To dig in my heels

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.


Jenious said...

Thanks for sharing your lovely travels, darling abode and culinary discoveries with us, Jess. I adore following along, especially when there are breads such as these at which to marvel.

Anonymous said...


I'm happy for you and only a little jealous. Enjoy the rest of your time in Berlin and keep sharing!

Char said...

oh fun and yum and totally yay for adventure

Rosiecat said...

Goodness, where to start? It all sounds so lovely, Jess--all the pieces to a great summer, I think. I'm happy it worked out for you and Eli to be there.

Pardon my starstruck question, but I must ask: have you seen or met Luisa, The Wednesday Chef? She's one of my favorites :-) And I'm making a dinner inspired by her tonight! What serendipity!

darbyoshea said...

Well, I started out a little jealous and now I'm splitting my seams with envy, but I'm very happy that you two have had such a splendid summer. Thanks for the links to our blogs and yes, chocolate is the way to our hearts and loads of opinions and advice (both solicited and unsolicited). Much love to you both and can't wait to see you when you're back!

molly said...

Fake legs, red currants, hazlenut bread, oh my! Looks and sounds perfectly dreamy, much the way I remember Berlin. Enjoy your stay there, down to the last sesame seed.

megan said...

Ach, the Jogurt is so good it's silly! There is no way to really explain what's different, it's just...I could eat it all day.

Can we make a literary metaphor? The best travels are the right proportions of Proust (details) and Odysseus (adventure) [or someone else who is all plot, you would know better]...


Astrid said...

Mathias and Jördis are such great Berlin guides. Those breads look delicious! Seems like you are having a great time.

linda said...

the matter-of-fact way that you approached eli & his reply was great…just great.
a "journey" that not many experience…so thank you for taking us along & looking forward to virtually sharing all your wonderful adventures…what fun!

Shannalee said...

Oh, it all sounds like a dream. I want to go to Berlin! And dig in my heels!

Jess said...

Jenious - Thank you for reading! It's my pleasure to get it all down here. The bread here really is something else.

Anonymous - Thank you. Eli and I both feel very lucky that our work allows us the flexibility to travel. I think this summer in Berlin is our best working vacation yet.

Char - Yes, yes, to everything you said!

Rosiecat - No, I haven't met Luisa, but she's a friend of a few friends of mine, and I hear she's every bit as lovely as you would imagine from her very fine writing and recipes.

darbyoshea - You need to get yourself a Berlin fix, woman, and fast. We'll be back soon. With chocolate, of course.

molly - It really is wonderful. Thanks for the warm wishes.

megan - I know! It's so good, I can hardly stand it. And yes, I think you have the proportions just right.

Astrid - They really are. And those breads... I'll never get over them.

linda - That's Eli for you. I'm so fortunate to have him as my partner in crime.

Shannalee - I hope you get to visit sometime soon. I think you would love it.

suzi banks baum said...

Hi There Berliners! What a grand adventure your life is! I love this post and the update of earlier this week. Our boy Ben who is Anna's age is about to spend 3 months in Munich on an exchange. We are all heading over there to vacation with the host family who we have grown to love, having had their boy here last year. SO- all things German capture my interest.
And red currants. My pal Janet got me started on them years ago and now I have 3 big shrubs in my back yard orchard along with the coveted black currants. I mix handfuls in to my batches of jam and the tart flavor perfectly balances strawberries, blues and raz. Catherine's favorite is a jam I call Double Black Diamond with black and blue berries and black currants.
This year the birds were ferocious in picking before me, stripping the bushes early. I picked to my hearts' content at an orchard over near the Hudson.
Come out this way Jess for a culinary tour. Maybe when, (and if???) you return? Enjoy the porch and send my greetings to the leg!
Love, S

Rogue Unicorn said...

Gah. Now I want to go to Berlin.
One of my favorite things about traveling is the sense of belonging that comes when you stay a while in a new place. Acquiring new places is a treasure. I think you captured that sense wonderfully.

PS. Cat is home safe and sound and is back to her trouble-making/lazy ways.

La Historiadora de Moda said...

You've completely convinced me that I need to get off my ass and get back to research and to encourage my husband to do the same so that perhaps sometime in the next two years we can spend a whole summer in Europe. I lived in Madrid for a year and a half, and I miss it so much! My co-blogger, Herr Doktor, lived in Berlin for a year, and his husband is currently trying for a post-doc there. I was able to visit Berlin once for a weekend when they were both there around Christmas time, and I loved the city!

Your pictures are gorgeous and your flat looks lovely and inviting!

tara said...

Thank you so much for sharing! The colour in the first photo made me grin.

Jess, I've missed you, things seem moving too fast these days.

Elishag said...

Great to have you back here Jess. Looking forward to having you back in Cambridge soon too.

Jess said...

Suzi - Lucky Ben! And lucky all of you that you'll get to visit him. You always tantalize me with your descriptions of jams, but this talk of handfuls of currants is too much! Catherine sounds like a woman after my own heart. Are you serious about that culinary tour? We just might take you up on it. Perhaps in the fall when the leaves are turning? And hey, do you think we might be able to convince Amy to join us? (Amy, are you reading this?)

Rogue Unicorn - Yes. Exactly. So glad to hear that the cat has returned. What a relief.

La Historiadora de Moda - I find that when I feel that travel itch, it's best to scratch it. Besides, it's one of the perks of our line of work, isn't it, getting to travel to new places, while being quite productive at the same time? A year and a half in Madrid! That sounds wonderful.

Tara - Hi! I've missed you, too. I hope things slow down for you soon. xo.

Elishag - Thank you! Soon, soon. It's hard to believe our time here is almost over.

Agata said...

Hi! Oh, I am so sorry I did not know earlier you were at this side of the ocean... It is not that far from Krakow to Berlin, I could have made it for a few days. Jess, next time make sure you tell us before please. I would like to see you. Until when are you in Europe?
So... enjoy your stay, warm greetings to you and Eli. Take care.

Dan said...

I'm late to the party, but again, thanks for the blog linkage, and it sounds like you had an awesome time.

Also, you seem to have gotten *really* lucky with that apartment - there are nice places in Prenzlberg, but that one looks extra-lovely.

I hear we're on for a welcome-back-get-together of some kind, so see you then!

Jess said...

Agata - I am a complete idiot. I know that Krakow and Berlin are a mere train ride apart, and yet I failed to make the Agata-in-Krakow-Jess-in-Berlin connection. Argh! Well, the good news is that Eli and I have already decided that we'll need a return visit to Berlin one of these days, so hopefully we'll get another chance to see you and your lovely city. xo.

Dan - Yes, we really lucked out. And yes, it sounds like we'll see you sometime next week! Looking forward to it.