I love Berlin. It blows my mind.
I wasn’t neglecting its nefarious past as I walked on what would have been Soviet controlled streets just a few years ago and reflecting over a cigar late last night. But I wonder what would have happened if Berlin wasn’t.
Even after the first war the entire world was still cynical of France, Britain, and Dutch colonization. Democracy was still an experiment; even the land of Cicero who inspired our nation’s forefathers was under fascist rule. Bigotry was rampant. Capitalism wasn’t working. Economic growth came in expansion and Japan, Russia, Italy, and Germany knew it.
Hitler was an evil man. Without question or hesitation he was. But maybe a second world war would have happened sooner or later anyway I pondered.
What would have happened if WW II started 10 or even 5 years later? Would science and our understanding of the atom have slowed down prior I wonder? Would an isolationist country like our own back then have even cared about or pursued such harnessed destructive power? Was it because Berlin was the center of new ideas — some good and some inexcusable — that it became the tipping point of the inevitable?
Franklin Roosevelt died the day before he could deliver a speech in which he wrote:
“Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships – the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together, in the same world, at peace.”
Even the Soviets helped to put the two Germany’s, east and west, back together again and with the cold war still going on. I find that amazing.
Surely, I decided as I puffed on my cigar walking the dark wet pavement, this is the great empirical experiment of civilization of this new century right here in Berlin after all the horror of the past, (as I literally passed a good looking young German in a Hugo Boss suit holding hands with a girl dressed in a niqāb probably on the way to some nightclub.)
The night of my arrival I went to a very chic restaurant called Cantina and bar Tausend. You know its chic because you can’t find it. You either know where it is or you don’t.
The taxi driver stopped under the railway overpass, very dark and uninviting… the kind of place you might see a few squatters keeping warm in newspaper, and he refused to let me out. There was no place to go really. Just blank concrete. He drove me back up a well lit street and began looking for the restaurant. I asked him to let me out paying him in coin euros and walked back under the overpass and looked around undaunted and hungry.
There was a utility door with no handle and a very small button on the side in the concrete. I pushed it and waited for what began to seem like a long time. The door opened slowly and a exquisitely dressed Berliner in a black suit looked at me disdainfully. I told him I would like to eat and he explained that there was no more room. We talked for a bit and after a few minutes I was sitting next to the phone on the stainless-steal shelf wrapped around the open kitchen. The place, albeit small, was packed.
The chef is Duc Ngo, one of Berlin’s most popular asian chefs, and he stood there, thirty-something, purveying his empire of pots and pans and raw fish as his minions hurriedly compiled asian-peruvian dishes for the well dressed and yes, admittedly very chic, crowd of art collectors, Russian models, and international socialites. I tried to look cool as the phone rang next to me.
I tried four small dishes while enjoying their top notch sake by the glass. Some, like the hamachi maguro with grapefruit ginger I felt I’ve had before at Nobu in Tribecca or even Dallas. The Kohitsuji, very rare and thinly sliced saddle of lamb with ginger I have never had before. The one that blew my mind was Dengkaku, a celery and sweet miso au gratin with a crunchy outside and sweet sour inside.
After dinner I hung out at the adjoining lounge drinking Berlin’s Monkey 47 gin with tonic water from London and smoking small cuban cigarillos. There was live entertainment, a young woman from Kentucky, her red hair in a 1940’s style and dressed in red polka-dotted skirt with black open toed high heels singing bluegrass songs about men who have done her wrong. I left around 1 am and walked back to well lit street to hail a cab.
My hotel is the Hotel de Rome next to the University of Berlin. It is in a 1800’s bank building in Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood. The lounge used to be the office of the bank’s founder and has the original oak paneling. The spa is located in what used to be the bank vault down below and the pool wraps around the original columns bracing both floors.
I went down the next morning or rather early afternoon, a bit thick tongued from my cigars and my head pounding from the Monkey 47 and went down to the spa to take a sauna.
There is a 99% chance that the sauna you are about to take in Germany is no clothing and coed. It is important to figure this out without asking as its just as embarrassing to walk into a cedar planked sauna with a swimsuit on among a group of naked locals as it is to walk in stark naked into the spa at the YMCA. My trick is to walk slowly near the sauna wearing my suit under a towel wrapped around me and look around. If no one is there I wait it out until someone shows up. In this instance sure enough there was a naked 50 something german woman reading Spiegel magazine oblivious to me. I coughed and went back to the locker room, got rid of my swimsuit, and went back pasty white and completely nude sucking my gut in and pretending I know what I’m doing. Thank God just then another German wearing exactly the same outfit I was came in to relieve the tension.
For your safety should such a similar circumstance occur here are a few pointers for taking a coed sauna in Germany.
First, if there is a reasonably attractive woman (I suppose its true in reverse too) in the sauna you are staring even if you swear on the Lord Almighty you are not. You are. Don’t think by looking straight she doesn’t understand the 70 degrees of peripheral vision most humans as omnivores have. Just close your eyes. For a variety of reasons it is for the best which leads us to the second safety tip.
Second, if problems arise a simple trick is to think of dead puppies or that overweight sweaty and hairy old guy next to you. If he doesn’t exist make him up in your mind. And definitely absolutely categorically wait 48 hours after taking one of those prescribed male enhancing drugs advertised on TV with the smiling spouse holding hands before taking a sauna in Germany. I’m sure that sign in front of the sauna door with a bunch of words with the letter Z and the big exclamation point is saying exactly the same thing.
My sauna done, (you take three with a ice cold shower in between,) I went back upstairs now feeling much better, dressed, and umbrella in hand, started my day.