Monday, June 6, 2011
TRAVELS part II: Ich bin ein Berliner
Let's be straight about one thing, right off the bat: Berlin is the coolest city on the planet. It just is. I don't doubt that there are places across the globe that are endlessly colorful, vibrant, inspirational, romantic, powerful, and so on and so forth... but it doesn't change the fact that Berlin is the coolest, the hippest, the one who everyone stares at in high school and thinks gosh, I wish I was bold enough to wear red lipstick in gym class. If Paris is the prom queen, Berlin is the kid distributing beat poetry around the cafeteria, voted Most Likely to Commit Public Acts of Insanity and Least Likely to Care Whether You Like It. If you're setting trends and cutting holes in your tank top á la Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls, you can guarantee Berlin did the same thing five minutes earlier...with better music playing, and with a cooler haircut.
It's just that awesome.
And Katie and I got to experience it for ourselves--for an entire week!--from the viewpoint of a beautiful apartment on Winsstraße, home to two of the most fantastically bizarre human beings I have ever been lucky enough to meet. We rolled in after a long day of traveling, which commenced in Mainz around 2 p.m. with an epic fail on the part of German carpooling: truth be told, it seemed a little fantastical that we should arrive at the city center and find a car--driven by a good, albeit questionably insane, samaritan--willing to take us to Berlin. We waited and waited, but after about an hour, realized that we had been stood up... and after a "stupid f***ing German people" from Julie's (ironically, German) boyfriend, we bought a train ticket to Berlin. 8 hours later, our pockets significantly lighter of euro, we were in a city that we knew absolutely nothing about...other than the fact that
a) Its residents speak German
b) We do not
c) The name of our street has a letter in it that, as far as I can tell, is not pronounceable by a human mouth.
We arrived at Lisa and Wilfried's in the rain... exhausted, but intrigued by the little blue lights strung outside the street cafés and the incredible energy packed into the wet cobblestones beneath our feet. We walked into the apartment and immediately felt we had wandered into Anthropologie Magazine; only cooler, and with less emaciated models in ballet flats. Instead, it was Lisa--oh, Lisa--who greeted us with the biggest smile on her face, despite the late hour. We told her that we could already tell that Berlin was incredible, and she responded by promptly thwacking us across the the back with one of her signature heavy-limbed displays of affection and bellowing "I TOLD YOU!" It was the first of many wonderful Lisa-isms that week, all of which included a gigantic smile...often accompanied by a slo-mo unveiling of a particularly awesome article of clothing...and always with a pearl of wisdom containing both humor and deep understanding. Lisa is someone who, if you tell her her shop is beautiful, will give you a toothy smile and say "I KNOW!!!!" Ask her for a historical tidbit about the street you're standing on, and I guarantee she'll tell you the most important part: "I PARTIED here!" followed by a WHUMP across the shoulders. Lisa taught us about confidence. Whenever we were at a loss for things to say or laugh about, we'd think of her stories about meeting Wilfried, or her one-liner zingers that managed to be both insightful and exceptionally offensive. "I'm politically incorrect," she'd say. "I'm very indecent." Wilfried would just shake his head, sighing "Oh Lisa."
Theirs is a beautiful story, a beautiful life. I hope that mine one day can contain even a fraction of its color.
So we were welcomed straight off the bat into laughter and beauty, and there we stayed for the entire week to come. It was almost too wonderful to be true; one of those out-of-body experiences where we'd be perched on a sunporch overlooking the River Spree drinking lemonade, or sitting at a table nestled in between trees in the Turkish neighborhood and think... huh? How did we get here? We had time, so much delicious time, and we didn't waste a minute.
If our trip is an anthology of music, then let it be known: every song belongs on the Greatest Hits. There is no way for me to accurately convey every detail that is now stamped, glittering, onto mine or Katie's soul. So. Sit back, press play, and enjoy the following highlights.
THE FOOD. Other than the fact that our arrival in Germany coincided with a mysterious virus, later known to be E.Coli, later clarified to be E.Coli from cucumbers (this clarification naturally occurring after Katie and I had wolfed down cucumber with lunch... oh, you know, EVERY SINGLE DAY) our food experience in Berlin was absolutely unreal. We ate fresh goat cheese on thin slices of German bread; drank strong coffee alongside big bowls of oatmeal loaded with banana, raisins, and crystals of raw sugar; picnicked on fresh apples in Tiergarten Park; and sipped glasses of red wine and limoncello in Café Vergnano, our neighborhood haunt, where the spunky Italian waitress told us that our departure gave her "pain in her heart."
We were beloved, at least by one--or two, if you count the semi-creepy Austrian who stumbled behind Katie as we left Cookies Cream, on the tail end of our über hip Berlin nightclub experience, and called out for her to stay. Actually he asked "Celeste" to stay, that being the alias that Katie had decided to take on for the evening. (Mine was Chlöe. Chlöe, while quite popular among the visiting tourists from Munich, did not make enough of an impression to garner a cult following by the end of the evening. Celeste, on the other hand, had at least one Austrian groupie.) So, Chlöe and Celeste had the time of their lives that evening, and so did we; we were probably the only ones in the vicinity who hadn't been drinking, and enjoyed ourselves all the more for it. The reason we were at Cookies Cream in the first place was because the restaurant component of it was written up in the NY Times: vegetarian, gourmet, artistic. We were sold. After walking around for about half an hour, butchering the street names until they sounded something akin to "PsdkfnusniuSTRASSE" and "NjdfsiunuPLATZ," we managed to find the place... at the end of an industrial alley, with its door shut, and a tiny plaque the only thing demarcating its existence. God, Berlin is cool. It made me immediately wish that my jeans had been from someplace other than Target, and that I had left my I'M AN AMERICAN AND I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT'S GOING ON expression at home. But so be it. We dug into parmesan dumplings and kohlrabi pockets with spinach cream, goat cheese mousse with tart cherries, bread smothered in garlicky pesto. When we realized it was 11:30 and that perhaps we should take advantage of our free entrance to the club downstairs, we flagged down the waitress: she added our names to the guest list (ooooooh lalaalalaa) and told us to come back a little later. This was Berlin. There was no way the place would be hoppin' until 1, maybe 2, in the morning. (It ended up being more like 3). This gave us just enough time to go home and ditch our sweatshirts in favor of something black, some little alarm going off in the back of my head that said black was "hip"... more hip than the Little-House-on-the-Prairie-look I'd been rocking all evening, anyhow. (Though be told, the black just made me look like I'd gotten lost on my way to the prairie funeral.) In the end, our night was unforgettable...we got to play through Chlöe and Celeste's kaleidoscope vision for an evening, and didn't come home until the sun was shining. Lisa was proud.
Next: THE ART. Berlin is absolutely coated, top to bottom, in the most incredible street art I've ever seen. If there is a wall, it is covered in graffiti; and if not, it is plastered with stickers and scribbles and posters advertising some underground music/yoga/gallery. Even the more disgusting of alleys has at least one corner that has been used as a canvas for splotches of colorful poetry, or at the very least, the instruction to "wake the F**K up!" We took this piece of advice very seriously. I tried my best to be subtle about pulling out my camera on every single street block, or at least to refrain from doing it when a crowd of leather-clad locals with more piercings than items of clothing gave me a look that read save it for Disneyland, sugar...but really, I felt no shame. The pictures speak for themselves and I'm so glad to have them.
The day we visited the Eastside Gallery, the largest remaining stretch of the Wall, was one of the most unforgettable. I've never seen murals like this in my life; every single one was more impressive than the last, more detailed, more smattered with poignant turn of phrase and imagery. The colors seemed more vivid than any I've seen, somehow; the reds were redder, the blues bluer. It got to the point where I felt I needed to have on special goggles just to dial down the intensity. We walked along the wall as far as we could before running into a crowd of police, who according to one, had found a bomb. SHIZA. That's not something Katie and I are accustomed to hearing--especially not by officers who looked more concerned with finishing their bananas than scouring the wall for explosives--but according to Wilfried, it is normal. About every other week, the Berlin Police come across a bomb dating back to WWII. Not knowing the expiration date on bombs, Katie and I hauled ass out of the vicinity. We had already eaten a cucumber and braved the underground club scene, and considered our week's quota for living dangerously to be complete.
That same day, we went to a Berlin edition of the David Tudor Rainforest IV sound installation...a collection of sound-producing objects wired not only to play sound, but to actually create it as well. Because it was Berlin and the awesome-factor is permanently dialed up a notch, the installation was held in an old water tower; it was creepy, cold, and mysterious. Katie and I were practically ravenous with the wish that we had brought our cameras, but in retrospect, it was a blessing in disguise. The lack of the lenses with which we had been viewing the city thus far left us with nothing but our own perspectives; we stopped on the things that caught our attention, and not the ones that had the most conducive lighting for photography. I loved the installation. I stuck my head in an old kiddie pool and what resembled a metal donut, and crouched down to put my ear up to a watering can that hummed with the crackle of recorded cicadas. Katie and I both looked at each other from time to time with smiles that read Wow. Are we cool enough to be here?
In truth, we probably weren't: but we appreciated every moment that we spent taking in the art in Berlin, from the arrangement of sticky hummouses in the Turkish neighborhood to the breathtaking Berlin Dom, and that is enough. We ducked into a photography exhibit on our last day, knowing nothing except that its poster featured a pair of pointe shoes and it was located near something that sounded like "OrsanuidfnsdunPLAZ," and it ended up being one of the best things we did. Some of the photos were from post-WWII Berlin, and showed us--in solid, black and white evidence--that not too long ago, the places we'd been wandering through looked like someone had ripped their guts out. We saw pictures of a deforested Tiergarten Park, where we had walked only a day earlier; we had marveled at the countless branches and leaves towering over us, never realizing how young those same trees were. The incredible thing about these photos, though, is that they displayed the Berlin that we had come to know and love; one that vibrates with intensity, is charged and ready for action... even in photographs taken in the wake of utter devastation. These featured the city as it was beginning to rediscover its art, and reminded us that we--in discovering it for the first time in our lives--were unearthing something similar in ourselves.
We also saw the Pina Bausch movie on our last night, which completely blew my mind. The theatre we went to was dark and musty, and was entertainment in and of itself; here we were, two Americans who expected to be met by the normal slew of previews and well as a hearty offering of snacks in the shape of cartoon characters. Wrong. In Germany, you can drink beer with your film--but don't expect to be met by the smell of burnt popcorn, or the sound of cellophane being ripped off of a box of Redvines. The only sound in German theatres is the heavy silence of people actually appreciating the images on the screen, because those images are art. And we dug it. (Though we couldn't resist passing a chocolate bar back and forth during the film... but it was intensely dark, and therefore justifiable. When compared to its milky cousin, dark chocolate is clearly the more sophisticated.)
Lastly: THE PEOPLE. What would I have done without Katie on this adventure, to tell me what the hell Jivamukti Yoga is, and to usher me into a variety of poses--and foods, and adventures, and conversations--that I might otherwise have shied away from? What about Lisa and Wilfried, who opened their home to us and allowed us to romp around the city, totally unharnessed and with the sole purpose of finding the best food and art the city had to offer... eating noodles with us, making us laugh 'til we cried?
The people in Berlin were unlike any I've ever met in my life. They are cultured, radical, and oh-so-fashionable. Any one of them could have shaved off half their hair and worn a sign around their neck that read "Mushy Peas 4 Life," and I would have thought it was the epitome of style. It wouldn't matter whether I understood its meaning; if it's in Berlin, I guarantee there is one somewhere... even if it equates to nothing more than anarchic lack-of-meaning. In Berlin, even senselessness bears significance.
But then again, it is the coolest city on earth.