Chinese Opulence, Berlin Style
We threaded our way through tourists snapping photos of each other in front of Berlin’s magnificent Brandenburg Gate. The deep columns of the triumphal arch, inspired by the Acropolis in Athens, glowed pink in the late afternoon light. The monumental gate’s crown is the magnificent bronze Quadriga, a heroic sized four-horsed sculpture of Victoria, the goddess of victory, riding her chariot as she urges her steeds forward. The enormous sculpture glittered on its perch almost 100 feet above the crowd.
Across the Pariser Platz we stepped into the Adlon Kempinski Hotel. We tried hard not to gape at the gorgeous stained glass dome and the stunning marble, brass, plush red carpets and polished woodwork as we surveyed the lobby.
Have you ever noticed that the toniest places usually have the most gracious staffs? It’s the wannabe stores, restaurants and hotels that seem to have the the snooty attitudes. Let me tell you that the Kempenski is not a wannabe. It’s the real deal – an establishment that’s loaded with good looks, charm and style, qualities good hotels and my darling husband share. A handsomely uniformed hotel staff member noticed our confusion as we searched for the entrance to the China Club Berlin, where we were meeting a new friend for dinner. He offered his assistance and invited us to follow him through the hotel to the proper entrance. I quickly realized why one night at the Kempinski could cost as much as a whole month’s rent in our Berlin apartment. As we walked along with Karl, my new best friend, I covertly inspected lavish private dining rooms, cozy leather and mahogany bars, and cleverly placed comfortable areas that invited private conversation.
We left the hotel building, walked a few yards, and Karl opened a plain door leading to a large, empty lobby. “Chust valk over there to the elevator and poosh the button,” he said with a smile. He bowed slightly and disappeared. Only a click of his heels was missing from his performance.
There was one button, no bigger than a doorbell, near the elevator. Tim pressed it and a voice asked our name. After a brief pause, we heard a soft whoosh, and the elevator door slid open. There were no buttons inside. After a moment, the car began to rise. It occurred to us that security is tight in places where heads of state go to dine well in privacy!
A lovely young woman was waiting at the elevator. She said, “Good afternoon, Mr. and Mrs Martin. Mr. Iwanowski is waiting for you on the rooftop terrace.” We followed her up a delicately wrought glass-enclosed iron staircase, and as we rose, Berlin stretched out below us. At the top Tim and I stopped, speechless. There was the Quadriga – this time at eye level, awash in the slanting autumn sunlight. The sculpture was so close that we could almost hear the horses hoofbeats and the rustle of Victoria’s wings!
Across the wide terrace, Michael Iwanaowski rose to greet us. He had contacted us when he saw an article about in The Berliner Morgenpost, the daily paper, about our traveling life, so we had dined with him a week earlier in a charming neighborhood near one of the many beautiful canals in the city. Michael’s company, Reisebuch Verlag Iwanowski, has published beautiful guidebooks in the German language about places all over the world for thirty years, www.iwanowski.de. He also owns a thriving tour company specializing in Africa, Iwanowski’s Individuelles Reisen, www.afrika.de, and a software company, too. Michael is a busy man and a delightful, entertaining companion. We were delighted to spend another evening in his company. This time, he introduced us to his son Andy, who had recently returned to live in Berlin after having lived in the United States for several years. Andy’s youthful take on the world, and his views on travel and adventure added an extra dimension to our conversation. This was his first visit to the exclusive China Club, too, whose limited roster includes an international group of high-powered members. He meant to make the most of the opportunity. He had a camera the size the space shuttle mounted on a tripod.
And for good reason. The view of the city was so mesmerizing that all four of us gravitated immediately to the edge of the terrace to get a better look. Directly below us was the dramatic Holocaust Memorial, almost five acres of thousands of concrete slab stelae. Seen from several stories above, the coffin-like slabs cast long shadows in the early evening. All of us were silent for a while and the soft evening light glancing off Berlin’s unique skyline: massive church and capitol city domes, historic monuments and ultra-modern buildings, with the Brandenburg Gate as its centerpiece, were all juxtaposed in an expression of Berlin’s youthful energy, its long history, and its vibrant international appeal.
We were treated to a rare warm, still evening in Berlin, so dinner was being served on the terrace. I wish every foodie I know could have shared the meal that followed. Candles and torches flickered everywhere and other diners’ murmurs and laughter drifted on the soft evening air. The China Club’s chef produced platter after platter of exquisite Asian specialties, which the four of us devoured without leaving a morsel. The service was, of course, impeccable, but unpretentious. The wine superb, and of course I never declined when the server appeared at my elbow. It occurred to me that even heads of state and international captains of commerce need to relax sometimes and enjoy an evening of fabulous food and companionship in a spectacular setting! Chancellor Angela Merkel is a frequent visitor and probably every important personage who comes to Berlin has tasted Chef Tam Kok Kong’s drop-dead signature wasabi prawns. Several times I glanced across the table at Tim and I wanted to giggle because I knew that he and I were both thinking “What are a couple of retired travelers in their same old black dress-up duds doing in a fabulous joint like this?”
We lingered over dessert and coffee, and then Michael invited us to have a look at the China Club facilities one floor below. As we entered, I gasped involuntarily. I’m never very subdued, but even if I were I would not have been able to control myself just then. The China Club is decorated with priceless antiques from all over China, and contains one of the most significant collections of modern Chinese art outside that country. It was spectacular. There were luxurious silk-covered walls, polished mahogany furnishings, antique gold-plated wooden panels, and most of all fabulous modern sculptures and paintings which were perfectly presented.
The Mao pop art was colorful, lively, sophisticated and entertaining! I think Michael enjoyed our obvious delight in seeing a Far Eastern aesthetic merging with a cosmopolitan space! For a moment he and I were in a room alone. A pen with the club’s logo lay on a table. He smiled conspiratorially, picked it up and whispered, “Here – put this in your purse!” And of course, I did. We laughed like naughty children all the way out to the street.
A short cab ride later, Tim and I carefully wound our way through the hundred or so bicycles parked haphazardly in the unlovely, plain courtyard of our apartment building and entered our comfortable but simple apartment. Tim said “Ah….home sweet anywhere! Nights like this make hauling suitcases, coping with oven-less kitchens, signs we can’t read and machines we don’t know how to operate worth it!”
We plopped down on our crazy orange sofa, enjoyed a nightcap, and composed a thank you note to Michael, whom we hope to see again in Florida, London or Paris! Making new friends truly is the best part of home free living, and we’re perfectly happy to dine in a country pub in Ireland, a no-name bistro in Paris, or a sidewalk pizza cafe in Florence, but I must admit that I’ll always treasure that magical evening when we dined with the Brandenburg Gate shimmering in the background!