I do have coffee a lot in Berlin now, since I’m in Germany for several weeks and have chosen the old and new capital as my base camp.

I lived here for eleven years, fifteen years back. That might explain why I can’t see to get a grip on the city. There are places I don’t recognize anymore, renovated, restored, re-done, over-developed. Those are the easiest, since they are merely new. But there are also tons of places that haven’t changed one bit. Not at all. Or, to be more precise, the places haven’t changed, and according to the circular laws of fashion, the outfits of the people who inhabit these places (take, for example Kottbusser Tor, a major hub in the still somewhat cool district of Kreuzberg, which looks as ratty and lost and crowded as ever) have reverted to 80s Berlin chic – black, short jackets, black boots, asymmetrical and bleached or dyed hair. Nothing looks new or clean. It’s enough to creep me out. I have aged, whereas Berlin has remained the same. None of my life has happened. It can’t have. I’m Pamela Ewing’s dream of Bobby.

Germany produces what are arguably the best cars in the world. Germany also makes some of the best kitchen appliances money can buy. You’d expect flying Minis or VW Polos by now, and they might come soon, but free wifi is another matter. Forget free wifi, internet connections are dreadful in general.

In the free world coffee shops are there to provide wifi and barely drinkable java. Not here. And even if you get wifi, it’s bound to break down at regular intervals, about every 15 minutes or so. I’m drinking a lot of Starbucks for that reason, because they are “experimenting” with free wifi. It’s slow. It’s freaking excruciatingly slow. Do you remember dial-up?

Germany also brought you the tear-free onion-hacker. Try to buy one, though. Half the businesses don’t accept credit cards. Instead they use EC-cards, Euro-Cheque cards. Kinda like debit cards but the money is always guaranteed, even in case of over-drafting. But of course that EC business excludes foreigners, American or otherwise. And I can’t shake the feeling Berliners like it that way.

Why? Well, when I arrived I tried to buy a Handy (the, umh, German term for a cell phone). Turns out, pre-paid phones need to be registered to an owner, and in order to become such an owner, you need to have a Personalausweis, the German ID card. I pulled my passport, it’s truly German, but that wouldn’t do. ID card or bust. With pride, the young sales clerk said, that this system ensured that terrorists could not make anonymous, unregistered calls, the way they can in America. He was beaming. I was not. But our faces were both red. My friend bailed me out. I do have a handy now, and if I should use it for stalking people (the clerk was also happy to prevent that), or try terrorizing Germany, my friend will get busted. I tried to pay with credit card.

Germans love soccer so much that they might even get the Wales World Cup Kit and their football shirts and the newspapers’ sports pages are devoted to soccer alone. Well, okay, there’s ice-hockey (yes, they call it that), handball (another sport without an American future), and tennis (but only if a German player defeated a much better foreign player. The devotion to soccer extends to the fitness club I joined here on a very expensively temporary basis, but where they do serve a mean coffee. The urinals sport small goals (yes, down there), with tiny soccer balls dangling from the goal post. You aim, and, if it’s strong enough, “Goaaaal.” If you drink a lot of coffee, as I do these days, you score a lot.

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STEFAN KIESBYE is the author of Next Door Lived A Girl. His second novel was recently published by Tropen/Klett-Cotta Verlag in Germany; the American edition, titled Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone will be released by Viking/Penguin in 2012. Stefan lives in Los Angeles with his wife Sanaz and their dogs Dunkin and Nozomi.

42 responses to “Having Coffee in Berlin – A Short Letter from Germany, Now With a Photo of the Soccer Urinal”

  1. Irene Zion says:


    We were in Scandinavia a while ago and they had the same screwy thing with credit cards. They have their own type card with a chip in it and they put it in the machine differently so it sticks straight up and looks silly and they frequently refused to accept our cards.
    They were also not available to us, not that we would get one when we were just tourists.
    It was frustrating.
    It used to be you could use MasterCard and Visa all over the world. Now, not so much.
    Bring cash and change it to their currency at a loss.
    No one accepts travelers checks anymore, it’s been like that for ages.
    I would think they would want our money.

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      Yeah, you’d think they want it, but you’re right, not only do they not want it, if they do accept the card they put it deep into this bizarre, Star Wars-looking reader, and eye you suspiciously. That EC card mania seems strangely old-fashioned and retro. And changing money is hugely expensive…

      • Irene Zion says:

        We’re going to go to regular Europe soon, France, Belgium, Luxenborg and Holland.
        Do you know if they all have the same exclusionary cards?
        It really does cost a lot to change money.
        Doesn’t seem fair when you aren’t even getting a whistle for it.

  2. Yes, in Europe they love that card. In France, it’s the one with the smart chip, which makes the feature on our American credit cards a dumb black stripe. Security seems to be job one in the EU, and convenience job last.

    Also, soccer/football devotion on this continent makes any pro-ball American fans look fair-weather.

    One day I hope to be Pamela Ewing’s dream of Bobby somewhere.

  3. Matt says:

    They introduced that smart-chip tech in the first generation of U.S. passport cards, and it was hacked within two weeks of hitting the market. So those clerks’ smugness might be founded on nothing but thin air.

    It’s always strange to go back to someplace that used to be familiar and has drastically changed. Like a larger version of going back to your childhood home to discover your old bedroom has been turned into the family den.

    I’m not sure I’d actually be able to urinate into a miniature soccer goal mounted in porcelain. The sheer ridiculousness would make me bladder-shy.

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      yeah, that childhood thing is strong. Everything feels too small. But as to the urinals — that’s the only kind they have at that place, so you have to go for the fun.

  4. Zara Potts says:

    I love that line!!
    “I am Pamela Ewing’s dream of Bobby”


    I would love to visit Berlin, if only to see the Victory Column. The architecture is so beautiful. Sorry about your wireless hassles, it’s much the same in NZ – wifi is hard to come by and sometimes the speed is hair pullingly slow. Arrrgh.:-)

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      In NZ too? What’s happening? That can’t be allowed, can it? It’s wrong!

      Ah, yes, Victoria Principal dreaming. Whatever happened…

  5. Don Mitchell says:

    Hey! I was out running this morning, thinking about my next TNB piece — in which you make an appearance — get home, and here you are.

    I’m with Matt about the urinal. Just let us pee! Jeez.

    Come back soon. Triumphantly, of course.

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      Hmh, maybe, totally un-empirical evidence suggests that American men are urinal-shy? What gives?

      I make an appearance? Uh, oh…I hope I get to read it before the wifi collapses completely 🙂

      • Don Mitchell says:

        All attempts at “cute urinals” must be resisted. It’s that simple.

        • There’s a nightclub in downtown Hefei that has the weirdest urinals I’ve ever seen. They are giant VAGINAS. Seriously. Vaginas. The top of the urinal is a woman the the whole bowl is her grossly distorted, over-sized snatch.

          I’d rather pee at a little football goal.

        • Whoa — hm, yeah, David, seems like someone took male fantasies a bit too far there…

          Don, but why? Is it the attention the pee is getting (the pee-er recognizing that someone thought about what he’s doing there)? The possible humiliation at not being able to pee?

        • Don Mitchell says:

          Good question. For me I guess it’s being silly about a straightforward (as it were) matter. I mean, what’s more utilitarian than going into a public restroom to piss? Just give me one that doesn’t stink too bad and doesn’t splash.

          It’s true that I never complained about the one in your apartment, the pinball machine one. I admit that was pretty cool, although you needed to lot of force on that first squirt to get the ball in motion. But the thing is, it was at your house rather than a coffee shop or bar. That made a big difference to me.

        • Ah, yes, those were the salad days. I drank extra Mountain Dew every day, 2-liter bottle after 2-liter bottle.

          Still, as long as they don’t put little mirrors down there to be cute, I appreciate playfulness even in public places.

  6. dwoz says:

    This gives me an idea.

    A light-sabre urinal. You cross swords with an undulating light sabre that makes zzzoooowwwooonnnggg–ccckklsssokreelkl noises as your stream intersects.

    What male with a similar-aged sibling doesn’t remember “crossing swords” with your brother as you both urinated into the same bowl?

    • Glad I never had a brother 🙂 what a mess that must have been! But I’m all for the light-sabre extravaganza, especially the noises. if you build that, dwoz, you’ll be rich!

  7. Judy Prince says:

    “The urinals sport small goals (yes, down there), with tiny soccer balls dangling from the goal post. You aim, and, if it’s strong enough, “Goaaaal.” If you drink a lot of coffee, as I do these days, you score a lot.”

    Good one, Stefan. But you *are* kidding about the urinals’ decor, right?

    • hey Judy, good to see you! But no, that’s really serious. The goals are mounted on small grids (the ones to keep cigarette butts and gum wads out). i should have added a picture.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Yep, Stefan, a photo of the balls n goalpost urinal would’ve been a dream come true.

        The one very brief (a weekend) time I was in Germany, it was Frankfurt, and I found its super-cleanliness as well as the whiteness of its people scary. A thriving flea market of many Eastern Europeans made the weekend a bit less scary, but within an hour of the market’s closing, the entire area was pristine clean, not a piece of paper or bit of litter to betray any market activity. Scary. As I walked past restaurant after restaurant, the only people I could see/hear who were having fun and being social were patrons at an Ethiopian restaurant.

        • You stumbled over Germany’s secret really fast: Germans don’t have fun. But you would have liked Berlin a lot better. It’s not that kind of scary-clean you describe. It has dark and dirty corners (and people don’t pick up their dog poop). And people are also not very neat or dressy. It’s a city that doesn’t require you to put on a show.

        • Judy Prince says:

          HA! My ignorance was weirdly spot-on, then, Stefan. Prepping to take the trip, I took intro courses in French and German conversation, and found the texts amusingly different. The French ones pivoted on “How do you feel?” (“I’m weary”…..”I have a headache”) whereas the German ones dealt with “What do you do?” (“I bake bread….carve wood statues…..repair cars”). I don’t know if the authors of the texts unintentionally misrepresented their cultures or if there were cultural bases for the differences.

  8. The German textbook authors were probably Lutheran Protestants. That would explain their focus on what one does. Although, yes, “What do you do?” is probably one of the first three questions anyway. The other two being, “Where are you from?” and “Are you married?”

    • Judy Prince says:

      So the Protestant-Catholic schism is that pronounced?

      I grew up (USA) in a (Dutch) Calvinist neighbourhood (though my family was not and seldom went to any church) and as I later came to know the Catholics in town thought they were wildly different with their “freedom” to watch tv, go to movies, drink liquor, curse, dance. Then I found out about their ingrained guilt over other things forbidden in their religion and how that stunted them emotionally. It seemed as if each religion thrived on severely restricting folks and emphasising negatives, even in their liturgy and prayers.

      I do recall, though, in my many visits to others’ churches (in the USA) that a Lutheran German church’s youth group were having a marvelous, free, fun time with the encouragement of the adults in charge. It felt so different from the Calvinist youth groups.

      • I do confess to have been in such a youth group, and you’re right, it was a marvelous time, with meditation, drinking tea, chatting. Religion took a back seat. It did, however, also convince me that I no longer wanted to attend services.

        You weren’t allowed to dance? Or drink? Seems like the Catholics always have more fun in the physical world. They know how to party, but unfortunately they also know guilt trips.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Stefan, good to hear you had such a fine youth group experience.

          Do you know that our very own Erika Rae has written a book on her own youth group experience? It’ll be out fairly soon. I can’t wait to read it! She does wonderful humour pieces for TNB.

          Thought I’d set the record straight about my religious upbringing. My neighbours were all Dutch Calvinist Protestants, and we lived directly across from such a church. I attended some of its youth discussion group sessions, but never attended the services themselves. My own very young kid experiences were with a sort of general Protestant church’s children’s group, but I didn’t go often.

          For several years as an adult I was a Quaker, and have always been impressed by the Society of Friends’ teachings and actions. Currently, Rodent and I occasionally go to Evensong at the local Anglican church where we married.

        • No, I hadn’t heard about that yet, but that’s one to get. Her pieces about her religious upbringing are hilarious.

          Where did you grow up? It sounds strangely idyllic and at the same time restrictive (from your previous post). I imagine, against better judgment, everyone running around in the street, no cars, no paved roads (which is probably the exact opposite of what it was).

          Evensong is such a beautiful name…

        • Judy Prince says:

          Stefan, great that you’ve known Erika Rae’s hilarious writing!

          Re my background, I grew up in a “typical” midsized midwestern city, Grand Rapids, MI, which at that time was known to have more churches per capita than any other in the USA. It and its smaller surrounding cities, Grand Haven, Holland and New Zealand, for example, were very much Dutch- and Protestant-established. My family, very much NOT religious, just happened to come to the city, my father finding good work as a baker, eventually owning his own bakery where I worked from age 6 through 18. Until I went to U of Michigan I thought everyone was either very tall, blonde and Christian Reformed (or Dutch Reformed)—-or “wild and free” Catholics usually of Eastern European descent. 😉 There didn’t seem to be any other kind of folks in Grand Rapids! Seemed like a kind of all-or-nothing duo’ed population. I always felt like an observer who “should” belong to some sort of religious body but couldn’t for the life of me choose either of those.

          One of our TNB writers, Matthew Gavin Frank, teaches at Grand Valley State College, in the Grand Rapids area. He writes wonderfully descriptive, sensual articles about travel and food. I don’t know if he was raised there but he seems quite chuffed about the city.

          And what about your own upbringing, location?

        • Lower Saxony, very protestant, blond and rural. But it’s so funny you were raised in GR and went to school in AA. I went to grad school at the U of M, and lived in AA for nine years. It seems everybody is connected to that town. There’s lots of Michiganders and Geese.

        • Judy Prince says:

          My reply disappeared aetherwards again, Stefan, so I’ll send a remembered remnant of it now, copying it into notepad in case it vanishes.

          Incredible that you went to U of M and lived in Ann Arbor 9 years! So you were both a gownie and a townie. What was your major field of study?

          I note that you and your wife, Sanaz (beautiful name!) live in L.A. My son and family have lived there some 20 years, near Larchmont Village.

          Please tell me a bit about Lower Saxony where you grew up (you know how ignorant I am of Germany). I envy you your knowledge of German and doubtless several other European languages.

          Now to see if this reply can actually be sent! The Comment Robot must be on holiday, as I’m receiving no TNB emails alerting me to comments or replies, not for 3 days now.

        • Hi Judy,

          oh, a small town, very rural, with an ice-cream parlor and not much else 🙂 alcohol and sex were okay, guilt not too bad, but overall it was just very, very small.

          Larchmont? That’s awesome. Used to live a mile away in Koreatown. Next time you visit, let’s meet up!

        • Judy Prince says:

          Your youth place sounds idyllic, Stefan, with the countryside in your pocket!

          Koreatown, eh? We’ve often gone there to restaurants. If there were only one cuisine to choose for the rest of my life, I’d choose Korean.

          I’d love to meet up!

      • I put up the picture!!!

        • Judy Prince says:

          HAHAHAHAHAHA! Somehow the green water (or someone’s green urine) nicely completes the picture, Stefan.

  9. ….. there are tear-free onion hackers? Oh, I’m on a mission now.

    I love this little glimpse of Berlin from your perspective. I hope there will be more!

    A grad student friend of mine from Berlin once told me, “Never go to Germany. You would be murdered in Germany.” When I asked her why she said I’d be murdered because I wasn’t from Germany. “My great-grandfather’s from Germany. Does that help?” I suggested. “That makes it worse!” she said. No telling how many potential tourists to Germany she’d discouraged in her grad school years.

    Also, the description of those urinals make me wish I had a penis.

    • I believe that this is the first time I hear a confession of penis envy. 🙂 Even if it’s just about urinals.

      Your friend, where was she from? She sounds marvelous, just simply marvelous. It seems that if I had studied at your U I would have known her. And I’m not even joking the tiniest bit. What an imagination. While I don’t know about any current tourist killings, I find your friend’s perspective compelling. But I would have to disagree about the grandfather. Depends on his class and social status, but I think he might have been able to save you.

      • I wish I’d stayed in touch with her! Now that I think of it, she was quite morbid about everything, not just about visiting Germany.

        My great-grandfather was a miner in Germany, near Aachen I think. I’m not sure how far from death’s door that would get me ….

        • Wonder where she got her ideas, or if she just wanted to prevent you from going. Have you ever been to Germany? Or did she succeed? I don’t know, if someone told me such things about a place I might visit, it’s screw up my head. It would change how I look at people.

          But yeah, the mining connection would save you. You don’t mess with miners!

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