Continued from Part 1.
While seeing some of the sights of Germany’s capital city, we absorbed what we could of Berlin culture – food, drink, music, street life. The city is in some ways analogous to my home burg of New York, a large and important metropolis of a major country but culturally distinct, not entirely of its land.
In my Manhattan neighborhood I could, for example, walk the streets for hours without running into a Republican!
For another, here in the Blogcritics Culture section I read and edit articles all the time that assume Americans drive cars everywhere and shop at malls and Walmarts. But in New York we mostly take public transportation, don’t usually shop at malls, and have no Walmarts. (In fact we just get confused when we journey out of town and stumble into a Walmart looking for batteries or snacks, feeling as if we’ve wandered into an alien culture: Wait a second, what’s that over there…ammunition?!? Get me out of here!)
To relate this back to Berlin: People keep asking me about Oktoberfest since we were there for the beginning of that month, but we didn’t witness anything much to suggest a big beer-guzzling festival. (Instead, we experienced the Berlin Marathon and a seemingly endless inline-skating race). As I understand it, Oktoberfest is very big in places like Munich but not a huge deal in Berlin. We did drink a fair amount of beer, not surprisingly. But most restaurants had only a small selection, and the various brands and brews we ordered were all fine but nothing spectacular. We also sampled a local specialty called Berliner Weisse, weak wheat beer flavored with raspberry (resulting in a bright red brew) or the herb called woodruff (bright green). In a word: awful.
An exception took place one night when local colleagues took us to a pub called Bötzow that served an absolutely delicious home brew. It was the kind of experience you can usually only get by attaching yourself to somebody who really knows the town. Fine stuff!
We ate a lot (and I mean a lot) of very good German food – wursts (including the delicious chimera known as currywurst), potato salads and cabbage sides, meatballs of various types, and superb Vietnamese cuisine (at Monsieur Vuong) and Turkish food (at Hasir).
At an outdoor table at Zur letzten Instanz (shown below, with yours truly wearing a comfortable I-just-drank-some-beer expression), which our guidebook identified as the city’s oldest pub, we sat outside (Berliners dine outside in colder weather than New Yorkers do) and I ate stuffed cabbage that reminded me of the Jewish version I used to have chez my grandmother.
The dark and secretive Kellerrestaurant im Brechthaus is, as the name suggests, in Bertolt Brecht’s old house, serving delicious recipes Brecht’s wife used to make, which we ate while squinting at tiny, exquisitely made dioramas of the stage sets of Brecht’s plays.
Outdoor meals and beers by the River Spree that winds through the city plied by tourist boats made for happy times too.
At an outdoor market I purchased the trip’s most amusing dessert: a marzipan potato. I suppose because the potato is so important to German cuisine, a candy-and-nuts vender can’t miss with a huge stack of identical balls of marzipan, shaped like potatoes, complete with a brown skin.
As I mentioned in Part 1, construction cranes are everywhere in Berlin. Another ubiquitous sight, and a related one, are the colorful, often bright pink, aboveground pipes angling over the streets.
We learned the function of these mystery tubes only towards the end of our trip when we took a tour of an underground World War II bunker. This was perhaps the most fascinating event of our stay in the city. Hitler and the Nazi regime weren’t just warmongers, they played cruel tricks on their own citizens as well. Anticipating bombardment, Hitler ordered the building of bunkers where Berliners could go for safety during an air raid. But not only were there not enough bunkers, they weren’t necessarily actual bunkers at all, if by “bunker” we mean “bombproof shelter.”
The one we visited was adjacent to a subway station and the builders had adapted subway infrastructure for shelter purposes. People huddled here wouldn’t have been safe from bombs at all – there was no reinforced concrete, just a warren of subterranean rooms decked out with wartime signage, toilet-buckets, benches, and an illusion of security.
This photo shows the entrance and, if you squint, you can make out (in yellow lettering) the name of the group that preserves these sites and conducts the tours: “Berliner Unterwelten” (Berlin Underworld). No photography was allowed in the bunker.
Across the street there’s a nice park named for the Flaktürme (flak tower) whose remains can be found therein. The contrast between the peaceful green park and the bland entrance to the bunker with the gloom beneath – including exhibits of war relics such as ordnance, burned personal effects, and a bag marked “Auschwitz” used for delivery of Holocaust victims’ clothes back to the city for Berliners’ use – was silencing.
It was the bunker tour guide, a young French woman, who pointed out that because the water table is very high in Berlin, most of the city’s subway stations are not very deep below ground, which also explains those colorful pipes that run above the streets erector-set-like everywhere. At construction sites water is uncovered just below the surface and has to be drained away via these pipes. I guess they’re brightly colored to make them seem friendlier.
Concluded in Part 3