A city with ominous overtones for a child of the cold war. Images of grey houses and razor wire, an imploring president and a soviet leader. Stories of loss, of triumph. Images of sledgehammers and celebration, and a sense of victory.
A sense of distinctly European strangeness, a fever-dream mélange of art and music, history and passion. Sex, music, food and language.
I’ve never been, and once I go I know I’ll never be the same.
An early morning bus carries me from the countryside of my home, to my spirit city of New York. The ever-present blend of sights, sounds and smells both common to every metropolis, and unique to Manhattan. It’s overwhelming, it’s overbearing, and it’s uniquely comfortable to me now. Every trip I find some new sight that I’ve passed by a dozen times, this time it’s the stone scroll-work of the Chanin building on 41st street.
I take a moment to meet with colleague and friend Megan Tusing, an actor who lives in Brooklyn, over lunch. Post-ironic drinking bowls and avocado toast at Pain Quotidien are enough to make you raise an eyebrow, but needs must. Conversation is engaging and fun, as it always is when enthusiasts dine. We talk craft and plans, she grills me about the trip, and soon enough it’s time to take the bus to Newark to embark.
The Newark Airport Express is not express, and I don’t recommend it. Suck up either going via train from Penn Station, or pay for a Lyft. Enough said.
Dinner at Newark has become something I can actually look forward to. While the prices are higher than one would desire, the fare is excellent. A good beer and some European style pommes frites to get me going, and soon enough the plane boards.
WOW! Air is Iceland’s new(ish) discount airline. The startlingly pink airliner awaits us, the departure area filled with a mishmash of nationalities, most smiling as we file aboard in distinctly un-American equality to an entirely coach-seating plane. The flight crew are friendly, the plane clean, and every single amenity is on a fee basis… including your carry-on bag and pre-selecting your seat. But, it’s cheap.
The service and flight crew greet us in paired English and Icelandic, welcoming us aboard and performing the routine dance of the airline. Icelandic is a language over which I have all the grasp of a lemur on a greased fire pole… It sounds part Russian, part Italian, with a singsong intonation, and the occasional guttural rattle. I have no idea what they were saying, and it’s only by the purest of faith that I believe they are translating fully into English.
Most languages I can find a toe hold, something that gives me a clue. Icelandic, not so much.
I nap fitfully on the flight, and soon Iceland is beneath us, the Keflavik airport sitting a few kilometers from the capital city of Reykjavik. It is 4am local time, and with the summer solstice just behind, daylight is well and truly upon the city. (There are about 3 hours of dark this time of year at 64 degrees north of the equator)
In Reykjavik, I make my connection with only a little fret, and wait with anxious anticipation to see if my travel companion will join me. Amy is a longtime friend, fellow actor and travel junkie, and just the sort of person to whom one can say “Hey… going to Berlin, got a hotel room. Wanna come?” and will respond with “… I’m already at the airport, why aren’t you?” She plans to roll around in art and weird museums while I participate in the reason for my going: Euro Pride Con 2017.
5 minutes before scheduled takeoff, a sweaty and exhausted Amy arrives… collapsing into the middle seat with a wry grin and a harried panting. “Hour and a half late on the ground in Baltimore. Just sprinted through the Keflavik airport in stack-heel harness boots. Let’s go to Germany bitches!”
You want to travel with Amy. Trust me.
We arrive at Schoenfeld airport around 10:30 local time, and are surprised not to clear customs, as Iceland has border authority. Alas, my passport will not bear a German stamp this trip, despite spending no more than a combined hour in Iceland.
The taxi ride to Hotel Berlin is intensely daunting given our jetlag and exhaustion. Our cab driver is a diminutive woman of Middle Eastern heritage, who I would place in a deathrace 2000 contest against any NYC cabbie, and bet on heavily. Nonetheless, we arrive safely and check in, shower and go downstairs to sign me in to the con, and go look for food.
Darling Andrew Grey from Dreamspinner Press suggests Café Ambrosius, a mere block behind the hotel, and we venture that direction, ready for a late lunch and a beer. The proprietress welcomes us, and we have the restaurant to ourselves, enjoying a truly complex and wonderful local black beer made for the house. Deceptively complex, delightful, rich. For Amy, the Spaetzel with asparagus both green and white. For me, the Berliner sausages with boiled potato and sauerkraut.
We drift back to the hotel in a daze, and surrender to the fatigue long enough to get in a nap before joining some Lori Witt, her husband and a number of online friends for a trip to Berlin Vietnamese food. Lori lives in southern Spain, where she reports a tragic lack of Pho. I guess you can only have so many awesome things at one time.
At restaurant Lieu in Berlin, we surrender to the impossibility of putting 16 people at a single table, and Amy and I join French blogger Anthéa and Sudanese reader Patricia for spring rolls and duck curry as well as noodle soups and good conversation. We talk politics, then come to our senses and order wine.
Bewildered by time and the embarrassment of riches that is amazing people everywhere, we surrender the day, and by midnight we are asleep.
A Quarter-day timezone difference is weird. . . And my body really isn’t certain what time it is. We venture downstairs where I begin the conference and Amy moves off for a wander and Bauhaus art.
Berlin is charming, and while speaking English is certainly acceptable everywhere, the locals are extremely willing to smile and nod along with my smattering of German as well, helping me along where I stumble. The game of the trip is “How long can we go at a new place before they know we are American” … the winner being the café who tries us in French when our German is exhausted. Not being “that” tourist? Successful.
The color palette of Berlin is subtle, less bold than southerly cities, and the subtle patina of European age underscores even new construction. There is a sense of durability and experience to the backdrop of every-day life. The city however feels less old than I expected, a result I understand of so much damage from allied bombing during WWII, where only small areas of the city survived totally intact.
The people are charming, and at once seem cosmopolitan and small-town folksy, the food strikingly reminiscent of the result of vibrant immigration one finds in New York, London and the like. The cuisine may be different, but the melange of influences and methods achingly familiar.
The beer is, as one would expect, second to none. Subtle artistry of flavor, many restaurants having their own brew, and for some the yeasts are wild colonies, creating a terroir absolutely unlike anything I’ve ever tasted.
An exception should be noted for “Berliner Weiss mit Schuss” … a local wheat beer which is, according to our bartender, consumed exclusively by tourists. Rather sour, more so than hefeweizen which I adore, it’s served here mixed with a syrup of either raspberry – turning the beer alert red, or woodruff – resulting in acid green. Both remind me of koolaid with a Budwiser poured into them.
New-met friend Marc’s… came with a straw.
The convention is at the midpoint by the end of day 2, delightful people from half the world: Spain and Sweden, France and Senegal. It’s absurdly pleasant to be in the minority as an American, and I’m both relieved and ashamed that so many of the attendees speak English with a facility that I cannot begin to match in turn.
I joined with authors TJ Masters and LA Witt for a live reading, a lovely time and I hope enjoyable for the audience. We ate delightful buffet lunch at the hotel (yes, it was good, a hotel buffet. seriously) and sipped kaffe and drinks at the bar. Coffee is Berlin is among the best I’ve ever found while traveling, with automated machines producing better results than many an apathetic barista. Subtle differences of execution, but great care and attention to detail.
Some cliche are true, and the subtle meticulous attention of the Berliner is one such.
Amy returned from her wanderings, footsore and glazed over from art, culture, and an inadvertent encounter with the Holocaust memorial. As she said “Holy crap… they could warn a girl!”
Dinner found us wandering to the same block of Kurfürsenstaße as the previous night, and slipping in to Restaurant Berlinchin for a delightful dinner and more beer. For Amy, Spaetzel and a grated cheese, for me a schnitzel Jäger art or “hunter style” with a rich mushroom gravy sauce.
We adjourned to the bar at Hotel Berlin, sipped drinks with newfound friends until late.
Berlin, day three. Making eloquent status updates via my cellphone is a challenge, and my internal clock still believes it may be G-thirty, or possibly quarter till the cube root of pi … But a proper night’s rest gets one ready for more adventure.
I arise, and join Amy for kaffe at Bar Einstein on Kurfürstenstraße, which she discovered the day before a mere block from the hotel. Excellent European style frühstück, (that’s breakfast if you’re playing the home game) and vivid coffee served on marble tables in a gilded, arched 19th century parlor.
An interesting feature of Berlin restaurants, and I understand much of Europe: reserved tables. The guests may or may not be there that day, but the table is reserved regardless. That is their table. Please to move to the next one? Thank you.
Day two of the conference was warm and fascinating, and I got to join the panel on audiobooks (the care, feeding, and making of), with Andrew Gray and LA Witt. Charming time, great questions. Had we not been up against the BDSM in romance panel, I suspect we would have merited an even higher turn-out.
Early afternoon saw my responsibilities wrapped up, and Amy and I set off for the Prater Garten to the Northeast, on the former East Berlin side of the wall. An open gathering space with awnings where we ate while the sound of gentle rain kept time.
Late spring and early summer are pfifferlinge season, the beloved chanterelles mushroom. Rich cream and stock soup and fresh bread for me, bread dumplings on mushroom base for Amy, made for lunch in perfection. Our secondary waitress easily and generously sliding into English (bitte) when our German reached its limits with a smile and unaccented “sure, no problem.” (Primary waitress was harried and terse)
Easing rain allowed us to stroll off the pfifferlingezuppe and stumble upon the Zionskirche sitting atop Berlin’s highest hill; we never even noticed climbing it, they are quite modest.
The church was built in the 19th century, and became a hotbed for peaceful resistance to hegemonic great war pressures, third Reich aggression in WW2, and GDR excesses of communist East Germany. The interior patched and battle scarred, the damage worn like proud scars of a long life.
Making the 67m climb to the steeple revealed an astonishing view of the city, as well as the honey bee hives kept by the parish in the windows of the tower. We were also able to get a rare glimpse of the area above the vault space of the main hall.
Berlin is a city of walking and cycling, with traffic that flows readily and, to my eye, with a chaotic grace. It’s like dance night at the eurotrance club: I love it and I’m freaking lost.
I’ve no urge to drive here, and one quickly realizes that part of the sidewalk is a bike lane, and a street every bit as busy as the one a few meters to the left. Walk signals do not have a warning mode, just green and red, and the traffic lights move in a green / yellow / red, yellow, green cycle, unlike the US.
Dinner with the last of the conference gang saw us revisiting Cafe Ambrosius, meters from the hotel and still fantastic. Liverwurst unt blutwurst for Amy and me for dinner, an unpopular choice for Americans, but light in flavor and excellent.
A few drinks, then off to the sauna spa for a soak.
Berlin, day four.
Dawn breaks with the gentle rain that began last night, bringing a surreal beauty to the city, and the world of Berlin sauna kultur.
After dinner last night with friends from the convention at Cafe Ambrosius, we took a taxi North a couple of kilometers to the VaBali Sauna, one of many health spa sauna and relaxation facilities in the city. Just off a residential street (and a startling three blocks from an incarceration facility) VaBali is the true self-confident sort of elegant that generally we only imagine from books and see carefully dressed in stage and cinema.
Evening lent an added air of mystery as we checked in and sorted through the offerings.
A mixed-gender, nude facility, it offers hot sauna rooms, cold and hot pools, restaurant, relaxation rooms, massage therapy, tanning, and more. Guests are given a wrist token which records the services purchased and then you pay at the end. For about 26€ each we spent two hours, with the hire of a towel, enjoying Sauna and soak time. The 11 different themed saunas ranged from a mild 40c to an astonishing 96c (205f) dry room, which by mutual consent was a very short and one-time visit.
Note, images courtesy of VaBali.de, as cameras are understandably not permitted within.
Guests use robes and towels between pools and saunas, wear robes in the restaurant, and it was charmingly creep-free, laid-back, and non-issue.
For the record, if anyone builds one within an hour of my home, I’ll be a member before you can blink.
A taxi back to the hotel, a snack of house-prepared nuts and nibbles, midnight glasses of Sekt (German sparking wine; lovely, semi-dry, with a note of apples) and a good night’s sleep prepared us for a foot tour of the city.
The rain diminished mid-morning as we dressed and strolled to Bar Einstein once again for kaffe to start the day, then onward toward Mitte, the oldest of the boroughs in the city.
Colors, shadows, scents and sounds are stark in Berlin. No other word is sufficient.
The stonework of older buildings in the greys and tans of local stone, more modern buildings of glass and steel and concrete, but the overall effect is one of contrast over brightness. A subtle patina of grit the legacy of increasingly acidic rains, requiring many monuments to now boast their own freestanding roofs.
Scents pass suddenly and with jarring effect from fresh breads and meats, to an ambush of rose and lavender, and then on to short but pungent sewer as one walks the streets.
The height of the buildings is less intense than cities like New York, but there is a sharp-edged sense and strict meter to much of the new construction that leaves one feeling less adrift in a sea of buildings, and more following ever-branching tributaries between
Light-rail, cycle traffic in abundance, and pedestrians galore share the space with cars, buses, and a constant parade of sidewalk eateries. Canals cut through the city, more active with tourist boats now than cargo, but busy nonetheless.
We walk past museum island and the Reichstag, the Brandenburg gate flooded with tour groups from the US, Japan and Mexico. The Fernsehturm needle of the GDR government looms around every corner it seems; as subtle today as when it was constructed in 1969.
Along the river Spree, on Schiffbauerdamm we ate a light meal of French style crepes, stuffed without the very last of the pfifferlinge, a fresh cheese and caramelized onions. Zimt und Zucker cafe serving a gorgeous sun-dappled hour of rest, with an Izetee of cucumber, ginger, lime and mint, very little sugar, and the first ice cubes I’ve had this trip. Delightful.
Many Cafe in the city offer the use of the Toilette (wc) by non-customers, with the request that one leave .50€ for the consideration. A hospitable notion if ever there was one.
Following the rest we forged on, to Brunenviertel and a conserved portion of the Berliner Mauer, the Berlin wall.
Evidence that humanity can pull back from the excesses of hate and greed, and a harsh monument to those who died in that struggle.
Words are painfully inadequate.
Leaving the wall behind, we pass into a quiet residential neighborhood. Old trees and classic buildings. Chilling to think this was once behind the wall and fully into East Berlin. Today, kids on skateboards pop tricks in the park and a couple kisses passionately on a bench.
The wending streets lead us back through Mitte toward the Tiergarten, and we revisit the gate, walking beneath the arch on our way to Berlin’s preserve of the wild.
Wide boulevard paths pass beneath ironwood, beech and maple, the undergrowth so thick there is no passing without breaking trail most places. Cyclists in suits, families lingering over relaxation, some nude sunbathing and the usual metropolis exercisers scatter thorough a green space only slightly smaller than Central Park in Manhattan. 520 acres, but heavily planted and maintained with an eye to remaining wild.
The rose garden sits just off the main path, a monument to the empirical opulence of early Germany. Climbing roses and tea roses, lavender and foxglove and hollyhock and day lily surround a fountain and gorgeous bronzes of stags. We pause for a rest and to literally stop and smell the roses.
Pushing southeast, we pass a pride rally supporting the Iranian LGBT community, small but bold, we smile and say thank you and how wonderful in our brashly confident broken German. The local police stand between the rally and the Iranian embassy, looking – to my great relief – bored.
The last kilometers take us past a single courtyard opening with an open space and solitary bronze statue.
He stands naked, his hands bound with rope and an expression of defeated pride on his face. Sorrow and resignation war with frustration and longing.
To his right, the wall bears a wreath of red stained leaves, a plaque, no more.
No sign remains of the bullets that took the lives of the fathers of the German resistance movement, which brought project Valkyrie to within an inch of assassinating Hitler and changing the course of history.
In one corner of the courtyard, on a balcony belonging to someone as removed from that day as I am, is a flower garden. A solitary explosion of color in a monochrome expanse.
We move on.
Dinner calls to feet that have, by our phone’s reckoning, walked some 19 kilometers that day. We trudge the last kilometer to a final feast of spaetzel (Amy has a … THING going there) and rumpsteak, beer and good conversation. Visiting Restaurant Berlinchen for the last time, we smile and get fine tuning tips on our German from the hostess.
A final drink, and retiring early for a flight to Iceland in the morning, and then back to the US.
DAY FIVE – THE RETURN
The last morning in Berlin dawns, as is so often the case, clear and bright with the promise of so much to see and do.
Me? I’m freaking done in. The time change and long days (Berlin dawn and dusk are a full two hours farther apart than I’m used to) have conspired to wipe me out. If I were staying longer, today would be spent recuperating, surely at VaBali Sauna again, sipping mineral wasser und schnapps, and napping in luxury.
Alas, it is not to be.
We arise and finish packing, then walk to Bar Einstein for the last time. There is quiet reflection and little conversation over much kaffe (ja, drei espresso bitte, und zwei milchkaffe mit ize für die Dame, bitte. Ja. Zwei. Danke) yes dammit, FIVE COFFEES…. Please.
Checkout is easy, the staff at the hotel have been delightful; the concierge especially enjoying answering what must be a break from the common tourist questions, as he shared with enthusiasm his favorite sauna and the place where he and his friends go for bearpit karaoke. If I return to Berlin any time soon, that young man will be a dinner companion for certain.
The taxi to the airport is less intense this time, and we drown our post-check-in sorrows in yet more kaffe, and a croissant shared over backpacks and perusal of photos.
WOW! air will soon take us back to the even more stark shores of Iceland, where we will part ways again and return to daily life.
Security, a short wait, and we’re aboard… bidding good bye to Germany for now. (Customs wouldn’t stamp my passport again so I’d have a stamp from Germany. I asked)
Touchdown in Rekjavik brings an end to chat and bleary games of cribbage. We pay an astonishing $56usd for three sandwiches, two bottles of water, chips and a chocolate bar, and it’s off to our individual connections.
Hugs and fond goodbyes until a next adventure.
Another five hours in the air brings a plane load of some of the most stereotypical Americans (and one voice actor cringing and pretending to be from London) home to the US. Customs cleared and a bad moment rather losing my cool at the bus service… I bail and drop the $50 to ride in comfort to Brooklyn. I’m not proud, but I did have AC.
Familiar ground looks both welcome and surreal, the edges of the world having taken on a slightly fuzzy surreality in the radioactive glare of exhaustion. Friends gather at Loki in Brooklyn to drink wine, relax, and help me stay up enough to not wholly destroy my personal circadian rhythm. I laugh, eat, and manage to respond to the barman in German only twice.
Eventually I droop, head to the table, and it’s time for sleep. (Seriously, I don’t remember being this exhausted since I had a newborn)
Tomorrow it’s time for some email housekeeping, the completion of a tattoo I’ve been working on, then back to the studio and home.
I’ve made new friends, I’ve seen a new city. I’ve fed the addiction that is travel.
Auf wiedersehn Berlin, you are everything I’ve been told and more. I hope you see you again someday, but nothing is certain.
Seeing the world is the most beautiful and brutal of rewards. You know viscerally that in a thousand lifetimes, you could not touch all the lives around you, see everywhere there is to see.
You try, nonetheless.
(More photos to come via Facebook albums.)