Hamburger Situation: Prenzlauer Berg

Photo: White Trash Fast Food; centrally located below my office. Photo by cassiemc.

The first time I visited Berlin I was coming from the end of a vacation in Italy with my fingertips tingling in the throes of pasta and croisant-based diabetic shock. I arrived in Tegel airport and the first thing I saw upon leaving the gate was a Burger King. I could have wept with joy. Hamburgers!

The Germans know meat. Most traditional German foods are meaty concoctions like Schnitzel, Wurst, and Rouladen. The hamburger was not invented in Germany but it means person of Hamburg in German so there must be some European connection. Americans invented it but Americans settling in Berlin brought the food to Germany, and Germany’s meat-loving culture brought the hamburger into the population’s atherosclerotic hearts.

Berlin loves fast food but it dislikes chain franchises. While there are some Burger Kings and McDonalds around the city you’re more likely to find mystery-brand hamburgers of, often, much higher quality. This is a great thing for my adventurous palate, (though bad for my waistline).

Today I bring to you a hamburger survey of Prenzlauer Burg district, Berlin.

White Trash Fast Food

No tourist’s visit to Berlin is complete without a stop at White Trash. This bizarre place is a combination bar, live music venue, dance club, tattoo parlour, and hamburger restaurant rolled into one. The decor is a confusing mix of Chinese restaurant accoutrement (dragons &c) arranged in an Irish pub setting. Punk-but-cute waitresses are rude to you every language. The last time I was there the band was a bunch of German teenagers playing Mötörhead covers. It’s a refreshing shock of Berlin weirdness that manages to be tourist-friendly and not as psychically damaging as real Berlin weirdness.

The hamburgers are amusingly named with English swear words. I ordered the Marquis de Fuck burger which had raclette cheese and pickles, with a side of fries and a half-litre of the house beer. The food is definitely tasty and well made, but the price is much too high. Burger, beer, ‘n fries are about 12 EUR. This is clearly a tourist venue and while the rates are cheap by London standards (which is not hard) they are double the usual in Berlin.

If you visit Berlin you pretty much have to go to this place for the music, the drinking, and the cavernous dance club in the basement. The hamburgers, while good, are not the prime attraction.

Kreuzburger

Oddly enough Kreuzburger is not in Kreuzberg. I cannot explain why.

Kreuzburger is a dive. The paint on the walls is flaking off here and there. The chairs are second-hand dining room flea-market mish-mash turned brown from years of smoking. This is not so bad, though. A lot of Berlin bars are just as rough-and-tumble for furnishings.

I had a Münchenburger with sauerkraut and onion. The food was pretty good but not exceptional and the hamburger patty was pretty thin. The price was definitely the cheapest of all options, and they had a self-serve beer fridge (another Berlin wonder). Burger, fries, and beer cost about 6.50 EUR.I think this is the kind of place I’d visit at the end of a night of drinking for some stomach-settling grease, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to seek it out.

Marienburger

Marienburger is a tiny little restaurant on Marienstraße with seating for about a dozen people on uncomfortably tall stools. Other customers jostle about behind you. The stereo plays whatever the cooks on duty prefer, which is either Frank Sinatra or AC/DC turned up loud. This is not a place for lounging about. This is a place for fast food hamburgers done so, so right.

Marienburger burgers look mythically good. They look exactly like the pictures of hamburgers you see on fast food restaurant signs. The sesame bun is perfectly toasted, the patty and condiments are delicately layered. Nothing drips out. It’s… beautiful. Magically, though, within four bites the burger has turned into a glorious sloppy mess of melted processed cheese and hamburger grease.

The fries are pulled from the frier mere seconds before they hit your plate, and are served with Berliner special curry-ketchup or mayonnaise, as you prefer. Servings are large. A burger and fries is about the limit of what I can eat in a sitting. At first I wasn’t sure about the cost but in comparison with other places it’s excellent. Burger, beer, and fries come to about 7.50 EUR.

I feel confident in saying that Marienburger is probably the best hamburger in P-Burg, and maybe Berlin. I have not yet explored the hamburger vistas of Berlin’s other five or so districts, but I’ll be sure to embark on this mission (in moderation).

Published: Cowboy Bar Review in Texture Magazine

Photo: This is either some incredible urban decay or the entrance to a very trendy club in Prenzlauer Burg, Berlin.

Texture Magazine was so fine as to publish my review of the only cowboy bar in Berlin (that I know of). I hope you enjoy it.

Also in this week’s issue I must point out the wonderful photographs by Landon Speers taken during his first month living in Toronto. Self-portrait with roommates definitely captures a feeling I can identify with.

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German Customs of German Customs

Strausberger Platz on Karl-Marx-Allee, looking west towards Mitte

Photo: Strausberger Platz on Karl-Marx-Allee, Friedrichshain, Berlin. This was the GDR’s most prestigious street. The communists (socialists?) loved putting on parades here with marching and drums and stuff. It links the nouveau-trendy centre of Friedrichshain with the bustling Mitte shopping district, but Karl-Marx-Allee itself has not yet founds its post-GDR niche. It’s an oppressive expanse of blocky East German apartment buildings with hardly a bar or café in sight.

My parents were kind enough to ship, at my behest, some of my music equipment in a large white metal roadcase to me in Germany. I opted for five day shipping and so it was the case was dutifully flown and delivered to Berlin on time and in one piece, most likely. I say most likely because I have yet to see it. It’s in a customs depot in Schöneberg, though it may as well be in the Marianas Trench for the difficulty of extricating it.

Let’s talk about the German penchant for rules and regulations, shall we? First of all, German people on the whole are extremely polite and helpful when it comes to rules. They are patient with me as I attempt through trial and error to navigate the activities necessary to perform an officious act like crossing the street or buying a loaf of bread. They believe in laws and rules here. Really, they do, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Rules and regulations are designed to promote efficiency and correctness, justice and fairness. These are admirable traits. Sadly, though, the rules themselves have tumesced and there is now a Leviathan of red tape just behind the curtain that all Germans are powerless to fight.

Last Wednesday I went down to the customs depot in Schöneberg which is about 45 minutes away by train at the exact opposite end of the city from me. Schöneberg translates, approximately, to “beautiful neighbourhood” which it certainly was with the birds chirping and the early morning sun rising (because unlike everything else in Berlin the customs depot is not open late). The customs depot itself was in a new-looking modernist building beside an overpass. What a joyless place it was. A set of chairs were laid out in six perfect rows upon which sat glum looking people awaiting their turn at a numbered gate in another room to argue their case for something or other.

There seemed to be a general inquiries desk so I went to it. Mercifully the woman spoke English and understood what I was trying to accomplish.

“It says here this package is returning to owner, ja? You are living in Berlin now?” I nodded. “Oh. Do you have your Anmeldbestätigung with you?”

I vaguely remembered this was a photocopied 8.5×11″ piece of paper with my address and an cheap-looking blue stamp on it. It was at home in my folder of very officious papers. I did, however, bring my passport which has some extra-officious certificates from the German federal government with gold leaf and holograms and microprinting to prove that I am legally allowed to live and work in Germany. The woman was unmoved. “We only accept the Anmeldbestätigung.

She sent me away with some forms that were entirely in German. “You must fill these out,” she said. “You have a German friend to help you, ja?”

I took the train 45 minutes back and went to work for the day.

The form is a single page, double sided, in 9 pt. font. This, without a word of a lie, is what the form is called:

Zollanmeldung für die Überführung von Übersiedlungsgut in den zollrechtlich freien Verkehr zur besonderen Verwendung (Blatt 1 – Für die Zollstelle für die Überführung)

I totally got über but otherwise was not able to fill out a single line without asking my flatmate Rob for help. He stared at it and pronounced “this is so stupid.” Finally, a sane voice. My favourite very official German word on the form is this one:

Unbedenklichkeitsbescheinigung

It means an-official-certificate-to-prove-your-package-is-not-a-bomb.

This is not my first exasperating run-in with German bureaucracy. I have a thousand word draft of another blog entry regarding my experience at the Bergamt (city administration building) which I abandoned because I was plagiarizing a Kafka novel. (Most anglophones don’t know that all English translations of The Trial are in error: the book is actually about Joseph K. trying to get a change-of-address form recognized by the postal service.)

Hopefully by Wednesday I will have the papers in order to go and pick up my package. By then I will only have to pay a day’s worth or so extra storage charge at the customs depot. I hope they don’t have a form for that service.

Incidentally, besides the customs thing everything’s pretty awesome in Berlin. I mean, I could have told you about how I decided to go out for a quick drink on Friday night and ended up at a massive club until five in the morning (which the locals consider leaving early) but I figured the post office story was more interesting.

Tschüss!

Worlds Collide

My WiiToMidi music software + software by the company I now work for + guitar = awesome.

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Going Deutsche

Photo: This 19th century water tower (Wasserturm) marks the center of Prenzlauer Burg. It’s also kind of creepy looking. Between this and the mind-control tower in Alexanderplatz you get the feeling this city was architected by space aliens.

Learning a new language is probably the most masochistic thing you can do to your brain. Yes, learning the piano is hard. Yes, learning how to snowboard or how to dance the charleston is challenging, but language is such a fundamental part of the brain’s processing that it utterly confounds the student who seeks to rewire it. It is very rare that I incur a headache from thinking too hard. Today I did.

I enrolled in the absolute beginners class at GLS, a large language school by my office. I was ten minutes late but somehow was the first to arrive. I chatted with my amiable teacher Heike for a few minutes, and then another other student arrived.

“Now,” said Heike, “we speak only Deutsche. It may be a little hard, ja?”

“Ja,” I concurred. Then we were off and I flashed back instantly to my first day of grade one French when the teacher announced “ici on parle seulement français.” The panic was as raw in me at 28 as it was when I was 6. There is something terrifying about not being able to communicate, about not being able to explain yourself when something goes horribly wrong. Like if you have to go to the bathroom.

Heike is an animated sort. She has a background in theater, I think. Between the hand gestures and the snippets of English-sounding German words that was the impression I got. I suppose it takes a strong personality to make yourself heard when your audience is a pair of slackjawed 20-somethings trying desperately to grab hold of anything you are saying at all like drowning sailors grasping for fragments of a once solid hull. Our Titanic was English and we sailed an ocean of what-the-fuck.

We started with “what is your name”, “where are you from”, “how long have you been here,” “what is your job,” etc. which sound like easy questions until you try to respond and your brain slams into a wall.

“Ich… kommt… de Kanada?”

aus Kanada,” Heide corrected.

“Oh, ah, ja, umm, ja.”

Ross, the other student in the class, responded the same, and same again for how long he’d been in Berlin. Heike thought maybe he was just parroting but he was actually a Canadian in Berlin for one month so far.

The question of what I did for work seemed a little tougher.

Ich… arbeite als… computer programmer?

Ah! Du arbeiten als Computerprogrammieren!

“…Ja!” This seems to be the trick. If you don’t know the word say the English word with a German accent and hope for the best. Ross was ein Graphikdesigner.

We then went on into family relationships and I stammered that I had “zwei Brüder und eine Schwester” then Heike asked me to ask her a question about her family. (Amusingly the translation for “ask me” is “frage mich” which sounds kind of dirty. Potty humour and classrooms are hardlinked in my mind). Flailing for the first word I could grab hold of and stick into a sentence I asked Heike “Hast du ein Mann?

I can’t give it to you in German but Heike responded that she had a husband, past tense. Not knowing the language I had no way to say “ooh, sorry” or make a joke. I just had to sit there while she dug me out of my own hole. I’m sure she gets the question every first lesson but boy is it awkward while your teacher attempts to explain divorce in German, gesturing to her ring finger for visual aid.

Then we did some workbook exercises suitable for German kindergarteners. They were hard.

After the class Ross and I attempted to talk but our speech centres were fried and we were reduced to speaking English no more complex than our German.

“My brain hurts,” I said.

“Do you come from the west coast?”

“No, I come from Calgary. Do you come from Vancouver?”

“I come from Victoria.”

“Ah.”

Language lessons are probably the most cost-effective way for an adult to feel young again. That is, overwhelmed, confused, and unable to communicate effectively. I get this privilege twice a week for the next month. Wunderbar.