The Lighter Side of Berlin

Despite my impression that Berlin, overall, seemed architecturally sterile, the city has a wealth of history, and, of course, personalities through the ages.  The city also seems to have its own love of certain persons, as well.  For example, I got the message, loud and clear, that Berlin definitely still has an affinity for John F. Kennedy, even after fifty years:  every street mural told some story or anecdote, or posted some picture of JFK as a visitor to Berlin, negotiating with Khrushchev over the “Berlin Crisis”, or working with Willie Brandt, then mayor of Berlin, and future Chancellor of Germany. Every postcard stand sold cards of JFK in multiple depictions of these scenes, the most famous of him standing and proclaiming, “Ich bin ein Berliner” (“I am a Berliner”) in a show of solidarity with the torn and beleaguered city.

Just based on the racks of post cards and murals featuring JFK,
Berliners still seem heart and soul to belong to Kennedy.  (Either that or they are shamelessly playing to American tourists’ sentiment.)

Alas, Kennedy’s professed love of Berlin apparently did not extend
to its denizens favorite snack, the curry worst.  To state this beloved Berlin treat is ubiquitous is not an exaggeration. Train depots, U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations, food kiosks, the corner hawker with his sandwich-board contraption bearing a self-contained sausage grill and condiments bar, all featured this unique member of the sausage family.  Essentially, the curry worst is a sausage similar in looks and taste to a hot dog, deep fried, then sliced and soused in ketchup with a heavy dose of curry
powder.  Berliners love their curry worst.  They have restaurants devoted to this deep fried hot dog cum curried ketchup. They even have a museum dedicated to this delicacy”.  Check it out:  http://www.currywurstmuseum.de/en/.

However, JFK’s reaction – much as mine — after sampling this treat went something like this: “I know that now I am a Berliner, but do I ever have to eat this again?”

We tried curry worst twice, and while the second sample was far better (relatively), I couldn’t get over the fact I was eating a deep-fried hot dog smothered with ketchup.  The heavy sprinkling of curry powder did make the experience a tad more palatable, but not by much in my opinion.  Michael, on the other hand loved curry worst.  (What a surprise.  After all, he’s from NYC, the hot dog capital of the world.)

Michael & curry worst

Another gastronomic favorite we found in Berlin was sausage
with sauerkraut, which didn’t come as too much as a surprise.  Sausages of all types, sizes, and Germanic origin were on menus and plates throughout the city.  What did come as a surprise to me was “schnitzel”, which, I discovered, was just about any thin piece of meat covered in hefty batter and deep fried.  It could be described by the waiter as a veal or pork “cutlet” but came out tasting like deep fried mystery meat somewhat akin to “chicken fried steak”.  I can understand why people would prefer their well-seasoned sausages.  No more weiner schnitzel for me!

We spent a fair amount of time in cafés, just watching people, and even dropped into the restored-to-grandeur Hotel Adlon for a pricey
glass of wine.

The restored Hotel Adlon, near the Brandenburg Gate

Unlike in the Netherlands, waiters didn’t strike up conversations with us nor did other customers engage in conversation, for that matter.  Only twice did we have impromptu conversations with Germans:  once with two other patrons in a near-deserted café and then with a young German-Israeli student who was outraged that the U.S. was taking such a beating in world opinion.  His estimation:  “We Europeans owe the U.S. a lot for all they have done for us but tend to sweep it under the rug.  Some people feel it’s not cool to support the U.S. but secretly, they all want to be there.”  Interesting.

****************

The street performers were one of a kind in Berlin. Whatever their schtick, each “artist” had the requisite up-turned hat, decorative basket, even a bucket or shoe soliciting contributions to the “artist’s” retirement fund.   Capitalism is reigning quite readily in Berlin.

There were the (now ubiquitous to tourist centers) human statues – individuals, painted andcostumed as anything from an historic to fantasy figures, as well as actual performers of all sorts, jugglers or musicians or balloon artists.  At every historical point of interest there were one or more people dressed in costume or uniform all willing to pose for or with you – as long as you made a “donation” of a Euro or two for the
privilege.   There were the silly:  chickens and bears roaming the Brandenburg plaza.  And there was my favorite:  a woman dressed as a Soviet soldier, “ice fishing” in a sewer grate in front of the U.S. Embassy, moaning a lugubrious Russian tune.  She perked up considerably once you dropped a coin in her “fish” bucket, and while she didn’t break out into joyful song (she was after all, imitating a Soviet soldier), she did belt out a few bars of something that sounded less like a dirge.

American GIs "guarding" Checkpoint Charlie

German "soldiers" at the Brandenburg Gate

These tourists actually paid to have their picture taken with a chicken....

And my favorite:

Lugubrious Soviet soldier ice fishing

And then there was the sign I spotted near Checkpoint Charlie: Barbier Bar.  Michael and I immediately walked over, hoping to hoist a glass of wine in a bar named after my very own, illustrious family.  Alas.  It wasn’t a bar at all but a hair cuttery.  I had to abandon familial delusions of grandeur or minimally finding a long-lost cousin. (Point of
information here to those of you who only know me as “Rolnick”: “Barbier”, my family name, is actually a very common last name, meaning “barber”, as in s/he who cuts hair.)

All in all, we liked Berlin, and appreciate it as a city rich with history as well as so much potential for the future.  It is a young city, perhaps a little raw and rough at times, but definitely a youthful city whose culture and activity seem below the average tourist’s radar, and definitely take place mostly at night – and into the wee hours.  But even if Berliners play hard and act tough, they are also realistic, standing with feet firmly planted and facing forward, saying, “Come on! “ to the rest of  Europe.

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