My luggage was returned to me Friday afternoon. Thank goodness for that. I didn’t know how much longer I could have gone on wearing those same boxers. Keep in mind that I had been pushing 72 hours. The funny thing was that my apartment came with a washer, which was a surprise, as it hadn’t been advertised. There was a moment Friday morning, still without knowledge of my bag, where I contemplated doing a (very small) load of laundry. However, without any dryer, I decided I couldn’t take the risk of hang drying my only set of clothes. The thought became real when I was about to jump in the shower and walked past the washer wearing only a towel. What if I just keep going like this? I gathered all my existing clothes into a pile, made sure to empty my jeans from any items in the pockets, and was about to start loading the washer when my phone rang.
“This is Lufthansa Baggage Recovery.”
“Oh thank God! That’s fantastic.”
“We have a bag here for Smith.”
After an exchange of address and a time block for me to wait, I was pleased to know that my bag that I had packed to cover me for two months was on its way. In the meantime, I decided not to wash my one set of clothes. I couldn’t risk them not air-drying in time for the delivery driver.
Freed from worrying about my luggage, I began to discover my neighbourhood a bit. I’m staying in an area called Wedding, in the Northwest part of central Berlin. It’s mostly a fairly quiet, residential area. There is a major S-Bahn station that is just a short walk away along the one major street I’ve seen in the area, though it is hardly worth mentioning. There are a couple bank branches and, of course, the “sight” of the area, the Bayer pharmaceuticals complex. Tucked aside from the busy roads are a lot of smaller streets, all with medium-sized apartment blocks (five or so floors) and small businesses (art galleries, convenience stores, bakeries, etc.) below.
Despite the presence of Bayer, there are a lot of small parks and the overall feeling of Wedding is one of Industrial Naturalism or Natural Industrialism (still not sure how to define it). It seems to be pretty common throughout Berlin, that it is a real working-class city, with factories and smokestacks mixed with plenty of greenery. That being said, there also seems to be a good mix of people and they seem to run in different circles. Berlin really is a crazy, heterogeneous, muesli of people, things and ideas.
Heading south on foot from my apartment I run into the Spree, the river that dissects the city. The next neighbourhood, Tiergarten, begins here. When the weather is good (and it’s been mostly good), people gather on the spots of sand or stretches of grass and bask in the sun, sing songs and of course, drink a beer. For the more adventurous, inflatable tubes make for good travelling, keeping in mind that not that much further down the river one runs into the tour boats. I later saw one woman inflating a raft Saturday afternoon when I was walking to the supermarket. She had oars and everything. I wish I had asked her where she planned to go.
A pathway runs parallel to the Spree and so do I, discovering that it just twists and turns with the river and incorporates the local architecture, as well. A part of the path actually goes underneath a modernist condo building, while another gets slightly diverted from the river to jut through a cemetery. Keep heading south, be patient with a few pedestrian crossings, and find yourself at the gorgeous glass Hauptbahnhof, a relatively new central rail station. It was built for the World Cup in 2006, and apparently opened up just in time. I wouldn’t have even known. Back in May 2006, the last time I was in Berlin, just one week before the World Cup commenced, I was still arriving by train at one of the older stations. Despicable! There will be none of that this time. I’m going all out. I can already look forward to departing in a high-speed train from there in two weeks for Hamburg, when I go to see the Manic Street Preachers concert.
Further past the Hauptbahnhof is the centre of German government, the Reichstag. It is a beautiful building, a mixture of stone and glass. I’m planning to go and take a tour sometime in the next few weeks that I am here, but one look at the line to get in makes me think that I’ll cross a few other things off my list first.
Exhausted and sweating in the late spring sun, I do a light stretch in the shade of a bridge, turn around and run back to Wedding. I don’t know if it’s the run, by I couldn’t imagine all those suckers standing in line sweltering in the heat. At least at the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) you can sit down and have a pint.
Now, for what most of you must be wondering: what of the tastes of Berlin? Good question (I’ll assume that you did ask that). Having only spent a few days here, I’ve only had a few local delicacies (or variations of the familiar). Early on, though, I made a decision that I would eschew chewing anything from a North American fast food joint. There is only so much McDonald’s and Burger King that a man can eat, and I think that at 26, I have reached that point. But, I can’t rule out the local stuff that is bad for you, otherwise where’s the fun?
On Thursday night, after collapsing to sleep from exhaustion, I woke and went for a late night wander down my street. Remembering that “imbiss” is basically the word for crap food, I check out a local Turkish shop, for their version of a doner kebab. Unfortunately, luck had either run out for me, or intervened (given recent stomach bouts with shwarma), and the spinning doner meat skewer was empty. With a little assistance from an English-speaking customer, before he had to leave, I ended up with a breaded chicken kebab sandwich, slathered in three different sauces (“I don’t know what you’re saying, so let’s have everything, bitte.”). Looking at the menu, I also saw that they served beer (which was the revelation that in Germany, everyone sells beer). I order a familiar bottle of Beck’s (500ml for 1.20 euros). Overall, it was not a bad first official meal in Germany. The chicken sandwich was a bit like I expected it to be: it felt thrown together out of necessity rather than design. As for the Beck’s, it was a pleasurable beverage for someone who didn’t know about too many German beers.
Over the course of the past few days, I’ve been trying my luck at new beers, and buying them at wherever I might find them. As one might imagine, despite the fact that everyone sells beer, there is a sharp price gradation throughout the city, depending on both geography and type of vendor (and thirdly, beer brand). Obviously, as one might imagine, the “express” stand at Brandenburger Tor where I bought an Erdinger Weissbier was expensive (3.20 euros). At Netto, a discount store, where I bought a Sternburg Export, it was very cheap (0.38 euros). A fairly standard price at a grocer, like Kaiser’s is around 0.70 euros for a 500ml bottle of a mainstream brand (Erdinger, Berliner Kindl, Schultheiss, Beck’s, etc.). At a convenience store or a kebab shop those same beers are around 1 euro each. I haven’t ordered beers at a proper restaurant yet (nor eaten there), but based on the chalkboards outside we’re looking at “express” stand at the Brandenburger Tor price range. I can’t imagine what a club would charge. All that being said, the 0.38 euro bottle of Sternburg was definitely passable.
To really describe the cheapest of the cheap though, is something else. On Saturday, in an Aldi (another discount supermarket), I found a 6-pack of 500ml PLASTIC bottles for 1.69 euros, total. I can’t remember the name of the brand, but it was unfamiliar, and after drinking pints from glass bottles at the foot of the Brandenburg Gate, you can bet I thought twice about buying a 6-pack of plastic discount beers. Maybe another day. In any case, I had filled my bag with useless food to get me through the weekend and had no room for plastic beer.
But enough about beer (for now), the one thing I had heard before about Berlin’s food was to try the currywurst. I had been holding out for a couple of days until I could make it down to Kreuzberg and try one of the highly acclaimed currywurst stands (it seems silly as I type it). However, under the heat of Saturday’s afternoon sun, after strolling from Alexanderplatz, past the Berliner Dom, down Unter den Linden, and to the foot of the Gate, I was famished. I mentioned the Erdinger Weissbier, but I didn’t mention what it had to wash down. The currywurst is a really simple, though intriguing snack. The local sausage is cut into chunks and then drowned in a spicy ketchup-like sauce and sprinkled with curry powder, served on a paper plate. You’re given a tiny plastic fork (or a toothpick depending on the stand) and a bread roll and told to have at it. It was pretty good. I’m still going to have to head out to Kreuzberg and stand in line at the critically acclaimed Curry 36 stand (yes, I will stand in line for currywurst before I stand in line at the Reichstag).
Bits & Bites: