Berlin has three lifestyle magazines in the style of "Time Out," but no intellectual magazine like "The New Yorker." Whatever the reason, the monthly magazine called "Berlin Block" tried to remedy the situation - and closed after three issues. This was one of my stories for them.
|"Fuck the unit!" she said.|
Berlin Block, November 2009
Night with Cowboy Hat
One Saturday night in the fall I thought it might be nice to take my cowboy hat for a walk.
A good friend of mine agreed to accompany us. We met in the Schwalmer Stube in Langenscheidt Strasse in Schöneberg, the part of town I live in. My cowboy hat and I were a little nervous. "In the old days," I said, "it was no problem. All night out, club-hopping, bar-crawling, vomiting in the u-bahn and marching merrily on to the doner kebab stand. But that was a long time ago."
"You're afraid you're not young enough anymore?" she asked.
"I'm afraid Berlin isn't young enough anymore," I said.
Berlin used to be a place where you could be sure something would happen if you just stuck your nose into its nightlife long enough. You would always end up in some student pad, smoking pot with a lot of complete strangers; you would open your eyes and see a camel crossing the street; you'd meet someone who changes the way you look at life forever in just a short conversation that you forget the next morning. That's the Berlin I fell in love with. But now?
"Today everything is so regulated, cleaned-up, so predictable," I complained.
"Have a little faith in the city," said my friend. "And by the way, where the hell are we?"
We were sitting in a small, brightly-lit room with a picture window and a lot of rustic furniture with fake mahogany paneling including a bar counter of the kind you would find in some desperate family man's basement clubhouse lined with a row of dusty schnapps bottles; a collection of kitschy photos of women in colorful traditional garb and a stag on a mountain top calling for his mates, not to mention a remarkable collection of pewter plates embossed with famous churches and castles. And a couple of so-called Berliner Originals - laconic old men with eccentric faces, lots of personality and no jobs - sitting around drinking tea and beer as if they were actors paid to create the atmosphere of a real Berlin corner dive.
And that name: "Schwalm Corner." It sounded invented: You take "alm" - a mountain pasture - and add a few letters. You could do the same thing with "ulm" or "harz": Schwulmer Stube, Scharzer Eck. "Let me guess," I said to the old guy behind the counter, "there's no such thing as a schwalm, is there?"
"Of course there is," shot back the ur-Schwalmer and ur-Berliner Hans-Walter Grein. The Schwalm is a little patch of land in faraway North Hessia, where women wear a red cap to go with their traditional Sunday garb. That's where Little Red Riding Hood comes from - that red hood, it was a red cap. Walter said he could prove it: He grabbed a dangerous-looking bottle of schnapps from the bar. I caught a glimpse of the label, just one word: "high voltage." He poured me a drink. It tasted sweet and somehow welcoming, much like a certain patch of land in North Hessia where women wore red caps with their traditional Sunday garb and drank a schnapps called Hochspannung.
Walter had more proof of his authenticity, and each of his proofs costs me a little bit more. His significant other, Frau Zimmerriemer, for example. She used to run the famous Berlin bar Zum Goten. "Wait, what?" I said. I lived near where that old bar used to be. People talked about it even today. "You mean the legendary bar where Willy Brandt and Günter Grass and maybe even John F. Kennedy bowled together?" Willy Brandt was the mayor of Berlin when John F. Kennedy came and gave his famous speech. No one knows now whether the rumor is true that Kennedy and Brandt drank together in that bar that night, but it's true that Brandt and a lot of others hung out there in those days.
"That's the one," said Walter and poured me another Hochspannung. "She makes our cheesecake now. Best in town."
After another piece of the best cheesecake in town and another glass of Hochspannung, I managed to dodge a glass of her home-made marmalade, but couldn't resist her home-brewed lemon-ginger liqueur. At some point my only way out was to plead with my friend, "Get me out of here!"
My friend, my cowboy hat and I stumbled into the Obentraut Street on the corner of Mehringdamm and into the dance hall Tanz-Palast-X - a Turkish club.
"I always wanted to dance with one of those beautiful Turkish women," I confessed. If you live in Berlin, you notice them. Whereas German women tend to dress "practical" (by which I mean "asexual"), Turkish women are all sex: tight jeans, high heels, million-dollar hairdos, those eyes. But they are also off-limits. Some rumor about over-protective brothers carrying knives. So men just look - and wonder what it would be like...
"Just dance?" she asked, a tad annoyed.
In all my time in Berlin, I never once tried to get into a Turkish club. To be honest, I was always a little afraid. I'm white, American and I'm wearing a cowboy hat. Would someone pick a fight, insult me in a language I can't speak, pour Turkish beer on me?
The bouncer at the door greeted us politely, as if whites wearing cowboy hats came in here all time.
The DJ played hammering, sugary-sweet Turkish, Arab and Bollywood-pop. That's much like euro-pop, but even more so. Pudgy secretaries danced in sparkly sweaters that had mysteriously survived the 80's in surprisingly good shape. My friend and I made a wager: She was sure the two good-looking but tragically overweight ladies sitting at the next table were fake-blond Turks. I bet they were fake-blond Germans. They turned out to be fake-blond Russians. I know because I asked. Then there was the guy, an Arab maybe, who within a few seconds of "hello" bragged about having a wife at home and a girlfriend somewhere else. I didn't ask what he was doing alone in a bar on a Saturday night.
Where were the Turkish women? At home? In some white club somewhere? Whatever, they were clearly avoiding this place.
Only then did I understand recipe for success of the Tanz-Palast-X: The men were Turks or Arabs and the women were non-Muslim. Tanz-Palast-X had found a lucrative gap in the Berlin romance market.
My friend, my cowboy hat and I plunged deeper into Kreuzberg, as far as Reichenberger Strasse.
Möbel Olfe - "Olfe Furniture" - is Berlinerish in a traditional way: A little bit dirty, a little bit quirky, in the good old style of the illegal clubs of the early 90's. The audience, too, is traditional: If you're young and white and female and from a respectable middle-class family but you don't care about all that bullshit and you equate "authentic" with "shabby" and you're out looking for a like-minded guy, you're in the right place at Möbel Olfe. If you are determined to someday marry someone well educated but cool and just a little bit authentic, preferably working in the culture or artistic or media sectors, this is where you will find him. And if you are the father of a daughter who is culturally, artistically and media-minded and you are worried about her future, in Möbel Olfe you can see what kind of a son-in-law she will be dragging home one day soon.
It didn't take long before my cowboy hat and I got the attention of two beautiful Croatians.
One of them studied political science in Zagreb; the other studied dance and choreography in Berlin. "When I dance," she explained, "it's like electricity flowing through my body. I got that line from Billy Elliot, but it's true."
A discussion about art! I could do that.
"That's the same with us writers," I said proudly. "The only difference is when you write all day you get fat and eventually a slipped disk and the electricity that flows through your body is so weak that you can fall asleep in the middle of a sentence."
I think I impressed her.
As the discussion turned to whether she planned to stay in Berlin when she graduated, she snorted: "I will always need my friends in Croatia more than anyone in another country."
"Whoa, hold on," I said. "That's not how this ex-pat thing works. At some point you find the man of your dreams right here where you hang out and you forget about all your friends in your old life and you start a new unit of your own." We were speaking English: "A new unit," I said.
"Fuck the unit," she said.
Right then and there I knew I had to kiss her before the evening was over.
After a traditional high-carb pitstop around the corner at the Melek Pastanesi bakery in Oranien Strasse, my friend, my cowboy hat, the two beautiful Croatians and I ended up in the gay bar called Roses, which is entirely wallpapered in pink plush.
All night, I'd secretly been hoping someone would start a fight over my hat, or elbow me hard in the ribs, or yell at me, or at least give me a dirty look - anything. But clearly the Berliners are too jaded. You just can't impress a Berliner. And seriously - where would you stand out less wearing a cowboy hat than in a gay bar? So my cowboy hat and I gave up on the idea of making a big scene and settled into a polite conversation with Jan, a good-looking gay German.
Jan had been to the US and now he had a more international perspective on things than most Germans: "Europa is decadent and doomed," he informed me. "We're all doomed, none of us have much time left."
He gave Europe another five years, ten years max. Me, an optimist by birth, I was convinced that Europe could survive at least fifteen years. Jan thought I was naive.
Then it happened: My cowboy hat flew off my head.
I picked it up off the floor and blearily noticed a guy leaning against the wall behind me. He grinning a challenge.
I turned away and continued my conversation with Jan.
Again, my hat flew off my head and onto the floor.
This time I turned and faced the blurry stranger. I grabbed his collar and threatened him with the unleashed power of my American fury.
He stuck his tongue out at me.
"Come on, let's go," said my friend.
"But I have big plans for that beautiful Croatian dancer," I complained.
"You blew that long ago."
I looked around. My beautiful Croatian dancer was lost in conversation with a good-looking guy of indeterminable sexuality. She was also holding a fresh drink that I had not ordered. I had neglected her, and I was ashamed. We left.
We drifted into the empty but already up-and-running Friedrich Strasse train station, as if magnetically attracted to it, got cafe au laits and greasy croissants with hot dogs baked into them at La Crobag and mulled over life.
"I always thought it would be different when we were grown up," my friend said. "Not so many big decisions. Fewer insecurities. I thought we would have learned everything we needed to know by the time we got this far."
I got what she was saying. All these Berliners are like that - 30 or 40 and still we haven't managed to answer the big questions of life: Do I want a career or should I just hang around? Should I fit myself into a clique or seek self-fulfillment in some spectacularly individual way? Should I turn my half-hearted, on-again off-again long-distance relationship into a living-together, shopping-at-Ikea-together, playing-Scrabble-together relationship, or is that so white-bread, middle-class that I wouldn't stand it? Berlin nights are full of people like that with all their questions and no answers. We were grown up, but still we were part of it, my friend, my cowboy hat and I. Probably we always would be, we just forget it in the daylight.
"It's as if we're still too young for life," she said. "Just older than before."
"I'm not sure that makes any sense," I said. "But it sounds right."
Outside it was light and the streets were wet and empty, and I remembered other nights like this, stepping out of the deep night into a well-lit bar without windows and then after living an entire lifetime in four walls with a lot of strangers, stepping back into the city and the shock that it's already light outside, as if you didn't know it would be. But you knew.
All those nights - they're still out there.
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