Currywurst and chocolate
by Janice Nigro
My efforts to entirely escape northern Europe have failed miserably. It is not that I do not like that part of the world; it is that I lived there for just over seven years and feel as if there are other parts of the world that need to be seen. The problem is that when you live somewhere for that long, that is where many of your friends are from. So a few weeks ago I traveled to Berlin for a wedding and a couple of work related meetings all based on my previous life in Norway.
As a person who gravitates towards the sea, any of the first few days in a landlocked big city has me somewhat overstimulated and at the same time not quite sure what to do with myself. In some ways I am able to overcome my inability to decide what to do because I try to make brief conversations in the local language-I can even manage a few words of German. Even though my class was a lifetime ago, some neurons in that part of the brain always get fired up, and I start to remember words. It is not much-one year of Herr Hummel was all that I managed to survive-and when I tell my German language story, more than one German has commented that they sure are glad to not have to learn the language.
Luckily though in Berlin there are a lot of real Italians who own businesses, usually restaurants (also luckily), and so I probably eased myself into the scene and out of jetlag by eating pizza and conversing with Italians. After just settling in Los Angeles for just a few weeks and having no friends there, somehow my life was starting to feel normal again because I would walk around in Berlin deep in my own thoughts ignoring (not understanding) conversations around me as I would when I was living in Europe.
No one can think of Berlin without imagining what it might have been like with the wall dividing it. Even as a child, it was hard for me to imagine why anyone would want to erect a wall to separate the same people, culture, and most importantly families, all, I have been told, in a single night. It seemed like a terrible idea. Yet, the first thing I wanted to do when I arrived in Berlin was to see the remaining section of the Berlin wall.
It was a rainy day when I visited the wall, which perhaps set the mood. When I first saw the wall, I found it impressive not because it is impressive-just a simple unattractive cement wall-but impressive because something so subtle significantly affected so many lives. All you can imagine is how it must have been to be just one meter on the wrong side of the wall.
The wall though has been turned into a sort of work of art now which in my mind is also to some degree counter-intuitive. Some very clever “graffiti” is on the east side of the wall whereas some good graffiti, which is more graffiti-like graffiti, is on the west side of the wall. So in essence something that symbolized the loss of freedom in world history is now a famous piece of artwork.
The biggest irony of all concerning the wall was when a local told me that a protest had been held recently against a construction company that wanted to take down a portion of the wall to facilitate construction of a new high-rise. Something people wanted to get rid of for so long was now being protected.
Nevertheless, the wall provides a huge amount of color in an otherwise somewhat colorless city and of course endless creative expressions of freedom. I learned a couple of facts about the wall of which I was previously unaware. It was actually built more to keep people in rather than to keep people out in order to prevent the brain drain from east to west. For a while, sections of Berlin were overseen by the military from the USA, Great Britain, and France. And the wall was not even built until 1961 because it was at this point that former east Germany realized that it could not keep its own finest citizens from desiring to live elsewhere.
Graffiti is a theme running throughout the city though and somehow to me symbolized freedom. It is everywhere, and it is colorful just as on the wall.
Although it is easy to orient yourself in the city based on major attractions-the wall and museum island-there are other ways to experience Berlin. I let myself be guided by art and food (chocolate) with the express purpose of visiting some of the neighborhoods away from the city center. I found myself in a small museum near the castle housing an incredible personal collection of art from Matisse, Klee, and Picasso. I am never quite good at interpretation of art-I just get a feeling from it-and the Holocaust Memorial is a good place to do that. There is no color here (in contrast to the contemporary artists and the graffiti citywide), only distinction made based on the size of the cement blocks. It is an unusual way to get lost in the city and creates a sense of panic; in fact I had to text some friends to get the number of the friend I was with in order to find him.
I did not expect to find myself doing U-bahn and S-bahn homework each night to identify the routes to reach different destinations and especially to find currywurst and chocolate. The Berlin public transportation system is a fabulous complex array of trains that go absolutely everywhere. But because of this complexity it is displayed on a micro-map which is sometimes difficult to view and thus improvise. No matter, because, one ticket gets you travel in any direction on any train to anywhere for two hours so there is room for error.
German cuisine was not easy to find in the city center-streets are lined with Asian and Italian restaurants-so I had to wonder if there really was German cuisine. But there was the currywurst. I am not a huge fan of sausage-shaped food (although summer nights in Norway can not be experienced correctly without grilled pølser-loosely translated as hotdog) but I felt compelled to try a Berlin currywurst (and subliminally through my Facebook friends).
Curry 36 was recommended by Lonely Planet (surely to be a tourist spot), and when I arrived there, I decided to have two wurst with a side order of pomme frittes. I tried to ask for it in German but was immediately cut short and asked to speak in English. I then made the mistake of incorrectly ordering my currywurst without the ketchup. Yikes, if anything says you are a tourist, that does, because the guy behind the glass cringed. Since I was a tourist, he suggested otherwise because as he explained, it was not the correct way to eat wurst (of course I really could have it any way that I wanted it, but it was like cutting the spaghetti into small pieces so that it is easier to eat-you just do not serve it that way). I had to wonder if I really wanted to eat any kind of food that requires ketchup (mustard is a totally different thing). It was a pleasant enough experience partly because I managed to find Curry 36, but truth be told, I preferred the pizza (and got to order it in Italian)…
When looking for chocolate though, my strategy was to walk all the way at least one way to reach it. My goal was Winterfeldt Schokoladen in Schöneberg. The chocolate shop is in a former pharmacy so in a funny twist, the chocolate is displayed like old-time medicinal elixirs which in my book is entirely accurate. You can marvel at chocolates from around the world uniquely displayed in antique pharmaceutical cabinets, shelves, and drawers, and then be served a relaxing dunkel hot chocolate with no sugar.
There are perhaps more effective ways to see more of such a city (like having your own French tour guides…), but I somehow gain a sense of satisfaction of reaching a destination by planning out how to get there with a map and public transportation. Maybe I did not “see” quite as much, but I could feel more of what it is like to live in Berlin.
©2014 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiink.com