Tinder-swiping in Berlin is like being a kid in a candyshop… a candyshop that has the good candy from all different countries. There are Kinder Eggs and Swedish Fish and Hot Tamales into Japanese bondage! They’re all international, styled and gorgeous. It’s swipe-right city.
My first time in Berlin was a quick four-day trip, my first solo adventure. I wanted to meet someone cool to talk to, who could hopefully help me decipher a German menu. Sebastian and I matched pretty quickly. He’s in his mid-30s and has lived in the city long enough to consider himself a Berliner. It didn’t hurt that he was good-looking and wore tight t-shirts in a Danny Zuko way. We started with the getting-to-know-you texts and he seemed normal, but sometimes these Tinder chats go on forever. Emboldened by a short stay, I cut our text conversation short and to the chase, telling him I was on my way out to grab dinner and he could join me if he liked. He suggested Dolores, a popular burrito place not far from my airbnb. We’d meet in 20.
Sebastian was my introduction to a curiosity about guys in Berlin: they’re obsessed with getting Mexican. I think it’s newish and maybe exciting and exotic? Whatever the reason, I immediately regretted the choice. I lived in Los Angeles where we are assholes about Mexican food. Living in LA you become very entitled about the quality of seasoning on your al pastor and no one makes tortillas like the abuela at your local roach coach. Choosing pico over salsa verde is voluntarily placing yourself in a lower culinary caste. Half a world away from the Mexican border, a burrito in Germany felt like experimenting with Chinese food in Iowa: you are taking a freaking risk. [Sidenote: I once had Mexican food in Berlin that, somehow, tasted like actual Chinese food.] But that night I decided to embrace the idea of meeting someone new so set out for Dolores.
Thank god it was closed. Sebastian was waiting for me outside the shuttered shop, looking exactly like his photos. He was about six-foot with a slim but sturdy build, sandy, closely-cropped hair and a leather jacket over one of those tight tees. He had the sharp, dark features of someone who might rob you, but they fit together nicely – like someone who might rob you in a fantasy. His nose hooked like a Grecian statue or a guy who’s been punched in the face a lot, both of which I find appealing. I didn’t know it yet, but he was East Berlin.
He hugged me hello and casually sized me up like a piece of meat. Or maybe a Berlin burrito? He was hungry for something and I immediately recognized what kind of Tinder date he was on. I also knew, despite the good looks, I wasn’t attracted: Sebastian is one of those guys you see photos of and project a familiarity, but the moment he’s in proximity you realize you inhabit separate universes and the world all of a sudden feels very foreign. Maybe it was because he looked like he might take my wallet. But he was friendly and suggested checking out another place nearby so we started walking.
It began to rain and I pulled my hood up over my head as we darted quickly between overhangs, making our way through Mitte. We exchanged the type of getting-to-know-you stuff that is immediately forgettable but I tried to sound excited and personable. He had flat energy I was compensating for, probably by talking too much.
We entered a trendy restaurant called Transit, a crowded red-hued Asian place filled with attractive couples and fashionable groups. The windows were steamy from the rain, the interior sleek. This would be number one of a few first dates I’ve had here, it’s sexy-vibe and shared plates make it a go-to date spot. We were seated at a tight table for two towards the back of the restaurant.
Sebastian is from Saxony, former East Germany, and has lived in Berlin for over a decade. He works in Kreuzberg, where he owns a cluster of bars and clubs. Kreuzberg is former West Berlin, but even when the Wall was up it separated itself with an alternative scene. ‘Alternative’ in Berlin isn’t like listening to unreleased Kurt Cobain, it’s like squatting in a gutter and burning shit while yelling about the government. Gentrification has now fallen in with its Turkish residents, but the area maintains a certain amount of edginess; I was told some developers have stopped trying because longtime residents throw bricks through newly-installed double-pane windows before construction’s over. A building may inexplicably burn to the ground, don’t ask questions. One of Sebastian’s bars had.
I mentioned I was into learning about the divisions between East and West Berlin, so Sebastian suggested I check out GDR (former East German government) architecture in areas like Friedrichshain. Wide boulevards are lined with buildings whose Soviet roots are apparent in their facades: efficient slabs of cement erected with no passion but for the egalitarian housing it would provide East German workers. He told me East Berlin apartments are now considered hip, transplants from all over the world want to live there for the trendy location and large, open rooms. He lives in one of these apartments. His face brightened talking about it, like a dockworker describing his retirement. The popularity of this real estate, he said, was “the Socialist dream come true.”
Okay, so that gave me pause.
I have a hard time seeing hipster gentrification as the wet dream of Lenin and Marx. I’m no philosophy expert, but flipping working class housing with remodeled Ikea kitchens in order to create demand and inflated prices strikes me as straight Capitalism; the reason everyone in Berlin turns conversation to rising rents and fear of their city becoming the next London.
Because he displayed an obvious pride, I kept my mouth shut. In fact, the more we talked the more I found myself pulling back and speaking very slowly. Not because he was stupid, or couldn’t understand my English, but I felt like my energy could steamroll him. His style of communication was basic and steady, rooted in his reality; I can be excitable and persistent, like a Care Bear with a New York Times subscription. It’s good to meet someone you can balance your energy with, but I think each of us tipped the scales a little too heavily.
Lucky for me Sebastian was about to reveal something personal I couldn’t conceal my perverse excitement for – Click to Read More in Part Two!