The third time I went to Berlin I knocked on the door of a German filmmaker named Wolfgang.
It already felt like winter in the beginning of November, and he was wearing a pair of fuzzy slippers and smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. Wolfgang rents out an apartment in the Mitte neighborhood, adjoining his own spacious flat. It was a two bedroom apartment with a private entrance, a nice big chair by the window overlooking a courtyard, and a stocked kitchen. For a few weeks, I was home.
My infatuation with Berlin began the first time I stepped foot in the city. When my train arrived in Berlin Hauptbahnhof (central station) there was an energy to the city that was palpable. You could see it on the faces of the old women walking to the bakery, the young artists turning grey stone walls into masterpieces, and a general creative spirit that was encouraged, not looked down upon. Before I even climbed aboard the S-bahn to leave the train station, I was hooked.
After spending a couple weeks in Berlin, visiting the main historical attractions, walking until the soles on my shoes were literally worn down to the studs, I moved on. It was time to continue my Grand Tour of Europe. But my thoughts kept returning to this city. When a couple months later I grew tired of being on the road every day, my thoughts once again returned to Berlin. This time I wanted to see the city from a different angle. Instead of a hostel, I was on the hunt for an apartment rental. Berlin has its share of vacant apartments, and with a few clicks of a mouse and a cheap Ryanair flight later, I was standing at Wolfgang’s door.
In perfect English he welcomed us into his apartment. After showing us around he said what he loved most about having the space was meeting strangers and helping them to experience the real Berlin. He had left a few magazines for us, of the ExBerliner, the English language magazine of Berlin, to flip through and find out about museum exhibitions, new restaurants, beer gardens, and more. He told us of the role in history this building had played. During the years of divided Berlin, the Eastern section, or GDR, was led by a politician named Erich Honecker. His wife had friends in the very same building and used to visit on a daily basis.
For the first few days, we didn’t see much of Wolfgang. We could smell his cigarettes or coffee from beneath the front door, we would hear music playing, but he seemed to be hard at work. During this time we went to the Opera, explored the museums, took a bike tour of Berlin, walked the streets of Kreuzberg, learned about contemporary German music in Prenzlauerberg, and fell in love with a wine bar where all that was required for entry was 5 euros. Then you did the pouring yourself.
About a week later, we came home to find a note under our door. It was a bit of a formal invitation from Wolfgang, letting us know that there would be a jazz performance in Friedrichshain that evening, and it would be his pleasure to accompany us. We accepted his invitation and left him a similar note, inviting him over for a glass of wine beforehand. This was the beginning of our friendship with the filmmaker.
That evening, he politely knocked, and we enjoyed a glass of wine before cramming into a tiny car for the drive over to Friedrichshain. I’ve always thought driving around a city in a local car has an unmatched feeling of authenticity. As we sped through dark, drizzly Berlin I felt part of the city’s pulse, part of its enviable energy. We parked the car in the lot of a skateboard park and entered an unmarked building. On the stage, the jazz trio was just warming up.
After a lively performance, we were rubbing our hands together for warmth. There was no heat in the building, and after a winter chill was beginning to settle in our bones. A short drive later we were parked outside of a glowing bar. When we walked in, there were a few corners where a single log was smoldering orange in the fireplace. We crowded around the hearth and a few of Wolfgang’s German friends joined us. Ironically, they had all met in New York while they were working for the German embassy. They thought New York and Berlin had something in common; I agreed. I asked them what they missed most about New York. The group consensus was the bagels. Definitely the bagels.
The next day I had a note from Wolfgang under the door. It was a piece of paper describing a bagel shop, run by a couple Americans, with an address. I went the following morning and the cinnamon raisin bagels tasted just like home. The breakfast was so good, I ordered the complete meal again. Bagel, juice, coffee, and all. The waitress must have thought I was crazy, but the taste of home was worth the strange glances.
As the autumn arrives and the leaves begin to fall in Berlin, I’m thinking of Wolfgang, in his fuzzy slippers, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, welcoming another traveler to his lovely little apartment in Mitte. When I return to Berlin, I will choose this place over any hotel in town.