How can something praiseworthy not shade immediately into hype? How can you deliver on the promise of secrets—actual, delectable secrets—without rubbing off the bloom of discovery? Berlin struggles with the first question constantly, and Cee Cee Berlin, a free email newsletter curating oddball finds throughout the city, admirably succeeds at the second. And the new book Cee Cee Berlin (Distanz Verlag) captures the best of what co-founders Sven Hausherr and Nina Trippel have discovered in a single volume.
Allow me a moment of personal backstory. I first moved to Berlin in 2005 after my husband, a grad student in music history at the time, and spent a summer there learning German. He raved so thoroughly about the city’s ruffian charm, its indefatigable club scene, the beauty of its clashing cityscapes as seen behind a bike’s handlebars, that we wanted promptly applied for—and got—yearlong study grants. After the initial year, the city lured us back summer after summer until the recent birth of our son momentarily interrupted the cycle.
And yet, loving Berlin has become so common, it’s kind of hateful. Do you love the idea of Berlin, or the actual place now?
A clueless exemplar of the former: The New York Times article “In Berlin, Still Partying in the Ruins,” occasioned by the recent 25-year anniversary of the Wall’s fall. It opens with Berghain, a nonstop sex club so excessively celebrated in hushed tones that boasting you diddled someone on the premises is the Berlin equivalent of wearing a fannypack. I literally belong to a Facebook group called “Can The New York Times Stop Its Love Affair With Berlin?”—a decent proxy for those who properly appreciate Berlin versus hipster-cultural tourists.
Email newsletters that purport to delve into a city’s heart must understand its beats’ precise cadence. Berlin today is capital to Europe’s most affluent country, a self-aware cultural hub whose famous riven milestone has been wholly smoothed over. Its layered history is receding into a homogenized backdrop, no longer awkwardly jumbled at the surface. And yet, its genial scruffiness remains. Still much cheaper than other European capitals (and way less costly than its cooler cousin, New York), Berlin’s citizens aren’t punctual or spessig, self-satisfying bourgeois, in the manner of their Bavarian relatives. Art gallery openings here have acquired a practiced international sheen, but still the richest patrons have probably flown in. Restaurants have vastly improved, but the city’s chief late-night luxury is currywurst, a paper plate of cut-up hotdogs slathered in ketchup and dusted with curry powder.
Berlin’s former mayor famously described the city as “arm aber sexy,” or “poor but sexy.” I’d add to its list of charms a certain awkwardness antithetical to money, a willfully permanent adolescence, and a suspicion that too much money is actually a sign of stupidity. Here’s my favorite story encapsulating this awkwardness: I once strolled into a sleek Berlin bar in 2011 and ordered a martini. Female bartenders blinked confusedly behind their asymmetrical haircuts and sternly poured a juice glass-full of Martini vermouth into the proper glass and pushed it authoritatively towards me. It tasted like liquid hairspray.
Happily, I can confirm that Cee Cee Berlin knows its city and its best finds, a clever combination of sharp restaurants, pockets of unexpected beauty, and discoveries attuned to shopping—all while remaining decidedly immune to capitalism. It highlights BLESS HOME BERLIN, a shop-apartment in tony Prenzlauer Berg where literally all the contents are for sale. It profiles a chef whose not-so-secret private dinner parties are all the rage. But it also manages to unearth a secret garden in the Rixdorf section of scruffy Neukölln; the improvised used-car collection for sale at Kottbusser Damm; several hidden gems in Berlin’s Hinterhöfe, the interior walled entries that house fantastic off-street storefronts, from a photograph gallery tucked into a former jam factory (Köpenickerstrasse, Kreuzberg) to Motto, a buzzy bookstore and publisher (near Skalitzerstrasse, also in Kreuzberg).
I’m a Cee Cee Berlin newsletter subscriber and hopefully, an active user soon again. For now, the book fills me with a vicarious longing and a certain satisfaction that old Berlin might not be entirely used up.