Monday, October 1, 2012

Torn Between 2 Cities

People often ask me what it is about Seattle that makes me want to move back there. Especially since Berlin is a virtual paradise.

I always list the same 3 reasons:

  1. Family and friends (the first and foremost of which is my sister – sorry, all you fair contenders, but you ain’t got nothing on my precious little pretty princess snookie wookie!).
  2. Wilderness – mountains, forest, the Sound – and all the outdoor activities that accompany it: backpacking, skiing, boating, etc.
  3. The hills. As silly as it might sound, I find Berlin to be too flat.
But then I think about the things that I love about Berlin that I would miss insanely if I were to move back to Seattle tomorrow. Here are a few that come to mind.

Transport Infrastructure
In Berlin, I never have to get in a car to go anywhere. Even if I have to travel halfway across the city, it can be done within 45 minutes and all by public transport. Subway trains depart every 4 minutes and run all weekend, even through the night. All of my grocery shopping can be done on foot or by bike – there are 4 grocery shops within 2 blocks of my apartment. Commuting to work is a breezy 25-minute bike ride on what is probably the slowest bicycle man has ever known, on bike paths that are on the sidewalk so that cyclists can be separated from automobiles. Motorists expect to have to wait for bikes and pedestrians to cross first when turning right and always look in their rearview mirrors before making the turn. Although there are probably accidents, I've never heard of anyone being killed on a bike in Berlin, at least not since I've been here.

Critical Mass in the States. This is (basically) what it looks like every day in Berlin.

A permeating sense of patience presides over traffic here – there is almost never a need to hurry in Berlin. There seems to be an unspoken understanding that of course there will always be cyclists, motorists and pedestrians, and that chaos would ensue if we all chose the same form of transport. So everyone just chills out and tolerates the others as we all try to get to where we’re going. You never hear any of this BS we throw around in Seattle, where motorists are telling cyclists to buy a car or get off the road, cyclists are spitting in open car windows and slashing tires, pedestrians are honked at for taking too long to cross at the light. Articles such as this one make me want to vomit, and the attitude portrayed is sadly all too common in America (even though that article is from a British publication). There’s no need for all that nonsense. Whether on foot, in a car or on a bike, real Berliners wait patiently for lights  to turn green. As one friend put it: “It’s much easier to just stop and wait. It’ll change soon enough. Deciding on your own when it’s safe to go on red is too much stress.”

Alternative transport > cars
Because of the fantastic infrastructure, there is very little car culture here. Less than half the residents of Berlin own a car. I have never heard a single one of my friends here complain about how hard it was to find a parking space, how high gas/insurance/parking costs have climbed, how they can’t have more than one drink because they are the DD, etc. Going out means taking the subway – there’s no worrying about having to go move the car before the meter runs out, no carless friends needing to bum a ride home, nobody turning down a night out because they know how bad parking can be near the nightlife hubs. I never find myself apologizing to anyone for the long walk to get somewhere because everyone is used to walking long distances and they appreciate the journey – walking somewhere is considered a perk and not just time wasted between point A and point B. Berlin makes it easy, too, because most times you end up traipsing through a nice park or two to get to your destination. Sometimes on the way home after being out with friends, I even get off the subway a few stops earlier, just so I can walk along the canal listening to music on my iPod, staring at the moon through the willow branches and watching white specks of sleeping swan float on the still water.

Landwehrkanal: Best canal.

It’s kind of strange to even label public transit and cycling as“alternative” transportation, since they are both such common things here.

Park culture
In Seattle, heading to the park to hang out with friends and drink a beer in the sunshine would be an activity purely for homeless people. In Berlin it’s standard operating procedure for all. Sometimes you bring a guitar, sometimes a portable grill, sometimes a soccer ball or a Frisbee. If it’s warm enough, you will inevitably end up eating a scoop of gelato at some point. But beer is almost always part of the equation. In fact, beer is allowed everywhere – even on the underground where there are signs expressly prohibiting it, to the point where the signs are more of a suggestion than anything else.

Chillin' in Görlitzer Park

Sure, you can go out dancing in Seattle. And there are some types of dancing there that you just can’t find in Berlin, most notably typical American folk dances such as square dancing (my fave!) and line dancing. But can you go out dancing until 8am the next morning? And take a break to go outside, have a beer and watch the sunrise, and then go back to dancing? No? Well, in Berlin, you can.
You can also dance in abandoned warehouses where at some point, a guy in a beret will ride a fire-breathing dragon made out of motorcycle parts through the crowd. No joke. This really happened at this club.
Another perk of dancing here is the way that people tend to just let you be. No one tries to hit on you, or sneak up behind you and start dancing on you in hopes that you’ll agree to that sort of thing just by complying with their sneaky ways. None of that! It’s total freedom. You just dance the way you want, and let others dance the way they want. It’s the spirit of techno and I LOVE IT.
Your clothing is another thing that doesn’t matter much when going out in Berlin. The competition to out-hipster the other hipsters is pretty prevalent but in my opinion is much more preferable to the short skirts, high heels, suits and ties that seem to be the norm in higher-profile cities. I often wear jeans and a sweatshirt and manage just fine that way. I didn’t really notice this phenomenon until I attempted to go out in Munich a few months ago. There I was overwhelmed by the high volume of well-dressed people on the street on their way to the clubs, so much so that I almost didn’t want to actually enter any of the locales. Luckily, our host led us to the Rote Sonne, an alternative disco-bar filled with what in Berlin would be “normally dressed” people. In Munich they were considered alternative. Go figure.

This is much more common...
...than this.

Once I was in a bar on a Saturday night in Kreuzberg with two friends who had just gotten back from a wedding. They were still in their formal attire and looked quite dapper. In any other major city, they probably would have fit right in, but in Berlin they looked way overdressed. As we were leaving the  bar, we stopped outside to ponder where to go next. A moderately intoxicated young man stumbled up to us to ask for a light. When we replied that we were all non-smokers, he responded by asking why were standing outside. Before we could answer, he furrowed his brow and looked at my two companions, asking, “Where did you guys come from?”, obviously in reference to the suits.  Without missing a beat, one of my friends pointed at the door to the bar and said, “From that bar.” Drunk dude was confused.

Though some folks end up in super-ugly Plattenbau buildings, most people I know here live in really nice, really big apartments. The ceilings are so high that you have to ask yourself what the architects were thinking. "Couldn't they have fit at least two more floors into this building?" you think. And then you realize that high ceilings are awesome. Seriously, with the ceilings being so high and with the wooden floors, I feel like my bedroom is actually a ballroom.
I had to have my bed built more than a meter high so that it even felt right with the high ceilings.
And although the rents have risen in the last few years at a dramatic pace, rent is still dirt cheap compared to every other place I've ever lived.

Berlin junk food
It’s been over a year and I still haven’t tired of Berlin street food. The döner kebap stands proudly in the forefront as being one of the most delicious things you can buy with mere pocket change. A simple grilled triangle of Turkish flatbread filled with yogurt sauce, meat and salad, it sounds too rudimentary to be as delicious as it is. Just writing this makes me contemplate the possibility of having one for dinner tonight. They’ve got two different types in Berlin: one made with meat that is a beef/lamb mixture, and one made of chicken. The chicken döner has the added benefit of including fried veggies, which makes it the better of the two varieties in my book. Hands-down the best place to consume a chicken döner is at Mustafa’s (Ubf Mehringdamm; a 2nd location has recently opened on the corner of Großer Hamburger Straße north of Hackescher Markt). An amazingly tongue-in-cheek video made by the Mustafa folks:

If you are a carnivore and want an absolutely enormous plate of food, there’s no better place to go than Hühnerhaus. They’ve been around since 1995, perched at the entrance to Görlitzer Park, roasting whole chickens on spits and selling them to you complete with garlic cream sauce, sweetly spicy sauce, and your choice of side dish. If I could just place an order of pure roasted chicken skins, I probably would, even though I would feel majorly guilty about wasting the rest of the chicken (“chickens died for our skins”, can I make a Jesus joke here?). The skin is just that delicious. Hühnerhaus has opened a restaurant directly across the street where you have a wider selection of sides, a neat buzzer system for when your order is ready, a plethora of indoor and outdoor seating, large vats of pickled veggies on every table, and (I just found this out last time I was there) FREE FLATBREAD upon request. So good that someone dressed in a chicken suit made a rap about it:

Currywurst is a Berliner delicacy consisting of sliced-up bratwurst doused in a sauce composed of ketchup mixed with curry powder. It is pretty amazing. You really can’t just go to any Joe Schmo currywurst stand, though, because you end up with disgusting hot dog bits swimming in a small pool of low-quality ketchup. Skip the cheapo places and go for the real deal at Curry 36 (Ubf Mehringdamm, same street as Mustafa’s) or Konnopke’s (Ubf Eberswalderstraße). You can even support Konnopke’s offshoot currywurst hole-in-the-wall on Schönhauser Allee, named Ziervogel’s Kult-Curry and run by the son of the owners of Konnopke. Legal battles are still ongoing as to who owns the right to the original recipe.

Currywurst: I just can't get enough.

And of course, anywhere that you can get French fries with mayonnaise is a good place to be. You can get mayo as a fry dip in Seattle but not without having to endure some really strange looks first.

Fat on fat = delicious.

Of course, all of these upsides are hard to focus on when I see a picture of my beloved Seattle.

The Emerald City
 But I know we will be reunited someday. Until then, I will try to revel in the finest distractions that Berlin has to offer - and it's got quite a few of them.