I was on my way to a second meeting with Gerardo, a genial Spanish-speaking Tinder date I’d Friend-Zoned but was happy to hang out with as amigos. Gerardo told me what he encountered moving from Spain to Germany... namely a growth in personal space. Despite this German attitude, he'd already tried to hang out with me enough that I had to pump the brakes. After a few-days reprieve he suggested joining him and a friend for dancing, so I finished my drink and jumped on the next tram to Prenzlauer Berg. I’d assumed the Friend verdict was mutual but, as with most of my relationships, even though we spoke the same language (okay, my Spanish could use a little work) I didn't understand what the hell was going on. (Need to catch up on Part 1? Click here!)
Night transportation is the loudest part of Berlin: when streets are dark and quiet, trams and U-Bahns get TURNT UP. My ride through Prenzlauer Berg was a mobile bar scene; young revelers not only ready to party, but starting: drinking beers and swigging shots from bottles (legal in public here), laughing loudly, in outfits they’d undoubtedly still be wearing at 7am. I disembarked at Eberswalderstrasse, where Gerardo offered to meet me.
Gerardo and his friend Ramón were twenty minutes late. This is on-time in Spanish culture, a day late in Germany, and a pet-peeve of mine. Gerardo was full of big hugs and kept dropping the word fiesta so I shook off my dismay, ready to have a good time. He introduced me to Ramón, his childhood friend who I can best describe, physically, as supremely unattractive. Tubby, pocked skin still erupting, a balding pattern probably shrugged off by a doctor as unfixable. But Ramón, like Gerardo, was incredibly friendly. Not the same brand of fireball, more reserved, but I got the impression when Ramón parties things get in-a-good-way-WEIRD.
We made our way to August Fengler, a local dive I hadn’t been to before. The music was loud, the Saturday night buzz of conversation louder. Like most bars in Berlin, it was packed with a whole lotta dudes. I covertly looked around: A WHOLE lotta dudes! Not gonna lie, I kind of wished I was free to make the rounds, but I also had a feeling the guys I was with were going to be fun. We got drinks and Gerardo suggested we head to the back to dance. He proposed this elbows out, booty-shaking like a rooster. I'M IN!
We maneuvered through a narrow hallway and might as well have crossed into another dimension. This back room was entirely different from the front, atmosphere took over: light transitioned to a red, hedonistic, hue; music switched from rock to a party atmosphere and everyone was dancing close; hearing anyone was impossible without an earful of warm breath. But why are you talking, anyway? Shut up and dance, suckas!
A DJ was perched in the back corner and we headed that way. The music he played was entirely different from what I was accustomed to hearing in Berlin: this was the first bar I’d been to where pop music reigned. But, unlike what we hear in the US, this playlist knew no international borders. Songs ranged from German to American and Turkish, and everyone knew all the words to everything. Gerardo, who couldn’t have a conversation with me in English, could mimic all the words to the 1993 hit “Mr. Vain” with precision. And then knew the lyrics to another song in Arabic. (And yes, the DJ played “Mr. Vain” because he understood my soul.) I tried to Shazam everything but didn’t have service, a grand injustice of technology.
Hearing this music felt like looking in a mirror and noticing you’ve forgotten you have sunglasses on; this whole time you've only seen part of the world around you. Commercial entertainment in the US has us looking through American-centric lenses, bombarded with the same songs, the same singers, on repeat. I'd half-forgotten there's anything else out there. Uninspired New York DJs play Biggie’s “Juicy” (a local favorite) so frequently, it's like Groundhog Day.
And forget global influence. Despite Mexico’s proximity, and the percentage of Hispanic-Americans in the US, Latin music consumed by mainstream America comes courtesy of Marc Anthony or Pitbull – both Americans. It’s easy to be startled when other cosmopolitan social scenes -like in Berlin- showcase a more broadened worldview. It’s nice! And this Turkish pop was good. Watching this diverse crowd sing along in a variety of languages was life-affirming, like if the United Nations held drunken dance summits.
I wasn’t the only one feeling the international flavor. Gerardo got on the dance floor and there's one word for what happened next:
Salsa moves! Fist pumping! Gerardo owned the night. He was a firecracker, a natural party animal. And super good! The dance partner you seek out at weddings. Not self-conscious at all, it was fun just watching him. I found myself laughing, his good time contagious.
Ramón on the other hand… God bless him. Nothing held him back either, he got right down to it and danced like no one was watching. Here was this round, slightly balding, bespectacled Spanish man on the dancefloor—
rubbing his nipples.
He pulled that last move with elbows akimbo, his face contorting into a dramatic display of pleasure. His entire presentation had such drama, I wonder if there was a storyline I missed. Ramón had zero self-awareness, zero shits were given. It’s how we should all dance.
I was more... reserved. Until the DJ played “Call Me Maybe” and I lost my shit. I can’t even tell you what moves I pulled or who I brought down with me in the fray, I can only tell you I was a woman possessed by the power of dance. Ramón took one glance and crossed himself.
We were in the thick of it now, sweaty from emotion. Gerardo offered to get another round of drinks and made his way to the bar. Ramón and I took Party Animal’s absence as an excuse for a break, grabbing some real estate on the dancefloor’s perimeter. For the first time that evening Ramón and I were left alone to chat. Without much to say I asked how he liked living in Berlin.
Ramón, as it turned out, liked Berlin but wasn’t a huge fan of the rest of Germany. He explained outside of the capital, he's found Germans prejudiced against Spaniards. On a recent trip to Dresden, Ramón and a friend were at a bar and got ganged up on by six German guys. They hadn’t provoked anything, these guys just heard them speaking Spanish and wanted them gone. The numbers were clearly not in Ramón’s favor, so he and his friend escaped before things got out of hand.
Jesus! This sounded like some middle school meets prison yard stuff. What he described sounded like an open door policy with a sentiment of ‘don’t let the door hit you on the way out.’ I was surprised but also… disappointed.
Inspired by the inclusivity of August Fengler, and Berlin in general, I was naïve to this animosity within The EU. Turns out I was unaware of Ramón and Gerardo’s status as PIIGS -- European citizens from Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain – the weakest of the Union’s economies. There's a perception that some Northern Europeans view their Southern counterparts, because of weaker economies supported by the North, as being “less than.” Economic resentment bleeding over into social biases, sometimes resulting in antagonistic attitudes and interactions.
Are you freaking kidding me?
Hearing this was a blow, especially since I consider Spanish culture to be so sophisticated, unique. For the love of sangria, can't we all just get along? Was this the real reason some Spaniards in Germany, like the girl in Gerardo's gym, don’t speak Spanish publicly? Was the need to assimilate borne of survival, even in this contemporary world that feels so small?
Could be. But I had a sneaking suspicion Gym Girl was just unfriendly. Either way, knowing this has made the recent revival of the German right-wing make more sense to me. Why wouldn't anti-refugee rhetoric surge when this (important: minority) population of Germans can’t even find love for their European brethren? Economy over human dignity, like belittling a homeless person, grosses me out. There's small solace in the knowledge these morons don't enjoy the gifts of paella or Turkish pop.
I want to stress this sentiment is not the majority attitude of Northern Europe, not even of most Germans. It’s an ugly generalization. But that this tension exists at all on a human level, surpassing politics between governments -enough to have an acronym- disturbs me. I wanted to put my arms around the shoulders of refugees and all of Southern Europe and explain, “Girl, how can he love you when he don’t even love himself?”
Gerardo joined the conversation, distributing drinks. He agreed with Ramón's perception about some Germans, but said Berlin is nothing like this – it’s inclusive of everyone. He pointed around the room: guys from Africa he sees out regularly, Turkish, German, everyone. Dancing, getting along. He loves this city, and his reassurance made me glad to be there.
Around 4am or so we left for a nearby club where the interior was cavernous and the music not very good. The DJ, a far cry from August Fengler, actually played the Spice Girls. Who knows, maybe my new favorite Turkish pop song was the Spice Girls of Istanbul, but I doubted it. I’m too old to find Sporty Spice ironic, and half the crowd was too young to even know who she is, so after a few songs I told Gerardo I was ready to go. He seemed to be having fun, and I didn’t mind leaving alone. I encouraged him to stay but he was fine to leave, too. The three of us retrieved our coats and left together.
It was raining outside and we sheltered ourselves to make a plan. There was brief talk of currywurst, pizza... but just as quickly as that conversation began, Ramón made like Casper and poof! He was gone. No goodbye. Seriously, where did he go?! Alone with Gerardo, he stood with me to hail a cab. It was pouring now.
I was wary of Ramón's sudden departure leaving me alone with Gerardo, but there hadn’t been any flirtation. In the club he’d grabbed my hand to dance, twirled me, and we danced together for a few minutes, but it wasn’t particularly close. It just felt like normal dancing. It was a night out with friends! When he got in the taxi with me I put my gut suspicion aside, figured he was being a Spanish caballero and taking me home. It seemed in line with his personality but, as we sat together in the backseat, I felt the need to clarify he was not coming over: I was sooo tired; taking me home was nice but unnecessary. Now here’s where the language barrier, even in the Spanish I’ve spoken for years, fucked me:
I asked Gerardo if he was going home – a casa – and he said yes. What I didn’t realize is I should’ve specified HIS casa. I heard what I thought was compañero, maybe asking if I had a roommate? I said yes, hoping he’d get the drift. No visitors! But I guess in actual Spanish, not the bastardized language happening in my drunk brain, he’d asked if he could accompany me upstairs. So imagine my surprise (really, my inner "ughhhhh") when Gerardo climbed out of the cab with me, expecting to come up.
I quickly realized my mistake. This miscommunication was confusing, usually when I’m drunk my Spanish is really good! The cab pulled away in the rain, the street now empty of cars to easily usher Gerardo home. Ruh-roh, Romeo. I tried to be friendly, but firm. I said no, I’m sorry. I really wanted to go to sleep. He pressed a little trying to convince me, but eventually acquiesced. Gerardo didn’t seem pissed at what, to him, must’ve been a false promise. He was polite saying goodbye, didn't make a fuss. He might seem like a victim here, but I was big-time annoyed. In my defense--
WHAT THE HELL?!?! Where was he coming from?
What is with these guys who operate within the Friend Zone, drop no indication of romantic or sexual interest - zero hints beyond a solitary dance floor twirl - then expect you to be their conquest? Gerardo, you may not be Mr. Vain but you’re acting Mr. Wrong. I admit yes, the first time we met you invited me to leave the country with you. But it all seemed so friend-ly! We had an understanding, YOU BROUGHT RAMÓN!
I got upstairs to my Airbnb, glad to be in proximity of my bed whose only promised activity was sleep, when my phone chimed: Gerardo couldn’t find a cab.
My drunk brain, corrupted by unexpected advances in violation of the Friend Zone, was convinced it was a ploy to make me feel bad so he could come up. You might, reasonably, think, “What about the rain? The empty street? How will he get home?” And to you I say: little about Drunk Me is reasonable. So, I ignored him.
If St. Peter is listening, I confess that the next day I attempted to cover up my callous treatment by responding with an emphatic: “I’m so sorry! I fell asleep and just saw this!” (You've done it, too!!!) I thanked Gerardo, told him I’d had fun, and he answered de nada… and that he’d walked home. More than a mile. In the pouring rain.
In the sobriety of daylight, I had a different reaction to what had transpired the night before:
Firstly, do I really need to be the global ambassador for Uber and MyTaxi? These apps exist, people. Walking was not necessary. Beyond that—
Poor Gerardo! That kind of sucks. But, truthfully, I was still a little salty and disappointed about the prospect of a new friend ruined by ulterior motives. In my opinion there are amigos and there are romantic (or just physical) prospects. Whichever you want to be, be clear about it. Can one eventually transition to the other? Sure. But hanging out twice without chemistry and then trying to hook up doesn’t make us friends with benefits. It just makes me confused and leaves Gerardo drenched.
With said benefits (there's that sexy retirement talk!) off the table, I was convinced I’d never hear from Gerardo again. But I did! He suggested we meet up the following week. I didn’t want to lead him on, so never followed through with plans, but we chatted easily over Whatsapp for weeks: he suggested brunch spots to check out, festivals, even a tapas place in Madrid when I headed to Spain… no strings attached. In a different way than expected, we did become friends. It was with German distance, but Gerardo included me in his community and, true to Spanish-style, we kept up on each other's lives like nosey neighbors.