A Berlin Dispatch
Posted on March 5, 2013
When Berlin was a divided city, the East Germans named a major avenue for Rosa Luxemburg, one of the co-founders of the Communist Party of Germany. She was murdered in 1919 in a right wing nationalist militia put down of an ill-advised revolt. Odd then that our very hip hotel should be located on Rose Luxemburg Strasse. The odd little designer shops that have only 8 or so dresses in the whole store, a space age looking sushi bar, and a place that sells customized bikes (and hangs them around the store like art objects) all give ample witness to Rosa’s lost cause. Capitalism won and big time.
We are in Berlin visiting our daughter Hannah who is living here this year between college and graduate school. She chose well. Berlin is bustling with new construction, a vibrant art and culture scene, an endless array of great restaurants, and a confident well-being that stands in stark contrast to the economic and civic breakdown occurring in countries like Italy, Spain, and Greece. It is tempting to say that Berlin is still undiscovered, but that’s not entirely true. In fact, it now annually receives more tourists than Rome, but I don’t meet many Americans that have travelled here. They should. It’s a remarkable city and one that is incredibly easy to explore. Things work here: trams and subways are clean, modern, and prompt; it’s safe; almost everyone speaks English; beer (and I mean seriously good beer) is actually cheaper than water; and it offers history and culture the equal of Paris, London, and Rome. Berlin is also one of the most affordable capital cities in Europe.
It’s true that Berliners are a brisk and serious people without the maddening charm of the Italians, chatty garrulousness of the Irish, or pouty sexiness of the French (as long as I’m throwing out broad cultural stereotypes that also happen to be largely true). But in my long held axiom that you get what you give, people have been helpful and gracious when we have smiled and reached out. At the Galleria, a large multistory department store that has an amazing food section, I told the woman at the cheese counter that I had just arrived, knew nothing of German chesses, and asked for her advice. She proceeded to open one cheese after another, slicing off a sample of each for me to taste, and providing a running commentary on the qualities of each one. The woman in the wine section was similarly helpful, recommending a wonderful Riesling from Pfalz, sharing her favorite whites (you don’t come to Germany to drink its red wines), and being mindful of cost. Neither was particularly warm and smiling. They had that German “You asked me a question and I will answer it accurately, completely, and well” seriousness of purpose, but I like it well enough. New Englanders aren’t the friendliest lot, so the German sensibility goes down easier for us I suspect.
Our Tea Party nut jobs often use the “They [here fill in one or more of the following: Democrats, liberals, progressives, Obama and his cabinet, and actually intelligent people] want us to be like Europe.” as the worst kind of accusation. I’m thinking I’d like us to be more like Europe or at least Germany. Effective national health care for everyone? I’m in. One year maternity leave, four months for the spouse, and a monthly stipend for support of children? Very humane – I’m in. Excellent educational system that remains affordable and starts with pre-school? Sign me up. We’ve been visiting museums and I was struck not only by how affordable they are, but there is an actual discount for the unemployed. There are great public parks, public art, and public works projects (the construction crane could be the official “bird” of the city) and they make me long for the old America that used to build great things, celebrated civic duty and the public good (so actually invested in great public schools, for example), and insisted on being the best at what we tried. People don’t want to believe it, but in the industrialized world we are now the least socially mobile society – simply, a child born into poverty in America is most likely to die in poverty. I’ll take a little of what Germany has…
But hey, this is vacation and enough kvetching about America’s ills. Back to beer. Only the Czech Republic consumes more beer on a per capita basis (we’re not even in the top ten) and in Germany you drink it a half-liter at a time. No messing around with 12 oz. glasses. Our first evening here we were at little nearby beer joint and it made me unnaturally happy that our waitress, blonde hair in a braid of course, carried all four half-liter glasses in one hand. Just the way I imagined. Still largely guided by the Reinheitsgebot, Germany’s famous beer purity law, German brewers offer high quality beer in almost every imaginable style: bocks, eisbocks, marzens, altbiers, hefeweizens, kellerbiers, and more. Wow, it’s impressive and from what I can tell, Germans are diligent about trying every kind possible and in all settings. Even on a bitter cold day, people will be at one of the little sidewalk stands having a beer with their currywurst.
Currywurst? It’s a peculiar Berlin dish and it’s everywhere. The story is that in 1949 amidst the post-war hardships, a German housewife named Herta Heuwer obtained from British soldiers Worcestershire sauce and curry powder and combined them with tomato paste to make a sauce for pork sausage. She eventually opened a stand and sold the dish to hungry construction workers. Currywurst is now everywhere and we had our first at what is reputed to be the best currywurst stand in Berlin, Konnopke’s Imbiss (“imbiss” means snack shop). Located under a trestle of the Ubahn (the elevated train) it was demolished in 2010 and Berliners rioted, so it was rebuilt and people line up for the currywurst. The basic version is a small plate of cut up pork sausage slathered in this ketchup and curry concoction and served with french fies topped with mayonnaise. I was skeptical of the latter, but it’s not the mayo we know. The fries are amazing (even better than the currywurst they accompany) and Konnopke’s is so popular there are even benches available, albeit outside. A hearty people these Germans (even in the cold there are bicyclists everywhere and of all ages).
So it is that the cuisine is hearty too. There seem to be as many varieties of sausage as there are of beers. Standard accompaniment includes sauerkraut and potatoes and brown bread. It’s quite good actually, though I would come home looking like the Hindenburg if we stayed only with German food and copious amount of beer, but Berlin is cosmopolitan and has a dizzying array of restaurants of all types. We’ve had Spanish tapas, Italian, Alsatian, and Mexican while here. If we had time, money, and more holes in our belts we could easily add Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, and Turkish (the many doner kebab stands in the city reflect the large Turkish population here). We even walked by a Louisianan restaurant last night, serving jambalaya and gumbo. Walking is the only hope of offsetting all those good calories and we have walked miles every day as we have explored the city. More on what we found in my next dispatch from Berlin. Right now it’s time for a beer…