When the Ferris wheel first went up on a barren stretch of Heidestrasse just north of where I live, I paid little attention. After all, in the two summers I had lived in the unnamed and ill-defined area surrounding Hauptbahnhof, I had seen many a structure spring up among the weeds, only to disappear again some short weeks later. But somehow, this one called to me in a way the others—dingy traveling circus with child-performers like something out of a Dickens novel, badly-orchestrated production of the musical Cats!—had not. After all, it had a Ferris wheel! Something about it reminded me of London or Paris, both of which I remember at their best when adorned with the graceful spokes and precariously swinging vestibules of their very own giant wheels. It also reminded me a bit of weekend afternoons spent at Coney Island in my childhood, the crowning moment of which would be a visit to the Astroland amusement park. I hoped it was here to stay.
At about the same time, I started noticing the somewhat ominous posters around town: the face of a young girl with glowing yellow eyes, painted over like a football hooligan and split down the middle with the flags of two countries, Germany and the USA. The image was indeed more reminiscent of the Exorcist’s Linda Blair than a sign of friendship between two countries. Nevertheless, I quickly identified this as the advertisement for what I had been gazing at through my bathroom window. Just as quickly, I went to the website and did a cursory check: one page displayed the musical program for a two-and-a-half week festival, while another titled “Discover America” listed each and every one of the fifty states along with their notable characteristics. The description of the festival itself promised hamburgers, hotdogs, corn-on-the-cob, and even ribs. A bald eagle, wings outstretched, soared proudly over the proceedings. I was hooked.
We went on a Monday, which was mercifully lucky, considering the fact that Tuesday was officially “biker night,” when anyone arriving with a motorcycle and, it can be assumed, dressed in black leather, would get in free. It didn’t seem to make a difference to the general look of the clientele, however: as we entered we saw just as many shaggy, long-haired tattooed near-pensioners as young families with kids, drawn here by the promise of that horrible recession-buzzword, the stay-cation. Perhaps driven mad by the virtual torrent of rain plaguing the German capital this year, these people truly believed they would be able to step off of Heidestrasse, and step into small-town USA. Having heard tell of good food, we headed straight to the ribs booth. As we made a beeline down the center aisle, I couldn’t help but notice how familiar all the various stands and tables looked. A Rostbratwurst here, an oversize decorated gingerbread heart there, it was almost as if…no, it couldn’t be…it was almost as if the whole thing had been cobbled together from leftover Christmas market stalls. As I took even more time to piece together what I was seeing, it became clear: yes, they had pulled everything out of winter storage, scattered a few American flags and plastic pop culture icons on top, and called it the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Volksfest!
Hoping that the scrumptious taste of tender, freshly barbecued meat would be enough to distract us from our surroundings, we ordered up a plate of ribs for 7.50. If only we had waited a few more minutes before plunking down the cash to see that the ribs were precooked, and the ersatz pitmasters were merely warming them on a huge hot plate resembling a grill. We decided to drown our sorrows in a Liter of München Hofbräu beer, enticed as we were by the one-Euro-off coupon we had gotten with entry. I was confused as to why beer from Munich should have been included in this festival, but I reasoned that beer from a German brewer would at least be more desirable than its American equivalent. The festival organizers had chosen well; no Miller Lite or Coors would dampen the afternoon and the palate. Our first swig of beer told me I was wrong: flat and warm, it seemed to have been pulled from the bottom of the barrel—literally. We went back to complain, but our second serving wasn’t much better. As we sipped our mediocre beer (more American than I had thought!), I began to realize something I had been too naïve to dare contemplate: this fair was like the 3D, lifesize version of all those “American food” shelves at department stores like Karstadt and KaDeWe, chock full of marshmallows, Oreos, and pop tarts. It was the presumptuous fantasy of an entire nation about what another nation must be like. To the owners of those stores, and perhaps to the customers who buy those products, we Americans are all nothing more than marshmallow eaters, white, puffy, and oversized.
Finally, we resolved to forget about the food and move on to the main draw for any self-respecting, county-fair-attending American: the rides and the games. We rode through the Geisterbahn (spookhouse) and danced our way through the hall of mirrors, but that Ferris wheel I had first seen from my window was really the highlight of the night. Nothing could beat the view high above Berlin from the great Riesenrad; cheaper than a visit to the top of the TV tower and a lot less of a hassle than going up to the roof of the Reichstag, that Ferris wheel was worth every penny (okay, maybe not the 7.50 we spent on ribs).