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“Are you going to wear your matching jumper?” I ask, standing next to Jonas in my black and white leopard onesie, a patent leather belt wrenched between my ribs and my hipbones. He laughs and comes back in the room wearing black jeans and a snakeskin tee shirt, a pair of sneakers.
“It’s the best I can do.”
Brannon is waiting outside on the corner while his gas-conscious car idles efficiently. I sit in the backseat next to Battina in her black pants and her black shirt and her curly blonde hair, a beautiful pair of stingray sandals on her feet.
“Who makes those?”
Our animal print collective walks through the lobby of the SoHo House, passing a spray-painted image of a gnashy-toothed shark with a large signature in the right-hand corner. Damien Hirst, it reads. And at first I think they’re just taking a piss and it’s meant to be funny and of course it’s not Damien Hirst, but – upon a little accidental research – it’s apparently real, which is kind of like Damien Hirst taking a piss on everyone else.
Like most everything in Berlin, the building has a storied past. Originally a Jewish-owned department store, it then became headquarters for the Hitler Youth (of course!). Later, the Communist Party moved their offices here, where they typed up memos and did communist-y stuff like recite Marxist principles and come up with slogans for the Cold War.
I suppose this whole historical city thing will never fail to impress me because the most iconic buildings in Los Angeles, where I grew up, are places were celebrities have overdosed since the turn of the last century.
And here we have the bungalow where Marilyn Monroe decided life wasn’t worth living anymore…
To the right you’ll see the sidewalk where River Phoenix collapsed from drug-induced heart failure. Yes, that’s the Viper Room.
We sit on big green sofas, too deep and wide to be comfortable. I perch on the edge, elbows on knees, trying to talk to the people five feet away from me on the other side of the table. Vanilla Ice takes my order. “I’ll have the mint and pea salad,” I say, admiring the way Vanilla Ice has not aged one bit since I was in elementary school and understanding that the music industry is a pretty tough racket and that I’d probably have to return to the restaurant industry while the young kids pirate my music. Oh wait, that’s not Vanilla Ice, that’s my German server who is sporting a hi-top fade like it’s 1991.
2 Legit 2 Quit!
All of Berlin drowns in the Midas touch as the sun creeps south. My food arrives, as does the iced coffee I ordered. This attempt is technically more successful, being as the SoHo House has both ice and soymilk, but I think Vanilla Ice has spiked my beverage with 100 packets of refined sugar. My tongue recoils with the unfamiliar tang of excessive calories.
“How is it?” Vanilla Ice asks. He is attentive and dutiful in a way that likely means he would like to have sex with me given the opportunity.
It’s one of those A-For-Effort situations. Were I in the US, I’d likely complain, but you can’t complain in a country you don’t speak the language of. Rules are rules. You can only be an entitled bitch in the land of your origin.
The plates are cleared and the bill is paid and we walk upstairs to the roof where all of Berlin pools around us, each building illuminated from below like a vaudeville stage act. Bilious clouds cling to the purple and pink of sunset while everything else succumbs to the bluishness of night. In the middle of it all, the TV tower senselessly rising out of nowhere.
Jonas’ friends from last night are here. There’s a newbie here, sitting quiet and stone-faced until I stick out my hand.
“Hi, I’m Jenny.”
Sugar’s got a shawl around her broad shoulders, her hair shiny and auburn and wholly immovable. She just moved here from New York this morning, literally. She probably just dropped her bags off at her new apartment and came right to the SoHo House.
“How long did you live in New York?” I ask.
“Forever,” she says with that bored, plastic look reserved for socialites and drag queens – a comical, exaggerated flatness.
Both camps pile into the elevators and we take them down the mezzanine where there are ping-pong tables and a foosball something-or-other and a bunch of giant glaring lights that make you feel like you’re playing on an airport tarmac. Ten of us run around the same table, some using paddles and some just their open palms. Smack and run and smack and run and then someone fucks up. Everyone laughs and groans and starts again. Smack and run. More laughter under the garish lighting and some of us are clearly better than others, myself not included.
And then someone comes upstairs and tells us we have to be quiet and behaved, which frankly very fun at all.
The only man capable of a Berlin Buzzkill.
A five-foot tall vagina hangs overhead, the name “Larry” tattooed into the ample nest of some seriously 70s bush. Someone’s taken to the banner with a red paint gun, splattering the whole thing with red. Little red dots have rained down on the concrete steps below, creating some visual dimension between the cigarette butts and broken glass.
From the outside, the c/o Gallery looks like an opulent crack den.
We stand beneath a building three-something stories high, thick and weighty and firmly planted on the corner of a city block. Back in the late 1800s, the space was the imperial post office. I envision uniformed men pushing around carts of fresh dates and exotic spices addressed to Sir Chancellor of Germany, month-old letters from the Orient just reaching Western Europe. Now, it’s the host of photography exhibitions. Larry Clark, heroin documentarian extraordinaire, has his work up now.
The air inside is three degrees hotter than bathwater and the deeper you get into the exhibition, the more stifling the whole viewing experience becomes. Shot after shot after shot of kids shooting heroin, young boys sitting with enormous flaccid dicks falling from their shorts, junkie mothers, naked lovers, babies born into wrong families. Drugs and passion and more drugs and then the desperation because that’s all you’ve got in the middle of nowhere. Oh, to be young and grossly irresponsible because who the fuck cares if you die? You’re not missing anything if you go anyway.
We sit in a dark room watching silent footage of a young man shoot up and then wipe the blood away with a paper towel. His eyes go glassy and he smiles a bit, nervously. He sits at the edge of a bed and looks around the room for some sort of confirmation of his own ecstasy, a collective validation of his singular, lonely experience. There’s that twitchy smiles again. He scratches his hair with a fidgety hand. And in his eyes there is both sublimation and extreme vulnerability, never power. These kids may have taken life into their own hands. They have danced around naked and covered in mud and screamed at passing cars, but they were never powerful. At the root of their lives was fear, just like everyone else.
“Pretty, uh, intense,” Jonas says, passing me on his way to the glossy photographs by a more contemporary Russian photographer, displayed along the walls of what used to be a basketball court at some point (recreation for bored post office workers?).
There’s more upstairs, Larry’s newer stuff. Mexican kids in Los Angeles, collages mixing crime and pornography and those teeny bopper magazines like Tiger Beat that I didn’t realize were so goddamn bizarre and grotesque until just this minute – twelve year old teen dream celebrities wearing white shirts with rolled cuffs, tight acid wash jeans clinging to parts girls shouldn’t even be thinking about at that age. A cheap and ill-executed precursor to Abercrombie & Fitch by Bruce Weber.
Paint peels off the ceiling above, curling back like warped paper. The air has stopped circulating almost completely, oxygen particles pushed around only when forced by a moving body. After an hour, I feel like I’m suffocating on someone else’s life and the horrible possibilities that come with ever being born at all.
After four years of providing free content and refuge from the boredom of your workday, in a week I will be asking for you to cough up $2.99 for the first issue of Cartel, by the people that brought you Flip Collective (also free). We’ve been working hard on it. Not like coal miner hard, but white girl problems hard. Anyway, I think it’s pretty good. In it, you’ll find out what happens when I entertain the idea of online dating, which went kind of like this. Hint: I am not the toaster.
“You stay out until it’s daylight. Really daylight. When you get home, everyone ugly. You ugly. They ugly.”
Luchy is in the backseat, rolling his rs and making Google Translate look like an elegant solution to turning Italian logic into English phrases. Luchy is short for Luciano. Half the time they call him Mario.
We’re in the car, headed back to the hummus/chicken place for Mediterranean breakfast round two. “I hate hummus,” Luchy says. “Every morning the same thing. Too good. Make me fat.” And then he looks out the window and says, “It’s extremely wet what’s going on.” I think he means the rain.
The next day Luchy will tell me he wants to make his English better but that would be a total and complete tragedy. The beauty of Luchy is the shit that comes out of his mouth, so ill-pieced and random it rests somewhere between ESL and poetry, which would make sense given that back in Italy, Luchy is a professional writer for television.
Brannon tells me this and I laugh, thinking he’s got to be joking.
“No, I’m serious,” Brannon says.
Half of the group is already there and has been for the last two hours. The table is littered with uneaten flatbreads and empty bowls of hummus. Two or three juice boxes sit in between. “I keep trying to leave,” says one guy next to me, exhausted and with half his face in the palm of one hand, “but everyone just keeps coming.”
The kid from California by way of Israel is talking about some pill he took last night that made his face all red.
The boys step into City Chicken to order the usual. Jonas says you just have to go in there and whoever shouts the loudest gets their food. There’s no line or common courtesy, just a hierarchy of noise.
Everyone sits outside talking and eating, drinking brown tea out of glass cups. Alone and in search for water, I walk down a sidewalk paved with stone like broken teeth, chips of gray all pushed together in the space under trees. Men sit outside of restaurants – at least the ones that are open because it’s Sunday and I am in Europe. Most everything’s closed. I’m not used to this inconvenience because in America we traded “God’s Day” for capitalism. Things are opened 24 hours, 7 days a week, 362.5 days per year because God didn’t want Americans to rest, God wanted Americans to make money.
The only open bodega is filled with cheap bottles of wine and hundred-year-old candy that sits in Plexiglas organizers, fallen sugar pushing into the corners like dust. I grab a bottle of water and hand a two-Euro coin to a cashier with a free hand.
“Have a good one,” I say, forgetting I’m not back home.
Battina finds a parking spot at the entrance of the open air. “Open airs” are what they call outdoor parties here, though I think the term infers that it, like the other weekend parties in Berlin, starts on a Thursday and ends on Monday morning. Not calling it an “open air” might incorrectly suggest there’s a limit, and people don’t come to Berlin for time limits on their rage fests.
What is likely the most terrifying thing I’ve seen possibly ever is walking towards us: a man, probably in his late forties or fifties, with a creepy, blissed-out grin stitched on his face, a massive load of snot hanging from his nose and holding court, refusing to fall. It looks like his brain has started the slow descent from his skull and through his nose, looking to find a more hospitable environment, say, the floor of a gas station bathroom.
If a government ever needed an effective PSA for the war against drugs, this guy would be it, bar none.
We follow him through the entrance. At a distance.
Some chick under a tree takes my money and stamps my hand. At the end of a path, kids dance in a large sandy patch, a river and an active train track just beyond them. The red and yellow siding of a speeding S-Bahn passes in the background, behind bodies pumping their fists and gyrating at various degrees – depending on how much MDMA they have or have not taken. My favorite is the kid in the tracksuit who reminds me of a friend back home. He grinds his jaw furiously and stares straight ahead, his angular shoulders moving back and forth in very precise time with the music. It’s maybe 4 in the afternoon; he’s probably been up for 36 hours.
Bump bump bump.
More indecipherable dance music.
More bodies bobbing around.
Jonas says that the open airs used to be done illegally, though here “illegally” seems up for interpretation. The cops didn’t really care what went on. Apparently the parties haven’t been as good for the last few years. A few different ones have shut down for various reasons, party tourists ship in every weekend from around Europe, corporate sponsors have come in, companies like Red Bull and Lucky Strike donating tents and umbrellas to provide shade for sweaty, dehydrated junkies.
Junkies or not, it’s a nice enough, weird enough crowd.
A storm broils overhead, blackening the afternoon until it starts raining huge, fat, chilly drops. People cluster together under the tents and trees while the diehards remain on the dance floor, raising their hands to the sky like that the opening scene in Blade, only without the blood raining from fire sprinklers and vampires and everything.
The music marries thundering booms while lightening cracks overhead, close enough to make me nervous. I bob around under my umbrella, having brought an umbrella to an open air because I’m turning into my mother.
Half of the friends I met at the hummus/ chicken place earlier today are standing outside a big building that looks like it should be abandoned. Instead, there’s a door guy and a line. Said door guy only let fifty percent of the group in, who gamely took the opportunity to go inside and have a drink while the rest of waited on the sidewalk for them to finish.
After ten minutes sitting at a bus stop under fluorescent lights, we are rejoined by the deserters and I am next to Battina, a German girl from Berlin who just moved back from four years in London as of thirty days ago. She – just like Brannon – has the inflections of someone who has lived aboard, using British sayings like “That’s such shit” and wrapping words with a pseudo Cambridge flair. Battina sounds like she went to finishing school with The Little Princess.
You can barely tell she’s German. She could be my sister.
The group splits into two different cars for the short drive to Odessa Bar. We listen to A$AP Rocky rap about egos and mirrors, gritty mutha fuckas and what it’s like reppin’ Harlem. Everyone but me knows the lyrics. We’ll listen to this song about 900 times before I leave on Wednesday.
Alan parks the car and we walk through a bulky mass of Germans congregating outside of Odessa, beverages in hand. Once inside, the bar is the first thing you see, which is probably how all bars should be anyway, given that the point of a bar is to, well, get a goddamn drink I guess. There’s a handwritten sign with a list of cocktails accompanied by absurdly reasonable Euro price tags.
Jonas orders a vodka soda that I take five-cent nips off of for thirty minutes.
“I’ll be right back,” I say, and I go off exploring.
The bathroom is the highlight. It’s dark and moody and looks like an excellent place to destroy your life until the wee hours of the morning. There are mirrors reflecting black walls and golden light, a table with an impressive bouquet of flowers and a stack of thick, fancy hand towels. There is no garbage bin; used towels are strewn all over the floor like celebratory confetti, centralized around the table area and then trailing out the door and into the bar.
I meet the boys back outside. And when I say “the boys” I don’t just mean my boys, but THE boys. There are boys everywhere in Berlin – tall, strapping lads that all look like grown-up versions of the kids on Kinder chocolate bars, ripe for booking Ralph Lauren watch campaigns.
“Look at this,” I say, nudging Jonas while I wave my arm in a half-circle. “Dudes. One-hundred-and-eighty-degrees of dudes.” It’s true; as far as I can see, there are just boys drinking beer. I haven’t seen this many men banded together since an opening party at Saturdays Surf.
The ratio of men to women here eschews highly in favor of women, which is pretty much the exact opposite of New York City, where men can have their pick of you or me…or her or her or her or her. A girl’s singleness reflects back at her like a mocking, horrible image in a hall of mirrors: you, alone, over and over and over again in perpetuity. Because how are you ever going to meet a person in a place where supply outstrips demand? Beyonce needs to sing a little song about “All the Single Ladies” moving to Berlin.
“Let’s go to Picknick,” someone says, and then someone says that Picknick sucks now.
“May as well go,” someone else says, “and if it’s bad we can leave.”
Such is life.
Picknick is located in the government district, supposedly near a police station or something, which is pretty hilarious considering what goes on here. It’s one of those places that opens on a Thursday and doesn’t close until Monday. Basically you leave when you get tired or the drugs wear off, whatever comes first.
I follow Jonas through a corridor, past kids holding drinks in an open space between buildings. We move onward through another corridor towards another enclosed space where music thumps and people dance. Images are projected on the adjacent walls. People bump together, dancing en masse. The music plays and it is good and for five minutes I think this might be the most fun I will ever have.
And then the DJ changes the song.
And puts on a bad one.
And another bad one.
The rest of the night kind of goes on like this – chasing the dreams of those first bassy five minutes, only to get slammed in the face with bad Rihanna remixes and sweaty tweakers.
We take the party inside, hoping that a different DJ might alleviate some of boredom the last just infected us with. Unfortunately, about 102 people have thought of the same thing at the same time and now I’m in a hallway two shoulders wide, jammed with pushing humanity sucking in air and forcing out carbon dioxide and body odor, leaving the climate as hot and steamy as any Russian bathhouse. This is how people die in panic stampedes. Yeah, I’m pretty sure of that. I’m just praying to god the broken beer bottles I’m crushing underfoot don’t kick up and slide in between my skin and my sandals.
I don’t feel like going to the ER tonight.
Once inside, bloodless and physically unscathed, I am dismayed to discover very soon that these new DJs are hell bent on playing arguably worse music. Adding insult to injury are the offensive teeny tiny hot pants the one girl is wearing, a large zipper running the length of her crotch. Bad DJs are the horrible. Bad girl DJs are the worst.
Battina and I refuse to dance in protest.
It’s 4 in the morning and the sun is coming up somewhere not too far away. The blue sky becomes less dense, the moon on the descent, moving towards the rooftops and scaffolding. I look at Jonas and pretend to nod off, a silent plea to call it a day before daybreak.
We leave the others to party until six, dancing to good music, bad music, talking to friends. Jonas and I walk out the doors and through empty streets to wait for a cab for the better part of 45 minutes, standing in the middle of Berlin on my first night/ first morning, ineffectively racing home before the sun comes up.
Mogg & Melzer is one of a few restaurants currently housed in what used to be Berlin’s first Jewish school for girls. It flourished for nearly one hundred years until Hitler came and decided, well, he wasn’t that into Jews, really, and it goes without saying that he wasn’t that into their education either. By 1942, the school was closed, most of the children and their families shipped away, and the facility used as a military hospital until the end of the war.
Now people come here to eat pastrami sandwiches and drink white wine. In the hallway there are black and white photographs of what once was: girls playing games in a dirt courtyard, sitting at wooden desks wearing skirts and sweaters, dark hair done up in a 30s fashion. The bathroom still looks like a little girl’s room with pink walls and swinging doors, a long mirror that people half my size likely passed in front of to wash their hands.
The restaurant is creamy blue and precious, with purple benches and communal tables, windows opened up to the street below. Food is prepared on the other side of the room, between a tiled wall and bit of glass. I feel like I’m in Brooklyn, though almost a better version of Brooklyn in a way, because there is so much space, so much room between tables. Berlin seems to have found a way to inherit the benefits of a cosmopolitan city without absorbing the costs (filth, a crushing populous, incivility).
“I could sit right there and read all day,” I say, pointing to the corner where a man in glasses eats alone, save for the little dog sitting next to him.
Jonas’ friends arrive and I have a horrible time remembering any of their names until about two hours later. I meet too many people, shake too many hands, hear too many names and rarely, if ever, do I expect to see most people after first introductions. Mine is a transient, friendly universe, built on intrinsic impermanence and a faulty-wired brain.
“I’m Jenny,” I say. That’s usually as far as I get.
But halfway through dinner, I make the point to remember, because everyone at the table is lovely and vibrant and from all over the world.
Lina, the birthday girl, is in town from Milan for meetings and a shoot. She’s a photographer. Lina has thick wavy hair and bangs that nearly cover her eyes, a big smile and dimples that crease the places below her cheekbones. She and Jonas met in Munich a few years ago. Karen, another friend who has just arrived, met them all there, too.
Karen – blonde haired, blue eyed Karen – now lives in Berlin full-time. She just got back from a buying trip to Paris for a store she runs out here. Yesterday, she tells us, she woke up, walked into the bathroom and fainted, only to wake up on her tiled floor six hours later. The last twenty-four hours were spent stuck in a German emergency room until she couldn’t stand lying down in a foldout bed any longer while Friday passed outside her window.
“I just pushed it too far,” Karen says. She went a week straight in Paris, working all day and doing dinners until well past midnight, sleeping for four hours and then doing it all over again. Her body shut off in retaliation.
Lina’s friends trickle in as the night continues, eating or not eating when they arrive, drinking from bottles of wine left on the table. It feels like I’m in school, eating in the cafeteria while my friends get out of class at different times, socializing around the table, at the table, smoking over by the window. “It’s casual,” Lina says, waving her hands.
One of fashion’s famous gender-benders walks through the door wearing a white shirt tied up up up above her belly button, clinging to a pair of perky breasts. She’s had a more successful career as a model than myself, despite having technically been born a boy.
With her is an energetic Italian named Eduardo, wearing a silkscreened shirt of his own design – orange snakes writhing and wrapped around neck like a snood or something royal and opulent but completely accessible. Like costume jewelry meets tee shirts. That would be my pitch if I were in PR. My brain works like this now. Sell sell sell. Buy buy buy. Fabrication and bottom lines.
I like Eduardo. He’s got a big smile and a nice beard.
I end up sitting next to a guy named Brannon. He lives in Milan but he’s obviously American. Ohio, he tells me. He moved fifteen years ago, plucked straight out of design school to work for a famous designer based in Italy.
Brannon has the inflections and intonations of an expat, a flourish reserved for people accustomed to talking to Europeans. It’s like the way I say “yeah” after hanging out with my Australian friend for too long. Now, my “yeah” has a question mark at the end of it, pulling itself upward with some invisible string. “Yeah?” where there should be a good ol’ American “Oh, really?” instead.
“Where are you from?” he asks.
“Oh, yeah, you are,” he says. “I can hear it in your voice. California girl.” He sits back, crossing his arms, nodding his head as though he’s just figured out the last word in a Sunday crossword puzzle.
For reasons owing simply to an obligation to defensiveness, I argue lightly with him, saying there is no such thing as a Californian accent. “People say I sound like I’m from the South,” I say, as though that’s better.
Los Angeles has never sounded exotic enough for me. The same goes for the San Fernando Valley, known mostly for ungodly summers and Ron Jeremy.
“Porn Valley?” Jonas asked when I told him where I grew up.
I argue this point, too, only to concede soon after, admitting that for a time in the late 90s, I lived across the street from a modern, boxy white house where they did indeed shoot porn films. Skanky girls with fake tans and huge breasts used to get dropped off in white limos and then disappear through a solid fence. All night, lights would shift blue and white and purple through palm trees. My mom didn’t much care for that house.
Brannon tells me about his own fashion line, how he doesn’t need to go to New York so much anymore, how his mother has since moved to Atlanta. He goes there, he says, for holidays.
Brannon from Ohio who moved to Italy and now travels to Berlin often.
Fashion makes these things possible. You can have a weird life. You can have a big life. You can travel the world and have dinner in Paris and dinner in Berlin and, if you need to, you can go to the ER and get an IV drip because it’s all more than a body can take. You can wash your hands in sinks that soldiers used and walk down hallways that used to echo with the sound of bombs and shrapnel. If anything at all, modeling has afforded me this realization, this openness to the Possibilities of Weird.
And this, I think, more than makes up for the unholy rejection, days spent bored and bleary-eyed, nights spent falling asleep with cramped calves and an existential crisis.
It’s been pouring rain for the last thirty minutes, a rain so thorough you can barely see to the other side of the street. Everything is gray and wet, trees saturated and emerald. People stand in doorways waiting for it to stop while the brave and the impatient run through it, immediately soaked as though they’ve just been pushed into a pool.
We exist somewhere in between.
A group of us sits and waits in the Bio Market on the corner, planning an exit strategy. Jonas and I scan the fresh bread brochure we received with our purchase of various fruits and vegetables, a carton of soymilk and organic crackers.
“This one looks good,” I say, having no idea what the hell dinkel is but instinctively knowing it likely tastes like cardboard and that I will probably like it.
In my time in Berlin (roughly two hours and three minutes), I’ve discovered that I really like German supermarkets. French supermarkets smell like tepid eggs, vegetables on the precipice of rot, and many stinky cheeses. Rarely, if ever, is my appetite stoked by walking into a Fran Prix or a Monop. There are only so many prepackaged lentils, weird moppy bits of shredded carrot, or undercooked salmon over pasta shells a person can take.
Germany is a revelation; I thought the only place in the world that pandered to the health-conscious neuroses of models and celebrities was the Whole Foods on Fairfax and Santa Monica.
After Jonas and I settle on a sprouted loaf of bread as dense and heavy as a brick, he runs to the car to come back and pick up four of us. The remaining four of our group will be left to fashion makeshift umbrellas out of their own bread brochures and biodegradable plastic bags.
Nine million gallons of rainwater, two overworked windshield wipers, and one blurry Berlin landscape later, we’re running across a large street, luggage in tow. There is another group of people waiting outside of the apartment building; apparently the friend of a friend of a friend is shooting something here today, a line of clothing the designer describes as “hipster and thrift.”
I follow Jonas through glass doors and the mouth of a corridor, passing a row of mailboxes, fifty percent of which have been wrenched open and left bent and useless. His landlord tried to give him a key last week.
“Which one do you want?” he asked, standing in front of twelve unusable boxes, and Jonas just looked at him.
“Seriously?” he asked, because what good is a key to mailbox if you can just stick your hand through the middle and grab everything inside.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” the landlord said. “A new box will take a couple weeks.”
Ah, Berlin. I love you too much already.
The hallways are ratty and smudged, the ceilings high and everything made brighter – for better or worse – by a large window above each landing. It’s dour and ancient but not disgusting. No, New York apartment buildings are disgusting; the “foyers” always reek of unfamiliar spices and old trash, the stairways narrow and the steps worn and crooked.
Jonas puts a key into a door with a painted-over slot for mail (a recurring theme here apparently being the difficulty in getting letters) and three or four different peepholes.
He pushes the door and light spills out from inside, reflecting off of stark white, bare walls. It still smells of fresh paint and floor varnish. It is unfathomably pretty and not at all what one would expect when viewed from the street below, starring up at windows hovering above an orange sign and an unimpressive bakery.
“Stop it,” I say, tempering a healthy dose of apartment envy while I poke my head into two massive rooms to the right, a room to the left and the kitchen beyond, through to another hallway. This apartment exists only in dreams and the Upper East Side.
Now I don’t just want to date Berlin; I want to marry it.
Jonas picks me up from the airport in a tiny car filled with little toys and empty water bottles. “What’s this?” I joke, holding up a miniature plastic gorilla and a miniature plastic beach chair with red and cream stripes. “I don’t know,” he says, “it’s not my car.”
I grab a 1 Euro coin and try to jam it into the beach chair.
“It doesn’t fit.”
We take the long, scenic route even though I don’t know this until four days later when we are driving someone else back to the airport – only we take the fast way, through bigger city streets and along highways.
Everything is greener than a big city should be; there are trees on every street, sprouting up next to apartment buildings and hovering overhead. I say something like “It’s so beautiful” and Jonas tells me that it is now, but in the winter it’s something different.
In the winter it is gray and horrible and every tree is a shuddering, rattling mass of brittle twigs. You can count the hours of daylight on one hand. At least that’s how I imagine it. But winter is horrible everywhere. Cold is cold is cold is cold – and I think I already love Berlin.
The city is a confused combination of bastardized modernist high rises and lower, older buildings. The newer apartments are comparable in design to any American low-income housing complex, with incompatible-sized windows and countless floors. Most of the older things look newer than they are on account of the slathering of cheap colored stucco encasing everything. I imagine there used to be more brick and stone, an attention to detail that most everything here seems devoid of from the outside. It looks like after the war someone just took to this place with a trough and a bunch of spackle, plugging up the bullet holes before winter came.
From nearly every angle, the TV tower – with its concrete stem like a kebab through a silver golf ball – looms, big and ugly but surprisingly perfect. Jonas tells me that before the wall came down, the government didn’t have the money to clean the whole thing, so they just cleaned the side facing west.
“You want to meet my friends for hummus?”
I have never been one to pass up hummus, and after ten days of whatever France thinks passes for quality whipped chickpeas, I’m dying for something without fromage blanc mixed with beans.
It’s close to 2 but his friends are slow to get up after going out the night before until 6 in the morning. They’re not at the hummus place yet – although I think it’s really a chicken place given its name, City Chicken. There are two of them, right next to each other: City Chicken on the corner, and then City Chicken just next door. I’m still confused as to what the difference is between the two, or if City Chicken on the corner just needed more room so instead of moving to one, bigger building, they just scooped up the real estate next door.
Jonas and I walk into a café down the street and I try to order an iced coffee, which someone gave me a lecture on before I came to Berlin. If you order an iced coffee, they told me, any café in Germany will hand you back a coffee with a scoop of ice cream in it. If you want coffee over ice, you have to use this magic word: …
Of course I forget what this magic word is, and when Jonas tries to explain to her that I want ice cubes in my hot coffee she just shrugs her shoulders and makes a face, like I’ve just asked for curry at an Italian restaurant.
“They can’t do it,” he says.
“You mean they don’t have ice? Not even for soda?”
This might be like one of those French “Is not possible” situations where the proprietor of an establishment thinks they know better than you and are withholding the integral pieces you require to accomplish your perfectly possible mission. Everyone in Paris wants to be the hyper-negating version of your own mother. Maybe it’s the same in Germany; it’s my first day, so who knows. I imagine she’s got a treasure trove of ice just beneath the counter waiting to cool off glasses of water, brighten cups of lukewarm Coke Light.
This is the first of many failed iced coffee missions, each one simultaneously promising and disappointing on various accounts, never fully satisfying the requirements of a demanding American who knows just what she wants and just what she likes and grew up with the cookie-cutter efficiency and myriad personalization options available to them at – wait for it – Starbucks.
For all the haters out there, sometimes Starbucks just gets the job done, especially in Europe, where the commercial progress of the coffee bean stopped evolving sometime in the 1800s. I think of my relationship with Starbucks in remote places like being stuck on a twelve-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur and all you’ve got is an US Weekly Magazine. At a certain point, you’ve got no other option but to read about Blake Lively’s cellulite just to kill some time.
I order a double espresso and don’t even entertain the idea of asking for soymilk. We sit outside on a wooden picnic table and I wait for the temperature of my unseasonably hot coffee to drop so my body temperature doesn’t spike violently on this already warm enough, fairly humid day.
Jonas shotguns his. “If it’s not burning hot,” he says, “what’s the point?” I suppose this is a sentiment shared with the entire European Union.
I’m fighting an uphill battle.
The cab driver picks me up outside of the apartment I’ve been holed up in for the last ten days, sleeping in the four-foot-tall nook I’ve affectionately dubbed “the rat hole.” Get me the hell out of here, I think. For one of the first times ever, I’m ready to leave Paris, the adorable Marais having suffocated me with its cobblestone sidewalks and its very French Frenchiness.
He asks me what terminal my flight departs from and for the first time I actually know because I’ve printed out my itinerary for each and every leg of this journey, thawing out from the paralyzing incompetence of my Maldives faux pas back in March.
Everything is stapled together, organized. I’ve got my flights around Germany – Paris to Berlin, Hamburg to Paris, my flight back to the US a week from today, a receipt for my accommodations in Hamburg on the 11th for two nights.
“2D,” I say, reading from today’s sheet of white paper. “Air France.” Charles de Gaulle to Berlin Tegel departing at 10 in the morning, arriving at noon. Jonas is picking me up from the airport. I don’t have to think about anything beyond this, which is an incredibly foreign feeling.
I haven’t planned a thing.
I didn’t buy a book or a map.
I know nothing about Berlin.
I have a few emails from American friends filled with suggestions for restaurants, museum must-sees, areas they liked when they visited – none of which I researched further, and it won’t matter anyway, because when I show Jonas the list, he tells me it sucks.
For as little as I know, however, it seems fitting that the man I end up sitting next to on the flight is a grizzly bearded, Prince/ Shakespeare hybrid – a modern pirate with an embroidered jacket from The Globe Theatre’s costume department and a pair of khakis from the GAP. He could have easily been street-cast for that Forrest Gump protest scene on the National Mall, where an in-uniform Forrest runs towards a pot-smoking, longhaired Jenny. Right on, man! Peace and love! Hippy shit, yeah!
He flips through the pages of an appropriately hippy shit book with a chipped, orange-lacquered fingernail. When the male flight attendant comes over the loudspeakers and makes breathy, indecipherable announcements in French, Neo-Shakespeare chuckles and mutters responses in a one-way dialogue with no one, satisfied with his cleverness.
He bothers me immensely.
“LAAAAYdies and gentlemen!”
The French flight attendant has now switched over to butchered English, which is infinitely better than any French I have ever attempted. The only French words I know are clothing related: Could you unbutton the gilet, please? or The hair needs to be in a nice, tight chignon or something about making a shirt bloussant, which I don’t even know is how you spell the word “bloussant” or if it’s a noun or a verb.
In English the flight attendant sounds like he is making the opening announcements for a boxing match, over-exaggerated and comical. And for a second I think he’s actually trying to be funny, until he uses the same pronunciation for “LAAAAYDIES” the next three times.
And in this corner!
Thirty minutes later, he’s holding up two bags of carbohydrate options in front of me. “Uhhh, do you, uhhh, want ze biscuits or ze, uhhhh, crackers?” he asks, and I say crackers but point to the biscuits because my brain isn’t working after a month of not being required to think about anything beyond changing in and out of pants and wearing skirts and shirts off of the racks for Resort 2013, spinning around in shoes that aren’t my size like a bored rotisserie chicken.
He hands me a brown packet of two cookies.
Damn you, brain.
While Neo-Shakespeare nibbles on little white sticks covered in chemical pesto, I am stuck with my sickeningly sweet Les Gallettes des San Michele. He lifts them to his lips, his silver rings and the white embroidery on his navy coat catching white light from the Plexiglas portal to his right, the countryside of Germany edging out the countryside of France, until – with a tidy, well-executed thud – we land in Berlin.