I’ve written about this before, I know, but it makes me a little crazy when I see a Starbucks in a European country, like here in Germany. 

How is it that an American coffee institution that built its business around ersatz European coffee drinks with coffee that is almost always overroasted, gains any popularity whatsoever in the actual Europe?

It is hugely popular. Always crowded. I do avoid Starbucks if I can, so I’m not entirely clear if it just draws American visitors.  I think it likely attracts locals as well.

So, when we were a little early for a lunch right inside the Brandenburg Gate in Eastern Berlin, we found ourselves in search of a cup of coffee. The only place at that particular location we could find was, yes I am sure you guessed it, a dreaded Starbucks. I dragged my feet as we neared the crowded establishment when lo and behold — immediately next door sat a German bakery and coffee establishment.

There, I got a simple and delicious cappuccino. My friend got a hot chocolate with whipped cream on the top. And to top it off — a big ol’ pretzel with mustard. 

Oh yeah!

 

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Pretty much you cannot go to Berlin without getting a curry-wurst — even better with frites. My first trip here in 2013, I went to one of those simple street stalls near Checkpoint Charlie, and had my first curry-wurst experience.

This trip — while visiting the studio of the artist who first devised the idea of making one very large section of the Berlin wall, a “canvas” for 180 artists (called the East Side Gallery) — our group leader pointed out Curry 36 — allegedly (one of) the most popular curry-wurst joints in town.

So – this is what it is:

Big ol’ bratwurst, cut into small rings, sprinkled with some kind of curry powder-salt mix, topped with a high quality ketchup. Served with a tiny red plastic fork, the likes of which I would love to have the patent on those perfect little plastic tined instruments. 

You can order the wurst with or without the casing. Mit darm means with the casing. With or without French fries (“frites“) plain or with ketchup or with mayo. All, some, none. 

OH

MY 

GOD


In these days of global cuisine, food shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise. So when I ordered a seasonal salad at my Berlin hotel with “fried” monkfish, bacon and shiitake mushrooms, I figured I knew what I was getting. 

Not. 

The vinagrette was berry-based, yes — except it was elderberry. The “fried” fish was lightly sautéed and tender: we’re not talking fish fry here!

The bacon was not “his first name is O-S-C-A-R” — if you get my drift. The shiitakes were soft to the tooth, not reconstituted and chewy. And the seasonal greens were heavy with the red of radicchio, though absolutely not bitter. 

Even the vinagrette receptacle was slightly altered: square with a delicate little spout at the corner.

Ah, yes. It is, indeed, the little things.  

What a difference a border makes. 

I will never EVER forget what happened to me in Rome when I requested the sandwich maker in a tiny little store put some pesto on my cheese sandwich. He gasped. Then did what ofttimes happens in Italy: refused my request. Simply, would not do it! As I wrote at the time, it was as if I had asked for a dollop of bird doo on my panino. 

At my first meal in Berlin in 2014 — a post-transcontinental-flight brekky. I got a caffe latte (or whatever they call it in German — better figure that one out sometime soon) and a “Tuscan sandwich.”  Which was a cheese sandwich on a baguette with arugula (“rocket”) and, yep, pesto. As delicious a sammy as I’d imagined it would be 13 years ago in Roma. 



It is true that, for me, my keenest observations while traveling occur at the cafes, the restaurants, the grocery stores: the food, what and how and even when people eat says so much about them.

Obviously that is how I frame my observations. And then there was Germany. I had stayed away from this country because of its sad and somber history. My idea of the language formed from Hollywood. Television. Hogans Heroes, ya’ know. It did not seem like a culture I wanted to learn about, much less embrace.

I admit there is so much I need to learn about this country, ugly past and all. How could I write about donuts and pastries, main dishes, caffè — after visiting the Stachenhausen concentration camp or the Topography of Terror museum in Berlin built over the former headquarters of the Third Reich. As I told a New York friend, how do I process this when I can just say — I’ve had enough! I’m walking away.

Is it really okay to stop for a curry wurst and pommes frites on the corner of “Checkpoint and Charlie?” Take vacay snaps in front of the Berlin Wall?

I don’t have the answers.