Diary of an Expat, Part 21
Cold, language, restaurants

Berlin has been limping slowly through winter, never really making a good showing nor giving it up altogether and fetching out a bit of spring. It hasn't really snowed, but the trees aren't blooming or anything. I had kind of gotten used to the notion that, this winter, I would basically miss out on the snow and everything else.

The reason why this sounds ever so slightly naïve is because it is: I haven't had to deal with winter for several years now, ever since I moved to California. And even before that, I was at the university, and if the weather got too bad I could simply choose not to go to school. Snow is something that I travel to, when I go home for Christmas.

Winter is a different phenomenon when you have to seek it out rather than getting it catered. There is perhaps nothing so still as the world after a blizzard has passed and the snow is wrapped around the world like a comforter. Nor is there anything as white, and clean, and stark. I find these experiences cathartic, so I'm willing to put up with them.

Unfortunately, while Berlin has not quite got the hang of snowing yet, it has decided that an appropriate temperature would be -20 degrees centigrade. This is a few degrees below 0, in Fahrenheit, or 253 Kelvin, or "a bit nippy" in stiff upper lip. It was this temperature all week.

For me, this introduces the problem that I like walking, and I generally walk everywhere I can. Because what happens is that I bundle myself up, step outside, and remind myself that it's only a couple kilometres between my office and my apartment. Then, a hundred steps later or so, I pause, and a little voice in my head perks up:

Wait, it says. Isn't this how "To Build a Fire" started?

The weather has been cold enough that when I get to work my hair is frozen and I can bend it into interesting shapes. It has been cold enough that the river Spree has started to ice over, and sheets of it wind lazily down, borne on an unseen current. It has been cold enough that it is impossible to do anything without being reminded that there is a winter still around, and it taunts the space heaters and radiators that struggle against the encroaching chill.

It has not, however, been cold enough to take the wind out of the sails of the ice cream vendors that dot Berlin, so I suppose there is that. And it is important to note that my discomfort is somewhat irrelevant for a typical Berlin visitor, because it's self-imposed; if you get around by train, you don't have to deal with the winter weather at all.

Beyond that, in general news, I have discovered that German is starting to bleed back into my English vocabulary. There is a German phrase, ach so, that is tremendously useful. It means, basically, "I see," in the sense of "I understand what you have just said, and am signaling to you that I understood it, without agreeing or disagreeing explicitly."

There's no good equivalent of this in English. "Ach so" is a nice, easy way of letting your conversational partner know that you're paying attention and you don't have any questions about what they've said. In this sense, it's the recipient equivalent of the German non-question oder?, which sort of means "or" but is tagged onto the ends of sentences: "so you're going to go to the movies tomorrow, oder?" — "isn't that right?" is as close as I can think to explain it.

"Oder" and "genau" (the popular German word meaning 'exactly' and sprinkled through all their conversations) haven't made their way into my everyday speech yet, but when people are talking to me I frequently find myself telling them "ach so" when they present some explanation or another, to let them know that I understand. It happens by reflex, and, I don't know, maybe that's how it happens for Germans too.

Now let's talk restaurants!

Daniel Bixel is one of the rare hippish restaurants in my neck of the woods, which is Berlin-Mitte around Rosenthaler Strasse. Daniel Bixel's itself is located on a sidestreet, about five minutes away from the Rosenthaler Platz U-Bahn station. It is one of those restaurants that Berlin has hundreds of, a tiny place with a single speciality, which in this case is baked potatoes. That's all they sell (some cursory salads, I guess); you can get a baked potato with Argentinian beef, say, or tuna, or chicken, or caramelised tomatoes.

I ordered the beef baked potato, and honestly it was pretty good. It was sliced steak with tomatoes, onions, sour cream, olives and probably a few other things. With a bottle of perennial hipster-favorite Tannenzäpfle, it's not a bad way to spend an unhealthily carboriffic dinner. It is, however (see previous sentence re: hipsterdom) ridiculously overpriced; a potato and a beer will set you back €10, which is enough to pick up two meals in some places. Ridic.

So one thing that has been extremely disappointing, living in Berlin, is the dearth of Mexican food, because I like Mexican a great deal. One of my friends pointed me towards Cariba, a Mexican joint right next to the Lichterfelde West S1 station in Steglitz-Zehlendorf. When you walk in, the first thing you notice is that it looks basically exactly identical to a family-oriented Mexican restaurant in the United States — one of those places with a simple-to-understand Mexican name like "Los Amigos" or "Armadillo" or something. The decor is Aztec-themed and there are cacti everywhere.

The food is quite good; particular highlights are the barbecue sauce and the chili, which is singularly inspired and probably the best I've had in Berlin. They sell a strange "extremely hot" sauce; when I ordered it the waitress made sure to mention it was hot several times. You could eat it with a spoon, if you wanted; it's a Middle Eastern-inspired sauce with a bit of a kick, but nothing special.

Most traumatically, however, the guacamole looks pale, tastes funny, and is very overblended. On reflection, my friend and I have decided that this is probably because it contains a great deal of mayonnaise. Come on, Berlin, what the hell? What are you trying to pull over on me here. Stop putting mayonnaise in things where it doesn't belong. The rest of the food is good, though, and not too expensive; for two people, with drinks and too many appetisers, it ran me ~€40, and you could definitely do it for less.

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