Kitschy Nudist Commies and Other Berlin Delights

We can see the end of our journey quite clearly. In less than four weeks we’ll be back in our beds, and snuggling in with our dogs and our cat (well, not our cat because she doesn’t do that sort of thing). Perhaps that’s why the first thing we did when we arrived in Berlin was to go for Mexican food.

When we lived in Japan we used to take a two hour train ride into Tokyo to eat at El Torito so that we could have Mexican food that was bad even by El Torito’s standards. But it made us happy because it reminded us of home. That must have been on our minds when we arrived here and were willing to spend ten bucks on a cab to take us to a Mexican takeout joint in Berlin. It was actually pretty good, considering the circumstances, but it was the symbolism of the act more than anything else that struck me.

We’re winding down. We’re starting to think of home. Does that make us bad people? I certainly hope not.

This is not to say that we spend our days huddling in the corner of our apartment, pining for the fog and the drought and the beginning of the presidential primary season. No, friends, we’re travelers and travelers travel. Throughout this trip, we have tried not to look too far ahead for fear of cheating the present. It’s getting a little harder not to look ahead, but we’re going to give it the old college try.

Herewith, then, are highlights of our relatively brief visit to Berlin.

We squeezed Berlin into the schedule because people just kept talking about it. It’s a new and vibrant city, people say. There’s opera, ballet, one of the best symphonies in the world, and an exciting new art scene.

All those things may be true, but what has struck me about Berlin is the wall. Of course the wall is gone. People wiped it away because it was bad. It divided a country, it divided families, and it was a terrible symbol of the stark difference in the lives of people from the same country who in some places lived just a few hundred feet from each other. Walking around Berlin today it’s hard to imagine that twenty five years ago there were one hundred twenty four miles of wall encircling West Berlin, whose purpose was to keep the population of East Germany out.

Our apartment in Prenzlaur Berg sits on the east side of the dividing line, just one block from where the wall used to stand. A casual visitor to the neighborhood couldn’t possibly tell that this was the poor side of town. There are malls, cute little cafes, movie theaters, and yes, Mexican restaurants. A time traveler from 1989 would fall over dead.

Maybe the most famous symbol of the border between east and west Berlin is Checkpoint Charlie – one of the few spots where people could cross from one side to the other. Of course it was impossible for regular East Germans to make the trip to the west, but westerners were allowed to cross, as were diplomats and other credentialed people. There’s nothing original left of the old gate (the real one is in a museum, so visitors have to satisfy themselves with taking photos of a replica, including the famous “you are leaving the American sector” sign). No matter, the fake gate looks real enough, and it’s not hard to imagine the tension inherent in two cold war powers staring each other down across a short no man’s land.

There's almost nothing original left at Checkpoint Charlie, but it is still a place where many people lost their lives trying to escape to the west.

There’s almost nothing original left at Checkpoint Charlie, but it is still a place where many people lost their lives trying to escape to the west.

If you have trouble conjuring up the image, there are no shortage of exhibits and museums that will fill in the blanks. The cheesiest is the DDR Museum – a kitschy exhibition of life behind the iron curtain. There you can sit in a Trabant, which was considered one of the world’s worst cars, but which was a symbol of East German engineering. (It famously didn’t have a gas gauge, as designers believed that what didn’t exist couldn’t break.) There is a replica of a standard-issue East German apartment (although I’m sure a great many New Yorkers would trade their hovels for one of these places, as long as they were still walking distance to Zabar’s), and some snarky displays about life in the East. It also included, inexplicably, a display on East German’s love of nudist camps, complete with a bizarre diorama.

A diorama of East German nudists playing volleyball - truly the weirdest museum exhibit I've ever seen.

A diorama of East German nudists playing volleyball – truly the weirdest museum exhibit I’ve ever seen.

The whole museum is a bit of a victory lap, but it’s an informative and entertaining one. The shocking bit is that until 1989, a time that many of us remember quite well, that’s what life was more or less like in the very neighborhood in which I’m typing these words. Now I can walk across the street and get a latte.

One of the great symbols of Berlin is the neo Baroque Reichstag building. The building was the home of German parliament from 1894 to 1933, when it burned under mysterious circumstances. After World War II, the West German government moved to Bonn, and the building sat here, unloved and disintegrating. An attempt at restoration in the 1960s was a bit of a bust, but German reunification in 1990 provided the impetus to restore the building properly as the seat of government was returned to Berlin. The British architect Norman Foster reimagined the building in very good ways, replacing the destroyed cupola with a glass dome, from which you can look all the way down into the legislative chamber. The bad news is that you need a ticket to get into the dome (although the tickets are free) and when we arrived to Berlin, the tickets were all gone. The good news is that there is a glorious loophole to the ticket problem. There is a restaurant in the dome and anyone with a reservation to the restaurant naturally gains access to the dome, so we went the loophole route. The bad news is that the food and the service aren’t quite as good as the view. But the good news is that the view and the free audio commentary provide a great vantage point to see the city and learn about its history.

The funhouse mirror effect of standing in the dome of the Reichstag.

The funhouse mirror effect of standing in the dome of the Reichstag.

We also made time for the Bauhaus Archive, which displays a collection from the famous school of art and design, where so many modern design ideas got their start. From furniture to architecture to everyday household items like lamps or even chessboards, Bauhaus designers created work that was meant to be inexpensive to produce, practical to use, and beautiful in its simplicity. Much of today’s so-called “design thinking” owes a huge debt to Bauhaus, as does the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and almost every Airbnb apartment, furnished as they invariably are at Ikea, which is full of Bauhaus-inspired stuff, whether they realize it or not.

A Bauhaus chess set - the pieces tell you how they move.

A Bauhaus chess set – the pieces tell you how they move.

Two meals stood out during our visit. The first sounds awful but was really, really great. At the advice of a friend of Janine, we skedaddled over to the Kaufhaus des Westens (the department store of the west), more popularly known as the KaDeWe, a department store that has served Berlin in one form or another since 1907. Department stores are fine, but this one has a food hall that makes it a real destination. There are counters sprinkled around the sixth floor in between butchers, fish mongers, and sellers of wine, produce, and other good stuff, including, by far, the stinkiest cheese display I’ve ever laid nose on. The counters serve up an equally wide array of gourmet goodness, and after much consideration, we settled on a food counter that specialized in, of all things, potatoes. Janine had a baked potato the size of a basketball, and I opted for pickled pork in aspic served with thin sliced potatoes that were cooked in bacon and onions. Our stools at the counter provided us with the perfect vantage point of the dish as it was being constructed. A chef would ladle some liquid lipid into a pan, then he would toss in a big pile of sliced potatoes, then some bacon and onions, then more viscuous grease, and then cook it until the whole pile was brown and delicious and deeply dangerous. The dark brown German lager with a foamy head like a dirty blonde afro rounded out the dish, and my silhouette.

If I keep eating like this, I will be in no condition to either bicker or love.

If I keep eating like this, I will be in no condition to either bicker or love.

And now a word about the second meal, Berlin’s most famous food item, currywurst. The word is…meh. Currywurst is simple, but this is a reminder that simple isn’t by definition good. Currywurst is a hot dog cut up into inch-long pieces, sprinkled with curry powder, and drowned in ketchup. It was fine, if you like that sort of thing, but honestly I just don’t see what the big deal is. On the other hand, I saw a guy selling hot dogs from a portable grill that was hanging around his neck. Now THAT’S dedication in service to an important cause. More grilled hot dogs, I say, and less currywurst.

Currywurst. Not the best.

Currywurst. Not the best.

And so, having not nearly done Berlin the justice it so richly deserves, we pack our two bags and make for Wales, where we will visit our dear friend Mark and try to convince him that Wales needs to buy a vowel.

After that we are off to Scotland and then London, and then home on May 11. Hard to believe.