I thought Id found my ideal bar in Berlin then it closed. Now its back, and it has taught me an important lesson about the dangers of nostalgia
A few years ago I found my perfect pub, right in the heart of Berlin. The size of a police cell, clad in a dark oakwood panelling that had been saturated with more than 120 years of spilled beer, cigarette smoke and tears, Alt Berlin was as inviting as a walk-in ashtray. There was only one window, which the owners werent allowed to open because of noise ordinance laws, and the graffiti above the urinal that read smells like pee spirit had been written by a man whose nose was as truthful as his punning was poor. Most tourists who stumbled in from the local high street walked straight out again.
But those who dared stay were rewarded by locals with tales of how Bertolt Brecht and Joseph Roth used to prop up the bar in the 1920s, or how Quentin Tarantino and Bill Murray popped in for a pilsner when they were in town for filming. The bar staff displayed that grim-faced duty of care that is often mistaken for rudeness. At 4am in the morning, after far too many beers, they nursed me back to life with a plate of fried meat patties, potato salad and pickled gherkin. Even if you werent a local, Alt Berlin turned you into one.
The triumph of my discovery was short-lived. Having survived two world wars and a near third, my perfect bar closed down a few days after I had found it in April 2014. The lease had run out and a new investor needed the space for a luxury clothes boutique. When I moved back to Berlin earlier this year, I searched in vain for a replacement. The bartender at Hackbarths had that same moody determination, but the pickles were a letdown. The crowd at Mbel-Olfe were too noisy; the regulars at Slumberland, in Schnefeld, too uniformly old.
Over the past few months, liberal left journalists like me have mocked the Brexit camps desire to wrench their country back to an era of empire, casual sexism and draught stout served from pewter pots, but these days the nostalgic tendency is strong in all of us. For here I was, cursing the world for failing to recreate an experience I had had only two years earlier.
Then, last week, a friend took me to a new bar around the corner from his flat, and I couldnt believe my eyes as we walked through the door: there was the same oak bar, the same handwritten table reservations on crumpled cardboard, the same neon sign reading: Das schnste aller Dinge, ein schneller Schluck bei Ernst und Inge (The best of all things, a quick gulp at Ernst and Inges). One of the old regulars at Alt Berlin had bought up the interior and moved it into the annexe of the old dancehall he owned. Even some of the old bar staff had been rehired. Alt Berlin was back.
Or was it? A popular thought experiment used in philosophy classes cites the Greek legend of Theseus, who returned from Crete to Athens in a ship whose rotting planks were over the years replaced with stronger timber. Once every part had been replaced, the experiment asks: was Theseus ship still Theseus ship? And what if, as was the case with Alt Berlin, someone had collected all the cast-off original features and built a new bar was that still Alt Berlin?
As it happens, the new Alt Berlin didnt feel like the old Alt Berlin: the regulars were different, the potato salad had been replaced with sourdough bread, and the fact that the bar was now located next to the head offices of the BND, Germanys intelligence agency, somehow lessened the old establishments illicit backstreet charm. But I still enjoyed the evening, and I was glad that I had been able to kill off my stupid obsession.
With every beer, the new Alt Berlin looked to me more like a clever postmodern joke, a very literal-minded re-enactment of what is already happening to our cities. An old local of mine in Clerkenwell had over the space of 12 years changed its name from the New Red Lion to the Bull, then to the Queen Boadicea and finally to the Blacksmith and Toffeemaker, its name, selection of draughts on tap and bar snack menu ever more desperately trying to denote a traditional, historic proper East End experience amid hyper-gentrifying surroundings, until it had dreamed up kitsch steampunk saloon fantasy specialising in gin and suet puddings.
It made me think how useful it would be, in this age of politicians promising to make their country great again, if we could just temporarily recreate the good old days and spend some time testing if they were really as good as we remembered them. A month in a model-village Britain with blue passports and unregulated working hours. A week in a toytown Germany where they still have the deutschmark but no Italian wine, French cheese or Spanish ham on offer in the supermarket. A day in timewarp 1950s America, with a booming economy and a racially segregated society. It may just make you want to open that window at the back of the bar and get a breath of fresh air.