After our second day in Dresden, heading home from an informative walking tour by a professor-like Syrian immigrant who reminded me vaguely of my grandad, we decided on a whim to do a little more research on our host over a cup of coffee. The dubious environment in which we were set up was enough to make us want to investigate.
Besides the loud neighbours, the random people coming in and out of the apartment (who were, I might add, using the same shower as we were), the unyielding stench of ramen noodles and, not to mention, overall cleanliness of the place, the thing that seemed to bother me the most was the host’s reaction to me asking his name. He could have misheard me, if I was to give him the benefit of the doubt, or taken a little time to translate what I was saying, but there was still a persistent niggling doubt that there was more to it than that.
So, we looked him up, and this time properly.
When picking rooms, our initial circumstances were such that Jack’s was the only one available on our budget at short notice. Our first choice cancelled on us, so in desperation, we merely skimmed through a flurry of positive comments about this one place and impetuously made a decision. It seemed alright then; we had got a sweet deal. But as soon as we looked it over, the same information that we thought convincing, looking through his profile and the comments below one at a time, we almost immediately identified frustratingly evident patterns of skulduggery.
All of the room’s recommendations were either one word or, at most, a sentence long, with unashamed repetitions of names such as Jack, Tom and James, as well as the occasional, lazy reutilisation of same stock profile picture of a blonde guy in sunglasses. Delving deeper, we were also able to find that the same room we were staying in was being advertised repeatedly on different accounts. They were either photoshopped to high heaven, or shown in deliberately bad lighting to hide the marks on the wall and the cracks on the ceiling. It only took us looking to through a couple of these fakes before we finally found the main account, the mother Jack, whose profile was besieged with bad reviews all highlighting the very same issues that we had experienced thus far.
In all fairness, it could have been worse. Yes, the guy was unclean and inconsiderate, possibly in a student in a neglected student block, but the room was cheap and bearable if you came on your own and needed a place to crash for the night. The guy hadn’t robbed anyone or personally gave anyone a hard time, so it became easier for us to deal with the situation after we had gained some closure.
In any case we did not hesitate report him and his accounts at the end of our trip, leaving a lengthy review for the guy to consider of constructive criticism to think over. Maddy and I both agreed that we probably would not have cared if the guy was sneakily subletting if we were treated better and to better facilities.
Dresden’s Neustadt (New city), situated just across the river Elbe from the historical Altstadt (Old city) where we’d spent most of our time, was a part of the city that survived most of the bombing during WW2. It is worth noting that the names for both sides of town are misleading. Since most of the Altstadt was destroyed and now skilfully reconstructed, the Neustadt still possesses significantly older buildings of Baroque finesse that have stood the test of time. Even so, there is no competition with respect to the marvelous aesthetic of the new Altstadt, which in my opinion probably has one of the most beautiful city squares in the world, the Theaterplatz by the Elbe, with the statue of King Johann at its centre.
The Neustadt boasted differing charms. The people we met and the sort of establishments we encountered, especially while strolling through the Louisastraße, demonstrated a young and artistic eccentricity (hipster culture) that verged on kitsch, but at the time was quite refreshing amidst the old architecture and traditionally European streets. We had seen similar things happening all around Berlin, and indeed in the England where we live, so the transition was not altogether surprising to us. It cannot be denied that there was an infectiously lively feel to Neustadt, one that differed slightly from the palpable nostalgia felt around its compatriot across the river.
Two eateries were on our list that day, coming highly recommended from several friends and people we’d met along the way. The first was Dürüm Kebap Haus on Rothenburger Street, and the second was Curry & Co on Louisastraße, our second go at currywurst. Though we would not have minded exploring this new part of Dresden, it was convenient that they were situated relatively close together.
Since I could not remember the name of the kebab spot at first, my panic escalated as we began to see different kebab shops pop up one after the other as we walked down the main street. Luckily enough I was able to look up the place on my phone, and was able to find it around the corner, with the ever-positive sign of people sitting outside enjoying their lunch, while other establishments had their waiters poking their head out the door on the lookout for potential customers. At Kebap Haus, customers sat on steps outside, on benches against the front wall, hunched over dürüm wraps about a foot-long and as thick as the base of my forearm. It could have been a scene from a comedy, for if one were to take a snapshot of the event, one would see a pre-schooler and her mother, a construction workman, a lady in a striped pantsuit and a guy in a band t-shirt all in the same physical positions gorging on kebabs or dürüm as if nothing else mattered in the world.
Needless to say, we ordered what they were having.
Inside the dürüm restaurant expressed a simple yet traditional Turkish restaurant setting with a grill and donner section behind a counter at the entrance, and a seating area positioned further inwards through an arched doorway. Besides the alluring aromatics of meat and falafel, there was a subtle hint shisha smoke and rose water in the air. I would be lying if I said I did not feel even slightly nostalgic thinking about my time in such places in Dubai. As was customary, the glass counters showcased a variety of fresh fruit and veg, cling wrapped skewers of different kinds of kebab and few steel containers of sauces: mint, chilli, hummus and garlic being the most familiar.
A rotund cook with a dense unibrow, who stood skewering meat when we entered, interrupted our attempt to order with a loud clearing of his throat and a cocky smile that knew exactly for what we had come. After he dispensed with his vinyl gloves, he began to speak to us in all the English I think he ever needed:
‘Umm,’ I looked around because I had no idea what dürüm was, ‘Chicken?’ I replied, pointing at the shawarma rotisserie.
‘Dürüm.’, he nodded. ‘Dürüm Chicken Good.’
‘Okay, yes, thank you.’ I looked over to Maddy to reassure her. She hadn’t yet tried the glorious deliciousness that was a chicken shawarma before. It’s an absolute travesty that we do not get them in Norwich where we live back in England. I grew up on them in Dubai, though I too hadn’t had a shawarma in months. My mouth watered at the thought of it and the prospect before me.
‘Like outside?’ The cook interjected, pointing at the diners outside.
‘Yes, please. Maybe smaller?’ I gestured smaller by bring my palms closer together.
He hesitated a moment and then said with a shrug, ‘No small. No middle. Big only and super big only.’
I turned to Maddy to confirm that we wanted the big and not the super big. She nodded in agreement, eyes betraying her mind churning over the idea of what the guy meant by super big.
‘Just one big please,’ I turned to the cook again.
‘Yes, thank you.’
The cook nodded and pointed me in the direction of the cashier who would give me a coupon to hand over to the cook after I paid. There had been a couple of people already waiting, so by the time we got our coupon our wrap was almost done.
The guy didn’t hold back.
I don’t think I’d ever seen a dürüm kebab wrap so large before. I watched as his gloved his hands lathered the massive flatbread base with sauce, placed a moderate arrangement of salad on top and then finally, heaped two handfuls of chicken over. Gulp. He spread it all evenly, put some more sauce on and wrapped everything with neat and quick efficiency. Only when he was done did I realise that I hadn’t told the guy what sauces I wanted. Oh well.
While I could tell the size of the thing from where I stood, having it in my hands, feeling its weight and length, truly awakened me to the challenge at hand….don’t be dirty, I know what you’re thinking.
‘Umm…this is big one yes?’ I asked with a nervous laugh.
‘No big, no super big.’ He imitated my smaller gesture I did earlier. ‘You share friend, so medium big. Don’t worry!’ The guy winked and waved me off. Surprised and overwhelmed, but nevertheless grateful, I thanked him and left.
Maddy’s eyes immediately darted back at me as soon as her taste buds registered that greatness it had never encountered before. She was surprised because of how amazing the wrap was, confused because she doesn’t usually like eating kebabs, and angry as if I had kept this thing from her for so long. Yes, Maddy has very expressive eyes, anyone who’s met her would tell you the same. She sat back against the wall, closed her eyes and handed the dürüm over as she continued her intoxicated mastication.
Eating that chicken dürüm was like going home. Even though the taste of the combined sauces and the bread were slightly different, they were not flavours that were unfamiliar to me. I grew up eating grilled assortments at Arz Lebanon, chicken shawarmas at Yahala and meat pides at Istanbul Flower in Dubai so it was a delightful reconnection. The essence of such meals lies in the almost rhythmic thrum of juicy meat, tahini, chilli and garlic inspired sauces and fresh salad all hitting your palate with euphoric synchronicity. There is a fulfilling satisfaction that comes every bite, the kind that only true comfort food can replicate.
As Maddy and I passed the dürüm between us, like a joint that’s already taken us places and is taking us ever further, our conversation transitioned from the Maddy’s desire to return to vegetarianism after the holiday to how sometimes fast food gets an unfairly bad reputation. It was almost as if the wrap had some sort of philosophical impact on us. My contributions revolved around the idea that while it is completely alright for someone to chastise and boycott fast food for how unhealthy it is in the long run, it is absolute malarkey when someone says that they don’t eat the same because it ‘tastes’ bad. People who say such things, I said with raised fists and a mouthful of dürüm, are either in the process of or have succeeded in brainwashing themselves against ‘fatty foods’. Power to them if they can keep healthy, but the guy who says that fried chicken doesn’t taste good either doesn’t know what he is talking about or hasn’t been introduced to the good stuff. It was the same with kebabs, and Maddy and I fist bumped to the fact that we were on the good stuff indeed.