Friday, December 24, 2004

Actual Heartwarming Berlin Christmas Story

This really happened last night. I have a witness.

My friend the dancer is writing a novel about a dance troupe. An American dance troupe, although she's never been to America. Because of this, she pumps me for details about various things and I'm happy to give her the answers if I have them. Recently, unsurprisingly enough, it's been about how Americans celebrate Christmas. She's writing an important scene which happens at Christmas dinner, and she was really unclear about how that's done in the U.S.

Here, all the action is on the evening of the 24th. The room with the tree is sealed off from the kids, and the presents are laid beneath it, and when it gets dark, the tree is lit, the family gathers by the tree to sing Christmas songs, and then they open the packages. Dinner consists of frankfurters (Wiener W├╝rstchen) and potato salad: easily made. Tomorrow, they'll have a big goose dinner.

So I explained that there's usually a big dinner on the 25th, and that the presents and all happen in the morning, Santa Claus having come the night before. (Santa Claus here is Weihnachtsmann, and he happens on the 6th, St. Nicholas' Day). What do they eat? She asked, and I said, oh, various things, but often it's a turkey with stuffing and all the traditional side-dishes. "Oh, you know something? I don't think I've ever had a turkey."

Well, I missed Thanksgiving this year, so I offered to buy a turkey if we could cook it at her house, and I could invite a couple of Americans who'd also missed Thanksgiving. "Great idea! Learn through doing!" So Monday we went to Rogaki, a venerable Berlin insitution best known for having the best fish selection in town (this is a city that doesn't eat much fish), but also has a notable butcher. We ordered a four-kilo French turkey, never frozen, to be delivered on Thursday, yesterday. She works as a psychiatric social worker at a crisis center for suicidal teenagers, and was working Wednesday night, so the idea was she'd pick it up in the morning on her way back from work, I'd pack various things into a suitcase, come over about 3, and start cooking. She'd invite her friend Heike, who was celebrating not having to be a teacher for the next month as the kids take their winter holiday, and I invited my friend Blaise Lawless, a painter with the best name in art, and my friend Natalie, a half-German, half-American neighbor of mine who's been a co-consipirator in numerous ventures I've undertaken here. Natalie brought green beans, and Blaise had two cans of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce flown in with a couple of neighbors who were in America at the time.

The meal was an amazing success: I'd never cooked a turkey before, let alone stuffing, and I was extremely nervous: this was a big and expensive piece of meat, and I've had some nasty turkey in my day, as I'm sure a lot of you have. Stuffing was a total mystery. Anyway, suffice it to say that the Joy of Cooking came through with flying colors, so well that I'm terrified of ever doing this again. It was perfect, and we sat around the kitchen for hours, stoned on tryptophan, the sedative that's a natural component of turkey meat, talking and groaning from the starch overload.

At about 12:15, though, practical matters had to be dealt with: the subway stops running sometime between 12 and 1 in this city, and Natalie and I had to get back up here, while Blaise only had a couple of stops to go. So we said our good-byes, I packed my stuff (and a nice chunk of breast-meat which will become turkey enchiladas later in the week), and Blaise, Natalie, and I left.

We walked down the street to the Platz der Luftbr├╝cke subway stop, noticing the nice lights adorning Tempelhof Airport, which is in the process of being shut down (or so they say), and then going underground. A train came in just as we got there, and as we were running to catch it, Natalie noticed it was only going two stops, ending at Hallesches Tor. "Damn," she said, "I wonder if this is the last train." Well, if it is, I told her, we can take a cab. I'd been paid, I had some dough in my pocket, and I was feeling too good to douse my groove with a nightmare trip on one of Berlin's night buses.

Blaise got off to transfer at Mehringdamm, the next station, so he missed everything that follows. Natalie and I talked, speculating on what to do (there wouldn't be any cabs at Hallesches Tor, she said, but I disagreed), and then sat back, realizing we'd just have to do what we had to do. There was a young Japanese woman across from us, and, next to me, a large black guy.

"Hallesches Tor: Endstation. Alle aussteigen, bitte," the PA said when we pulled into the station, and, as it had requested, we all got out. Natalie and I were standing by the black guy, and another guy, short, with his hair in sort of a samurai topknot was also standing there. Suddenly the black guy gestured at someone who was still on the train, telling them to get off. The Japanese girl tumbled out, and Natalie told her in German that this was the last station, but she'd noticed that there was another train going to Kurt-Schumacher-Platz in seven minutes.

The Japanese girl looked dazed. "Uhhh, anyone here speak English?" she said. We laughed, and Natalie repeated what she'd said in English. "Oh, thanks," the Japanese girl said. "I'm Japanese, but I've been living in America for ten years. I also speak Spanish." The black guy smiled, and said "I speak English, too." He had an accent. "And I also speak Spanish."

Where are you from? I asked him. "Trinidad and Tobago." Ah, I said, that would explain the Spanish. "Yes, we are near to Venezuela, so there are a lot of Spanish-speaking people." At this point, the short guy, who'd been hanging at the periphery of our group, spoke up. "I speak English, too," he said, with a slight accent, "and I'm half-Japanese and half-Brazilian. I also speak Spanish." We all laughed, and the train came in the station.

We all wound up facing each other, except the black guy chose to sit on a flip-down seat in the very back of the car. He was a big guy, and needed the space. We kept on talking, and the Japanese girl said she was going to Friedrichstr., so we told her that was the one before where we got off, so we'd tell her when we got there. The Brazilian-Japanese guy was chattering on about how there were loads of Japanese in Sao Paolo, where he was from, and that his mother was Japanese and his father Brazilian, but he'd been born here in Berlin. The black guy asked me where I was from in the States, and I told him I'd last lived in Texas. "Ah, I lived in Galveston and Pasadena," he said. Oil business, I ventured. That'd be the common factor linking Trinidad, Galveston, and even Venezuela. "You're right," he said.

"Hey," the Brazilian guy said, "come over here and sit with us. Don't be so far away." Trinidad didn't seem to know what to make of this somehow, but the Japanese girl joined in the request, and he got up and slid in with them. He was still trying to figure Natalie out, though, and he asked her if she was my sister. She laughed at that one and explained that she'd been born in Berkeley, California but her parents had divorced and her mother had brought her back here to live near her family when Natalie was 12. Trinidad smiled a big smile that showed off his gold tooth. "Man, we got all kinds here," he said. A real United Nations in one subway car, I agreed.

"I'm just amazed at how beautiful Berlin is," the Japanese girl said, and the rest of us sort of gawped. "No, really: yesterday I was at the Christmas market, the one that's all fenced in in that beautiful square, and it just smelled so nice and it was so friendly feeling!" "Oh," said Natalie, "the Gendarmenmarkt." "Yeah, that's the one. And I'm going to spend Christmas in Copenhagen. I met a girl in the hostel, and she invited me up to have Christmas with her family." Turned out she'd worked at a job in Seattle to save up for this trip, and when she went back, she was going to get two jobs and then head to South America, a prospect which lit the Brazilian guy up.

Trinidad was now extremely amused by all of this. "Man, we got a whole buncha homies here! Everyone someone else's homie! Man, this really feels like Christmas now!" And we had a good laugh about that.

The train pulled into Friedrichstr., and the Japanese girl and the Brazilian guy stood to get out. "Merry Christmas!" they sang as they walked out the door. Trinidad and Natalie and I exchanged a bit more chatter in the extra minute it took us to get to our stop at Oranienburger Tor, and as we left, we shook his hand. "Merry Christmas," he said with genuine warmth, and we returned the sentiment. I was so disoriented that when the elevator out of the station stopped, I thought we'd taken the wrong exit (I wasn't going to risk the steps with my heavy suitcase full of cooking stuff). Natalie quickly corrected me (I was looking the wrong way down Friedrichstr., duhh), and then she said "Did this really happen?"

But it really happened. I have a witness.

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