It was a sunny Wednesday and I'd spent the afternoon biking through Berlin's largest park, the Tiergarten, before my evening plans to meet Hugo. Hugo and I matched a day or two earlier on Happn, an app that shows who you’ve literally crossed paths with. Living in the same neighborhood made it easy enough to meet up. Hugo is 33, German, and has only lived in Berlin about a year. He looked cute and pleasant in his photos and planning with him had been easy. He quickly suggested an evening to meet, I suggested the bar, and that was that. No winky faces of flirtation, or expectation, just drinks with someone new.
Hugo was waiting for me on one of the folding wood benches outside Sorsi e Morsi, the Italian wine bar I’d picked deep in Prenzlauer Berg. Prenzlauer Berg is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Berlin. It’s former East and, after the Wall fell, the once-dilapidated altbaus (literally ‘old buildings’) were refurbished instead of demolished. They’re full of history, have new paint jobs and washing machines, and the entrances are tagged with graffiti. In Prenzlberg it’s equally acceptable to enjoy a nice brunch or drink cheap bottles of beer in the park while kids play around you. It’s the yuppie-in-denial dream realized.
Hugo hugged me hello and I noticed he was better looking in person. He had a friendly face with an attitude to match. He felt safe and unsurprising which, in my 30s, can be nice. He was also German.
Imagine you’re in a very stable family, with parents who are well-off and educated. The kids are disciplined, get good grades, and never run out of clean socks. Now imagine the punk cousin who only shows up once a year on Christmas. She has cooler clothes than you, an edgy haircut and thoughts on Proust while you’re consumed with X-Box. You can’t believe you share the same gene pool and the feeling is mutual. Then one day you realize you both have deep love for the same grandpa, who adores you equally despite your differences. So even if you don’t understand each other, there’s acceptance and maybe even familial love. Berlin is this cousin; she’s always late, Germany is wondering how the hell they could be part of the same family, but in the end a shared history makes them one and the same.
Americans tend to stereotype how they imagine a 'German' to look: sturdy, efficient and neat, probably Aryan. Most guys in Berlin however, whether from other countries or true Berliners, don’t fall into this suit. They're styled but casual, with haircuts that absolutely would not fly in other areas of the country. They're hipsters with brooding looks and hand-rolled cigarettes. But here was Hugo: clean cut, button-down shirt and well-fitting washed jeans, reliable haircut. Berlin is a sneakers town and he was wearing proper shoes. A total German. It was different, but still nice. He pulled the door open and we stepped inside.
I will shout it from the altbau rooftops, Sorsi e Morsi is one of my favorite bars ever. It’s the kind of place you’d only discover by walking by, as luckily I did one evening returning home to my airbnb. It’s run by an exuberant Italian guy, Johnnie, who immediately makes you a guest in his home. If it’s packed, which it typically is, he’ll spot your entrance and find you a seat. When he gets to know you, he’ll kiss and hug you hello. He plows you with wine and lines your stomach with a free plate of antipasto. When you leave, lemoncello shots. The air is woven with thick threads of cigarette smoke, they play sing-along American music and show Bayern games. It’s the Italian Cheers of my Berlin dreams. Every time I’m there I’m either solo or bring someone different because I like to spread the Sorsi e Morsi love. Johnnie probably thinks I’m a whore from all of the randos I bring, but acts happy when I arrive nonetheless.
Hugo and I made our way in and found two stools along the wall. Businesses in Berlin fall into three categories: they either don't allow smoking, allow it but it's not prevalent, or they run the risk of giving you emphysema. I realized I had brought this clean guy to a smokers’ bar, but Hugo didn’t seem to mind. Maximilian, who also works there, placed two glasses of water and plates of antipasto in front of us. Maximilian, in my mind, is an Italian love machine. Something about him is suave and intense, when he catches your eye he holds it. He hugged me hello and took notice of Hugo, but only for a moment. We ordered a couple of glasses of wine.
Hugo was a great conversationalist, excitable to the point of interrupting. He moved to Berlin for a job with Volkswagen, commuting to their factory outside the city. I’d heard of this plant before, you can take a tour to see the cars being built and I think it sounds awesome. I learned that although Hugo’s a white-collar analytics guy, his first three weeks with VW were spent training on the assembly line. It’s company culture that Suits start in the factory so the numbers they crunch have meaning – they can put faces to jobs, appreciate the labor that goes into every aspect of creating product. I love this concept. Imagine if the guys navigating military drones first had dinner with the families they were dropping bombs on. Okay, a little different, but as someone who likes to put myself in someone else’s shoes, this was very appealing. I also would’ve paid money to see Hugo in his nice shoes on an assembly line, I have a feeling he was like Lucy at the chocolate factory.
Hugo was well-traveled and told me how he’d studied abroad at UCLA. Sure I could tell you how we talked about LA stuff, but let’s put that aside because it was while talking about America that Hugo dropped info that changed my life forever:
He loves David Hasselhoff.
WHAAAAAT!!!! I almost spat out my wine. Of course the notion of Germans loving David Hasselhoff is, to Americans, a clichéd stereotype that is at once confusing and hilarious. But I had gone months in Berlin without hearing his name, not one reference, and put it out of my mind as an outdated joke. As it turns out, my instinct to give Germans the benefit of the doubt had been naïve. Here was Hugo, who not only brought up The Hoff, but gleefully volunteered that if there was one person he could have a beer with, it would be David Hasselhoff. He said he looks like “a fun guy.”
Seriously. The pool includes literally every other human being ever to walk the earth, and he picks the faux lifeguard with a sandy blowout and tight acid wash jeans.
The more Hugo spoke about it, the more it sounded like loving Hasselhoff in Germany was as obvious as eating currywurst. Apparently there were whole populations of Hoff-loving Germans I just had yet to meet. The love is so widespread, The Hoff was the celebrity roommate on Germany’s version of Big Brother. Apparently the cast freaked out when they met him but the excitement quickly faded: Hasselhoff and his admiring roommates didn’t share a common language, they couldn’t talk to each other. In that moment, this sounded like the most tragic thing I’d ever heard. The letdown these German reality stars must’ve endured; the fact that Hasselhoff didn’t even pony up for Rosetta Stone.
Okay, so why the love? This insanity could not all be lingering Baywatch fervor. Sure he looked good running across Santa Monica with that red life-saving thing, but c’mon! As it turns out, despite the language barrier, Hasselhoff has a long and intimate relationship with Germany, particularly Berlin. Hugo explained:
In 1989 David Hasselhoff had a song called “Looking for Freedom.” It was #1 in West Germany because, yes, David Hasselhoff was a big singer there. Listen to it here, it’s actually very catchy in a way you soon hate yourself for.
American pop was a big no-no in repressive East Germany, but there were sneaky ways to listen to contraband music. “Looking for Freedom” became a kind of underground anthem for young people who resisted the GDR (East German government). When the Wall fell and took the GDR with it, East and West Germans danced together in the streets blasting and belting Hasselhoff’s hit – if you want to see people having the time of their lives, watch the news footage. These Germans were looking for freedom and found it. Weeks afterwards, on New Years Eve, Hasselhoff performed the song live in Berlin. The Wall had crumbled but Herr Hasselhoff cemented himself into the hearts of Berliners forever. And he did it while wearing a jacket covered in Christmas lights and a scarf that looks like a keyboard.
Even today, Hasselhoff keeps himself relevant in politics surrounding the Wall. Hugo told me how a couple of years ago developers were aiming to build waterfront condos along the Spree in Friedrichshain. The construction would involve demolishing a portion of the East Side Gallery, an intact strip of the Wall that’s been painted with murals of peace by artists from all over the world; when you see people posing in front of brightly painted sections of the Wall, it’s usually East Side Gallery. Needless to say demolishing the city’s testament to world peace, to remembering the cruelties of division and war, in favor of overpriced highrises didn’t sit well with a lot of Berliners. A protest was staged and, as Hugo excitedly relayed—
DAVID HASSELHOF MADE A SURPRISE APPEARANCE. I’m writing in all caps because seriously this is how Hugo was losing his shit just telling me about this protest he didn’t even go to but which happened in proximity of where he lives.
Of course these are just the historical facts. Logic only explains the inception of why we love whom we do; there’s no accounting for the mystique and charismatic swagger The Hoff undoubtedly supplies his fans in spades. For these Germans, Hasselhoff is the embodiment of the American hero: freedom, protest, tanned skin and pecs for days. He’s Rosie the Riveter in a motorcycle jacket reminding Berlin that yes they did and they freaking love him for it. Also at one point he had a talking car, which anyone would admit is cool.
A few glasses in, Hugo had exhausted himself with Hasselhoff talk and we closed the bill. On our way out, Johnnie pulled me behind the bar:
“You’re leaving? When are you coming back? Tomorrow!” He happily poured lemoncello shots for Hugo and me and released us into the night. Hugo and I walked a few blocks together, then parted ways. Though it was an entertaining evening, we didn’t make plans to see each other again. He was leaving the country for the weekend, I wouldn't be in Berlin forever, and -- does it really matter? I know this sounds contradictory to meeting someone nice, but it felt good to have a fun time with someone and not feel compelled to see them again. The world is full of good people and sometimes it's enough to just cross paths.
Walking home I had a huge, stupid smile on my face. Yes, I was wine drunk. But there’s an amazing feeling when you realize you can go anywhere in the world and find community. That you can momentarily leave everyone and everything in your life without losing yourself. I was smiling because I could pop into Sorsi e Morsi any night of the week for good wine and people happy to see me and now I could belt the lyrics of “Looking for Freedom” unironically because, in Berlin, I’d found it.