkled my nose about, actually had me wound around its finger. I haven’t found that same enjoyment for the pickled delight since. Nor would I go so far as to call any deviation from this specific recipe a delight. (Sorry, Germany.)
It was the first official day of summer, and I was basking in it.
The months leading up to now had been hectic. A semester of running to and from class, work, my internship, meetings, dance rehearsals, the printer, and the nearest outlet to work furiously on my thesis; my impending graduation, and the shift from student to “adult” with the internship I had excitedly been offered a job with; the decline in my grandfather’s health and the coming to terms with my paired fortune in the 22 years I had with him and grief in not having more; the abrupt end of a relationship that wasn’t teeechnically a relationship but whose finale confused me all the same; a weekend family gathering of laughter and love that, under different circumstances, would have been better welcomed. And a trip to New York City with my sister which included theatre, late night cheesecake, and making Gavin Creel swoon. The first six months of 2017 felt like the end of a Zumba workout where I couldn’t catch my breath, equal parts beautiful and painful. My Green Period, I’ll say.
That night, sitting among happy cafe dwellers and letting the beer become my blood as, newly lightheaded and even giddier than before (and slightly cross-eyed), I followed the tops of the buildings around me as they were painted gold in the sun, the quiet chatter of passersby, and the way the breeze warmed the neighborhood around me. The weight of school and the past were not mine to feel burdened by any longer. I was alone, blissfully alone, doing something I’d dreamed of doing forever and now lifted from the wait. I was in a city that speaks to dreamers, that doesn’t decide your route to understanding its complexities for you; you get to it all by yourself.
And being by myself, it spoke to me.
It was truly peaceful, and peace-of-mind bearing. Even after stuffing myself further with creme brulee, and accepting a cup of espresso that I didn’t worry about giving me jitters or keeping me up all night. Even after I received my check, which was given to me with a pair of M & M candies, and an older man walked by, glanced at my treat, and asked if he could have them, to which I, stunned, said yes, and handed them over. Berlin, or at least this corner of its world, felt like that kind of place: soft, gentle, sweet. Like the beer-who-could-be-named-but-isn’t-because-I-lost-it.
The morning of my first full day, I sat barefoot on my private balcony and watched the passage of kids running off to school, trucks rumbling off to a delivery, and early risers strolling in the cool air before I headed out. I stopped at a corner cafe, the Kale Back Shop, ordering what I’m pretty sure was a pecan roll, glazed with icing and crunchy between its perfectly filled rolls, and a coffee. I missed the sugar and milk inside the first time, so after sitting outside enjoying my pastry and wondering between sips of black coffee how people enjoy it that way, I slipped back in and found the station at the far end of the display case. It made for a helluva good cup to commute with.
A Legendary Dish
I was preparing that day for currywurst, a Berlin specialty. I’d read about it, heard it gushed over (and over and over), and passed by its very own museum later that day. It was a lunchtime routine that I continued for the next two days, one I could have justified easing into dinnertime, too, and I kind of wish I had. Served with a roll and doused generously with the special sauce, curry ketchup–sweeter than its already sweet brethren, Heinz, and spicy enough to clear any hidden sinus problems. My face and neck probably reached a temporary fever of over 100 degrees, but I couldn’t have been happier mid-bite.
I’m not the first to say that currywurst is an of course dish for Berlin, but I hope to be the first to eat my way through every currywurst establishment there is and write a book about it.
What blows my mind is the fact that beer is cheaper than water. And though I abide by the Laws of People Who Know Stuff About the Body and drink my recommended eight cups of water or more a day, I drank my assigned dosage in Berliner Pilsners, instead. They’re interchangeable, right?
From the first sip, I loved it. The way its bubbles exploded at the surface, a tiny fireworks display that I savored from sight to swallow. After miles walked and biked, museums extraordinary and draining, earfuls of languages that clashed but melted together like an orchestra, they felt deserved and right. But when in Berlin…
A bubbling pot of culture
Alongside said beers, I consumed copious amounts of pizza and Indian food. Which, I know, aren’t “traditional” German fare, but there is seemingly nothing traditional about Berlin. It’s proud to flaunt that, too. It’s a melting pot of a city, with the appropriate cluster of cultures that converge together. A community all its own, that much was clear.
I have a passion for cafes and local haunts. When a blogger suggested checking out Cafe bRICK, a hole-in-the-wall with great food and cute decor, I jotted the name down everywhere I had lists for this trip, and screenshot the directions here. I missed it a few times, doubling back and peering down a few different streets before finally finding the place. It was cozy among the mismatching chairs, the books and succulents propped on the windowsill, and the baristas that mostly spoke English among themselves and actually greeted newcomers in the same tongue.
A bagel with mozzarella, rocket, and tomato spread called out to me, and I paired it with their ice brew. They kept on keeping on with the chilled out atmosphere, the birdcage light fixtures, the single exposed brick wall. The coolness enveloped me, putting me in it and making me a part of it, scrawling away in my journal and eating a breakfast sandwich. This was the outskirts, the edges of Berlin that were, in some (*cough, cough* food) ways, more important for me to see.
Where Iced Coffee is Hard to Find, But Easy to Accept in All Its Forms
On my last day in Berlin, I stopped for breakfast at Cafe Haus, just off of Alexanderplatz, one of the city’s major shopping hubs. It was modern, a black-and-white affair, with floor-to-ceiling windows, and kind staff members who disappeared as fast as they came. I ordered an iced coffee and their Belgian waffle, knowing that iced coffee was a rarity in Europe but still not grasping its generally extravagant presentation. What arrived at my table was three-quarters of a glass of iced coffee, topped with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. I spread most of that topping onto my waffle, a sugar rush I was guilty of and also empowered by. Unexpected, the way Berlin likes to throw you off.
Berlin is a city of transplants, a city that is so not-German that, even though I’ve never been anywhere else in the country (besides Munich, but we’ll get to that another time), actually probably carries more of the country’s vibrancy than I know. They sell beer like it’s more vital to survival than water, anyways. I didn’t need to hit all the big and small places as recommended on various blogs and TripAdvisor threads to know that I experienced Berlin the way it’s meant to be experienced: individually, as uniquely and personal as the city is itself. Berlin screamed freedom, at precisely the moment I began to stop feeling stuck. It encouraged me to just try the damn beer. It was exactly what I didn’t know I needed.
P.S. I wish I had spent more time swooning over the slices of cake and cones of ice cream I inhaled, but I’ll leave you some photos and simply say my gosh were they momentous.
What’s your favorite dish in Berlin? Let me know in the comments below!