BERLIN -- I didn't think this city could get any cheaper until two women I met on the dance floor of the Roter Salon, a club in the Prenzlauer Berg section, schooled me in the finer points of paying for another beer.
Berit and Silia, who spent their first 15 years growing up in the old East Germany, figured out that if you collected four or five empty bottles from the tables, you could trade them back right at the bar and clear enough deposit coinage to buy another Budweiser -- the Czech version and a lot tastier than the US brew.
The whole thing seemed like a socialist enterprise to me, especially the part where we shared the same half-liter bottle as the three of us danced. My German was holding up, thankfully, since their English, a vestige of childhood in a communist country, was just about nonexistent. It was well past 2 a.m. on a bitter cold January night in what was once East Berlin and is now one of the hot spots for nightclubs and theaters.
Honestly, I had misgivings about this trip. What kind of New Englander looking for a winter escape heads to Berlin? There I was waiting for my connection in the Munich airport, staring at a gang of hausfraus in fur coats with girth enough to rival the Patriots' offensive line.
Fortunately, Berlin is the Germans' own antidote to Germany. Think of those quirky VW ads on television, and remind yourself that someone in this country must have a sense of humor.
Add in some statistics. Berlin is a dirt-cheap place to live, making it a magnet for young people, artists, and a vibrant counterculture. My friend's flat was massive, with 10-foot ceilings, two kitchens, and five bedrooms. Her rent is just over $1,400 a month. Her friend pays $750 for a three-bedroom apartment in a hip section of the city called Friedrichshain.
With all the young people, taking advantage of affordable digs, the last thing you'll be in Berlin is bored. The city's biweekly arts and news magazine, Zitty, was a hefty 290 pages in December. A cover story last winter was simple and to the point, titled ''The Joy of Living in Berlin."
Even the graffiti expressed only contentment. Three German words inked on the wall of a men's room in one bar I went to in Schoeneberg said, ''Things are good with us" (Uns geht gut).
The last time I had been in Berlin was May 1986, when things weren't so cheery. Chernobyl, the nuclear power plant in Ukraine, then a Soviet republic, had just melted down, and the fallout was blowing over central Europe.
Back then, Berlin was still a young people's haven. Most people wore only black clothing. The place had an edge to it, since living there was akin to a dare. While the tension of being an island in the middle of a communist country has been gone for more than a decade, there's still something daring about Berlin.
One of our first excursions this time was a quick drive through the high-class neighborhood of Grunewald to a nature preserve called Schlachtensee. The lake was frozen, and the trails were snow-covered, but the place was teeming with hikers, ice-skaters, and even mountain bikers.
When a friend and I ventured out on the lake, the sound of metal blades scratching on ice was all around us. Couples holding hands glided by. A father pulled an entire train of sleds over the ice with children piled aboard. Children lighted sparklers and waved them around. The best part was seeing the skater skimming across the ice pulled by his dog.
This is a city given over to free-ranging canines with names like Apollo and Kaspar. As we sat in Cafe Einstein -- just a few blocks east of the Brandenburg Gate on the boulevard Unter den Linden -- an elderly woman strolled right in with her Great Dane. Nobody blinked.
As odd as it sounds, Berlin is like a tonic for the overworked American. Berliners are the opposite of uptight. They smoke French cigarettes in the bars, and they joke about falling asleep to the sound of a cozy techno beat.
When I went to the club called Roter Salon, I rode one of the bright orange subway cars and derived endless amusement seeing a partly dressed transvestite climb aboard. This fellow had the heels, the hose, the skirt, but he hadn't bothered to shave or change his black leather biker's jacket.
Berlin kept offering up these visual treats, costing me nothing.
A ticket to the VolksbÃ¼hne, the people's theater, was only 10 euros. Not that I could understand much of the dialogue, but the scenes onstage were eye-popping, with actors on roller skates one minute and then stripped naked in a shower smearing mud on themselves the next.
The lobby was fantastic for people-watching. This was clearly a place for Berliners to be seen. The theater was founded back in 1914 by an association of workers. Rebuilt after the war, VolksbÃ¼hne bills itself as ''anti-embalmment theater open to everything of interest, even if it doesn't deal with theatre directly: rock music, video, tango, politicians, philosophers, maniacs, dentists -- whatever."
You get the picture.
The Roter Salon is located on the back end of the imposing building, and the night I went there, a band called Sensor was playing and had drawn a crowd of well over 200. Their music was like Steve Miller Band with a techno twist. They were fun to watch, too, as the leader waved his wand over a drum machine that looked like a big globe. The bass player had a huge head of hair, as big as a '70s Afro. And then there were Silia and Berit, who knew how to score free beer.
With all the money I was saving, I decided to shop for a few items I knew I couldn't find back in the States. That meant a trip to the office supply store, where I bought a dozen folders fitted with elastic string that holds down the corners. They're only a buck apiece, come in all kinds of colors, and made great gifts when I returned.
And where else could you buy a pair of heavyweight socks, cut and sewn specially for the left and right feet and marked L and R? At Karstadt and KaDeWe, Berlin's department stores. Mustard in a tube? They've got that, too.
Finally, just to savor the experience, I stuffed a six-pack of the Czech Budweiser in my duffel and prayed it wouldn't explode.
Chris Burrell is a freelance writer on Martha's Vineyard.