There were white porcelain cups for espresso and pink paper cups for ice cream. Sparkling water, fruit juices, and energy drinks lined the refrigerator in neat rows. On the chrome-tiled bar, plastic containers of sprinkles and diner-style sugar shakers held the most elemental kinds of their respective garnish: rainbow and chocolate, white and brown. The barista was sinewy and tan, with a grizzled beard, man bun, and an army-green muscle tee with armholes down to his waist. He resembled a three-quarter-size Chris Hemsworth as Thor, I thought, or maybe just the stereotypical hipster employee of a funky coffee shop. Australian, probably.
At any other café-cum-ice-cream-parlor in Berlin’s largely gentrified neighborhood of Friedrichshain, in the old East Germany, this scene would’ve been unremarkable to the point of banality. But I wasn’t at any old café. I was at the tucked-away snack shop of what is likely the world’s most famous, and certainly its most mythologized, nightclub: Berghain.
Despite its formidable sound system and weekend lineups that comprise a who’s-who of both established and avant-garde techno and house, Berghain has a reputation staked less on its music than its Dionysian, anything-goes atmosphere. Much of the space—a hulking former power plant whose vast turbine room, girded by 60-foot-tall concrete pillars, is now the main dance floor—perpetually smells like a fetid mixture of beer, cigarettes, weed, sweat, urine, feces, and semen that could be bottled and sold as Sin. With a ban on photography inside and a notoriously inscrutable door policy, what happens in Berghain really does stay in Berghain. (At least until gaunt, dishevelled revellers, their faces plastered with sweat and shit-eating grins, stumble out of its graffitied front door on Monday morning. With eyes forced shut by the blinding natural light, they trudge past the line of people who look like their past selves, people who gulp with excitement and look at them and whisper, “Oh my God, that’s gonna be us…”)
Two shirtless men in mesh skirts shared a cup of chocolate ice cream, the thick metal chains around their necks mirrored by their veiny forearms around one another’s waists.
Berghain is a place defined by contradictions. It’s at once cavernous, labyrinthine, and intimate. It’s famous for its so-called “dark rooms,” and yet it pulses with strobe lights. The low rumble of its towering Funktion-One sound system is audible a quarter of a mile away, yet in the middle of its main dance floor, it’s possible to have a conversation without yelling.
It was off the side of that dance floor, past a swing the size of a dining-room table, and up a narrow stairway where I found the part of Berghain most incongruous of all: the ice-cream parlor. Even with the thumping sound system and heaving sea of bodies directly below, no one was dancing. Beyond the occasional tapping foot or jittering hand, everyone was acting so… normal. As if this were any third-wave coffee shop. People wore outfits that would get them censored on cable television, yet they were eating the kinds of food served at a birthday party for a picky, toothless toddler.
Everyone seemed to be on a date in reverse order: sex in a bathroom stall, then drugs in a dark corner, then an affogato by candlelight.
A woman in a skintight black-leather bodysuit, with piercings between her eyebrows, leaned against a wall, alternately puffing on a cigarette and sipping orange juice. Two shirtless men in mesh skirts shared a cup of chocolate ice cream, the thick metal chains around their necks mirrored by their veiny forearms around one another’s waists. A woman in a teal bra and ripped jeans floundered over a banquette, her body liquid like one of Dalí’s melting clocks, while a man seated behind her held her close with one hand and steadied a cup of ice cream on his thigh with the other. A gray-haired man wearing tight leather pants and thick-rimmed black glasses finished a cappuccino, ordered and downed a shot so green it looked radioactive, and calmly walked back downstairs. There were men in sporty white jockstraps with full-on erections drinking apple juice, women in steel-toed combat boots with six-inch-high heels pecking at tiny sandwiches, people with tattoos covering their skulls laughing over chocolate-chip muffins and bananas. Everyone seemed to be on a date in reverse order: sex in a bathroom stall, then drugs in a dark corner, then an affogato by candlelight.
I surveyed the ice cream beneath the glass, pointed at the tub of chocolate lit by a halo-like tube of neon, and held up two fingers in the barista’s direction. When he opened the freezer, condensation rose and swirled in the hot, sticky air. His scoops were generous, their price (€2.40 in total) even more so. I took a bite. A warm giddiness, one I hadn’t felt since getting into Berghain after a dreary two-hour wait earlier that morning, immediately buoyed me. I’d never had plain chocolate ice cream this good—smooth, creamy, not too sweet, not artificial-tasting. I offered a spoonful to my girlfriend, whose face lit up with the same gleeful recognition it did every time we’d share a pint of Ben & Jerry’s on my couch. “Holy fuck.”
While my childhood cravings for doughnuts, s’mores, and devil’s food cake have waned, my obsession with ice cream has remained constant. At age 26, I eat as much ice cream, if not more, than when I was a kid. (I wasn’t, thankfully, 6’4” in middle school.) Having a hot-fudge sundae on a sun-dappled park bench, a fruity milkshake by the beach, a midnight bowl of mint chip in my kitchen, or even a small cup of chocolate inside a Berlin nightclub while surrounded by mostly naked people in leather and chains—all feel like all-consuming, almost juvenile acts driven by pure self-indulgence. Ice cream is a mental and physical escape from adulthood and all the responsibilities that come with it. It makes me feel like a kid again.
So, too, does raving. Entering a hypnotic state on Berghain’s dance floor is an inevitability, a product of the club’s repetitive, shadowy, famously stripped-down techno. I get a natural high from hours of bouncing from foot to foot, my hands slapping my thighs in synch with the bass, my torso tightly wound, my head nodding and rolling as if controlled by a drunk ventriloquist. People meditate or go on long runs for the same reason, or so I’ve been told: It stimulates the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers and producers of euphoria. It makes them feel good.
I understand why an ice-cream parlor exists in a place like Berghain. Why it teems with people—content, sated, relaxed—every time I walk up its dark stairs. Why, scraping the bottom of my cup for the last bits of soupy Berghain ice cream, I feel more unencumbered by negative thoughts than at any point in recent memory. The pursuit of pleasure is a winding road, but the intersection of ice cream and Berghain is a pretty good place to stop for a while.