Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The One Thing I Just Don't Get About Berlin

There's nothing like a side trip to a lesser city to make you appreciate the one you're staying in even more. (Warsaw, I'm talking down to you.)

After three days in Warsaw, where I had a great time despite being more or less unimpressed with the city itself or most of the people who live there (thank God, for cute, chatty gay guys to boost your ego and make your nightlife), I was ready to return to Berlin. (Incidentally, so many of my conversations at Toro, the club I went to on Friday night, began with "So, what do you think about Polish people?" This led me to believe that I must have been on to something with my general disdain for the ones I'd met in Warsaw up to that point.)

I didn't even mind that I had booked a second-class ticket from Warsaw back to Berlin, so I probably wouldn't be traveling in the same comfort to which I'd become accustomed in my first-class cabin on the way to Poland. I'd shared it with only one other guy, and aside from an introductory "Cheers," a few friendly smiles, and "Goodbye" as he disembarked one stop before mine, he'd completely left me to my thoughts and my music.

At least there would be AC in second class on the Warsaw-Berlin Express, a luxury not afforded to the passengers on some of the trains on other platforms, which were packed with people fanning themselves with their tickets to ward off the melting process. This was the one thought that got me through a 20-minute slow boil on an un-air-conditioned platform, waiting for the train's 2.55pm arrival. I knew the AC in second class probably would be shooting merely medium-cool blasts of air from its vents at best, but even that had to be better than waving a ticket in front of my face to cool off.

When I got to my seat and discovered that I'd be spending the next five and a half hours sitting way too close to four fellow travelers, all solo like me, I started looking forward to Berlin even more. Trains that arrange the seating so that complete strangers have to face each other while pretending to be far more interested in the passing scenery than they are to avoid creepy eye contact are like Piers Morgan, Ryan Seacrest and the horizontal screen option on smart phones. Who in the world actually likes any of them?

I suppose that it means more leg room, but it also meant that the Polish girl sitting in the window seat across from my middle seat would keep stretching out her legs so that her bare feet rested on the edge of my seat, between my neighbor in the other window seat and me. I would have preferred airplane-style seating, all facing the same direction, with me stuck behind someone who insisted on reclining all the way onto my lap, to seeing those wriggling toes through the corner of my eyes and feeling them inching closer to my thigh.

I gave them a few nasty looks, which she pretended not to notice, and thought about announcing, "This is a train, not your living room," but what would the other three think? Had it just been her and me, I would have told her to rest her feet somewhere else. But then, had it been just her and me, I would have been able to switch over to the aisle seat on the other side of me that was being occupied by a pretty blonde girl who kept glancing over at me like she was expecting me to do something fascinating.

Across from her was a guy with a Canadian flag on his travel bag, the only native English speaker in the group. He was cute, but I couldn't figure out which team he was on. His deliberate mannerisms and neat appearance indicated that he might be a starter on my squad, but I don't know any gay guy who would have so indulged the girl with the feet, who after offering him some of her cookies early in the trip, struck up a full-blown conversation with him about an hour outside of Berlin.

Better him than me, I thought to myself, and turned up my music so that I wouldn't have to overhear any of it. The last thing I needed was to try to pretend to be interested in what someone was telling me in broken English. Only an hour to go, thank God.

That's when it hit me. After a weekend in air-conditioned four- and five-star hotels (respectively, the Radisson Blu Sobieski, where I spent the first two nights, and the Westin Warsaw, my Sunday home away from Berlin), I was returning to life without AC, which, after three days in Warsaw, was the only bad thing I could think of about Berlin.

I knew I wasn't the only dog in heat there. Even the Berliners who complained that it was so American of me to crave air-conditioning, were constantly griping about how difficult it is to sleep at night when summer gets too hot, particularly during a recent heat wave that still has most of Europe sweating bullets. (Burning question: Why is it easier to fall sleep during a warm summer day than it is to fall asleep -- and stay that way -- during a warm summer evening, even when the temperature is considerably more mild at night?)

"The heat without air-conditioning is brutal, I'll never get used to that," my new friend Yemi, a beautiful expat from Miami, had written to me in an email days earlier.

I seconded that, but I'd take it one step further. I love Berlin, but if I were to even entertain the thought of staying here (which I haven't done since my arrival), the lack of air-conditioned flats would be the one thing to stop me from doing so. In recent years, I've learned to love summer, which has actually replaced autumn as my favorite season, but it's easy to fall in love with endless summer in Bangkok because you always know you can escape the heat as soon as you go inside.

In Berlin, a city full of buildings without AC, you don't have that luxury. I hear people complaining about July highs (the late 20s Celsius) that my friends back in New York would rave about as gorgeous summer weather. But then, the heat is always harder to stand when you know you can't get out of the kitchen. It's a shame that the loveliest season in a city that I hear is barely livable when winter sweeps in is marred by nights that are sleepless for the wrong reason.

I've gotten used to sleeping -- or trying to -- with the windows open, but that doesn't mean I like it. As a colleague back in New York City who used to occasionally crank the AC in the dead of winter once said, "In the big city, nothing good ever comes into your apartment through an open window." I couldn't agree more, and in my Berlin flat, the "nothing good" includes assorted annoying smells and sounds, like cigarette smoke, loud conversations and the pounding of hammers at 7am.

In-house AC or not, it was still a thrill to finally get off that train. It pulled into Berlin's Hauptbanof station at 8.30pm, just in time for the tail end of a cold front that brought with it my first encounter with rain in the city. I can't stand the rain when I'm caught in it without an umbrella, but I sort of didn't even mind that I might get drenched walking the roughly 100 meters from the Rosa-Luxemberg Platz U-Bahn station to my rental flat. Getting home soaked on a summer evening feels so much better when there's a cool breeze blowing, and your wet condition has nothing to do with heat and sweat.

I still wouldn't mind cranking up some AC, though.
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