Friday, May 21, 2010

August 8, 2008

Berlin is a four hour train ride from Düsseldorf. Trains for Berlin leave just about once an hour. We really didn’t want to squander much time in the morning, so we woke up early to catch the earliest reasonable train possible. My wife’s cousin had to work up until lunch time, so she would be catching a separate train and meeting us there.

The train ride wasn’t unpleasant, though it stopped frequently. Berlin is the capital and thus a very popular city. Many people want to go there. I suspect the train ride wouldn’t have taken nearly so long if it hadn’t had to stop every ten minutes to let more people on.

When we arrived at the main train station in Berlin, we were immediately terrified at its complexity and vertiginous height. There were at least 100 floors. I don’t understand how they had trains coming in that high up, but they certainly did. Some trains arrived on raised tracks. The escalators that took you up and down from one floor to the next traversed the main atrium. You could see straight to the bottom all the way up from the top. It was terrifying and difficult to find the platform for our connecting subway train. Our hotel was very decidedly not within walking distance of the train station. We found the right platform and started moving.

There was a second connecting subway train that we had to take, which we did. Once we got off that one, we still had about half a mile to walk to our hotel. As it turns out there were other public transportation options that could have gotten us closer to our final destination, but we were out of patience with public transit. We walked.

The sun and heat were terrible. We arrived at the hotel in a terrible, exhausted mood. The man at the desk spoke good English and the hotel was nice. We really didn’t care, though. It was mid-afternoon, and we had to get moving.

My wife had assembled a plan. After one tram ride and two subway trains, we’d be in the particular part of the city that we wanted to explore. Her plan worked without flaws.

The first thing we did was hit a couple of art galleries. They had some big names on display. Richard Serra was one of them. The place was full of really good contemporary avant-garde stuff. There were even some smaller galleries near it. We hit a couple of those too. Most were crap. There was one really compelling installation at one of them, however, involving a very elaborate dress with dripping candles hung over it, dripping wax down onto it. There were a few cool-looking stores around, and we found a nice shirt to bring back for my sister at one of them. We also found an absinthe shop, and bought a small bottle (not for my sister) to bring back home. We had our quick fill of art and shopping, and decided that dinner and alcohol were next.

In the travel guide, my wife had found a place called White Trash Fast Food that we really wanted to hit. The previous evening, my wife and her cousin had been discussing it. Her cousin has been to Berlin numerous times, and was familiar with the place. She was continually trying to discourage us from going there, claiming that it wasn’t nearly as cool as it used to be. My wife and I are very stubborn people. We’re not easily swayed by the admonishments of other people. Our fortitude was richly rewarded. White Trash Fast Food is owned by expatriate New Yorkers. Likely this was why my wife’s cousin didn’t think it was cool. It wasn’t authentically German enough for her cultured palate. We’re not cultured though, so we thought it was great. With the exception of two guys who seemed to be the owners or managers, and did in fact have New York accents, everybody else working there was German. The place looked like it used to be a very ornate Chinese place that had been ransacked by tacky Americans who broke stuff and filled it up with junk. The restaurant was Germany’s loving critique of American white trash culture. The food was all excellent greasy diner food. They had Guinness. The music playing was generally good. The patrons were all very young and tattooed. There was a band setting up. We actually felt very at home.

My wife’s cousin met us there. She had caught all the right trains, dropped her bags off at the hotel, and found her way to the restaurant pretty quickly. We had already finished eating, and sat and drank more while she ordered and ate. It was just nice to be someplace trashy with loud music, good beer, and good food. It was nice to be somewhere that I didn’t feel like I stuck out.

When we finished eating and drinking there, it was time to start bar-crawling up the street. Apparently a bunch of my wife’s cousin’s favorite Berlin bars were on that street. There was a place that she raved about just down the street. I don’t recall its name, but it was apparently owned and run by Italian anarchist punks. Once inside, it looked like a cross between a beer hall and an Italian villa. The place was packed. We sat down at a long table. There was a “Reserved” tag on it, and we just pushed it down to the other end of the table. There were only three of us, and the table looked like it could easily accommodate a dozen people. The irony of anarchists running a restaurant that accepted reservations wasn’t lost on me. Anarchists are always funny for exactly that reason. They always talk about their spite for laws and other forms of social control, but they like paved roads and the ability to make reservations at a restaurant. Funny. We waited patiently for a server to find us. After ten minutes had gone by, my wife’s cousin managed to get the attention of one of them. She was a lean, tall, beautiful Italian woman who looked to be in her early 30s. I was excited. My wife’s cousin tried to ask for menus, and she replied, “No English.” We tried again, and got a nastier, “No English!” My wife and I decided that it was time to leave. We got up and walked out with my wife’s cousin following, trying to convince us to give the place a chance. Nope. In Germany (and the rest of Europe too, it seems), servers get paid a regular living wage and don’t depend on tips the way they do back in America. Thus there’s no incentive for them to serve you well. It’s nice because you’re only supposed to tip 10%, but the service often sucks. I believe that our way is superior. Regardless, we weren’t about to sit around this place any longer. The crowd looked lame. It was a bar with an identity crisis, and I didn’t feel like participating in it.

Less than a quarter of a mile up the road, we found a nice quiet outdoor café, and we all sat around a table and had beers there. It was relaxing and easy to talk. My wife’s cousin had been using her iPhone relentlessly the whole time we were with her. It seems like most people with iPhones are utterly addicted to them and flagrantly obnoxious and pretentious about showing them off. I don’t even know what she was doing with it, most likely searching for more bars in the area, checking her email, or blogging about something. I don’t know or care. I’m not really a Luddite, but I took the opportunity to argue from that side of the fence. I really enjoy being contrary and argumentative sometimes, and this seemed like a great opportunity. Oddly, my wife’s cousin has really taken web technology to heart and believes in the wild proliferation of media and social networking sites that have choked our world with self-consciousness and vanity. It was fun to get her ire up. I love arguing. I don’t really hate the Internet at all, quite the contrary. I just think that it became lame and pointless as soon as big business got their hands on it and turned it into a commodity. Big money and advertising make things stupid almost 100% of the time. I blasted away, and she defended these strange, intangible, imprecise, abstract notions about people connecting and sharing ideas with technology. I explained that really brilliant ideas tend to come from individuals, not groups. I said that people in groups are how wars get started. I know it’s a wild over-generalization, but I just wanted to frustrate her. It worked. My wife watched in amusement, and occasionally chimed in to add weight to my side of the argument. At that point the argument ceased to be about technology and became about “the individual” versus “the group.” I really enjoy being drawn into these sorts of ideological debates. I don’t believe that individuals should have the power to control, dominate, or take advantage of large swathes of people. At the same time, I don’t believe in peoples’ collective right (as a society) to dictate the rights of an individual, as long as that individual isn’t hurting anybody. The objective of a civilized society is achieving the correct balance of rights for the “individual” and society as a whole. It seems like a very moderate stance to me. Essentially, I argued from this perspective. She took a far left stance, and argued on behalf of all things communal. The argument ended when I said that I was a big fan of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and asked if she had ever read it or any of her other books. She hadn’t.

Next, we hit a place called 8mm. It looked cool and had a slightly older, more sophisticated crowd. There was a DJ playing loud, uninteresting music that I didn’t love, hate, or recognize. Their beer selection was pitiful. I don’t recall seeing any women who excited my fancy. The place was very okay, not bad but not great. Fashionably, mildly raw, yet thoroughly safe. It seemed to be the sort of place that a slightly more intellectual, mature, cultured, literate, yet still mildly gritty, counterculture liberal crowd would hang out. It seemed like a place for very cerebral degenerates to hang out without fear of being mugged. I love these kinds of people as I’m essentially one of them. However, they’re not the liveliest bunch on earth. My wife and her cousin started talking about something, and I couldn’t hear any of it. I pretended to listen. I nodded a lot. It was tiresome. If I’d have been able to talk to somebody I’m sure I could have loved the place. It wasn’t meant to be. We moved on.

Around 11pm my wife saw a place that looked like exactly her cup of tea. It was called Last Cathedral. There was a faux finish all over the front of it that made it look like it was made out of stone. They even had a wrought iron gate. It was immediately apparent that my wife would need to go in. She loves these kinds of places. It was overflowing with the obligatory goofy-looking goth kids. They’re not a bad bunch, just kind of sad and predictable. I wasn’t exactly psyched, but we proceeded.

The place was packed, and seating was very limited. Remarkably, a table opened up, and we laid claim to it quickly. I said that I’d hold the table while my wife and her cousin went to the bar to get the drinks. Almost immediately, the two pretty young girls at the table behind me spun around and introduced themselves to me. Things were looking up. It was clear by their accents that they were Irish. That excited me. It seems like, when traveling abroad, people who speak English natively seem to band together. It’s always easy to identify people who speak the language naturally. They both looked good, and were sisters. That excited me even more. I was beginning to feel the effects of a long evening of drinking. I don’t recall exactly how many beers I had consumed at that point, but it was substantial. I told them I was an American, though I knew it was an unnecessary thing to formally declare. I explained that my wife and I were on our first trip to Europe, visiting her cousin. One of them asked me how we had liked Germany so far. I think I said something like, “Baby, we should have gone to your country.” I explained that many of my favorite things in this world come from Ireland. I could see their bullshit reflex was, understandably, triggered. I immediately qualified my statement with a list of awesome fucking things that came from Ireland: Thin Lizzy, The Pogues, Guinness (and thick stout beer in general, which likely made me visibly weepy), Bushmills (and blended Irish whisky in general, which was a mild fib as I prefer bourbon), shepherd’s pie, and my mother’s mother. I think I was counting on my fingers as I listed these things, and I laughed at myself for doing so. They laughed at me too. I topped off my display of Irish-itude by declaring, “…but fuck Bono!” I had it locked up. In that moment I knew that I was about to bed the two of them, my wife, and her cousin. The ensuing depraved orgy would be legendary. Things were looking good.

My wife and her cousin returned to the table. My wife was overjoyed that I’d made some new friends. I introduced everybody. Apparently my wife was carded at the bar. My wife is 29, but doesn’t look a day over 12. The drinking age in Germany is 16. She was complaining about this to the group, and the Irish girls laughed. The older Irish girl was 26. Her younger sister was only 17. I was a little startled and almost felt badly for having such lascivious thoughts about a 17 year old. It passed quickly. The age of consent in Ireland is 17, and in Germany it’s only 14. I was in thoroughly safe legal/moral territory by either standard, and she seemed like a very mature young woman. If you’d told me she was 21, I wouldn’t have doubted you. The younger Irish girl had been carded too. She explained that the drinking age in Ireland is 18, and she can’t drink in bars back home in Ireland. I was shocked, and queried, “There’s a drinking age in Ireland?” They laughed.

Things took a somewhat different turn as all of the women started talking and cackling in turns. Apparently they both had boyfriends back home. I couldn’t really hear most of the conversation. The music was generally terrible. My buzz was beginning to fail and I didn’t feel like fighting my way up to the bar for another pint of light fizzy German beer. I just didn’t feel like spending money on it or drinking the calories.

The three guys from Denmark must have seen that there was a table of four good-looking women and only one man, so they came over to talk. They all appeared to be in their late 30s. Unas was the leader. There was also a guy named Pietro, and an Asian guy whose name I don’t recall. They were all from Denmark and desperately trying to get laid. They had made the Denmark part explicit, but not the getting laid part. None of them looked like anything my wife would be interested in. She immediately clung to my arm, and explained that she was married to me. The Irish girls each produced cell phones with pictures of their boyfriends from back home on them. It didn’t seem like either of them were into the Danish guys either, though it seemed funny to me that pictures of boyfriends from far away adequately discouraged these guys. My wife’s cousin had no such easily available excuse, though she generally kept quiet and hid behind the rest of us. It was easy to see the three guys from Denmark recalculating their odds. They were all very drunk, and eventually they all ended up talking to me. They seemed like really good, intelligent guys. I could easily identify with them and their plight. Unas gently began in on a various cultural indictments against America. He was right on all accounts, so I offered no resistance. I verbally agreed with him, and at that point he decided that we were indeed brothers. Eventually I ended up talking to Pietro. The Asian guy whispered something to him that seemed to alarm him. Pietro abruptly said, “What?” The Asian guy repeated more loudly, “What Unas is saying is that we should leave all of the women with Jay.” Pietro smiled. The Asian guy laughed. Unas laughed. So did I. They told us what bar they were headed to next, and departed. We all waved. It was 2:30am, and I clearly wasn’t getting anywhere. My wife and I decided to leave. The Irish girls laughed and said we had better get to bed. All of the women exchanged email addresses, and posed for a group picture. After taking the picture, we went upstairs to leave, and my wife’s cousin resolved herself to stay out later. She said that she was going back to 8mm and not to wait up for her. We asked her if she was sure, and she said, “Yeah. I’m going to try to meet up with some friends.” Fair enough. She’s a grown woman, and I don’t think that Berlin has much violent crime. We weren’t really all that concerned. We felt somewhat lame going back to bed so early when there was still fun to be had. However, we only had half a day to spend in Berlin the next day. We didn’t want to have to spend it sleeping. Returning to the hotel to sleep was clearly the right thing to do. We walked back, and went to sleep pretty quickly. Her cousin never came back.

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