April 19, 2019
I woke up on my birthday hungover. In Germany, you celebrate at midnight, as the clock ticks onto the big day, so being wrecked on your birthday is basically part of living here. They also insist that the person whose birthday it is should buy everyone else drinks, but I only invited non-Germans and Germans who hang out with non-Germans, so I hadn’t paid for anything. Until I woke up.
“Help,” I said to my boyfriend, as we groaned our eyes into waking up. “It hurts!” In German, being hungover is also called “having a cat,” as if a cute katze would ever put a ghostly curse on you to make feel sick all day. We rolled out of bed into the global-warming April sunshine and down to the brunch place we always go to when we can’t think about where else to go, and I ate poached eggs, smoked salmon and hollandaise on toast, like a luxe birthday bitch. My boyfriend ate some kind of bourgeois health food, like granola, and I openly mocked him. After the food, or maybe the mockery, I felt better.
After we got home, my boyfriend watched me trying to fix my bike. I got as far as putting the wheel back on, insisting I was completely fine before I burst into tears and asked him to do it instead. Eventually we got onto our bikes and began to cycle out of Berlin, even though I had a lingering paranoia that my bicycle, which is still new, was Not Quite Right.
We zoomed through the sunshine past places I’d never seen before, out of the range of third wave coffee and avocado on toast. It was Good Friday, so every single shop was closed. Germany has very strict rules about no capitalism on holy days. Allotments. Ice cream cafes. Mechanics. It was easy to let go of my hangover cat with the sun beating down, breeze at my back and a bottle of fanta in my bag. It all felt golden, in a consequence-free kind of way. My phone was buzzing with nice birthday messages and friends, but I knew I would run out of battery if I started replying.
We spotted a sign for a farm shop that was serving white asparagus, currently in season. White asparagus always creates a frenzy across the country for a few months. After six years of living here, the appearance of the creamy bundles in the supermarket aisles is now indelibly linked with the end of winter. Patrick and I headed off on a detour to get our spargelzeit fix, finding ourselves surrounded by Germans with small dogs and large cars parked nearby. The straight couple sharing our table ordered two beers, and when the waitress brought them over, she made a joke, pretending that she thought the small one was for the man. The three of them laugh, loudly. Patrick and I looked at each other, like: what the fuck.
Spargel is served in whole spears, boiled, topped with hollandaise or melted butter, and potatoes. If you’re really German, you’ll probably get a Schnitzel to go on top, but I’m vegetarian, so we stick to the classics. We tried to order strawberries and cream, but they’re only served when it’s strawberry season, apparently.
“Shall we go the slightly longer way round that goes through this green bit on the map?” I asked Patrick. “Sure,” he said. Our legs whirred around, as we biked along the low houses and milky suburban placidity. There are signs for “Easter fetes” everywhere. Rather than bike lanes, everyone just cycles on the pavement, which is marked for bikes and pedestrians. A sharp contrast to Berlin, where people will shake their fists at you for not being on the road.
We turned a bend onto a road of bigger houses, with more extravagant entrances, including one that has…lifesize statues of soldiers and hooded orc/humanoid creatures, ready to attack, leaning out of the balcony. We wheeled our bikes around to take a closer look, faces pressed against the gate. The driveway was full of cars. “Maybe they’re having a fan meetup?” I said.
A few roads later we spotted, inexplicably, a Confederate flag hanging in a front garden. “Where the fuck are we?” Patrick shouted back to me from his bike, pedalling a little faster.
It’s a good question, because actually, we were not really sure. Google Maps was convinced we should go down this dusty turning, but it turns out to be private property. So instead, we took a chance on an inauspicious path into the woods, which turns out to be made of badly set paving stones, that mean we’re juddering up and down for the next half an hour. “Nearly there,” I said, before realising that the path Google had suggested this time was across a stream, with no bridge.
Another three kilometers into the bike path from hell, and Patrick says he needs to stop. “I think I’m getting blisters on my butt,” he tells me. It would be funny, except he’s actually in a lot of pain. “I shouldn’t have cycled this far on a racing saddle,” he winced.
Finally, painfully, we made it to our destination: an outrageously gaudy spa that we found out was hosting a “full moon romance night” for the evening. “It’ll be funny!” we had said, the day before.
It turned out we were truly at the Vegas of German spas. Over-40s lounged around the flower-shaped pool, next to an extravagant decorative easter-egg-and-bunny-covered plinth. The balconied walls were frescoed to look like Italy and covered in fake flowers. There was a bar in the pool. Also, like all German spas, it’s “textile-free” a.k.a. naked, which is normally chill but in this context turns out to be A Lot.
“Patrick, are those people…having sex?” I asked, as we swam past the tastefully lit cave-pools. He was outraged at the idea. “How could anyone? In a public pool!” But there were three couples in the cave, all pressed together like bananas into their peel. I didn’t know what else they could be doing.
Meanwhile, in the outdoor saline hot tub, every single couple was acting as if they were in the bath with only one other person. A couple floated foot-to-foot in a state of erotic bliss, while another man stood behind his outstretched, floating partner and led her by both boobs around the tub. Patrick and I, somehow, manage to hold in all our giggles.
By the time we left, it was late, and we are in no condition to bike all the way home, so we decided to get on at the closest train station. “Where are your lights?” a policewoman shouted out of her car window at us. We got off and started walking, until their car was out of sight, when we cycled, feeling cheeky and defiant, through the deserted streets all the way to the suburban rail station.