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Lead pipes, snobbery or just plain stinginess: why is it so difficult to get a glass of tap water in a Berlin?
I am nursing the hangover from hell. I have just finished a big greasy breakfast, a bucket of freshly squeezed orange juice and a soy latte, but my throat still feels sandpaper-y and all I want is a glass of water. The sun is filtering in through the panoramic windows of a bright, popular brunch spot on Kastanienallee in Prenzlauer Berg.
I flag the waiter down. “Ja,” he says. “Mit oder ohne Gas?” “Nein, nur Leitungswasser,” And I instantly flush with embarrassment. The blush has already become an incontrollable reflex: despite my only having been in Berlin for two months I already know that this word, Leitungswasser, will at the very least elicit a sullen response. And sure enough, the waiter’s semi-smile quickly fades. He turns, walks away and does not return with my water. The entire staff ignores me for the rest of my Frühstück.
Many of Berlin’s expats (read Americans) are used to being served gallons of iced tap water without having to ask; others (Brits, Scandinavians etc) see no shame in asking – even the French get it in a cute carafe along with the traditional bread basket. Berliners’ tap water stinginess is a mystery that frequently gets discussed on internet forums and among new arrivals (a friend even told me they were selling “Berlin Water” at No 45 on Kollwitzplatz). Berliners are famously ‘green’: don’t they know by now that bottled water has a ridiculously negative impact on the environment?
The water we pay for (up to €10 a bottle) in Berlin restaurants often comes from far away: Evian, the world’s most popular mineral water, comes from the French Alps and fine-dining favourite San Pellegrino is exported from the Italian mountains of Bergamo. What about the carbon footprint of the “local” alternative Spree quell?
It hails from a spring in Lausitz, in southern Brandenburg – still a lot further away than the energy-efficient tap in the restaurant kitchen. Then there’s the energy and water (many times the amount contained inside) used to produce the bottles, and to recycle them again (about 90 percent worldwide aren’t even recycled). Is it to soothe their consciousness the Germans are so fond of the Pfandflasche? No matter what, they seem to hold on tight to the bottled stuff…
“A human right”
A Mitte restaurant owner (who wishes to remain anonymous) says: “A restaurant makes money from drinks, not food. And the mark-up on bottled water is huge, much bigger than on booze – more than 500 percent sometimes.” Aleksandar Tesla, co-owner of Prenzlauer Berg’s Die Bar, knows this too, but says that selling water gives him the creeps. “Water should be a human right.” Aleksandar provides his customers with water before they even ask for it. “That’s what I consider service.”
He tells me the story of a nicely dressed couple drinking in his bar one night. “After about five cocktails, the woman was noticeably intoxicated. And the man asked me for the best drink in the house. I poured a glass of tap water and sat it down in front of her. I got a €5 tip for that.”
Andrew Preble of New Orleans Haus in Kreuzberg says that as an American, he can’t imagine denying a customer a large glass of water. “We’ve started saving bottles, taking the labels off and using them as water jugs in the summer.” Free, cold tap water for all? If only…
A matter of image
Germans are known to be wary of free things: they don’t have real free newspapers here, and I was told the reason is they suspect that anything given away for nothing must somehow be defective… Perhaps this is also true when it comes to water? Helga Senden, a restaurant regular, suggests that drinking mineral water is a class issue.
“Only poor people or East Germans would drink tap water when I grew up,” she said. “And if you could afford to go to a restaurant, it would look horribly cheap to order tap water to drink.” Some restaurant owners say they don’t serve tap water because, they say, the pipes are made of lead. In reality, lead pipes are scarce (see article to the left). And Berlin water is subjected to far more stringent safety controls than mineral water anyway.
Berlin tap water doesn’t have glossy full-page ads with photoshopped models to promote it. In fact, under the motto “Eau wie lecker” (“Water, how tasty”, with a pun on eau de vie), the Berliner Wasserbetrieb’s poster campaign showed a pot of boiling water for spaghetti cooking – as if it was wary of vouching for its potable (read palatable), qualities.
Meanwhile, the message that health and beauty can be found in a bottle of mineral water has proved to be convincing: between 1997 and 2005, worldwide consumption of bottled water doubled. In Berlin, there’s no law against refusing diners tap water – but providing it for free should be among the great unwritten laws of customer service.
The cost of tap water, even when you account for the labour it takes to clean the glass, is really not that high. So let us rejoice in the pleasant taste of L’eau de Kreuzberg! Hopefully someday soon it will be requests for bottled water that elicit the waiter’s sullen response.