It was time for a holiday – I was exhausted in my bones. I headed off to Berlin for a few days of alone time – to feed my soul with culture, food and sleep.
The last thing I wanted to do was get on the easyjet plane and spend two hours in a tin can surrounded by everyone else and their germs, but there was a bigger win at the end of it. There was light at the end of this tin can. So I plugged in some “Gypsy” by Fleetwood Mac and luxuriated in The Economist from cover to cover, getting my last dose of political and economic reality before going AWOL. I had coffee, protein bars and no screaming babies within a five seat radius – this was turning out to be ok…
Before landing I looked up instructions to get the airport shuttle to the city centre, quickly concluded ‘f*ck that sh*t’, and poured myself into a cab instead. I chatted away in German with my taxi driver as he drove me from Tegel to Friedrichstrasse – he was Turkish and spoke no English so it was a perfect opportunity to use and abuse him to practice my language skills. He asked if I was in Berlin to see a boyfriend, or whether I was married. I laughed and explained that I was to spend five days alone in Berlin, and declared that I’m too young to get married. This was quickly followed by a “fun” game of guessing my age which I should have seen coming (apparently I look no older than 18 max). He then proceeded to explain that he had been married once, but now divorced. Cue awkward fumbling for the right German words to say: “aaaah es ist schwer”, and mucho fascination in the passing scenery.
I arrived at my hotel late afternoon. I dumped my bags and peeled off my clothes, much like something out of Edward Hopper’s Hotel Room painting. I climbed between the clean white sheets, my eyes closed and I was gone.
I awoke to find it dark outside and my stomach ravenously hungry. I freshened up and headed back out into the cold. I wandered up a deserted Friedrichstrasse, looking in the glamorous window displays of the high-end jewellery and clothes shops, being sure to remind myself that I had restricted luggage space. This strategy worked until I stumbled upon Dussman’s Das KulturHaus *sigh*. It’s basically a book shop with every book you could possibly want (written in German), an English Bookshop section, a music/vinyl section, and…*still fantasising about it* a HUGE stationery department. It’s a nerd’s wet dream, and it could satisfy late night urges – open til midnight. I ran my fingers across the notebooks, eager to feel the paper underneath my fingers, desiring to see whether they were lined or dotted, whether they were made in Germany (of course they were), and establish how many I could fit in my suitcase and calculate how many I could possibly afford with the average price being EUR 25. Deutschland is the home of Leuchtturm, so a huge section was devoted to their creations. I succumbed to a seductive, red, A5 notebook with an outline of Berlin’s skyline across the front cover. I then coached myself back to safety: “Claire, put down the other notebooks, pay at the till, turn, and move away from the shelves. Walk out the door. Keep walking.” I walked past that god-damn shop every day – it was like a magnet with this over-powering forcefield. And every day I stopped to look in its windows with my face pushed up against the glass; it wasn’t safe to enter. The staff probably commented between themselves: “that weird English woman is back again, staring at the books”.
I approached the intersection of Unter den Linten and stood in awe of the stature of Brandenburg Tor, dominating in its presence. It is the epitome of Berlin – grand, invincible, battle-worn and battle-weary but ready to stand by the next generation. I decided it’s more spectacular on a dark, cold, Sunday evening when it feels like it’s just me and the gate. Most other tourists were tucked up in their warm hotel rooms whilst I stared in wonder, feeling moved by the imposing force of Brandenburg Tor and imagining all the history it’s been part of.
From there I headed down Wilhemstrasse, still en route in the quest for food, and came face to face with a line of polizei stretched across the road. They were almost camouflaged in their black uniforms and balaclavas. Two polizei vans were parked behind them, as if acting as a shield or barrier. Was I stuck in the middle of some kind of riot or protest march? On a Sunday? I was half in a mind to double-back on myself and head down another street, but decided that would make me look more suspicious and after having copiously watched/studied Stasi interrogations I thought the Germans would end up wangling some kind of faux confession out of me. So I continued at a forthright pace, walked through the line and made it past them, no questions asked; I was on a mission for thai food. A few yards ahead I noticed the Union Jack flapping in the bitter breeze, ghostly hovering above the iconic British Embassy building. Of course; only the UK would demand such a law enforcement presence on a Sunday evening. During my visit I would walk past all manner of embassies, none as protected as the UK’s. Overkill or prudence? I couldn’t decide. Alas, a nice reminder of home.
Now, I tend to explore all the vegan restaurants when I travel solo but it seems that Berlin is rather hazy about this concept and likes to offer meat on the side in most veggie/vegan hangouts… Don’t get me wrong; I eat meat. But I don’t want it three times a day for five days. I WANT VEGETABLES! And no, a side salad garnish does not count. I find “my people” in vegan restaurants: the dairy intolerant, the fitness freaks, the independent women, the solo travellers, the open minded. Alas, despite Berlin’s burgeoning reputation as one of the hippest places in Europe it seems that they are still wedded to the wurst. And so, I met many of the viet/thai community in Berlin as they seemed the only ones capable of understanding the words ‘tofu’ and ‘ohne fleisch’. I stocked up on my vitamins and blended in with my green tea in lieu of a dunkelbier. By the time I boarded the plane home I was having dreams about spinach and chickpeas. I did, however, locate a fantastic vegan burger joint (no meat available) and had the dirtiest burger on offer – it was lush. I savoured every moment and waddled back to my hotel with my vegan food baby like a smug expectant mother.
Another unexpected vegan win happened when I stumbled across tigertortchen, a cupcake and coffee shop overlooking the historic square with Nikolaikirche (a church). Deutschland is famous for its sachertorte – a gooey, sickly, chocolate cake. I had become fatalistic in accepting that the Berliner backerei did not provide for the vegan community, and yet the gods were shining on me this day. I walked into the shop entirely expecting that I would have to do with a black americano. But I pushed my luck and asked the lady ‘sind diese cupcakes vegan?’, only to hear the magic words of ‘ya, diese funf’. FIVE VEGAN CUPCAKES! I could have kissed her. I bought them all. And I ate them. And they were beautiful. The choco-peanut one had a dollop of peanut butter in the centre…words cannot express…. Note – these were followed up two hours later with the vegan burger. Nope, no guilt whatsoever.
I also feasted on German art and photography at the Berlinische Galerie and the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg, spending my time largely gazing at works by those of the November Club – steeped in political agenda. It was refreshing to see art which has always played second fiddle to those hung at the national gallery. I’ve seen enough European galleries and their Renaissance art to last me a life-time (once you’ve seen one butt-naked baby jesus, you’ve seen ’em all). Instead, I wanted to see butt-naked queer models in Man Ray’s pictures and wonder, ‘is that a man or a woman?’, ‘how does their gender alter my perception or feelings towards this photo?’. It reached inside my soul in a way that baby jesus doesn’t. But the gallery experience is also a chance for me to mull over coffee in their cafe, soaking up what I’ve seen. They’re places of calm and tranquillity, places to ponder. I gazed out onto the courtyard as the mist in my mind lifted.
I pounded the pavements of Berlin, wearing in my new Timberlands and swaddled under my bobble-hat. I enjoyed the simplicity of picking out the vocabulary on shop signs, realising that I was doing it with an ease that surprised myself – I had begun to take my understanding of German for granted. I grew frustrated at the endless traffic lights, and the typically German adherence for only crossing at the green ampelman. I learned to embrace the slower pace – there was no rush. I liked sussing out a district by the people who also wandered. And it became a highlight of my explorations to experience quirky, independent, coffee shops – I adjourned my walks for a steaming tasse schwarz kaffee, simply because I could. I had time. Another coffee meant another hour reading my book, another opportunity for a conversation in German. Nothing to rush for or get back to. Sometimes it’s the simple things that make my world go round.
And so, on Valentine’s Day I returned back to the familiar love and comfort of my nest, feeling fully rested and refreshed for the next chapters of 2019. I know they’re going to be challenging months ahead – both at home and work – but with a full tank of energy, an openness of mind, and a belly full of vegan cupcakes, I’m ready.
Photocredit: C. Davey