My mom always told me that Hasenheide was a dangerous place. And it can be. Like many parks in Berlin, there’s an active, obvious drug trade that’s only a little annoying by day, but a little frightening at night. (It’s kind of like taking candy from strangers, isn’t it?) So for a long time, I didn’t go there. It didn’t help, of course, that when I moved to Berlin, the nearest entrance to the Hasenheide was along a rather desolate stretch of street that made the park seem doubly foreboding. I lived in Berlin for two whole years before stepping foot inside the park, I tell Jordi, as we walk through it, and as someone offers to sell us pot.
Today is a rather grim day, the sun hiding behind rain-heavy clouds, though we’re just nearing lunch time, and even in winter Berlin, the sun hasn’t set yet. The sloping hills of Hasenheide and its hidden green inlets are visible between the stark trunks of stripped trees. We’ve cut through the park because it’s the fastest way to get from Soluna Brot und Öl in Kreuzberg, the last stop on our Berlin food tour, to Schiller Burger in Neukölln, the next. We’re finding the park surprisingly big, but also beautiful in its slick bleak wetness.
I’m thinking about how places become yours in cities, as we walk through a park that’s bordered two of my past neighborhoods without ever becoming mine. You discover some places by accident, others are recommended by friends. Some places you really like, you never return to. Others you didn’t feel much for at first, you find yourself in again and again.
Schiller Burger was a staple of my life in Neukölln, especially on lazy weekends, when David and I would interrupt a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air marathon only to walk up the hill from Rathaus Neukölln past Spätis and junk shops and old German dive bars with lace curtains on the windows like someone’s dark, faded living room. Our reward was a thick, juicy patty with cheese and lettuce and tomato and sometimes even avocado alongside sweet potato fries dipped in garlicky aioli. The burgers were always giant, and we’d limp home holding our bellies to finish watching whatever shenanigans Will and Carlton’s were up to next.
Now, there’s a smorgasbord of burger places in Berlin, each with fancier toppings than the next. And though many of them are very good, for me, Schiller Burger will always be my place. It’s a party of my story.
So is Five Elephant, the first café I found in Berlin that reminded me of Brooklyn with its laptop-littered wooden tables, clean aesthetics and excellent coffee. Today, the laptops are relegated to a little corner, but it makes sense, considering how many people come to this small café to drink coffee with friends, read the paper – and especially eat the famous cheesecake.
David makes fun of me, because every time we walk along the canal with other people, I can’t resist the urge to encourage them to go try Five Elephant’s cheesecake. He says I say the same thing every time, in the same words. It’s like my mantra.
But if you’ve ever had that cheesecake, you know. It’s the best I’ve eaten anywhere in the world – including every single slice of cheesecake I gobbled up in New York. And so far, everyone I’ve taken there agrees.
The café is full when Jordi and I arrive, so we take advantage of the lull in the drizzly weather to sit outside with our coffee and cake. But the sun is stubbornly gone behind the clouds, and the wind is whisking colder over my cappuccino foam. I’m longing for summer.
In Berlin, summer is a place you own too. Every café inverts itself and spills out onto the sidewalk. The Landwehr Canal glints with sunshine broken by the swans’ graceful wake. Everyone is having a picnic. Everyone is a flaneur. Everyone is at an outdoor market. As long as it’s outside, everyone is there.
But today it’s still winter, and we’re getting tired. We gird our jackets and scarves close around our necks and keep walking north to finish up our day with dinner and whiskey. At the entrance to Görlizter Park, a man offers to sell us pot. We say no and push on through the bleak specter of the park that, in summer, hums with activity and energy. In winter, you take what you can get – a burger, a cheesecake, a hot, frothy espresso with steamed milk – but you never, never take candy from strangers.
This post is the second part in a three-part installment. Thanks to Jordi Garcia-Rodriguez of No Solo Travel Chronicles for his filmmaking skills. Read more about Jordi’s project here, and watch part 1 of Eating Berlin here.