Berlin, like many great cities, has many great landmarks. But once I got to know her better, I was able to discover some of those special things about Berlin that are typical of Berlin, and set it apart from other great cities. For instance, when we first arrived, Markus pointed out that the street signs in Berlin are written with a special font that has gone back for centuries. Having grown up in Berlin, he explained that he always feels home again when he sees those street signs with that particular font. This is typical Berlin. (The Germans love the word “typical.” They use it – or rather, its German equivalent – far more frequently than we do in America, and it is one of the peculiarities about their English that I picked up on rather quickly. It is not incorrect, it is just… not typical. So when I say something is “typical,” I am probably saying so because that is what the Germans would say of it. They would say of the font, “das ist typisch.”) One thing that is often typical for most areas is a particular street food, only to be found in that one place. Baden-Württemburg and Bavaria, the southern states, have bretzels. When I go to Stuttgart, I can buy ice cream off the street, or many other things, but in order to get what is “typisch,” I would have to order a bretzel. Probably a butter bretzel, too. (Bretzel = soft pretzel.) There are also different types of bread specific to different areas. My favorite type of brötchen, laugenbrötchen, is typical for this area. A few days ago I was able to try out a special sausage, wießwurst, which is typical of Bavaria. (It is also typically served with bretzels and a special mustard.)
Berlin, as it so happens, has some of the best street food in the world. I am speaking of currywurst. Take wurst. Special wurst, with curry mixed into it. Fry it, and serve with copious amounts of ketchup-curry sauce, and top it off with half a ton of curry powder. French fries (pommes) or a simple bread roll are the typical sides. Throw in the typical Berlin beer, Berliner Weiße, and prepare to experience enlightenment.
Markus, being a native Berliner, had prepared currywurst for us a few times before I actually went to Berlin. Unfortunately, it is not quite the same as having it on the streets of the city itself. My first true experience of it was after my first afternoon alone. Andrea and Markus had taken the kids to the zoo, and offered me the afternoon off to walk the length of Ku’damm (Kurfürstendamm) and see some of the shops. (Enter shift of topic with minimal segue and no paragraph break!) The next morning I was offered a full two days to see more of Berlin, and directed by Markus’s father to see KaDeWe, a store which I had previously heard nothing about, but which he told me was quite famous. He also told me that it rivaled Harrods in London, which I had heard about. Having a full day ahead of me, I decided to drop by, just for a look-see, to satisfy my curiosity.
KaDeWe has seven levels. The first five are devoted to everything from men and women’s clothing, to electronics, to interior decorating. Most of these things did not interest me greatly, but I did stop to take a look at some of the clothing in the women’s section. I am no great shopper. I do not own a lot of very high-quality garments. I do most of my shopping at stores like Old Navy. It is good for trendy street clothes, which is what I like to wear. I also like to sew some of my own clothing. What I am trying to get at is, I may not wear incredibly expensive clothing, but I can recognize it when I see it, without looking at the price tag. Within minutes of entering the store, I became keenly aware of feeling out of place. A casual-looking shirt on a fifty-percent clearance rack cost over 100 euro. Most of the clothing around me cost more than what I make in a month. It was all probably horribly overpriced, but even so, I could tell the difference just by looking at them. Maybe it was my sewing experience, but I often notice flaws in the cheaper clothing I buy that just were not apparent in the clothes in this store. Also, many of the differences were intangible, things I could not name specifically, but which I could sense. Maybe it was something about the material used, or the lines of the seams. Whatever it was about it, just looking at it made me feel horrible insecure. I was keenly aware that I was wearing baggy cargo pants and a polo shirt I bought as an afterthought last summer at Meijer, without even trying it on. I was also wearing a hoodie jacket that I had bought with my mom in Chicago last winter. It was probably the nicest piece of casual clothing I owned, having come from one of the more fashionable department stores in the Windy City itself. I liked this hoodie in particular, because it was a nice color that went with a lot of my clothes, but also because it always looked nice on me. The way it was sewn, the position of the seam lines, the material… it was all well-done, and I knew it was every time I wore it. But in that store, even it seemed a little shabby, as if it had been washed too many times. Twice too many, in fact, because that is all it had been washed, but just with that, the newness had been cleaned away. All the clothes around me had that same feeling of being well-made, as if they’d look good on me no matter what. And they were new.
I wandered around the women’s clothing section for maybe half an hour, until my uneasiness was too great, and I decided to move on. I think it was a feeling of being out-classed that got to me. As good as my life has been, being surrounded by so many nice things that I could not afford was beginning to make me feel discontented. Had it been the right time with the right friend, I dare say I might have enjoyed myself more. But as things were, something about the situation at that time felt very wrong to me. So I moved up a few floors, until at last I came to the sixth level. This floor brought on an entirely new challenge. It was the food hall, and now for the first time I was presented with a few things that I could both enjoy and afford. At least, in small quantities. Also, while I only know enough about clothes to know the difference between good and not-as-good (without necessarily knowing why), I do know enough about food to the whys and hows of what I was seeing.
I have studied in the culinary industry a little. I have not completed a degree, nor do I have any work experience, but I am moderately proud of what I have managed to learn in school. For a while I dreamed of becoming a chef, because I loved watching the cooking shows on TV. There was a time in the not-so-distant past where I dreamed of working in a place where I could create some of the things I was now looking at. More recently I have come to the conclusion that Culinary is not something I think I would like to pursue as a lifelong career. I would maybe like to finish the certificate or degree that I have started, and perhaps use it for a short time to get a job better than folding laundry in order to pay the bills. But standing in that food hall, seeing all the beautiful breads, cakes, pastries, teas, jars, chocolates, candies, dishes, meals… I found myself confronted with my old dream once more. I was tempted, strongly, by the desire to renew my pursuit of culinary happiness. It was that same feeling of discontent all over again, except it was not about money. I kept thinking “these people are doing what I wanted to do. That could be me.” Except that I no longer wanted to do that. But the more I looked at that food, the more I forgot that fact.
I had thought at first, upon seeing all that good food, that I would have lunch there, treat myself to a nice meal, round it off with some good coffee and a special dessert. But earlier that morning I had been planning to save my money as much as possible for what I might see during the day, and the treat I had planned for myself that evening was more currywurst, topped by a coffee at the nearby bookstore, and maybe a couple paperback books as well. The bookstore in question had kind of reminded me of Borders. Coffee and a good book are very much a me-ish way of rounding off a busy day. Tea if I am at home. Some part of me knew that if I spent a lot of money now, buying fancy food and nice desserts, I would not be able to enjoy by street food in the same manner. And I wanted to enjoy my street food. As simple and greasy and dodgy as it was, I wanted that street food. So in the end, I bought only a couple pasties, spending no more than two or three Euro, and practically fled the store. Whatever was going on in there, something did not sit right with me, and I knew I had to get back out into the street, with the traffic, and the noise, and the normal people. There was probably nothing wrong with the store itself, or the people in it. I have no wish to start generalizing, and calling the customers there superficial, or the lifestyle too material. But there was something wrong with me, I knew that much. And I needed to get my head back into reality.
As soon as I was outside, I found a fountain to sit next to, and enjoyed my pastries as best I could. I admit, it was not hard. I had not had a croissant that good since France, and the raisin roll was even better. I had nothing but water to drink, but that was good enough. After a few minutes among normal folk, I felt like myself again. The “out-classed” feeling left, I was no longer out of place, and the delusions of culinary grandeur faded away. I finished the day as planned, with currywurst, beer, a good book, and some sort of hot drink to top it off. I even wrote part of a letter, before leaving to catch the bus back home. So in the end, it was all right. But I do not think I will ever be able to forget what happened inside that store.
There is another memory I do not think I will ever be able to forget. I sincerely hope I will not forget it. It is the memory I began all of this with, but I refrained from finishing it in order to better contrast it with the one I have just shared. The day before all of this happed at the KaDeWe, I had my first-ever, authentic, bona-fide, Berlin currywurst. I had been on my feet walking for about six hours, and was pretty worn out. I had walked the entire length of the Ku’damm, and back, and had returned to my original starting point at the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche. I ordered my currywurst from a nearby street stand, added to it the typical roll and a beer, and seated myself on the nearby church steps. It was a beautiful day. The sky was blue, and the temperature was just right. There were several street musicians nearby, playing bizarre stringed instruments for coins. Groups of people passed talking and laughing, many enjoying the same meal I had. And I had currywurst: juicy, and spicy, and covered in ketchup. I ate it with a two pronged plastic fork, out of a piece of ruffled paper. It got on my fingers, as all good street food does, and I had to make strategic use of my single napkin. It was hot, the beer was cold, the bread was no good, and it was one of the best experiences of my life.
And thus I re-learned one of those important life lessons that I am sure we all have already learned many times in the past: that sometimes the simple pleasures in life are the best. I believe that the reason we keep re-learning this must be that it is such a joy to rediscover.