When I get to Berlin, a steady rain thumps from the gray-white sky. The wide streets are gray, too, and the blocky Soviet-esque buildings, and the whole city, white-washed in pearly rain, thrumming, quiet, bleak, beautiful.
Ursula sends me screen shots of my U-Bahn route from the airport, but I’m groggy and my bag is heavy and I splurge for a cab. It’s early morning when I ring the door at Gubener Strasse. Her feet patter down the wide stairs, and we hug and hug.
Ursula and I met freshman year at Columbia, on the shiny green lawn outside Butler Library. We backpacked together in the Adirondacks, stopping for handfuls of trail-mix and stories that winded along for days. We slid around sleek rainy ruins in Tulum, the ocean shining in our eyes. We feasted on street food in Thailand, erupting in pineapple-induced shrieks, lips hurting with chili burn.
There have been new jobs and lost jobs, love and heartbreak, moves across the country and across the Atlantic, but always she’s the one I call when something happens or doesn’t happen. She gets it.
Now Urs is taking a break from her music composition PhD in California to travel around the world. Here we are in Friedrichshain, East Berlin, graffiti swooped and layered on every surface, warm from the rain chill in our glow of friend-love.
The first thing we do is go to the kitchen, where Urs makes us mint tea. She’s been staying here for a few weeks, with two tall, blonde German brothers who make eggy crepes for breakfast and leave their floppy socks in the kitchen. The older brother — the lawyer — is off traveling in Tel Aviv. Urs is sad I won’t meet him.
We sit and drink tea and eat apples, the rain playing percussion out the big window. I haven’t slept in two days, and my head feels heavy with exhaustion and buzzy with love and Berlin.
We get our umbrellas and head outside, stopping for lattes with mountains of foam. After, we order doner kebab from the place Urs knows is best. There is a line even before noon, in the relentless rain. We watch chicken fall from the big, burnished cone, which the doner man plates with eggplant with charred-purple skin, and leaves of mint, and a fluffy mound of rice. We take it back to the kitchen table. Yes.
It’s been a week in Berlin. We’ve had so many sausages, my favorite from Gel Gor at 3 AM, fiery-gamy-soft, served between soft, hot slices of lavash and piled with arugula and sumac. Mounds of Swabian spaeztle with golden breadcrumbs. Rotisserie chicken with crackly, caramel-colored skin. Pho warming our bellies in the expansive gray. Fancy cocktails. Beer, malty and rich, or frothy and light. More lattes.
The night just gets started here at midnight. When we come home at 2 AM, Adrian — the younger brother — asks why we’re home so early. We sit down at his kitchen table, drinking wine and smoking, legs propped every which way. He tells us about the travelers that have stayed, and the photos that line the wall of his kitchen. In the street below, someone plays the accordion.
Berlin is a city of secret passageways. Adrian scribbles the name of a “no tourist” party, which is way, way out on the bus, under a parking lot, thrumming at 4 AM. Our friends take us to bars behind courtyards, places with Christmas lights tucked away in sleepy condos, saxophones crooning, never names on the door.
We return to the kitchen table. Tipsy at night, we eat cereal mit honig und erdnussen and sweet, sweet milk. In the mornings, we fry eggs with crimson, shiny-skinned peppers and salty gouda. The yolks look yellower here in Germany, like the sunshine at the height of its glory.
In the kitchen, I make coffee and tea. I can’t really get warm, here. The brothers come and go. I sit and write, the endless, colorless sky wrapping its big arms around me, crooning, sad, hopeful, lovely.