I TRIED TO EAT BERLIN'S MOST FAMOUS VEGETARIAN KEBAB

CRISPIN BEST

On my last morning of ten days in Berlin, I showered and sat naked on a sofa bed, feeling bad and looking at the space in the room where, if there had been one, a television might have stood.

I downloaded the app "TripAdvisor", searched "breakfast", got dressed and started walking toward a nearby cafe.

The air was prickly, comforting and armpit-like. I walked through a small street market which seemed to consist almost entirely of stalls with smiling people selling unexpectedly big fruit.

"Big fruit," I thought.

A sad-seeming person was selling fabric. A sad-seeming person was selling fish.

"Should've tried selling big fruit, guys," I thought.

A few minutes later, I entered the restaurant that TripAdvisor had suggested, and was confronted with three people holding empty plates, huddled around several bowls of boiled eggs. They looked up at me, confused. I looked out of the window, read "BUFFET" stenciled backwards, and I panicked. How many trips or platefuls would I be allowed? What combinations of foods would be frowned upon by the locals? How am I expected to control myself around so many boiled eggs?

I squinted at the blank screen of my locked phone and frowned. I paused a moment to think "Oh no! A made-up reason to leave! What a pity!" and ran away. 

Outside, I continued walking in the same direction that I already had been, eventually meeting and following the canal, walking more-or-less at the same speed as a raft which was drifting slowly in the vague current. On the raft, a man was passionately and competently singing "Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd and another man was ruining it by joining in. A woman was smiling at the two men. The smiling woman closed her eyes.

Waiting at a pedestrian crossing, I noticed that I was thinking about a kebab truck, Mustafa's, which had been recommended to me a number of times over the previous few years. I noticed I had already unthinkingly been walking towards the area in which the truck was and gave myself a secret thumbs up next to my hip. Another job well done, my unconscious.

In Germany, I remembered, they spell it "kebap".

For reference, here are some reviews of Mustafa's:

I felt simultaneous urges to walk both faster and slower. I felt ready for something both cheap and sublime. I felt ready for an explosion of taste.

When I arrived at the kebab truck, the queue was long. It was still before noon, and it felt good to be with a gang of people who wanted a kebab on a summer morning.

The queue was directly next to a bike lane and people kept almost getting hit by cyclists and jumping out of the way, laughing. Cyclists were ringing their bells and frowning. It felt like some kind of gentle kebab video game.

After about five minutes without the queue moving, for the first time since I had arrived in Germany, I turned on 3G and data roaming on my phone. I messaged Lucy. She told me I should write about the kebab.

Various people were cutting in up ahead. It felt good. There were three French girls behind me who were taking it in turns to be "the person in the queue" while the other two sat sighing on a nearby bench. I imagined them all eating kebabs and it felt good. If someone looks sad, you can just imagine them eating a big kebab and everything feels better.

A dog that seemed to be suffering from extreme anxiety was a few spaces ahead of me in the queue. It was looking back at a nearby currywurst shop named "Curry 36" in a mournful way. Its owners were completely ignoring it and the dog kept looking at them and then at the currywurst shop, doing its best. I wanted the dog to be telepathic. I wanted the dog to get the currywurst that it wanted and deserved.

I noticed that there were a lot of prams in the queue. "Baby's first kebab," I thought. It felt good to be involved in some small way in this beautiful rite of passage. "Kebaby".

I looked back at the lengthening queue behind me and laughed, experiencing what felt at the time like a sudden epiphany in response to feeling like I had hardly moved in 20 minutes:

Wow.

A lady walked past shaking her head and saying something to her friend in German which - though I couldn't hear or understand it - I perceived as "My god, these people and their goddamn kebaps!!"

I noticed myself in the background of a number of selfies of people up ahead and felt immortalised and valuable. Lucy told me to take pictures and I took one and people noticed they were in the background of my selfie and I hoped they felt immortalised and valuable.

A well-dressed group of people in their ~50s up ahead in the queue were drinking alcohol and I looked at my miserable, drinkless hands and felt envious and good. It was Pride that afternoon and nearby a dad was fingerpainting a rainbow onto a five-year-old's face while the mum wrote "PLEASE CALL" and then a phone number in large black letters on the boy's arm.

I was getting close. Mustafa wears a bucket hat in a dope way and is a cool guy. I trusted him to make my kebab.

Gemüse means "vegetable". I texted Lucy asking if this vegetable kebab truck was the favourite of a certain famously vegetarian dictator and whether "Curry 36" was named after the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

My phone kept autocorrecting "hitler" to "butler" and it felt good to be spending my last day in Germany being awful on my own, using the internet and fraternising with kebab lovers.

What if Gerard Butler's real name is Gerard Hitler?

With four people left ahead of me in the queue, I started listening more intently to the orders, internally rehearsing how I should phrase the order in German, what supplementary questions they might ask me in response, how to reply to those, and so on. Would being overly friendly give me a better chance of getting a bigger portion, or would they be able to tell I was a noob?

The first person I heard order asked for a "dürüm". I looked at the menu and discovered this was a kind of chicken and vegetable wrap: marinated chicken, peppers, chillies, aubergine, potatoes, feta, hummus, chilli sauce, yoghurt, garlic sauce, onions, tomato, cucumber, and parsley all rolled into a thin flatbread. It looked really good. For the first time I noticed that the huge, revolving rotisserie cone of chicken had green peppers packed in and marinated inside the meat.

One of the mums up ahead was dancing excitedly while the man in the cart made her food. I wanted to dance. I felt my foot tapping awkwardly.

The next two people ordered dürüms and, when the person in front of me in the queue said "dürüm" with a "duh... obviously" dismissive roll of the eyes, I realised that it was for the dürüm - not the famous gemüsekebap - that all these people had come and waited this long.

The guy behind the counter put the dürüms together in a slow but expert way, with the learned, careful demeanour of a maternity nurse changing the two-hundredth nappy of the day.

It came to my turn. I ordered and waited, blinking and biting my lip.

The kebabs look like a burrito:

When it had come to my turn to choose, for the second time that day, I had panicked. I had failed. I admit it: I ordered the dürüm instead of the gemüsekebap. I had been waiting for over an hour. I lost my mind. I didn't want to look like a fool in front of my eye-rolling comrade.

For the entire duration of my eating it, a cool wasp wouldn't give up the idea that he wanted to fuck my dürüm. He had no interest in anyone else's food, circling and trying to land on mine for the full eight minutes it took me to finish it. I had to spin around between bites, to try to disorient him, but he wouldn't give up. He was such a sad idiot. I loved him. I loved him and he never got to fuck my kebab.

The dürüm was delicious, undeniably one of the nicest kebabs I'd ever had: the gentle acidity of the cheese balanced with the slight bitterness of the parsley and the deep, savoury flavour of the meat, all wrapped in bread that was lightly dusted with a lip-smacking seasoning. But that's not the point.

Readers: I never got the gemüsekebap. I failed you.

I'm so sorry.

I miss Mustafa.

I miss that wasp.

I miss Berlin.

Originally published in The Shabby Doll Reader in 2015 :)