Jonas picks me up from the airport in a tiny car filled with little toys and empty water bottles. “What’s this?” I joke, holding up a miniature plastic gorilla and a miniature plastic beach chair with red and cream stripes. “I don’t know,” he says, “it’s not my car.”
I grab a 1 Euro coin and try to jam it into the beach chair.
“It doesn’t fit.”
We take the long, scenic route even though I don’t know this until four days later when we are driving someone else back to the airport – only we take the fast way, through bigger city streets and along highways.
Everything is greener than a big city should be; there are trees on every street, sprouting up next to apartment buildings and hovering overhead. I say something like “It’s so beautiful” and Jonas tells me that it is now, but in the winter it’s something different.
In the winter it is gray and horrible and every tree is a shuddering, rattling mass of brittle twigs. You can count the hours of daylight on one hand. At least that’s how I imagine it. But winter is horrible everywhere. Cold is cold is cold is cold – and I think I already love Berlin.
The city is a confused combination of bastardized modernist high rises and lower, older buildings. The newer apartments are comparable in design to any American low-income housing complex, with incompatible-sized windows and countless floors. Most of the older things look newer than they are on account of the slathering of cheap colored stucco encasing everything. I imagine there used to be more brick and stone, an attention to detail that most everything here seems devoid of from the outside. It looks like after the war someone just took to this place with a trough and a bunch of spackle, plugging up the bullet holes before winter came.
From nearly every angle, the TV tower – with its concrete stem like a kebab through a silver golf ball – looms, big and ugly but surprisingly perfect. Jonas tells me that before the wall came down, the government didn’t have the money to clean the whole thing, so they just cleaned the side facing west.
“You want to meet my friends for hummus?”
I have never been one to pass up hummus, and after ten days of whatever France thinks passes for quality whipped chickpeas, I’m dying for something without fromage blanc mixed with beans.
It’s close to 2 but his friends are slow to get up after going out the night before until 6 in the morning. They’re not at the hummus place yet – although I think it’s really a chicken place given its name, City Chicken. There are two of them, right next to each other: City Chicken on the corner, and then City Chicken just next door. I’m still confused as to what the difference is between the two, or if City Chicken on the corner just needed more room so instead of moving to one, bigger building, they just scooped up the real estate next door.
Jonas and I walk into a café down the street and I try to order an iced coffee, which someone gave me a lecture on before I came to Berlin. If you order an iced coffee, they told me, any café in Germany will hand you back a coffee with a scoop of ice cream in it. If you want coffee over ice, you have to use this magic word: …
Of course I forget what this magic word is, and when Jonas tries to explain to her that I want ice cubes in my hot coffee she just shrugs her shoulders and makes a face, like I’ve just asked for curry at an Italian restaurant.
“They can’t do it,” he says.
“You mean they don’t have ice? Not even for soda?”
This might be like one of those French “Is not possible” situations where the proprietor of an establishment thinks they know better than you and are withholding the integral pieces you require to accomplish your perfectly possible mission. Everyone in Paris wants to be the hyper-negating version of your own mother. Maybe it’s the same in Germany; it’s my first day, so who knows. I imagine she’s got a treasure trove of ice just beneath the counter waiting to cool off glasses of water, brighten cups of lukewarm Coke Light.
This is the first of many failed iced coffee missions, each one simultaneously promising and disappointing on various accounts, never fully satisfying the requirements of a demanding American who knows just what she wants and just what she likes and grew up with the cookie-cutter efficiency and myriad personalization options available to them at – wait for it – Starbucks.
For all the haters out there, sometimes Starbucks just gets the job done, especially in Europe, where the commercial progress of the coffee bean stopped evolving sometime in the 1800s. I think of my relationship with Starbucks in remote places like being stuck on a twelve-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur and all you’ve got is an US Weekly Magazine. At a certain point, you’ve got no other option but to read about Blake Lively’s cellulite just to kill some time.
I order a double espresso and don’t even entertain the idea of asking for soymilk. We sit outside on a wooden picnic table and I wait for the temperature of my unseasonably hot coffee to drop so my body temperature doesn’t spike violently on this already warm enough, fairly humid day.
Jonas shotguns his. “If it’s not burning hot,” he says, “what’s the point?” I suppose this is a sentiment shared with the entire European Union.
I’m fighting an uphill battle.