"Could we live here?" trip: Berlin

December 19, 2012

Classic Berlin

We weren't even sure we would make it to Berlin. We didn't even book a place to stay until halfway through our Barcelona trip. It was our first trip there and if the drive was any indication, we were off to a bad start. Not only did the surroundings get increasingly grey, flat and run-down the further from our lush, picturesque Rheingau part of Germany we got, but traffic getting into the city was at a standstill upon our arrival, making for an hour-long trek from the outskirts of town to our Prenzlauer Berg apartment we were renting for the week. The flashbacks to Bay Area traffic was nearly enough to make us turn around and call the whole thing off. 

Old architecture

New architecture

But once we cleared the worst of it and began driving through the city to our destination, my hardened view of Berlin immediately began to soften. I'm not sure what I expected (high-rises? dirtier, perhaps?), but this was not it. Frankly, it reminded me of where we live now, but cooler. There were art installations in the middle of roundabouts, streets were wide with lots of trees and hip modern architecture was thrown in every now and then between the classic European buildings. Best of all, everything was in familiar (if not always understood) German and was clean - something I absolutely love about Germany.

Just look at that gigantic, juicy burger, pile of fries - and what's that? A DILL PICKLE!!

Scoring a table at The Bird, home of the best burgers in Europe, that first evening (where reservations in advance are always needed) didn't hurt Berlin's case either. My mind was reeling from all the choices, including bacon, cheese, guacamole and BBQ sauce, not to mention that the menu called out German patrons - both in English and German - to not eat their big messy burgers with a knife and fork (the German way), but with their hands (the American way). When our orders were set in front of us, I nearly cried. I hadn't had a good burger since I had In'N'Out back in the States fifteen months earlier, and everything on this plate blew me away. The burger was thick and juicy and all beef (not like German 'meatloaf' burgers), the fries were fresh, rustic and delicious, and holiest of holies - there was a dill pickle! Not slices for the burger and not those awful, rubbery, overly-vinegar-y things Germans think are proper dill pickles - no. This was the real deal. There were even bits of actual dill still stuck on it, leading me to believe these babies were homemade. 

To top it all off, the waitress forgot for some time to bring my husband his second beer in the midst of running around the packed restaurant like a madwoman, and upon realizing her mistake, she brought it right over, apologized profusely and said "shots on the house - what do you like?". We looked at each other, flabbergasted, and nearly had to pinch ourselves. Were we still in Germany? Receiving actual customer service?! Focused on what the customer wants?! We were blown away.

It appears Momofuku has made it to Berlin. So hip.

We left that first meal on cloud nine about Berlin. As I've stated countless times before, food in Germany is good, but coming from the spoiled land of San Francisco, we miss the abundance of any and all kinds of culinary greatness (French-Vietnamesegourmet ice cream of candied cornflakes and bourbon? I think not). Like only finding German beers in Germany (because why would anyone drink anything else?), I think Germans generally believe the only food worth splurging on when dining out is German (okay, occasionally Thai food too). It appeared already that food options in Berlin were on a whole new playing field, and we were just getting started.

Definitely the theme to our trip
(although I'm curious as to why this was censored...)

But it was definitely more than just the food. Even though everything was still clean and orderly, there was a different vibe walking around the neighborhoods. There was color, there was creativity and - gasp! - people didn't stand at a completely empty intersection waiting for the light to tell them it was safe to cross the street (something which in other parts of Germany will get you anything from a dirty look to a downright stern talking to - from other pedestrians - if you disobey). Sure, there were older people and families, but there were plenty of younger, hipper people too. Downright hipsters, even. Some of them even wore brightly-colored winter coats, as opposed to the ubiquitous German black, navy or olive green. Graphic design - creative, pertinent, good graphic design - was everywhere.

Color on playgrounds

Color on buildings

Color in graffiti

Color in graffiti on buildings

We were often greeted in English in restaurants and shops it seemed not because our appearance screamed 'American', but because they were hip and worldly and greeted everyone else the same way. We heard English most commonly amongst people who were not American, but were international and so English was the common language. We overheard people being introduced to each other with cool-sounding job titles I didn't even know existed and connecting in ways you just don't see in public in other parts of Germany. 

A super-cool, rentable office space made out of shipping containers

In addition to all the new, the colorful and the creative, there are astounding amounts of powerful history in Berlin as well. We've been to countless German cities with all kinds of history, but often it can make the place feel dragged down and stuck in the past, especially considering the kind of history it holds. Somehow, Berlin has become the ultimate city of past, present and the promise of the future. I couldn't help but wax poetic about what this city might hold for us.

The Brandenburg gate, once a gate to the city, is now a symbol of freedom after the fall of The Wall

The abandoned Tempelhof airport, where Deutsche Luft Hansa (now Lufthansa) was founded in 1926, is now a public park

The sometimes controversial but still affecting Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe

In a weird way, walking around Berlin gave us a feeling of home. It reminded us a little of San Francisco (fog, food, hip factor), a little of Wiesbaden (architecture, language) and a lot of what we wanted out of life. We didn't even bother with a pro-con list. We felt like we were home. 

So until we make it back, we will be dreaming of:

Chilaquiles at Santa Maria

(a dish apparently so exotic, it confused the heck out of my auto-correct - what the hell is 'chula quilted'?!)

Banh Mis at Babanbè

The ramen at Yam Yam

The friendliness of expats in Berlin, who invited us to two separate Thanksgiving feasts before we'd even met them

Cool coffee shops

Even cooler street art

A Three Musketeers mentality (all for one and one for all)

Lovely apartment buildings (& maybe one to call our very own someday..)

The countless city parks (Bailey would rejoice!)

Farewell, Berlin! We'll be back, perhaps with a moving van...

Daily Drop Cap by Jessica Hische