“Berlin combines the culture of New York, the traffic system of Tokyo, the nature of Seattle, and the historical treasures of, well, Berlin.” – Hiroshi Motomura
If I wanted to move from my beloved New York City to someplace better, I would find myself on a one-way flight to Berlin. There, I said it. As a New Yorker, I like to compare big cities with my own, especially if I get to conclude that, “Yes, _____ is great but at the end of the day, there’s nothing like New York.” And I’ll sit there at an airy Paris café/packed biergarten in Munich/cool restaurant in St. Petersburg, staring glassy-eyed as I reminisce about my time in the Big Apple. But on our visit to Berlin, New York tasted almost bland by comparison, and for the first time since leaving home, I felt at home again.
Unlike many conventional travelers who research and book vacations months in advance (at work) and have the time to do the research for their destinations (at work), we have been planning as we go. But there are more than a few destinations on our loose itinerary we’ve been meaning to go to, and Berlin was one such city. Being uneducated and too lazy to look it up, I honestly didn’t know what to expect.
Berlin is not a wealthy city by any means, and it is understandable based on the fact that it was the victim of a tug-of-war between the Soviets and the other Allied Powers for 45 years after being badly demolished by the end of World War II. Because of this, the city is a good mix of all kinds of people, which lends to the unique cultural atmosphere.
What is there to do in Berlin? Well, just about anything your little heart desires. Using our rental apartment in trendy Kreuzburg (what Williamsburg in Brooklyn wishes it could be) as our base, we spent a week playing, eating (Vietnamese food), getting a haircut in a Japanese salon and educating ourselves in museums (the more educational part coming up in the next post).
Berlin was the first big city with a reliable food scene that we were visiting since Seoul, so we dug in with vigor. We desperately missed Asian food, and since Berlin has a huge Vietnamese population, we restaurant-hopped from one Vietnamese joint to another throughout the week. I have to say that Vietnamese is still better in Philly and Montreal, but it was nice to have a bowl (or, multiple bowls) of pho after being on a strictly Western diet. Oh, and we had decent ramen. And terrible Korean fried chicken. And a good American-style cheeseburger… At least they’re trying to expand their food culture past currywurst and Berliners, although I must say that those things are delish.
N and I were lucky enough to meet an awesome couple in Berlin through BeWelcome (sort of like Couchsurfing). We first met up with them for drinks at a lesbian bar in the heart of Kreuzburg, and we connected instantly. It’s like when you start talking to someone and you realize that you’ve been looking for them all of your life. Both of them lead fascinating lives (one is an artist and the other works as a wood carver) that are so different from our backgrounds, and gave us an honest depiction of what life is like in Berlin. They took time out of their schedules to show us local places and to hang out.
Like at Berlin’s numerous lesbian bars, which were packed even on a weeknight. Like at the artist’s studio for a private tour and exhibition of her work. Like strolling through an outdoor Turkish food market before hanging out at an art auction for the local artists’ association. Like dinner at the artist’s mother’s home for a delicious home-cooked meal, the likes of which we haven’t had since I left Tokyo over three months ago. The ensuing conversations we had with this couple reaffirmed my faith that the world is full of nice surprises in the most unexpected of places, and re-energized my soul.
New York will always hold a special place in my heart, but I’m OK now with letting her go. It’s not the greatest city in the world, but it’s certainly one of them, and I’m glad it was my stomping ground in my twenties. But as Berlin and its cool people gently reminded me, the world is so much bigger than New York. But if I can get one last word in, I have to say that New York has better food… And Tokyo’s even better, but that’s a post for another day.