Revisiting Europe: Berlin

Revisiting Europe: Berlin

I have just returned from a whirlwind visit / tour of Europe.  I started in Berlin, made my way across the English Channel to Bristol.  Then onto London and the absolutely charming village of Whitstable.  I revisited my past in Prague.  Braved the budget airlines and flew into Barcelona, then onto Lisbon.  I also grew a large beard.  A large, white beard. More on this later.

Shortly after the Berlin Wall fell, my mother and my father took a trip to that newly opened city.  My father, Jewish, born in 1929, was unnerved by Berlin.  Sepia news reels fluttered through his brain: Hitler at the podium, jack-booted storm troopers on Kriztalnacht, piles of burning books.  At the Brandenburg Gate, he had a tightness of breath, a cold sweat.  Then, oddly, he recognized that he was picking up bits and pieces of the German spoken by passers-by — the Yiddish he spoke as a youth had resurfaced, its medieval Germanic roots making sense of a language that he associated only with dread.  He soon realized that he was surrounded by some sort of gay block party, disco music blaring, heavily muscled Berliners decked out in full leather. He was welcomed into the event, given a beer and more than a few inquiring glances.  He felt an unspeakable joy — here he was, very much alive,  in front of the very monument he had seen so many times draped in Swastikas. And here were a mass of happy, proud homosexuals — once targeted for extermination by the Nazis — literally basking in the glow of life.   The Nazis who had haunted his consciousness for his entire life?  Dead and gone. He fell in love with Berlin that day.    What my father glimpsed that day has come to define Berlin: a wildly diverse city teeming with Turks, Gambians, Europeans from all over the continent and much, much more.  The giant, draping swastikas have been replaced with rainbow flags signaling a Berlin that has devoted itself to inclusion at all costs.

Foodwise, Berlin has exploded.  It has become a center for great Turkish, Arab and middle eastern cooking.  Israeli chefs have flocked there, bringing incredible hummus, shashuka, pita and other staples.  Cheap, delicious Turkish food is everywhere with elaborate meze plates and fragrant skewers of beef, chicken and lamb.  Traditional German food has blossomed as well with new interest in traditional recipes and a devotion to seasonal produce and fish. And then there is the beer.  Great mugs of frothy pilsners, lagers and ales both refresh and tickle the palette with depths of flavor. Compared to much of Europe, prices are minimal.

My friend Panza grew up in East Berlin before the wall came down.  As a young man he was fascinated with American hip hop.  Travelling to Hungary as a high school student, he and his friends spent all their money buying albums pirated onto cassettes.  For the next four days they dined on onions, bought cheaply at a street market.  The music they purchased was a salve for the rather remarkable gastrointestinal distress brought on by onion after onion.  Later, Panza found reggae and formed a Sound System called Supersonic which has become one of the leading clash sounds not just in Europe but world-wide.  In a sound clash, Panza is ruthless and unforgiving, smiling as he drives a nail into a sound boy’s coffin with one more expertly conceived and cut dubplate.  As a person, he is a paragon of kindness and empathy — a long-time vegetarian and food-lover.  With him as a guide I had one of the best breakfasts of my life: a lush shashuka (Israeli tomato stew with poached eggs) served over the smoothest, slightly warm hummus and just made pita.  Another day, Panza brought me to a street-side vendor selling both local German country cheeses and some prized imports from Italy and France.  He was a generous seller deeply in love with his product.  He indulged us, letting us try everything with large samples and recommendations.  As much as I love Japan, I miss access to affordable and delicious cheeses.  With a fragrant loaf of Sourdough, it was a lunch of the gods. One night for dinner we had a perfect Neopolititan pizza, charred in all the right places and light as air; the next night we dined at Cafe Nest in Kreuzberg.  The restaurant is sprawling and airy, the floors well-worn, cozy. The owner, Sandra, was a champion kick-boxer in her twenties, but to me she may as well come out of the womb as a bar owner.  There is something timeless about her; or rather she seems to be an archetype of certain type of Berliner that I know only from literature, specifically Weimar-Era literature.  I have no problem imagining her serving a beer to Christopher Isherwood, sharing a cigarette with the fictional detective Bernie Gunther — there are layers of cynicism, dark humor, genuine warmth and empathy that roll out with each word she speaks.  She also serves up wonderful food – a mix of Italian and German dishes that change depending on market availability.  Nest looks out over a seedy park patrolled by skulking drug dealers.  They stay in the shadows,  heads in constant rotation searching for the next raid, the next customer. In any other city, I would think…THIS is where you go to get robbed.  But here in Berlin, young parents walk with impunity, their kids on their little bikes, the dark streets menace-free.  And, perched on a bench in front of Nest, roll-up mixed with weed and tobacco in hand, Sandra holds court — an ever-vigilant Berliner making sure those dark days of fascism never return.

My reason for being in Berlin — or rather the stated reason I was in Berlin was to play records with Panza — a night of vintage sounds with Barney Millah (one of the great DJ names ever!), another legend of German reggae.  Yaam is Berlin’s premier reggae establishment located on the Spree River, close to where the border between East and West Berlin once lay.  It is sprawling and slightly dilapidated — various grafitti-covered shacks and buildings lay piecemeal in rubble filled lawn sporting volleyball nets, food shops, art exhibits of some kind — a post-industrial beach club.  The space where we played was bunker-like, cinder-block walls, big sound-system, a surly older Berliner, cigarette perched in the corner of his mouth, kept vigil over the truly fetid bathrooms.  The crowd was wild, a mix of Africans, Europeans, native Berliners and a spattering of young Japanese — one of which I knew from New York.  The music was strictly 1970s and early 1980s — roots, rub-a-dub, reggae classics.  One regular, dark sunglasses seemingly a permanent fixture, set up a lawn chair by the speakers early in the night.  He burned one spliff after another, occasionally jumping up to salute a particular favorite song.  Jamaican music, weirdly, speaks to people across borders, across race, across age and religion.  Weirdly, because it comes from such a specific circumstance, such a specific and tiny place. There is something viral about it, a fever that you catch.  In Berlin, a city so haunted by its past, by its violence and division, it is inspiring to watch hundreds of people — young, old, African, European — so infected by the music that in the end, they are all united.  Berliners at last, one and all.

 

 

 

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