On the evening of November 11, Mamta took to the streets to celebrate Saint Martin’s Day — Martinstag — with her cousins. Prior to the day, I was not familiar with Saint Martin or the celebration. When I asked my sister-in-law Doreen about Saint Martin, she gave me a one-sentence summary: “He was a Roman soldier who shared his cloak — by cutting it in half — with a beggar on a cold winter evening.” It turns out that’s not all he did, but that act of generosity is re-enacted annually in Saint Martin’s Day celebrations across Germany.
I recently came across an article that likened certain sections of Berlin (“Berlyn”) to Brooklyn, NY. Apparently there is a good deal of cross-pollination occurring between these two urban hotspots. The other day I was invited by a friend to attend a coffee tasting in Penzlauer Berg, a neighborhood that has been compared to Brooklyn’s Park Slope. Or Williamsburg, I thought as I entered the shrine to coffee known as Cafe ck.
The coffee aroma in the cozy cafe was compelling. Soul music — Mavis Staples, James Brown — spun on a turntable tucked beneath the rear counter. A small shelf displayed trophies and plaques from various coffee-related competitions. The two bearded, twenty-something baristas behind the counter executed their work with earnest precision.
This was my first coffee tasting, or “cupping,” as I learned to call it. The eight participants included several other neophytes. We could tell the veteran cuppers: they had brought small notebooks in which to record their tasting notes.
Our hometown of Walpole, New Hampshire sets a high bar when it comes to Halloween. Many people decorate their houses, some of the parents dress up, and the village is swarming with elaborately-costumed kids. Typically I will don a simple costume and man our front porch with a mechanical skeleton that declares: “Do not be afraid!” Most kids aren’t. One year we had so many trick-or-treaters that I ran out of candy, and had to replenish our bowl with treats that Mamta had gotten at other houses. While I am meeting and greeting kids at the front door, Annette hosts our adult guests back in our kitchen, treating them to mulled wine and Hungarian goulash (ghoulash?) soup.
I could tell from the lack of build-up that Halloween was not going to amount to much here in Berlin. A week ago I saw in our local office supply store a small display of plastic pumpkins and miscellaneous spooky trinkets. When I returned there today to buy the one witch hat I had seen, the entire display was gone, replaced by Christmas decorations. But it’s only Halloween!
Annette and I are rich in bicycles. Most are not thoroughbreds, but they are sturdy and reliable. We pride ourselves on having them stabled in New Hampshire, Boston, Brooklyn and Berlin. When Annette moved to the US from Berlin fifteen years ago, she left behind two bicycles which she stored in the basement of her parents’ apartment. Her parents had given her one of these bikes when she was thirteen. The other dates back to college. Over the years we have dusted off and used these bikes when visiting Berlin.
Within a week of arriving last month to live in Berlin, we had added to our collection of mounts. We bought Mamta a new bike, in the hopes of bolstering her enthusiasm for bicycling — and to better enable her to keep up with us. Annette’s sister Doreen and her husband Stefan both have two bikes each, and Rani and I were able to borrow their “seconds.” Although not much to look at, Doreen’s older bike worked well from the get-go for Rani. The bike I borrowed from Stefan needed some work: the rear derailleur cable was disconnected, the brakes were squishy, a fender was loose, the chain guard was kaput, and one wheel had a serious wobble. Annette encouraged me to bring the bike to a repair shop to have it fixed, but I had other ideas.
Mamta and I encountered these creatures while walking downtown the other day.
“What are they supposed to be?” she asked.
“What are condoms?”
I breezed through a 30-second lesson on how babies are made, and the role condoms play in sex. I couldn’t tell from her reaction whether this was new material or a review course for her, but my description did elicit several grimaces.
When I had finished, Mamta thought for a moment. I could sense the wheels turning.
“Have you ever used a condom?” she asked.
My turn to pause.
We left it at that.
When I first visited Berlin in 1998, the differences between what had been East and West Berlin were fading, but still visible. These days, one has to consult a guidebook to find the former borders of the divided city. As I travel about Berlin, I sometimes find myself wondering whether a particular area was controlled by the Soviet Union or the West during the Cold War.
Our first weekend here, Annette declared that we were going to the Wannsee. This didn’t mean much to me, but I know from experience to trust that tone of hers. To get to the lake, Annette and I biked through the Grunewald, a huge park near our apartment. Our daughters went by car with Annette’s sister and her family.
The Wannsee Strandband is apparently one of the longest inland beaches in Europe. It is also a popular spot for nude sunbathing (“FKK,” or “Frei Korper Kultur”), but that end of the beach was discretely screened off from our area. I have spent enough time in northern Germany that the Strandkorb, those overgrown baskets that provide
shelter from sun and wind, no longer look comical to me. In fact, although (or perhaps because) I am not a huge fan of beach-going, I have become a fan of the Strandkorbs.
I asked my brother-in-law Stefan if he knew whether the Wannsee had been in West Berlin or under Soviet control.
“Most of the lake was in West Berlin,” he told me, “but the border actually ran through the western end of the lake. In fact, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union and Western governments exchanged spies on the Glienicke Bridge, because that was a place where they could easily have direct contact.”
Annette and I love biking in cities. Our daughters do not, yet, but often we talk them into it.
Berlin is the most bike-friendly city I have experienced. The city’s transportation infrastructure encourages biking. The plentiful bike lanes are usually located between the streets and the sidewalks.
The bike lanes have their own traffic signals. Bikers here generally obey the traffic signals. This is hard for me to do, but I am trying. It helps that the car drivers seem to be quite respectful of bikers.