written in DECEMBER 2010
Note: This story may or may not be factual. Names may have been changed, events made up or muddled with truth, the “I” in this story not completely “me.” If you dig what I’m saying.
All the characters are based on real people.
So Cold it Burned
It is difficult to remember a time that was equally cold as it was that weekend in Berlin—colder than Prague, colder than long walks in wind-tunneled New York, when the sleet is horizontal and you have to double over over to get through it. Colder, it seemed, than the distant wastelands of Siberian tundras.
It was impossible to walk out into the cold without first putting on layers of everything that I had brought with me in my backpack: tights, then leggings, then fur boots, undershirts, a button-up sweater, a hoodie, a winter coat, a scarf, two hats, gloves, until eventually I was nothing more than an asymmetrical puffy bundle. I was a walking blob, and even this was not enough to protect my bones from getting such a chill that it took me days of curling up next to a heater to thaw out. This is because I spent hours braving the cold to tear up the city on foot and on metro, clutching a map in my hand, marked over with directions and spots to visit. E, an American friend studying in Berlin, had let me borrow the map but after the weekend was over I wanted to keep it and frame it, because I was quite proud of myself for having maneuvered Berlin’s vast and spread-out network of metros and trains on my own in 24 hours, and it had guided me through my short but intense journey through the first German city I’d ever been to.
The first night E. showed me the main tourist attractions of Berlin: the gates, the wall, the big christmas tree, some of the 72 christmas markets spread out around the city. But I’d come to Berlin for a story: It began when I found out my dear friend F. was arriving after all, after changing her mind several times, that she would be arriving that evening until the next night. We had 24 hours to make a story.
I picked up F. on my own from the bus station as E. was busy with homework. We would take on the city alone tonight, but I had spent all day traveling the metros, spending hours waiting and on the train, getting lost and finding my place again, so I felt comfortable with navigation. Berlin is so spread out it takes a good hour to get from the center of the city to the near outskirts.
I spent so long waiting for one of the trains there that I actually thought I would die from the cold. After 5 hours of being outside or waiting in icy train stations, stomping through the wet streets, I couldn’t feel my toes and a throbbing headache had taken over my face, my cheeks were wind-burnt red, and I could feel every single bone in my body as though it were part of a network of frozen tree branches poking my insides.
But I finally made it and F.’s bus had been on time, so we did the long journey back to E.’s dorm (making some 3 transfers) and then we camped out.
E. had a single room with a single bed, so I’d slept on the tile floor last night, with nothing but a blanket underneath me and over me, and my clothes bunched up for a pillow. But the treasure of E.’s room was the heater right underneath the window, where we lay the blanket down, and F. and I proceeded to take out all the clothes we’d brought and lay them down on the ground to make for a more comfortable bed.
“There are just some things about being in college,” F. said as we sat down on our clothes-bed on the ground and put our backs against the old, glorious little heater.
I took some medication for my headache, and we drank and drank water, because Lord knows the cold can dehydrate you. It was around 9pm, and we would wait for several hours, thawing out just to be frozen again when we went out.
We had taken over E.’s tiny single room as though we were Arctic wanderers in an igloo, munching on chocolate and rice cakes, chatting as though we were old friends catching up on a lifetime, even though we had just seen each other a couple days ago.
Then we migrated to the tiny floor kitchen (E. lived in a dorm with all international students, Germans, Chinese, Polish, British) and made ourselves at home at the little kitchen table, drinking drinking water and talking our old friends chatter.
A German lived on this floor, and he was tall and blonde, and he came in every so often to cut up strange fruits and then retreat to his room. This German knew how to speak English so our conversation had to be censored and adjusted each time he came in, because oh you know how 20 year old college roommates can be when they talk for hours.
The first time he came in he re-introduced himself to me, apparently having forgotten that we had met the night before upon my arrival. “Oh yes, yes sorry,” he said when he remembered me. “Sorry, what was your name again? Oh, okay.” I supposed I looked different each time I put on or took off my glasses, so I forgave him because he was cute and German.
His name was J. He was a little pimply but I forgave this as well, because he was endeared by the two American girls who had magically appeared in their kitchen and made themselves at home.
The second time J. came in he cut up a fruit that I had never seen before, and as he awkwardly cut it on a little plate, some pieces jumping out from under the knife and bouncing onto the table, the American girls adjusted their conversation to something neutral like landmarks of Prague, and tried not to giggle. J. then offered us a piece of the fruit he had just cut up, then told us to take more, then disappeared.
The third time J. came in for just a brief second. Before we even had time to turn around he placed two clementines in front of each of us, “Here is a clementine for you girls,” he said, then jumped back out into the hallway again.
From then on, our hearts were left in Berlin with J. I suppose we had somehow exchanged them for the clementines he gave us without us even noticing.
The night before, E. and I had gone to the grocery to buy an entire crate of cheap German beer called Berliner Kindl, 20 bottles, which we’d lugged back to the dorm. F. and I proceeded to stuff several Berliner Kindl’s into our respective bags. They would keep us warm during our hour-long journey to the center of the town, where I’d marked up some possible bars for us to check out. E. was going to stay in and do homework.
F. also had brought a bottle of vodka from Prague, which I lined up in my bag next to my water bottle (which went everywhere with me), a pack of lucky strikes, a lighter, some sinus medicine, and the map. Everything I needed to survive our 24 hour epic.
We bundled up to the shape and size of hot air balloons.
“So,” E. said, his stoic face not changing one bit, as though he had always had the same expression frozen on his face since his birth, “when you guys come stumbling home at 8 in the morning… Be sure to call me so I wake up.”
“I mean I’m sure we won’t be out THAT late,” I said, glancing out the window. “Not in this weather.” I imagined everyone would want to be inside. I had heard about hardcore Germans pounding out at techno clubs until 11am in the morning, visitors to Berlin emerging from a bar and wondering why it was so light out and then seeing it was 7am. I had heard about it, but didn’t realize how true it was. Didn’t realize that Germans partied till death. Didn’t realize Dorothy & Toto weren’t in Prague anymore.
So we laughed. We’d be exhausted, I was sure of it. Besides, if we stayed out that late, I could see it now: making the headlines of the Prague Wanderer. “Two american girls found dead, frozen and half-buried in snow on the side of train tracks somewhere in East Berlin”, and they’d take pictures of us and we’d look like the corpses left behind by Napoleon’s army somewhere in Russia because not even the vodka could keep us warm on such a fatally bitter night. I was so sure in hell.
Fire, Eye, Soul, and Hands
I had found a good 5-10 interesting bars to check out, and we aimed for that area, but we never ended up going to any of them.
In fact, when we got out of the metro station on the street that was lined with clubs and bars, we stopped and one of the first places that caught our attention.
It was an enormous old broken-down warehouse on the outside: a black silhouette against the freezing night sky. But underneath an open-air archway we could see lights and an outdoor bar in the back, and a great big bonfire.
“Whoa, take a look at that place,” I said to F. “What the hell is it?”
“It looks like people die in there!” she said. “Let’s go!”
[Note: just because this is in here as the story doesn’t necessarily mean it happened, to those of you who are worried that I put myself in danger unnecessarily and therefore think I should be closely monitored due to my impulsiveness. Maybe in real life we just spent the night at a calm jazz concert talking to old German ladies and sipping hot apple cider before heading home at 10:30. And this may very well have been the case; the rest just imagined. Who knows?]
As we headed toward the giant warehouse we approached two black men in big coats who I assumed were some type of bouncers, so I naturally stopped. They began muttering something to me and I assumed they were asking for some sort of I.D. until I realized they were offering to sell us pot.
We went past them and walked into the coolest place I’ve ever been to: a warehouse backyard with a makeshift outdoor bar, lights strung everywhere, a giant bonfire with people sitting all around it. German rap music was blaring and rumbled the snow underneath our boots. Scattered about the snow-filled backyard were chairs and tables and benches for the summertime, which were now buried in white, an old broken-down truck to climb all over, farther back were even more bars which were empty in the winter, and many other industrial-type gadgets and playground things for drunken Germans thrown about. When we looked up from where we had come the warehouse loomed above us, and one neon light all the way at the top of one abandoned broken window jeered out into the night, well this was Berlin!
We decided to buy a beer to chase down the vodka we’d brought in our bag, which Berlin’s weather had conveniently kept chilled for us, and at the bar a Bosnian man began shouting at us and asking us where we were from in such an insanely genial manner that we couldn’t help but laugh and join his enthusiasm. Another man kept popping up here and there saying, “Marijuana?! Marijuana!? Marijuana!?” to which we continuously reminded him, “No, no thank you, we’re good, no thanks.”
We then went and hid by one of the empty snow-covered bars farther back, where we quickly did our shots of vodka and then after climbing in and out of the abandoned truck we gravitated toward the light of the bonfire.
[to be continued!]