It was sometime in late February, I think, when I turned to Eli over breakfast and asked, “Want to spend this summer in Berlin?” He looked up from his paper and, as casually as if I had just asked him whether he’d like pizza for dinner, said, “Sure.” And so, a plan was hatched, one that involved a grant application on my part, and a benevolent boss who, with any luck, would allow Eli to work remotely for the summer. We did what we could to get the ball rolling, and off it went: the grant came through, permission was granted (thank you, Eric!), we found an apartment, left our own home in the hands of some friends of ours who just so happened to need a place to stay in Cambridge during the very weeks we’d be away, and on July 1st, we landed in Berlin.
I can’t tell you why, exactly, we decided to run off to Berlin. Mostly, we just needed a fix of somewhere else which, I suppose, is as good a reason as any other. Eli and I were here together once before, in 2001, when we were juniors in college. I was the music director, and he was the business director of a choir, and over our spring break that year, we traveled around Germany, singing. We were talking about that trip the other day, and I realized that I have virtually no memory of the Berlin part. And yet, I managed to leave with the strong feeling that I wanted to go back. We both did. So when it came time to make our escape, Berlin it was.
I love to travel. But even more than that, I love it when I get to dig in my heels and live, really live in a new place for a while. That way, I get to fit in all of the tourist stuff, but I still have plenty of time for very important things like finding a favorite breakfast spot, cultivating opinions about the best yogurts and breads to be had, and becoming a regular at a certain pasta stand, where the woman behind the counter knows who I am and what I’ve come for, and starts filling a bag with floury pillows of walnut-gorgonzola, ricotta-thyme, and sweet chestnut ravioli before I’ve uttered a word. This summer, we’ve visited the Pergamon, the Hamburger Bahnhof, and what’s left of the wall at Mauerpark, but we’ve also hosted new friends for dinner, washed piles of dishes, and negotiated the return of an internet router in a language that’s not our own. More than anything, we’ve been walking, talking, and walking some more, sometimes with soft, warm pretzels in hand, sometimes clutching tiny cups of hazelnut gelato and even tinier spoons. Walking, talking, and eating, I find, is the very best way to make a city – or a piece of it, anyway – feel like it’s yours.
Our apartment, by the way, is perfect. We found it on Craigslist or, rather, it found us. I have to admit, I was a little nervous when I posted a couple of paragraphs about who we are and what we were looking for. Despite the fact that you, friends, have provided all evidence to the contrary, I know that the internet can be a scary place. Indeed, we dodged a scammer or two. But then one day, I heard from a woman named Olivia, who would be traveling all summer with her boyfriend, and wanted to sublet her flat. She signed her emails, “Greetings,” which I took as a sign that I was most likely dealing with a very nice, and potentially adorable, person. Incidentally, Eli and I had a chance to meet her on the day we arrived, and I was right on both counts.
The flat itself is pretty darn adorable, too. As you can see, the building is painted a deep marigold yellow. Yes, that’s a leg up there, sticking out between the railings, and no, it’s neither attached to a body, nor is it real. It’s the first thing I see when I look out my bedroom window every morning and, strange as it sounds, I’ve grown rather fond of that leg.
In every room, there are floor to ceiling windows that swing open to Juliet balconies (which, before you get too excited, are really just guard rails designed to keep you from falling out), except for in the living room, where the floor to ceiling windows take you to an actual, glorious balcony, with a table and chairs, and a few potted plants that I’m doing my best not to kill.
I am also doing my best to spend as much time as possible out there. I thought that, between a daily balcony breakfast, and a daily balcony dinner, plus twice-weekly laundry left to balcony dry, we were doing a fine job of maxing out our balcony time. But we soon realized that we are mere rookies compared to our neighbors, whose balcony is much more than a dining room, a coffee house, a laundry room, and a garden combined. Please. That’s only the beginning. When temperatures soared, they set up their bed out there, and the next day, an inflatable pool appeared where the bed had been. Their daughter splashed around, and when it finally cooled off around here, in went the pool, and out came a tiny pink rocking horse, which you see here.
These people don’t mess around.
But enough about balconies. We’ve got some serious food matters to discuss. I thought I’d kick things off with some of my favorite discoveries from my first couple of weeks in Berlin. And so, without further ado, behold! The Schoko-Reiswaffel!
I spotted it the very day that we landed, in the hands of a little boy on the M2 streetcar that runs by our apartment. That, I thought, is a thing of beauty. A rice cake plus chocolate. It seems so obvious. Yet somehow, the combination never crossed my mind. Now, of course, there’s no turning back. When I get home, I have a date with some lightly-salted rice cakes, a jar of Nutella, and a spoon.
Next up, German bread. I have a lot to say on this topic - a lot - but I'm going to save it for another day, and give you a quick rundown of the ones I like best. First, there's Sonnenblumenkernbrot, or, sunflower seed bread.
To be fair, I should tell you that I had some help with this particular discovery. I should also tell you this: If ever you’re planning a trip to Berlin, and you have a friend who is a serious Germanophile, and especially if she happens to be married to a guy who loves Berlin perhaps even more than she does, here’s what to do. Invite them over for dinner with the promise of an insanely rich chocolate dessert, have pen and paper at the ready, and don’t let them leave until they have told you everything they know. If you’re lucky, you’ll find out all kinds of very important information, including the fact that this sunflower seed bread belongs in your market basket within twenty-four hours of your arrival on German soil, and preferably sooner. Also, if you accidentally serve that chocolate dessert I mentioned in larger-than-usual bowls, which leads to accidentally larger-than-usual servings, don't panic. While studies are inconclusive, my initial observations lead me to believe that, when procuring very important information from Berlin-loving friends, a little extra chocolate serves only to grease the wheels.
Back to the breads. A new friend of ours here in Berlin recommended this next one. It's covered in sesame seeds and shot through with hazelnuts. What happens to a slice of this baby in the toaster oven is nothing short of magic.
This same new friend and his lovely wife also gifted us a loaf of their favorite.
Things just keep getting better and better around here.
Finally, I want to tell you about Johannisbeeren, or, fresh red currants.
I mentioned last week that I’ve dubbed them The Best Thing Since Rhubarb, and I stand by that title. I don’t know where they’ve been all my life. Or maybe it’s that I don’t know where I’ve been all my life, since anyone I’ve approached with the BIG NEWS that these berries are FANTASTIC seems to have jumped on the fresh currant bandwagon ages ago. Whatever the case, now that we’re both in one place, me and the currants, that is, I can’t get enough of them. I drop them into my morning yogurt, snap them off of the vine with my teeth, or toss them into a salad with cucumbers and toasted pumpkin seeds. They’re a little sweet, a lot tart, and there’s something about the way they burst on my tongue that reminds me of caviar. I’m smitten.
We’ve only been living here for about a month, but I already feel as if this city fits us like a glove. Berlin is beautiful, in a rough-around-the-edges kind of way. You can see the seams between the old and the new, between the new and the newer, and I like that.
Looking forward to showing you more.