Last Friday I went to the annual Grüne Woche, an international trade fair on food and agriculture which takes place every January in Berlin. Held in Messe Nord, a conference hall the size of a small village, Grüne Woche is something of an institution in this town; one of the few things a gray and dreary month offers up for Berliners to look forward to. For food lovers, it is highly tasty and satisfying, but even for those who don’t care to try Ginseng liquor from China and elk sausage from Norway, it is an unparalleled spectacle. A trip to Grüne Woche leaves the visitor not only several pounds heavier, but also with a distinct sense of disorientation, as if he has fallen down the rabbit hole and spent the last few hours wandering around a labyrinth of gastronomic delights, the sights and smells and tastes only getting “curioser and curioser” as each hall opens up into the next.
This year was my second in a row, and a decidedly different experience from the first. Whereas last year I went with three other Americans, each one of them a food-obsessed lunatic in his or her own right (one of whom, in fact, when given the choice, would probably rather stay home and bake bread loaves, pretzels, cookies, and pastries than go out on a Saturday night), this year I went with my German boyfriend. While last year we had no idea what to expect, except what people had briefly told us, this year I expected something new and got basically the exact same thing as last year. That’s not to say it wasn’t just as fun. Whereas last year we went late to get the half off “Happy Hour” price of entry, we really only got to see a quarter of the show, and the last half hour was hectic, climaxing with the four of us dashing across the Messe courtyard (which for anyone who knows West Berlin, is where the Funkturm, a giant TV-antenna and dead-ringer for Paris’s Eiffel Tower, resides) in what felt like sub-zero temperatures, trying to get back to the alcohol-tasting area for one last glass of wine. And we were already pretty drunk by then, having sampled quail eggs with vodka, fruit liquor, and beer all along the way.
This year we went earlier and got a map, so we were able to amble leisurely through each and every one of the halls (well, as leisurely as we could, considering we had to push our way through hordes of the hungry on a Saturday afternoon). Whereas last year it had seemed like a great surprise no matter what we discovered, I had always been a bit worried that I would end up missing half of what was on offer. This year we didn’t just see the international food halls—complete with French and Swiss and Austrian and Italian vendors selling a multitude of cheeses and cured meats and wines—we also happened upon the hall for farming technology, complete with a massive tractor, and the hall for livestock, where a full-on sheep show was going on, completely with handlers dressed in long robes and judges shouting out prizes over a loudspeaker. There was the aquarium section, with turtles and fish, and there was a section with ten different species of dog, all of them lounging happily with their caretakers in little stalls (definitely the job I would choose to have there, if I had to have one). And going with your boyfriend certainly does have its advantages—one of them being that, instead of fending for yourself just like your cash-strapped friends, you split all the costs with another person and still get to eat pretty much everything.
But as we walked around arm in arm, hand in hand, and I marveled at the Portuguese and Spanish and South African vendors hawking wine, the scent of truffle oil beckoning from the Italian vendors, and the unbelievable array of hot sauces available from an American Vendor with names like “Pepper King” and “100% Pain” I thought of something else: I’ve been here—and really, truly here—for long enough that this has now become a January tradition. I’m repeating an activity I did almost exactly a year ago with a different person, making a new set of memories that will last me until January 2011, when, no doubt, I will have forgotten how crowded and expensive and ridiculous the whole thing is, and I will do it all over again.