A Personal History of Oranienburger Tor

The crossroads of U-bahn Oranienburger Tor is becoming a strange one. I find myself landing there from two different trajectories. A place where tourists/ new residents and long established Berliners converge and always in a surprising manner.

In 1999, when the Goethe Institute had just moved to u-bahn Weinmeisterstrasse and the streets emanating from the language school’s nexus would just sputter out into a no man’s land after a falafel joint, life in the form of cafes and restaurants abruptly stopped for two Asian American girls at around the Postfuhramt, a building that looked as elaborate and interesting as the Neue Synagogue but was once a stable for postal wagons and horses.

In 2003, when I briefly landed on Oranienburgerstrasse (the main street leading up to Oranienburger Tor) and stumbled upon one of the best salads I’ve ever had in a small basement type bar, still probably in existence today.

In 2006, when I returned to Berlin to live, my experience crawled up a little closer to Oranienburger Tor by way of Tacheles which still authentically looked like a squat, QBA because no one had ever tried Cuban food and it seemed the least touristy on tourist row, and Amrit because even a decade ago, you just couldn’t escape going there at least once and that was the last time I ever ate there until last night.

Things started to change in 2007 when Picknick first opened its club in the area which I never made it to. Then in 2008 The Broken Hearts Club was located near the u-bahn station and then King Size bar showed up with its no space and pretentiousness. That same year I ended up at a Chinese restaurant called Lucky Star right across the street from King Size. My German flatmate was notorious for picking her restaurants by convenience in a strictly egalitarian manner, so I never expected much from the food. I remember my dumplings being a small, underwhelming affair and I never went back there again. I also visited the Boros Collection right around this time as my interest in Contemporary art started to seriously bloom.

From that Lucky Star dinner evening to about 2013, my Oranienburger Tor encounters depended on late night bio pizza cravings after work to Green ‘n’ Friends open 24 hours, something special in Berlin for a grocery store and the prices are not that inflated.

In 2014, I had a job interview near this u-bahn station in the offices of a publishing house and contemplated how pleasant my commute would be. That year, as I tried to renew my love for Berlin and applied to jobs, I realized Rocket Internet HQ (whose sidewalk consisted of groups of people smoking with faces saying I’m not getting paid enough to go gray) is located just a little down the street from the u-bahn and also this Japanese by way of Brooklyn aviary for older Hipster birds called the House of Small Wonder as the Matcha lattes are a little overpriced.

In 2015, a Hedge Fund / start-up friend came back to town for Easter and told me he had been invited to the opening of a new restaurant/ bar called Creme de la Creme to which he was not taking me but his new Swiss girlfriend. The idea coming from a guy (things become hazy as I was still thinking about the absurdity of the name) who was somehow related to the two guys on Torstrasse that somehow became successful Venture Capitalists. When I heard this name, I thought so there is a German living in a larger Berlin bubble than I am, a bubble that came complete with rooftop flats in Mitte. I was surprised to find Creme de la Creme at Oranienburger Tor.

This month I moved in with 2 girls around a decade younger than I am located back in Mitte. When I found this room in a flat, I was congratulated much like someone would be if they had found a new job. This is the state of the Berlin housing market. Our first flatmate activity was a plan to eat hot pot at Lucky Star and I was reminded of 2008.

This week but a little too late, I read about the Boulangerie Francois, a global pop-up bakery/ secret bar traveling the world introducing Grey Goose to an invite only crowd to the bar and the general public to the bread. Arriving at the hot pot dinner which had grown to include 5 other 25 year old girls excluding my 2 flatmates, Lucky Star was booked out but my eyes kept turning to the Grey Goose Boulangerie and I thought oh, you’re here too. Two of the Russian girls suggested an Indonesian place nearby and I thought I’ve never heard of an Indonesian place here… warning bells started to ring. As we headed toward the “Indonesian” place, me eyes again reverted to the Boulangerie.

The Indonesian place turned out to be the old Indian place that was now calling itself a Singaporean place called Amrit, a place known for gobbling up its neighbor restaurants to become like the Walmart of curry and happy hour cocktails. The Indonesian girl with us was like this is not Indonesian food. My Macau Won Ton soup recommended by the two Russian girls was good, made of cream, sweet chili spices and two deep fried won tons filled with carrots and sauerkraut, which led me to believe these won tons were handmade in Germany. The three of us flatmates being unsure which way the tourist barometer of the food would go decided to share a main dish which was also sweet, spicy and tasty. Even Walmart can have its advantages. They were able to seat 8 on the spur of the moment on a Friday night at prime dinnertime, service was prompt, friendly and on time and the food tasty. The price however reflected the changing times and had doubled since 2006 when it had been a cheap Indian option at around 6 euros.

As I sat there shocked at the energy and youth of the seven 25-year-old girls surrounding me, I couldn’t help but feel I had traveled back in time to 2006 instead of living an onward progression toward 2015, that the 2015 experience should have somehow included that secret cocktail bar behind the French bakery. The future was the obsolete in reverse. (via Cyprien Gaillard, Robert Smithson, and Nabokov).

Chinese shocked I’m not Chinese

Google image search Sitting Bull
Google image search Sitting Bull

Most people profess to not being able to tell Asians apart. Living in Europe, I have been the embarrassing recipient of confused Europeans mistaking me for an Asian acquaintance they saw briefly in passing. Then I met someone, a German, who was proud that he could unlike his countrymen and most of the world, could distinguish Asians apart and he guessed I was Chinese. When I said I wasn’t but Korean-American, the look of disappointment on his face almost made me sad to tell him he was wrong.

Most people guess I am Chinese except for one Brazilian guy who guessed I was half-Chinese and when I asked why half, he answered, “then I would only be half wrong,” which I thought was the best strategy of all time. He eventually went on to Strategy consulting.

Having never been to China, I couldn’t say why I looked more Chinese than Japanese or any other Asian country. I personally thought I didn’t look Chinese, but I didn’t think I looked Korean either or Japanese, more like a very pale, small-eyed Native American man because of my prominent nose and thin hair. Growing up that was actually how I gave myself my own American creation myth. As I realized I was neither white nor black, I decided I must be Native American and the realization came much like how James Baldwin describes, “It comes as a great shock to discover, Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you.”

I can imagine myself growing old to eventually look like Sitting Bull pictured above with glasses. If I go senile, perhaps I’d even wear a feather.

As if I had been asking the universe “why does everyone think I look Chinese?” (and not Korean or Japanese) for too long, it gave me an answer. In rapid succession, two separate Chinese girls approached me in the span of a few days and just started speaking Mandarin to me. They didn’t even start the conversation with “nǐ hǎo” (a word I learned from Europeans greeting me on the streets), they went straight to business, positive that I could understand them. When I responded in English, one girl looked shocked, “You’re not Chinese?”

After speaking to her for some time, she confessed, “I didn’t know there were Koreans who also looked Chinese.” So I asked her, “What makes me look so Chinese?”

Then she motioned to her face and as nicely as possible said, “All the Koreans I’ve seen have had long faces like Japanese, and yours is… not.” Yes, I had the round mooncake face.

Then I asked, “So most Chinese have round faces?” and she smiled and nodded her head yes.

In love with a photograph

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The shadows on these doors remind me of a photograph of a person. The photograph had created a longing to know the person, so much so as to make me bold. During the late autumn months, whenever I saw shadow play on a wall from light passing through leaves of a tree, my eyes would instantly move towards it, like at this moment.

In the original photograph, the leaves are almost traceable, individual and distinct in their uniqueness, their shapes as sultry as the person’s face. They form a dance in themselves, some becoming feathered wings like birds, some parachuting into different degrees of light and varying amounts of space. Some are haloed in light, surrounded and alone, forming a lovely membrane around a single leaf.

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Another scene of shadow play that reminded me of the original photograph

Then there stood the person a little off to the side of this dance. His back was to the wall and he was looking into the camera with slightly squinting eyes which were dramatized with further shadows from his dark eyebrows and ridge. The shadow of the leaves fell on his face creating highlights, falling on a cheekbone or sliding down a cheek and creating a subtle dimpled chin. On his forehead shadows mingled with two loose strands of hair that fell over one eye. The brightest bit of light fell on the left side of his nose, his face slightly tilted to the side to create a frontal side profile of his nose, so that your eyes moved from the middle of the face outward. The rest of the shadow leaves moved across his light blue buttoned-down collared shirt forming an interplay with the wall.  Creating quite possibly, the most romantic, alluring portrait of a person I’ve ever seen.

I first saw you in a photograph, taken perhaps as part of another love story.

Crazy Rich Asians

 

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For a few months, a story captured my imagination. Two young transcontinental lovers not more than 22, burying a deceased mother on their own during a hot Singapore summer. All the ingredients for a lifelong mind fuck. The boy’s favorite book As I Lay Dying. It should be a crime to be so obvious. The girl ends up of leaving him (the boy that was crazy about her and helped bury her mother) for an Cambridge guy, those charismatic English. Boy ends up praying to St Jude, the patron saint of desperate and lost causes. I just happened to be in Paris to hear about this story. I could feel the pain just by sitting next to him and 5 years had already gone by. The boy loved deeply. I wondered whoever fell in love with this boy, would she have to love this girl too? It was essentially who he was after college. I think he was someone else before.

I never want to be with someone who loves lightly.

Curious, I tried reading As I Lay Dying. Genius written in poetry is nothing compared to genius spoken through a bunch of uneducated idiots. It’s almost incomprehensible.

Wanting to know more about Singapore, I found a happy outlet in Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians. Now this was a fun book!

Post Traumatic Great Love Syndrome

 

Google Image Search @fanpop.com
Google Image Search @fanpop.com

I recently watched An Affair to Remember and the degree of Cary Grant’s tan was a bit hard to swallow for the entire length of the film. Loved the repartee and the comic relief in the beginning. I wanted to see this film to find out where it all began, or was this movie referring to some other unknown reference… how the Empire State building became a symbolic meeting place for lovers.

If Grant’s character had never found out the truth about the accident, he would have been the victim of post-traumatic great love syndrome. There are two options for Great Loves, marriage and children or leaving the jilted extremely fucked up. The fucked up get stuck in a psychological loop, forever trying to recapture the happiness they once felt with their Great Love. They mold their lives around remembrance. Other women or men become revolving bodies, only to remind them of the depth they once felt for the Great Love. Perhaps they feel like they can never love again.

Some never recover like in Cinema Paradiso, Salvatore instead pursues his destiny in Rome. During the film, he never loves again however, one hopes that after watching the montage of cinematic kisses, he will.

In The Notebook, the jilted lover is reunited with his Great Love. He has never forgotten their dream together, the white house with a terrace to paint. Once his Great Love returns he has to tell his fuck buddy, sorry…

Time Capsule

May 9, 2014 (iPhone 5s)

Tamed garden in Hvar
Tamed garden in Hvar

I wish I had taken more illustrative photographs of this garden in Hvar but I was in search of something and felt limited in time. This wasn’t the garden I was looking for but I roamed around hoping it might be as it seemed so perfect, plus I couldn’t seem to locate the entrance to the other garden.

I was in search of a time capsule. The plan was to find it, read it and then put it back and never tell the person I had read it. I was pretty excited about the plan’s execution. It’s hard to turn your back on Hvar’s water view dotted with small deserted islands and its tiny port. You don’t want to go further inland, you always want to go toward the sea or toward the islands. But here I was walking behind the city’s bus parking lot and down a long back alley in search of a garden and a museum which used to be some guy’s home.

As soon we settled into our hotel room, I asked the hotel receptionist if she knew of a museum that used to be someone’s home with a garden and stone wall. She had no idea what this place could be. A few minutes later, an idea flashed inside her mind, are you talking about the Franciscan monastery, it has a garden? It sounded wrong. No, I answered. Then she realized oh it must be the home of Hvar’s famous poet. Poet! Yes, that must be it.

The birdhouse, blending in so well with the tree was a model for all the animal architecture in the garden. The chicken coop looked similar, made of wood and disappearing into the environment. Nothing was in excess or everything was designed and yet seemed to belong to the environment. The garden had just the right amount of wild flowers in pockets and growing along the borders of the stone wall. The constraint and order gave peace of mind and tranquility. It was a garden that seemed wise, that it knew something about the good life in its lack of excess. It gave space for the animals, trees and flowers to grow without fighting for the attention of water, sunlight or room for growth. The work had been done so perfectly it now just looked pleasurable, this garden was tamed.

Rabbits were hopping freely outside of their cages, hopping past me. The gate was open and also the doors to the Villa. The entrance to my garden was locked. A woman passing by told me to come back at 5pm, that it might be open then but I couldn’t understand how that could be. It was around 4:30 at the time. I looked through the iron gates and tried telepathy with the cat inside to no avail. I took one photo and left. Researching the museum again now, it turns out it does open again at 5pm to 11pm during the summer.

 

 

Paris in April

April 30, 2014 (iPhone 5s)

It’s not often a stranger asks you to come to Paris. Too bad, I tried to play down the gesture, wrapping it in the trappings of the casual when I wanted the romantic but felt like an idiot for wanting it. Lessons learned and if a next time ever comes, I’ll do things differently. I didn’t take any good photographs that day, too consumed with myself and the person I was with. I willfully missed the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition at Centre Pompidou losing much respect for myself as a professed photographer and my fucking favorite one. To my credit, I had no idea that the exhibition was EPIC.

The next day was a French National holiday May 1st, everything was closed and it was raining. My shoes got completely soaked. I was told I was lost, conservative, judgmental, and gloomy. I ate the saddest two little crêpes for lunch. Why do people try to give you life advice when they don’t want to be apart of your life? Why would they ever think I would listen to their advice? After I was told I was lost, I physically did get lost, missing the stairs down to the RER train and exiting right out. In the airport, running frantically around trying to get back to check-in from security check which was confusing because I had to go through baggage claim which gave me the impression I really was lost even though everyone kept telling me this was the right way.

The day before I got to kiss a beautiful boy in Paris. But then I got the next day and in bits and pieces the story of his Great Love, the girl he was crazy about… With no one to talk of myself, I just gave random, meaningless anecdotes of my one male friend, FAR from being my great love. When asked point blank if I had ever experienced mutual love, in which I had seen the lowest point this person could reach and still loved them, my answer was no.

For all the emotions I felt that day, from longings of romance to idiocy, happiness to reality and despair in the first degree, these are the few images from that day.

Eiffel Tower in the morning sun. Imagine if your second date was at the Empire State Building, could you break yourself away from all the cultural lore tied with the iconic location for love?
Eiffel Tower in the morning sun. Imagine if your second date was at the Empire State Building, could you break yourself away from all the cultural lore tied with the iconic location for love?
Somewhere in the 16th arrondissement
Somewhere in the 16th arrondissement
Buvette Unfortunately switched the identify of Steak and Guinness pie (what I wanted) for Shepherds Pie (what I got). The word pie is to blame.
Buvette Unfortunately switched the identify of Steak and Guinness pie (what I wanted) for Shepherds Pie (what I got). The word pie is to blame.
The Shepherd's Pie... aka bolognese sauce with mashed potato on top
The Shepherd’s Pie… aka bolognese sauce with mashed potato on top

 

Campari “Shiver”

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One of my happiest moments in Venice this past weekend meeting a college friend, drinking a Campari spritz, listening to Coldplay’s entire first album Parachutes while talking about the TV series The Good Wife.

I have patterns of thinking and acting when it comes to travel, food and authenticity.

I imagine everyone travels, even the most despised cruise ship tourists, in search of local authenticity, the most universal being the quest for authentic food. But food authenticity is like white flight, the more touristy the destination, the further afield you have to travel, into the suburbs or villages, sometimes straight into local homes for a taste of good authentic cuisine. But as one hotel receptionist asked pondering the paradox of TripAdvisor of tourists telling other tourists what is authentic and what is not, how do tourists who have never tasted the authentic know when it is authentic and not just good food? What if the authentic didn’t fit our palate at all, what if it tasted like shit?

Paris, like no other city I’ve been to, has perfected the art of simulating the aesthetic of the tourist’s conception of a place serving authentic French food with old wooden panels, striped awnings, and paper placemats, luring you inside then serving you defrosted crap, crêpe. Likely microwaved by an immigrant.

Recommendations central and convenient seem fraudulent or too good to be true. Instead, restaurant locations that force you to get lost for 40 minutes, causing chaos and mayhem within the group, seem like you’re at least working for authenticity although even then, it’s hit or miss. Some travelers believe they can just identity where the locals go… and sometimes you can get lucky, pass by a busy snack bar or cafe and do alright. When I can’t be bothered, I let my friends do this. But for something special, authentic, and affordable, I can’t dissociate having to do research and going out of your way to find that something special.

Last May in Rome, my conception of finding the authentic collided with a friend’s, creating a storm cloud over the rest of our trip. She was the type of person who thought she could identify the authentic by the looks of the place while I strongly believed you had to work for it. When she recommended going downstairs and picking one of the three restaurants right under our apartment, I immediately assumed they couldn’t possibly be good restaurants. What were the chances of finding good food right under your apartment ? Probably higher than I let myself believe.

There is nothing that clouds my travel more than eating bad food while traveling.

Whenever I feel as though I’ve come upon something authentic and special, I feel the need to go back there when I return. I fixate on going back. This happened again in Venice this past weekend, meeting a friend who was giving workshops to law students, who were working on consulting projects for businesses wanting to target Millennials organized by a start-up. Essentially, they were law students pretending to be MBA students.

Even though my friend was pregnant and we were both in our thirties, I convinced her I knew a place with cheap pizza and lots of young Italians, a place I had discovered the last time I was in Venice a few years ago. Neither of us really needed either of those things but we both agreed it was a good idea. The last time we were both together in Italy was studying abroad in Rome at age 19 and 20, so perhaps apart of us still thought we had the same needs as we did back then. Perhaps, bad ideas get the go ahead when traveling because friends also want to be accommodating, usually to their own detriment.

This piazza was a long walk away, almost 50 minutes. The longer I dragged my 7 month pregnant friend toward this square, the more I wondered why am I doing this? When we finally reached Campo Santa Margherita, luckily she liked it, since it was such a large open space for Venice. We didn’t have the super cheap, tasty slices of pizza which you would have to eat on the stoop of a statue or on the ground. She couldn’t drink the cheap Campari spritzes. We realized we were old enough and she kind of needed to have pizza in a sit down restaurant.

Traveling is one of the most effective ways of feeling as though you’re traveling back in time. However, while we all want to relive and share certain experiences from the past, they may not be relevant or attend to the needs of the person we are now. Our search for authenticity and reliving authenticity can just become futile.

Not our table
Not our table

How you see me

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Another writer depicted in a movie The Way We Were, the compromising kind. Pollack foreshadows how Katie (Streisand) and Hubbell (Redford) will (not) understand each other by the polarizing way in which they first see each other, i.e. the moment when they give each other the perennial love eyes, the sparkling kind. Dilated pupils = attraction. Sparking eyes = love/ potential love. I am always amazed when actors are able to portray this, make their eyes sparkle.

She takes notice of him for his writing but mainly because she believes his writing is much better than hers. But she doesn’t even look at him when this occurs, she is too busy mulling in envy and ripping up the pages of her own disappointing story. He first notices her and the movie immediately depicts love eyes while he watches Katie deliver a passionate speech to rally her apathetic college peers to political action. He admires her conviction but also realizes how ineffective she is at the last moment due to her lack of social graces. She is too serious and ultimately fails to connect. This misconnection reduces her otherwise beautiful speech to loud words in the wind. Katie’s love eyes appear much later, as she sees him sleeping on a barstool in a nightclub, his eyes closed to her. Not only does this strange encounter depict Katie’s blindness to the real reason their relationship ends, it shows she values Hubbell’s damn good looks foremost.

For Hubbell, what draws him to Katie also causes the rift between them. From a distance, her conviction seemed admirable but in the domestic, it becomes uncomfortable, unmanageable and even brings violence into their lives. He doesn’t want her alienating tendencies, the anger, the seriousness that comes from strongly held beliefs, he is someone who makes compromises. Katie doesn’t know how to separate the two, the person and the politics and is blind to the real reason he leaves her. She believes she wasn’t, never was pretty enough.

I finally understood the Katie reference in Sex and the City (final episode Season 2) when Big marries a twenty-something after years of telling Carrie, he can’t marry again. So you just didn’t want to marry ME, Carrie muses. Carrie asks the question all girls want to,” Why wasn’t it me, come on be a friend.” The Sex and the City reference makes Katie the hero, the untamed, strong woman Hubbel/ Big can’t handle and so they revert to, marry beautiful, tamed girls. Of course, Big needs to be with Carrie however Hubbell does not belong with Katie. Hubbell knows who he really is (insight from Prof Ruth Chang’s TED talk on Hard Choices) and it never had anything to do with Katie being pretty or not, tamed or untamed.