This picture was taken in a park in Berlin on a lovely, warm Sunday in early October, 2015. And this particular park was filled with the sights, sounds and smells of delicious, homemade Thai food. That food was being made by dozens of Thai women (and some men), perched on picnic blankets and low stools, cooking from makeshift grills and saucepans and woks, some of those resting on overturned cardboard boxes or layers of old newspaper.
I have no idea what this park's real name is (later research tells me it is Preußenpark, in the Wilmersdorf neighborhood). I only know that on weekends Spring through late Fall, it is known as Thai Park, and it is just one more reason why I think Berlin is one of the coolest cities in the world.
It's pretty self-explanatory, and one needn't know German and certainly not Thai to effectively stuff one's face with everything from Pad Thai to papaya salad to fried chicken feet. You walk from blanket to blanket, and as something catches your eye (or your nose) you politely ask if you can buy some. You pay very little, get quite a lot, and happily eat your way around the park.
The woman pictured above was making green papaya salad. The best in the world, according to her husband, an older German man sitting nearby, drinking a soda. He did seem very proud of her, and extolled the virtues of her salad at length.
He was not exaggerating. I mean, I haven't had enough papaya salad to fairly say it was the best in the world, but it was damn good, crunchy, salty, tart, sweet and generally packed with more flavor than one can get at the average Thai restaurant. I found myself thinking I could eat it at least weekly.
But that was just the beginning. We wandered. We ate noodles, we ate dumplings, we ate chicken feet. We washed it all down with a large Caipirinha. Wait, what?
So, if the Thai food, people and language in the middle of a random Berlin park weren't already a bit disorienting, now we were throwing in Caipirinhas? Yes, to make things even more surreal, the national drink of Brazil happens to also be the leading potent potable at Thai Park. You see, there are more Thai women, like the one above, sprinkled in among the frying and steaming, manning very well stocked bars. They can make a variety of drinks, or pour you a beer, but most of them are just slicing countless limes and pouring liters and liters of cachaça. I went to this woman. She made what looked to be a triple and topped it with ginger ale, which was a brilliant move. The only thing that could possibly improve on the original.
And there we were, Caipirinhas and Thai food, a soft Berlin breeze, and not a care in the world, which did lead me to a bit of an existential freak-out: "I'm standing in a German park eating a green papaya salad made by a Thai woman on a beach mat while sipping on the best Caipirinha I've had outside of Brazil," I thought, my mind spinning. "How did this happen?"
The freak-out quickly flared out and I came back to a happy, relaxed state, realizing that this was just what I wanted. I love the feeling of being so upside-down in your expectations versus reality that you really aren't sure where one ends and the other begins - sights, sounds, smells and tastes creating a most pleasant form of cognitive dissonance. It is then that I feel like it doesn't matter where I am, really, just that I am here, right now, enjoying this one special thing.
Something tells me that feeling happens a lot in Berlin. It certainly happens when I travel. The trick is to make it happen every day.