Fear und Wurstliebe Behind the Iron Curtain

IMG_1319.JPG“Beep beep BOOP bedeep bedeep BWOOP ticka Umph-chit-chit-tic beepbeep BWOOOOoooooowwww.”

They’re out there somewhere in Kreuzberg: those beepity boopity kids on the techno skids. They’re wearing skinny jeans and piercing plugs and tank tops the same way our homegrown hipsters do, but they’re… German mostly, I guess, and they’re out for what the witty and informative Berlin CitySpy tourist map calls “teenage kicks; disko.”

I’m under strobing lights myself as I type this report, but my mood lighting is provided by a malfunctioning fluorescent ceiling unit in the kitchen of one of the lousiest, most run-down hostels I’ve ever stayed in, located in the Neukolln area, which is apparently the current frontier of cheap, non-gentrified living in Berlin. The grungy kitchen in which I write has one functioning electrical outlet for all appliances, so guests preparing meals are obliged to plug in and unplug the toaster, electric teapot, microwave, and hot plate in a complex, menu-dependent sequence, trying to keep a grip on their orientation while tripping out Strawberry Alarm Clock style on the ceaselessly strobing fluorescent.

It’s a weird vibe. As far as I can tell, the kid in the corner bunk in my room has not left his bed in two full days, slouching bulkily over his laptop in sagging jockey shorts and a t-shirt that says “Latin Lover,” earbuds apparently hard wired into his canals. Still, I haven’t seen any rats or roaches or bedbugs yet and I guess I’m comfortable enough, though the kitchen’s ambient lighting overwhelms me with the urge to go out and grab one of the “hip shave head girls [sic]” promised in the CitySpy map’s description of local nightlife and give this beepity boopity dance party shit a whirl (*note: the morning after I wrote this passage, one of my roommates, a Spanish busker whose act involves a unicycle, a compact speaker, and the unrevealed contents of a large black trunk, warned me that his bag had been ransacked and his cash stolen during the night, meaning that there had been a thief in the room while we slept. In light of this event, I am downgrading my rating of the Rixpack hostel from “gritty but acceptable” to “bona fide shitshack”).

Tuesday night I arrived in Berlin knowing nothing about any part of any of it. I wandered into a small bar with wifi and used my phone to book a bed in one of those huge, modern, party dorm-style hostels, The Heart of Gold, which I chose mostly because the website boasted a “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” theme and a bar that’s open 23 hours a day. I know that sounds really cool, but it isn’t.

It took me quite some time to get my bearings enough even to find the place. My usual method of orientation is to figure out the direction of the town center and keep walking until I stumble in to it, but Berlin has no center. It’s a conglomeration of different “villages” (in the sense that Greenwich Village is a “village”), and as in New York City, you could easily spend an hour driving from one part of town to another. It’s the kind of big, sprawling machine that makes a Pennsylvania riverbilly start to question his trajectory while easing into a mild panic attack, and my heart sagged a little as I slithered through the bowels of the city on the S Bahn train toward my bed.

Damp, drizzly gloom had been chasing me through Germany for the past few days, and having spent those days and nights entirely outdoors, my lungs were starting to rattle and scrape a little. I woke up in my bunk at The Heart of Gold a few hours before dawn in the throes of painful coughing fits (Guten morgen, Herr Hackencoughen) and searing pain shooting through my sinus cavities, intense enough to keep me unhappily conscious for several hours. “Spare me, just SPARE me,” I grumbled, which is a new thing I’m into. It’s a catch phrase of the disastrously shallow male model/ NYC glam scenester protagonist in a Brett Easton Ellis novel I’ve just finished reading, and saying, “Spare me, man, SPARE me!” with feeling and a touch of melodrama when I’m a little bummed out invariably leads to giggling. In that moment, though, I was sure this big machine of a city was going to eat me alive like a hunk of curry wurst (wait for it). Too soggy to busk, too congested to sing, too broke to keep my pitiful bank account from bleeding out into the storm drains, it’d be curtain time.

But it didn’t happen that way. The weather provided some clear windows, and busking in Berlin was decent. The city has plenty of cheap food and beds if you poke around enough, and it didn’t eat me. Berlin doesn’t eat penniless Pennsylvanians- it eats currywurst. If there’s one dish Berliners are most proud of as their own very special food, their most loudly proclaimed culinary identity, currywurst has to be it. After you’ve snapped your obligatory photos of famous border crossing “Checkpoint Charlie” and visited the adjacent museum with exhibits on the horrors of the Iron Curtain era, you can stroll across the street to the Currywurst Museum (no kidding), where tourists can sit on sausage-shaped couches, sample “virtual currywurst” (in case you aren’t ready to commit to the 2$ investment and the leap of faith required to try the real McCoy), and cut it up with a capering sausage man mascot.
The Berlin CitySpy map has this to say about currywurst: “It is cheap, satisfying, meaty, smooth, it is hot, strange, somehow don’t fit together [sic], never the same as it was before. It does go best with beer and you can do it standing up on your feet. Of course, as with any sausage, you don’t want to know what it’s made of or where it comes from.”

Of course, my “When in (blank) do as the (blank)ers do” travel philosophy demanded that I eat some of this concoction even though no part of the name or description sounded even a little bit appealing. Currywurst (and beer) can be purchased and consumed on pretty much any street corner in Berlin. The corner where I purchased and consumed those things was just a sausage toss away from Checkpoint Charlie, pictured above. The photo illustrates how the oppressed people of Soviet-controlled East Berlin were forbidden to dine at this particular MacDonalds, forced instead to patronize the much less nice one down the street. Carefully following the instructions on the CitySpy map, I ate my currywurst with beer, did it standing up on my feet, and enjoyed the hell out of it.

For me, one of the conundrums of travel is how best to experience the true flavor and pulse of a place you’ll only be inhabiting for a few days. Is the flavor of Berlin the flavor of an improbable variety of sausage? Is its pulse the persistent, pounding throb underneath all that beepity boopity shit blaring in the clubs? I was kicking that philosophical can down the drizzly sidewalks of the hip Kreutzberg district late one night, photographing some of the city’s incredible street art, when I decided to walk down to the river Spree and gawk at one of the longest remaining sections of the Berlin Wall. I hit the river and turned westward, looking for the wall and snapping shots, when I realized with awe and a tinge of embarrassment that the concrete surface under the paintings I was photographing WAS in fact the Berlin Wall. The Wall, THE wall, one of history’s most potent symbols of tyranny, the concrete realization of the architecture of oppression, is now an outdoor art gallery, frescoed with brilliant images of beauty and freedom. Maybe that’s the flavor of Berlin. Or maybe it’s currywurst.