My parents tap into a mysterious inner reservoir as soon as they land on a foreign tarmac to become shopaholics. You won’t find these things back home, they say. I agree, just a little differently. I have never been fond of scouring streets one after another to satisfy my shopping demons. I am not fond of trying to locate and fall uncontrollably for an exotic item, a skinny jean (available back home), those 5 Euro tee-shirts on sale and souvenir refrigerator magnets. I am a sucker for museums, trying to find meaning for myself and the life of things around me in abstract art. Food is also of paramount importance. After all, my parents are right; there’s nothing like what you eat here that you will eat back home, so no foreign experience is complete without my palate divulging in alien cuisines. On a tight budget, it does not make any sense to stroll into a Michelin star restaurant and order a 50 Euros upward fancy lunch or dinner: it suffices to pick out the odd Vapianos, random street gelatos that also sell wood-oven pizzas with halal meat, and the infamous Turkish doner kebabs stalls. Berlin is not short of options when it comes to cuisines.
After three long, gruelling and engaging committee sessions dissecting identity and culture amongst Jews and Muslims from around 20 different countries, the hotel’s halal and kosher culinary efforts were simply not on the spot; there were four different variations of potato dishes, barring fries (which weren’t there at all actually), and tiramisu with alcohol. Surviving on potatoes is the worst: the starchy vegetable fills the stomach in seconds and leaves me with hunger pangs in just a couple of hours, and it also covertly doubles up as an agent to make me dread the treadmill once again. Yahoodi Sazish nahi hai ye toh aur kya hai? Finding like-minded hungry people fed up of potatoes wasn’t too hard, so with an entourage of one Polish Holocaust studies student, a German journalist, an American Banker and a Lithuanian student pursuing a doctorate in Philosophy, I set off to Potsdamerplatz, the nearby haven for local food in a bid to offset the ‘potato annoyance’. As we timidly crossed the road on the familiar zebra crossing (a joke back home), I let my mind wander a little as it glanced upon a familiar name: Cinestar, a cinema back home with the same name in Lahore (also my favorite movie spot) was here, right behind the Sony center in Berlin, lit up with a purple hue. There was a moment of unchecked excitement that I allowed to escape, but thankfully, it went unnoticed.
Pakistan sells beer, but not so openly: a crucial difference I had forgotten to take into account when my friends sat down to order tap beer instead of grabbing a decent meal. Looking down at the menu, the only few things capable of giving a light beating to my wallet were fries and coke, so I ordered both. Until Zachary intervened.
You can get a non-alcoholic beer too, you know. It’s almost the same thing.
Really? Okay, I’ll scrap the coke and get that then.
Are you sure? I don’t want to force you.
It’s alright. I always wanted to know what beer tastes like.
*Zachary starts speaking fluent German and alters the order*
In comes the fries with a jug of beer. With a subtle hint of spices and herbs, the fries were inviting, but a jug of beer? Are you kidding me? They don’t call it a pint and it sells better than water here. I know I had been ranting about potatoes, but the fries are always an exception. You just can’t say no to fries, wherever you are in the world. But can you say no to fries + beer? Yeap. The beer was like – surprise – an overdose of fermented barley, a flavor that one needs time to get accustomed to. It is not a taste that one can instantly like. It grows on you, sip by sip, jug by jug. But for me, just two sips of the frothy fluid were enough. I couldn’t allow torturing my palate with the combination I had ordered.
The beer in Berlin may have been good, even great (evident from the constant refills that my friends ordered), but it left a taste that still lingers as soon as I juxtapose myself next to the experience I had endured. Maybe the taste of it will grow on me too, with more time.