Das Beach

By Steven Zeitchik
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 21, 2003

It's a scene straight out of a guidebook to the tropics, or a "Baywatch" rerun: On a blissfully warm fall evening, the Euro-cool crowd is spread across the beach, their shoes kicked off, toes clawing at the sand. They're settled into beach chairs and sipping fruity cocktails. Reggae plays softly, and in the dusk, lights twinkle on the lapping water. Another perfect end to a perfect September day in . . . Marbella? Monaco? San Pedro?

Nein. This is Berlin -- the rainy, brooding mecca of punks and artists, politicians and architects, where the only indigenous sand is from construction sites, and where you're more likely to find a good Chinese restaurant than suffer a case of sunstroke.

On closer inspection, though, were signs that this was indeed the capital of Germany. Next to the cocktails sat tall glasses of Pilsener and Hefeweizen; next to the beer, even larger plates of currywurst. The twinkling lights? They came from the Reichstag, the German parliament building that sits just across the Spree River, and whose burning Adolf Hitler used as a pretext in 1933 to start a war against "our enemies."

Here in Berlin, the capital of the surreal, beach bars, or Strandbars, have become the latest craze. Built up literally from nothing on strips of vacant land along the Spree, they have caught on in ways surprising even their founders. From the beginning of summer, Berliners have poured in. They bring a mix of whimsy and seriousness, playing volleyball, sipping margaritas, gazing at the water and pretending for a few hours that their metropolis of energy and upheaval owes less of its history to Kaiser Wilhelm II than to Captain Morgan.

Berliners are so dedicated to the idea of make-believe tropics that they continue to embrace it well into fall. This is a scene that knows not from season; because of the weather's unpredictability, Berliners soak up the sun when they can, ignoring the American deadline of Labor Day. (It helps that students and other beachgoers don't finish their summer break until the middle of October.) In fact, the scene takes on a kind of renewed energy in the fall -- which is fitting, since it is this time, more than summer, that suits the imaginary, simulated quality of the Strandbar. The Strandbars hope to stay open until mid-October, with their owners saying it might be longer if the warm weather, or hardy Berliners, hold up. "We want to keep the magic going as long as we can," said Max Schumacher, who helps run two Strandbars.

I'll admit I was a little skeptical when I embarked on my own little tour of the urban coast. I had been to a real beach in Belize the month before, and I've lived on Nantucket, so I'm somewhat particular about beaches. Generally, I'm partial to the wide, sweeping variety, with waves and seagulls -- or at least to those that don't serve sauerkraut. The idea of a beach in Berlin didn't just seem incongruous, it felt disrespectful, like putting a Ferris wheel at the Taj Mahal.

Topographically, Berlin is one of the least likely places for a beach bar. First, there's the small problem of the ocean -- namely, there isn't one. The Spree, mucky and polluted, is perhaps the least tropical of European rivers, and the buildings that line it are often industrial or rundown. It can rain at almost any time in Berlin. And the city is home to a diverse mix of artists, writers, DJs and digital geeks -- people not known for shooting the curl on their surfboards. That said, many Berliners do spend a lot of time at the beach . . . in Italy.

But as I sat at the Reichstag Strandbar, a long, narrow strip of pristine sand dotted with beach chairs, food kiosks and low wooden tables, I enjoyed it in a way I don't enjoy most beaches. There was something playful about the whole thing: What translated, translated, and what didn't felt like an inside joke -- not just a trip to a beach but a comment on a trip to the beach.

"We come for the atmosphere. It's just laid-back and a way to forget everything in our life," said one sunbather. "Isn't that why people come to any beach?"

The day after my visit to the Reichstag Strandbar, a k a Bundes-Presse Strand (snappily, "Federal Media Beach"), I packed my towel and made my way east to Oststrand, or East Beach. If the Reichstag beach has an upscale feel, Oststrand is set up more like a people's beach, in the middle of a residential neighborhood. To get there, you take a train to the main subway stop in old East Berlin and walk a quarter-mile stretch of curling boulevard along a 10-foot-high wall.

With the Spree not far away, the walk feels a bit like a stroll on a boardwalk. It would seem almost normal if not for one thing: The wall lining the right side of the sidewalk, which comes between the street and the water, is not a seawall. It is the Berlin Wall. In fact, it is the longest stretch of the Wall still standing, and to enter the beach you have to cross a passageway that was carved out of it. Almost 14 years ago, people crossed this spot for freedom, for constitutional democracy, for the open society of the West; today it's for a mojito.

On the other side, the bar counter sits under a covered roof, and speakers blasted a mix of salsa and techno. A bartender set up chairs on the cinnamon-colored sand, while a barmaid shook the lower half of her body in a salsa move when a customer asked what she thought of the music. I ordered a Cuba Libre and took a seat in the sand.

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