Thursday, 22 May 2008

What I'll be doing during the holidays

Did I mention that I've finally been paid? Just 10 weeks after starting my new job. Oh the joys of contracting. Now there's something in the bank, we can start booking our summer excursions.

The first week in August we're going to Berlin by train. We couldn't get a budget flight so we're going by train. As all the cheap second-class tickets had gone, we're going first class. It's still less than half the price of the cheapest flights.

The train takes a little over 6 hours. That's about the limit of what we can expect the kids to endure. Fortunately, we have a psp and a portable dvd player to amuse them. And the train has a buffet car. They like going to the buffet car. Almost as much as I do. I like to sit there and have a beer or two. German trains are so civilised. They usually even have a fairly decent beer - some sort of Hefeweizen (a great German Ale). Served in the proper glass, too. If only every country could be like that.

There's a reason why we're going to Berlin. Several reasons actually. The trip, however, has been timed to coincide with the Berlin Beer Festival.

The Berlin Beer Festival is a slightly unusual affair. It's held on about a mile of street. Karl Marx Allee, to be precise. It's a street I've admired ever since one of my Polish friends acquainted me with charms of Stalinist architecture. The style is one of the highpoints of post-war architecture. Sort of socialist classicism. Karl Marx Allee, built in the early 1950's, is a great example. It even used to be called Stalin Allee. (Amsterdam used to have a street named after Stalin, too. Stalinlaan. They soon changed the name to Vrijheidslaan - Freedom Avenue. I suppose it's just about the same, really. Stalin is synonymous with freedom, after all.)

It's a huge wide street, Karl Marx Allee. Wide enough for them to be able to form two rows of stalls without coming anywhere near the actual road part. Lots of breweries are represented. Several hundred. And a couple of thousand beers. You could call the selection eclectic. Or totally random. It goes from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again. Sorting out the wheat from the chaff can be difficult. Last time I prepared a list of the beers I wanted to try and their location. Saved me loads of aimless wandering about. Potsdammer Stange was top of the list. I wonder if they'll have that again?

The beer festival isn't the only reason we're going to Berlin. We have friends there.

Jörg went to university with Dolores. In sunny Merseburg. I went there once. Dolores told me it was a horrible, filthy place. I thought she was exaggerating. She wasn't. Either side of the town is a massive chemical works. We once took the tram from Merseburg to Halle. When the doors opened at the stop by Leuna, air that had a higher chlorine than oxygen content streamed in. I almost choked to death. Lovely place. Coincidentally, during the war Dolores's granny was on a train passing through Leuna while it was being bombed by the Americans. I hope I never have an experience as scary as that. Leuna is also notable for being responsible for losing Helmut Kohl his job a German chancellor. He took a big back hander from Elf to sell it to them for 7 or 8 Deutschmarks. Naughty man.

Jörg lives just a couple of hundred metres from the beer festival. Very handy. I wonder if he's still planning to emigrate to Venezuela?

I'm sure the kids will like the Pergamon Museum. They'd better at least pretend to like it, because I'm taking them there. That's the sort of father I am. One with children. I keep telling the how lucky they are. My dad hardly ever took me to the pub.

The beer festival isn't the only reason I want to revisit Berlin. I still haven't got around all the brewpubs.

Spandau's a bit far, but there are a couple of other, less inconveniently placed ones. Like that in Köpenick, which is tiny. It's in a shed or something similar. I have happy memories of Köpenick. Dolores and I ate in the stylish Ratskeller in the pre-capitalist days. I'd read about Tokay in André Gide's "Les Faux-monnayeurs" (a wonderful, wonderful book) but never seen it until then. We shared a bottle with our meal.

I've heard good reports of Marcus-Bräu, too. I must check it's exact location. Andrew will be able to guide me there, I'm sure. He's good with maps and public transport.

Berlin stories

Me and Dolores spent a great deal of time in Berlin leading up to our marriage. The first months of 1988. It was a pain in the arse getting an entry visa for the DDR. But you could get a 24-hour visa for East Berlin (Haupstadt der DDR) at the border. I used to catch the train on Friday evening after work and arrive at some ungodly morning hour at Friedrichstrasse, 06:30 or something like that. The journey was such fun. Despite it being overnight, there were neither sleeper nor couchette carriages. You get used to it. You really do. And I used to be a complete bastard and just lie across three seats and pretend to be asleep if anyone else came into the compartment.

Sunday night I made the journey back to Amsterdam and went straight to work from the station. You can do that type of thing when you're young. I did it two or three times a month.

At Friedrichstrasse I'd go through the border controls. That was also a real pleasure. You could never be certain how long it would take. The guards were in no rush. Dolores would be waiting for me on the DDR side. She'd also travelled overnight from Thuringia in the south, where she lived. Through John Hamilton, who was working for Radio Berlin, we knew someone in Prenzlauer Berg whose flat we could stay in.

Because the visa was only valid until midnight, I had to return to Friedrichstrasse late in the evening. I would technically leave the DDR, but remain in Friedrichstrasse station. I'd pass the outward border control at 11:50 and walk straight around to the inward side again. And go through the whole palaver with the guards again.

I wasn't the only person playing this game. I soon started to recognise the same faces queueing up each time. Like me, they were mostly men with a girlfriend in the East. I even bumped into a bloke who'd been at the Czech language summer school in Brno with me. It was the same for Dolores. She waited with the same people on the DDR side every Saturday night.

It wasn't so bad. There was a decent pub just over the river from Friedrichstrasse station. We used to sit drinking in there until 11:45. And, even though I didn't often get through until 01:00, that wasn't a problem as East Berlin had a night tram service. It was a very civilised city. The shops had more convenient opening times than those in West Berlin, too.

We stayed on Glassbrennerstrasse, which is just off Wisbeyerstrasse. I became acquainted with most of the pubs in that part of Prenzlauer Berg and there were quite a few. Feierabend Klause. That was a good one. Very nice food. The first piece I ever had published was a pub guide to East Berlin that appeared in What's Brewing.

Most of the pubs are gone, converted in restaurants or buggered up. There's a delicious irony in Zum Hackepeter, a former Nazi Stammlokal, having become an Indian restaurant. Zum Schusterjungen, the communist Stammlokal opposite it, is still a pub. Metzer Eck is still going strong. It was a quite a shock to discover that Mike's mum used to fetch beer for her parents from it in the 1920's. Even more remarkable, given the upheavals since that time, is that it's always been run by the same family. Me and Mike went there when we were in Berlin for the beer fesival two years ago.

Leipziger Strasse used to be lined with restaurants from other socialist countries. There was a rather good Czech restaurant that sold both Pilsner Urquell and Budvar. But it was always weird being in that part of Berlin with Dolores. It was very close to the border. You could clearly see buildings on the West Berlin side. Yet she couldn't go there. A strange sensation.

East Berlin wasn't bad for beer. Berliner Pilsener was acceptable enough and pretty cheap. Though it was often hard to tell exactly which brewery it came from. The Berliner Weisse, on the other hand, was truly outstanding. I often passed the Schultheiss Weissbier brewery, which was on Schönhauser Allee just about where the U-Bahn line emerged from it's tunnel and became elevated. Very sour and packed with character. The best Berliner Weisse I've ever had. Which is why (West German) Kindl bought and closed it after the Wende. They didn't want it showing up their crappy version. The premises are now a Kulturbrauerei, whatever that means. I preferred when it was a Bierbrauerei.

I get funny looks when I say East Berlin was one of my favourite cities. It really was and it still saddens me that it has disappeared. While waiting for Dolores to get hold of all the documents she needed for our marriage I spent a great deal of time in the city. Parts of it I got to know pretty well.

Feeling, for the only time in my life, a rich man probably helped. I could afford to eat anywhere. I did, too. We tried the most expensive restaurants but I still often couldn't get rid of my Klara Zetkins quickly enough. There was a Cuban restaurant on Friedrichstrasse that was supposedly the priciest in the DDR. I found it was reasonable - a meal was slightly less expensive than a Currywurst on Kurfürstendamm.

At least once I got hold of a couple of bottles of Porter. I can remember the purple label, but nothing else. If only I'd taken proper notes and kept the labels.


Kristen England said...


Whilst there, check out the deal with Kindl Weisse and Schulteis. My importer dude here still says both don't produce Berliner Weisse anymore. See what the peeps in the actual city say would you?

Ron Pattinson said...

I have a couple of bottles of Kindl Weisse. My understanding was that the Kindl brewery closed, but the Schultheiss Weisse was discontinued when the breweries came under the same ownership.

I think Kindl is still brewed. It was pretty awful fresh, but after a year in the bottle it's getting to be just not great. I think I'll leave the remaining bottles a while longer.

Joel said...

I had a great time in Berlin last March, just passing through. We had a Kindl Berlinerweiss (with a straw in it?) at the cafe on the roof of the Riechstag, and also loved the Rogacki Gourmet Market on Wilmersdorfer Str.145/46

I wish I was there right now.

Boak said...

What a lovely post. It's high time I went back to Berlin. And I had no idea there was a beer festival on Karl-Marx-Allee. If it wasn't already cool enough...

Anonymous said...

Marcus-Bräu is a kinda scary place. Passers-by looked at me like I was nuts to be drinking there... but those are often the best places to drink I suppose. Beers were pretty decent.

I've always wanted to do the Berlin fest - hopefully next year!!

Ron Pattinson said...

lachlan, how easy is Marcus-Bräu to find? I quite like scary places. I have very funny taste in pubs.

boak, the Berlin Bierfestival is pretty cool. I've not been to another event like it. For beer choice, the number one German festival.

Anonymous said...

Very easy to find, though I wasn't staying far away. It's on a fairly major street as I recall.