Diary of an Expat, Part 42
Epicuriosity and Berlin hedonism, quick thoughts
The ten-day forecast for Berlin consists of nothing but rain.

I still bike to work, because I am nothing if not persistent, and so far I've gotten relatively lucky. As a general rule, it does seem to rain once a day here (maybe once every two days), but in a quick burst of activity that leaves the rest of the day open. So that's nice.

Life in Berlin continues to be a pleasant surprise where shopping for consumables is concerned. I picked up a kilogram of peaches and some figs for something like €4, and they were pretty solid peaches and figs — part of the farmer's market aesthetic is the localsourcing, after all, and if that's one of your selling points it helps to have high-quality merchandise.

Because Berlin is a city that, as I have pointed out, is dominated by parks it is also a city that has lots of opportunities for ad hoc marketplaces. It's legendary for its flea markets, naturally, but there are tiny farmer's markets everywhere, too — dozens, if you know where to look, available at pretty much any time. This is where you go to buy berries in massive quantities for extremely cheap prices.

On the other hand, without the rigid rules of a more formal space the life of a farmer's market attendee is shrouded in indecision and possibility, and sometimes you bike to a market just to discover that the stall you're looking for has closed ten minutes before. This is what happened to me at lunch on Friday, which is how I wound up at a small cafe by Zionskirchplatz

Of all the things that are difficult for Americans to get used to, in a consumerist sense, Sunday shopping may top the list but eating out has to be a close second. The basic principles are all there — order food, receive food, eat food, pay — but they have just enough of a twist that you can get turned around.

The classic example of this is tipping; tipping is a profoundly sectarian topic in everyday American life back in the states; introducing the wrinkle of internationalisation is just too much, too soon. American tour guides have neatly skirted this issue by telling people that "tipping" doesn't really exist in Europe, which is a complete fiction. If you don't tip at a European restaurant, you are more or less just as much of a knave as you would be at an American restaurant (so tip, is what I'm saying).

But the whole experience has its moments, too.

Even something billed as a "business lunch" in Berlin has the opportunity to go on for well over an hour, and this is generally understood by one's coworkers, as well. You scan the menu, and place an order, and then wait for them to carefully plant, nurture and harvest the vegetables required for your minestrone. Then, once you've finished, you wait ten or twenty minutes for the bill you asked for to show up.

This is quite frustrating for Americans, and I include myself in this group. We're used to getting things done quickly, and to being ushered out the door when the final bill is settled. Food as a languid affair is, if not alien, at least not tremedously common. So a two hour lunch in the middle of the day, when repeated requests for the check provoke vague apologies but no actual receipt, rubs us the wrong way.

I'm slowly coming around, though. Fast living hasn't really accomplished much for us, as people. I'm a hedonist at heart — the space between a terrible day and a good one can be measured in fresh nectarines. Berlin is good for that. People here work hard — often because, since it's not the economic center of the country, moving here suggests that you actually enjoy what you're doing and are willing to put up with the relocation. People work hard, yes, but they also know when to switch off, and this is something that people who live and die by the Blackberry aren't good at.

The notion that being always plugged in and always on the go made you a good worker, instead of merely one without a life, doesn't seem to have caught on here. It means that there's no rush to see the bill in a restaurant, because there's always something else to talk about or watch on the streets outside — earlier today for example I saw a mint condition 40-year old Ford Mustang. But it also means that when you leave the office, you've left the office — no surreptitiously checking E-mail at dinner, no "taking a quick call" when you're supposed to be enjoying the football game.

Sliding into this mindset has proven to be difficult; you have a lifetime of indoctrination to be overcome. But it's interesting to me that the stimulation that Berlin offers is just as constant and just as interesting as the notifications bar on your smartphone — but completely without the need to be drawn back into your bureaucracies, or indeed the need to be connected to the Internet. The sound of rain, for example, or the frogs and insects calling out in the various parks, or the gallery openings, or the parties, or the people letting their imaginations run wild. So if you are a stimulation junkie, well, you're in luck.

The trick, i find, is to put the phone away. Lunch will be served when it's served; the bill will arrive when it arrives. Trying to hurry it up with agitation and sighs is a losing proposition because, to be honest, what you have to get back to isn't nearly as important as you think it is. The number of days you have left in your life is greater than the number of sunny afternoons, which is greater than the number of outdoor lunches by sprawling parks, which is greater than the number of chances you'll have to enjoy a decent lunch with your friends. So when one of those opportunities presents itself, well, take it.

The Berliners I know live a way of life that produces these moments by segregating them. There is the work time, and the food time, and the party time, and when you divide categories of things up new opportunities present themselves on a category by category level. The ability to enjoy a fresh salad with the same practised dedication as you'd put together a presentation at work is one that is keenly honed. So throw yourself into them with a similar fervour, and you wind up the richer for it.

Which is good for hedonists like me, particularly if you don't mind getting wet.
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