I cannot begin to imagine the feelings of confusion and fear that I’d feel after having gone to bed, just like any other night, only to wake up and discover that overnight I had been separated from my family, friends, job, and certain freedoms by a fence, later to become a series of walls, manned by armed guards and other devices to prevent escape. And yet, this is exactly what happened to those living in East Berlin one night in August of 1961. Before visiting Berlin, it was easy for me to think of the Wall as just another pop-culture reference in a U2 or Ramones song. However, the hardship, despair, and desperation caused by the GDR’s Berlin Wall, or, as it was officially known, the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart,” instantly registered as much more when I saw the Bernauer Straße memorial to those who died attempting to escape East Berlin, heard stories of people driving trucks into the wall and digging fifty meter tunnels under it, and observed the lasting disparity between West Berlin and it’s formerly Soviet-controlled counterpart. It was just twenty-five years ago that these two halves were divided, with West Berlin an island cut-off from Soviet-controlled East Germany, and East Berlin cut-off from just about everything. The city suffered such oppression and violence and today, it continues to actively recover, rebuild, and reconnect (they’re still working to connect the water pipes and electricity of East and West Berlin). In response to it’s troubled past and a consequence of it’s current rehabilitation and renaissance, the people of Berlin have taken on a somewhat defiantly proud attitude toward their city. In an interview in 2004, the city’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, gave his famous quote that is now the war cry of the gritty city’s young, proud, and cheeky artists and professionals: “Berlin is arm, aber sexy.” (“Berlin is poor, but sexy.”)
Sections of East Berlin still appear to be extremely depressed with abandoned warehouses and apartment buildings proudly standing amid growing hipster communities with trendy new taquerias, bike shops, and speakeasies popping-up amidst the rubble. Kreuzberg, one such area in East Berlin, is described in guide books as the new, rad, hipstery place to go for art, craft brews, and dancing into the wee hours of the morning. Based on these descriptions, I was expecting something like Brooklyn or Williamsburg or even H Street in NE, DC. That’s not what’s it’s like. In seeing Kreuzberg, I realized how lucky I was not to know what a post-war, post-communist city looks like. Williamsburg and H Street are recently re-gentrified, hipster hang outs with super yuppie coffee shops and overpriced novelty bars. Kreuzberg, on the other hand, went through a war and Soviet rule and it will need a lot more than a few 30-somethings with expendable income moving into the neighborhood to recover. But recover it does. In 2001, Jack Lang, the former French culture minister, said, “Paris is always Paris and Berlin is never Berlin!”, meaning, everyday it evolves into something new and different. What an inspiring concept. Traveling truly has shown me the resiliency of the human spirit.
Ok, enough complimenting Berlin’s will to live and exposing my ignorance of the Cold War. Let’s talk food. As with all of S and my travels, after we soaked up the history of the place and the people, we then devoured its culture through many a meal. The funny thing is that much of Berlin’s culture today is not German. Traveling through most of Germany, if I wanted to share a meal surrounded by locals, I’d dive into a weinstube or a biergarten where they’d be serving schnitzel and wursts of all kinds, spundkase (if you’re in Mainz), potatoes in various forms, and massive steins of pils, helles, and dunkle bier. In Berlin, however, a city full of expats and artists, eating as the locals do means whatever you want it to mean. As our hilariously irreverent Irish bike tour guide explained to us, there’s Germany and then there’s Berlin. You don’t come to Berlin expecting the Hofbrau House, you come expecting something just a little “different.” After seven months of living in Germany (nineteen for S), I saw Berlin as an opportunity to embrace our temporary expat-ness and eat where the expat’s eat – burger joints, BBQ shacks, and craft beer havens. Berlin is also home to 13 Michelin starred restaurants; however, giving in to a little bit of homesickness, I decided that this would be a weekend of beef on a bun and hoppy brews. And I have no regrets.
By far, our favorite place was The Bird. On our recent trip to Norway, S and I were chatting with our host in Stavanger about Berlin and it’s craft-beer culture and he asked if we had been to The Bird. A stupid smile hit both of our faces and we half-laughed, half-shouted a loud, “Yes!” This place just makes you feel good. If there were such a place in Mainz or even back in DC, it would be really hard for me not to go there every week. First, they had bend-over backwards, “the customer is always right,” service that really does not exist many places in the ole’ EU. We had a reservation and checked in, and then somewhere during the time they were cleaning the table, they forgot about us. Not a huge deal, but we took their restitution anyway. Between effusive apologies, S and I were conciliated with free shots of tequila from our sassy, Maine-born waiter and countless IPA’s (out of Munich of all places) that somehow never found their way to our bill. Almost as a bonus, we feasted on two big, fat, juicy burgers, piled with fresh toppings, fries, and hot sauce, all to the accompaniment of a killer play list with everything from Motown to Classic Rock. We fell head-over-heals in love with The Bird that night, and in our well-fed, well-boozed state, officially declared our love for Berlin (which, retrospectively, probably also means our love for the comforts of home that we found amongst expats). On our bike ride back to the hotel, we passed an outdoor opera concert and it began to rain a little. With the rain hitting our faces, we pedaled under the Brandenburg Gate, and I laughed and thought to myself that this will be a moment that I’ll remember the rest of my life. Cheesy! Don’t care! Ich liebe Berlin!
A Few Tips:
The Reichstag – The tour and view from the glass dome is definitely worthwhile. Make an online reservation so you don’t have to wait in line.
Bikes – Berlin is very spread out and a bike is the best way to see it all. I highly recommend a tour with Fat Tire Bikes. Also, our hotel rented us really nice city bikes for the day for just 12 Euros. Those babies were priceless.
The Wall – The East Side Gallery is worth seeing, but I found the outdoor memorial on Bernauer Straße to be much more meaningful, moving, and informative.
Food – Leading up to the trip, I obsessively read two blogs by expats living in Berlin – überlin and Berlin Food Stories. If you’re planning a trip to this crazy city, I highly recommend checking these sites out.
We ate at Pantry, Chicago Williams BBQ, Maria Bonita, Curry 36 (rumored to be the best curry wurst in Berlin), and The Bird. All of them were excellent! While S and I agree that the crown jewel of our culinary experience was The Bird, Chicago Williams BBQ came in a very close, almost photo-finish, second. The restaurant partners with some German breweries to make a few beers that are only sold at the restaurant, including a dark beer that tastes like a chocolatey stout (we never see this down in Mainz!), a pale ale, and an IPA. For dinner, I unashamedly ordered the Porn Rib Sandwich. It was a beautiful thing. Rye bread sandwiching ribs pulled off the bone and covered in cole slaw and cheese and I think something else, but I stopped listening after they said those things. I didn’t share it. We capped off the meal with a Moscow Mule slushie. And a shot of tequila on the house. Maybe my favorite part about this place is that they use a massive hatchet to open their beers.
Lodging – We stayed just south of Potsdamer Platz. It worked out, but I’d recommend staying somewhere in the Mitte or Prenzlauer Berg as that’s where we spent most of our time.
Museums – The Pergamon is a top attraction for tourists in Berlin and, as such, it draws a pretty nasty line. If you buy tickets online in advance, you can bypass the crowd. They’ll hate you (we didn’t book in advance and hated everyone who bypassed the line), but you’ll probably be in and out before they even get close to the entrance. Plus, seeing the Pergamon Altar and the Gates of Babylon is totally worth getting the evil eye from the queue.