From Dumpsters to Gourmet – Berlin Part 3

I am in love with the Turkish Market folk down on Maybachufer. You only have to ask for one wilting lettuce destined for the bin and they are piling you high with crates of so-so tomatoes, oranges, sharon fruit… I am walking along with my box of assorted still-just-about-ok-to-eat vegetables, when I pause for a car to pass. We are walking along the road behind the stalls, looking for mixed boxes of fruit and veg destined for the “containers” (bins). The man in front of me says something in German.

“Uh… Sprechen Sie Englisch?”

“Dill!” He proclaims.

“Um… Yes please?”

He calls to another man who rummages around in a box and comes up with a big bunch of fresh dill. The first man tuts and says something else. The second man rummages again and comes up with a huge armful, which the first man presents to me with a smile.

“Wow! Thank you!”

“Bitte schön.”

We pass others sorting through boxes or carrying suspiciously large amounts of not-quite-the-freshest-stock and give one another knowing smiles. I trade half my peppers with two girls for half their grapes. We pass three identicle green bins and lift the lids to have a look. They are all full to the brim with sealed packets of green beans!

We are sorting through our food on one of the empty tables. A woman comes past and tries to buy some from us. No no… we just found this. You can have some too, there’s lots, see… She looks horrified. “But… don’t you have anywhere to live??” Well yes… we live in our van. I don’t really understand the connection myself, but there we have it.

It’s good that free food is so plentiful at the markets as, just like in Hamburg, dumpstering is… quite literally… rubbish. Trashwiki and a lot of people we have met talk enthusiastically about the infamous “swimming pool of bread” skip up on Prenzlauer, but when we went there all we found was three small bins full of buttered and cheese topped rolls. We left most where they were, although Pete’s bread cravings have led him to spend many happy hours scraping marge out of some of them.

When we are not gathering market food or climbing in and out of skips, we mostly eat at voküs. There are several different people’s kitchens happening on any given night in Berlin, in (ex-)squats, house projects, social centres and cafes all over the city. They are listed, along with everything else remotely connected to the Left scene, in Stressfaktor – kind of a What’s-On Guide for Anarchists. Paper copies can be picked up in most of the places listed. I find myself spoiled for choice. How to know which voküs to go to without a repeat of our first night?

Of course, it’s not possible to try them all in three weeks and we end up going back to the same places when we find some we like. Rigaer 105 was one such place. I was first attracted to it because not only was it one of the few places where people actually smile at you when you walk in the door, they even remembered my name when I returned a few days later and signed up for a cooking shift. It’s a cozy place that serves coffe, beer and an enormous assortment of teas, as well as having boardgames, books to borrow, performances and film screenings (in English) and a vokü every night at 8pm. They also have workshops, such as free German classes and a craft group which is just starting up.

We only went to Xb once, but their vegan Sunday brunch would be the top of my list if I went back to Berlin. An all-you-can-eat self-service buffet (with sandwich toasters and fake cheese sauce!) for €3-5. Xb is also the queer house project at Liebig 34. I asked if I could stay there for a few days as I had heard of the place from a friend who stayed there and was interested in finding out more about it, but the person I spoke to said I needed to know somebody there already.

We also ate at Fischladen (vegan food – ok but a bit boring, and part of a punk night so it was quite crowded and smokey, though we did get to sit and eat our food in an old fairground waltzer!); Zielona Gora (excellent food, all vegan, nice place, but with dubious taste in political films); and of course the infamous Köpi – the long-running (ex-)squatted house project. It’s HUGE and VERY punky – dogs and stray paint everywhere, black painted walls, not been cleaned in years, etc… The food was pretty good.

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We are in the van. I’m lounging around on the bed while Pete cooks up some of his infamous ‘pouffas’ – kind of a potato pancake but without any potatoes… you would have to see them to understand. We hear a voice outside the door and a familiar mop of brown hair peers round. It’s Jim! My old friend and travel companion from England, Denmark, Sweden and now Germany. Jim climbs in to join us, making suitably impressed noises as he’s not seen it since the re-fit, and settles in for catch-up stories, Floating City gossip and pouffas. It’s like old times.

One of the benefits of Jim being here is that he’s a also interested in Berlin’s history. I have already seen the East Side Gallery – paintings across the largest section of the Berlin Wall which is still standing, and stumbled upon Checkpoint Charlie by accident. Now Jim wants to go to the DDR Museum. A museum, wow, it’s like we’re proper tourists! Pete and I cycle there and wait for Jim to get the tube, which takes a looooong time – long enough for Pete to come up with a plan to sneak in and for me to get halfway around the exhibits before the others arrive, looking shifty. Well then, we’re not quite like proper tourists. Jim has written an entry about the museum on his blog, so I won’t repeat everything here. Overall it was interesting and I liked the way some parts of the museum were laid out like a house that you could nose about in, with all of the products in the cupboards, the television showing programmes from the day, with a sofa you could sit on to watch and change the channels, etc. However, as Jim says, some of it did seem like propaganda, setting out to prove how much better capitalism is than socialism with leading comments about how women weren’t really liberated and how obviously doomed communism was. What I would really like to go to is a DDR Museum run by an old couple who thought that East Germany was a wonderful place to live and who have preserved their house exactly as it was then. Sadly, I’m not sure that place exists.

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It’s Easter. This means nothing to me, but Pete’s mum has put some money into his account specifically for us to go out to dinner. No dumpsters for us tonight! I don my frock over my jeans and Pete has his nice jacket on over his combat trousers. It’s the best we can do. After a bit of research I have managed to find a completely vegan gourmet restaurant, La Mano Verde, on the other side of town. We cycle over there in our semi-posh clothes. It’s expensive, but mum is paying. The menu turns out to be 50% raw food as well –  how exciting! My starter is a hot carrot, orange and mango soup, but for a main course I have my first ever raw vegan lasagne – really amazing and a work of art. The layers are extremely fine slices of aubergine and courgette, with tomato based sauce and a “cheese” layer, I think made from cashew nuts. For dessert we share half each of a sweet kiwi lasagne (raw) and a pure chocolate mousse. Mmmmm… We spend over €60 between us – more than we would usually spend in two months – and come out laughing… “Shall we have a look in their bins now…?”

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In total we spend about three weeks in Berlin before a post on a couchsurfing group tempts us into abandoning the city earlier than expected and driving back West.

I have been hearing about the scene in Berlin for years. There is a lot going on here, but my honest opinion is that it’s a bit stuck up it’s own arse. A lot of people are doing a lot of interesting projects, making spaces and doing a lot of gender and lifestyle politics, which is great, but it feels like something is missing. What about the rest of the world? Of all the places I have visited, Berlin has been the coldest, not in terms of weather as we’ve had plenty of sunshine, but the atmosphere, the attitude, the distrust of strangers. Perhaps it comes from the history. The punk scene seems focused around drinking, which is sad. I was surprised not to find a straight-edge vokü. A friend told me she has even had punks begging from her in Berlin – begging from other punks! In the end though, it’s the coldness that gets to me and actually, I’m quite happy to leave early.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just not cool enough.

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