Free love in Berlin
During my second month in Berlin, one of my good friends from Ann Arbor who also happened to be studying abroad visited me for a week. Kieran has always had a strong adventurous spirit, and our friendship developed from our ease of conversation and search for stories to tell. He had heard from one of his German friends that the cafe “Zuckerbaby”, loosely translated as sugar baby, was the place to go, so we went on his last day in Berlin. We walked in the rain from my apartment to the cafe laughing at the week we had just shared and wondering what our lives would look like once we were back in Ann Arbor. We made it to Zuckerbaby, rather drenched, ready for a warm meal. As we sat at a small table with mismatched chairs, the rain still hitting the rattling window. We said our goodbyes over grilled cheese sandwiches that felt like home.
Even with Kieran gone, I made Zuckerbaby one of my go-to spots in Berlin. I think I would go because they made grilled cheese sandwiches with cheese oozing from the sides and frankly the best vegan carrot cake. I understand that having carrot cake as a favorite is rather odd. People will often critique carrot cake because it has raisins. I don’t understand this hatred of raisins. To me, the case in favor of carrot cake is simple — it is moist and sweet, but not overpowering. And honestly, who can say no to a buttery cream cheese frosting? But beyond the carrot cake, my love for Zuckerbaby is grounded in its ambience and charm, which reminded me of my favorite cafe in Fayetteville, Ark — a little cafe called Arsaga’s located right next to the railroad. Something about the old building housing Zuckerbaby — with exposed brick, old furniture and mood lighting — brought me back home to Fayetteville while studying abroad in the cold Berlin.
One of my closests friends in Germany was Tabea, and I made sure to take her to Zuckerbaby. We met on a rainy Saturday afternoon and sat down at a charming wooden table. At the other end was a family — a set of parents, their newborn, and what I imagined were two overjoyed grandparents. Tabea and I spent a couple hours just talking and watching the day go by. Customers would come in and leave. The day was at peace.
Right behind Tabea, still within my eyesight, an older couple sat down. As I listened to Tabea talk, I couldn’t help but observe them. They reminded me of my parents. I wondered if my parents would get to live into their older years like the couple before me, and if they would spend their Saturday afternoons in cafes together just as they once had when they were teenagers. I lost track of the couple for a while. However, when I refocused my attention to their general direction, I noticed that the man had taken a leash out of his bag. In my mind, I imagined two stories.
The first, that the couple had just put down a furry companion, and they were now at Zuckerbaby to avoid going back to the home that once housed their dear pet.
The other story was also about a dog. Perhaps they had decided to adopt a dog.
Neither of these proved to be correct.
I remember watching intently, as the man eagerly attached the leash to the choker on the woman’s neck. I was taken aback by this, to me, brazen act. However I noticed that every so often, he would tug the leash and her head would lunge in the direction of his crotch. He did this once or twice making eye-contact with me — a held gaze that I broke each time.
I remember my brain was trying to process a lot at once as this interaction was unfolding before me. The first thought that came to my mind: only in Berlin. I had a morbid curiosity to keep watching, but I also heard my mom’s voice in the back of my head reminding me that it is rude to stare. But I mostly got caught up in the scene happening all around me: a tranquil Saturday with a friend, the noises of a cooing baby behind me juxtaposed with the image of an older but seemingly kinky couple.
I wondered for a while what it is that I found so jarring as I sat and watched that couple in Zuckerbaby. Was I taken aback by the very exposed nature of the behavior? What does that say about my own assumptions of sex? I also considered if I was taken aback because the couple was older and dressed in posh clothes. Not the type of image I associate with kinky behaviour.
I recognize that conversations surrounding sexuality are getting easier to have, but still not the norm. We don’t always like to openly talk about how we are sexual beings. We don’t like to talk about fetishes. We hardly talk about how women are also sexual. And we certainly don’t talk about how older people are still doing it. But why? Why do we associate sex with youth?
Is our understanding of sex so closely tied to our sight that we can’t think of an older body being attractive. There seems nothing inherent about sex or even love that would be exclusive to younger generations. Sure, the body changes, but does that fundamentally mean that sex and old age are diametrically opposed? How do we overcome our assumptions? I wonder are they living a more honest sexuality than I am — unashamed?
I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, but what the overt scene lay bare were my own hasty assumptions and judgments about sex. This couple, inadvertently, planted a seed in my mind that has grown into several questions.
As I observed the couple, I tried to overcome my initial prejudice, and tried to see them for what they were in that moment: strangers, with an equal right to express and explore their sexuality.
I thought, only in Berlin.