Learning Berlin Like I Learned Bushwick, Kinda

daniel adlerI am sitting in a cafe in Berlin in Rosenthaler Platz and I just finished drinking my americano, which the man at the counter recommended (over the girly Milkmadchen Espresso). I am upstairs sitting in a room filled with young people on their Mac Books. Most are German. I am reminded of the tea rooms Pushkin used to frequent in St. Petersburg; I think it’s the shape of the windows, which resemble the domes in Red Square. This is mostly why I came to Berlin, because I knew I could find coffee shops like St. Oberholtz, which although slightly large by my standards, is the perfect setting to night-write.

It reminds me of one of my first nights in Bushwick, when I skated through the cold to Archive and sat reading Middlemarch, intermittently writing, but mostly reading, because in those early days of writing I couldn’t do it for a sustained amount of time, and deep down I preferred reading anyway (no longer). Across the room was a young man reading Infinite Jest. I decided to talk to him. I waited for a few more pages then made my move. He was nice. I told him I had just read that tome and we talked a little about it. He began to sweat profusely, which I tried, rather successfully I think, to ignore. He had brown skin and black hair and seemed intelligent, part of the Bushwick cognoscenti. I asked him about places to go in the neighborhood, since I had just moved in. This is a habit of mine, to ask people about the best bars, cafes, restaurants and venues, because they know.

To digress slightly, this habit of mine is how I found St. Oberholtz. I was walking along Kastanienallee, looking for the perfect place– quiet, small, wifi, open late, good coffee, and I asked a beautiful Spanish girl in a cinema, which was disguised as a bar, where to go. She told me of a cafe just down the way, but it was closed; it’s closed on Montags. So I pressed on and went to Godot, but it was too barry, and I asked the waiter working where a good cafe is. He said, “Everywhere. There are cafes everywhere.” I didn’t want to explain to him the exact conditions I need to produce so I took a left down a street I hadn’t walked this afternoon. There were clothing stores and cafes and I went into a gelato joint and asked another darkeyed pretty girl washing the dishes since the guy behind the counter was helping those in line, and she said there’s no wee-fee, (which is how it’s pronounced here), but there could be a place down the way with white tables out in front that has it. Sure enough, they had it, and it was quiet and there was bar window seating and they roasted their own beans in-store and it smelled like rich black earth on a humid summer morning, but they were closing. The woman working told me to come back and when I asked her where to get coffee in a similar setting she directed me here. She said, “I used to do that, to sit and drink coffee, even before I started working here,” and I said, “It’s one of my favorite things in life.” Her eyes glossed as she smiled and I smiled and thanked her, “Danke, Tschuss.”

I walked under the leafless trees and sparrows flitting in the dusk, past the five-story apartment buildings, still kind of tired after my long night of travel on the ICE high-speed train, but knowing that I could overcome with a little caffeine. I also knew that this was how it would turn out, that after working so hard to find the perfect cafe, I would do just that.

So this is what I do in order to get into the scene. Back in Bushwick on that lonely cold night the boy asked me if I was hungry, or maybe I asked him. We decided on Mexican. We walked along the dark cold avenue (which I later came to know and regard as a main thoroughfare) past the bullet proof Chinese restaurants, which he explained were a great way to get food poisoning. I hadn’t been down this street, and it seemed far in the way journeys to new places do when you’re waiting to get there and you don’t know how long it will take. It was only to the next subway stop.

Inside the restaurant we wrote down our choices on a three by five note card with a thick pencil and I followed his recommendation of the carne enchilada. There were construction workers in neon orange outfits eating, which was a good sign, because construction workers typically know the good deals and need hearty filling food. It took a long time for the food to come,  not in the way it seems when you’re waiting for food to come and you’re hungry, but because they made the food fresh. This was a tortilla factory and they had the TV on, on a shelf above. I didn’t like that but for $3.25 I didn’t complain. I remember the boy was surprised that I took jalapenos and carrots from the jar of pickled vegetables. He told me he didn’t have a job, but rather had a shitty unpaid internship at a Brooklyn weather forecasting station or something equally shitty and he was a student and I don’t remember what he studied. We ate our enchiladas and I was satisfied. I remember wondering whether to ask him for his number, but my apprehension about asking– he’s not a girl, if it happens, it should just happen, I thought, just relax, wait for the end of the meal and see– held me back. So that when we finished eating and walked outside and still no mention had been made of exchanging contact information or seeing each other again, I didn’t worry until he took a left and I slapped my skateboard down and took a right and on the skate home on that cold night, by the time I got home sweaty, that prior apprehension had grown into a welt of guilt and regret for not making a friend. I had missed a good opportunity to make a friend in my new neighborhood. But it wasn’t so bad because it hadn’t happened naturally, and when I got hungry a couple of hours later and reflected that maybe that restaurant wasn’t all I had originally thought, I felt better and forgot all about my regret and opened Middlemarch and began to read away my loneliness, enjoying the fine memory of my transient meeting with that boy.

Tonight, I almost felt the same when that drunk Aussie sitting at the hostel bar wearing a life preserver greeted me and asked where I was from, but I can’t deal with drunk Aussies, I have work to do and can’t party tonight, so the part of me that said, you missed your opportunity to make a friend didn’t have a very loud voice and as I walked through the gloaming I played out different scenarios of what else could happen tonight. Maybe I’d make friends with the guy sitting next to me at the cafe, and we’d go back to his hip Berlin loft and I’d be trying to find a safe place for my computer as I’m handed a German pils in the mellow lighting and we sit on crumby couches and get to know each other and there are a couple of other people there who I don’t click with quite as well and I get lost because they’re speaking German while I surreptitiously admire someone’s girlfriend who sits near me, who definitely finds me attractive and who I’m trying to ignore but it’s hard because she’s blonde and blueeyed and German and it gets late and I’m getting tired because the caffeine is wearing off and I go home, maybe keeping these new friends but more than likely never seeing them again. But it doesn’t seem I’ll be making any friends tonight because everyone is working behind the white glow of the Apple-shaped lights on their computers and the girl at my ten o’ clock keeps talking on her iPhone and she has short hair and I think she smelled it when I farted earlier, although she did just smile at me and she may even have been talking about me to her friend when she laughed immediately after. But probably not, probably just me getting lost, alone in this Berlin cafe.

By Daniel Ryan Adler

Daniel Adler writes fiction and nonfiction and is finishing his MFA at University of South Carolina.


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