A major benefit of living in a city like Berlin is being able to experience its collision of cultures on an everyday basis. It’s not everywhere that I can take the Vietnamese twins I tutor to a British café for tea and scones on Monday followed by breaking the Ramadan fast with my Tunisian friend at her Turkish boyfriend’s home on Tuesday. Collision in this sense doesn’t have anything to do with a clash. It has everything to do with opportunity.
Another opportunity I take frequent advantage of is the Thaiwiese or Thai Park around the corner from my apartment building in Wilmersdorf. Coined Berlin’s “Little Thailand”, it’s a park turned semi-legal market where Thai women have been cooking and selling homemade Southeast Asian specialties under umbrellas for almost two decades. During the summer I’m here almost every weekend, inhaling shrimp summer rolls slathered in peanut sauce, papaya salad speckled with red chili, and iced coffee swimming in globs of cloyingly sweet condensed milk. I may meander the colorful rows for food, but my coffee always comes from the same umbrella: Kaffee Oma’s.
Kaffee Oma is the self-appointed “coffee grandma” and most vocal vendor I’ve encountered on the Wiese. In what I’m not sure is a marking of extreme self-confidence or just limited language proficiency, Kaffee Oma almost exclusively refers to herself in the third person in an endearing mix of German and English. “Kaffee Oma in Berlin since 29 Jahren,” she tells me when I ask when she moved from Sukhothai, her home town in Thailand. “Sukhothai, they say it das Ende der Norden” she explains, pointing to an invisible map in the air.
Kaffee Oma’s math doesn’t always add up – in Berlin for 29 years, retired for 16, working in the Thai Park every day for 23 – but it’s all part of her charm. The same charm that elected her park liaison to the Ordnungsamt, Germany’s most “German” of bureaus in charge of order and regulations. Though the vendors don’t have official licenses, they are allowed to continue their activities under the watchful eye of these dark blue uniformed bureaucrats. Kaffee Oma says she’s the “Big Mouth” of the Park (because what’s one more self-proclaimed nickname?), regularly sampling the food to maintain quality and organizing meetings with other vendors about pricing and cleaning. You’ll notice a plate of pad thai will run you the same 5 Euro from one end of the umbrella row to the other. At the end of the day, trash bags are passed out. Not a strip of trash or papaya is to be found come morning.
There are almost 6,000 Thai nationals living in Berlin, a number that doesn’t include those of Thai origin who have been naturalized as German citizens. While many Vietnamese were recruited to East Germany during the ’60s and ’70s as guest workers by the GDR government, the influx of Thai immigrants mostly began after the Wall came down in the early 1990s. Immigration from Thailand to Germany has been predominantly female, with many initially coming to work as au pairs and nurses. Kaffee Oma is one of many who married a German and made Berlin her home, though she still makes yearly trips back to her other home.
The Thai Park itself has become about more than Berlin’s Thai community. “Do a lot of Chinese people come here?” asked my cousin’s boyfriend during their visit after recognizing some Mandarin chatter nearby. Before I could properly turn around, I heard English, German, and Thai coming from the same general direction. Everyday the park is rife with nationalities, languages, and multi-ethnic couples and families. The park is not just “Little Thailand”: parallel society or ethnic enclave. It’s an emblem of integration that extends beyond food, beyond Berlin, and even beyond Thailand. A place to enjoy melting pots of culture and curry.
You could go to the Thai Park any weekend – and I strongly encourage you do so – but this coming Saturday is particularly special. The Thai Youth Orchestra – Siam Sinfonietta – will be performing a free open-air concert on August 3 at 18:00. Come for the music, come for the food, come for Kaffee Oma.
– By Sophia Burton
Contrary to popular belief, the Thai Park is open everyday during the warmer months, though the number of vendors does increase greatly on weekends. The park’s official name is Preußenpark and can be found between U-Fehrbelliner Platz and U-Konstanzerstrasse in Wilmersdorf.
All photos: Greg May