Monday, March 9, 2015
This past weekend, I made my first trip to Berlin since leaving in late 2012. A city I have always been conflicted on, I was surprised at how memorable and personal the city still was to me. Given the exhaustive debate on gentrification and supposed overdevelopment, I expected drastic changes: more or less a city entirely rebuilt in my wake. Berliners, the European torchbearers in the fight against gentrification, hipsterdom and antinazism, have been very vocal on these topics. Owing to this, it was reassuring that so many of my favorite places had barely changed, if it all. With the exception of higher rents and more smokey, minimally decorated bars on side streets, it was like I had never left.
Needless to say, I easily melted back into a few old favorites. Five Elephant Coffee, a coffee shop and roastery on Reichenberger Straße, has excellent roasts and an even better cheesecake made by the German wife of Kris, the Massachusetts expat and part-owner. While always a quality and well-regarded coffee roaster, they have seemed to significantly raised their profile as of late, selling coffee abroad and serving coffee at the German Aeropress Championship. I am convinced that on a sunny day, on bike or with coffee or beer in hand, a walk along the nearby Landwehrkanal is pretty much as good as it gets in Europe.
City Chicken, a Lebanese rotisserie chicken joint where the workers never fail in greeting me as “habibi”, has gargantuan portions and some of the best fast-casual Middle Eastern around. The #1, which has a ½ rotisserie chicken, french fries, salad, pickled cabbage, hummus, garlic sauce and pita, all for €6, is my personal favorite. Kimchi Princess, a new, much-talked about Korean restaurant steps away from the Görlitzer Bahnhof U-bahn station, was delicious but its complicated ordering system and expensive prices left me wondering if it was indeed worth the hype. The Bird, which labels itself as a NYC-style steakhouse, wavers between a solid burger game and ineffectual customer service. Hidden in its lower-case only English language menu are its “ghetto,” “ghetto deluxe,” and “drunk ghetto” burgers, seemingly an indictment of the “ghetto-chic” fascination sweeping Europe. On my return flight, the Ryanair in-flight magazine featured an article on African culture (!) in Paris, entitled “G if For: Ghetto Concept Store.”
It was refreshing to partake in the many, often sinful things that Berlin has that Oslo does not, or that it has at vastly cheaper prices. Being able to buy a drink any time, any day - and should I wish to, enjoy it on the street - is one example. Or going out for a meal and not dropping $20-$30. Norwegian food and alcohol prices are criminal. Only caveat: you have to really enjoy pilseners to get the most out of Berlin’s drinking scene. Man, this Californian laments and misses easily obtainable and drinkable IPAs. As an architectural enthusiast, Berlin’s circus of polarizing, conflicting architecture styles is always a delight. Though I did not make it out to Mies’ timeless Neue Nationalgalerie, I did revel in the battered façades of my old stomping grounds - Kruezberg and Neukölln - and the austere post-war Modernism vision prevalent in West Berlin. Scattered in between are several examples of avant garde contemporary architecture. I visited both the Holocaust Memorial and Jewish Museum, things I never got around to doing while living in Berlin.
For those with the impression that East Berlin is the German arbeiter of all things depressing and inhumanely scaled, West Berlin gives the formerly communist East some serious competition. As the wealthy, capitalist West had the resources to initiate and implement ambitious building schemes, and the money to draw ranking architectural talent of the day. Much of the former West feels empty, soulless and commercialized in the saddest of ways. The cool, new 25hours Hotel Bikini Berlin, a redeveloped mid-century shopping mall, is a step in the right direction - finally a stronghold of Berlin’s popular youth culture in the old, bourgeoisie West. Overlooking the city’s neglected and underfunded Zoo, the views from its rooms and indie boutiques are surprisingly quaint and romantic.
For all of my love for Berlin, coming from Scandinavia, some things feel decidedly old school. The cash-only restaurants; smoking in bars; broken, dog shit-covered sidewalks; men’s only Turkish/Arab shisha houses and gambling rooms. Sonnenallee, a major north-south thoroughfare in Neukölln, best exemplifies this. Even if payment machines accepted cards, they almost certainly would not accept chip-lacking American models. That, the relative absence of meaningfully employed youth, and the strong aversion to smartphones (The Wire-like burners are still a thing) and such, can definitely lend a circa-1978 quality to the city. Still, with its colorful and often tragic history, laissez-affaire approach to life, and bristling with youthful energy, Berlin is a city forever in my heart, warts and blemishes and all.
Bauhaus architecture in Neukölln.
Typical Berlin being Berlin. Görlitzer Park.