Berlin - My bicycle would not move. I hadn’t tied up the straps on my backpack, and one of them had gotten caught in the wheel and snapped off. Now, it was horribly stuck in the hub.
I spent 10 minutes pulling on the strap, trying to dislodge it. It didn’t budge. The wheel wouldn’t turn. I was stuck, and already late for dinner. I needed help.
So, with all the bike shops closed, I carried it to place where I’ve gone when I need almost anything in Berlin: my local Späti. In a few minutes, I was peddling off again.
From the moment I arrived in Berlin, about a month ago from the US, the Späti next door to my apartment has provided.
I picked up the key to my apartment from the Späti—no matter what time I arrived, the landlord told me, it would be open.
I get my coffee there in the mornings. Need a snack? I grab a Mars Bar (a treat tough to find in the US, though Mars is an American company). Forgot a face mask leaving the house? No worries, pick one up at the Späti for 1 Euro. Beer for a date in the nearby park? Späti. When I needed to unlock my phone to sub in a German sim card, the guys at the Späti opened it for me.
To Berliners, this must all seem ho-hum. My local Kreuzberg Späti is hardly the most impressive or elaborate one I’ve seen. But coming from Los Angeles, where I’ve lived for the last 12 years, the Späti was a revelation. (New York has an equivalent to Spätis, its bodegas.)
Yes, there are 24-hour pharmacies in L.A., where you can get face masks and candy (plus pick up your prescription medications and vitamins and sometimes even beer, though never decent coffee). But the experience is fundamentally impersonal. Often, you check out at an automated teller, interacting with no one at all.
By contrast, the Späti, more than anything else, has made me feel like part of a neighborhood here. At any hour, it’s always one of the same two or three guys there. Often, they’re sitting on the step in front of the shop when I arrive, then one will step behind the register.
We can hardly communicate – they speak little English; I speak even less German, and no Turkish. But after a few days, they began to recognize me. Seeing me come in over and over, one of them asked if I lived next door. We introduced ourselves. Unable to say much more, I smiled, took my coffee, and left.
When I showed up with my bike that night, the regular guys were sitting on the step. I had faith that, at the very least, they knew more than I did. I’m a bit of a novice biker. At 15 years old, I did an impromptu front flip off my bike, face planted, and fractured my jaw. I couldn’t eat solid food for a month and haven’t biked much since –until getting to Berlin.
One of the guys pulled on the strap, as I had, with about the same result. The second got a pair of scissors. The third stopped him. He flipped the bike over and ran inside. After coming back with a pair of pliers, he managed to yank the strap out. The bike worked fine again.
I thanked them over and over in my halting German, then peddled off to dinner.
After 18 months of avoiding strangers, of keeping everyone at a safe distance, the brief, often wordless encounters at the Späti feel like a welcome back to something like normal life. I wish I could thank them for that as well.