Chapter 53: In America We Get Bags.
Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
56Trip End Nov 2004
Around noon I took the S-Bahn (subway) out to the airport to meet Ben. I was a little nervous about our reunion, since he's the first friend from home I'd seen since January. I was worried about whether I'd changed too much (or whether New York had changed him), and if we'd be able to relate to each other as well as we used to after so much time apart... but as soon as he strolled out of customs any fears vanished. It was as if no time had passed since I was in his apartment preparing for this trip almost a year ago. My travel memories seem to exist in a separate lifetime from my memories of home.
We rode the S-Bahn back into Munich using the "Partnerskarte" ticket, which knocked a whopping €1 off our fares; still, when prices are so outrageous (like US$10 to town each!) every bit helps. Ben was starving after his overnight NYC-Zurich-Munich flight, so after we dropped off his enormous rolling duffel bag at the hostel, we tucked into some pizza and beer. He was tired, too, so we decided to relax and get some sun in the nearby English Gardens for a while. We couldn't really fall asleep there, so after picking up some supplies for the evening (Red Bull, Fanta, and Absolut) we headed back to the room for a nap.
Immediately after waking, we made some decent progress on the drinks. The previous night I'd found a nearby upscale, trendy, gay-ish restaurant called Iwan that came highly recommended, so we walked there for dinner at 9-something. We sat in the courtyard, had swish cocktails, and I struggled to translate the menu. I'm surprised by how many places don't have English menus, and by how many people don't speak English! At least I feel like my miniscule German knowledge is useful. Dinner was really enjoyable, at any rate, not least because Ben, upon returning from the bathroom, claimed to mistake me for a 19 year-old checking him out. Ha.
We slept late. Well, Ben slept late; I woke up around 9 and spent a few hours skimming through his Augusten Burroughs memoir "Dry." I'll have to find it in Europe. After grabbing some excellent cheese sandwiches for lunch, we went on a field trip to Dachau concentration camp. The excursion could have started off a little better; our train was delayed by 1/2 hour, and then a few minutes after we arrived, Ben was stung on the neck by a bee. We retreated inside and watched the camp documentary, which was filled with brutal facts and horrifying images of Dachau's victims. Afterwards, we agreed that our lives were pretty good, and that any of our discomforts were comparitively petty - not that we'll stop bitching about them, of course. Next we toured the remaining barracks, where I noted (perhaps insensitively) that the bunks reminded me of some hostels I'd stayed in. One of the macabre highlights of the visit was the gas chamber area... it was never used for mass killings, but it was suitably gruesome nonetheless. Our last stop was the museum, which was interesting but a little too large for our attention spans. Ben sped through; I exited 15 minutes later (still skipping 3/4 of the displays)to find him basking in the sun with his book, looking like he was posing for a Dachau summer clothes catalog shoot.
We got back to Munich by 6, and needed to pick up more alcohol for the night. White wine was the drink of choice, but finding it chilled proved easier said than done. First we tried the Kaufhof basement, but all we found there was some water and an attitude-slinging checkout girl who refused to give Ben a bag. The wine shops were too expensive, and in the end it took us close to an hour to locate a store near the train station with cheap cold local wine (and €1 glasses in the department store upstairs). The wine began to disappear quickly after returning to the room, as we waited for the online terminals downstairs in the hostel lounge to open up. They never did, so we eventually walked down the street to an internet cafe, and then continued on to the Marienplatz for dinner. The Rathaus seemed like a good traditional Bavarian choice, and it provided the added benefit of English menus. Ben had Wiener schnitzel, and I had a bite, so I can now add baby cow to the list of animals I've eaten on this trip. After dinner we hiked down to the gayborhood, which was unsurprisingly empty given that it was Tuesday. We had to wake up at 5:30 the next morning for our flight to Berlin, so after a drink at a bar called Die Bank, we called it a night.
The early morning alarm was most unwelcome, but somehow we managed to drag ourselves out of the hostel, over to the train station, and out to the airport. The next few hours were like a waking dream. I vaguely remember hearing Matthew Good on the iPod while on the S-Bahn. Checking in at Germania Express was easy thanks to a nice girl behind the counter, but security was a nightmare: they did everything short of strip-search me since I kept inexplicably setting off the alarm. The flight was short, and we quickly found our bus to Kurfurstendamm (Ku'Damm) Street in Charlottenburg (a neighborhood in the former West Berlin).
Our hotel (The Art'otel) looked pretty flash, with its modern lobby and Warhol images on every surface. Management had somehow overbooked the place, so as soon as we walked in they handed us complimentary orange juice and informed us that they had a room reserved (and pre-paid) for us in their 4-star "sister" hotel, the Ku'Damm 101. This turned out to be a fortuitous development; not only did they give us a free bottle of champagne, but the hotel manager himself drove us to our new address, and the Ku'Damm 101 was fantastic. It was even MORE classy and modern than the Art'otel (with free futuristic e-mail terminals in the lobby!), and our room was enormous yet comfortable. We spent the early afternoon napping in our luxurious comforters, appreciating the heated floor in the bathroom, and discovering the joys of German music television.
Finally we persuaded ourselves to leave the room in search of food. The only drawback to our new hotel was that it was a lot further out of the center of the city than the other place, so it took a long walk down Ku'Damm before we found some simple sandwiches. We explored the side streets for a while (looking for a gay book shop that was in Ben's guide, but which had in fact recently moved), and then bought some more vodka and supplies for the evening. At the checkout counter we had another run-in with a snotty cashier who, upon being asked for a bag, gave Ben a snarl before handing one over. This prompted the reply: "What?! In America, we get bags!" Even the cashier laughed. I later learned that in German supermarkets to conserve waste you generally have to pay €.10-20 for a bag, or bring your own.
The night began with MTV & champagne, and progressed to Fanta and Absolut before we started hoofing it towards the supposedly-gay-clubby Nollendorfplatz area. We had a tasty dinner at Trattoria a Muntagnola - a cute little Italian place in the 'hood that for some reason served lots of elderly patrons. It was well after 11 by the time we finished dinner, and the area was disturbingly quiet... where was the fab Berlin nightlife we'd heard so much about? And where were the people on the streets in general? Nollendorfplatz was mostly empty, but we ran into some English speakers near the ATM who told us that Tom's Bar was "OK."
With limited options, we headed to Tom's, where we immediately downed some vodka & Red Bulls. The place seemed dark and sketchy, but the clientele was surprisingly normal, and there were warm bodies in there, which was a plus. After perching on the stools by the wall for a while, we noticed guys coming up and going down some stairs in the back hallway. Curiosity got the better of us, so we ventured down into the "dark room." Aptly named, it was a maze of barely (if at all) lit corridors where guys in corners were cruising, groping, making out, and more. I was freaked out at first, but once my eyes adjusted it was a little less scary. Nonetheless, we got stalked by some nasty old dude for a while, and that was enough to persuade us to head back upstairs. At the bar we met an Israeli guy who told us that Saturday was the big night out in Berlin... too bad for Ben, but good news for me as I wasn't meeting Jonas until Sunday.
Predictably, we slept late. And then watched more music videos. When we finally motivated, we had sandwiches around the corner and then took the U-Bahn to the East Side Gallery - the longest stretch of the Berlin Wall that's still standing. Artists have covered the whole wall in graffiti and murals, so while it makes for an interesting amateur art exhibition, it's kind of a letdown as a historical artifact. Really it just looks like any other wall - no barbed wire, gun shells, or memorials to be seen. There was also a surreal artificial beach set up on the riverbank, complete with a floating barge full of deck chairs. We went looking for a nearby club called Die Busche; after stumbling into a factory entrance by mistake, we found it back by the U-Bahn station. Our first glimpse of the former East Berlin was uninspiring (the wall, empty lots and fields, and a little construction), so we jumped back on the train to check out Nollendorfplatz during the day.
The area was still pretty empty, but we amused ourselves for a while. Found a big club called Connection which also houses a leather/fetish shop complete with window display; the granny in the wheelchair parked on the sidewalk out front didn't realize she was on "Candid Camera." We also located the book store we'd looked for on Wednesday. The friendly proprietor gave us a couple of suggestions for nightlife, and I bought the first Augusten Burroughs book, "Running With Scissors." Afterwards we hit Ku'Damm for some shopping, and checked out the Diesel, Lacoste, H&M, and Zara stores. Ben bought a jacket at the latter, and found a nice winter coat for me (I was in the market, but held off on a purchase).
We relaxed in the room for a bit, and started drinking the rest of our Absolut & Fanta. Ben went down to check his e-mail and ask reception for a Thai restaurant recommendation, and at 9 or so we walked 5 minutes to the place the hotel suggested. The food was good (I love chicken curry!), but the drinks were a little funny. Ben ordered a martini which was cheaper than the separately-listed "tonic" in my vodka-tonic; it turned out his glass was filled with 100% vermouth, so when the staff wasn't looking we mixed our drinks together.
That night we set out to find Roses, a gay bar that was highly praised in several guidebooks. It was in the Kreuzberg section of the city, and when we emerged from the U-Bahn station I thought I'd been whisked back to Istanbul, because every other shop was a kebab stall. Roses was a funky little bar - red fur-like material and kitschy decorations covered the walls, and the crowd was slightly alternative but unpretentious. We met a supposedly straight guy (always my luck) named Nils who had just returned from Amsterdam and was avoiding his girlfriend. He offered us some of his joint; I unwisely accepted and promptly put myself in a near-coma. Luckily there was no one in the place I was interested in, so the fact that I couldn't really speak and felt slightly ill wasn't so detrimental to my enjoyment of the night. In the meantime, Ben's feet found themselves an admirer; this guy was waaaaay far gone and kept obsessively putting Ben's foot on his lap so he could massage his shoe. When asked if it was the shoes or the feet that he liked, he responded "feet."
We finally left at 2-something, and took a taxi back to Ku'Damm. For some reason pizza seemed like a great idea, so we had the cab drop us off at a 24-hour place where we stuffed our faces. That revived me enough so that when we got back to the hotel, taking a trip to the (closed) sauna room sounded like the perfect way to end the night! We donned our swimsuits and ran down the hall to the fitness center. The sauna was cold, so we started pressing buttons in an effort to get the steam up and moving. This of course only brought two sets of guards. The first guard nodded at us, went to the wall, apologized, and pressed a button, but the second (5 minutes later) was far less amused and ordered us out. It was worth a try.
Ben was treating us to a final night at a 4-star hotel called the Kempinski, so we sluggishly checked out at 1 yesterday (Friday) and lugged our stuff down the street to our fancy new beds. On the way we stopped at a packed outdoor cafe for a big brunch. It felt like Sunday. We reminisced about the old 'BRU days, and Ben recounted a funny story of a DJ exchange that his mom heard on the station a couple of years back that ended with: "Thanks, Hyacinth!" "Thanks, Olive!" This put us in hysterics, but maybe you have to understand the context.
That afternoon we decided to see another "sight," so we walked to the massive Tiergarten park to see the Siegessäule - a big pillar/monument which has become a symbol of gay pride in Berlin. The guidebook said the grassy areas around the Siegessäule were big pick-up spots, so we thought we'd have a look at the scene. For once the book was more than accurate, as lots of guys were relaxing in the sun near the monument. The unexpected and funny part was that quite a few of them were 100% naked! We couldn't get over the fact that this big crowded public park with grandmothers and kids was also a cruisy gay nude sunbathing spot! We kept our clothes on and read in the grass for a while.
We grabbed some to-go sandwiches on the way back to the Kempinski, and once we were back in our room we decided to hit the pool and sauna. We got suited up, headed down, left our stuff in the lockers, and then started walking towards the pool - when the attendant came out and told Ben "No jumping!" What... like we're 12?! Then as he started to dip his toe in the water, the attendant and an old hag in the water both barked out "shower!" So we showered, got in the pool, and promptly got out again because it was freezing. The sauna proved to be a better experience, aside from the naked old guys.
I found a listing for a club called Eingang 28 that was having a gay indie rock/pop event that night, so we got dressed up and then took the U-Bahn to Senefelderplatz, up near the Prenzlauer neighborhood. Like everywhere else in Berlin, the streets seemed empty, but the little club was packed. They were playing an awesome mix of music at first, too: Scissor Sisters, Morrissey, Divine Comedy, Franz Ferdinand, and Interpol, to name a few. By 2-something the music started getting too weird, and the place was too crowded, so we rode back to Charlottenburg and tried a club called Big Eden. They were having a record release party for some band or other, and there was a bizarro mix of live music and clientele - everything from Goth to rap was represented.
Waking up this morning was a chore once again. We checked out and then walked around the corner to my new digs - the A&O Hostel am Zoo, which was on a street full of brothels and sex museums near the seedy Zoo Station. The hostel was nice enough, at least. I dumped my bags off, and we sat outside in a pleasant Italian restaurant for pizza. After lunch we dropped off my compactflash card at a photo shop to get my pics from the week burned onto CD for Ben. The place was really slow, but we got the disc just in time for Ben to make his bus to the airport. Our goodbye was brief, and I was pretty sad to see him board that bus. Hanging out with Ben made me realize what I'm missing back in the States, and I started thinking seriously for the first time about when I might come home.