Monday, March 04, 2024

The Big Apfel: From New York to Berlin – my first 100 days in the German capital

By Keenan Brill

“Sorry sir, I asked for an iced coffee, not an ice-cream coffee.” My cup had a huge vanilla scoop in it. “Yes, this is a German *Eiskaffee.* You can have a coffee with ice cubes, but that would be one Euro more.”
That is life in the German capital – or at least in some parts of it. The Berlin food scene can be quite delicious and versatile, but every once in a while you have to pony up just for a cold drink.
As a German-American I have always been conflicted with my sense of identity. In New York, I’m the German; in Berlin, I’m the American. After living in New York for the past decade, and being in my late 20s, I thought it was time for a journey of self-discovery, so off to Berlin I went in pursuit of my cultural roots. The widely praised capital, the hip Berlin, in endless magazine features and blogposts, is said to have elements of a gritty New York from the 1980s, before gentrification ran wild: artists lived in crumbling buildings; you couldn’t buy your way into a club, but had to be truly “cool” to get in. Sounded fantastic and I was eager to discover what the hype was all about.
First of all, be careful when you walk out in the streets. If you are about to cross the road, approaching cars are more likely to hit the gas then let you pass. Be wary of angry Berliners and their *Autobahn* mentality. But be aware of pedestrians that see you crossing at a red as well. “Look away!” a German mother yelled, covering her child’s eyes, while an old man in an adidas tracksuit raised his fist and peppered me with insults.
The following morning, I discovered it was Holy Sunday in Berlin. It is a rule throughout Germany that all stores are closed on Sunday. Now, some locals may chafe at this notion, and proudly state that the Berlin Central Station grocery store is open on Sunday. Congrats, but unless you don’t mind fighting for the last loaf of bread in an over-crowded *Supermarkt,* save your energy for a weekday.
Since I was unable to go shopping I resorted to ordering online, which led to my experience with the German postal service and their delivery methods: in fact not straight to your door delivery. Instead, the mail men will ring your bell, usually in the middle of the day when you’re not home, and if you aren’t present to collect your package, they will drop it off at the nearest post office, which conveniently closes every day at 6 pm every day – and at noon on Saturdays. If you are really lucky, the delivery man will drop your package with a neighbor in your building – forcing you to continuously bother and socialize with the exact people you try to avoid. Such is the case with Malte, who continuously offers me beer, when all I want is my package. Last time I kindly refused, telling him I just came from the gym, and couldn’t bare the calories on my conscience. At this point I’m running out of excuses.
As Berlin winters are cold, brutal and harsh, it didn’t take long for me to fall sick. I asked the pharmacist for a decongestant nasal spray. “I must warn you zis is wery addictive. Wery dangerous!“ She offered me tea instead. I persisted, and she gave me the tiniest bottle. 10 ml! This was never going to get me through the night. “Sorry, but can I have two please?“ She gasped: “No! Zis is impossible. Wery dangerous!”
Was she actually concerned for my well-being and not trying to sell me more? Or is it just that in times of mild medical necessity, a holistic Germans would insist on eating an apple first, even if she’s a pharmacist?
Through my discussions, experiences, and endless comparisons, I’ve gathered that Americans are thought to be more friendly yet superficial. Germans, on the other hand, are known to be more unfriendly, but honest. Take your pick.
In some ways, Germans have adopted American culture; they wear Nike and watch Netflix. In other ways, they take a more critical stance towards its politics, people and cultural ideals. “Big Mac nation” and “overlords of capitalism,” both of which contain notions of both truth and hypocrisy. However, what can be said is that if you manage to befriend a German, it is sure that he or she will be your genuine friend for life. Much to my surprise, when a starry-eyed club girl told me “Let’s get coffee tomorrow,” I somehow had a feeling we genuinely would. But without ice!

Keenan Brill
for The German Times