Day One - I ask my traveling companion if she had a travel alias. She does not. I suggest Ginger Valentine. I flirt with a few aliases. Klaus Molasses. Tellicherry Peppercorn, but I leave them behind at the Hamilton, New Jersey train station where our friend Marianna has kindly deposited us.
I find myself observing the scenery more than interjecting myself into it. Once I get past customs, I won’t need a name or many more words than “hello,” “goodbye,” “thank you,” and “Haribo.”
In New York City (usually my final destination rather than a launching point), we have dinner at Tick Tock Diner, near Penn Station. Nervous about all the upcoming flying, I feel like an actor playing me more than I feel myself. I stress-eat all of my fries and then I stress-eat some of hers.
We quickly go back underground and find our way to a subway train headed toward Jamaica, Queens, en route to JFK Airport. We squeeze into our seats and are surrounded by more sleepy-eyed locals and regional accents than I’m accustomed to as a guy who usually ends up somewhere like Madison Square Garden or NBC Studios when he’s in town. About an hour away from where I was born, I already feel like a tourist. I try to imagine how much of a tourist I’ll feel like when I wake up in Eastern Europe later this week.
Day Two - I left the U.S.A. for my first-ever overseas trip with the clothes on my back and the same backpack I carry with me at home, just with the scissors and Leatherman multi-tool swapped out for extra socks and underwear. Oh, and a pillowcase-sized bag of various Trader Joe’s trail mixes. Big green water bottle. Small blue passport ready for its first stamps. No guitar. No computer. No electric razor. Girlfriend reports that a hairy-faced Greg is an A-OK Greg.
I’d had in mind to shove a bottle of wine into my face before the flight, but I found that I was totally calm shortly after take-off. Just some light meditation for a few moments was all I needed. Later, the combination of benadryl and Morgan Freeman's voice put me to sleep for several hours of our flight from New York to London. A remarkable nap considering the less-than-ideal airplane seats and the fact that I purport to be an anxious flyer.
A fire is roaring behind me at Ye Olde Six Bells, a ninth-century tavern in Horley, England, near the River Mole. One of the oldest pubs in England. Now that I've figured out what they are, fish & chips are en route to our table, as is chicken & leek pie. On the bartender’s recommendation, I got a pint of London's Best. I’m not in town long enough to find out if it’s really the best - after travelling 3,500 miles, it is AUTOMATICALLY the best!
If they could put their accents in a pint glass, I’d drink three and take two for the road. We take a walk past the beautiful, 800-year-old St. Bartholomew Church and into a narrow walking path squeezing past pasty-skinned English dogs and their human friends. I have to keep reminding myself that it all looks like a quaint English village not because I’m watching an especially hi-def documentary but because my body is actually in the U.K.
Nicky and I are no dummies. And she is no stranger to international travel. But it is NEVERTHELESS TRUE that we both almost walked into traffic. In our defense… they were driving the wrong way. (All of them.)
We are only in England for a layover. My mind boggles at the amount of digital friends I could meet in the physical realm if we stayed, the music we’d make, the booze we’d consume. All the U.K. sites I’ve always wanted to see. I could maybe find some of my McGarvey, O’Brien, and Burns relatives. I could play my first non-U.S. solo show. Maybe I could see some of the Irish landscapes that I used to dream of sweeping through like a bird when I was a child. I’ve just arrived in Europe and I find myself planning my next European trip. Auntie Donna told me early on that I am on a born traveler. “All I have to do is keep feeding you and you’re non-stop.”
I fantasize about all this as we fly over the North Sea and The Netherlands. We soon arrive in late-night Berlin and find our way to the train that will take us to the Prenzlauer Berg district. We chose an apartment in this area both for its affordability and because of its associations with the counterculture. I like to be where the artists and the gay people are.
We take a brisk walk down Greifswalder Straße. The graffiti on the buildings brings to mind some of the rough parts of places like Camden, New Jersey, but the look and demeanor of the mostly young people brings to mind places like the University City area of Philadelphia. The conflicting signals confuse my instincts and I realize the metrics of home will not work here. I am far from home. I am in Berlin, one of Earth’s great cities.
On this dark and misty night, it is almost more bleak than we both imagined it would be. But a very comfortable bleak.
Soon, we meet Stephan. He shows us around his Airbnb apartment. The building is old and covered in graffiti, yet simultaneously has signs of gentrification. It’s what’s inside that counts, it seems. Out our window, there’s a clean courtyard full of bicycles and recycling cans. Inside, there is a bed with two half-size blankets instead of one big blanket. There is a fridge stocked with Merci chocolates and a bottle of wine. I wasn’t explicitly given permission to eat the chocolate and I spend a fair amount of psychic energy trying to imagine what Stephan’s chocolate policy is. I realize the policy is PROBABLY “enjoy the fucking chocolate” and I do just that.
There are outlets that don’t fit my American plugs. There is wi-fi. As much as I like the idea of abandoning computers entirely, these days spent without cell service make the occasional digital dispatch feel about as sweetly scarce as a postcard back home (with the added pleasure of confirmed receipt).
We are ready to be somewhere overnight after about twenty-four hours of traveling, but it’s hard to sleep after so much stimulation and time zone hopping. That box of chocolate probably didn’t help matters, either. Out of habit, I grab the remote and look for The Daily Show only to find a). the cable doesn’t seem to work, b). oh, yeah; it’s 11 PM Central European Time and that means they haven’t even RECORDED The Daily Show yet. A trip like this requires breaking many daily habits all at once.
I finally have peace and quiet, yet I can’t find that sweet, deep sleep that I most recently found on a crowded plane while sitting upright in coach.
Day Three - Stephan’s shower washes three countries’ worth of Greg Filth down the drain and I shuffle my all-black clothes into a slightly different outfit that looks exactly the same as yesterday’s.
We get on a tram and begin Breakfast Quest. We find a pastel building and decide it will be our destination. For a moment, I question my policy of patronizing mostly purple and pastel-colored establishments, but I realize I am right after the first bite of my grilled Spanish Chorizo sausage, cheese, and herb sandwich at Café Hüftengold. My partner seems equally pleased with her choice. The only customers in the restaurant, we take our time eating, flipping through German magazines and listening to English-language dance music that we’ve never heard before.
Just a few sips of my coffee and I switch from Introverted Greg into Extroverted Greg. From mumbling weirdo to Loud-Mouthed American. I begin wondering if the “coffee” I order in Germany and Poland will be more like the “espresso” I order in the U.S. Is their bad coffee our good coffee?
This city is quite calm for such a densely-populated place. After a while, I start to realize that I haven’t encountered any rude people. Everybody seems pretty content. Moving through their day’s tasks with focus and good scarves. The German scarf game is STRONG. Young and old.
Waiting for a tram, I realize that I don’t feel compelled to hide a morose face. I don’t feel like I need to pretend to be happier than I am. It’s a little bit grey even when the sun is out. Maybe that’s why there’s so much colorful graffiti. I am content to be a black-clad stranger in this crowd.
I become interested in the psychology of modern-day Berlin. Michael Stipe calls our country a teenage nation; that makes even more sense when you see it from afar. With age and experience, perhaps, comes a sense of groundedness? Do the people who have seen the most horror have a deeper respect for the beauty of a peaceful day? Back home, they’re about to elect Donald Drumpf president. I think about the rampant racism back home while visiting Topography Of Terror, the museum at the old SS headquarters.
We marvel at the German dogs roaming the city leashless beside their humans. We notice in the park that people are reacting to this 8 degree Celsius day the way Americans would react to a piping hot summer day. We even walked past a few barbequers.
We walk into a park and stop at a pigeon coop called Flying Tippler. Soon, I’m standing among birch trees and filming Nicky swinging on a swing set with “FIGHT NAZIS” spraypainted on it.
I pause at the portion of the Berlin Wall that still stands in front of Topography Of Terror, photographing and filming street scenes through one of the big holes in the concrete.
We watch the sun set through the pillars at Brandenburg Gate, take an unauthorized bathroom trip at Starbucks, then - freshly out of plans - we wander the city freely.
She spots what we eventually realize is the Bode Museum on what we eventually realize is the Spree River. I photograph some of the seemingly endless street art and stare, mouth agape, at Evangelical Supreme Parish and Collegiate Church (AKA Berlin Cathedral). I run up and test the doors, but none of them budge. “Something this old will probably be here next time I’m here,” I reason.
We take a rest among the statues and monuments and watch the Berlin street scene playing out in front of us. On a bridge that crosses the Spree River, a man obscured by shadows is playing lightly-amplified guitar in the style of Chet Atkins.
Back in the Prenzlauer Berg district, Nicky’s research leads us to PraterGarten, a beer garden/restaurant/concert venue that dates back to 1837. We arrive and see minimal signs of life - the beer garden section is closed for the season and there’s no clear sign of the restaurant. We walk through the darkened property in the hopes that a nondescript building set fairly deep into the property is what we seek. It is! We are rewarded for our persistence with a mug of Prater Pils and two orders of roast pork, potato dumplings, and coleslaw.
I walk past a “Toiletten” sign that feature cartoons of a scowling man and a distraught woman smoking cigarettes with big red “X”s on them. Then I walk past signs that say “Damen” and “Herren” with the same characters smoking cigarettes WITHOUT red “X’s on them. This confuses me, but I don’t smoke, anyway, so I go into the one that says “Herren.” I can tell that the Prater Pils is working because I look up from the mirror while washing my hands and notice that, damn - I find myself very attractive.
As we leave, I walk the wrong way - deeper into the property - so I can photograph a fantastic handpainted sign with a big smiling cartoon skull who warns “Betreten verboten!”
We get back to the apartment and wonder, “did we walk almost all day?” My camera and I like to see everything. And I love having a traveling companion who can keep up with me.
Day Four - I miss music. I start the day with Neil Young’s song “After Berlin” and I follow it with R.E.M.’s “Überlin.” The music video’s graffiti-lined locale looks like our view down our block.
I don’t miss shaving, but I do miss playing guitar. I don’t miss choosing an outfit. I continue to rock black jeans, a black sweater, a black thermal shirt, brown Docs, and the earth-toned scarf that Cleo gave me - a little piece of Marcella and her family with me on my travels.
I get some sort of poppyseed-based pastry at a Jewish bakery called Bäckerei Kädtler. She gets kirsch streusel. I feed my addiction with yet another beautiful cup of coffee. Each table has a strange decoration that appears to be a piece of bread with a colored egg laying in it. We know we are the only American tourists here because there is no one else here - at one point, not even the proprietor. We watch locals pop in for a quick transaction; I wonder where they’re going next.
Out on the street, the crowds are likely void of anyone I’ve ever met in my life. But my eye still seems to search for them. “Hey, isn’t that Adam Honeycutt?” No, probably not!
My cell phone, having remained on Airplane Mode since flying out of New York, has been downgraded to a secondary camera. It’s an unexpected joy to be almost fully removed from the world of cell phones.
The wi-fi password at Flamingo Fresh Food is “ilikeflamingo.” But I didn’t tell you that. Let the pastry chef tell you. While you have his ear, you can ask him for his recommendation. That method served us VERY well.
Already on our last full day in Berlin, we commit ourselves three stops at Berlin’s Museum Island: Pergamon Museum (which itself houses the Collection of Classical Antiquities, the Middle Eastern Museum and the Museum of Islamic Art), Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) with its vast collection of mostly nineteenth century art, and the Bode Museum (sculptures, antique coins, and Byzantine art). Nicky seems especially taken by the huge Persian rugs. I am most drawn to paintings of colorful outdoor scenes with a sense of mystery. Where were those dandy monkeys with fancy hats riding a camel in front of a tavern? I’d rather leave with the question than the answer.
As we finish our museum tours, we pass a man on sitting in front of a Christ painting who appears to be moved to tears.
I soon find myself moved by art, too. The spirit of Britney Spears overwhelms me and I find myself singing a glacially slow, operatic version of “Oops, I Did It Again” in the highly reverberant front room at the National Gallery. The security guards don’t seem bothered. My girlfriend seems OK with it, or maybe has just succumbed to the fact that it’s far too late to leave me in New York City.
Where the Chet Atkins-esque guitar player was last night, there is a woman playing accordion and smiling a beaming and unwavering smile that I can’t help but imagine has been plastered upon her face since the moment she discovered her instrument and will remain until the day she dies. Beside her, a bride and groom prepare to pose for pictures while the photographer’s two assistants catch a white sheet in the wind.
We decompress at the apartment briefly, but soon hear the siren call of currywurst. I follow her and soon we’re at Konnopke's Imbiss, a locals joint that opened in 1930, chowing down on tasty fries and mystery meat covered in curry powder and homemade ketchup. Surrounded by locals and vaguely erotic artwork, we chow down on our dinner on a picnic table in a semi-enclosed shack right beside a transit station and in between both directions of traffic on Schönhauser Allee.