EUROPE, CITY, FAMILY, FOOD / DECEMBER 11, 2016
WHAT IS IT ABOUT BERLIN, GEMANY?
Close friends of mine, after visiting Berlin, seriously contemplated packing up and moving to Penzlauer Berg or Kruschev. Some of these friends lived in San Francisco. San Francisco! What could possibly be so good about land-locked Berlin that would make someone leave Pacific beaches, the Sierra Nevadas, Napa Valley and a world-class city in Northern California? I was intrigued to find out.
My family stepped onto the tarmac of the surprisingly quaint Berlin airport this past summer for a 5-day stay. I chose the Novotel Berlin in Mitte which means Middle. And it was true to its name – in the center of the city with easy access to everything. The hotel also came highly rated with families with kids.
From the Novotel Mitte we could walk a few steps to the Spittelmarkt U-Bahn station or simply follow the towpath along the River Spree. It was early July and everyone was out. All the grassy spaces were dotted with colorful lawn chairs cradling Berliners. On our first walk, we stumbled upon an open air pop up dance floor, in Monbijoupark, near to the Strand. After reading “Tango is pure passion. Combined with the romantic atmosphere under the stars of Berlin, be prepared for some special summer feelings!” I couldn’t resist. I wanted some of those special summer feelings. The kids saved a table and I ordered some cold beers and apfelschorler. There, on the banks of the Spree we watched people of all ages dance with each other: tango, salsa, cha cha.
Seeing the parks dotted, sometimes packed, with lawn chairs, was my first glimpse of something uniquely Berlin: a sense that the city’s outdoor spaces are true community spaces, actively put to use by residents and visitors alike. After leaving the dance floor we discovered an outdoor karaoke cluster (mass karaoke?!) with a sign saying “everyone is welcome”. We passed an outdoor cinema and lots of street musicians and became aware that Germany’s national futbol team was about to play an important match; Mobile projectors and screens were being set up in front of picnic tables, cafe tables and food trucks; Grab a seat, the game is on.
Berlin is full of color. It may be the most colorful city I have been to yet, saturated with hair dye and widespread enjoyment of tattoos, piercing and graphic pantsuits. The food scene, from all over the world, seems ratcheted up a notch. Indian street food? Check. Ramen garden? Check. In this part of Germany even the potatoes are tinted with turmeric. (Currywurst, anyone?) The old brick buildings on Museum Island have been painted pink; grey pipes will not be tolerated. I notice that I love this.
The city’s walls are a canvas for expression. We walked down alleyways dense with street art and papered with posters, layer upon layer of paint and paper, much of which was peeling. Many of the cafes in cool Prenzlauer Berg were designed using found objects and vintage furniture. One whole block is filled with old, mismatched chairs; green velvet, mustard brocade, orange vinyl and brown corduroy are clustered around mid century modern wooden cocktail tables holding branded ashtrays from the 70s and 80s. I realized I had never seen this before; what a nice change from the uniform café tables so popular in gentrified neighborhoods everywhere. This reinforced the feeling that Berlin is one big communal living room. It also feels a bit like dining in a yard sale. Speaking of yards sales, there were lots of those too. Some were tiny, some were huge, some were missing sellers and it wasn’t clear if the items were, possible, free?
Berlin has a kick ass, don’t mess with me vibe about it. I saw fliers for nearly every cause: environmental activism, queer feminism, the sex-positive movement (I had to look it up), meditation for change and support for Punk Rock which is NOT dead but “alive and kicking in Kreuzberg!” There is a even a movement to “rip up the rule book” for Germany’s strict beer making laws (apparently there is regulation limiting the ingredients.) On German Day Berliners created an anti-event in which they added “spices, fruits, herbs and everything tasty that is not allowed.” Oh Berlin.
Before heading to Berlin I booked a private tour of the Berlin Wall with Berlin On Bike. I requested a guide who is good with teenagers, engaging and willing to stop for snacks. Lucky for us, we were matched with Mathias, who grew up in East Berlin, near the wall. He spent his childhood years envying the lifestyle on “the other side.” He explained how families, including his own, were separated by the wall and he painted us a picture of life under authoritarian rule. He had good stories about fashion, music and teenage rebellion, which our eldest son Theo found riveting. He described the experience of tearing the down the wall, with a detailed account of the days leading up to it and the jubilation that followed. Starting out from the Penzlauer Berg shop in the charming Kulturbrauerei, Mathias peddled us onto Berlin’s streets and past the important sites. At one point we put our feet down and straddled the East and West; what used to be a treacherous wall was now a simple scar in the road.
Some friends joined us for our last few days. Originally from Israel, they have recently lived in New York City and Los Angeles. They’re adventurers who have travelled all over the world. They currently have a wonderful life in Mallorca, Spain. I guess I wasn’t surprised when, at our scheduled meet-up, they arrived a bit late with sparkles in their eyes. My friend proclaimed “We’ve been looking at real estate! We want to move here.”
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