I did eat a berliner, one regular and one miniaturized and double Michelin-starred. But this is not about food.
Berlin is Not Brooklyn. I hear Berlin/Brooklyn comparisons, though with the exception of Berlin’s size and more cosmopolitan nature, the city was much more of a Portland to me. (There is a shared love of taxidermy, however—I don’t think I’ve seen so many antlers, employed by ironically and earnestly in one week.) Unemployment is high, rents aren’t, no one seems to have real jobs, bikers, a gazillion of them, are accommodated, and there is a suspicious lack of black people. Also, it was damp, gray, rainy and depressing to the point where I couldn’t get up before noon every day and couldn’t fall asleep before 4am, which in reality is a healthy eight hours of sleep, but with the sun going down by 4pm, I had a very short window of barely there daylight. They were even selling S.A.D. light boxes at KaDeWe, the city’s major department store.
Smoking. Despite what I thought was a smoking ban in 2008, Berlin is the only foreign city I’ve been to in the past few years where smoking is still occurring in bars (not in restaurants, however). Even Spain, land of hardcore smokers, they step outside for a puff now. I didn’t encounter a single bar, divey or upscale, where smoking wasn’t allowed. Some had dedicated rooms, some did not. People smoke in subway stations, parents smoke with small children (I would love to measure the wrath I’d incur from pushing a stroller around Carroll Gardens while smoking a cigarette) um, and supposedly, “swallowing cigarette butts is one of the top causes of poisoning in children in Berlin.”
Drinking. One of my sister’s examples of why Berlin was so great on her visit a few years back was that she’d seen people riding bikes while drinking beers. I, myself, have never seen so much public beer drinking. Bikes is the least of it. When you buy a beer at a doner stand or a convenience store you are asked if you want it opened or not. There is nothing weird about walking down the sidewalk drinking a beer, usually Berliner Kindl, nor on the subway. I encountered men in suit jackets drinking a beer on the subway during the middle of the day while at night nearly everyone on the subway was drinking beers, many quite young. Beer and wine is legal at 16, hard liquor reserved till 18. I remember being offered alcohol and cigarettes by adults when I was in France for a month the summer between junior and senior years of high school, and it felt weird.
Seeing Double. ampm is a convenience store chain I grew up with in Oregon. am to pm is the name of a 24-hour bar/café housed in the S-Bahn station that was a block from my hotel. The logos are strikingly similar.
Heeled. I like heels, at least the way they look. Many Decembers I’ve declared that wearing heels will be something I attempt more in the coming new year. It never happens. I like flats and wedges and heels no higher than 2”. (I looked at thousands of booties, what a horrible word, but better than shootie, before going on vacation and couldn’t find a single pair that met my criteria. I ended up buying these [which oddly, so did an online sort-of-frenemy the same week] and returning them after briefly walking around because I can’t have leather or fabric on the heel, even a tiny heel, because it scuffs and shreds upon first wearing). It was boot weather in Berlin and there was not a stiletto or monster platform in sight. 98% of women, young and old, wore practical shoes. I’ve never seen so many females in a world capital in flats that still seemed stylish (on my one trip to D.C. I also noticed a weird absence of heels, but everyone seemed frumpy). I don’t know if this is because they are fast walkers—Berlin is the only place I’ve ever been that’s on par with NYC for aggressive/speedy walking, and I love that—because of all of the cobblestones, because they're naturally taller, or if it’s just German nature to be sensible. I’ll probably vow to wear more heels in 2012, but I know that I will stick to flats and baby wedges.
Big & Tall. My suspicions were confirmed after an H&M stop (Sweden has H&M, Spain has Zara, Japan Uniqlo, UK Top Shop—I don’t think Germany has a homegrown equivalent) and I noticed they were fully stocked in the complete range of sizes up to a US 16 (here, you rarely find much over a 10) and also had a (not that great) plus size section. German women get much taller than American women, particularly New York women who are on average much shorter than Oregonians (who are all Anglo, Germanic, Nordic stock, I guess). While many were medium-height, there were an usual number of women in the 5’10” range and above range. I felt like a midget while shopping at Rossmann, a drug store, and I’m 5’8”. During a Frankfurt layover to Singapore in 2003, I deduced that it must be easier to find extended calf boots (they’re now far more common in the US than eight years ago) because so many women were tall and large (not fat). I still don’t understand why H&M dropped their plus-size line in the US when it still exists in Europe (I also saw it in Madrid) and we’re the fat ones. There were also plenty of tourist-sized females in Berlin who were definitely locals. Berlin is not Paris. I’m also curious now about the Netherlands after reading that their H&M and Zara sizing is larger than the US and the rest of Europe.
Socialism. The DDR Museum was lighthearted compared to the Topography of Terror (I love that name) which likely had to do with the fun, borderline kitsch interactive displays that gave statistics and history lessons about life in East Berlin. Growing up, stories of border-crossing attempts put my stomach in knots the same way that the threat of nuclear attacks (accidental leaks were more scary), illustrations of sea creatures, particularly whales and plesiosaurs, and photos of Thai dancers in Disney encyclopedias made me uneasy. I remember being nervous, watching a dated movie in a children’s church class about a family trying to escape in a hot air balloon (I never read the Anne Frank book; my introduction to Nazi-era horribleness was through Corrie ten Boom, which we heard a lot about in church—that Christian angle, I guess—or maybe not a lot at all, but she’s the figure that’s stuck in my mind. We must’ve had her books around the house.) Surely, living in East Berlin sucked, though the interactive exhibits at the museum made some aspects see almost fun. I got to touch and feel DDR jeans compared to the coveted Levi’s and see the plastic Trabi, a car families may have had to wait 16 years to obtain. I could also see some of the appeal of socialism, especially given how lopsided incomes are here. Everyone got educations, women earned money, childcare was subsidized, as well as housing. Nudist resorts were popular, to my surprise, inexpensive vacations were given (only to acceptable countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia, of course) and weirdly to me, there was a state-owned cruise ship everyone could use for their allotted time off. Fun times. At least you could go to college, get a job, guaranteed housing, childcare, and weirdo trips. Never mind that things we take for granted like bananas, lemons, and garlic were difficult to obtain (yes, it would be the food that ultimately got to me—I bought a cookbook in the gift shop, but I can’t exactly read German).
In-Flight. Air Berlin also gave me a taste of what living in the starved-for-contemporary-entertainment DDR must’ve been like. I was subjected to Cheers and Friends reruns and Four Wedding and a Funeral on the communal TVs (I guess I’m spoiled from Jet Blue and long haul Asia flights where you get your own screen to control). And while the Russell Branded Arthur is relatively fresh, it still made me want to scream.
The Stasi. I also wondered what I was in for after getting into a verbal altercation with the young man across the aisle from me before we’d even taken off. The plane was 90% German going (and returning, weirdly) and I was quickly introduced to a nosy, rule-following nature (which kind of doesn’t jibe with the rampant smoking and public drinking). While waiting to be cleared for takeoff, he poked me and said, “Your phone is still on.” Now, thinking back, I realize that he probably meant to be helpful. But the accent/tone threw me off and I was initially genuinely confused. My phone was zipped into the inner pocket of my purse on the ground. How did he know whether my phone was turned off or on? I asked, “How do you know?” and then it turned into a confrontation and he got extremely angry. (In some ways, this reminded me of when a teen many years ago tried mugging me and was yelling “Give me your wallet!” and I tried clarifying, “Do you want my wallet or the money?” because I was going to Asia for the first time [the aforementioned trip with the Frankfurt layover] the following week and was freaking out about my credit cards and driver’s license while the $12 wasn’t the end of the world, if I had to give it to this kid, and it totally enraged him, though he did end up running off.) I assume he knew whether my phone had been turned off properly or not (it hadn’t for the record, but that wasn’t his concern) because he had been staring at everything I had been doing instead of minding his own business. New Yorkers do not say something if we see something. Telling on people for infractions that affect no one can get you punched. Who are you, the Stasi? We don’t spy and tattle on their neighbors, jeez. Finally, when we landed, and got to embark (no matter how early we buy tickets, we end up in the back of the plane) a plastic wrapper from who knows what fell from my seat onto the ground and the young (emphasizing this because it’s not chiding old people I encountered) man who had been sitting behind me said, “You dropped something.” Ok, minor and possibly being helpful again, but like dude, MYOB! I could’ve been spitting on the ground, clipping my nails, or throwing down gnawed chicken bones in NYC and gross, yes, but call a stranger out at your peril.