Matthias moved to West Berlin, to Kreuzberg, in the mid-1980s — but he’s still not sure you can call him a Berliner. It isn’t the first time I’ve run across this sort of modesty among Germans: I’ve met people who’ve lived here ten, twenty, thirty years who tell me they still don’t know whether they’ve earned the right to call themselves Berliners. (As for me, having moved here four years ago, I wouldn’t dream of calling myself a Berlinerin.) But in Matthias’ case, I think his modesty about his provenance mostly has to do with his circumstances: he only lives in Berlin six months of the year, driving a taxi six days a week.
In winter, he flies south, either to Thailand or to the Philippines, where he works as a deep-sea diving instructor and a guide, which he used to do in Egypt, on the Red Sea, until the waves of terrorism in the late 1990s drove away the tourists.
When I met Matthias, a tall, wiry, spiky-haired man with blue eyes that seemed to radiate something from the ocean, he’d been back in Berlin for nine days, and he was living in his storage room in Lichtenberg. (The people who are subletting his apartment in Friedrichshain aren’t quite ready to leave.) Coming back is always challenging. But he likes to return to the city with fresh eyes, to see what’s changed while he’s been gone, what new clubs are opening, where people want to go now.
In no other job would it be possible for him to live this kind of life, he told me. This freedom is what he appreciates most about taxi driving – a job he started doing before the Wall came down, while he was working toward his degree in marine biology — though he admits that it’s only eine gefühlte Freheit, a perceived freedom, or a feeling of freedom. We’re always beholden to someone. And we have to make money, after all.
Mattias doesn’t believe in McDonald’s or Burger King, not even when his passengers invite him to eat with them. He doesn’t believe in French fries, either — at least when he’s on duty.
Most days, he starts driving around noon, working until 9pm or so, then coming home and making himself a sandwich and taking an “extended pause” before returning to the road for a few more hours.
They started making falafel at Baharat (the name means ‘spice’ in Arabic) thirty years ago — long before falafel was popular in Berlin, according to Rumen, my taxi-driving husband who is also a falafel connoisseur.
And while you can taste a generation of experience in Baharat’s falafel themselves — beautifully seasoned, crispy outside, fluffy inside — the falafel sandwich here is a little disappointing. Neither Rumen nor I could understand how or why someone would stuff these perfectly-fried falafel balls into a cold pocket of pita bread and smother them in a bland yogurt sauce that claims to be sesame sauce. Maybe the trick, next time, because I think there will be a next time, is to order the falafel plate instead of the sandwich — and not to forget the hot sauce.
10781 Berlin – Schöneberg
Tel. +49 030 2168301
Open: 7 days, from lunchtime until 2am