Daniel Schreiber is a journalist and the author of the biography Susan Sontag, one of the New Yorker’s “books to watch out for” this August (trans. David Dollenmayer). His new book Nüchtern is just out in German, and is a very personal account of tackling addiction, combined with some sobering facts and considerations on drinking and not drinking, in Germany and elsewhere.
We embark on a non-exhaustive tour of the new Neukölln: Ban Ban Kitchen on Hermannstraße, followed by two fairly random bars I didn’t notice the names of, finishing up in Silver Future on Weserstraße.
“Korean soul food”, ginger beer, Club Mate, Diet Coke
What did we talk about?
Inevitably and uncomfortably, we talk about alcohol abuse and addiction. This will be my last Going Dutch with German Writers, at least for the time being, and Daniel asks why he gets to be the last writer. I tell him my reasons for stopping – which I’ve outlined here – but he pushes me further. I do drink a lot, don’t I? Good grief, this is hard. Well, I say – and of course I’ve been thinking a great deal about my drinking habits since reading his excellent book – I don’t think I do drink a lot, and by that I mean but don’t say that I don’t think I’m addicted to alcohol. But I do have a problem stopping drinking when I’m having a good time, especially if there are free drinks available. It’s like my sense of fun and my love of a bargain are conspiring against the sensible me. I’m not sure whether I’m kidding myself about this; as Daniel points out in Nüchtern, there’s almost always someone who drinks more than you to make you feel better about your own habits.
Embarrassingly enough, Daniel and I first met on an occasion when there were free drinks available. We met on the way to a publishing party, both sober, and by the time he left I had over-indulged. Which was awkward, because I knew even then that Daniel was writing a book about going sober and staying that way. Reading Nüchtern was a little like taking the red pill – it has opened my eyes and helped me to understand the world around me. I’m still thinking about my own drinking habits two weeks after reading it, which can only be a good thing.
I have of course overdressed for the occasion. It’s an unexpectedly cold night so I’m wearing a short red-and-black dogtooth check wool jacket with three-quarter-length sleeves over relatively normal clothes, with red ankle boots. I adore this jacket, and it was a bargain. Ban Ban Kitchen is a kind of roadside shack that does what they call “Korean soul food” and I get something called Nori Tacos, I think, with Bulgogi Beef. Basically it’s rice and cabbage and some good beef, resting in layers on a “taco” made of that seaweed paper. It’s OK but I’m incapable of eating it without leaving a trail of destruction in my wake, and Daniel takes the mickey: Jackie O. goes Neukölln. He seems to be doing fine, I notice – that’s the result of going sober, he says. After a long beat, he laughs; just kidding. And I can breathe again. Daniel is dressed with impeccable understated taste. He knows his way around Neukölln.
I ask him a few things about the specifics of being sober. Does he still get highs? I think I mean: does he still want them? Can he get high on adrenaline like I do sometimes? I’m not sure but I think what he says means he feels uncomfortable with adrenaline highs. He tells me about a colleague who drove him crazy, and how that really got his adrenaline pumping, and how he hated it. What he’s had to learn is how to relax and come down without alcohol, which used to be his mechanism for finishing off every day. Sport and meditation help him, apparently. I love the way Daniel writes about this in his book – he’s really very intelligent, so he notices every time he writes something banal, and apologizes for it. But there’s the rub: some things simply are banal but they still have to be said. And that’s one of the qualities that makes Nüchtern stand out, makes it something quite different to a self-help manual.
When I didn’t drink during pregnancy and breastfeeding I got very impatient with drunk conversations, I tell him. Does he have the same problem? Oh yes, absolutely! Things get so banal! He has to leave after a couple of hours when people start repeating themselves. Mine was a different kind of sobriety though, because breastfeeding is like a special happy drug anyway.
After wiping down the table, we move on. Daniel wants to take me to the other end of the new Neukölln, Weserstraße. OK. If it hadn’t been for Going Dutch, I don’t think I’d ever have discovered the new Neukölln because I’d spent a lot of time in the old Neukölln and had enough of it. I can’t say I feel entirely at home in the new Neukölln but it’s always interesting. Our first port of call is a small bar with strange wallpaper and toilets behind a wooden door. We’re clearly the oldest people in the place apart from the barman, who could be anything between 40 and 60 in the dingy light. Two Diet Cokes – actually Fritz Cola Light – without straws. Daniel is happy for me to drink alcohol, which I find incredibly magnanimous, but I think I’d be mortified if I got even the slightest bit tipsy in his company again.
I ask about the specifics of German drinking and Daniel launches into a very interesting explanation of northern European and southern European drinking cultures. In the north people binge on alcohol – Britain, Russia, Scandinavia. I blush. They only think they have a problem if they get drunk every day; getting off their head five times a week doesn’t count. In the south, France and Spain and so on, they drink every day with meals but being obviously intoxicated is frowned upon. Both methods are equally harmful. And what about Germany? The Germans are in the middle; they do both. People in northern Europe are often very positive about the French drinking culture, the idea of introducing children to moderate drinking at a relatively early age, I say. Daniel is horrified. Giving alcohol to children is the worst thing you can do – teenage brains are still malleable and they adapt so quickly to drinking that you do them inestimable harm. Oh God. In America, alcoholic careers are now progressing at a much more rapid pace, because kids start younger and their bodies and brains can cope even less well. Now they have alcohol and drug problems by their twenties. Oh God.
Daniel watches the young things around us with a touch of nostalgia, I think. He misses that feeling, he says, of finding a bar inestimably cool and oneself along with it; it’s to do with not having seen so many bars. But he can still wonder at things other than bars and himself, right, he’s not jaded in every respect? Oh yes. We move on. I don’t want to go in a place that looks like a converted butcher’s shop but the next one along looks OK. Two Diet Cokes with straws, and Daniel perches in the open window like a cool young thing. He used to love those superficial friendships you forge when you’re drunk, when you agree on everything ever. Can you uphold them in real life? Probably not; they probably only work when you’re drunk. Saccharine friendships.
Does he have any statistics about women and alcoholism? It’s mostly older men, he tells me, but women are catching up. Yay. Is he worried he’ll be labeled “the sober guy” for the rest of his life, I ask. What I mean is, is he worried people will constantly turn to him for advice and reassurance and he’ll have to keep telling them that if they’re asking him then yes, they probably are alcoholics. I think he gets the point but he gives an adorable sigh and grips the wood of the table and says he really hopes he’ll be the sober guy for the rest of his life.
We move on. How about Silver Future? It’s a bit gayer. I say I’ll have to see because I don’t want to sit there feeling like a voyeur. But inside it’s delightful. A good mixed crowd, pencil drawings of genitalia on fuchsia-pink walls, welcoming, lively. I don’t feel the slightest bit overdressed. Two bottles of “Spicy Ginger” – which is German ginger beer pretending to be English, but not pretending hard enough to provoke confusion by calling itself ginger beer. If you’re confused, you need to know that the drink calling itself ginger beer does not contain alcohol. Daniel checks the ingredients; it’s all fine. We discard the straws.
We get a sofa to ourselves with a view of the entire back room. We sit close together like saccharine friends and agree on things. It’s relaxing; it feels good. We talk about irrational fears and shyness, and wonderful mutual friends, and expats. Daniel lived in New York for six years and totally disapproved of other Germans living there. There’s a sliding scale of acceptability, I tell him, and he nods and laughs as I say that anyone who doesn’t speak German might as well not be here, but in fact anyone who hasn’t had a baby with a German is infinitely inferior too. Do I ever find expats I do approve of? Oh yes, anyone who’s been here longer than I have is automatically approved. We talk about the longlist for the German Book Prize. Daniel disapproves of that too – so many outstanding books are missing: Olga Grjasnowa, Robert Seethaler, Judith Hermann. I think those books will do fine without being nominated; they’re outstanding books, after all. But Daniel thinks the jury is trying to look clever by choosing obscure novels nobody would ever read otherwise. We don’t argue over it.
Is he planning his next book? Hmm, he has a secret project that his publisher won’t let him talk about. And he wants to write a book about being gay; Germanyneeds a book about that. We share a brief rant about Germans’ inability to write in the first person, which makes a lot of non-fiction (and indeed criticism) dull and impersonal. Daniel has got that nut cracked, though – he does it very well in Nüchtern, very Joan Didion. I’m pleased someone has started doing it in an intelligent way. Do I really think it won’t get translated? Well, it is a bit German, and if there’s another book about it on the market already in English then the chances look slim. This is always a horrible thing to have to say, but then again Daniel’s Susan Sontag book got translated into English. True. That’s a fantastic achievement. True.
We spend some time faffing about trying to take photos both of us approve of. Thank goodness neither us is vain. Interestingly enough, many of the pictures we reject make us both look drunk. And then Daniel walks me to the station because I seem to have no sense of direction in the dark, and there are various personal revelations of the kind no person in their right mind would want to see in the newspaper, as there have been throughout the evening. It has been a genuine delight; Daniel is surprised but I am not.