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#18 - (What I Heard in) Berlin
Sarah, Teresa, and I were brunching on the River Spree. We sat beneath an umbrella at Cafe Allegretto, a patio restaurant with a view of Museuminsel’s 19th Century Berliner Dom cathedral. Rather like most umbrellas, European or otherwise, ours did not provide adequate shadow coverage to protect the entire melanoma-opposed party that sat beneath. However, it was our first perfect day in Berlin, without a wisp of cloud cover to obscure the spring sun from bearing down upon us, and I was more than happy to work on my tan while I ate my eggs.
We ordered sparkling fruit juice to accompany the meal. I decided on passionfruit! Sarah, meanwhile, had ordered the elderflower variant. What even is elderflower?, I thought, rolling my eyes at her from behind the H&M knock-off Ray Bans I bought back in London, that sounds boring and awful compared to passionfruit! Germany is weird! Sarah is German! Sarah is weird! I mastered the transitive property early in my education and never looked back. I think Sarah tried to tell me something about elderflower, but I was thinking too loud to hear her.
I don’t remember which juice Teresa ordered because she was sitting to my immediate left and I tend to feel more competitive with those sitting opposite me. At this meal, that was Sarah. I would regret my ignorance towards Teresa’s brunchtime experience, but she was on the receiving end of my unnecessary scorn throughout most of Western Europe for better or worse.
After what seemed like a half hour—I have gathered it must be European custom for servers to enjoy a cigarette and espresso following each and every request made of them—our waitress returned with our sparkling fruit juices in delightful little flutes that made them all the more appetizing. Wünderbar! Cheers, everyone.
Being a generous person, Sarah decided to offer me a sip of her mysterious and likely dreadful elderflower juice as she had spent the past five months with me and could most likely sense my reluctant curiosity from behind my bargain shades.
We traded each other our little flutes of soda to sample, and the impossible happened: my ego crumbled much like the Berlin wall had nearly fifteen years ago. I had made the wrong decision. The elderflower sparkling fruit juice was the perfect balance of sweet and refreshing for such an indulgent morning among fabulous friends abroad. Without hesitation, I ordered a second glass of sparkling fruit juice, elderflower, thus overcompensating for my failure with excess—an American’s secret weapon wherever life may take them.
Our conversation sparkled with pleasantries like all the shimmering bubbles in my two flutes of fruit juice. Our meal had come to a close, and after what seemed this time like an hour for our server to return with our check, our collective flight of fancy soared to as-yet-unmatched heights. We three had never been more convinced of the power of brunch. What is life without brunch? A joke, really! I doublefisted sparkling fruit juice. Brunch is forever for friends like us!
We threw some euro at our server and our table was cleared to make room for all the big promises we began making of future stateside brunches. We would take turns hosting each other in our (terrible) Allston, MA apartments! We would experiment with making quiches but make backup pancakes because none of us really know how to cook and pancakes are better anyways! We would each contribute an ingredient for the morning’s highly-alcoholic, somehow-affordable booze! We could even picnic on the Charles! The Charles is just like the Spree if Boston isn’t frozen over and we bring brie and croissants and spreads and close our eyes! Why not?! Much of our once-in-a-lifetime European adventure may not translate back home, but our perfect brunch on the Spree sure could, no?
I don’t know. I am in the middle of the greatest adventure of my life thus far, in the middle of the grand European continent with four of my best friends, and I think we are getting a little carried away with twenty-something ambition. And perhaps that’s natural, considering all we have accomplished this spring.
On a moment to moment, experiential basis, it may not feel like it, but the life we live right now is but a dream. Berlin, most especially, seems a dream. And if the aforementioned brunch episode is any indication, it is a strange one, at that. Our time here oscillates from silly to solemn and back again ad infinitum.
With every explorative step we take, another piece of Berlin constructs itself before our very eyes. How can a city so old, so steeped in the history of the way of the world as we know it, be so new? How can a city that new, so removed from its 20th century tumult, still exist as a city of ruins, all active construction sites and cranes? Is it possible for Berlin to redress its ruins in reverence to all those it’s wronged? Can this city possibly bear its shame with grace?
Our first full day in Berlin starts as a grey one. All five of us, lucky to share a single room at Generator Hostel, are up early for to make a free walking tour of the city. From Brandenburg Tor at Pariser Platz, our tour guide leads us around the Berlin’s historic center. She is an English expatriate with whom I feel instinctively comfortable making conversation. At some point I get the impression she fears I am flirting with her, so I fall back to my friends.
Near the end of our tour, we come upon a square called Opernplatz to see a monument to the May 10, 1933 Nazi book burnings that took place here, at Berlin’s famed Humbolt University, and at German universities across the county. Set into the ground of the Opernplatz, between the university and the under-construction State Opera House, is a square of glass through which one can see myriad bookshelves. We are told these shelves have enough space for all 20,000 books burned here in 1933. Nearby is a bronze plaque upon which is inscribed a quote by German playwright Heinrich Heine, from his 1820 tragedy Almansor, undoubtedly burned here in 1933, that reads, “where they burn books, at the end they also burn people.” We are quiet, but the city around us—construction, like the Opera renovation before us, and civilians passing through routinely—keeps humming.
After the tour, I am elated to find Berlin’s lush, verdant central park, Tiergarten. The clouds part and the sun shines as we frolic among the pretty little flowers, our voices chiming on about something like how well we know each other. I soundtrack our afternoon play in my head; the voice of my favorite baroque-pop fairy Rufus Wainwright sings sweetly, “Won't you walk me through the Tiergarten?/Won’t you walk me through it all, darling?/Doesn’t matter if it is raining;/Won't you walk me through it all?”
On the other side of the Tiergarten, we reach the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism. It is an odd concrete monolith a bit taller than me with a square cut out in its front face. When one peers through the cutout inside the monument, there is a looped film of contemporary gays and lesbians kissing all over Berlin. Near the monument is a sign inscribed with a contextualizing history, the end of which reads, “Because of its history, Germany has a special responsibility to actively oppose the violation of gay men’s and lesbians’ human rights. In many parts of the world, people continue to be persecuted for their sexuality, homosexual love remains illegal and a kiss can be dangerous.” We each take turns watching, and I pick a tiny flower to lay before the obelisk.
Across the street, the five of us, quiet again, visit the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. We separate for an individual experience. I travel into the vast, rolling sea of concrete slabs. Some people pass playing hide and seek. I catch glimpses of my friends wandering as I move through this cemetery of sorts. The further into the memorial, away from the city, the quieter and darker. It is isolating, overwhelming, somehow fitting. We find each other on the other side and carry on. For a while, it seems we lost our words among the stones.
Our recurring, reverent silence is a response we share revealing the grace with which Berlin bares its shame. I wonder if quiet is requisite of memorial, as I am certain of the loudness of thought that lies beyond the social reflex of quiet contemplation.
This is the last city we visit as a quintet, and we spend much of our time discovering it quiet. We have been friends and collaborators for three years now. We have spent the last five months living together and supporting each other to the point of thriving far away from anything familiar. Objectively, this is no great feat. However, I am often surprised to find, for better or worse, there is still so much to which we struggle to put words and voice between us.
That night, we return to our hostel and plan to go to our first and last club outside of London. We get dressed and enjoy a few cocktails. We leave the hostel and start on our way to the club. It is a long way. Spirits seem to be high, perhaps even nearing a sort of fever pitch. In the next several minutes, and for several reasons—my own being a potent combination of travel fatigue and gin—our plans to dance the night away together fall apart amidst fighting among friends.
We separate. Teresa and I return to our hostel and spend the rest of the night singing along to the Moulin Rouge soundtrack before falling sound asleep.
The aforementioned brunch came the next morning. After brunch, a lot of Berlin Wall. In the evening, we see a revue at the Berliner Ensemble—song and dance and speech. We watch, riveted and terrified, without understanding a word.
The day after, Sarah leaves us and we leave Berlin—its quiet and its loudness, its past and its present, its mess and its monuments—behind.
I cling to the sweet hope I find among the effervescent bubbles of my sparkling fruit juice: Brunch, or maybe something like it, is forever for friends like us.