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CULTURE

How to discover Berlin through your stomach

It's one thing to tour a city's landmarks, museums and gift shops. But sampling its culinary offerings can sometimes tell you more about its lesser known history and shifting dynamics.

How to discover Berlin through your stomach
File photo: DPA.

On a recent drizzly Friday afternoon, I followed a cobblestone pavement through the graffitied facades of Berlin’s Neukölln district to my destination at a small square, consisting mainly of a public toilet and food stand selling cheap fries and sausages.

It’s not exactly the first place you’d expect to meet a food tour offering a rich culinary experience in a major European metropolis, but that’s perhaps what makes it perfectly Berlin.
 
Food tours here are not aimed so much at Michelin-star-gazers, but towards the more open-minded of tourists, eager to explore offbeat neighbourhoods, as well as for locals looking to discover their own.
 
As international gastronomy rankings attest, Germany – let alone its capital – is not known for its fine dining experience in the same way that France or even Germany’s northern neighbour of Denmark are. Copenhagen, for example, was home to three of the world’s best restaurants rated in 2016, whereas Berlin had just one.
 
And while Paris currently has ten three Michelin-star establishments, Berlin has none.
 
 
But Berlin’s growing food scene is nevertheless the topic of numerous German- and English-language blogs, books and specialized food tours – and they're not just aimed at showcasing the city’s typical döner kebab and currywurst.
 
“Most people never eat at a restaurant with Michelin stars. To the average person they want a good meal at a good value, and Berlin provides that in spades,” Karl Wilder of Secret Food Tours explained.
 
“Because of our lower operating costs, chefs can also experiment and deliver excitement. It does not matter if the critics take notice. The customers take notice. I think the perspective has already changed, and people see Berlin as past it's infancy for food tourism.”
 
House of Small Wonder in Berlin. Photo: DPA
 
Over the past decade, a number of food tours like Wilder’s have cropped up in the capital, often in neighbourhoods outside the city centre and off the radar of most sightseers, like the eat-the-world tour I dropped into in Neukölln.
 
You can also visit the former East German avant garde district of Friedrichshain with Secret Food Tours, get to know the former punk hub of Kreuzberg with eat-the-world, or even wander the streets of ‘up-and-coming’ Moabit with Berlin Food Tour – a central yet still fairly residential neighbourhood that the tour group describes as a “hidden gem”.
 
Our Neukölln tour was focused on an even lesser known part of the neighbourhood which already scarcely sees out-of-towners: Rixdorf. A major goal of these tours is not just to expose participants to new eateries, but also to new aspects of the city’s history and its connection to how people eat.
 
“After the war, there was no money in Berlin and people had to be really inventive about food, about everything,” my eat-the-world guide Adrian Castillo told me.
 
Wilder, a food historian, also explained that the impact of two World Wars in Berlin shaped the city’s culinary scene in a different way than other capitals, limiting its resources.
 
“It did not evolve in the same way as others cities and thus many unique foods are to be found.”
 
Neukölln’s culinary scene is very much shaped as well by the district’s history of immigration. Rixdorf is now spotted with cool new cafes, housed along streets and in buildings once part of a village used as a haven for Czech Bohemian Protestant refugees in the 1700s. In the 20th century, Neukölln became known for its sizable Turkish population, many of whom came through a guest worker programme in the 1960s.
 
But now, with its cheap rents and hip bars, the neighbourhood is also attracting gentrifying hipsters, particularly from English-speaking countries.
 
This mix of cultures was apparent in the selection of stops along the food tour: a cafe called Zuckerbaby run by two German-American sisters and recent Berlin transplants; a vegan cafe and co-working space with the French name of Pêle-Mêle; and a modern Arabic kitchen with an English name: OS’Kitchen.
 
Neukölln alone now seems to have a new hyper buzz-worthy bistro popping up right, left and centre: a vegan “diner” opening along the district’s busy Karl-Marx-Strasse in April caused such a frenzy of hungry hipsters that police were called in to clear the crowds just 20 minutes after it had opened its doors.
 
So the booming food scene in the neighbourhood and in others also reflects the changing nature and gentrification of the city, especially since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
 
“Fifteen years ago, a friend of mine told me that she found a new flat and she said ‘unfortunately it’s in this very ugly district called Neukölln’. Nobody would say that today. Nobody,” Castillo told me with a chuckle.
 
Food tours can therefore give tourists a taste of the ongoing transformation, providing a launch pad for districts in flux to gain more name recognition.
 
But they’re also a gateway for locals into parts of their own city that they might not even know about, like for fellow eat-the-world tour-taker Holly Krueger, a recent American immigrant to Berlin.
 
“I live in Berlin and I was really surprised. You’re thinking a Berlin food tour means just currywurst, but then this is here,” Krueger told me, gesturing around her as we sat at Asian-soul-food bistro Coco Liebe, founded by a Lebanese chef.
 
“There’s a culinary tradition here that’s not so obvious.”
 
 

#sushiburger#sushiburgerinberlin#berlinfood#berlin #neukölln #cocoliebe #glutenfree#glutenfrei

A photo posted by COCOliebe (@cocoliebeberlin) on May 25, 2016 at 5:00am PDT

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CULTURE

‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

Germans have an international reputation for enjoying functional clothing. A top German fashion expert told The Local whether the stereotypes of German fashion are really true - and what Angela Merkel has to do with modern style.

‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

‘Comfortable and practical’

“It’s pretty easy to define German style,” says Bernhard Roetzel, the author of books on men’s fashion such as ‘Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion’. “Nowadays the basic dress of a grown-up man is mainly blue jeans, some kind of sweatshirt and an anorak. The shoes are usually comfortable sneakers. This is the basic German fashion that everyone from workers to doctors wears, and it is suitable for 90 percent of occasions.”

The basic theme, he says, is comfort and practicality. “That is very important.”

According to Roetzel, this love for the practical stretches all the way back into the 19th century when most other Europeans still had strict public dress codes.

“It began with a movement called Lebensreform, which valued things like vegetarianism and woollen clothes, which were supposed to be healthy,” he says.

“Even if Germans at the time didn’t like political freedom, they loved the freedom to wear sandals. Freedom for Germans is to wear sandals in places where it is not appropriate!”

A woman lies on the shore of the Schwarzachtalsee in Baden-Württemberg still wearing her sandals. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Thomas Warnack

Dressing down became even more acceptable after the First World War, when Germany became a republic and the aristocracy, with its formal sense of dress, lost its importance. “The Nazis also propagated being active outdoors,” Roetzel notes. “Fashion was seen as something awful created by the French and the Jews to bring about the downfall of German culture.”

When the craze for casual wear crossed the pond from the US in the 1960s, Germans were slow to adopt it. But now jeans are even standard clothing for septuagenarians, he says. “Twenty years after jeans arrived people started to realise that they are great for all occasions – and now everyone wears them. This was the last blow to formal German clothing.”

Dress down for work

The German love for all-purpose clothes means that it is perfectly appropriate to wear jeans to work, according to Roetzel. 

“If you don’t work in a bank or law firm you can probably wear jeans in most offices. A non-iron, short sleeve shirt is also very important. German men love these shirts, despite the fact that you get hot in them.”

You can even wear sneakers in the office. Or, if you have to look a bit smarter “some very cheap, comfortable leather shoes” will make you fit right in.

“In business, it is very important that you don’t stand out,” Roetzel advises. “If you are smartly dressed people will ask if you have an important meeting or will think you are looking for a pay rise. For everyday business, you dress as casually as possible.”

A woman cycles to work in jeans and a simple jacket in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Christin Klose

Nothing too sexy

Meanwhile, women’s workplace style, perhaps even more than men’s, is based on the principle of ‘the more forgettable the better.’

“Women in German business must not look too sexy,” says the fashion writer. “If you wear a skirt, for example, it should not be too short and heels should not be too high.” A “boxy, mouse grey suit” including a jacket that doesn’t complement one’s figure completes the look.

“Whereas in Italy, businesswomen carry Chanel bags, in Germany they usually carry a laptop bag or something very practical. Makeup is also rather reduced, not too much lipstick, nothing that is too obvious,” he says.

No door policy

Ties are basically a redundant piece of apparel in modern Germany, meaning wearing one really is a matter of choice in most settings.

“There are very few places where you are not allowed in if you don’t wear a tie,” says Roetzel. “I don’t know a single restaurant that wouldn’t admit you if you don’t wear a tie. You might not be allowed into Cologne Cathedral if your shorts are too short, but basically, you can wear everything everywhere and Germans love this!”

Funerals and weddings

Even the most formal occasions, such as weddings, funerals and important birthdays are much more informal events than they once were.

“At funerals, people will wear black but they rarely wear a black suit, most people will wear a black sweatshirt and jeans,” says Roetzel.

Copy Merkel

Angela Merkel’s unpretentious style appealed to Germans. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Fabian Sommer

Anyone looking for inspiration need look no further than recently retired German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who famously wore variations on the same trouser suit for most of her career.

“She had different colours and fabrics but that was her uniform and she also found her hairstyle and that was it. I don’t think she had a stylist,” Roetzel says. “That’s what Germans love. It’s recognizable and it doesn’t look expensive.”

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“In Germany, one thing you should never admit to is wearing expensive, tailor-made clothes,” he explains. “As a politician, you can admit that you like drinking but you should never admit to having an expensive wardrobe.”

In fact, the cheaper the better. “Olaf Scholz has always earned a lot of money but his clothes are awful, his suits are awful – this is just perfect for Germany,” says Roetzel.

Splash the cash subtly (or on outdoor clothes)

This is not to say that all Germans wear cheap clothes, but they don’t make a big fuss about the brands that they do wear.

“People want to express status by wearing certain brands,” Roetzel points out. “But in Germany, this is done in a very subtle way. You will see small details in the clothes and glasses of a professor or doctor that will tell you a lot. Class exists but people hide their status because it is negative to show it off. This can be hard for foreigners to detect.”

There is one major exemption thought to the rule of not flaunting your wealth – outdoor apparel.

“Outdoor clothes are really a big thing here,” Roetzel says. “It gives people a sense of freedom and healthiness. Spending €800 on an outdoor jacket is perfectly okay. But it is a sin to spend the same amount on a tailor-made suit – you will destroy your image if you admit to doing this.”

Moreover, anyone who wants to impress Germans through their possessions would be better advised to buy a good car or modern kitchen, the fashion expert says. “It is perfectly normal to have a very expensive kitchen, but your clothes should still be cheap.”

Focus on inner beauty

The German (dis)interest in fashion can actually tell us a lot about deeper German values.

“There is an old Prussian saying of mehr sein als schein (content is better than appearance). Germans feel that if something is too beautiful there must be something fishy about it. Anyone who is too smartly dressed could be a conman,” says Roetzel.

“Germans are very honest, they like to be very direct. They say “what’s the point in not wearing sandals if it’s hot?’”

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