guten tag: welcome to germany, pt 3. speakeasies and auf wiedersehen

reighstag in the wind
the reichstag stands strong as winds blow overhead in berlin, germany

during my time in berlin, i stayed at a hostel by the name of pfefferbett hostel up in the mitte neighborhood.  As I mentioned before, the mitte neighborhood is one that appears to be a little yuppie-ish, it’s very clean-cut and extremely safe.  it’s the kind of neighborhood that has the types of upscale bars that are more expensive than i can afford on a traveler’s budget, but too good to resist.  they are the kinds of places where you can find a bartender who knows the value of a strong whiskey pour into just the right mix of ingredients to create a completely new and complex concoction that loosens the screws and lightens your load and just might help you find an interesting conversation or make you a friend or two, whether on your side of the bar or the other.  these are the places with a specific sense of style, where the purveyors know that the environment is just as important as the libation being served. because if i can’t enjoy myself while drinking the cocktail, then i can’t enjoy the cocktail.

so while in berlin i had read of/heard of some bars in the area that were of the “speakeasy” variety, which i found to be particularly interesting.  the reason i find this interesting is because the “speakeasy” is something that is uniquely american.  it calls back to the days of the prohibition era in the US, when it was illegal to consume or possess alcohol.  alcohol was then imported into the US through smuggling operations via Canada and the atlantic coast, as well as sourced locally from bootlegging operations in places like kentucky, tennessee, and virginia.  once the alcohol (most popularly, whiskey and whisky – yes, there’s a difference based on that wandering “e”) was in the borders, people needed a place to consume it in secret.  speakeasies starting popping up in metropolitan locations all over the country, most notably (or notoriously) in places like new york and chicago.  a speakeasy is a clandestine or secret establishment where alcohol is served, often accompanied by music or other forms of entertainment like gambling.  popularized by the movies and typically shown as the type of place that has a secret door or a nondescript entrance point, establishments typically had a “member’s-only” type of regulation where only trusted and proven patrons were allowed entrance.  it was all very hush-hush and fancy, which is why one can see why there has been a re-emergence of such types of establishments in recent years, despite the fact that the volstadt act was repealed decades ago.  people really like themes, people really like ambiance, and sometimes a body wants a little more out of their bartender than someone who can pour beer into a cup and collect your dollar.

Fernsehturm tower stands watch over berlin. almost looks like a jetsons home.
Fernsehturm tower stands watch over berlin. almost looks like a jetsons home.

so you can see why I was intrigued when i heard there was a speakeasy culture in berlin. i had to check it out.  i had a dilemma, however.  despite the fact i had met my friend robert and was no longer wandering alone, robert doesn’t really drink, so there was no way i was going to be able to convince him to accompany me to a place that might charge 10 euros for a cocktail when robert usually pays zero euros to drink none cocktails.  i also have a specific rule for myself that basically says i don’t drink alone.  i don’t ever want to get to a point where i am addicted to alcohol for any reason and in my opinion drinking alone is where this starts.  i merely enjoy this vice as a form of meaningless escapism; a way to enjoy flavor, and taste, and the art that can be created when watching a craftsman construct the perfect spirit.

luckily for me, i made a local friend in berlin.  when i had first checked into the pfefferbett hostel, there was a delightful smiley face working behind the reception.  she was frantically helping about 4 different guests at the same time and i was quite impressed with her ability to keep a positive attitude and an uplifting energy about her during something that would have made me simply get angry and wonder why I was the only one behind the desk during what i’m guessing is “rush hour.”  over the next week while in berlin, whenever i wasn’t sure about what i should be doing or might be missing out on, i’d stroll up to the desk and ask yolanda for her opinion.  it wasn’t always easy, as she could get pretty busy up there, and often times it seemed to be in the times whenever i wanted to talk to her, there would be some huge group checking in after we were about 2 minutes into our conversation (actually this is the only gripe i have about pfefferbett hostel:  they book large groups of kids in the hostel.  and I don’t mean college kids.  i mean pre-adolescents on school trips.  at one point during my stay, there were five different groups of 6th and 7th grade kids staying in the hostel, and each group was at least 30 kids and had no more than 2 or 3 chaperones.  these kids would stay up all night unsupervised running up and down the halls banging on doors and speaking loudly with no regard whatsoever for anyone else sleeping at 3am.  you know, the kinds of things i definitely would have been doing when i was their age.  but i’m not their age and i like to sleep.  so after a couple nights of hearing this even with my earplugs in, i furiously jumped up and ran out into the hall and yelled a few obscenities and told the kids to shut up and go to bed immediately or they’d never see their parents again.  they looked at me like i was a crazy person and immediately retreated into their rooms.  i knew there was a good chance many of them didn’t speak “angry half asleep american english,” so that probably accounted for the weird look they gave me.  or it may be been that the only thing i was wearing were these ridiculous blue-with-pink-trim quick-dry boxer briefs that i’d gotten a good deal for on amazon before i left the US.  they don’t leave much to the imagination.  oops).

a fierce owl in graffiti keeps watch over his street near hackescher markt in berlin, germany
a fierce owl in graffiti keeps watch over his street near hackescher markt in berlin, germany

eventually yolanda and i got a chance to hang out off the clock, and now i had a buddy to explore some of these local cocktail haunts that i’d wanted to sample.  yolanda is originally from the canary islands, off the coast of morocco and a territory of spain.  she is a native spanish speaker who moved to berlin while in school so she could improve her german and work in an exchange program while she studied hospitality for her degree.  she liked it so much that she stayed and has been there for three years now.

yolanda has dark brown eyes and a beaming smile that lights up the room.  she has a huge quaff of extremely wavy hair that she sometimes pulls back tight, but when she lets it loose it expands into a lion’s mane that seems surely impossible to tame.  one of the funniest things about hanging out with yolanda is that sometimes she mixes the three languages she speaks.  sometimes she is speaking english and she will just wander off into german for a couple sentences before she sees the confused look on your face and then explodes into laughter, realizing what she’s just done.  she speaks english fairly well but with a fun accent and i have no idea how her german is since i speak none.  but i never saw her have a problem with delivery or communication any time we were out, so my guess is she is pretty adept.  regardless, i insisted on speaking spanish a majority of the time we hung out.  i jump at any chance i get to improve my spanish, and i’ve realized that where i used to get a little stressed out that i was unable to communicate exactly what i was feeling, now i enjoy trying to construct a phrase in another language.  it’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle, where you know what the end result is supposed to look like, but it’s up to you to make all the pieces fit.

anyway, yolanda was one of my favorite people i met on my journey so far.  she has an ability to put anyone at ease, and she sort of floats effortlessly in and out of social interactions with such grace and enthusiasm that i sometimes found myself envious of her social prowess.  normally i have to amp myself up to turn on the charm, and then i can interact with the world.  this just came naturally to yolanda.  other times i would find myself slightly internally annoyed because i don’t always have the patience to deal with people, like a frustrated 3 year old that doesn’t want to have to say things like “please” in order to have the piece of candy being dangled in front of them.  but once again, this was just my own persnickety cantankerousness making its way to the surface.

one of my nights out with yolanda, she wanted to show me a few of the things i hadn’t had a chance to see yet.  berlin is a really big city, and one can’t possibly hope to overturn every stone in only a week.  one place I had been itching to walk around in was the hackescher markt, in the

elaborate graffiti adorns a random alley in berlin, germany
elaborate graffiti adorns a random alley in berlin, germany

middle of the city.  in my week there, i had gone all around this area but never actually walked around in it. originally a marshy wetland just outside the city walls, in 1750 king frederick the 2nd of prussia ordered a market be installed.  it wasn’t a particularly nice place to be until the reunification of germany, where it has since become a cultural and  social centerpiece of berlin.  due largely to its late night scene and its farmer’s markets on sundays, it is now a place to see and be seen, and one can always find something to do in hackescher markt.

we wandered around for a couple hours, poking our heads into a few bars for a drink, but mainly just wandering the streets, admiring graffiti and people watching.  we shuffled over to the bebelplatz, which was another thing i had wanted to see but hadn’t made time for.  bebelplatz is the small public square area where hitler and the Nazis would hold book burning parades.  since childhood, anytime I think of bebelplatz I think of that scene from “indiana jones and the last crusade” where harrison ford stumbles into the square during a nazi rally and accidentally bumps into the führer himself, obtaining an autograph from ol’ adolf in the process.  that scene was humorously being reenacted in my mind as i strolled through the square (not to make light of the history, as there’s nothing funny about any of the nazi history in germany, but on the other hand it is too easy to get lost in the sadness of what has happened in berlin, so one must find a way to not become depressed about it.  indiana jones is what i recommend) and happened upon one of the most clever memorials i’ve ever seen.  in the middle of the plaza next to the large cordoned-off area due to the neighboring opera house restoration project (half of berlin is always under construction, I’m told.  yolanda had this hilarious song she kept singing, written and improv’d by her with degrees of variance every time, where the lyrics went something like “welcome to berliiiin, where everything is always under constructionnnnsss” – to be read in a thick spanish accent of course), there lays an illuminated window looking straight into the ground.  furnished with thick-paned glass, one can stand on it without worry and peer directly into the hollowed out room below and see the long and large empty bookcases that line all four walls of the empty space. this room symbolizes a grave in memoriam to the countless numbers of books that were burned on the ground just above it decades ago.

eventually, after wandering around a few more neighborhoods, over some bridges, passing by “museum island” (yes the main museums in berlin are on an island on the spree river. top that, world.), and venturing to the top of a hotel to for a fantastic view of the city, we eventually headed out for the main event:  speakeasy time.

beckett's speakeasy looks more like a random apartment in an unsuspicious neighborhood
beckett’s speakeasy looks more like a random apartment in an unsuspicious neighborhood

i had around 7 places marked out that i had found or read about on the internet, and while i knew there was no way i would be able to make it to all of them, i really was happy to just get to one of them.  we started at a place called “beckett.”   we only had two clues in order to find this place:  we knew what street block in the mitte neighborhood it was in, and we knew that the face of old “beckett” himself would be staring back at us when we found it.  despite such nebulous hints, we eventually found it.  after walking past the place, yolanda pointed out that, in an otherwise darkened storefront shop with a blacked out window, an old man’s face was backlit on the window itself, plain as can be.  It’s the kind of thing that you notice when you’re not looking for it, but when in search it is nowhere to be found.  nevertheless, we approached the accompanying door and rang the buzzer.  after a few short moments, the door cracked open and a friendly face  peeked out and patiently waited for me to say something.
“beckett’s?”  i queried.  the door opened and a thin, friendly man let yolanda and me in, ushering us to 2 seats at the corner of a small bar.

it wasn’t very busy, which was fine by me, and the bartender and the manager busied themselves crafting expert cocktails, only engaging in conversation when they were first engaged by a patron, which i happily obliged.  whenever a new person came to the establishment (which didn’t happen many times) and rang the buzzer, there was no sound made, but a red light near

beckett's "playbook" is just a front for a menu of contraband cocktails
beckett’s “playbook” is just a front for a menu of contraband cocktails

the door illuminated to let the manager know someone was waiting.  the whole operation was extremely well orchestrated and not too over the top like often happens in the US, where managers and owners often get lost in the details and forget that the drinking experience is actually more important than making sure your staff is wearing period-accurate-suspenders or that the imported leather chairs are the correct shade of dark black cherry.  after awhile i began to discuss this topic with the manager and i was shocked to learn that this bar had been open for years, and was mainly just a locals-only place (and it would have to be, because it’s not near any other bars) which hoped to maintain the quiet atmosphere and loyal local customer base, and didn’t need to appeal to the masses.  usually places like this in the states will keep up the façade of a “hush-hush” atmosphere for a couple months, but eventually the need to make money wins over and what makes the bar special fades, leaving nothing but a bar where the staff wears costumes.  not at beckett’s, the manager took great pride in the fact that they make a point of preserving the concept and the clientele that they attract.

after a couple fine whiskey concoctions, yolanda and i decided to try and fit one more location into the night.  we headed south for a place called “the butcher.”  literally hidden inside and behind a restaurant, this one was a little more fun to find.  you enter a small restaurant called “fleischman’s” and instead of walking immediately left where the seating area is, you head right and walk toward the bathrooms.  there you can find an old, red, british phone booth.  in the phone booth is a pile of magazines and papers piled on top of a button which rings someone to let them know you’re waiting.  after a minute, a small slot opened in the middle of one of the walls in the phone booth and a pair of eyes stare at you quizzically for a moment before the false wall swings open and reveals an unexpectedly large room modeled like a large walk-in

meat locker.  we walked to the corner and found a seat on a sofa and marveled at our surroundings.  dimly illuminated in low red lighting, the bar area was actually quite large in an L shape in the corner.  instead of having an impressive selection of alcohols all stacked up on high shelving, this place had every bottle of the strong stuff hanging from meat hooks on chains, and it looked really cool.

the butcher admittedly had a less personal touch to the place than beckett’s, and the barkeep at beckett’s was much more talented, but on the other hand the butcher could accommodate way more customers and also had a livelier atmosphere.  it really just depended on what you were looking for in an evening.  all told, i really enjoyed my time at both establishments, and if i lived in berlin, they would both be in the rolodex.  okay, I don’t really have a rolodex.  but i wish i did.

the night had gotten late and yolanda and i had both hit our limit for the acceptable number of cocktails consumed.  we walked the empty streets of berlin in the night air and retired for the evening.  i said my goodbyes, thankful that yolanda had been open to spending some of her time on a friend with an expiration date of sorts. i was extremely thankful for the time that i had gotten to spend with her, as she had a large part in helping shape my experience and cultivate my newfound love for such an unexpectedly amazing city.  berlin had suddenly become what would prove to one of my absolute favorite cities in europe.

but alas, it was time to move on. the next morning robert and i pointed ourselves to prague, czech republic.

a couple girls take a picnic on an exposed water pipe arching over the spree river in berlin

a couple girls take a picnic on an exposed water pipe arching over the spree river in berlin

———-

for today’s audio jam, it’s only appropriate to pick something as uplifting and happy as the person much of the story was about.  this new song from walk the moon is so infectious, i can’t get it out of my head.  or my headphones.  try this on if you’re having a down day or if you just want to jump up and down.

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2 thoughts on “guten tag: welcome to germany, pt 3. speakeasies and auf wiedersehen”

  1. The best part of this stop is you yelling at a bunch of middle school kids in your underwear. God I wish I had a video of this taking place.

    Love Walk the Moon. Good pick.

    Keep cranking these out. I’m loving them.

    Like

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