A Weekend in Berlin

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Kristen Frederickson

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We – John and me, Avery and her chum Daisy – are home from three exhausting, fascinating, heart-wrenching days in Berlin. Be sure to check out the slideshow for some of the results of our four cameras. Photographs, even more than words, convey the extraordinary contradictions in this complicated city.

It was a journey more than a holiday, with Berlin’s desperate, lonely, tragic character larger than life on the world stage. But at the same time, there is a youthful buoyancy to the culture, a joy in cultural expression that raises graffiti to an art form. I’m not sure I would have recognized that without our two teenagers to appreciate it and record it with their cameras.

We decided to rent an apartment rather than stay in a hotel, as is our habit ever since we went to Venice several years ago and I was in a fever of frustration at not being able to cook. Having to figure out where to shop for ingredients, how to express what and how many of something you want in a language you’re not fluent in, gets you right under the tourist experience and gives you a glimpse of what it’s like to be a Berliner.

And thank goodness we did have a kitchen of our own, because our restaurant adventures in Berlin were a bit disappointing. I’ve never been a “do-over” sort of person – as in constantly asking myself what I would do over if I could, but Berlin’s food tested my optimist limits. “You know,” my friends said when they heard where we were going, “Germany isn’t known for its food.” “That sounds unfair,” I insisted. “What about all that wurst? You know, liverwurst and
bratwurst, and…”

We arrived late at night and stood shivering outside our apartment building, waiting for the owner to bring the key. “Let’s go exploring, girls,” I said. “John can wait for the key.” So we sauntered down the street in the former East Berlin neighbourhood of Mitte, passing seedy shops with names like “Cocaine Cowboy,” peering into darkened pharmacies and lebensmittelen, which are the German equivalent of convenience stores. I felt my usual frisson of fascination at foreign food!

We popped into one shop, shabby and piled high with shelves full of boxes and jars in a language we could not understand. In the increasingly Starbucks-ized modern world, I love finding myself in a place that is truly of its own culture. There were many different types of what looked like hot dogs suspended in liquid, bags of what looked like potato chips but flavoured with something none of us could translate. We picked up the essentials: a loaf of white bread I would never normally buy in London or America, but it was brot, it was German, it was local. It had to be good. I felt just the same about a package of what looked like Kraft American cheese, not something I would ordinarily succumb to, but it was kase which sounded exotic, so into the basket it went. A box of eier (eggs), a package of speck (similar to bacon) and a carton of what I could translate as “super high in Vitamin C orange juice,” and I could project tomorrow’s breakfast. The girls, of course, bought German chocolate.

Our breakfast the next day exceeded all our greedy expectations. There is nothing like a European egg, its yolk a bright improbable orange, its flavor incomparably rich. And the speck! Glossy with a perfect fattiness, salty and crisp. The bread and cheese glowed with preservatives and romanticism. We were shored up for our day of tourism.

On our way to the phenomenal Jewish Museum, we were distracted into a visit to the Berlin Museum. What a sublime collection of modern art. So much of it political and tragic – as so much of everything is in Berlin. We were overwhelmed, emotional, tired and hungry when we left. Just the sort of state in which people make impulsive decisions… like popping in for lunch at the nearby Yezda’s Diner. I do not know who Yezda is, so I cannot blame her for what was a terrible meal. “How can food be this shiny and hard?” Avery wondered rhetorically as she poked at the cheeseburger she and Daisy had each ordered. We escaped into the street and walked along feeling we’d swallowed a tire, and promptly came upon this gem, Soup Kultur. Oh, I want to go back to Berlin right now, just remembering the menu in the window. Creamy tomato soup, leek and kartoffeln (potato soup) and best of all, “Rosi’s Hähnchen Penicillin,” which at first puzzled us and made me doubt my ability to read menu German. Suddenly I remembered the clichéd New York expression that chicken soup is Jewish penicillin. Hähnchen being chicken. Please promise me that if you go to Berlin, you will visit Soup Kultur and report back.

After an exhausting day, we dropped into a supermarket on our way home and, leaving the girls to peruse the shelves of foreign toothpaste and shampoo, I bought ingredients for spaghetti carbonara, taking advantage of a veritable SLAB of speck which lent its smoky magic to the sauce, along with the grated kaiserkase, a hard German cheese similar to Gruyere.

The next day we made our way across town, passing the incredible Berlin Cathedral, and dropped intto the fascinating time capsule that is the DDR Museum. We all agreed to have lunch first at the well-reviewed museum cafe, so as not to be distracted in the museum by hunger pangs. It was true: we were no longer hungry. But not in a good way.

We decided each to order something different, so as to have a variety of things to try. It was not a success. Four different types of fleisch (meat) in various unpleasant sauces. “At least my dish is listed on the menu as being Erik Honecker’s favourite,” John said, leading us all to have a new theory of why the Berlin wall fell. Honecker was too hungry to object. The best thing we had at lunch was Vita-Cola, East Germany’s 1957 answer to Pepsi and Coke. You can order it in regular flavour, or “black” (they taste exactly the same).

Is it possible to feel nostalgic for something you’ve never had? Wurst! Real German Wurst and sauerkraut, from a street cart. We passed so many of these carts, and also little huts advertising various types of true German wurst, including currywurst, the notion of which obsessed me the whole of our holiday. What could it be? A hot dog in a curry sauce? A wurst made from a pig raised on curry powder? The girls hustled me past all such carts, having a youthful disdain for weird-sounding food. But the thought of what could have been haunts me now we’re home.

On a long walk through the East Berlin neighborhood of Mitte, the girls found endless displays of the city’s famous graffiti art to photograph. I, happily, found Bio Company. This store was like a mini-Whole Foods, a positive mecca for organic produce, meat, cheeses and the inimitable display of cured meats that only Germany can produce. I bought more than I actually needed because the atmosphere was so beguiling. I tried out my German on the dairy stocking lady because I simply couldn’t stay silent. “I LOVE your shop!” She looked at me in total bewilderment and then handed me a container of sheep’s milk yogurt and then another in a different flavor. I was puzzled, until I realized that German for yogurt is schaf. She must have thought I was some bizarre American cultured-milk fanatic. “I LOVE your Schaf!”

I bought a pot of auberginen pastete (eggplant paté), which proved to be gorgeous, garlicky and salty with chunks of eggplant. I bought a package of lieblings-puffer, a sort of potato pancakes described on the label as “thick and crispy.” I figured out what rinde meant (beef) and picked up four gorgeous fillets, a head of garlic, a pile of mushrooms and a quantity of thick German cream. I had to be dragged out of the shop kicking and screaming. That night I cooked happily in our tiny Ikea kitchen, producing a deliciously savory, creamy mushroom sauce for our steaks. The potato pancakes? Well, I was hampered by not being able to read the instructions, which it turned out involved frying in a quantity of an oil I did not have. They were a bit peculiar, just baked, but we were happy anyway, chewing and chatting and listening to the nightly news and picking up the odd word or two.

Our final lunch in Berlin was actually a destination, written up in the German Elle magazine I perused in a vintage clothing store while Avery and Daisy tried on every garment in the place. It was also featured in the cute “Wallpaper” guide to Berlin we’d brought along, as being the “best baked potato restaurant in Berlin.” “Surely it is the ONLY baked potato restaurant in Berlin,” John said. In any case, we made our way to Bixels, a charming black-board-lined room furnished with a giant community farmhouse table and redolent of the crunchy, brown, salty smell of baked potatoes. What could go wrong?

We three ladies ordered the truffle oil/goat/cheese/spinach/yogurt version. John went for the Argentine beef/carrot/apple/yogurt version. “Unusual,” I volunteered cheerfully. And COLD, as it turned out. We chewed in silence for a time, trying desperately to think of something positive to say. Finally the girls swept aside their toppings and brought up tiny fragments of still-warm potato, gasping for air from under the weight of cold yogurt. We distracted ourselves by looking at the amazingly prolific and amusing hangman graffiti adorning the walls.

Walking back to the apartment, we passed Vietnamese restaurants, Thai restaurants, endless sushi restaurants. I felt regretful that I had succumbed to my desire to eat only German food while we were in Berlin. Maybe ethnic food is the way to go? Or Rosi’s Penicillin.

It was time to go home. At the airport I succumbed to a vacuum-packed trio of currywursts which I put in my handbag. In the flurry of unpacking at home, I left them there, in my bag, overnight. In the morning I thought, “Food poisoning from an unrefrigerated airport snack would be such an ignominious way to die,” and pitched them in the rubbish.

It was a fitting end to our culinary tour of Berlin. I know I missed everything important, so we’re going back. Armed with your suggestions, I hope.

Have you ever missed out on a city’s culinary offerings?

Photo Credit: Avery Curran