For the first trip outside the country with my 7-year-old son, Carpenter, I had planned a monthlong itinerary that started in Rome and proceeded to Bologna, then Venice, Copenhagen and London. Berlin was not on the docket. At least it wasn't until we got to LAX and, with two hours to kill at the gate, met another single-mom-and-son traveling combo who was moving to Germany's capital.
During a 12-hour overnight flight that had our sons engaged in heated battles of Scrabble Slam, the boys had grown so close that they were calling themselves "brothers from other mothers" and begging to stay together. Two weeks later, that wish came true.
Berlin was never on my list of must-sees. Let's just say I'd seen too much newsreel footage of Hitler. And Germany was too stoic for my taste. Yet here my son and I were on the bus, riding through heavily graffitied streets to the central Berlin neighborhood of Mitte for a reunion with our new friends.
Their one-bedroom apartment was barely big enough for two, so my son and I stayed at a hostel — another thing I never intended to do with my child. But the Circus Hostel defied my post-college experience of shacking up in cheap rooms with strangers who talked all night. The top floor of the five-story building held comfortable, IKEA-décor apartments that had views of the TV Tower, a Cold War leftover that, at 1,207 feet, remains the tallest structure in Germany.
Our first morning began with a short subway trip to the Brandenburg Gate at the city's geographical center where, despite our motherly attempts to explain its significance and describe the tanks that had once wheeled through it, the boys were far more interested in the street performers. They craned their necks to see break dancers bustin' moves to Herbie Hancock and stood in line to get their passports stamped by an actor posing as a uniformed East German guard.
History, it seems, is lost on the elementary school set. Culture, misguided as it is at times, is far more accessible.
Our friends needed to furnish their apartment, so our next stop was the Tiergarten flea market, which we reached via dueling pedicabs — one for the kids, another for us moms. My new mom friend had the genius idea of turning our trip into a scavenger hunt. She handed the boys a list of items to find while we hunted through hundreds of stalls looking for dishes and artwork.
The packed Sunday flea market didn't trade only in tchotchkes. It also was our introduction to the local culinary specialty, currywurst, or fried sausages doused with curry powder. The jury was split on whether its popularity is warranted.
Then it was back to Mitte, a bustling neighborhood populated with twentysomethings and young families that reminded me of Silver Lake. It was summer, and everyone, it seemed, was outside. There were blocks of sidewalk cafés, none of which served the traditional German fare I was craving. Instead, it was a cosmopolitan blend of Chinese dumplings and Mediterranean kebabs, Italian gelato and Russian caviar, Mexican burritos and American hamburgers.
This is not how I pictured Berlin.
Our friends had moved to this northern German city because the mother had accepted a teaching job. She and her son would be at the same bilingual school, and neither of them had seen it, so we decided to check it out. Part of the walk was along the Berlin Wall, another landmark whose significance was lost on the kids who saw it only as an endless canvas for street art.
Although some of the art was political or sexually graphic, most of it was colorfully cartoonish and inspiring. Returning home, both boys wanted to draw. Capitalizing on their newfound interest in street art, we spent the next day at KunsthausTacheles, an enormous, graffiti-covered building that is a live-work space for dozens of artists who toil in a malodorous atmosphere of pot smoke and paint. I purchased Carpenter a poster from an artist in one of the studios, but I drew the line at the tiki-shaped bong in which he'd also expressed interest.
Berlin is not a clean city, but what it lacks in street sweepers it makes up in vibrancy, especially along Rosenthaler Strasse, where we stayed. Kitty-corner from our hostel was an enormous park known as the RosenGarten. Although the clothing-optional toddler wading pool was somewhat alarming in a public space, the sprawling playground was a godsend for our high-energy elementary schoolers, who we ran like greyhounds before it was time for bed. Its outdoor bar was a great perk too, not only because it served wine and beer, but also because it hosted DJs and other nightly events such as live graffiti drawing, tango dancing and Hula Hooping.
I had no idea Berlin would be so much fun or so kid friendly, but it was both. Almost everyone spoke some English, which was a relief but also a disappointment. One of the reasons I'd brought my son across the globe was to introduce him to new ideas and ways of doing things, including speaking. It isn't my proudest achievement as a mom, but at least he now knows how to say, "Ein Waffel-Kegel mit Schokoladeneis, bitte." One waffle cone with chocolate ice cream, please.
Even better, he now says, "When can we go back?"