About: Berlin, December 2005
Written: in Gaithersburg, MD
The beginning of the Christmas evening was picture-book perfect, could have printed it on a postcard. We had gathered in an old apartment in East Berlin, a place belonging to one of my brother’s friends. These old buildings are wonderful – spacious rooms, tall ceilings, delightfully creaky floors. Everyone was prim and polite, nice shirts for the parents.
The company had the following composition. Our mother was there, and the host’s mother. They were the adults. Everyone else was my brother’s age, thereabouts, or younger. Also, most of them were artists and musicians of various stripes, most certainly more comfortable sucking cigarettes and beer at a bar. However, Christmas is a family holiday, so here we were – tables covered with an army of plates and polite conversations about jobs and vacation plans.
The dinner table, however, was just the façade. The kitchen housed a growing array of empty vodka bottles, even though only wine was served at the dinner. The younger people were serving dinner, and almost every trip to the kitchen was accompanied by a round of shots. As the evening wore on, the matrons grew content and sleepy. The youngsters grew their grins.
Eventually the dinner wrapped up, and we were dismissed like so many schoolchildren. The adults went to bed, and we practically ran out into the frosty air. The plan was simple – hit an immigrant bar with a live band and continue drinking on the way. Intoxication was our propellant.
Berlin is dotted with tiny stores that seem to be open at all odd hours. They are stocked with the goods you need at the odd hours – cheap liquor, cigarettes, and junk food. The store owner spoke neither Russian nor English, and I only speak a few broken words of German, yet we somehow got conversational. Seasonal greetings. My brother lives in Berlin and I love him. A bottle of vodka and a pack of smokes. It’s a cross-cultural kind of sentiment that anyone can relate to.
When booze enters the brain, it gets behind the emotional steering wheel and steps on the gas. Whichever way you were pointing before, that’s where you’re going. Alcohol does not decide on euphoria or loathing. It amplifies whatever you’ve got in you. Alcohol is not a steady driver, and if your mood swings, it swings all the way. Drinking a bottle of vodka is like climbing into a cannon and lighting a fuse. You really have no idea where you’ll end up. You could find yourself surveying a glorious and proud morning, or sniveling in tears on the floor of a stranger’s kitchen. The best protection is surrounding yourself with a group of happy people. Of course, artists are exactly the kind of people who are happy with a little swerving in their heads. Here, we hit paydirt.
There is no ban on open containers in Berlin. I chugged from my bottle an then waived it at a police cruiser. The officer did not care. He looked bored, and probably wrote me off as another dumb tourist.
The bar was housed underneath a raised highway. It was crammed with people speaking a slew of languages with a heavy Russian accent. The place seemed more like a subverted house or office than a club. One room was the bar. Another room kept a band playing covers of song from Russian movies – upbeat rock-n-roll and pop. A couple more rooms filled with couches, abandoned coats, and people whose minds have wandered off and gotten lost in the soft shadows.
As soon as we had walked in, my brother disappeared. One of his friends took me under his wing, taking responsibility for the little brother. He pulled me toward the bar for a drink. You stick to whatever is working, so it was vodka shots. There was a two-for-one special, and that was alright with us. The shot glasses were doubles. So four shots each to get us started.
Electric alcohol filled our veins. Food, company, music, brisk winter air – all these staved off the most disorienting stages of intoxication. Time, as is its habits in the protracted infinite midnight hours of revelry and drink, curled up on the soft edges of things. Alcohol compresses and intensifies every experience. Lag may accumulate in your mind, perceptions becoming less precise, yet the sense of connected grows. Eventually, however, everything tips over into a vortex.
The vortex bars perception of time and space. Vertigo may occur with disastrous consequences. Yet even in the vortex it is possible to hold. The swirling reality is a fantastic adventure if you can keep your feet. It is like falling down an infinite tunnel. If you can keep clear of the walls, it is an exhilarating trip and the walls rushing by present a fascinating, if senseless picture. Though should you catch a wall, or encounter a particularly mean-spirited gust of wind, the flight turns into a terrifying and painful tumble.
The vortex found me when I took four consecutive shots of whiskey. I set down the shotglass and felt its instant pull. There was no resisting it. The world began to dissolve, and time became disordered. My memory became a chaotic mesh of images and perceptions steeped in a soup of music and smoke. Everything is anchored at a singular point – my forehead touching the cool tiled wall above a urinal. The rest of the club is a spectacular, spinning flourish.
Miraculously, the vortex deposited everyone gently in street. The feeling of that moment can be described thus – coats carelessly flung open. Everyone carried the heat of the club and the booze. As the large group debated what to do about breakfast, smaller groups separated and went off. A guy from our group left with a girl who was decided not his girlfriend. The vortex must have tripped him up after all. His actual girlfriend was still with us but too drunk to notice.
This late in the night, there is a point where everyone needs to sit down for a bit, try to slow down and recapture their spinning reality. It’s not just a matter of making the walls stop their dance – the thoughts and emotions are doing the same thing. Yet as everyone who’s been through a trip like this know, there is an opportunity for a moment of spellbinding clarity here.
Soon we settled around someone’s apartment. A dozen people or so arranged themselves into the crooks and nannies of arm chairs and sofas. Conversations turned to arguing about music and movies. Memories of the past few hours formed a tinkling mess, like a heap of Christmas lights, and everyone sunk into the camaraderie afterglow that descends at the far end of an adventure, when you’ve reached the safe harbor.
I was in the kitchen with some bearded hippie. We were making pelmeni (Russian dumplings that are boiled). I was tending the pot while he was wrestling with another frozen package and eyeing me with suspicion – I lived in the States and therefore would not be qualified for this job. I returned his gaze and said my mother is from Siberia and I’ve been making these as long as I remember. He nodded sagely, and all was copacetic again.
Drunks don’t realize they are hungry until they are presented with food, at which point they become positively ravenous. Benders come with deep stomach pits. They devoured everything the hippie and I made. We probably stopped eating when we stopped cooking.
Somewhere in the back of the mind there is an awareness that you must get home. Though you may be in the cozy center of the universe, your own bed has a sweet magnetic raw on you. My brother and I walked out into the light grey morning and headed home.
We were the only ones in the street car, gently rocking along a similarly empty street. There was no more talking. It is the quietest stretch of time of the whole night. We simply shared the silence, the calm scenery quietly drifting by, the soft illumination of a clouded sky. The city was snug under the low cloud covers. My brother and I watched it dream. And that was all there was left. To be carried home by the momentum of the night.