German Cafes Do Coffee and Cake Right

I was watching Tagesschau (German news) the other night and saw a report about an exhibition in Dusseldorf on (West?) German café culture and it reminded me of yet another corner of Germany I found magical – the café.

The first time I encountered one was when I was an exchange student and we had just completed one of my guest family’s weekly shopping excursions to Mönchengladbach. We had just gathered everything we needed from the shops in the Fußgängerzone (pedestrian street) when my guestmother announced that we’d be making one final stop.

“Can’t we just go home?” I thought. I wanted to go back to reading Asterix and Obelix in my room rather than sweat through more small talk in my emerging German.

Inside, the café was as busy and crowded as the shopping street outside. A glass counter full of cakes and pastries ran the length of its lower level and was backed by middle-aged women in what looked like maid’s outfits. They seemed harried. But what cakes!

“Pick out any piece and I’ll find a seat,” my guestmother said. I started to sweat. I’d been in-country about two months, my German wasn’t even at immigrant cab driver level and I had no idea how a German café worked.

I had no idea how to pick out a piece of cake.

My guestmother sensed my confusion and said as she walked away, “Tell the woman what piece you want and bring me the piece of paper.”

A piece of paper. Right. I thought I was supposed to get cake.

One of the maids behind the counter asked me what I wanted and I pointed at a piece. She then handed me a slip of paper about the size of a price tag. It was yellow with a printed number in black. And she had scribbled something in red on hers. Maybe a number. Maybe code. Maybe a plea for help.

The piece I ordered probably had chocolate pieces on chocolate icing spread on top of chocolate cake with fluffy chocolate filling. I know my teen-age self. And knowing my guestmother, she probably had something with fruit.

Guestmothers always get something with fruit.

After ordering, I found my guestmother upstairs perched at a two-top against a window. We could watch the chaos outside while suffering from the chaos inside. There were people everywhere, inside and out.

German Cafes

I wondered how my cake would make it from downstairs to upstairs. How it would make it through all those people. I figured it probably wouldn’t but I masked my disappointment and smiled in agreement when my guestmother offered to order me a hot chocolate.

At least I’d get some chocolate.

Kännchen oder Tasse (pot or cup)?” my guestmother wanted to know. At the time, I had no idea what she was asking so I just stared back. She waved me off.

Our waitress arrived, also wearing a maid outfit, and my guestmother ordered our drinks and handed her our pieces of paper. I had no idea what was going on but I was confident I wouldn’t be eating cake.

Would our new maid try to describe us to the maid downstairs to get our cake order? How would that work? What if their descriptions didn’t match up and we ended up with cookies or, worse, no cake?

I had no time to make small talk with my guestmother, I was busy mourning the loss of my cake.

Then, a few minutes later, our waitress reappeared with our drinks. Our drinks! I didn’t just get a hot chocolate. I got a kännchen – my own little pot of hot chocolate! What? Magic!

Also, the waitress had our cakes. The right cakes.

I know, right? More magic!

Kaffee und Kuchen

The system made no sense to me so my guestmother explained it to me – the first woman-in-a-maid’s-outfit behind the counter put a piece of paper identical to my piece of paper on a plate with my cake order and our waitress just matched up the pieces of paper.

It still seemed miraculous to me, as if my cake had floated out of the display case, through all the people and up the stairs to me. In Mönchengladbach.

“It still seems magical to me,” my wife said last night when I recounted this story. We used to go to Café Richter in Charlottenburg in Berlin because they sometimes had the tiny pieces of paper. The Tagesspiegel last summer did a story on what it dubbed Schnipsel-cafés (scrap of paper cafés) in Berlin, after the pieces of paper used to record the cake orders.

The magic of that Schnipsel-café in Mönchengladbach stayed with me for over a decade until I returned to Germany as a reporter in Frankfurt. I made my co-workers go with me to Café Liebfrauenberg because I knew they’d do the German trick with the kuchen (cake) and paper there.

My co-workers weren’t impressed by the ordering system but they loved the cakes. And they thought the Kännchen were pretty impressive too.

 

The time I got serenaded on Berlin’s Ringbahn.

The Ringbahn (ring subway) in Berlin used to be the hinterlands. Few people ever ventured past Mauerpark, Tempelhof airport (when it was still an airport) or the Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church), let alone ride the Ringbahn.

I always saw it as an adventure. As soon as the doors closed at Schönhauser Allee or Prenzlauer Allee, a time warp opened and I was somewhere near Bucharest. At every stop I expected people to get on with live chickens or maybe a goat. There were always colorful people on the Ringbahn, left over from what Berlin was and unaware of what it was becoming.

I liked it. It was that feeling right at the peak of the biggest hill on a rollercoaster, when you know it’s all going to accelerate and it might just come off the rails and kill you.

Ringbahn Berlin

Driving to a job interview last week reminded me of the Ringbahn. I had had to ride the looping Berlin subway the last time I interviewed for a job – over a decade ago. The job interview back then was with a newswire in Frankfurt and I had to wear a suit. Black. German designer. I’ve had it forever.

That interview went well but I turned them down. I’m pretty sure they’re still mad at me. Yes, all of a newswire is mad at me 10 years later.

The boss on the Ringbahn

After interviewing with the newswire, I had an argument with the voice in my head as I walked to the gate at the Frankfurt airport before flying home. If you’ve ever flown through Frankfurt, you know there are two things you do at that airport: Walk a long way to your gate and walk a long way to your gate.

Me: “Take your suit off before you fly back to Berlin.”

Me: “What? Why?”

Me: “It’s Berlin. Nobody wears suits in Berlin. You’ll look like a noob. Also: Where is our gate?”

Me: “Plenty of people wear suits in Berlin and this is me. I’ve lived in Berlin forever. I am allowed to wear a suit in Berlin if I want to. Plus, if no one wears suits in Berlin, then wearing a suit in Berlin is punk.”

Me: “Noob.”

I still wasn’t at my gate.

Then I got off the plane and onto a bus and then onto the Ringbahn. To get home I’d have to take a tram as well, because Tegel is the airport Berliners love to call central – so central it requires a bus, a subway and a tram to get there. Or a €30 taxi fare.

“Hey,” the voice in my head said as soon as I took a seat, “You should have taken the suit off.”

I finally agreed with the voice – the Ringbahn seemed allergic to suits. It was (is?) a working man’s train. About then two semi-threatening punks came tumbling down the aisle, loudly talking about where to sit.

Lass uns hier sitzen (Let’s sit here),” the man said, “Neben Chef (Next to the boss).” I was trying to avoid his gaze as he sat in the chair across the aisle. His female companion, who had apparently just partaken in a substance that made her very absent, sat two rows back.

He smiled at me – the boss – and I told myself that I had told myself to take off the suit. Since I’m a paranoic when it comes to personal safety, I was I hoping for a gentle mugging. Something short of murder.

“Na, chef?” he said. I smiled and enjoyed the last few minutes of my life.

When the subway started, he started beatboxing, which seemed an odd thing for a punk to do.

As the train picked up speed, he started rapping:

Wo sitzt der Boss?

Da sitzt der Boss!

Wer ist der Boss?

Der ist der Boss!

Wer kennt den Boss?

Wir kennen den Boss!“

(Where’s the boss? There‘s the boss! Who’s the boss? He’s the boss! Who knows the boss? …)

It went on for several minutes, each stanza changing but with the all-important “boss” as the hook. I was equal parts impressed with the freestyling and afraid for my well-being. He would look back at his companion for approval and around at the other passengers for admiration.

I’m certain they felt the same way I did: Nice freestyling but if you’re going to hurt anyone, hurt the guy wearing the suit. Who wears a suit on the ringbahn?

Unnerved, I got off a stop early and decided to walk home from the Schönhauser Allee stop. In my suit.

I didn’t wear a suit to my job interview last week. But I turned down that job too.

I don’t want to be the boss.