“Rhymes with bacon, which we don’t eat. Because we’re vegan…” sang Rose, as we stood on the train platform, eager to begin our evening. We bristled with anticipation, and the warmth of a shared bottle of Prosecco–a welcome sensation in the brisk Berlin air that was chilling the train platform. Tonight was to be my formal introduction into the world of the famed Berlin nightclubs that Rose adores. Though it’s still not really my scene (despite my love of dancing), I was eager to traverse the dark corners of the nightclubs, as well as participate ever so slightly in the local drinking culture.
When I travel, one of my favorite things to do is immerse myself in the local vegan food offerings. Even in Moscow, I unearthed favorable reviews for vegetarian restaurants, though I wouldn’t have been surprised were they completely absent from the local landscape. Given that I had my trusty, local vegan tour guide in Berlin, I did far less research on the vegan offerings before I arrived. From what I had heard, not only were there plenty of delicious vegan foods available, there was even an entire vegan grocery store chain in Berlin!
To start things off after my arrival, we swung by a local burger joint that happened to have late night hours. While neither of us were particularly impressed by the tofu burger, which was actually just a slice of crisp, fried tofu on a bun with lettuce and tomato (we added the ketchup and mustard ourselves), I was just happy to be able to find something filling to eat at that hour. It always surprised me that in a city with clubs that are open for literally 3 days straight, many restaurants still closed on the earlier side, frustrating both hungry travelers (from the land of 24 hour diners at least) and those suffering a case of the drunchies.
The next day, Rose took me to a favorite Vietnamese restaurant of hers, Hamy, which served vegan options alongside their regular menu. The space was small and cozy, and featured a large chalk board detailing the daily specials, of which there were only two. We chose the curry option, and asked for it vegan, with tofu instead of chicken. Within minutes, we were served an incredibly large portion of heavenly curry, which was perfectly spiced and balanced. Even chock full of coconut cream and fried tofu, it didn’t feel heavy or greasy. In my eight months in Israel, I hadn’t had anything that came close (mostly because I only had curry from a restaurant once the entire time I was there, and try as I might, I’m no expert on Southeast Asian cuisine). After lunch, we headed over to the East Side Gallery, a large section that remains of the Berlin wall, which was then covered in various murals by a number of different artists.
The rest of the afternoon was spent whiling away the hours in the sun, pursuing such Berlin past times as drinking cheap beers from a corner store in a park. We also made our way to a bakery called Cupcake Berlin, which served several vegan options alongside the rest of their baked goods. Rose and I decided to split a cupcake, and I also bought a brownie to save for later. I can honestly say their vegan cupcake was amazing, in all of its simplicity. It was a golden vanilla cake, with a perfectly moist and springy crumb, topped with a rich, buttery vanilla buttercream. During my travels, I rarely found a cupcake that could compete with those I make myself, but the vegan cupcake at Cupcake Berlin could definitely give me a run for my money (though I think my flavors are by far more compelling).
Friday was the first rainy day I had experienced in months, but luckily the light drizzle didn’t deter us from our explorations, and we went to the DDR museum, an interactive exhibition dedicated to the years East Germany spent under the communist regime. We had a chance to look at everything from toys, to a model house, to the clothing (which was frequently made of such poor quality fabrics that many did what they could to smuggle American made clothing in from West Berlin). There were also videos discussing the housing of the future in East Berlin, as well as clips of radio and television programs. We quickly passed several hours opening drawers and lifting doors to read about life in the DDR, and how it compared to life in West Berlin at the same time.
As the afternoon cleared up, we took a walk across the city and through the Brandenburg gate to see the Holocaust memorial. On our way there, we took a slightly wrong turn due to an apparent obstruction in our path in the form of a World Cup Carnival (or something like that). Our detour took us on a leisurely stroll through the Tiergarten before we finally found the memorial. One of the things that struck me most on my trip was just how late the sun was setting, late even for a trip that nearly coincided with the summer solstice. As we took in the memorial–both the large stone slabs situated outdoors, which slowly envelope you into their abyss, before receding as you reach the other side–as well as the underground exhibit, we were entirely unaware of how late it was, and just how close to closing the exhibit was. The indoor exhibit was a more personal display dedicated to works of art made by victims, information detailing the destruction that was wreaked upon each specific communities throughout the rest of Europe, and spotlights on several families that were deeply affected by the events of the Holocaust. I was rushed through the final exhibit, as the staff closed down the memorial for the evening. It was a sombre start to Shabbat, which I insisted we celebrate in some small amount, especially after an evening spent connecting to the darker moments of our history. It was then that I finally cracked open my last bottle of wine from the Tzfat winery, and in sharing it with Rose in Berlin, it tasted even better than I remembered.
We spent Saturday relaxing at home, in preparation for our big night out (we also had a tame night out Friday, where I was introduced to Rose’s friends as well as a DJ they were fans of). We decided to eat in that night, in order to be more budget conscious, and just as we were discussing the merits of making homemade pizza for dinner that night, one of Rose’s roommates informed us that he and his girlfriend were planning on making pizza–effectively deciding that pizza was indeed the right choice for dinner. We stopped off at the vegan grocery store that was several blocks from Rose’s apartment, and I marveled at the selection of vegan products I hadn’t had access to during the previous months. I managed to reign myself in, and only bought a vegan candy bar from, GoMax Go (and basically the thing I missed the most in Israel), and a block of Italian style Cheezly, which I’d heard about, but never seen in the US (or Israel for that matter). Rose’s roommate made the dough, and we individually topped our pizzas. I chose to make a white pizza with a creamy vegan bechamel, spiced with some black pepper, and enriched with just a touch of the Cheezly. I also added succulent caramelized onions, razor thin slices of mushroom and yellow bell pepper (two ingredients I’m not generally a fan of, but were totally perfect in this application), some sliced fresh tomato, and then topped the cooked pizza with fresh arugula. It was absolutely delicious, which lead me to stupidly eating the whole thing (despite its relative heft and richness…I thought I wouldn’t be able to eat for a week after polishing off the last bite). Luckily, I had the chance to dance it off later that night, when we finally were admitted to the club.
We started Sunday morning off by going to sleep (and we arrived home early by Berlin standards). Our plan for the day was to check out a vegan cafe near Maur park, and then hit up Bear Pit Karaoke, within the park proper. Fast Rabbit (the cafe) was cute and funky, and its menu featured two different wraps, plus a soup of the day. Rose informed me that they also have THE BEST fries (which I think are named something like the gang bang….). I decided to get the half and half wrap, which combined both filling options. I am well aware as I struggle to describe this meal that I should have taken notes, or at least tried a little harder to document our lunch, however, I’m blaming my subpar memory of that particular hour on sleep deprivation. I do remember Rose having a cauliflower based soup that was so good, I kinda wanted to steal it all from her.
The unexpected highlight of my trip to Berlin was definitely Bear Pit Karaoke, which was held in an open-air, stone amphitheater in the middle of the park. It’s run by one guy, who brings in a small karaoke machine, laptop (and umbrella), and sets it up Sunday afternoons for some free entertainment. We clearly weren’t the only ones who thought this sounded like a fun time for a lazy Sunday, as the amphitheater was filled with people of all ages, and from all over the world. After the first song or two, we made our way to an empty bench smack in the middle of the audience, where a man was making the rounds with a cooler of beer, while the host cracked jokes both in English and German. We were just in time to see the most adorable little girl get up to sing a german song, aided by her mother–followed by a tween who sang a song of her own. Rose and I contemplated getting up there, but with neither liquid courage, nor the perfect song in mind for the two of us to sing, we kept our hands by our sides. Our favorite participants were always the American bros, likely in Berlin at the end of a study abroad trip, and dared by their friends. But even American college guys in polo shirts and boat shoes belting out the Backstreet Boys couldn’t compete with Drunk German Lady. I can’t remember the exact moment of her arrival, but at some point in the middle of the song, she made her way towards the singer, and began her booze fueled groove. With each successive singer, she continued to assert her presence, until the host finally (and quietly) asked her to please leave the spotlight. She refused. The karaoke continued, and Drunk German Lady continued to dance. Each of the singers took it in stride, which possibly encouraged her more. The host’s intermittent pleas became more desperate, as he even appealed to Drunk German Lady’s husband (slightly less drunk, Drunk German Man) to escort her away. Drunk German Lady began to protest. She stumbled around the circular stage, appealing to the audience with shouts I couldn’t understand. At some point she even laid down on the stone. Her greatest and final attempt to remain a part of the festivities was to drop trou. And no, she was not wearing any underwear. The crowd simultaneously gasped, and covered their (or more likely their children’s) eyes. Unlike in the US or Israel, throughout this whole ordeal, there was not a single security guard in sight. The gig was only up when a large biker dude stood up, grabbed Drunk German Lady, and unceremoniously threw her out of the Bear Pit area. She fled the scene, and her husband followed. As we were leaving later, we passed her laying down in the middle of a walkway in front of a band. I guess drunk habits die hard.
My last full meal in Berlin was a green thai curry from a pan-Asian place a short ride from the park. As we exited the park grounds, we passed through a flea market, and spotted a young guy packing up one of the tables, wearing a shirt with Hebrew writing on it. This was my third Israeli sighting on the trip. Somehow, we ran into the same guy and some of his friends on the train back to Rose’s, after getting our dinner, and I was quite excited to make sure I hadn’t forgotten all of my Hebrew in the preceding 4 days (it’s been 2 1/2 months since I left now, and I seem to still have the ability to hold a conversation). For a final Berlin thrill,we made our way back to Berghain for a Sunday evening dance sesh, before my departure the next afternoon.
I managed a final German culinary hurrah at the airport, where I purchased a beer and a bag of paprika chips (which is apparently the flavor to try), and got ready to start my Provençal farm adventure. All in all, I had a great time. Even if I could have only eaten bread for the visit, it would have been worth it to see Rose. As it stands though, Berlin has an amazing vegan scene, and it’s definitely one of the most affordable cities I’ve ever experienced. I definitely hope to make it back for another visit in the near(ish) future, and try even more amazing vegan noms.