“The reason for this behavior,” he said, and sipped his glass of Riesling, “is that freedom is a novel concept to these people. 23 years ago, a wall divided their city in half — I think outsiders forget this.”
The behavior in question is the propensity of Berliners to party — and, in the case of gays, fuck — without abandon. The man questioning it is Henrique, a 20-something Brazilian (with a German passport) I met last Tuesday.
I nodded in agreement, but at the same time found it difficult not to let my eyes stray. We were enjoying our bottle of German wine along the water in Berlin’s Monbijou Park, alongside no less than two dozen extremely good looking men, most of them shirtless.
I am not a sex tourist, but I came to Berlin largely because of the city’s international reputation as a sex tourism hub. The plan was to spend as many night as possible in the city’s famous sex clubs, to get the proverbial devil out of my system before traveling onward to Turkey and the Caucasus, where the prospect of action with other men was dim.
I did not plan to fall in love with Henrique.
To be sure, we met via Grindr online and I expected, at most, a good lay from him — he is not my first Brazilian, even though I am apparently his first American. In fact, I had a date planned with an actual German the following night, before an all-nighter Thursday at Berlin’s infamous Lab.oratory to kick off my weekend of debauchery.
But I had a lovely Italian meal with Henrique instead, followed by drinks at — of all places — a gay bar.
Roses in Kreuzberg is allegedly among the tamest of Berlin’s countless gay establishments. It is without a doubt the most old-school — I believe Bush was president the last time a drag queen served me alcohol on a weeknight.
He pressed me up against the mirrored wall and kissed me. “What happens if I fall in love with you?”
I hopped up onto a barstool. “Well, I have no plans,” I said matter-of-factly. “So, if you fall in love with me, I’ll stay in Berlin for you.
“But can I tell you something?” We were drinking white wine again. (fun fact: I only drink white wine these days) “Being here makes me anxious.”
Henrique’s smile faded. “Do you feel attracted to other guys in here?”
I shook my head even though, truth be told, there were some hotties. “It’s not really that simple.”
“I don’t understand.” He wrapped his arms around my waist, and pulled me off the stool. “But if you wish, we can go.”
I grabbed his hand as we walked out of the bar and onto noisy Oranienstraße. “You will understand.”
What I couldn’t tell Henrique in that moment is that Berlin, and not Roses or Kreuzberg in particular, was the root of my discomfort.
And the availability of no-strings sex with beautiful men is only the beginning of why I think living here would be problematic. With the new Berlin-Brandenburg international airport more than a year behind schedule, flights from the German capital to most anywhere outside the European Union were outside a price range a travel blogger like me, whose advertising income is relatively modest, could afford to pay on a regular enough basis to maintain the pace of adventure I have set up the past few years.
To be fair, I decided before arriving to Berlin — I have been traveling for three months — that my central Asian adventure was probably not going to happen, at least not as planned. But soon or later, I knew, my wanderlust would once again rear its ugly head.
The following Sunday, we finished our brunch in posh Prenzlauer Berg at around four in the afternoon; we’d slept until two, a feat I’ve accomplished only a few times in my life. It was our fifth consecutive sleep together, of the five nights we’ve known each other.
Indeed, we spent so many nights together than I checked out of my hostel at Warschauer Straße in Freidrichschain and am now essentially living with him. It has been stranger for me — I have never been in a live-in relationship — than for Henrique, who was married, for six years, to a German. (This is why he has a German passport).
After a brief stroll through Mauer Park and its Sunday market, we laid down on a patch of grass at the Berlin Wall memorial near Bernauer Straße; 23 years ago, the ground beneath us was on the “east” side of a wall that is now reduced to spires of rusted rebar.
I put my hand on Henrique’s face. “I think I love you.”
“And I you,” he laughed, and removed the royal blue blazer that matched my cheap shoes from H&M.
“But I am not sure I can stay in Berlin until January for you.” One of the countless things in common Henrique and I have is our mutual desire to live in Bangkok on an extended basis, but Henrique’s co-ownership of a busy salon in Berlin makes him less flexible than me by approximately five months. “And to be honest, I am not sure I can keep my travel blog going if I do.
“I am afraid staying here with you will mean giving up the person I was before I met you.”
He smiled widely, but I could tell he wasn’t happy. “But you said you would stay for me, in the bar last week. Do you remember?”
I nodded. “I want to stay with you. You are the man I’ve search the world for. But I’ve also been searching for freedom, and for financial gain. And I fear, although I don’t know for sure, that I might have to choose.”
Things got quiet at that point and before I knew it, we were onboard the U8 U-Bahn back toward Henrique’s one bedroom off Heinrich Heine Straße.
He held my hand as we walked through the could-be-charming public square where we’d seen junkies shooting up heroin at 10 a.m. the previous morning. “It’s clear to me now, how you feel.”
“That’s funny,” I stepped away from him. “Because it’s not clear to me — this is my point.”
He unlocked the door, and we walked up the four long flights of stairs, against without speaking.
After a few tense minutes inside, me at the dining room table on my laptop, and him on the sleek leather sectional couch with his iPad, we cracked open yet another bottle of white wine — this one Italian and, quite frankly, disgusting.
It is ironic, as I look with confusion but also hopefulness toward my future with Henrique, that the backdrop for our romance is a city where the notion of “freedom” is the word of the day: I know that even in a best-case scenario, I would be giving up a sizable about of mine to remain here.