When I found out I was going to Berlin for my birthday surprise — Mr. Lash isn’t the only spy in the family — I was as excited as Sally Bowles in an Isherwood story, despite my reisefieber, which isn’t just the fear of travel. It’s a fear that the destination will not be the same as it was before, like an old boyfriend or a pair of flesh-eating pants that you don’t love anymore.
Berlin is a city defined by its pasts. The decadent glamour of Weimar survives its sadistic Nazi Gotterdammerung, fading into the schizophrenic years of the Berlin Wall, without which the city is like Hong Kong without the Triads. Demolishing the wall took the tension out of the city, ruining its dangerous glamour. And so the artists move out while the tourists move in.
The wall divided the city not only physically and politically; it created a barrier between the past and present. Crossing the border at Checkpoint Charlie is like stepping into a black and white spy film. Even David Bowie seemed to be under a spell when he recorded Heroes at Hansa Studios in 1977, soon after his strange Nazi salute at Victoria Station.
Hitler never liked Berlin, and the feeling was mutual. His fortune-teller warned him never to go there. The bullets from Hitler’s war are no longer etched into the ruins of the Reichstag, transformed by Norman Foster into a vertiginous tourist attraction. Berlin is now a city of beer bikes.
Of course, Mr. Lash wasn’t really taking me to Berlin, but to the Adlon Hotel, where every day’s still a cabaret. The Adlon used to be owned by Hermann Goering, a fat morphine addict who locked himself in a suite and played with his train set when the war was lost. There’s nothing more depressing than a chunky junkie. It’s been refurbished since then, back to the Weimar’s swinging days.
Marlene Dietrich’s thick thighs in Das Blaue Engel, before she was ordered to go on to the Hollywood diet, were a product of the Adlon’s apple strudel. And it was the location for Greta Garbo’s movie Grand Hotel, where she first uttered the words ‘leave me alone.’
Like Gala Dalí, I tip when I arrive at a hotel, not when I leave, to give the staff motivation to suck up. I prefer to have a butler like Jaipur Jamal, who hid behind a screen at Oberoi Rajvillas, anticipating my whims before I know them myself.
I had no quibbles with my bathroom, which had just enough black marble to be sexy but enough light to admire myself in the mirror. And a glass jar of bath oil, which smells like the blend of Damascene rose, jasmine, and sandalwood that Mr. Lash mixed for me in Syria.
But I did have to complain about the morning sun. The Adlon’s whistling handyman — let’s call him Fritz, it’s probably his name — materialized to black out my windows quicker than I could say Count Dracula.
Mr. Lash judges a hotel by how many attempts at a classic extra-dry martini cocktail the bartender makes. “Did you see that?!” he asked, horrified, when a waiter at Claridges touched the wrong end of a champagne bottle. But Sabrina Funk — no, I didn’t make up that name — got the martinis right the first time without Mr. Lash having to jump behind the bar.
The Red Ladies, who must be in charge of sucking up at the Adlon, were certainly well-prepared for my birthday, but I had to draw the line at the kirsch kuchen with my name on it. Mr. Lash made do with the caviar and champagne from my birthday breakfast.
Of course there’s always one try-hard. At the Adlon it’s Herr Fassbend, who, judging by his expression, must be in charge of checking the hotel’s toilets. He tried harder than a constipated dictator to upgrade us to a suite we didn’t want, but Mr. Lash reprogrammed him with his diplomatic skills. I wonder if Herr was on duty the day Michael Jackson dangled his baby from the window.
Being sucked up to gets addictive, but we managed to leave the hotel for a walk in the nearby Tiergarten — where have all the monkeys gone? — and a trip to Kreuzberg, where Mr. Lash lived when he was young and spy-free. The Berlin Wall no longer lurks at the end of the street near his favorite Turkish cafe, but everything else is the same, including the ice cream. You can repeat the past, but why would we want to? It’s easier to imagine the future and breathe in the present.
Listen to Vivien Lash read from her evil twin’s book, Spying on Strange Men