Patti Smith’s most recent memoir, M Train, was my amiable, occasionally absent-minded companion through the frigid first weeks of January in Berlin. Work commitments kept me apart from my husband for the early part of the year, and my solitude created an ideal state of mind to absorb M Train, which in large part is a meditation on being a woman alone in the world—and the search for a great cup of coffee.
Smith writes about her home life in New York City, which centers around a now-shuttered coffee shop, Café ’Ino, and Rockaway Beach, where she impulse-buys a modest bungalow she nicknames the Alamo. She takes us with her on her travels: French Guiana, London, Mexico, Japan, Yorkshire, Tangier, and, as luck would have it, Berlin. At loose ends one weekend while reading the book, I retraced her steps around the city.
Prompted by a meeting of the Continental Drift Club—an obscure, now-disbanded society (of which Smith was a member) dedicated to the memory of Alfred Wegener, the originator of the theory of continental drift—Smith’s visit to Berlin begins with her checking into a hotel that’s “a renovated Bauhaus structure in the Mitte district of the former East Berlin.” Although she doesn’t name it, this description along with its proximity to the church of St. Marien and St. Nikolai, where Smith goes for a walk, indicates it’s the hotel at Soho House Berlin, a branch of the private members’ club started in London that has now spawned outposts in hipster hotspots around the world. The building has a checkered history, starting life as a Jewish-owned department store and eventually becoming the headquarters of the Hitler Youth. Unless you notice a small clear acrylic plaque that details this history on the sidewalk outside, there’s no indication of the building’s past once you enter the heavy glass doors, which may explain why Smith didn’t mention it in M Train.
For some Berliners, the opening of Soho House in 2010 was tantamount to a continuation of the building’s nefarious history. A private members’ club is arguably the antithesis of the city’s communal ethos and yet another sign of gentrification. There’s no denying the gentrification argument, but The Store Kitchen, the café on the ground floor, is open to the public. Dining happens at a selection of artfully mismatched tables, couches, and lounge chairs arranged around the space, which also serves as a luxury retail boutique. Despite the pretention of the setting, no one seemed to mind when I spent a few hours reading there after finishing off my avocado toast.
After checking into the hotel, Smith immediately heads to nearby Pasternak, a Russian restaurant in Prenzlauer Berg decorated in the manner of an elderly Eastern European relative’s living room. Here she sits in her favorite spot, on a plump leather couch beneath a photograph of Mikhail Bulgakov, author of The Master and Margarita, which Smith notes she was once obsessed with. On my own visit I was too self-conscious to stake a claim to the couch, sitting instead at a table for two in the corner at the opposite end of the restaurant. Here I happily eavesdropped on a table of two lively late-middle-aged German couples while pretending to read M Train and slurping on borscht. Like her choice of table, Smith’s meal of caviar served with a shot of vodka and a glass of black coffee was bolder than my beetroot soup. It was nonetheless delicious, enlivened by the addition of large white beans that reminded me of the white bean soup Smith occasionally orders in M Train while writing at ’Ino.
Outside Pasternak, Smith takes a walk in the small park that includes “the city’s oldest water tower.” Like Soho House, the structure has a tragic history that Smith doesn’t mention. Prior to its current incarnation as apartments, the water tower had an adjacent building that was the first concentration camp in Nazi Germany. Without wanting to read too much into the symbolism of the Berlin buildings that appear in M Train—Berlin is, after all, a city where it’s almost impossible not to interact with architecture tinged by the legacy of war and oppression—it struck me that these icons of sorrow looming silently in Smith’s visit to the city echo the theme of loss in the book: the death of Smith’s husband, parents and brother; Hurricane Sandy; and the shuttering of her beloved cafés, ’Ino in the city and Zak’s in Rockaway Beach.
After giving a disastrous speech to the Continental Drift Club—salvaged afterward by vodkas with the Liverpudlian club secretary at Pasternak—Smith stays on in Berlin for a few days to revisit old haunts. She heads to Zoo Station in West Berlin for breakfast at Café Zoo before wandering around the mostly empty zoo trying to figure out if a worker scraping a camel logo off the café door meant that it was closing. My own investigation turned up a notice on the Zoo Station shopping center website saying it was Zurzeit im Umbau—closed for renovation. Instead I headed to the nearby Paris Bar for steak-frites. Smith doesn’t mention it in the book, but it was a favorite of her contemporaries, Iggy Pop and David Bowie, during their Berlin years in the late 1970s. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon when I dined and the white-aproned waiter took me on an impromptu tour of the restaurant’s legendary art collection, a salon-style hanging in which a Gerhard Richter co-exists with a red-tipped rocket named Miss Riley. It was easy to imagine it as a setting for something out of Smith’s first memoir, Just Kids.
Smith finishes her visit to Berlin with a morning walk through Dorotheenstadt Cemetery off Chausseestraße in Mitte, and coincidentally just around the corner from my office. Her habit of visiting the graves of artists she loves—she also makes pilgrimages to the graves of Sylvia Plath in Yorkshire, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa and Osamu Dazai in Japan, and Paul Genet in Morocco—exemplifies one of Smith’s best and most surprising traits: her unabashed, earnest fangirl-ness. At Dorotheenstadt, Smith finally notices the legacy of World War II in the cemetery’s “block-long bullet-riddled walls” as she makes her way to where Bertolt Brecht is buried. (His former residence, which is now the Brecht archive, is next door to the cemetery.) Graveside she hums the lullaby from his play, Mother Courage and Her Children, slipping into a brief and mournful reminiscence of her dead mother and brother.
After my own visit to Brecht’s grave I headed to my favorite café, the nearby Oslo Kaffebar. There I drank my coffee alone but contented with Smith’s companionship.
Jennifer Richardson is the author of a travel memoir, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage. Her writing has appeared in publications including The Rumpus, Full Grown People, and Edible Ojai & Ventura County, and is forthcoming in the anthology A Cup of Culture and a Pinch of Crisis.