Berlin Dispatch: An Urban Cowboy and His Fish Soup

January 15, 2017 – 06:01 pm

In Argentine folklore, the gaucho is a sort of estranged cowboy, a rebel who lives off the land. I have an Argentine writer friend who once made a brilliant observation about the taxi drivers of Buenos Aires being the new gauchos.

“Their cabs are their horses, ” she explained, “Their passengers are the cattle, the streets are their terrain, and their desire for freedom is at the center of it all.”

The more cab rides I took in Buenos Aires, the more I agreed with her. Over and over again, taxistas told me they’d chosen their profession because they couldn’t stomach the idea of a traditional boss or a 9-5 schedule. Driving a cab allowed them to come and go as they pleased – or even disappear.

After riding from Brandenburg Gate to Wilmersdorf in Roland’s cab a few days ago, I realized that the new gauchos are not confined to Buenos Aires.

It wasn’t just the steely eyes or the black leather vest that made me think of Roland as an urban cowboy. It wasn’t even the fact that he’s been riding and racing horses since he was six years old. It was his whole what-the-hell approach to our journey – and his obvious attachment to his independence.

Roland didn’t give a fig that we were being filmed by a TV crew from a German news show called RTL:

And he made it very clear as we went deeper into our conversation that his entire professional life was organized around a single principle: his freedom.

At one time, he owned three taxis, but he got rid of them when he realized he could make the same money – and deal with less paperwork and get away to Portugal three times a year – leasing a cab from someone else.

When the Wall came down, Roland was living in East Berlin. How did he learn the other half of the city?

“I’ve been driving for 25 years. I learned by doing. It’s normal. Every week you learn something new in this job. I love it, ” he said.

Tell me all about it, I said. That’s when I confessed that I drive a cab in New York.

“Oh really?” he said, “I have a girlfriend who drove a cab in New York. She drives a cab here now.”

“What?! Your girlfriend is a cabbie? I’ve never known a cab driving couple. That is so cool! How did you meet her?”

It wasn’t quite that poetic in the end – the ‘girlfriend’ actually turned out to be a female friend of his. But I still thought it was pretty cool that he’d fallen in love with one of his dispatchers, moved to West Berlin and had a son with her. In the end, though, he married a doctor’s assistant – in one of the three restaurants he recommended to us.

Roland told me right off the bat that his kitchen was the best restaurant in town, but when he does eat out, it’s at one of several places near his apartment in Wilmersdorf (an upper-middle class neighborhood on Berlin’s west side).

Being the sap that I am, I was leaning toward the Italian place where he’d had his wedding – and where he told us they make good garlic soup and spaghetti aglio olio (with garlic, olive oil, and shrimp). But there was also a Mexican place owned by two Turkish sisters called Alcatraz. Then there was Soley’s, where the owner was Persian, the waitress Venezuelan, and the food “fresh and different every day.”


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