Our pocket-sized Lonely Planet guide book says Schöneberg is Berlin’s gay village so we take the S-Bahn from Alexanderplatz and head out there, leaving the train at Nollendorfplatz. This puts us in the middle of the itinerary suggested by the guide – we can go left or right. We decide to go right, along Motzstrasse, a quiet, tree-lined street, a few lights further down that might be bars or shops. It’s early evening, Saturday. Our other guide book, in Italian, claims that the area is quiet by day but livens up later when the locals, well, the Italian verb is folleggiare, which means something along the lines of ‘frolic.’ So we’re prepared for more or less anything. The buildings on each side of the street, five-six storeys high, are elegant and functional, early 20th century I’d guess, the kind of place we’d like to live in if we lived here, as we’d like to, more and more each day.
The first signs of potential frolicking are a couple of sex shops, both specialising in leatherwear of various sorts, along with some implements one would need a reasonably sized garage, or dungeon, to store. One of them appears to be empty, we don’t go in; the other has a couple of youngish men outside it, dressed in stuff from the shop, but otherwise unremarkable; they might be filing clerks sharing a pint after a day in the office. It certainly isn’t the Castro, says Giuseppe, and it isn’t Old Compton St either.
A few yards down the road, we stop for a drink outside a place with tables on the pavement. A waiter brings us menus. After living with the slapdash truculence displayed by so many of Rome’s service providers, I love the way waiting on table is taken so seriously here in Berlin, the white shirts and waistcoats and long black aprons, the leather purses, the pert unrelenting attention. This waiter is young, early twenties at the most, attractive, professionally flirtatious. When I ask for a glass of Cynar, he repeats my order in an eyebrows-raised sort of way, as though I’ve done something wickedly inappropriate, then stops at the door to glance back, as if to make sure I know what I want. I wonder if I’ve stumbled on some arcane German code, like Polari, in which Cynar stands for something one does with waiters. Beyond the door is a restaurant and people walk past us to enter, which gives us the chance to see what kind of place it is from its clientele. They’re mostly in pairs, mostly male, not noticeably young, a higher proportion of mixed-race couples than I’ve noted elsewhere in the city. Everyone, it strikes me, is thin, well-dressed, sedate. It’s not, in other words, what we’re looking for this evening. We pay and leave.
At the first crossroads we come to, Giuseppe buys a packet of cigarettes from a shop on the corner and I go in with him to take a look round. Just inside the entrance, beside rows of magazines and fridges filled with milk and water, is a display rack of men’s underpants, designer scanties in luminous hues presumably made to be seen under strobe lights. This is a first for us both: a corner shop with fuck-me-quick underwear. Outside, a moment’s tension as two men’s pets almost collide is swiftly dispelled when the dogs – a poodle (yes, really) and a pit-bull – are tugged apart. The men exchange smiles. Children, their expressions say. A third man, with a limp and a damaged arm, walks past. We’ve noticed him before. He’s been walking up and down the street for as long as we have, but alone.
Our next stop is a smaller, more homely bar with high tables and stools outside. It isn’t really warm enough for al fresco drinking and I’m surprised and relieved when the owner – stockily built, bald, smiling, a boy-next-door feel to him – tells us Giuseppe can smoke inside. This time I order wine. I want something German rather than Italian and he insists the Soave is from Germany. I should have beer, I know, but I don’t feel like beer this evening and maybe the wine really is from Germany. In the end, it’s the idea that counts. There’s a TV screen with sport and the sound turned off, and a radio playing disco hits from the 70s and 80s, Weather Girls, George McCrae; I find it hard to sit still, perched on my high stool, my large glass of possibly German white wine in my hand. A net suspended from the ceiling contains balloons that look as though they’ve been there for some time. Two older men come in and chat to the owner in low affectionate voices. Embracing him, they leave and he calls someone on his cell phone, chats, laughs, blows a kiss. We’re the only customers, but it’s early, still before eight. If he weren’t on the phone he’d be chatting to us. It couldn’t be more different from the first place. Beside the till there’s a collection box with a red ribbon. Come again, says the owner as we leave.
We head back to Nollendorfplatz and the second half of the Lonely Planet itinerary, passing Tom’s Hotel, some other foreign tourists, maps in hand; the mood is warming up. Maassenstrasse is wider than Motzstrasse and appears to contain nothing but eating joints of one kind or another. We walk down one side until the road hits a square, then back along the other side. Not sure what we want to eat, we hope that something will suggest itself to us as we wander past currywurst stalls and take-away doner kebab shops, Indian restaurants, pizzerias, an almost dispiriting variety that leaves us less hungry than before. We pause outside a place that serves Italian food, more than anything to compare the prices with those at home, and someone rushes out to coax us in, which has the usual deterrent effect. In the end we opt for the idea of noodle soup of some kind and choose an Asian place. Asian restaurants here in Berlin appear to be precisely that, encompassing every national cuisine from South Korea to Indochina. Sushi is enormous. Before our noodle soup, we order a couple of appetisers based on my knowledge of Thai food in London but, when they arrive, what I hoped would be two of those little prawn-filled cases with the twisted tops, like miniature sacks of swag from Beano, turn out to be flabby, apparently uncooked spring rolls. We send them back and five minutes later a man comes across to the table, announces he’s the manager and asks us why. They were cold, we say, we expected something hot – we don’t add with flavour, not because we want to soften the blow, but because the man is rather intimidating. He’s in his thirties, shaven-headed, striking rather than sexy, though he’s that as well. If you want hot, he says, I am here. I am a hot Istanbul boy. This is so far from the reaction we expect that we sit there, silenced. I give you something hot, he says, and the ambiguity is merely formal at this point. The couple at the next table, a man and woman, are listening openly to this Cage aux Folles exchange, except that it’s veered from suggestive into something altogether more forward, as my mother might have said. We’re fine, thank you, I say primly, while Giuseppe glowers into the room. Istanbul boy goes away and the woman leans over. That’s their, how do you say, speciality, she tells us. I repeat, we expected something hot. A few minutes later, we know where they’re from and their (non-)marital status. He’s a marathon runner and is planning to compete in Rome. It has seven hills, I say, so be prepared. Then Istanbul boy comes back and sits on the padded bench between the woman and Giuseppe, resting his head for a moment on Giuseppe’s reluctant shoulder while our first waiter, also Turkish, it turns out later, brings us two steaming hot spring rolls. Which are very good indeed. As we’re leaving, Istanbul boy nips across and kisses us on both cheeks. Very Turkish, he says, although affectionate kisses from restaurant managers don’t chime with my experience of Turkey. Very Italian, I say, with my usual need to accommodate. Giuseppe murmurs very something, but I don’t catch the word, and don’t ask. I should say that the noodle soup was good, but a little less good than the one we had two nights before, in a café on Alexanderplatz, served in less elegant bowls and eaten from a table encased in yellow Formica.