When I moved to Berlin in the autumn of 2001, it was that time of the year when Germans start taking homeopathic anti-depressants. My roommate was psycho, my boyfriend lived in Amsterdam, and it rained for gray days on end. I found solace in the top-floor restaurant of the department store, Kaufhof, which was a few tram stops away on Alexanderplatz. I’d order a cup of coffee and a piece of pie, surrounded by members of the retirement community. With the plaza and the television tower in view, I’d write letters, waiting for melancholy to dissipate.
This solitary habit of Kaffee und Kuchen extended past the first autumn, pulling me through four years of expatriate life. After escaping that first living arrangement, I’d still make time to take the metro thirty minutes for my Alexanderplatz ritual. Eventually, I moved over to the west and up the café ladder when Starbucks arrived on Friedrichstraβe. Tipping my hat off to globalization, I’d settle into purple armchairs, overpriced cheesecake and steaming white chocolate, pretending like I was back in California.
Though I am happier now in Holland, living with my husband, I occasionally need a bit of cafeteria therapy. When I got fired from paper-pushing at Shell, for example, or had left California following my mother’s funeral, I sought spots at the local equivalent to Kaufhof’s restaurant. La Place on the top floor of the department store Vroom en Dreesman is a culinary wonderland. Every American guest I’ve taken here is wowed by the salad bar, and in the Hague store, by the bird’s view of the shopping district. I’ve used the space as a meeting point for my mother-in-law, for cake and tea with a good friend or the solo, slightly extravagant lunch. The bakery downstairs sells croissants that melt in your mouth, which I’ve snuck up to the restaurant with postcards and stationery. Since La Place got remodeled a few months ago, there are nooks and corners ideal for disappearance acts. I take books and pens and can be left alone, even when I haven’t paid for victuals.
Yesterday was an afternoon warranting indulgence. I had been postponing a trip downtown for two days, getting lost in the hours behind my desk. Any more delay would have proven disastrous: I needed to go into town to duplicate my dissertation and ship it to Berlin, which, upon arrival, would sanction the handing over of my Ph.D. diploma. Yesterday was the last day I could mail it to get it there on time.
Twenty-four weeks into my first pregnancy, a day running errands doesn’t happen as easily as it once did. I hobbled to the tram, hobbled back out and made the journey to my favorite copy store, the jarring lack of Kinko´s in Holland notwithstanding. While my hour there passed surprisingly uneventfully, the spontaneous errand that followed became the bane of my metropolitan jaunt. I could not resist stopping in at the organic grocery store, which was a few shops away from the copier. I should have waited until after I had been to the post office and completed my mission, but that would have involved backtracking for posh groceries. Excessive movement, however, was out of the question, as I have come to the point in my pregnancy when, for the first time in my padded, California Girl life, cycling is easier than walking.
It was no matter that I could not afford organic groceries, really, since I figured I had just enough money for a croissant, postage to Berlin, and some pesticide-free fruit. “Some” fruit turned into pesticide-free vegetables, tea and kiwis, and I had less left in my wallet than I should have had. At the post office, I also needed to buy a heavy duty envelope, and a few minutes later, some packaging tape. By the time I had pulled my number and cued into the line, I´d started to wonder if I had enough to send my dissertation.
Another part about being pregnant is finicky body temperature. There was a cheerful autumn wind yesterday, but the post office was a veritable sauna. While packing my mail, borrowing Postman Pat´s scissors, and hobbling across the hall to pull my number, I had worked up a flush and obvious sweat. My mom’s hand-me-down overcoat was balanced on my arm, and the bag of groceries seemed ever-heavier.
I then remembered seeing a cash machine outside. If I hurried, I could make it back before my number was called. I hobbled outside again, perspiring buckets, and caught my face in the reflection of a window. My cheeks were so magenta, I looked like a Hummel figurine. A passerby apparently liked that, because he called me “little girl,” asking me for something like change or shag. I had no idea what he said, but I was crabby, so I barked “No,” wondering what pregnant part of me he found “little.”
The machine refused to give me money. I apparently didn’t have enough to withdraw. That left me to the devices of my change purse. Back at the counter, I was forced to resort to the “standard” delivery rate, which, if legitimate, would barely get my package to Berlin on time. I kicked myself for getting organic kiwis before fulfilling obligations.
With a single euro left in my pocket, it was now time for that croissant. Boy, did I ever need a treat.
I grunted and groveled my way to Vroom en Dreesman, infinitely irritated that I had no job, book deal, or income. Three escalators later and one floor from La Place, I took a seat in a recliner in the home furniture section.
“I have a favor to ask. Are you really busy right now?”
“Oh, well never mind.”
“What do you need, honey?”
“Can you look online and find me the tele-banking number for my account? I need to see how much is left on it. I’m not at home.”
I heard my husband clicking and typing away. Five minutes later, he’d found it. I called my bank and discovered that I had, indeed, enough money on my account to withdraw. In some conspiracy of the evil metropolitan universe, the machine had lied.
In an instant, the croissant I had bought downstairs was postponed into a tasty snack for a pregnant woman´s dinner. Not a minute later, I found myself standing in front of the French fry guy at La Place.
He ignored me for a few seconds, until his supervisor walked by. This kind fellow elbowed French fry guy, saying, “Hey, customer,” to which French fry guy nodded, his backed still turned to me. Eventually, he found it fit to give me the time of day.
After I ordered, French fry guy threw some freshly cut potatoes into the fryer and walked away, waiting for them to cook. But I wanted more. He definitely didn’t put enough in the vat. More fries, more fries, give me more.
But I didn’t say anything. I wondered if French fry guy thought I was fat and needed to go on a diet. I’m pregnant, French fry guy, I thought, pleading. If you could only see that, you would sympathize.
But he did not. He simply stood at the far end of the cooking area, glancing at me every now and then from ten feet away. It was so obvious that he could have stood here, by the fryer with his back turned like before, but now he chose to stand over in Siberia. I couldn´t help taking it personally.
Is it my accent, French fry guy? Or do you hate your job and me, too, for not having to be anywhere at two- thirty in the afternoon?
While trying to silence the voices in my head, I killed time, ogling all the raw food on display. As I surveyed the smorgasbord, something defiant kicked in, and I decided I wanted some salmon. Heck, I was going to go all out. If I wasn’t going to get my fair share of fries, I’d at least get a proper lunch.
“Throw in some salmon.”
“I WANT SALMON.” His head rolled back and touched the tiles on the wall behind him.
“It’s almost done, your fries are almost done.” He then proceeded to not get me any salmon, because it would have cramped his cooking rhythm.
“Oh.” Who did this guy think he was, telling me what and when I should order? He really hated my guts.
“Do you want fish?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Well, if you want, I make for you.”
“I don’t mind waiting.”
“You want fish?”
“Yes.” He picked out the smallest piece from a pile of pink and orange steaks, then threw it into the wok. He obviously thought I was fat and needed to go on a diet.
Two girls in headscarves chatting in Arabic swept by behind me, fingering pieces of salad they had just put into a bowl. They took their tray to a station a few feet away, where my guy was now standing, arms crossed over his chest.
When the scarf-clad girls spoke to him, he immediately began to cook them jumbo shrimp and stir-fry vegetables to order. He liked those girls. He made them laugh and concocted their meal in like minus twenty seconds. I heard the more rambunctious of the pair ask him what his name was. “Saíd,” he replied. Then they left.
My salmon took years to grill. Saíd came over to me, looked at the flame under the wok, and shrugged, apologizing. “Sorry it’s taking so long.”
I wondered if he had set the heat low on purpose. “Is it broken?”
“No, it’s just made like that.” Right.
Instead of walking away, he stayed put, keeping his grip on the pan’s handle. He gave it a shake every now and then before looking directly into my eyes for a split second. His boss came by and chewed him out for something else. Though his Dutch wasn’t perfect, Saíd could hold an argument.
“Rice or French fries with your fish?” I pointed to the meager pile of fries he’d cooked earlier.
He nodded, slightly apologetic. He saw that I wasn’t out to make his life miserable, that my French fry and fish combination actually had a purpose.
Saíd was obviously unhappy to be there. He didn’t like his job, and I didn’t like my afternoon. We were a pair of curmudgeons and our elbows had rubbed in the space between the sneeze guard and his grill.
“Where are you from?”
He looked up, doing a double take.
“Where are you from? Where?”
He smiled. “Take a guess.”
As he grinned into my face, completely at ease with my examining of his ethnic features, I had to smile, too. “Morocco,” I ventured, knowing it was a bit cliché.
“Egypt? Oh, cool.” Not bad, it was in the region.
“America.” As an afterthought, I added, “But my dad is from Iran.” I didn´t tell everybody this.
“And your mom is Dutch?”
“Wow. Iran, Japan, America?”
“Where did you learn Dutch?”
“How long have you been here?”
“You speak well.”
“Thanks.” Egypt. “You know how to make cushary?” I took care to pronounce it the way I had been taught, with the accent on the first syllable.
“Yeah. How you know cushary?”
“I have a recipe. I´m sure it’s not as good as yours.”
His face broke into a grin again, and he shook his head, looking a little sheepish.
My salmon was done. Saíd threw in some spinach, grilled it, and topped it all off with sprigs of cumin and a slice of lime. From somewhere in the recesses of the fryer, he produced a sizzling handful of extra fries. As he handed the plate over, he wished me a good meal.
“I’ll be working here tomorrow if you want to tell me how it tasted.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’ll be great. Have a good one, okay?”
Nodding, Saíd smiled one last time. Organic groceries in tow, I picked up the tray, slung my mom’s hand-me-down-coat over an arm and hobbled onward to the cash register.
Copyright © 2007, 2009 Anastasia Hacopian. All rights reserved.