Walking back to the apartment after our run, Josh pointed up at the long and stately row of buildings across the street, shining white in the hazy morning sun. “That’s really beautiful,” he said, and I was silent. Not because it wasn’t beautiful, but because it was, and I had walked past that row of buildings nearly every day for the last four years without ever thinking about it.
There’s something about showing someone your city that makes you see it with fresh eyes. The mundane becomes magical. Places and routines you take for granted feel novel, inspired even. Your life is just your life, and you’re just living it, but with new perspective, even your life suddenly has its own special appeal.
Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time learning to re-see Berlin. Josh Hamlet, founder of Counter Service and old friend extraordinaire, arrived on a dark Monday night in mid-October and stayed with me in Schöneberg for nearly a month, writing, talking, dreaming, eating, living. We’d been planning our spate of collaborative projects for nearly half a year, and to suddenly find ourselves in it was almost surprising. “This is happening,” we said, and clinked our glasses together over the small kitchen table.
Josh and I met at Davidson in 2006, were friends throughout college, and in my senior year, his junior year, started Eat Me. Drink Me. together as part of an independent study in food writing. What’s the Reader’s Digest version of our lives? I moved to New York, I moved to Berlin, I became a translator, I became the editor of a literary magazine, I started The Wolf & Peter. Josh moved to South Korea, Josh moved to New York (but after I left New York), he worked in restaurants, helped start some restaurants, he founded Counter Service. And eleven years later, there we were, sitting in my kitchen, sharing a beer.
Now that it’s over, I’m finding it hard to sum up what that month was like. It was both totally outside of my routine and all the best parts of it smashed together. We spent time working at my favorite neighborhood café, Taubenschlag, over croissants, cappuccinos, and plates of scrambled eggs made of mostly butter, embarked on pilgrimages to Double Eye for galãos to go, had spicy beef and sesame döner from Imren, stopped at Schöneberg’s most riotous Späti, where an excess of everything – beers, soft drinks, rolling papers, chewing gum, cigarettes, snacks – spills across every surface, fills crates, and seems to cascade down the walls. We spent two whole glorious evenings binge watching Stranger Things 2.
We went to Henne for hot and crispy-skinned half chickens with pale, amorphous sides of potato salad and coleslaw, wore our best black turtlenecks to a dimly-lit evening of fine dining at Lode & Stijn, and ravenously ate our way through the tasting menu at Kin Dee. We drank classic cocktails at the bar in the vintage-tinged lamplight of Victoria Bar and bottled pils sitting crammed into a crowded, candle-lit corner at Hotel. At the Turkish market, we tore hot strips of pastry-wrapped spinach from a gözleme to keep our fingers warm, and in the clean, hipster aesthetic at Hermann’s, we spoke only English and sat at a table littered with succulents.
We rode our bikes everywhere, even as the temperature steadily dipped and the trees lost their brilliant plumage to ferocious night winds. In the mornings, we ran the rain-mucked paths crisscrossing the Rathauspark and in the afternoons, walked through the city’s neighborhoods, crossing the canal from “clean” to “dirty” Kreuzberg, wandering around the stately Akazienkiez on a particularly beautiful, sun-dappled day, and braving the grit of Wedding on a day that was its exact opposite. And I was continually struck by how this is a city of contrasts and coexistence.
Because of the way Berlin is structured, it often feels as though you’re not in one city, but are stumbling through a series of smaller cities, each with their own distinct vibe. It’s not unlike the districts or boroughs of other big cities, but in Berlin, each of those neighborhoods is further divided into Kiezes, which usually center around a main street, like the Bergmannkiez in Kreuzberg or the Schillerkiez in Neukölln. Though I live near enough Schöneberg’s Akazienkiez that I can be in its heart within two city blocks, I can’t say I live in the Akazienkiez. There’s a very distinct boundary around a Kiez that has less to do with street names and more with emotional tenor.
Where I live is Kiezless, just another nondescript Berlin block of solid-looking postwar buildings quickly erected after bombing decimated much of the city. Between the Kiezes, there are vast pockets like these with very little life in them, minus the odd casino, Späti, or seedy corner bar with scripted gold lettering fading from the sign above the door. But if you stroll around long enough, without apparent pattern or plan, you’ll suddenly emerge into a pocket of life: restaurants, cafés, bars, and shops, pedestrians, and clusters of non-bombed buildings for visual relief.
I’ve always lived along the U7 subway line, and the neighborhoods I know best are Schöneberg, Neukölln, and Kreuzberg. Even within the ring, the train line that circles the inner part of the city, there are some neighborhoods that feel absolutely foreign to me, like Friedrichshain in the upper east or Charlottenburg out to the west. The other night, I found myself in Friedrichshain for a meeting, and it felt like I’d left my Berlin entirely – I could have been in Budapest, Prague, Paris, anywhere. And it was strange to think of the people who lived in those apartment buildings feeling just as out of place in Schöneberg.
But for all its differences, there’s still something about this city that pulls people in and makes its parts cohere in some strange, yet tangible way. It’s a city that doesn’t overvalue appearances. The grimiest alleys can hold the most exciting surprises, lackluster edifices house incredible restaurants, and its inhabitants may not be the most fashion-forward, but their minds are always pushing boundaries.
It’s a city that doesn’t mind doing something that’s been done before, but owning it with enthusiasm. Street food isn’t passé, craft beer is newly booming, rosemary in cocktails is cool – but for the most part, it doesn’t feel gimmicky or primed for Instagram. And it won’t replace the Berlin money can’t buy. We’re excited about the new gastro pub with natural wines, but we don’t want it at the expense of what has always made this city such a special place – its wild spirit, sense of individualism, a tendency to disregard the rules, and in excess doses: creativity.
And that creativity was something Josh and I plugged into – whether that meant hosting a two-day food writing workshop in a design atelier slated for demolition, filming video clips in Schöneberg, interviewing people in Berlin’s food scene, or preparing for our pop-up supper club at Violet bakery in London. And though it was a month that totally ousted me from my regular routine, it left me with my eyes open.