There is a little mezze place tucked in the corner of a busy street in Berlin. Its glass door is lined with stickers: a rainbow flag, a call to release a German-Turkish journalist arrested in Turkey, quirky cartoons. An elderly man sits at a bar in the back, rolling silverware into paper napkins. A woman, clad in giant gold hoop earrings and a bright red hijab, maybe his wife, darts in and out of the kitchen with plates of colorful salads and steamed dumplings.
My friend and I approach the counter to order. There are at least twenty plates to choose from: grape leaves rolled like cigars, creamy hummus, vegetables laboriously transformed into pickles and slaws and mashes. The idea is that you select five dishes, and they will scoop you a small portion of each. The woman at the counter negotiates the particulars of the order with my friend, who moved to Berlin only a few months ago but has managed to pick up enough German to sustain short conversations.
The aesthetic of the restaurant seems to match my impressions of the city so far: eclectic, a bit strange, not trying so hard to impress but rather just express. Twinkling lights and a chalkboard menu hint at an attempt at cool. But these are disrupted by strings of artificial leaves bursting in the colors of fall, plastic pumpkins and gourds placed on tables. This cornucopia might make sense if it were Halloween or Thanksgiving, but it’s the middle of January. In Berlin. In a Turkish restaurant. I find the mismatch incredibly endearing. The bathroom door is covered in spray paint, and the spray paint is covered with Sharpie marker notes from one patron to another, a never-ending conversation between strangers. It only adds to the sense that this tiny place contains unexpected multitudes.
We take our seats and the woman bring our dishes. Each looks like a painter’s palette with vibrant splashes of color spread around the circumference. A basket is set between us, overflowing with strips of fluffy bread cut from a round loaf. We savor every bite.
My friend shows me her favorite places to drink coffee in her neighborhood. They quickly become my favorite places, too. One of them feels like a greenhouse, with glass walls and green plants held up by blond wood accents. I feel peaceful there. On the left side of the cafe, nobody is allowed to use their laptops. People do things like talk to each other and stare aimlessly into porcelain mugs between sips of filter coffee.
The other cafe my friend shows me was recently opened by a Palestinian man. He has painted the walls with images: a khamsa to ward off the evil eye, the cartoon of Handala to invoke resistance. Exposed light bulbs cast yellow light on surfaces. It is morning when we go, so naturally Fairouz is playing in the background as we sip Americanos.
I like this place. I like to imagine myself coming here often, taking a break from the desk in my room to write somewhere else, cozy but not quite home.
I like this city. I like to imagine myself making homes wherever I go.
My friend volunteers at an agency that conducts integration activities between Germans and recently arrived immigrants and refugees. These agencies receive funding from the German government. I am pleasantly surprised that bringing people together is a public priority.
On this day, the activity is cooking potatoes. Four stations are set up corresponding to different countries: Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria, and Italy. Each station is led by someone from that country. The room quickly fills with strangers becoming friends. They peel and slice potatoes while chatting about the mundane details of their lives. Some people have brought their children, and they are passed along unfamiliar yet caring hands.
I find myself with the Syrians mostly. I speak no German so we communicate in Arabic instead. We make small talk and inevitably reach heavier topics of conversation. As to be expected, many of them are grateful to be in Berlin but still facing hardship. It is never easy to leave home. It is infinitely harder when your home is burning and loved ones have been left in the blaze.
We work the potatoes into different shapes: Roasted cubes tossed in yogurt and tahini. Shredded bits mixed with egg and formed into patties to be fried in oil. Smoothed into a paste that is rolled into gnocchi, boiled in water, and covered in a green sauce. Chunks floating in a tomato stew, pungent with sardines and lemon. They are all delicious. Everyone is eager to eat after hours of labor in the kitchen.
After dinner there is music. Two of the Syrian men have volunteered to perform a set of songs. We gather in a broad semicircle around them as one tunes his oud and the other checks the timbre of his tambourine drum. They close their eyes and begin to play their instruments. I recognize a few of the harmonies and sing along. For the blink of an eye, we are transported far from this frozen street corner in Berlin.