Go Back
Print this page

Travel + Culture

Hallo Berlin! Thai Park Edition

Even in summer, you’re not going to confuse Berlin with Thailand. But maybe the Preuβenpark can give an approximation.
berlin thai parks

Even in high summer, you’re really not likely to confuse Berlin with Southeast Asia. So it was surprising to be in the stately neighborhood of Charlottenburg, standing on the verdant lawn of the Preuβenpark, staring at a sea of Thai women on picnic blankets.

The sight reminded me of Sundays in Hong Kong, when parks, sidewalks, and the courtyards of bank buildings are packed with Filipina and Indonesian women, days when you see an invisible ethnic community, otherwise hidden in housekeeping, come out of the home.

Likewise, on warm days in Berlin, Thai women gather here and share in their language, in the community of being far away from where they came. On this day, some of them had things for sale and some had stoves to cook on. Some had their older German husbands, one of whom was massive and shirtless, blinding in the light, passed out in the sun as if passed away, his limbs splayed in awkward directions. His son—I hope that was his son—dug in his pants pockets for money, I suspect for some of the food throwing off its scents like sparks.

I walked up to a woman on a blanket with two portable stoves and a sheet of wind-blocking cardboard for a kitchen and a folding card table behind her sufficing as a dining room. She had a few pots of noodle broth going, and as I watched her thicken one with blood, I realized that I was in for some serious Thai food. Still squatting at her stoves, she took a few Euros from me and fired up a pan to make my hoi tod—mussel pancakes topped with beansprouts. They were chewy, briny, spicy, greasy, and crisp, the most fun you can have on a paper plate.

My friends and I sat off to the side, watching women cleaning and selling giant baskets of local chanterelle mushrooms, giving massages, gambling, making papaya salads in giant mortars. It was a stunning summer day. A weeping willow looked like a waterfall of green, trembling in the breeze that brought over the smell of frying chicken wings, of sweet sausages browning on grills. We ate and talked, but soon fell into stupor, warmed by sun and full bellies, lying down to doze. And yet I wondered, despite the perfection of the afternoon, which of these women would trade this to be back home.

Another friend came to meet us, and I readied for a second round of eating. We stopped by a woman who scooped up a paddleful of chopped chilis for the ground pork sizzling in her pan. Our eyes opened with intimidation, but that didn’t stop her from slicing another giant chili into it, or from handing over the dish and pointing at the jars of chili in vinegar for us to finish seasoning ourselves. Two blankets away, I got the Pad Thai of no compromise—fishy, funky, with a heat that builds until your entire face is running with sweat and sniffles.

I ate, chewing open-mouthed to let some cool air in between bites. I am no stranger to spicy food, but I was hurting. “God,” I panted. “If I can barely handle this, how do Germans eat this stuff?” I mean, whatever might be said of German food, “hot” is not it.

I looked around to see who else was eating fire, and caught sight again of the man who looked like a beached whale. Maybe he wasn’t asleep. Maybe the Pad Thai did him in.