This blog entry about the events of Tuesday, August 21, 2012 was originally posted on August 23, 2012.
PART 1 (DAYS 1-2): Everything was going exactly as I’d been informed. I was following the detailed email directions from my friend Dani, who had explained in the simplest terms, how to get from Berlin’s Tegel airport, in the northwest part of the city, to her and her husband’s home in the Neukölln neighborhood in the southeast. It was an easy affair — even after being on a sleep-deprived redeye from New York via Brussels — except for the last part: the key she said she’d leave under the doormat in front of the apartment door wasn’t there. So I rang the bell, hoping someone was home.
“Hallo?” I heard a voice from inside, before the door opened. Through the doorway was a familiar and surprised, smiling American face.
“I was just thinking Erik might show up before I left, and here you are!” Dani, short for Danielle, said as we hugged. She and her husband Phil were good friends of mine back in my neighborhood in Brooklyn — until they decided to relocate (at least for a couple of years) to Phil’s birthplace of Berlin three months ago. I was the first of their New York friends to visit.
“Make yourself at home,” she pleaded to me. It wouldn’t be hard; they had a great home that was out of a page of an Ikea catalog (the ones in the beginning with all the showcase rooms), with tons of natural light, a balcony, and tons of space — especially if you compare it to New York standards. The only drawback was the six flights of stairs you have to walk up to get there, but hey, I could definitely use the exercise.
Dani had to rush off to work, and so I was on my own until the evening. I was tired and jetlagged, but it was so bright and warm out, I went for a walk.
PHIL (via iMessage): how you liking my crib son?… check the hood on google maps. there is a canal behind the house… walk by the water to maybachufer…
ME: Achso achso
PHIL: welcome to Germany bitch!
IT HAD BEEN EIGHT YEARS since my last visit to Germany’s capital city and a lot had changed. First, I was a different person, older and over the “backpacker thing” (but still immature). If you recall, I’d stayed in a hostel dorm in the then up-and-coming Mitte district. Eight years later, Mitte had grown up too, and had up and come indeed. In fact, it had even gone overboard with lots of galleries, trendy cafes, and businesses — and with it, spiked real estate prices.
I walked down memory lane to Mitte from Phil and Dani’s flat, which was a lot farther than I thought it was. I did take Phil’s advice to see the nearby canal, and the nearby parks which led up to the Spree River, but then I saw Berlin’s iconic TV Tower in the distance and figured it wasn’t that far. Two and a half hours of walking later, I realized that objects aren’t necessarily closer than they appear.
I almost didn’t recognize Mitte when I finally got there. Sure my old U-bahn stop was there, plus the Dada Falafel place was still there — the falafel joint I once declared the best falafel I ever had outside the Middle East. Eight years later and Dada had doubled in size and was now surrounded by galleries and other restaurants, plus boutiques and other fancy places like New York’s SoHo. At least the falafel sandwich was still awesome.
In contrast, Neukölln was the new up and coming district, and it was back there that I met up with Phil at his apartment after I’d made my way back via S- and U-bahn trains — but not without a short nap in a hammock chair in a park by the Spree.
Phil greeted me — woke me rather — as he found me passed out not in a hammock, but on his couch with a PS3 controller in my hand after I’d fallen asleep during a really long cut scene in Mass Effect 3.
“Huh? What? What are you wearing?” was my groggy, nonsensical reply.
“Do you even know where you are right now?”
It took me a while to focus and my good buddy Phil from Brooklyn was in front of me. He had just come home from work via bicycle — a very Berliner thing to do in a very bike-friendly city — and was ready to hang out as we used to in Brooklyn.
With that said, it was a very Brooklyn/Berlin — a.k.a. Berklyn (something I just made up) — night indeed. In typical Phil and Erik fashion, we hopped on bikes (he had a spare) to grab a bite to eat (doner kebabs and beer), before riding around from Berklyn bar to Berklyn bar — just like old times. Club der Visionäre, on the edge of the canal, was just like Union Pool in our old Williamsburg hood in Brooklyn, with young Berliner hipschters drinking outside trying to be cool. Tier, where we met up with Dani, was like our old No Name Bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with a quieter, more laid back yupschter scene. Beers and conversation flowed, as if our transported selves didn’t realize we were someplace else than the usual. We even ended the night drinking beers on the couch, watching Stewart and Colbert via a VPN connection and Hulu Plus. And the following day, the Brooklyn-like hanging out continued when we met up with Phil’s friend Aaron, whom I met and hung out with during his visits to New York.
And so, I did make myself at home as Dani wanted, not just in the apartment, but all around town riding the spare bike, which is something I often do back in Brooklyn anyway. Some regard Berlin to be “the Brooklyn of Germany” and it’s easy to make some comparisons with its bike-riding culture, it’s graffiti and music scenes, and it’s liberal attitude. It was nice to just chill out and ride around and experience it all when my friends were at work, and not really do the tourist thing since I’d done that already on a previous trip. With that said, it was hard to resist riding by some iconic Berlin sights: the graffiti murals of the East Side Gallery (formerly a part of the Berlin Wall, picture above), Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the Hauptbahnhof, the Holocaust Memorial (which hadn’t been completed during my last time), and the Tiergarten. I also ate some typical German Berliner foods: currywürst and bratwurst.
So some things were different in Berlin than in Brooklyn, although some things stay the same, wherever you are. “Remember when I said I’d kill you last?” Aaron said in an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent as we had coffee and lemonade in Mitte. “I lied.”
“We’re already on the Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions?” Phil wondered aloud. “Don’t disturb my friend, he’s dead tired.” It was a common habit that we did back in Brooklyn — and being in Berlin would be no different.
Alas, my time in Berklyn was short, but I’d return the following week for a few more days, after zipping around Europe to work and play with other friends. In the words of the great German impressionist Phil Langer, “I’ll be bahck.”
Berlin’s Neukölln is like Brooklyn’s Bushwick, where it was once a sketchy neighborhood that has slowly become the new hip, gentrified neighborhood — just swap Turks for Latinos. Phil told me to watch out because there’s still some animosity towards the new faces.
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “They’ll think I’m one of them.”
Next entry: The Jester in Geneva
Previous entry: The Return of Indie
And now, off to CERN…
Posted by on 08/23 at 01:42 AM
Yay! A new blog! Perfect for this new mom up in the middle of the night!
Posted by on 08/23 at 03:29 AM
Berlin! I love it and I’ve missed your blogs! I ran the Berlin marathon last fall and spent a week in the city. It is a little like Brooklyn there.
Posted by sara on 08/23 at 03:31 PM
The Jester in Geneva
The Return of Indie
THE GLOBAL TRIP GLOSSARY
Confused at some of the jargon that's developed with this blog and its readers over the years? Here's what they mean:1981ers: people born after 1981. Originally, this was to designate groups of young backpackers fresh out of school, many of which were loud, boorish and/or annoying. However, time has passed and 1981ers have matured and have been quite pleasant to travel with. The term still refers to young annoying backpackers, regardless of year.