Monday, December 8, 2008

Dr Pong

The things you can do in Berlin -  a sea of options. Hundreds of events every night. Culture, music, art, fine dining, cheap dining, wineries, international bars, local bars, posh bars, museums, art galleries, concerts, cabarets, theaters, clubs (or should I say discos - I have been informed recently that the term "club" is out). An overwhelming choice of entertainment at more than affordable prices. I guess that is what makes Berlin so popular.

However, this won´t be a story about how great Berlin is. This is a story about what I did last Friday. Considering all these places that I could have visited last weekend, I ended up going to Dr Pong with my friends Steve and Christian. A fascinating way to spend Friday night in a cultural hub like Berlin.

Dr Pong is not a disco as such
. It´s also not a bar or anything similar offering good drinks, good music and a funky vibe. It´s a run down apartment - it must have been a shop once - on the ground floor of an old filthy building on Eberswalder Strasse, one of the main but not nicest streets in Prenzlauer Berg. The window front that opens to the main street has been covered with huge posters from the inside and graffiti from the outside, thus blocking any view a
 pedestrian might have from the outside. All in all, it looks like a forgotten and dirty place that urgently needs a new owner or at least a clean. Since there is no front door or any sign hanging outside you wouldn´t even notice the place when passing it. Just like so many venues in Berlin.

Once you enter Dr Pong from a side door, you feel like you are back in school. Young, foolish and easygoing. What awaits you inside is absolutely unexpected: a large room with bare and grey walls and a ping pong table in the middle. That´s it. The dim lighting and the cigarette smoke add some ambiance to the grey, seemingly windowless space and there are some chairs lined up along the wall but they are of no interest to the 30 or 40 guests. They didn´t come for drinks, ambiance or chatting. They came to play ping pong while sipping beer. On a Friday evening. As simple as that. Why care about the world of entertainment and consumption when you can have fun without worrying about dress codes or money. Wearing your favorite sneakers, jeans, a sweater, hitting a ping pong ball and running around the table with 30 others seemed like a very attractive and bonding way of socializing on a cold evening in Berlin. The only concern you have is staying on the table - if you miss a ball or have a bad hit you get thrown out and have to wait till the next round. But if you make it to the 1:1 final you are the star of Dr Pong. There was foosball for those who got tired of ping pong.

I loved it and stayed for hours. This is exactly what I needed after living in the glitz and glamour of Dubai for 3 years. What an uncomplicated way of spending Friday night. No hassles with dress codes, queuing, bouncers, guest lists, entry fees, expensive drinks, overcrowded bars and dance floors. Dr Pong had everything I needed. The bar was a 2 meter counter manned by an American guy, the drink selection was sufficient and the music was entertaining (two lesbian looking girls, dressed in some ridiculous looking 80s outfits, standing behind a table with speakers on top playing some random 80s and 90s hits from CDs). No one was dancing but no one would have cared if I did.

The greatness of a place lies in its simplicity I guess. Entertainment and fun in its purest form - not to everyone´s liking. But then again, who wants to be like everyone.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Bulgarian Cheese

I actually don´t want to know how much Bulgarian cheese I had in the past 5 days. 2kg at least - I can see Mark´s face now, in horror, visualizing my waist getting bigger and bigger. But this is Bulgaria, sorry, and these are the things you do there. Eating Bulgarian cheese in all variations, in salads, stuffed in capsicums, baked with veggies, as a dip or with a mountain of meat. I love Bulgarian cheese - I´d say it´s the best white cheese in the world. But my trip to Sofia was not only about eating ... 

My second trip to Bulgaria (yet another one that I chose to make in the middle of winter!) was all about spending time with my Bulgarian butterfly Eva and understanding the Bulgarian psyche. Bulgaria is a beautiful country, rich in natural heritages, culture and history and it offers a considerable range of "firsts" and "onlys" (just like Dubai!Ha!). Sofia is a cultural jewel with narrow streets, impressive buildings, shops, cafes, boutiques, art galleries, rustic taverns, wine bars and communist relicts. The nightlife is equally impressive where you can choose between mafia and non-mafia locations to have a boogie. As a relatively new member to the EU, Bulgaria is putting a lot of effort into competing with its European neighbors - or so it seems -  and tourism is a promising and growing industry. Skiing in Bulgaria´s picturesque mountains, tanning at the Black Sea, tracing European culture in Sofia ... the choices are endless. Bulgaria is a country wants to be explored. If you know how! It´s not exactly an average tourism destination where you unfold your map and start sightseeing. If you don´t speak Bulgarian, Russian or any other language from the area, you can get pretty lost. And if you can´t decipher Cyrillic, then that´s a bit unlucky too. To me, Bulgaria is like a rough diamond and that´s actually a good thing because it´s always nicer exploring a place that feels like a relatively good kept secret rather than a Thomas-Cook-all-inclusive-must-see destination. You just need to be flexible, especially when you try to figure out the Bulgarian mentality.

I have never encountered people who are so obviously and confidently grumpy like the Bulgarians. Grumpy might be the wrong word. I think it´s more like a mix of being proudly negative, glum and indifferent. I´ve made the same observation during my first visit to Bulgaria but didn´t give it much thought back then. Admittedly, you can´t expect people being too cheerful in the middle of winter, surrounded by a grey, freezing and foggy environment. Still, winter or not there´s something quite heavy and depressing about the way Bulgarians interact with each other. Naturally, I was excluded from all communications with Bulgarians (Eva had to do lots of talking and translating) due to the language barrier. But that´s not the point. The point is that in 5 days, I haven´t encountered many people with a positive facial expression, excluding Eva and friends. It was a rare thing to get a smile from a waiter, bartender, or someone at the next table. I have tried starting various conversations with those who could speak English, but it didn´t work. It could be just that Bulgarians find me boring or strange. OK, accepted and I won´t shed a tear about that. But why is it that people had this absolute blank and apocalyptic facial expression whenever they replied to an inquiry, regardless of it´s nature. Eva could have communicated to a talking robot - it wouldn´t have made a difference. Even those brilliant jazz musicians the other night were jamming away on their instruments with an expression that resembled absolut boredom.

This is a mystery to me considering that Bulgaria is - just like most other European countries - a place where hospitality forms a cornerstone of the country´s culture and traditions. I wonder if I´m misinterpreting all this. Maybe Bulgarians don´t want to reveal their mood? Just as Americans choose to be overly friendly to anyone, Bulgarians choose the opposite. Eva ones told me "We Bulgarians love being negative. It´s our mentality." 
I still need to verify that - I shall come back to Bulgaria in the summer. 

In the meantime, I have the following confession to make: 
- The Bulgarian Air cabin crew was very charming, even though they do throw the food boxes at you (the food is revolting by the way)
- I love Bulgarian food ... cheese cheese cheese
- I love Eva and her sarcasm
- I love the abundance of art, music and culture at affordable prices
- I love the sight of mafia couples who look like out of a movie
- I love Sofia´s roughness: post-communism sleeping beauty meets globalization

See you again in warmer times Bulgaria ...