An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
27 June, 2015

More than ten days since my last post, apparently. The time between seems like a fog. School became pretty life consuming pretty fast. Not in a bad way, necessarily. I’ve been enjoying it quite a bit, actually. But it hasn’t left much room for anything else. So I guess this post is mostly going to be about that. And the AC/DC concert I went to on Thursday!

Last post I talked about the high of having a good class and the low of having a not so good one. At the time, I’d had two of each. Well, I’m happy to report that since then, I’ve been on fire. I’ve scored ‘above standard’ on my last two lessons, making it three-in-a-row and four of six overall. So I’m quite pleased obviously.

But more than the high marks, the classes have been a lot of fun. At the halfway mark, we switched to a high-level group of students. It’s been so much fun. I mean, first of all, they’re just a great bunch. But this level, it’s really in my wheelhouse. I can talk faster, I can use more idioms.1

And what’s more, they’re genuinely interested in the language. I can do Greek and Latin etymologies, I can do German-English historical linguistics, and they really get into it. Part of the reason I can get away with this, according to my teacher, is that it’s obvious that I’m passionate about it. So rather than being a dry lecture, it seems I can teach this stuff with a sort of contagious energy. And I fucking love it.

After three good lessons in a row, it’s becoming clear that I’m not only gaining the confidence of my students, but also of my teacher. For the first time, I’m really starting to feel like I may actually be doing what I’m “supposed” to be doing with my life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still glad as hell I did my MA in Classics. And I still hold out hope that one day I’ll actually be able to teach Greek. But I’m starting to believe that I can be a really good fucking teacher.

And I definitely have my own style. I’ve talked about this a little in past posts. But it’s coming together more and more with each lesson.2 And it’s interesting to compare my work with that of my classmates, all of whom, I hasten to add, are quite good in their own ways. And they unquestionably have strengths that I don’t. But in my own humble opinion, I do think that my classes are the most fun. And that’s something I’m definitely proud of.

I want to be careful here not to take too much credit, however. My class – by which I mean my students – are really great. They have a real passion for learning English and they approach everything with a wonderful energy. They also, collectively, have a great sense of humor. And in addition to all this, they work extremely well together. You can pair anybody with anybody and, not only do they get along, but they produce good work. In my self-evaluation3 for my last lesson – for which I received an “above standard” score – I noted that I had little more to do than to “wind them up and let them go,” and that the students themselves “did most of the heavy lifting.” To which my teacher answered, “yes, but your real work was done in your highly detailed lesson plan.” So it’s a bit symbiotic. But the point is, they’re a fantastic group, and they make my job easy for me. Bless them.4

I had an interesting chat with French Charlotte the other day. To give credit where credit is due, she has encouraged me in this endeavor from the get. She believed in me when I didn’t necessarily believe in myself. That’s not to say that there weren’t others who believed in me. In point of fact, I have a wonderful network of friends and family that have stood firmly behind me, every step of the way. But she’s a French teacher. And she’s taught French in France, in Poland and in the States. So there’s a certain experience in, and first-hand knowledge of, the task itself that underlies her confidence in me, which has been unique and invaluable.

Anyway. We had a chat the other day. And you could just hear how proud she was when I told her how well I’ve been doing lately. But what really struck me was this. She said, “You’re a teacher now, Dave. And you’re going to be a teacher. You’re never going to have to apologize for your job again. From now on, you’re going to be proud of what you do.”5 And that really struck me.

For years, at my last job6 – and as a paralegal before that, and as a temp before that – I was never proud of what I did. If I was talking to a girl at a bar, I’d avoid talking about my job. And if I had to talk about it, it would always be in some self-deprecating way. “Yeah, well, it pays the rent,” or “Eh, I push papers and fuck with spreadsheets.” Something like that.7

The point is, it really hit me when French Charlotte said those days were over. That was news to me, in a way. I can’t think that far ahead yet. But she’s right. And wow, that’s really something. And when I think about, I’ve always been a bit envious of teachers, when I’d meet them at bars. They’re always so damn proud of what they do. As well they should be. Well, shit. I’m 34. I want to be proud of what I do already. And soon – real fucking soon – I can be.8 Anyway, thanks, French Charlotte.

Since this post is going to be mostly about the whole school/teaching sitch, Imma switch horses midstream for a sec.9 Dear Reader, how was your Thursday? Did you do anything interesting? Yeah? That’s nice. Well, I saw AC/DC. So…I win.

Gods, I love that band. An AC/DC concert is a funny thing. At least – at least! – half the set is made up of the songs you expect to hear. And I don’t mean that in the sense of, “well, of course they’re going to play their greatest hits.” No, they’re not necessarily ‘hits,’ per se. They’re the songs that – in concert – throw you up against a wall and kick you in the fucking balls and make you beg for more. I’m talking, Let There be Rock, Dirty Deeds, For Those About to Rock, Shoot to Thrill.

So on some level, you know what you’re gonna get. And yet, fucking give it to me! Look, anybody who knows me knows they’re my favorite band. They’re the apotheosis, the perfection, the platonic Form, of Rock and Roll. And godsdamn, do they ever deliver. Just fucking brilliant. Even without Phil. Even without Mal, who is in a home, suffering from dementia.10 They’re just the fucking best. No ifs ands or buts. Do not pass Go. Do not collect two hundred dollars.

And yet, bittersweet. Mal has dementia.  Phil is, apparently, a felon. And the rest? Angus? Brian? Cliff? They’re in their 60’s. This has to be the end, doesn’t it? I mean, they still kill it. It was a brilliant show. I went with Joschka, who’d never seen them before. And he was well impressed.11 So they can still do it. But Rock and Roll – I mean, real Rock and Roll – it needs to be young, doesn’t it?

One of my favorite summertime albums is Dirty Deeds. It’s so full of life. It’s so…youthful. It so doesn’t give a fuck. It just rocks. And it’s not even their best album. Their best album would have been Let There Be Rock. Except that they beat it with Powerage, the follow-up. Those two records. That’s where Rock and Roll found its most perfect expression. They can never be beat.

Like Beethoven, right? That fucker wrote 32 piano sonatas and 9 symphonies. And at the end of it, you walk away feeling like – or at least I do12 – feeling like, “Well, that’s it. The form has been perfected. Why bother anymore?” But I’m being serious. After Beethoven Nine, how do you write a symphony? After those sonatas, what’s the point? The mold has been broken. Learn your Bach and be on be on your way.

Interpolation: This is the beauty of Gershwin, by the way. Gershwin left well enough alone. Gershwin had the wisdom to look at the Old Masters and say, “Yeah, I can take from that. But, you guys? Jazz! And holy shit, The Blues!” And so you get Rhapsody in Blue. You get Porgy and Bess. And you get the Concerto in F, with it’s gorgeous, sweet, beautiful and oh-so-perfect Adagio. What you don’t get is Romantic bullshit. What you don’t get is Appetite for Destruction, and the conceit that there’s still anything left to say in Rock and Roll after the from has already found its complete and utter perfection. OK, I’ll shut up now.

So yeah, AC/DC were fucking brilliant, despite their advanced years. And I’m glad I got see them one last time.13 And it was cool to see them in Berlin. Add that to a very short list. Cheap Trick in London. Rammstein at Wacken. AC/DC in Berlin.

At the Olympiastadion. It’s a funny thing to be there with a German – Joschka, as it were – and to have that German look around the arena for the first time in his life and say, “Yeah, you can just tell the Nazis built this.” Well, you can. It’s creepy, I ain’t gonna lie. It’s in the same mold as Tempelhof and the Air Ministry building on Wilhelmstraße. “Intimidation Architecture,” as I mentioned in a previous post. But you look around, and you know the thing was built for the ’36 Olympics. You know it was built so Hitler could show the world the superiority of the Aryan race.14 It’s an impressive structure, no question. But it’s fucking weird. I’ll leave it at that.

Kelvin of Oz came down to my neck of the woods last weekend, and we popped into a bar around the corner, on Weserstraße. The door was open. But when we went in, the bartendrix said, “We’re not open yet. But…you can have a beer if you’d like.” We looked at each other. We decided to have a beer. The bartendrix was a doll.

The reason the door was open was, she was making flower-headbands with a couple of friends for Midsummer Night; the Summer Solstice. The point is, she didn’t have to serve us. But she did. And not only did she serve us, she offered us fresh strawberries and cream! It was gorgeous. So we had our beers. And some fresh strawberries. And then some Dahlwinnie. And then more beer. Lovely day, that was.

One of the bartendrix’ friends was from Hong Kong. “So,” says I, “you speak Cantonese?” She was suitably impressed by that. Well, I did live in Chinatown for four years. So we all got on well. And of course it was good to chill with my mate Kelvin, before he goes back Down Under.

So today, in class, first thing in the morning, our other teacher15 walks in and just starts talking to us in Polish. And for forty minutes, we do nothing but Polish. Formal and informal greetings; I like/do you like; what’s your name/my name is – that sort of thing. The idea is this: It’s quite conceivable that you will at some point teach a class to people who don’t know a single word of English. So this is what they experience. It’s a pretty cool concept, actually, and something that is intentionally built into the course.

Anyway, he starts talking to us in Polish. And through hand gestures, through facial expressions, through demonstrations with physical objects and pictures, he’s showing us just how much information you can convey – even when your students don’t know a single word of the target language.

And man, Polish! They make sounds in that language that we just don’t have. I mean, it sounds totally fucking alien. But that’s the point, right? As it happens, this teacher could also have done the lesson in Spanish. But he chose Polish because we were less likely to know anything about it, and because it sounds so completely foreign.

But here’s the thing. I was operating on another level. Yes, of course, I had a rough time of pronouncing the words. Yes, I was just as much in the dark as everybody else. Well, I was in the dark insofar as being able to actually use the language. But right from the get, I started taking notes. I started looking for things that were familiar, started looking for commonalties with the other Indo-European languages that I know. And all of a sudden, it wasn’t so alien after all. This was really cool!

So our teacher breaks us into groups of threes, and asks us to discuss how we felt about the experience. And the other two in my group say the sorts of things you’d expect them to say after such an experience. Then they turn to me. And I turn to my notes. (And I apologize in advance for the technical language I’m about to use). And I say:

“You guys, this is fascinating! There’s so much here that we already know! Check this out (and I begin to list things from notes): So already we see: They mark the accusative case with a nasal; second person singular has an ‘-s-’, but second person plural seems to have an ‘-st-‘; the “go” verb starts with a strong ‘i,’ like Latin ire or Greek ἴεναι; the verb for “stand” starts with ‘st-,’ like Latin stare, Greek ἵστεναι, German standen; third person singular “to be” has an ‘-est,’ like Latin est, Greek ἔστιν, German ist. I mean, there’s so much here that we already know!”

And they just sort of look at me. And the girl to my right, Alice, actually announces to the class, “Dave has a really interesting way of looking at this. No really, I’m not taking the piss.”16

That in and of itself was pretty cool. I sit next to Alice, you see, and she’s in my teaching group. So we get paired up a lot. And in the beginning, I think I rather annoyed her. But somewhere along the line, I think she decided that I’m not so much a pretentious ass17 as a genuinely enthusiastic nerd. And now we get along quite well, and she’s become one of my favo(u)rites.

And in the beginning, I didn’t know quite to make of her either. She can be a bit snarky and impatient. But she’s studied linguistics and she’s got a real enthusiasm for our mother tongue(s).18 But I find I’ve grown quite fond of her. She’s a real sweetheart, when you get down to it. And you really see this when she teaches. She’s got this kindness, as a teacher. There’s a real sweetness to her. And a sort of joie de vivre. For a while, I thought I’d tire of her – I thought we’d tire of each other – getting paired together so often. But now I find I quite look forward to working with her. There seems to be a sort of mutual respect that I don’t think either of us would have anticipated.

Also, she’s got really pretty eyes. But I’m not going down that rabbit-hole with her. I’m just glad she’s in my group. Just as I’m glad the other four are in my group. I mean, we’re a great fucking team. We look out for each other. We help each other. And we support each other when one of us has a bad day. Also we go for drinks together sometimes. However much Berlin has been a bust in terms of meeting girls, I keep lucking out in my other relationships. Roommates, colleagues, friends. I couldn’t ask for better. I really couldn’t.

I want to hang on to that point about colleagues for a moment longer. It seems that each of us has had the experience of talking to other people who have taken this course before us. And these predecessors seem invariably to mention a competitiveness that existed between classmates; a desire to “be the best” or to get the highest marks. And we just don’t have that in our group. We don’t talk about our marks. We just support each other. And it’s fucking beautiful. Wherefore do these lovely fuckers deserve to be mentioned by name: Katja from Berlin; Paul from Australia, Alice from England; Ziba from Iran; and Katie from North Carolina. You’re all fucking gorgeous, every one of you.

Interpolation: Berlin is much farther north than it seems. From the weather, you could believe you were in New York. But at 10pm, it’s still light out. And by 4am, Helios is already dragging the sun across the heavens. It’s a nice town in which to make a summer.

Well. There’s surely more to say. But it’s four-thirty in the morning and, frankly, I’d like to get some sleep. Bis später, Leute…

  1. I’d never noticed how much I speak in idioms until I had to teach to intermediate level students who couldn’t understand half of what I said. []
  2. Gods, I hope I didn’t just jinx it! []
  3. A required piece of homework after every lesson. []
  4. Also, they’re hilarious. We laugh so much. I fucking love it. []
  5. That’s a rough paraphrase, anyway. []
  6. I need to be fair to my last job. They gave me work when I was in grad school. And when I was in school, they allowed me to adapt my hours to my schedule. They always treated me fairly and compensated me well; at least within the structure of the company. I loved – and still love – my boss. I’ll always be thankful. But it was never going to be a career. The work itself was not gratifying; no matter how much I learned about Excel; and I can make a spreadsheet like a boss… []
  7. Girls, apparently, are not turned on by your ennui with your job. #GoFig []
  8. Ain’t that some shit? []
  9. Cos that’s always a good idea. []
  10. Can a blog be a Living Will? If I ever get dementia (or Alzheimer’s), please put me to sleep. Please don’t let me live like that. Please. []
  11. As he should have been. []
  12. My brother, Justin, the brilliant musician, no doubt disagrees. []
  13. Or what’s left of them, anyway. []
  14. #JesseOwens #USA []
  15. We have two teachers. There’s the one who has been ovbserving my classes and giving me feedback the last two weeks. Then there’s the other, who observed the first week, and will again next week. []
  16. She’s English. []
  17. Which I am, let’s be honest. []
  18. I leave it to you to decide if British English and American English are the same language. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
(Or, you know, that city where literally every girl has a boyfriend #fml)
18 June, 2015

Teaching is a funny thing. When your class doesn’t go well, you can walk outa there feeling like a complete and utter failure. Questions start going through your brain. “Why I am even doing this?” “Will I ever be any good at this?” “What the fuck am I even doing in Berlin?” Then, when you’re throwing yourself a pity party, you walk into the store to buy a beer and realize you can’t even speak German properly. So then you feel even worse. Then you cross the street against the light – even though there are no cars in sight – and people give you dirty looks. Then you come home, do the dishes and break a glass. Because life.

But when you teach well? When you really rock your class? You’re on top of the world. You walk out all smiles and Berlin is your lovely little playpen. A playpen where you can drink beer on the street. So you walk into the same shop, buy your beer and even have some friendly banter with the guy behind the counter, in German. The sun is shining, your beer tastes great even though it’s only a stupid Pilsener – which, by the way, why are Pilseners even a thing?1 – and you cross the street wherever you damn well please. Teaching is a funny thing.

This week, I had both of those things. Monday was shit. Today I killed it. I guess part of what I need to learn is how to be more even-keeled about all this. And how to check it at the door, one way or the other.

You know what I hate? When I’m ordering a Currywurst, and the clown behind the counter thinks they should talk to me in English. Tu das nicht, fool. That’s gonna piss me right the fuck off. Friday, I forgot to bring lunch. So I popped over to the Currywurst Museum2 for a cheap midday meal. I had been speaking English all morning in school. And not the modified English I have to use with non-native speakers, but my own actual English. So when I got there, my German was pretty choppy. And butchered the word Brötchen. So the lady just started talking to me in English.

Hey, lady. I got news for you. No matter how shit my German is, I can damn well order a fucking Currywurst in German. So maybe don’t insult me, OK? I mean, I get that I’m in Tourist Central. But gimme a break! And then, the kicker. She turns the register display to face me, so that I can clearly see the price: Two-Euro, forty. And get this. She says, in English, “Two-forty, please.” Seriously? You know I can read numbers, right? You know they’re the same in both languages, yeah? Thanks for that. I’ll be coming back never.

Monday, I forgot to bring lunch again. This time I go to a different Currywurst stand. “Einmal Currywurst mit Pommes, bitte,” I say in perfectly acceptable German. One currywurst with fries, please. I wait. Then one of the guys asks me, “Willst du Ketschup und Mayo?” Do you want ketchup and mayo? “Nur Ketschup, bitte,” I casually respond. Just ketchup, please. A minute later, the other guy asks me, in English, if I want ketchup and mayo. Seriously? A) We just covered this. B) What the fuck? Then he proceeds to literally drown my little plate in ketchup. Guess I won’t be going back there either. Give me Neukölln any day. Neukölln, where the Turks and Arabs speak flawless German but can’t be bothered with English.

So Lisa is a little thesaurus3 of beboyfriended cute girls. See, she hosts her choir group in our (ridiculously) spacious apartment on Mondays. So there’s always new people around. Anyway, this girl comes into the kitchen while I’m cooking. She looks familiar. Oh yeah, we’d bumped into her on the street a few days ago. Anyway, she starts chatting me up and she’s all sorts of friendly.

And all sorts of cute. She’s like a million feet tall4; I don’t know what that is in meters. She’s blonde. She’s wearing quirky-yet-cute oversized glasses. She’s very pretty. And we’re just getting on well. At this point, I have forsaken hope. Either Tiny has a boyfriend, or else she’s gay. Because what this looks like clearly isn’t what this is.

After a bit, she disappears off back into the living room. I finish cooking. I eat. I come to the living room. Tiny’s still there. And now she’s being all playful and fun. Great. I guess I’ll be playful and fun too. Well, why not? Then she’s getting ready to leave, and she bends down to hug me in my chair.5 Then I stand up and say, no, let’s do this the right way. So we hug again. Then I say, no, let’s really do this the right way. So I stand on top of my chair and hug her again. She get’s a kick out of it. Then she leaves. I count to ten. I turn to Lisa.

“So, how long has Tiny been dating her boyfriend?” I’m somehow hoping she’ll say, “Oh, she doesn’t have a boyfriend.” I’m hoping this the same way one hopes maybe the tide won’t come in. Well, the tide came in. “About three months, I think.” Yep. There it is. “Why, do you have a crush on her?” Fuck me.

“No. I’m asking you so I don’t go and do anything stupid. Like having a crush. Like last time. Remember?” I go into my room. I wonder if there are any breaks to be caught. I decide that there aren’t and pour myself a glass of Jameson.

Later, I come out of my room. I feel better now.6 Lisa is chilling on the couch. “So, Tiny is pretty cool, eh?” Oh, is this what we’re doing? “She has a boyfriend,” I say. “She’s dead to me.” I walk back into my room to get my pipe. I hear Lisa say something behind me that sounds an awful lot like, “She is really cool, though.” I return with my pipe. “Sorry, did you say something?” She looks up. “I said, ‘She is really cool though.’” I sigh. “Actually, can you not? Thanks.” I go into the kitchen with my pipe and a bottle of wine.

I also go into the kitchen with my laptop and books because I have a shit-ton of work to do for school. And this wine ain’t gonna drink itself.

I shouldn’t break on Lisa, though. She’s still an A+ roommate. Even if all her cute friends have boyfriends and she doesn’t quite seem to grasp how frustrating that is for me. This week we’ve got a house-guest, and he’s sleeping in the room off the balcony. Which means, no balcony time. So we hang in the kitchen instead. And the good news is, I can smoke in the kitchen with the windows open and the door closed.

Some nights we drink and chat. Other nights, we both have work to do. So we sit at the table and work. In silence, or maybe with music on. It’s pretty peaceful, actually. In fact, it reminds me a bit of the old days on Maiden Lane when me and Phil would hang out in the living room. And by hang out, I mean we’d each be on a couch, reading and not talking. But somehow also hanging out. Those were good times. And that probably means nothing to nobody, except Jared.

Met Down Under Kelvin for a beer on Sunday. He’s definitely leaving. He’s just had enough, I guess. I’m happy for him, insofar as going home is going to make him happy. But he’s a proper mate, and I’ll be sorry to see him go.

Tomorrow is one year since Daitz died. Fuck. Just, fuck. Do you know, I didn’t even realize the date? Just by chance, I emailed Mimi, his wife, the other day. I was reading some Homer,7 and I realized I hadn’t spoken to her for some time. So I just dropper her a little email to see how she was doing and let her know I was thinking of her. And when she wrote back, she told me Friday would be one year.

I fucking hate that he’s gone. I mean, I’m in Berlin. And it’s the summer. So it’s not like we’d be reading now anyway. But still. I want him back. I want to say it’s not fair. But that’s both selfish and untrue. The dude was 88 when he checked out. And he had a full and amazing life. He got a fair shake. So what’s not fair about it? I don’t know. I’m still not processing this well. All I know is, there are two dead people in my life who I miss all the fucking time. My grandpa and Daitz.8 When does that stop hurting? Does it ever? Fuck me.

Right. Enough of this downer shit. The tone of this post has been overwhelmingly negative. It shouldn’t be. Life is good. I fucking rocked my class today. My apartment and roommate are fantastic. Berlin is lovely city. By this time next week, I’ll have seen AC/DC in concert.9 I’ve got friends here, old and new. And when I have happen to have some down time, I read Homer. And man, Homer is wonderful. It’s just so…so organic, so true to life, so perfect. Life is good.

And baseball starts at 1am. Which is bloody brilliant. Now, when I go to sleep, I put the ballgame on. What a great way to drift off. The game itself hardly matters. John and Suzyn aren’t even annoying. It’s just baseball on the radio, the way it was meant to be.10 And that’s what I’m gonna do, right after I hit the ‘publish’ button on this bitch. I’m gonna crawl into bed and I’m gonna sail away au pays de beaux rêves, sails filled with the music of baseball…

  1. I mean, at some point, just give me a Kölsch. A Pils is barely a step up from a Bud. []
  2. My first mistake. And yes, that’s a thing. []
  3. And by ‘literal,’ I mean the original Greek (θηϲαυρόϲ) meaning of the word: Treasure house. []
  4. I’m a sucker for tall dames. []
  5. I may have to re-evaluate my theory of Germans as unemotional robots. []
  6. Thanks, John Jameson. []
  7. More on that later. []
  8. And in a very different way, Ronnie James Dio. Once again, Jared knows what I’m talking about. []
  9. OmgOmgOmg []
  10. Well, it was meant to be Red Barber calling the Dodgers in Brooklyn. But ain’t nothin’ perfect. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
13 June, 2015

Has it really been ten days since my last post? In that time I played my first ever open-mic night. And in that time, I’ve had my first week of school.1 In the last ten days I had a BBQ at Tempelhofer Feld with Joschka and Verena. And in the last ten days I’ve worked diligently with Lisa to put away quite a bit of alcohol. Oh, and I met yet another lovely girl who naturally lives with her boyfriend. Because Dave.

Last Wednesday, Kelvin the Australian and I returned to the group conversation meetup where we first met however many weeks ago. But first we met for a couple of pre-game beers. It was nice to catch up. And it was nice for both of us to be able to speak in our own normal English, instead of the modified version one has to take on when dealing with non-native speakers.

Which is sort of an odd thing to say, when you think about it. What I mean is, Kelvin’s speech is full of weird Aussie idioms, just as mine gets super New York slangy.2 But we understand each other perfectly well all the same. And it’s quite a comfort not to have to “grade your language.”3

Anyway, we’re sitting outside, minding our own business. When, after a while, this dude at the next table over starts interjecting himself into our conversation. And when I say “dude,” I mean this round, bald, older fellow who seems not to be in possession of all of his teeth. And we both took this fellow for the local drunken barfly who has the annoying habit of glomming onto the nearest conversation, which naturally happens to be yours.

But a strange thing happened. As one person after another left the bar, each said a very friendly goodbye to this fellow; the men patting him on the shoulder, the women kissing him on the cheek. And it began to dawn on me that he wasn’t so much a local drunk loner/loser as he was the mayor of this little outpost.

We learned that although his German was quite good, he was actually Polish. And though we could have got on easily enough in German, he was quite proud of the English that he knew. And while his English was by no means great – in fact, he could be difficult to understand at times – it was pretty impressive, given that a) it was his third language and b) he grew up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. And when, in the end, it was our time to leave, we found ourselves saying as friendly a farewell as those who had left before us.

Then it was off to the convo-meetup, which was fine, but not worth reporting on. However, when we left – having decided to get another beer4 – we bumped into a girl who had also been there. Something in her face gave me the impression that she was eager to tag along, whereupon I invited her to join us. Well, why not? She looked to be about our age, was tall, skinny and cute in a punky kind of way.

From there, the three of us returned to the bar where Kelvin and I had pre-gamed. After a quick stop for a döner.5 And we had a lovely time of it. Turns out Punk-girl is a bit of an artist and had lived in Manchester for a bit. So she was into music and also spoke nearly flawless English. It was actually pretty cool. Because as we were walking, the three of us would switch back and forth between English and German in a very fluid and effortless sort of way.

While we were chatting at the bar, the subject of my upcoming open-mic debut came up. Punk-girl seemed pretty excited about it and asked for the details. I was pretty pleased about this. Not so much because she was cool and cute (although this obviously didn’t hurt), but because I rather didn’t want to go do this thing entirely alone. But more on that later.

So the three of us sat and chatted and had an all-around lovely time. But then, wouldn’t you know it, the mayor appeared out of the back and sat down with us at our table. And wouldn’t you know it, he turned out to be an expert on all kinds of music. So that went on for a bit, until we finally decided to call it a night. But not before Punk-girl wrote down her email and phone number for me (of her own accord) on a coaster and bade me send her the details for the open-mic.

The next day, I got a text from Kelvin. “Dude, that girl is way into you.” No, no I don’t think so, mate. “Oh yeah, dude. She was hanging on your every word.” Well, it did look that way, I have to admit. But I’m almost certain she said she lives with her boyfriend. “Really? I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear anything about that.”

Here I needs must point out a quirk of the German language. You see, German does not have a word for ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend.’ Believe it or not, this is a source of confusion even to the Germans themselves. Here’s how it works. The German word for (a male) ‘friend’ is Freund. The German word for ‘boyfriend,’ however, is also Freund. Likewise the German word for (a female) ‘friend’ is Freundin. And the German word for ‘girlfriend,’ is – you guessed it – is also Freundin.

Thus, in order to avoid confusion, you find Germans using the cumbersome periphrasis “Ein(e) Freund(in) von mir,” when they want to say ‘my friend’ instead of simply saying “Mein(e) Freund(in). Because the latter invariably sounds like ‘my boy/girlfriend.’

The point is, when we were walking to the bar after our döner, I asked Punk-girl where she lived, and I could have sworn she said, “Ich wohn’ in der Nähe mit meinem Freund.” Naturally, I took this to mean, “I live around here, with my boyfriend.” Kelvin, it seems, didn’t hear this. In any case, that was the source of our miscommunication on the subject. But whatever the truth of the matter, I decided to put it aside until the open-mic.

Friday was the Tempelhofer BBQ. That was brilliant. I mean, really just fantastic. I’ve written in previous posts about how great THF is. But I’ll say it again. It really is quite a treasure. It’s an entire commercial airfield, but decommissioned and turned into a park. People go biking, skating and windsurfing on the runways. People sunbathe, read and BBQ on the grass. It’s wonderful.

Verena brought Salmon and made a salad. I picked up some bratwursts and shish kabobs as well as two bottles of wine. And Joschka brought a disposable grill6 as well as a delightfully refreshing cucumber salad. There was a brilliant sunset. Everything about it was great. It was just one of those evenings where everything is easy, if that makes any sense.

And for me and Joschka, it brought back the festival feeling. How can I explain this? There’s something about sitting out in a field, around a grill, with your metal music playing and the sun going down. If you closed your eyes, you could’ve imagined being surrounded by a village of tents. In some Prustian way, it brought us back to Wacken and Rock Harz. At one point, we sort of just looked at each other and were like, “dude, I can’t fucking wait for Rock Harz!” “We should do this every week!”

Well, we can’t do it every week. I’ve got school, for one thing. But this weekend Joschka is in Bavaria and next weekend he’s back in his hometown. Hopefully we can swing another one the week after. And hopefully Verena will come as well. It’s a very nice dynamic, the three of us.

Sunday. Open-mic night. Kind of a big deal for me. Apart from Jared and Charlotte, I’ve never played my music for other people before. And certainly not in public. Punk-girl came. Thank the gods. Sign-up was at 8pm and the show didn’t start till well after nine. If she hadn’t come, I’d have had to sit there in awkward nervousness by myself that whole time. That would have been awful.

She was great though. She really calmed me down and was super supportive. It was a huge help. As to the question of was she into me, impossible to read. If you wanted to see it, I suppose you could have. But there was nothing obvious. Anyway, I was slotted to play in the thirteenth spot, after the intermission. So we sat through the first half together. And it was fun, even if the music wasn’t particularly “rock’n’roll.”

At the break, I offered to buy her a drink. Her reaction was sufficiently awkward – “Oh…no, Dave…what are you doing?” – that it was obvious she wasn’t interested in that way. But for once in my life, I actually found my way out of an awkward situation, instead of making it worse. “Oh, no,” I said, calmly waving her off. “Please. Honestly, if you didn’t come, I’d have had to sit here by myself this whole time, and I’d probably have driven myself crazy. The least I can do is buy you a drink.” She immediately relaxed and accepted the offer. After that, it was smooth sailing for the S.S. Friendship.

And believe it or not, that whole exchange put an end to all my nerves. I suddenly didn’t have anybody to impress anymore. And what’s more, I was able to focus on being annoyed that I’d met yet another cute girl with a boyfriend rather than all the ways I could possibly fuck up my first ever performance. Fuck it, I thought. Fuck everything. It’s time to rock and roll.

And that’s what I did. Which isn’t to say I was great, or even good. I honestly have no idea how I did. But I went up there and I played some rock’n’roll – my rock’n’roll. The first song was a bit touch and go. I mean, I believe I played it well. I believe I sang it well. But I’d never sung into a microphone before. And I feel like I was spending the whole song figuring out how close or far I should be from the damned thing. But by the second song – and everybody only gets two – I believe I’d figured it out. And then it was over. Nice reaction from the crowd. Punk-girl was well impressed. I do believe that was genuine.

When it was all over, we stuck around for a couple more drinks. At this point, Punk-girl offered to buy mine. Why yes, thank you. What a doll. And that sort of sealed the ‘just-friends’ nature of things. But you know what? That’s fine. She was brilliant for support. And we had a really nice time, talking about music, Berlin and life in English and German and even French.

Next time, she might even perform some of her own poetry, poetry-slam style. But next time will not be this Sunday, but the Sunday after. Because this weekend she’ll be in Greece with her Freund. Whatever. I’m just glad to have a bit of camaraderie in this musical adventure.

So that was Sunday night, and I got home at whatever-the-fuck-time in the morning. Because five hours of sleep is always how you want to start your first day of school.7 Yeah, I was a bit nervous. Twelve people in our class. Eleven strangers. Some good looking broads though. And only three other Yanks. As for the rest, let’s see…two Aussies, two Brits, three Germans and dame from Iran.

We’re all together in the mornings. That’s when they teach us. In the afternoons, we’re split in half. To start, my group teaches a beginner level class. The other works with an advanced level. We’ll flip halfway through the course. And I’ve got to say, my group is brilliant. I’ll come back to them in a bit. But first, teaching. Wow.

So we each teach – or taught, by now – twice this week. My first lesson was Tuesday. Let’s just say it didn’t go well. Of the six of us, I would say mine was easily the worst. Which isn’t to say it was a wepic fail. Just that it wasn’t great. Or even good. And we all knew it. I mean, when your classmates are saying things like, “Hey, come on, it was your first time,” or “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” you kinda know it wasn’t just in your head.

In the end, however, it was acceptable. By which I mean, it was acceptable. There are only three possible grades for a lesson: Below Standard, At Standard and Above Standard. I received an At Standard for my work. I also received a shit-ton of notes from my teacher. I also received a shit-ton of notes from myself, as we have to write a self-evaluation. The silver lining is, my self-evaluation matched almost one-to-one with my teacher’s. So basically, I fucked up X, Y and Z. But I knew I’d fucked up X, Y and Z. So that’s a good start.

Be that as it may,8 I went home feeling quite shit. But Lisa really stepped up. Lisa, my roommate, who, I’m sure I mentioned, is a German teacher. She stayed up with me until late in the night talking strategies and offering encouragements while we drank wine, and then, when there wasn’t any more wine, whiskey.

One of my biggest problems as a teacher is, I talk too damned fast. I think it’s a New York thing.9 In any case, that don’t fly with people who are, say, from the South, let alone non-native speakers. Lisa said she used to have the same problem. To counter this, she made cards with Question Marks on them, and distributed them to her students with instructions to hold up said card whenever she spoke too fast. I decided to modify this slightly. I made little traffic signs; diamonds with word SLOW printed across them.

It was the first thing I did in my next class. “I need to ask you guys to help me?” I said. “Sometimes I talk too fast. So what I want you to do is, whenever you think I’m talking too fast, hold up your ‘SLOW’ card. Let’s practice. Ok, everybody, hands on your cards. Now, I’m going to start speaking slowly, at the speed I should be speaking so that you can understand me. But little by little, I’m-going-to-start-speeding-up, andImmaSstartSpeakin’RealFast, thewayispeakathomecosaintnobodygottime – “ and like a flash, the cards go up in the air. “Great! Perfect! Now don’t be shy about that, Ok?” I pause. “That’s what I want to see!” And they’re all smiling now, some of them are even laughing. So I decide to test them, just to be sure.

“But obviously, that’s not what I want to see, because-if-I’m-seeing-that, itmeansi’mtalkingwaytoo – “ and the cards go flying up again. And they’re all laughing now. Fantastic!

From there, I start the class. And man, I hit that one out of the park. Everything went brilliantly. Mind you, that’s not to say everything was perfect. Far from it. I still use too many idioms and too many big words, just to name a few failings. But, you guys, they really bought into it.

And I’ll tell you something else. I was funny. Everybody’s got their own teaching style, of course. And what works for one person may not work for the next. But I build a lot of schtick into mine. And for me, it works. And obviously it works for this particular group too, because I got a lot of laughs. But beyond the laughs, you could just see that they really enjoyed the class, which was very gratifying, as you can imagine.

When it was all over, the reaction from my classmates was night and day. They were coming up to me and saying things like, “Wow, you were hilarious!” “That was so funny!” and “That was really great, Dave.” I ain’t gonna lie, that made me feel good. It’s one thing when you see that you really connected with your students and that they enjoyed your class. But when, on top of that, you get that kind of reaction from your colleagues, it’s really quite gratifying.

Ironically, I rather beat myself up in my self-evaluation. I bought myself a Wegbier10 for the walk home,11 during which I had a solid 45 minutes to reflect. And it occurred to me that my job is not to entertain these people but to teach them. And while it was clear that I had done a good job entertaining them, I wasn’t at all sure how well I had taught them. And so I proceeded to pick every nit I could think of.

The next day, I met with my teacher. Yes, he said, the things which I identified as problems do indeed need further work. But I also improved tremendously from my first lesson, which was very important. And all my schtick helped build a great rapport with the students, which is hugely important. Endeffekt:12 Above Standard. Booyah!

So I’m starting to develop my teaching persona: part Clown, part The Doctor, part Nutty Professor. And part Dave…whatever that means. Yeah, there’s still a literal shit-ton of work to do. But I’m starting to feel like I can do this, and do it well. The next challenge comes Monday.13 My job now is to be up to it.

As usual, this post has run over-long. But I do want to add just a bit more. Today was the end of the first week, thank the gods. When it was all over, our group (minus one), went for drinks and dinner. It was a much-needed catharsis for all of us. But it was also really nice to socialize with that lot outside of school and get to know them more as people. And, you guys? They’re so great. Once again, I feel like I really lucked out.

Don’t get me wrong, in the larger group of twelve, everybody is really nice. No question. But when I think about who’s in my group and who’s in the other group, well, I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s like, I got all my favorites. How does that even happen? So I’m just feeling well pleased about that. Well pleased.

One other thing I want to mention. I continue to feel really good about where I’m living. When I wrote my last post, I’d only been here three days. But now I’ve been here nigh-on a fortnight. And I love it. Me and Lisa14 just get on so well. We’re really developing a very nice and comfortable friendship here. She’s so easy to live with. And we drink. A lot. And often. But she’s also proving to be an invaluable15 resource vis-à-vis teaching. And did I mention the high ceilings?

  1. Or, you know, the reason I’m fucking here in the first place. []
  2. For example, instead of saying, “Let’s go check it out,” he’ll say “Let’s go have a squizz.” And instead of saying, “So what did she say?” I’ll say “Wait, wha’ she said?” []
  3. More on this later. []
  4. Natch. []
  5. Natch. []
  6. Did you know that was even a thing? I didn’t. []
  7. Said no one ever. []
  8. Election is Friday. (This footnote is entirely for my brother and my father). []
  9. As far back as 1774, none other than Founding Father John Adams noted in his diary that New Yorkers “talk very loud, very fast and altogether.” []
  10. Wegbier – a beer for the road.  Of course the Germans have a word for this. []
  11. My new – and dare I say, beloved – habit. []
  12. I love this word.  And it needs no translation. []
  13. I have to teach the future tenses. And yet, somehow not the Future Perfect, the greatest of all tenses! I mean, it’s the fucking Prophet Tense! It’s the only tense that can tell you what’s happened before its’ actually happened! Also, I should probably not nerd-out over verb tenses. And yet…it’s so fucking cool! []
  14. Lisa and I. Whatever. Fuck you. Which one of us is (going to be) the English teacher? []
  15. Gotta love the ‘in-‘ prefix as an intensifier. “Inflammable means flammable?? What a country!” – Dr. Nick, The Simpsons, s.12, ep.20. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
3 June, 2015

What the shit just happened, you guys? My last post was, what, three days ago? Four? At that point, I was staying in my kick-ass Airbnb flat, with my super chill hippy roommates and their two cats, for whom I was developing a certain degree of fondness. And now? Shit’s different, yo.1

Ok, so I’m in my new flat. Apartment. Whatever. But it feels so different. In the last place, everything was taken care of, arranged. The room was predecorated and prefurnished. And as much as I got along really great with Anja and Mischa – and I really did – I was always a “guest” in their house.”2 And that came with certain advantages. I didn’t have to buy laundry detergent or toilet paper. But on the flip-side, it was never ‘my’ place, ‘my’ room.

And now, here, it really is. Well, I mean to a point. I’m only here for a month. And I know I’m a stopgap until my roommate’s sister moves in. But still. It’s “my” fucking room here. I get to do with it what I want. And, you guys? This room is the tits. I feel like I now need “doge speak” to express the height of the ceilings. Sure, I could measure them. But it wouldn’t get the point across as well as, “such highest ceilings!”3

But wait, there’s more. My roommate is so cool. Right, OK. It’s only been one night.4 And things can go tits-up in a hurry, of course. But based on the first night – man, did I land in the right spot! So she’s a German teacher. Pretty sure I mentioned that in the last post. But she’s also thoughtful, smart-af, really f’ing nice, and just all around cool.

Last night was our first night together as roommates. And we stayed up ‘til three drinking wine (and then beer) and just talking. Talking about all sorts of stuff. But like, smart people stuff. At one point, we were discussing Nazi architecture, and then Soviet architecture, and then U.S. monumental architecture. I mean, it was so great.

Also, you guys, she has a friend. And this friend is…hold on, Imma come back to it.

But first, a little about my new living-sitch. So the room, right, from a New York perspective, is gloriously spacious. And did I mention the high ceilings? And the giant wall-sized windows that lets in a literal shit-ton of a natural light? But – because there’s always a “but” – it was entirely unfurnished.

Well, right off the bat, Lisa – that’s my new roommate’s name – shows herself to be a real fucking champ. Rather than saying, “Well, here’s your empty room, it’s up to you to find a bed,” she found a friend who was getting rid of a bunch of furniture and sorted out renting a van (with a driver) so we could get it from A to B. Were it not for that, I’d be sleeping on the floor and living out [of] my suitcase.

As for the rest of the apartment, well, it’s just bloody brilliant. The living room is massive. The kitchen has everything you could want, if you like to cook. And on top of that, there’s still another room – itself bigger than the “living rooms” of either my Maiden Lane or Orchard Street apartments. And that room is dedicated as a “work room,” with a desk and chairs and all that. And the bathroom is spacious and, more importantly, clean.

In New York, I’d say this apartment would go for, easy, 3.5k. And I’m paying not even five hundred. Also, did I mention that I’m writing this post on the fucking5 balcony??6 So yeah, I’m well pleased to be here.

And now, I gotta give a shoutout to Joschka. Joshcka, who7 I’m not even sure if he even reads this shit. But in any case, he came to my old place with his car, picked me up with all my stuff and drove me to the new place. What a fucking lifesaver. So, if you do read this, Kumpel, ich danke dir, von meinem Herz. Aber, du bist immer noch Scheiße.

Tonight, I went again to the class that Lisa teaches. And I had my ass handed to me, prepositionally. No, seriously. The class was on German prepositions. And I scored like a 20. The only thing that makes me feel better is, that the rules governing which prepositions are used when are almost entirely arbitrary. Still though, talk about your rude awakenings. Yeesh. And then on the way out, I saw her friend. But I said I’ll come back to that later, and I will.

But yeah, after that, I decided it was time for a nice scotch. So I stopped off to pick up a bottle of Glenfiddich, which I guess I alluded to footnoteally.8 But of course nothing can be easy, right? I decided to pay with my card, instead of cash.9 But of course, the receipt paper ran out in the middle of my transaction. So I couldn’t sign. What a shitshow. Like, seriously. I had to wait a half hour for them not to be able to print a new receipt at the register, and then decide that they needed to print one from a computer in the back for me to sign. Then, after I sign it, the guy wants to see my card again so he can actually literally astoundingly compare the signatures. And I’m like, you realize you are an actual real life stereotype now, right? Anyway, I felt like such a dick for holding up the line. But Germans – or at least these Germans – were so well behaved. Nobody even gave me a dirty look!

But in the end, I got it sorted, and I hear I am. Here I am with my glass of Glenfiddich, and my pipe, and oh, Lisa just got home and I guess we’re gonna chill on the balcony for a bit. So, pause…

OK, we’re both on the balcony, but I guess she’s facebooking, so, umm, hi.

Right, so, open-mic night. I’ve decided that this is something I need to do. I’ve been writing my own songs for a while, but I have done literally fuck-all with them to this point. If I wanted to make excuses, I would say something along the lines of, I couldn’t find people to play with, I couldn’t start a band. But also, I’m mad shy and nervous about playing my shit in front of other people. And in New York? Well, that’s my home. Those are my people. It seemed harder.

But a goal I’ve set for myself here is to perform at an open-mic night. I’m a stranger here, and I don’t know anybody. And ain’t nobody be knowin’ me.10 And this whole trip is about growing myself as a person, right?   Ok, so Sunday night, I went to check out this open-mic night. Not to play, but just to see what it was about. Well, it was interesting.

What it reminded me of, was the Java House from college. The Java House was this place where people would gather to drink coffee and listen to live music. In theory, it should have been very cool. And for a lot of people, I’m sure it was. But for me, I dunno, it wasn’t Rock’n’ Roll, if I can say that. It was a bunch of hippies, sitting around, saying things like “Isn’t ‘music’ great…maaaaannn?” Yeah, it’s terrific. Now put down your joint and tap your godsdamned foot!

Well, it was that kind of crowd. But I shouldn’t be throwin’ shade.11 Because for all it’s not “Rock’n’Roll,” they really are an open minded and supportive lot. And they get into any-and-everything. So, next week, when I go back to actually play – which I will, dammit – I think I shall be glad to have such a group of people in front of me.

Still though. The predominant language was English. The MC introduced everybody in English. At the bar, everybody was speaking English. I mean, c’mon, this isn’t why I came here! And also – here comes a rant – godsdamned hipsters! With your flannel and your boots and your ‘artisenal’ accents. You know what I mean. The perfectly rounded ‘O’s, the carefully enunciated consonants, pronouncing final ‘T’s. Like, when did glottal stops stop being cool?12 Can’t you just talk like a normal person? Not every word has to be a craft beer/cheese/whatever. Nah’mean? <<EndRant>>.

So now it’s Wednesday afternoon. And this is a bit unusual. I’m writing, but the sun is up and I’m totally sober. It’s so strange to think that people work like this all the time. In coffee shops, no less. In any case, I’m to meet up with Kelvin later for a beer and then we’re going to head back to that group conversation exchange thingy-whatsit. Should be fun. And also necessary.

Because I feel like I’m starting to hit a bit of a wall with my German. It’s like when you first start learning to play guitar. First, you start learning open chords, and your hands be all, “What? No, we don’t make that shape.” But after a bit, open chords become mad easy, and you’re feeling really good about yourself because now you can play a whole bunch of songs or order a beer at a restaurant. But then you realize you need to learn bar chords. And now your hands be all, “What? No, that hurts, stop it. Also, do you not hear how bad that sounds?” This is sitting with two well spoken German teachers and trying to follow their conversation. Then comes the guitar solo, or you know, speaking like an actual person. Well, right now, I’m just trying to keep up on rhythm guitar.

And the two German teachers I mentioned? One was Lisa. The other was the aforementioned friend. Her name is Divi. Never heard that one. So I ask if it’s short for anything. Yes, she says. It’s Indian, short for Diviam, which means “light.” And then a light goes off in my head. I made some connection, or pulled some half remembered fragment out of the part of my brain I was using when I did my Master’s. “Wait, hang on,” I say. “Surely that’s a Sanskrit word…which must be cognate with Latin ‘divinus,’ divine…because…gods, light, something something13.…(and then in my head: and also obviously, in Greek, Διόϲ (genitive of Ζεύϲ), which obviously would have been Διϝόϲ at some point, and aren’t digammas great?)…” And the whole time she’s nodding along like she knows all this, because obviously you know the origin of your own name, you German teaching, linguistics bestudied beautiful little creature, you. “Yeah, it’s the same stem,” she says. Right. Well. Thanks for letting me walk through all that then. Where’s my wine?

Anyway, Divi. Lovely girl. Smart, as we’ve seen. But also just really sweet. And she has a sense of humor. This I discovered after I managed to get myself locked in the bathroom and only escaped with Lisa’s help. I’ll say this about getting locked in your own bathroom. It’s not nearly as scary as getting locked in a cemetery; but it is infinitely more embarrassing.

There are two other salient facts about this Divi person. One I shall mention here.14 She is all of the cutes. Literally, you guys. All of them. A point which I mentioned to Lisa after Divi’d left. Her response? Well, actually her response came after I had to break down the “all-of-the-x” idiom, using “all of the feels” as another example thereof. Anyway, her response? “Oh yes, isn’t she? I’ve always wondered what kind of guy – and I’m not saying you do – but what kind of guy would have a crush on her.”

What? No! What are you doing? Don’t do that! I don’t have a…I was just…she’s very cute! That’s all I said! Don’t say the “C” word! Now it’s gonna be in my head! Ugh, I was perfectly prepared to go to bed thinking, “Oh, she was cute. How nice.” But after that remark? I went to bed having a crush.15

So of course I ran into her after Lisa’s class last night, because obviously that had to happen. “Oh hi!” I say, terrified now that I’ve said ‘hi’ with either obvious overexcitement or forced nonchalance indicating a complete lack of interest or possibly somehow both, because there’s nothing I can’t ruin. Then she opens her arms for a hug.

For a hug? What? No, you can’t do that. Germans are supposed to be unemotional robots. That’s why I came here, to avoid emotional contact. Otherwise I’d have gone to France. Anyway, hug? No. Too confusing. Does it mean something? Is she simply not an unemotional Teutonic robot? Does everybody get a hug after one night of hanging out? Oh gods, why is this happening to me?

Also,” she says with a divinely16 cute smile, “Was ist passiert, seit gestern?” (So, what’s new since yesterday?) And then it happened. I forgot all the German that I know. I wanted to say something about how I’d just had my ass handed to me in class vis-à-vis prepositions. “Ich hab…Oh gods. Words, David. Use words. “Ich hab…Not those words, David. You’ve already said that part. Use other words. “Ich hab…Mental facepalm. “Ja?” she says, encouragingly, patiently. If you could maybe stop being so cute for a second? I’m trying to think here. Thanks. Ok, try again now. Ich hab…darin…mein Arsch…getritten?, getrittet17…gehabt?“ “What are you trying to say?” she asks in English now. “Um, I got my ass kicked in there?” “Yeah,” she says. “That’s not a thing in German.” No, of course it’s not. I’ll just show myself out. Whereupon I said goodbye and promptly walked into the street, looking for a bus to throw myself in front of. But there were no buses. So I couldn’t even do that right.18

Fast forward to later in the night, when Lisa came out and joined me on the balcony. I asked her if she wanted some scotch, happy to share, but mostly expecting the answer no, because most girls seem not to like whisk(e)y.19 “Yeah, sure,” she answered pleasantly. “Good girl,” quoth I. So we chat, and we’re having a lovely time of it in the warm Berlin night, with the Big Dipper looking wheeling peacefully overhead. Finally, I bring it up.

“It’s all your fault, you know. I was totally prepared not to have any feels for your friend Divi. But then you used the ‘crush’ word, and now that’s happened. So thanks.” To which she replies, “Oh. Well you probably shouldn’t do that. You see, she lives together with her boyfriend.” Of course she does. Because Dave can’t have nice things. So that was twenty-four hours of emotional hot messitude that I could have done without. Anyway, I must have looked sad/disappointed/distressed, because then Lisa decided to try and say something nice.

“No, but that’s a good thing, actually. Because it means that your heart is open and your open to having feelings for new people.” Is it? I am? Great. Thanks. Hey, I know. Let’s drink more scotch and also change the subject please. Which we did, and all was well.

And all is well, as long as we’re not talking about girls. I’m totally lucking out in the roommate department. I’m meeting cool people. My German is improving. I’m learning the city. And still to come: school, the Rock Harz festival, the trip to Biarritz. Maybe I really can have nice things…

  1. This is a usage of “yo” that I quite enjoy in spoken English, but which I don’t think I’ve tried in the written version. []
  2. Anytime I tried to help with anything, they’d always wave me off with the words, “Du bist Gast.” – You’re a guest. []
  3. I’m as bad at Doge as I am at German. []
  4. Well, two. My writing was interrupted last night by drinking on the balcony, on more which in a moment. #foreshadowfail []
  5. I feel like I’m cursing a lot in this post. Two reasons for that. One: I bought myself a bottle of Glenfiddich tonight, and it’s the first bottle of scotch I’ve bought since I’ve been here, which, let’s face it, is ridiculous, as I’ve been here just under a month. #germanstylerunonsentence Two A: I don’t know how to curse like this in German. Two B: When I speak English here, it’s almost always a modified super-clear and semi-formal English so that people will understand me. Rarely do I get to talk the way I normally talk. []
  6. The balcony is, ironically, the only downside, in this way: In my last place, I could smoke in the kitchen. Which meant I could read Greek and write my posts in the kitchen, irrespective (or irregardless, dammit!) of weather. Here, the balcony is the only place I can smoke. So if there’s bad weather, I’m f’d, in that regard. []
  7. Should be “whom,” right? I’m gonna say it’s an anacolouthon. And I feel like, if I can name it, I can use it. []
  8. I unequivocally support the adverbization of all things. Except when we’re busy verbing things. (See: adverbization, above). []
  9. In the States, you can pay with a card almost anywhere these days. But here, most places still only take cash. And so the reason I went where I went was, I’d be able to use a card. []
  10. Trying to keep my urban colloquialisms sharp. How’m I doin’? #EdKoch []
  11. Which is something we totally still say, right? Gods, I’m out of touch. []
  12. No, I didn’t live in “MaNhaTTan,” I lived in “Ma’ha’an.” Get it right, hipster. Hey, maybe that’s why they all live in Brooklyn (and Berlin, apparently). No glottal stop to avoid in Brooklyn (or Berlin). []
  13. My actual words. []
  14. The other, for effect, comes later. #BuildingSuspense []
  15. Thanks, Lisa. []
  16. #seewhatididthere []
  17. Getreten‘ is the participle I was looking for, and which I failed to find. []
  18. #davestheworst #iruineverything []
  19. So, good on you, Niki. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
31 May, 2015

This post is proving somewhat harder to construct than its forebears. I’ve now deleted the first paragraph at least three times. Wherefore do I throw up my hands and forego any sort of introspective introduction. Moving right along then, the last few days have not been uneventful.

This past weekend, there was the Karneval der Kulturen.1  From a New Yorker point of view, it’s sort of half street-fair/half music festival. In any case, on Saturday I met my Australian mate Kelvin2 for a couple of beers, and from there we proceeded to check out the festival.   We had a good time of it. We even found a little Australian tent, where he introduced me to one of his local beers, 4X Gold.3

After we had left the festival, we wandered the streets a bit, trying to find what we would have called “a proper pub.” However, we didn’t have any luck. “Proper pubs” don’t seem to be a thing in Berlin. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe it’s because it’s so easy to just drink your beer in the street. In any case, I think we were just both a bit homesick for the little things. But it was a nice bonding moment, all the same. Strangers in a strange land and all that.

At the end of it, though, he told me he was having some classmates over the next day and that I was more than welcome to join. So of course I did. And I would have been on time, too. Except that I had a helluva time finding a bottle of wine to bring. You see, I’d forgotten that damn near everything in this town is closed on Sundays.4

But in the end, I found some wine and got there not unfashionably late. It was a nice little group. Aside from Kelvin, there was a dude from Venezuela, two Italians and two Americans. The Italians didn’t stay long, but they were great. We actually talked a bit about Caesar and how badass his Latin is, which was really cool. You see, normally when I go off on a Caesar tangent, people just sort of nod in a that’s-nice-Dave-but-you-know-nobody-cares sort of way. But these guys were really into it. “Yeah, Caesar talking about himself in the third person is so badass!” “Yeah, Caesar uses asyndeton5 like a boss!”6 That was a lot of fun for me.

Anyway, once the wine and arepas – which Luis, the Venezuelan had made – were gone, we made off for the festival. It was fun for a while. But eventually we found ourselves at the Latin music stage. And I have to be honest, Latin music just doesn’t speak to me. If I had to say why, the best I can come up with is this. It shuffles, it grooves, it pops…but it doesn’t swing. And for me, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. So eventually I left and went off on my own. And that’s how I got locked in a cemetery.

I left the main Karneval grounds and started to wend my way home. But as I went,7 I found that the Karneval stretched far into the surrounding streets. There was music, food stands, empty beer bottles, drunken louts and all the rest of it stretching far and wide. So naturally I got off the main road. And when I did, I found a nice inviting Friedhof8 – which, as I mentioned in an earlier post, function just like parks here – and decided to seek refuge therein.

It was lovely. Beautiful. Peaceful. Which is as should be, for the word Friede literally means ‘peace.’ So I wandered its tree lined paths and found solace within its quiet walls. If there was anything to hear at all, it was the song of birds. It was the perfect respite from the Sturm und Drang of the Karneval. But after a while, I noticed that the sun was beginning to set. And so I decided that it was probably time to make my exit. Only, the exits had all been shut and locked.9

Well now. Cemeteries are lovely and all, but I don’t think I’m up to spending a night in one. Not yet, anyway. Sure, I mean, Everlasting and Eternal Night, when the time comes. But not Sunday, thank you very much. That’s when I ran into Marco.

“Jolly good,” I thought.10 “Not alone.” I approached him, though I didn’t know who ‘he’ was. “Hallo!” I called. “Ich denke, dass die Türe ausgemacht sind,” which was meant to mean ‘I think the doors are locked,’ but which might actually have meant ‘the doors are shut off.’ “Ach so,” he probably responded – ‘I see…”

So we walked for a bit in silence, trying the various entrances, and finding each of them locked in their turn. Eventually, we gave up and made a go of hopping the sharp, pointed11 fence. Success! Ok, so it wasn’t exactly Steve McQueen breaking out of Stalag Luft III, but it was still a Pretty Good Escape.

Well, once we’d gotten free and the tension had been relieved, we spoke more freely. Marco was from Italy, I learned. But he’d been in Berlin at least since the beginning of the year, and so we spoke *rather* easily in German. This, I must say, I greatly appreciated. By which I mean, I was thrilled that he didn’t immediately switch over to English upon learning that I was from New York. In fact, we spoke no English at all, which was just delightful.

And as we walked down the Hasenheide, he asked me the question that many before have asked: Warum sprichst du so gut deutsch? – How is that you speak such good German? It was at this point that I began to realize that this must be a somewhat formulaic question. My German is, after all, pretty shit.

There is a Sprichwort in German, a saying: Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache – German language, hard language. In other words, Germans (and by extension, German speakers) are aware that their language is not an easy one.12 In any case, I get the impression that Germans (& German speakers) are generally impressed with even the least effort to function in their language. All to say, the question shouldn’t be taken quite literally. It would better be rendered as something like: “Whoa, you’re American and you’re not a complete idiot? Well done! Don’t let it go to your head.”

In any case, we turned off of Hasenheide and made our way through Hasenheide Park for a bit. We had a nice chat, and exchanged numbers at the end of it, ostensibly to grab a beer at some indeterminate point in the future. Whether or not that actually happens is beside the point. The point is: Look at me functioning as a social creature! Who knew?

Monday I went to Tempelhofer Feld a) to read some Tolkien and b) because Tempelhofer Feld is awesome. But on the way, I stopped for a falafel sandwich. “Ein Falafel, bitte. Aber, ohne Weißsoße – One falafel, please, but hold the white-sauce. Falafel Man answered something which I didn’t quite get. When I asked him to repeat, he pointed to a sign that read “100% vegan.” “Ach, ich bin nicht vegan…aber, ich kann’s nicht essen” – Ah, no, I’m not a vegan…I just can’t eat (read: digest) it. This brought the inevitable, “Wo kommst du her?” – Where are you from? In other words, ‘your German is sufficiently shit, I must ask you where you’re from, since obviously not here.’13 When I told him I was from New York, he told me that he was from Egypt. Whereupon he proceeded to tell me that he didn’t like Obama and that the U.S. had made a fine mess of the Middle East. “Irak ist kaputt.; Libyen ist kaputt; Syrien ist kaputt.”14 Well, yeah. Sorry. See, it’s always weird when you get stuck talking about your own country’s politics with foreigners. I might very well agree with you. But now I feel like I need to walk a fine line between agreeing with you and defending my country. It’s just awkward. And the last thing I wanted to do was get into my thoughts on Egypt, which in my opinion is doing a fine job making a mess of itself with or without our help.15

Fortunately, there was a guy hanging out at the falafel stand – who, I take it, was a friend of the guy behind the counter – and he did a lovely job of breaking the tension. Saying things like, “I had a cousin who visited New York, I hear it’s great.” Or, “Yeah, but Egyptians are all assholes too,” with a wink. Well, despite Falafel Man’s obvious displeasure with American politics, he seemed to like me just fine. In fact, he made me a cup of tea while I was waiting for my sandwich, which is something I’ve never seen before. So in the end, it all worked out. And I’m sure I’ll be back there for lunch before long.

Tuesday night I attended a free German class that my new roommate teaches. It was actually quite well done. The lesson was predominantly about grammar, so I latched right onto it. I have to say, my new roommate is pretty impressive. I look forward to going again next week. And of course, I immediately fell into class-clown mode, jumping on terrible puns whenever possible. It’s very endearing, don’t you know.

While I was waiting for the class to start, I grabbed a beer from the bar16 and struck up a chat with the only other person who was clearly there for the class. We chatted in German for a bit, running the usual where-are-you-from, what-are-you-doing here business. Giulia was Italian, but when we switched to English I discovered that she spoke with a bit of an Irish lilt. And sure enough, she grew up and learned English in Ireland. “Whereabouts?” I asked. “Limerick,” quoth she. “Ah, Stab City,” quoth I. And her face lit up. “How did you know that?!” she asked. What could I say? “I’m a man of the world.”

We sat together in the class and partnered on anything required a partner. She was a pleasure to work with. Hopefully I’ll get stuck with her again next time. And look, I know we should be speaking German with each other as much as possible, but did I mention she has an Irish accent? It’s all I want to hear. Irish accents are so beautiful. I could listen to her read the train schedule. And anyway, it’s bloody Berlin. Plenty of other people to speak German with, right?

Wednesday night was a little dinner party at Joschka’s. His girlfriend, Lusine, was in visiting. So of course it was lovely to see her, especially as she’s officially become part of the Duff’s Crew.17 The other member of our dinner party was a childhood friend of Joschka’s, now also living in Berlin, a girl by the name of Verena. Verena is a professional flute player, a real sweetheart, cute as hell and straight-up hawt by any metric. In any case, we had a lovely time of it, and I managed to get off a couple of jokes in German, proving once and for all that I am funny in at least two languages.18

Verena also has a motorbike, on which she graciously offered me a ride at some indeterminate point in the future. “Will I have to sit behind you and wrap my arms tight around you?” I asked because I don’t know how to interact with girls my own age. “Of course,” she replied unphasedly, because we’d already met two or three times. “Great! When do we leave?” Poor Joschka. He can’t take me anywhere.

A point I demonstrated yet again, when him, Lus and I went out on Friday night. We were at this “California-style”19 cocktail bar. At one point, a nice couple came and sat down at our table, albeit huddling themselves at the other end thereof. Later on, the fellow popped off to the loo, and so I decided to try my German on the lass, who was [probably] bored, waiting for her beau. Here is the conversation, which I will give in both languages:

Dave: Hallo, liebe Nachbarin!

Girl: Umm, hallo.D: Ich bin Dave. Und wie heißt du?G: [Name]

D: Freut mich. Und kommst du aus Berlin?

G: Fast.

D: Fast?

G: Seit 10 Jahre.

D: Ach so. Aber, Ursprünglich?

G: Frankfurt. Und du?

D: New York. Also, du bist eine Frankfurterin?

G: Ja.

D: Weißt du, in New York, wir essen Frankfurtern.

G: …

D: Naja, aber, du bist sicher. Ich esse dich nicht.

G: …

D: …

G: …

D: Also…schönen Abend!

G: Dir auch…

Dave: Hello, dear neighbor!

Girl: Umm, hello.D: I’m Dave. And what’s your name?G: [Name]20

D: Nice to meet you.   And are you from Berlin?21

G: Basically.

D: Basically?

G: Well, for the last ten years.

D: Ah, ok. But originally?

G: Frankfurt. And you?

D: New York. Ok, so you’re a Frankfurter?

G: Yeah.

D: You know, in New York, we eat fraknfurters.

G: …

D: Yeah, but, you’re safe.   I won’t eat you.

G: …

D: …

G: …

D: Right…good evening!

G: You too…

Poor Joschka. He can’t take me anywhere. But on the bright side, there’s more proof that I’m a regular riot in at least two languages.22 And on still another bright side, when I asked Joschka how my German was during the course of that ridiculosity, he said that it was basically spot on and that, indeed, he was fairly impressed. On the less bright side, he then pointed out that talking to strangers like that – even if they are sharing your table – just isn’t a thing here. Well, alright. Bit of a social faux pas there. But at least I nailed the German.

There are, of course, lesser events to report. More time spent at lovely Tempelhofer Feld. Getting drunk with Mischa and Blondey. Letting Lus have a go at giving me a bit of haircut and beard trim.23 Buying some new vanilla flavored pipe tobacco, which is nice, but maybe just a touch too sweet. Meeting up with my Bavarian conversation partner, who is just an all around lovely guy.   Totally loving the fact the Rangers are finally out of the playoffs. And so on. But this post is become overlong, to say nothing of overdue.   Thus findeth it its end here.

  1. Culture Carnival, for lack of a better translation. []
  2. Whom I’d met at a group conversation exchange two weeks ago. []
  3. In my opinion, it almost had a bit of a honey taste to it. []
  4. One more thing to get used to. []
  5. “Asyndeton (from the Greek: ἀσύνδετον, “unconnected”, sometimes called asyndetism) is a figure of speech in which one or several conjunctions are omitted from a series of related clauses.” Wikipedia []
  6. For example: “Caesar sacked the village, killed the men, sold the women into slavery. Caesar doesn’t have time for the word ‘and.’” #toobusyconqueringGual” []
  7. “Went,” best known as the past tense form of the verb “to go” – go/went/gone – is originally derived from the Old English verb “wenden.” Not a lot of people know that. Incidentally, we still use “wend” today, just as I did in the last sentence. []
  8. Friedhof – cemetery []
  9. Ruh-roh. []
  10. Anglophile though I am, I’m sure the words “jolly good” never entered my mind. Something more profane, no doubt. []
  11. And dare I say – only slightly hyperbolically – death defying. []
  12. Or is it? I mean, compared to Finnish or Chinese, German is a walk in the park (or Friedhof as it were). And it’s Indo-European, so on some level, it’s no different than French, or Latin, or Greek. It’s just wearing unfamiliar – and more complex – clothing. []
  13. Although I’m almost certain that his actual words were: “Wo kommst du aus.” In which case, he himself would have got the preposition wrong. []
  14. This needs no translation. []
  15. This isn’t the place for this, but to be brief: Ok, so Morsi sucked. Fine. Then vote him out. Don’t have a military coup about it. You’re going to talk to me about Obama? What about Sisi then? I’ll stop here. []
  16. Did I mention the class takes place in the back room of a bar? How can you not love this country? []
  17. The official Duff’s Crew, I’d say, is made up of Joschka, Lus, Vinny, Niki & me. Also the Finns, when they’re in town. Also, for anybody reading this who somehow knows me and not Duff’s, it’s only the greatest metal bar in all of Brooklyn, NYC and the whole world already. []
  18. #amirite []
  19. Whatever the fuck that means. []
  20. I’ve totally forgotten it. []
  21. Berlin, I should mention has this in common with Brooklyn: Nobody seems to be actually from here. []
  22. #amirite []
  23. They’re both still long, but I look rather a bit less homeless now. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
23 May, 2015

The beginning of this week seems like a lot more than a week ago. And with that poorly crafted sentence begins the fourth installment of this series.1 In our last episode, I was looking for a place to live in June, planning on a bit of exploring and getting ready to cook dinner for the roommates and possibly Blondey. And what have I done? Well, I cleaned my pipe.

No, seriously, that thing was getting gross and I’d forgotten to bring pipe cleaners with me. So obviously, I had to buy some. But first, I had to find out what they were called. Apparently, the word is ‘Pfeifenreinigern,’ which I have to say was somewhat disappointing, as I was hoping for at least three more syllables. On the other hand, ‘rein’ means ‘pure.’ At least ‘Pipe-purifier’ sounds a bit erudite, doesn’t it? But that’s all a bit of nothing, innit.

Moving on. Most important(ly),2 the room-sitch for June seems to have sorted itself out.3 Actually, before my last posting – on Sunday – I went to go see a place. But I didn’t say anything about it, because I actually quite liked it and didn’t want to jinx it.4 So here’s how it went down. After sending what I’m pretty sure was literally a million emails and requests to wg-gesucht5 and Airbnb, and after getting maybe six responses – four of which telling me the rooms weren’t actually available – I got one which intrigued me. Paraphrasing into English, the Reader’s Digest version was something along the lines of: “Well, I’m really looking for somebody for two months, and I really don’t want to go through this process again…buuuuttt…you sound nice. Can you come by at 5:30?” It was 3:00. Yes, of course, see you then!

So I roll up, and there’s this girl standing in the doorway. And she looks…well, she looks totally fucking normal. She shows me around the apartment. And it’s big. With one room set up as a workspace room and then a proper living room on top of that. The kitchen was big and fully stocked. The bathroom was spotless. Then she asks me if I’d like a glass of water. Actually, yes I would.

So we sit down in the living room and start to chat. The tour (and the email correspondence) was all in German. But now we switch to English. We talked about all manner of things. Our approach to living in a shared space,6 music, studies, Paris, French, Bourgeois hipsters whose parents pay for their apartments, German (she’s a German teacher!). We’re really getting on well. The chat lasted for over half an hour. Finally, I say, “Well, look, I know you want somebody for two months, so I know this isn’t necessarily ideal. But for me, this place is perfect. And I think we get along pretty well. So for my part, I’d be happy to stay here in June.” Her: “Ok, well, it’s basically down to three people. I still have to meet one more person tomorrow. So I’ll let you know.” Well, I never expected her to offer it to me on the spot. Now she thinks for a second. “You’re not like a vegan or a vegetarian, are you?” Uh-oh. A test? “Noooo? Are you? I mean, if you are – I don’t have to use your pans – .” “No, I’m not at all.” Thank god. Ok, so I look forward to hearing from you, and thanks for your time.

And I basically just assumed it was too good to be true. I mean, the place was great and we got on so well, there was no way this could work. That night, I write my previous post and say nothing of this because, as I said, I don’t want to jinx it. But the very next morning, I find an email in my inbox. I see it’s from her. And the previewed first line reads, “It was very nice meeting you yesterday…” Oh God. Denial. Rejection. If she was going to accept me, she would have texted. Back to square one. Why gods? I’d burn my fatted calf for you, if only I had one. And the two calves I do have always been pretty lean anyway…

Wait, read the email, Davey. “…nice meeting you yesterday. I think we got along very well. So if you’re still interested, I’d like to offer you the room…” Yes, yes! A thousand times yes! “Also, would you like to sing in our choir?” What? Yes? No? I mean, no. I can’t sing choral music. I’m a rock’n’roll guy. But if I say ‘no,’ do I submarine the whole…oh gods, why? Anyway, I politely declined, and I think all is still well.

In truth, part of me is still waiting for the email that says, “Yeah, so actually, I thought it over, and sorry to do this to you, but really, I do actually need somebody for the two months and good luck to you.” But failing such an epic disaster, I do seem to be set for June, and that’s a load off my mind. And actually, I’m quite looking forward to it. It really does seem like it would be a very nice living-sitch.

What’s more, it’s the perfect distance to my school. So, in accordance with my plan of doing more exploring, I decided I’d make the walk from her place to my school on Monday, in order to time it out. And it’s almost exactly the distance from my LES apartment to my old job. Perfect!

I actually popped into the school, just to see the place and introduce myself. The people there were lovely and they gave me a bit of a tour. It was good to get my bearings, and to remind myself what I’m doing here in the first place.

But back to exploring. It turns out the school is quite literally around the corner from Checkpoint Charlie. So I had a look at that. And from there, I passed through the Brandenburg Gate and onto the Tiergarten, which is more or less Berlin’s answer to Central Park. It was lovely and empty and peaceful and quiet, but for all the birds singing. Now, I know nothing about birdcalls, and frankly, I don’t care to learn either. But it was quite relaxing to walk along and listen to all the different songs.

Leaving the Tiergarten, I embarked upon a long and indeterminate route home, which took me through several neighborhoods I’d not yet seen. Wilmersdorf is quite nice, albeit rather a bit posh. So posh, in fact, that I had trouble finding a späti.7 I mention this because I’d been walking for probably three hours at that point, and I was damned thirsty. And this being Germany, I was determined to get my hands on a beer for the next bit of my trek. Because Freiheit.8

Soon enough, however, I passed from Wilmersdorf into Schöneberg, which was much more my speed. It wasn’t long before I found my holy grail, a bottle of Augustiener, which I’m pretty sure was glowing with a divine halo in the fridge of that little späti. But just then, I remembered that Timo – a friend of Joschka’s whom I’d met at the festivals and who had since become my friend – was supposed to be visiting that day. So I texted Joschka, worried that I’d missed the bloke. But in fact, he was only due to arrive in fifteen minutes. So I walked until my beer was gone and hopped on the S-Bahn up to Joschi’s.

Upon arriving, it was made clear to me that we would only be speaking German, unless absolutely necessary. Fear! But, no. This is what I was here for. And my goal was to be able to actually understand people at this summer’s festival. Time to get to work! And actually, we managed!

First things first. After greeting each other warmly and agreeing that we were all hungry and in need of beer, I noticed Timo’s AC/DC shirt. “Schönes T-Shirt!” I say enthusiastically, possibly getting the gender of T-Shirt wrong. This leads to a discussion of where and when they are playing in Germany, which leads to Joschka buying three tickets to see them in Berlin in June! That’s right, bitches! I’m seeing AC/DC in Berlin!

The rest of the night was about what you’d expect. Dinner. Drinks. Hanging out. Me trying to keep up with the German. Succeeding at some points, failing miserably at others, and zoning out entirely at still others. But what was really cool was, I think this was the first time that Joschka ever took me seriously as a German speaker. That is to say, rather than switching to English to talk to me or translating everything that Timo said, he really tried to keep me going in German. He spoke to me in German and encouraged my speaking to him/them in German. It felt like a huge accomplishment, as limited as it clearly was.

A brief digression, if I may, to illustrate what this means to me. Via text message, Joschka has always been extremely patient and helpful as a German teacher. I’ve learned a great deal from him. But we never really speak in German when we’re together. This is, I think, because we’re very good friends and my German is so limited. For him, it would be like talking to a child. I’m just not good enough with the language yet. So to have a night when the three of us could hang out and speak their language instead of mine – which we did, btw, when Timo visited New York this year – was really gratifying. Even if I was in the dark for more of it than I cared to be.

The next night was the dinner experiment. I was cooking for the roommates. And Blondey. I decided upon a sort of German-Italic-American fusion. I did sausage, peppers & onions over pasta with a white wine sauce. But instead of Italian sausage, I used bratwurst. And I made a garlic bread.9 Well, it seemed to be hit. Everybody went for seconds, and the garlic bread didn’t survive the night. I’m prepared to call that a success.

The night itself was also a success. Many bottles of wine were drunk.10 Conversations were made. Fun was had. All in all, it was a lovely night. And the next day, Blondey dropped off a couple of books for me.11 One was about an Englishman living in Berlin and was in English. I read it yesterday afternoon in the park, with my obligatory beer.

The other is called “Der Die Was?”12 and is obviously in German. It’s about an American and his adventures learning the German language. I started it today and it’s quite challenging. Even Anja, my roommate, said she found it a difficult read. But it’s quite fun (and funny). And it very much speaks to my experiences. So for all the effort required, I’m definitely enjoying it. I hope I can finish it before I leave!

[Author’s note: I am now out of wine. Schade! That’s the problem with cooking with wine, as I did tonight. There’s less of it to drink!]

A delightfully awkward experience at the Turkish grocery today. I grabbed some stuff to make lunch sandwiches, amongst which were numbered three small cucumbers. When I got to the register, the girl asked me something about them that I didn’t quite understand. She asked again, and this time, I perceived that her question had something to do with the weight of the produce. Knowing only American supermarkets, I assumed she was asking the price-per-pound.13Zwei und fünfzig par kilo,” I stammered. She replied something else in German. Apparently that was not the answer she was looking for. And seeing that I was clearly stupid, she asked her co-worker if she could speak English.14

But while she was asking, my slow-working brain put together her original question, which was, “how much do they weigh?” You see, apparently, it was on me to weigh them myself before I ever got to the register and to report that weight to her. So I waved off her associate. “Ich verstehe,” I said. ‘I understand.” Though I said it not with the pride of actually understanding, but with the shame of being the guy holding up the line because I don’t know how your supermarket works. In my broken German, I asked if I could just forget the cucumbers and leave them at the register. Fortunately, she was not nearly as annoyed as she could have been. In any case, lesson learned. Next time, I shall weigh my own damned produce. But there would be no cucumbers on today’s sandwich.15

I suppose those are the week’s events that bear reporting. Of course I keep up with my Herdotos reading most nights. That’s endlessly rewarding. And there’s something about German and Greek that just, I don’t know. It makes sense that so many of the best Greek scholars were/are German. The languages work in much the same way. It’s a neat symbiosis. Greek actually helps my German and German helps my Greek. You just don’t get that from French. Though in fairness, what you do get from French are fun novels that you can actually read on the subway. But then, Germans read books in German on the subway. So I keep working…

  1. Feel free to bail at any time now. []
  2. Pedants have a problem with the adverb here. But from one pedant to another, go screw. Descriptivism trumps prescriptivism every time. []
  3. #knockwood []
  4. Because I’m a goalie and we’re superstitious. []
  5. The German equivalent of craigslist but specifically for rooms. []
  6. Obvi. []
  7. Späti, or Spätkauf (literally: late-buy) is the German version of the Bodega. It’s where you go to buy a single beer (or other “essentials”). []
  8. Freedom. []
  9. I was initially worried that garlic bread with pasta would be to “carby.” But my dear friend Niki, who is superlatively Italian, assured me that garlic bread was a must, pasta or otherwise. []
  10. Drank? Drunken? We drank many bottles of wine, is the point. #imgoingtoteachenglish []
  11. Apparently, she lives in the building. This may well have been explained to me much earlier, but I’ve only understood this fact since Wednesday. []
  12. Der, Die, Das are the German pronouns ‘he, she, it.’ Was means ‘what.’ So the title means, “He, She, What?” (Or, as I like to say it, “He, She, Whaaaaaaaa???”) It’s quite clever. But since it’s impossible to explain a joke without also killing it, I shall stop here. []
  13. Well, price-per-kilo, actually. []
  14. #facepalm #davefail []
  15. Which, come to think of it, is itself pretty German. I mean, we don’t put cucumbers on cold-cut sandwiches, do we? []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
18th May, 2015

It’s amazing how fast the day – that is, the useful part of the day (and by useful, I mean from a things-being-open point of view) – goes by when you wake up at 12, 1 o’clock. Or, to better get in the local habit, 1200, 1300. Well look, it’s not like I’m sleeping 14 hours a night. I suppose I usually go to bed between three and four. Which is not far off from what I was doing when I had to get up at seven for work.1 But I still have a hard time getting moving in the “morning.” So instead of going on some multi-hour trek, I find it’s easier to just go grab a beer, sit in the park and read for a spell.

What am I doing up so late? Mostly reading Greek and doing this stupid blog-thing. So it’s not like I’m not being productive. But I think this week I’ve got to make more of an effort to get out and see more of the city. So I should set some goals here, publicly, thereby hopefully forcing myself to meet them and report back. I should go see the Olympic stadium.2 You know, that place where Jesse Owens made an ass of Adolf Hitler.3 And I should walk in a direction I haven’t yet walked before.

I went to a group conversation exchange event last week. That was pretty cool. Everyone was lovely. I’m not sure how much it actually helped my German, but it’s a good way to meet people. You know, putting yourself out there and all that. There was only one other native English speaker, an Australian bloke. We got on well and met for a beer a few days after.

Honestly, when I came here I had sort of decided I wasn’t interested in meeting other native English speakers. But it turns it it’s actually really nice to have somebody with whom to compare notes, somebody who’s going through all the same stuff you are. And he’s been here since October, so he’s got some good pointers as well. So I’m going to limit my previous prejudice to Americans.

That said, outside of the conversation meetings, I’m not having the easiest time meeting people. I popped into a bar around the corner the other night which seemed from the outside to have a good vibe going on. But when I got in, I didn’t talk to anybody. I was either too sober or too chickenshit or both, and likely one being dependent on the other. Conclusion: I need to try harder. Or drink more. Or both.4 But, you know, per aspera ad astra5 and all that.

So the blonde girl brought over some cake for us that she had made. And she specifically made it clear – if I understood my roommate;6 I wasn’t home at the time – that one slice was for me. Which is really lovely, right? Except. Blueberry cheesecake. So clearly she didn’t like me, and after one encounter has taken it upon herself to poison me. It’s the only rational conclusion. Right? Maybe I can feed it to the cats.

Oh man, the cats. So, talk about things I didn’t see coming. I kinda love these cats.7 I think we’re becoming friends. Except when I break out the guitar. Then they go running.8 But really, I kinda dig the little fuckers. They’re like semi-sentient animatronic stuffed animals.9 Not that I’m ready to deify them, Ancient Egypt style, but I’m forced to admit, I like having them around.

Tuesday I’m supposed to cook dinner for the roommies (and possibly Blondey). I’m a bit apprehensive, only insofar as foreign supermarkets are always weird. Like, I don’t know how to find – or if they even have – half the stuff I’m used to buying. So I doubt I’ll be able to make something that I know I can hit out of the park. But I can usually improvise pretty well, so I’m sure it’ll be fine. And maybe I can coax these jokers into a pre-dinner ciggy so that they don’t really taste anything anyway.

The last thing worth mentioning is, I’m still trying to get a room sorted for June. It’s starting to become a bit stressful. I suppose, in utter need, I can grossly overpay via Airbnb, but I’d prefer it didn’t come to that. It is strange, and perhaps even a bit ironic, to now be on the other side of this experience.

When we lived on Maiden Lane, it always fell to me to deal with the whole find-a-new-third-roommate situation. Of course I always tried to deal fairly with people: respond in a timely manner and all that. But at some point, I always had to turn somebody away who seemed like a good fit, and that was never a good feeling.10  And now here I am. I’m the one hearing, “Well, you’d definitely be a good fit here, but I’ve a few more people to meet. I’ll let you know.” It’s frustrating, I ain’t gonna lie. But that’s life in the big city, I guess.

I want to shift gears for a moment before signing off. In high school, we had this English teacher, Ms. Young. She was brilliant.11  Anyway, she had this idea about storytelling, namely that “there’s nothing new under the sun.” Ok, for the last year or so I’ve been working my way through the Grimm fairy tales.12  And in doing so, you sort of mentally file away the tropes. Now tonight, I’m reading a bit of Herodotos, and that’s where it all sort of starts to tie together.

So, in Sleeping Beauty, the king get some sort of prophecy or warning or whatever that his daughter is going to get pricked with some kind of needle, which will result in her death or long-lasting coma or whateverthefuck. So what does he do? Well, obviously he banns all sharp pointed metal objects and then locks his daughter in a tower, for good measure. And what happens? Some witch or whatever bullshit, but yeah, she gets pricked, and bam: Sleeping Beauty. Nice try, Your Majesty, but it was always a losing battle. Because Fate.

But now here’s Herodotos, in the mid-400’s B.C. And he’s telling this story about King Croesus.13  And in this story, Croesus has a dream that his beloved son14 is going to die at the point of a spear.15  So what’s he do? Well, obviously he takes all his armaments off the walls – because gods forbid they fall off the wall and kill the kid – and locks them away. But of course there’s some wild boar and the kid has to fight it, and well, you know what happens. Anyway the parallel struck me. And meanwhile I get annoyed when they reboot movie franchises. But really we’ve been rebooting our stories for thousands of years.

Ok, so I did that in two half-cocked16 paragraphs. Feel free to call bullshit. But I’m going to jump to a couple of conclusions. 1) Ms. Young, as always, was right. 2) For all the difficulty involved in learning – and then actually reading – Greek, Herodotos is so worth it. And sure, you could read him in English. Just like you could go watch J.J. Abrams take on Star Trek. But man, don’t you just love The Original Series?

  1. Screw you, job!  (Also thanks for the years of employment, insurance, $, etc). []
  2. Because NS architecture is alluringly creepy.  Or creepily alluring? []
  3. Cos that was hard to do, said no one ever. []
  4. Let’s start with drinking more. []
  5. Ugh, this doesn’t mean I like you, Latin. []
  6. Always a big “if”. []
  7. Sorry, Dad. []
  8. Well, you would too. []
  9. Semi-sentient animatronic stuffed animals that sometimes make a break for the open window. Down! What’s the matter with you! Oh, you don’t speak English. Verdammt! []
  10. Actually, I usually stuck Jared with that business. But I didn’t feel good about it anyway. []
  11. Full disclosure: she was never actually my teacher. But I spent many free periods chatting with her when she was on hall duty. []
  12. You know, to improve my archaic German vocabulary. []
  13. Kroisos, would be the better spelling. But why fight it? []
  14. As opposed to his deaf-and-dumb non-beloved son. []
  15. ὡϲ ἀπολἐει μιν αἰχμῆι ϲιδηρέηι βληθέντα (1.34.2). Lit: That he would die being stuck by sharp iron. But αἰχμή, while literally meaning the sharp tip of a spear, is so often used synecdochially (or possibly metonomically; I always get confused with those two) for the spear itself. I know. Nobody cares. []
  16. And let’s be honest, half-drunk. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
13 May, 2015

The last few days have been somewhat less adventuresome, at least in terms of exploring the city. The weather has been somewhat less favorable, and I have been perhaps a bit lazier.1 That’s not so say, however, that the last few days have been uneventful. They have been, in fact, quite fun. Not fun in the New York sense, mind you. That is to say, I haven’t been out at bars till closing and then eating noodles to sunrise. But fun, all the same.

Saturday night, we had a bit of a dinner party here. Funny thing though, I didn’t know it was going to be a dinner party. Originally, I was going to say: “Nobody told me it was going to be a dinner party.” That’s possible. It’s also possible that they told me and I didn’t understand. Anyway, Mischa, my roommate, cooked up a bunch of food. And as I was sitting in the kitchen, I noticed there were four place settings. I noticed, but I didn’t ask.

Anyway, at one point the doorbell rings and in walks a very nice and well dressed blonde girl.2 Now I mention well dressed only to point out the contrast. As I was unaware that there would be company, I rolled up to the table in a ripped Cheap Trick T-shirt and with my hair a complete mess.3 Whereas homegirl was wearing a lovely black dress which was not unflattering with regard to her natural assets. Fortunately, where American Dave would have made some self-defeating-albeit-humorous remark, Berliner Dave can’t think fast enough in German. Immediate embarrassment averted.

In any case, it was a lovely evening, in terms of food, conversation and company. We all had a lovely time and drank possibly just a touch more than we should have. Or at least I did. I got to know my roommates better. I made the blue-eyed blonde girl laugh. I learned more German. I didn’t embarrass myself. Oh wait, I did a bit.

DON’T MENTION THE WAR!

At one point, we were discussing our ancestry. Anja, my roommate, mentioned that her family originally came from Königsberg. She then explained that Königsberg, though now a part of Russia,4 was once a part of Germany. Whereupon I remarked something along the lines of “Aber alle Europa war am einer Zeit ein Teil von Deutschland.” Which was supposed to mean, “But all of Europe was a part of Germany at one point.”5 Blank stares all around. Dave tugs at his collar. “Krieg Witz?” I offer hesitantly. “War joke?” More blank stares. Silence. Terror. Horror. Now all I can hear is John Cleese screaming, “Don’t mention the war!” I shake my head and wave my hand, since I don’t even know how to say “nevermind.” And we move on.

Now I should point out, these are people are not easily offended. I don’t think they mind war jokes in principal. More likely, my joke made no sense. Or most likely – as I can vouch from 30-odd years of experience – it just wasn’t funny. The joke, I mean. Because the situation, at least in hindsight, was pretty hilarious. However, I made no more war jokes that evening.

In any case, after much wine and perhaps too much absinthe,6 the evening came a to a close. After Blondey left, I sat and chatted with Anja for a bit. And she offered for me to come back for the month of July.7 “We like you,” she said. How fucking nice is that? I’ve only been here since Wednesday. I said that that would be great, but we’d all drank a bunch and let’s talk it over again when we’re sober. Which we did tonight, and there’s been no change. So that’s fantastic. I’ve got July sorted now. All I need to worry about now is June. But that’s for another day.

And what about Blondey? Who knows? Maybe she liked me. Maybe I liked her. Hard to say, with the language barrier. Hopefully I’ll see her again. She’s got great blue eyes, did I mention that? But at the very least, the language barrier was good for one thing. I didn’t “Davey it up,” as one of my friends so eloquently put it.

For Sunday, the day after the dinner party, I had scheduled a conversation exchange. This was to be in a part of town called Charlottenburg. By foot, I’d guessed it to be a solid hour-and-a-half, maybe two. And I’d planned to walk it. But I was in no condition. So I took the train.

A brief aside on the Berlin metro-sitch. There are no express trains and trains don’t run much past midnight.8 But other than these two [glaring] deficiencies, the mass transit system here is actually quite nice. But it’s one of those systems with no turnstiles. If you’re not on an unlimited, be it weekly or monthly, you have to buy and validate your ticket, in case there’s an inspection. My main problem with this is, inspections are so infrequent that you feel stupid for spending money on a ticket. And yet just frequent enough that you really do need to buy and validate. This annoys me. That is, to the extent that anything annoys me here. Which is exceedingly little, given my sate of general-annoyance-for-all-things back home.

But OK, the conversation exchange. Lovely guy. Bastian is his name. And he’s Bavarian, so he has this way of rolling his R’s which is a) really cool and b) hard to understand at first. But his English is great and he’s super patient and helpful with my German. He likes hockey and baseball too. And not just likes, but is actually current on the state of both leagues! So we had a lovely chat in both languages. Now, since his English is so spot-on, there’s really little for me to help him with. Instead, I teach him a bit of slang. For example: “Imma bounce.” And how “I am going to” becomes “Imma.” Or, “Nah-mean?” And how “Do you know what I-” becomes “Nah-.” He got a kick out of that. Anyway, it went well and we agreed to meet again. More importantly, I might have made my first new friend (not counting roommates).

Thus were the two big events of the last few days. The rest is just general contentment. Walking down the street with a beer in hand. Sitting in my Secret Garden, reading Tolkien with my pipe and a beer. Playing music in my room. I even wrote a new song! In my mind, it might be the best I’ve yet done. But even if it’s not “good,” at least it “swings,” which is generally all I care about. But I haven’t written a new song in quite some time. So I’m hoping this is a harbinger of things to come. With virtually all of my stress removed and with more free time than I know what to do with, perhaps the creative juices will flow once more. Time will tell, I suppose.

I suppose there’s not a whole lot else to say. Last night I drank a bunch of wine with Joschka. That’s never not good. And honestly, it’s really nice to have a proper friend here. I hope he doesn’t read that though. But if you do, Joschi, du bist Scheiße.  Tonight I had dinner with the roomies. Hamburgers, can you believe it!? Here I must mention that the generosity of my roommates seems boundless.

You see, I had planned to cook for myself tonight. But as I hadn’t really seen them since the dinner party, I figured I’d pop into the kitchen and just chill for a bit. But Mishca immediately offered me some of what he was cooking. Well how could I say no? And while he was cooking, we had a nice chat. Then Anja came home and we all ate together, which was great. After dinner, Mischa offered wine and schnapps.9 Then he went to bed and me and Anja also had a lovely chat. I love these guys.

After Anja went to bed, I read a bit of Herodotos. And this is something I’m trying to get in the habit of. If I’m home and sober [enough], I’m trying to read a bit of Greek every night. So far, so good. And man, Herodotos is great. Of all the Greek I’ve encountered, it’s the most readable. Not to say I’m anywhere near being able to read it on the subway, mind you. But you really can read this stuff. And he’s such a wonderful story teller. OK, he’s a bit of a ‘drunkel.’ He goes off on tangents. He relates the most impossible tales at times. But it’s a good read. And he is the motherfucking Father of History after all. So that’s my chosen text. But I need to find some way, some time, to get Homer in as well. ABRH. Always Be Reading Homer. For so many reasons, not least of which, I feel a grave responsibility to maintain mastery over all I have learned from the Old Man.

Right, so I’d best draw this to a close. The last thing I want to do is be negative, but there are two small things which have been nagging at me. One, my French is going to shit. I should always have some Jules Verne in my pocket. If I do, I think I shall be alright. But I need to find a French bookstore. There’s got to be one somewhere in this town. The other thing, I’m probably smoking too much. It’s too easy in this house. Anytime we sit at the kitchen table, Mischa’s cigarettes and my pipe come out. So I’ve taken to not bringing it with me on my long walks. And I miss my pipes on my long walks. But for now, at least, I need it more at home. It’s a bit of a crutch, I suppose. Something I can hang on to when the German is flying fast and thick and I’m only catching pieces of it.

Ugh. Even as my german improves daily – and I think/hope it does – it is still full of holes. Full of holes the way a fishing net is full of holes. That is to say, it’s mostly holes, with fine bits of string strung between them. But already tonight, I understood more of my roommates speech than I did on Saturday. So that’s progress!

Well, tomorrow is another adventure. I’m to go to a group conversation exchange. People of all levels in both languages. It might be a real shit-show. But hopefully there will be broads, at least. And worst case, afterwards I’ll go to Joschka’s and drink. And so, all will be well. All will be well…

  1. Well, I’m on vacation. []
  2. Girl: Four years older than me. []
  3. Or, how I look most of the time. []
  4. Kaliningrad. []
  5. I still have no idea how correct this sentence is/was. []
  6. Any absinthe is too much absinthe. []
  7. They’d already booked June. []
  8. Point: New York. []
  9. Cherry flavored. Too sweet for me, but obviously I drank it. #manners #sorrynotsorry []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
9 May, 2015

Generally when I travel, I try to keep some kind of journal. This has the twofold benefit of recording things which might otherwise be forgotten in the passage of time as well as of focusing the mind. In the past, I have tended to bring with me a small notebook, in which I might scribble on a park bench or a barstool. However, this being a longer journey than usual, and of an altogether different specie, I have decided to make periodic postings to my blog, that friends and relations, with whom I expect to have less than regular contact, though today’s technology makes connexion so much easier than in former times, might have a way to keep track of my adventures, should they so desire.12

Foregoing the tedious details of the flight, I begin at home, where all stories must begin. For the month of May, I took out a room on Airbnb. Though a reputable site, and vouched for personally by friends, it is still difficult to know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. You see some pictures of the place and have some brief exchange via email with the hosts, but that is all. And in this case, all the correspondence was carried out in German. So while I understood what was being said, I was unable to garner any nuance or feeling on my host’s part nor to give any on mine own. And while my intuition presaged something good, it was still only intuition.

Fortunately, any doubts were soon laid to rest. I was meant to show up at 1230, Wednesday. However, I was a bit late owing to getting a bit lost and being further slowed by my (absurdly, I see now) overstuffed suitcase. Lovely. Here I am in the Land of Punctuality, and I’m late to my very first appointment. Well, I finally arrive, and my host/roommate Anja couldn’t be nicer about it. Then, horror.

I begin to lug my case up the stairs,3 when after about two steps the handle breaks off. Scheiße! But I don’t want to ask for help, as this is clearly not her problem. Yet without missing a beat, she offers to grab one end and help me up the stairs. “Das ist einfacher, na?” Yes, much easier, thank you!!

We get inside and she shows me to my room. I set down my bags and heave a sigh of relief. I look around. The room is lovely. It’s old and well appointed. The furniture is all real wood. And there are two bookshelves, filled with books. Besides which, there is a dresser and a wardrobe. At the far end, the wall is all windows, floor to ceiling. Not much of a view, but so much light! I’ve never had so much light!4

Now Anja begins to show me around the place, explaining everything patiently in German. I’m getting most of it, but not nearly all. The most important things, I ask her to clarify in English, which she happily does. And good thing, too. For the most important things seem to be about which windows I can open and when, so that the cats don’t escape. Anything else I might have missed, I can pick up in due course.

The apartment is altogether lovely. Everything is old, but clean. It has the air of an antique or curiosity shop to it. But it’s very cozy. The kitchen is well stocked with pots, pans and spices. Apparently Mischa, the other roommate, who is at work, likes to cook. And I’m welcome to use whatever I like to cook as well. I couldn’t ask for better.

What’s more, we can smoke in the kitchen. That’s where I am now, in fact. At the kitchen table with my pipe and a bottle of wine. In fucking Berlin! I smile just to write the words.

Well, Anja leaves for work and I take a much needed shower followed by a much needed nap. Afterwards, I head out to see about a SIM card for my phone, but the shop closed at seven and I was too late.5 After a brief stop at home, I meet up with my friend Joschka in his neighborhood – Mitte – for dinner and the obligatory post-dinner drinks. Lovely, but nothing new there.

I get back to the apartment around 0030, and for the first time I notice how bloody loud and creaky the old wooden floorboards are. My first impression was, “oh, how lovely!” But now, I thought each step would wake the devil himself. Half drunk and exhausted from my travels, I got myself to bed and passed the fuck out.

The next day, Thursday, I awoke around 1030. Because I could. I left sometime after twelve. Again, because I could. First thing, I stopped into the Vodafone shop on Karl Marx Str. and got my SIM card sorted.

Now that was fun. You see, the clerk was bilingual. In German and Turkish. So we muddled through in German and when we got stuck, we’d see if either of us knew the English word. Well, let’s just say I had to get out my German/English dictionary app more the once. But in the end, we got it sorted. And I learned how to say “thank you” in Turkish: Teşekkür ederim. This last I mention because my ‘hood, NeuKölln, has a big Turkish population. So it seems like a good opportunity to learn a bit of Turkish as well, no that I don’t have my hands full with German. And in any case, omg, all the good foods! Yesterday I popped into a place and got a chicken doenner plate with fries and salad and by gods was that good! Now people who know me will know with what reverence I talk about the sandwich maker who cares about what he is making, who puts love into the sandwich. The guy who will choose for you the best piece of tomato, who will arrange the meat on the bread just so. It was like that. Some sort of powdered spice was added to the salad. There was a lemon on the plate. All was arranged lovlingly. All for seven Euro! Und alles war sehr lecker! It was amazeballz! In a way, I feel like I left Chinatown in NY and found the equivalent here, with some serious differences, which I’ll come to presently.

So this feast came at the end of something like six hours of walking. Berlin is fucking huge. And yet, most of the buildings never get much beyond six or seven stories. Why build up when you can expand?6

But the walk. Berlin is lovely. Parks everywhere. Trees everywhere. Cemeteries everywhere, only the cemeteries are like parks themselves. And birds! You walk down a tree-lined street – Hasenheide, in this case – and you just hear birds singing! Wunderschön! So I wandered through Hasenheide Park, and that was great. But then I found what I was looking for: Tempelhofer Feld.

So Tempelhof (THF) was the main airport in Germany for many years. It’s probably most famous for being the base of the Berlin Airlift. But there’s more to it. You see, much like Volkswagen or Hugo Boss, it has the unfortunate distinction of being essentially Nazi in its design and yet also being generally beloved.   But today, that is neither here nor there. Now, the terminal is simply this magnificent – and massive – concrete crescent that flanks a massive grass field, which is now a park for the Berliners.

But in the midst of this endless grass, wide and open like nothing could ever be in New York, there remain the two runways from days gone by. And over these, the creeping grass has yet to lay any claim. Upon these also, people fly now with their bicycles where aeroplanes once gathered their strength to master the airs.

And so I traversed the concrete boulevards until I came to the far end of the field, which is nearer to my home. There I came upon a grassy path, fenced on both sides. And upon my left stood ancient towers, fighting against time and nature. The woods and grasses grew now about them, claiming them as iron trees in their organic realms. And atop these towers stand lights that no longer see, lights which not so long ago guided the landing aircraft home after so many hours aloft.

The path lets out onto the Hermannstr., which is the westernmost main road to my street. It was there that I found the Turkish restaurant. And from there I made my way home.

When I came in, I met Mischa for the first time. He was cooking and it smelled lovely. I said hello, but I was exhausted, and so went for a nap. But when I came back, I found that he had set aside for me a plate. Dude can cook, let me say that.

In any case, we sat and chatted and smoked and drank for nigh three hours. And he is a character. But he is also a sweet, sweet guy. And endlessly patient with my terrible German.

Now this was a humbling experience. You see, we talked, as I said, for probably three hours. And he did most of the talking. And I must confess, I’m lucky if I understood a third of what he said. And it was exhausting. The power of concentration which is required for such an encounter is uncommon. But I did my best, and he seemed to mind it not in the least. And if after one night I was exhausted and feeling as though I will never learn this language, then perhaps after many nights I will feel the reverse. Such is my hope, at least.

After midnight, Anja came home and the three of us sat and drank for a bit, and they showed me some of their music, which I must say was very cool. All in all, it was a perfectly lovely night, and all the more as it left me with a feeling that in my first month in this foreign city, I am with the right people.

Today I slept past noon. This is the life! I went for another long walk. This time up the Wilhelmstr. towards Potsdamer Platz. This was interesting, having just read Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The Wilhelmstr. was where the foreign ministry was, and so was central to the story. But of course it was mostly leveled during the war and so was generally not much to look at now.

Except for the Air Ministry Building. For that’s what it was at its conception, though now it houses the Finance ministry. But in the same way that in New York I would refer to the RCA Building or the PanAm Building, I refer to the Air Ministry Building by its original designation. It somehow made it through the war more or less unscathed. It is impressive, yes. But it is a foreboding monolith, a prime example of what somebody once called “Nazi intimidation architecture.”

It is an altogether creepy feeling to consider what this city might have looked like. A brief detour here, if you have the patience. It seems that there were plenty of people during the Third Reich who, while not nearly anti-Nazi enough by our standards, would nevertheless have gladly seen the downfall of Hitler’s regime, if only to secure a favorable peace.   And so, one need not imagine a world wherein the Nazis had won the war, but simply one in which the war was brought to a premature end and so one in which so many of these menacing buildings had survived. It makes the skin crawl even now to think that official government business is conducted within such walls. There is a shadow there, and one which I do not fully comprehend. But it is cold.

But I moved on from there soon enough. And on my walk home I found more parks, and heard the voices of more birds. I bethought myself to stop upon the Kreuzbergstr. for a currywurst. But the line was ridiculous. Not long, just…not moving. And I had this thought: Fuck you. I don’t wait in line for pizza in New York, I won’t wait in line for currywurst in Berlin. So I got a falafel sandwich for 2.50 and it was delicious. Then I went home and had a nap, and here I am.

Some random follow-up thoughts:

You can drink on the street here. I love it. Go for a walk, grab a beer, the world is your oyster.7
There’s fucking parks everywhere. And trees. All of the greens!
I suck at German. I’ve been here since Wednesday. How am I not fluent yet?!
There is definitely a hipster thing going on here. Do I want to be a part of that?
Tonight I sat at the kitchen table, drank an entire bottle of wine, smoked my pipe, read Herodotus and wrote this bullshit. That’s the dream right? Drink and read Greek? It’s going to be a good month…

  1. Though the snarkier of the friends will doubtless – and with all due haste – point out that “nobody cares, Dave.” []
  2. In homage to my new – for however long – home, Germany, I have opened with this ridiculously long and overly cumbersome sentence. Apparently that’s how we roll here. []
  3. Thank the gods we are on the first floor, which in Europe is the second floor; only one flight of stairs is the point. []
  4. Screw you, New York. []
  5. What closes at seven? You win this round, New York. []
  6. This joke makes itself hashtag Germany. []
  7. Oyster? Erster? Örster? Gershwin? Anybody? #illshowmyselfout []

Ἐπιτάφιοϲ – Epitaph

Ἐπιτάφιοϲ
(Epitaph)

Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦϲα, πολύτροπον ὃϲ μάλα πολλὰ / πλάγχθη…

These immortal words mark the beginning of Homer’s epic Odyssey. This work is many things: cornerstone of western literature; repository and echo of a once rich oral tradition; institutional memory of a war lingering in the mists of time. But for me, these words mark the beginning of something far more important. They are prelude to a friendship. I begin to sing:

Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦϲα, πολύτροπον, ὃϲ μἀλα πολλὰ / πλάγχθη…

“I’m sorry, Dave. But I have to stop you there.” Uh-oh. Had I already made a mistake? I thought I was nailing it. I looked at him, awaiting his critique. “Why don’t you take your hat off?” Right. The Old Man with old-fashioned sensibilities didn’t like it when I wore my hat indoors. We’d been down this road before. This time, however, I’d come prepared.

“But,” I said proudly, backed by Olympian precedent and divine authority, “Hermes wore a hat.” He looked at me, possibly surprised at my challenge.

“Yes,” he said slowly, in his regal, stentorian1 voice. “But.” Pregnant pause for dramatic effect. “Hermes was a rascal!” I had to laugh. First of all, who uses the word ‘rascal’ anymore?2  But more than that, did I really I think I was going to slip one past the Old Man?

With a reluctant sigh, I removed my flat-cap and placed it on a small table beside my θρόνοϲ.3  I begin again. This time, I make it through the first ten lines of the poem, all from memory and without interruption. This is how we began each session of the Homeric Reading Group.

The Old Man would refer to this as a warm up. It was a way to get into the spirit of things, as well as a way to shake off a week’s worth of rust. But it was more than that also. It was, as it has ever been and as it remains, an invocation to the Muses. Andra moi ennepe, mousa, polytropon. ‘Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many ways…’

Look, let’s be honest. You can sit down and read Greek and not give a toss for the old gods. But you don’t read Homer the way you read Thucydides. Or, for that matter, Dostoyevsky or Dickens or Fitzgerald. If you do, you’re missing the point. It’s like reading Shakespeare in an armchair. Sure, it’s great. But you’ve got to hear it. You’ve got to feel it. So yeah, when you call upon the Muse, it’s not a mere formality. You are, in a very real way, asking for her help. And if she smiles upon you, if she inspires4 you, you might just bring this 2500+ year old text back to life.

“Dave, you wanna get brunch on Saturday?”
“Can’t. Got my Reading Group.”
“What reading group?”
“Oh. I read Greek with a couple of old guys on Saturday mornings.”
“Whatever.”

You see, I rarely had to explain myself. Generally, nobody was interested. And it was an easy thing to chalk up to ‘Dave is into his Greek shit.’ But for five years, September to May, that is how I spent my Saturday mornings. Which is not say that I never showed up hung-over. It’s not to say that I never went there on two hours sleep and possibly still half drunk. And yeah, more than once, I left a very pretty, very naked girl asleep in my bed to go read Greek with a couple of old-timers.

It was a treasure. And I knew it was a treasure at the time. Where else in the world, I reasoned, did this exist? Where else did the godsdamned master of all things Homer himself welcome you into his living room and delight in teaching you everything he knew? He was eighty-something when I met him, and I knew then that this thing had an expiration date.   So you make the sacrifices and you say thank you for the opportunity.

Now he’s gone. Now I sleep as late as I damn well please on Saturdays. And I’m poorer for it. The funny thing is, he wasn’t an easy guy to get close to. Even at the end, you never forgot that he was the professor and you were the student. Which isn’t to say he didn’t let me in. He did, but in his own way. We didn’t have the sort of relationship where we might go and get a drink now and again.5

It was a treasure. And I knew it was a treasure at the time. During the first couple of years, I knew, actuarially, that time was going to run out on our little reading group. Of course I would have missed it. I would have missed the intellectual exchange. I would have missed learning at the foot of a master. But in those early days, it was all so academic. And yet, somewhere along the line, he became my friend.

Friend. We throw the word around quite casually. We have friends on the Facebook.   We have friends at work. We have all manner of “friends.” We have old friends and new friends. We have dear friends and casual friends. We have friends we drink with and work with, just as we have – if we are lucky – friends we may bare our souls to, friends who bear us up through the hard times and with whom we celebrate the good. The Old Man was, I think, none of these things. His friendship was, and remains, different, unique. And I fucking miss him. Gods, I fucking miss him.

Stephen G. Daitz. That was his name. It does him a disservice to refer to him as The Old Man. He had a name and he worked damned hard to have it mean something. Among students and fans6 he was known simply as ‘Daitz.’ Colleagues, friends closer than I, and family, called him Stephen. But to me, he was simply Daitz.

But I never called him “Daitz,” not to his face. He worked damned hard to have his name mean something. He was the master. And so I always ever addressed him as ‘Professor Daitz.’ I think this speaks for itself, but I want to provide an analogy, which, if it means nothing to others, means something to me. Derek Jeter was a superstar in baseball and a prince of the City. But to this day, he only ever addresses his first manager, Joe Torre, as “Mr T.” It’s like that.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Sometimes Daitz straight-up annoyed the shit out of me. I’d be reading a passage, and in my mind, I’m killing it. I’ve got my haughty Agamemnon voice on, I’m waving my imperious left hand. I’m fucking Olivier over here, in ancient Greek. And he’d cut me off, mid line. Why? I didn’t quite nail the vowel quantity on some-or-other omicron.

C’mon, man! I’d scream in my head. I’m killing this! Tell me about the omicron when I’m done! I’d clench my teeth and take a deep breath. And then I’d cool down. He’s not wrong, I’d say to myself. How about you just get it fucking right? You’re giving him reasons to stop you. Get it fucking right. He demanded perfection. And the better you got, the more he wanted. Well, why shouldn’t he?

On some level, he was preparing you to go out into the world as a master of the craft. He knew – or, at least, he certainly hoped – that one day you’d take what he had taught you and that you would teach it to the next generation in turn. And if the day ever came when you’d say to some future student, “I learned from Stephen G. Fucking Daitz,” that student had better not hear an ill-formed omicron.

The funny thing is, the man had the patience of a saint. If he cut me off to correct a mistake that I never should have made in the first place, I was the one who was annoyed. He never was. That was the beauty of the man. His only concern was, ‘Do you love Homer?’ If the answer was yes, then nothing else mattered. You made a mistake? Fine, we’ll fix it. I’m just glad you’re here. That said, fix it.

Regrettably, I learned more about Homer from him than I did about patience. When I showed up in the waning winter of 2009, I knew nothing about how to read Homer aloud. Pitch accents, liaison, corrpetion – it was all just academic. But he sat with me, and taught me, and suffered through my period of ignorance. At some point, I mastered these things, and others besides. At some point, we could sit and read Homer together, veteran scholars.

But every now and again, a new student would show up. And I would be annoyed. Great, this rookie – who, let’s be honest, probably isn’t going stick around for more than a month anyway – is going to slow us down, I’d think selfishly. But Daitz wasn’t bothered. He was thrilled, in fact. And I had to sit there, in irritated silence, as he extended every bit of patience to the new kid as he extended to me, years ago.

He loved having new students. He loved teaching. But there were days when it was just the two of us. And at the end of those sessions, he would say something about how nice it was to just sit and be able to read Homer.7  Implied, but unsaid, was the idea that I’d come far enough. It wasn’t a classroom anymore. It was just two people who knew their shit and were rocking it.

One of things I liked most about these one-on-ones is that I got to hear Daitz read. He almost never read in bigger groups. That was part of his persona as “The Professor.” It was also a demonstration of his humility and his patience. He knew that for every line he might read, that was one less line for the aspiring student. But when it was just the two of us, we would trade off parts. And when it was his turn, I would just close my eyes and listen.

The funny thing is, I didn’t always agree with his interpretations. He read Hera, for instance, as a nattering, cuckold of a wife who didn’t so much argue with Zeus, her brother/husband,8 as cluck at him. To me that seemed dated. I preferred to read Hera as a headstrong and independent woman, straining against Zeus’ paternalism and chaffing at the ultimate futility of facing off against the king of the gods.

And get this: He loved it. After we’d both read a bit of Hera, he’d lay his book down in his lap and smile. “Well, Dave,” came the patrician basso,9 “You see now the beauty of Homer and the freedom that comes with being able to read Him properly. You and I have very different interpretations of what Hera is like.” (And I’m paraphrasing here). “No two people will read Him the same way. When Horowitz plays Beethoven, he doesn’t sound like Rubenstein. But it is always Beethoven underneath. And so it is with Homer.” When you could take the text and make it your own, that’s when he was most proud of you.

But if he gave you wide latitude in interpreting the, shall we say, ‘personality’ of the text, he was much more rigid in his grammatical analyses.   And if I should disagree with his reading, like as not, I’d simply keep my mouth shut. Usually it wasn’t worth the argument. At least from my point of view.

Although, as I got more comfortable, I would sometimes offer up my alternate textual analysis, just to have it on record, as it were. But very rarely would I argue over it. You’d have better luck moving mighty Ajax off the stern of a Danaan warship than you’d have moving the Old Man off his analysis.

Not everybody felt this way, however. Certainly not Nat. Now, this piece is about Daitz, my relationship with him and what he meant to me. I’m not sure it’s my place to be mentioning others by name. But I read with Daitz every Saturday, September to May, for five years. And in all that time, Nat was the other constant. We were the core of the group, at least in my time there. There were others, but invariably they lost interest, or moved away, or had other commitments.

Nat is an expert teacher of Latin and Greek and a bit of a renaissance man. But he knows his Greek, no two ways about it. And he had no problem going back and forth with the Old Man. For me, it got old fast, since neither of them would give any ground. But like the old Achaian warrior facing off against a Trojan of equal stature on the plains of Skamander, they seemed to delight in the contest. You could learn a lot listening to the two of them go at it. You could also, if you were a bit hungover, doze off in mild aggravation.

But as I said, every now and then, I would offer up my own reading of the text. For the first few years, I could tell he didn’t take my analyses particularly seriously. But towards the end, he would at least entertain my ideas. I’d like to think it was because I simply got better at Greek. But maybe it was a respect thing. I honestly don’t know.

In any case, I felt a sense of great achievement when, one day, I put forth a grammatical interpretation which was at variance with his own and he responded by saying, “Well, Dave, that’s very interesting.” Then he paused and rolled it around in his head a bit more. “Still, I think the accepted reading is as I have just said.” I don’t think I ever once changed his mind. But I’d got him to take me seriously. I had arrived.

When you meet somebody and he is already an old man, it is difficult to imagine him as anything else. But I remember two things, which called to mind an image of the younger man.

Once, after our session, I was talking politics with his wife. I don’t know what the age gap was between the two, but it was not insignificant. In any case, as we chatted, Daitz stood off to the side, leaning with his hands behind his back against a counter. I’m going to struggle to capture this here. But I could see them when they were younger. I could see his wife in heated political discourse, holding a salon with her contemporaries while the older professor sat by in regal silence, confident in his years and his intellect. He had no need to justify himself, no need to say something clever to show how smart he was. That was for younger folk. His eyes were closed, but there was pride on his face, pride that this brilliant woman was his wife. And all I could think was, “damn, they must have been a sight to see, back in the day.”

I said there were two things. The other was sex. His old age and his patrician bearing could easily mislead you into thinking that he was some kind of prude. He most certainly was not. Homer touches every aspect of life, and he’s not shy about sex. Well, neither was the Old Man. If Homer was talking about sex, then so were we. Sometimes it was just funny.10  But when Daitz spoke about sex, he was letting you know that he wasn’t always an old-timer.

And then there was the advice. He only ever gave me one piece of advice in this department, but he gave it freely and more than once. Surprisingly, perhaps, it had nothing to do with Homer. It issued instead from one of his other passions: French.11  One day, when I’d got there early and we were waiting for the others to show up, I casually remarked that I had lately embarked upon learning the Gallic tongue. He was, of course, delighted.

“Well, Dave,” he began. “Perhaps you can find a nice French girl to assist you in your studies. And I’ll give you a bit of advice, which was given to me when I was studying in Paris.12  Couchez avec ton dictionnaire. It means, go to bed with your dictionary. Since that day, I have dutifully endeavored to follow this advice. I will not have it said about me that I fail to take my studies seriously.

It was a strange thing to see Daitz out in the wild. He always seemed a bit bewildered when he’d show up for an academic conference, as he very often did. I’d learn after he died that he was suffering from dementia. Yet you’d never know it sitting with him in his living room, reading Greek. With the blind bard leading the way, and with the Muse bearing him up from behind, he was in full control.

It hit me hard when, on the way out the door one day towards the end, his wife pulled us (Nat and me) aside. She had tears in her eyes. She was thanking us for what we had given him. She told us that the way he was with us, he wasn’t normally like that anymore. At the time, I didn’t fully grasp it. She was saying that listening to him read with us, he sounded like he did twenty years ago.

She was thanking us. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her. You’re thanking us? I wanted to say. We should be thanking him! For all he’s given us, we should be thanking him. I don’t remember what I actually said, but I’m sure it failed the moment.

Failing the moment. That’s what I did. And when I had second chance, I did it again.

It was only this year that he started to slow down. It was February, or March maybe, when he began to make the sort of mistakes that he never used to make. It was hard to watch. Then one day, he excused himself from walking us to the door. He always walked us to the door. He was old-fashioned like that. But one day, he just couldn’t get out of the chair anymore. He was the old king, too tired to move off his throne. It was old Nestor on his θρόνοϲ at sandy Pylos. The shadows were lengthening, as Nat so eloquently put it at the memorial service.

And in the midst of this, I left. I didn’t leave out of fear or shame or sorrow. I left to do something of which I knew he would approve. I left to study French. The opportunity arose whereby I could volunteer at the office of a French school, and in exchange, I would get to take an 11 week course for free.13  The catch was, the only time I could volunteer was on Saturday mornings, in direct conflict with the Homeric Reading Group.

I put it to him that I was going on a sort of sabbatical. “But hey, you love French,” I said. “And when I get back, maybe we can speak some French together. That’s not so bad, eh?” In my heart, I knew we would never get to speak French together. But I had convinced myself otherwise.

The Old Man knew better. “Well, Dave,” he said proudly. “I’m sorry to see you go. You were a pillar of the group.” Past tense.14  He knew I wasn’t coming back. Or, not to put too fine a point on it, he knew he wouldn’t be there for me to come back to. My own response was weak.

“Aww, hey. It’s only eleven weeks. I’ll be back in the Fall. And then we can speak French together!” I don’t remember his response now, but he probably just nodded. Even at that stage of things, he was above this kind of bullshit. I didn’t feel good when I left that day, I can tell you that.

There was going to be a surprise birthday party. Eighty-eight; not a bad run by any stretch. But the game was called on account of rain. He just wasn’t up to it. And this is where I fucked up, the first time. Nat, I’m told, managed to get up there one last time. Nat managed to visit him at bedside and read one last bit of Homer with the Master. Nat, presumably, got to say goodbye.

I put it off. I tried calling a couple of times, to see if I could come up. But I got the voicemail, and I didn’t leave a message. “I’ll call back tomorrow,” I told myself. The thing about tomorrow, it never comes. And so, one day your friend asks you if you want to grab a drink after work. Sure, why not. Another day, you’re just tired and you want to go home. The next day you have French class. And on it goes.

Now, I’ll be honest. I didn’t know just how bad it was. You always think there’ll be time. And then one day you get the call. When I saw the name in my phone, I knew instantly. My heart sank like a rock. Mimi, his wife, was pretty composed. It was a Saturday. He’d checked out on Thursday. So a few days had passed. She said she’d been trying to get ahold me. I’d received no emails. It was a helluva time for miscommunication.

She asked me if I’d been away, been in France or something. It was inexplicable to her – to both of them, I have to assume – that I could have been in town and yet not present. I felt like such an asshole. It’s a vulgar way to put it. But I felt pretty damned vulgar. I still do.

Anyway, she invited me to come up to the apartment and pick through his books. He had made it very clear that he wanted me and Nat (and one other regular) to have a chance to claim what we wanted before the rest of the lot was donated to the CUNY Classics Department. I felt a rush of pride, which was almost instantly drowned under a wave of shame.

Filed under ‘M’ for ‘macabre,’ I’d imagined this day long ago. I’ve said how from the beginning I knew that this thing had an expiration date. And when years before I’d laid eyes upon his ancient and well-worn Autenrieth – his Homeric dictionary of choice – I’d dared to think that it would be pretty cool if, one day, it should somehow fall to me. Well, that day had arrived, and I felt sick for having ever conceived of it.

But there I was, in his living room, staring at his empty chair. It didn’t seem real. Surely he’d come shuffling into the room any minute now, just as he’d always done. Mais hélas! Not this time. Instead, I was led into his study cum library. I’d never been in there before. His desk was just as he’d left it. And there on his desk, exactly where it ought to be, was the Autenrieth. I opened it. On the inside cover were scrawled the words “ἐκ τῶν βιβλίων [from the library of] Stephen G. Daitz, 1/24/48.” I asked if I could have it. “Take whatever you want, Dave,” was the answer.

It was the most precious of the lot. I snagged some other volumes, which were important to me insofar as they pertain to my own areas of interest and study. A two volume commentary on Herodotos; a complete Sophokles, three volumes, French edition; a gorgeous little tome dating to 1716, the poems of Anacreon and Sappho,15 also a French edition; a copy of Euripides’ Helen, margins filled with his own notes; and of course, a copy of his own edition of a Euripides palimpsest, which has its own wonderful story behind it.16  But the Autenrieth, that was a treasure. The master’s very own dictionary.17

That was in June. In September, a memorial service was held. There would be speeches by Mimi and other family members, as well as by Nat and a few colleagues. They were all wonderful.

Mimi held it together pretty well. The only time she got choked up is when she mentioned Nat and me by name. She said we’d given him “a reason to live” in the last years. It was a beautiful thing to say. But all I could feel was guilt. Maybe I had given him a reason to live, in some small way. But when the end came, I wasn’t there. I took and took and took from him. And yeah, he gave with both hands. But when he couldn’t give anymore, I wasn’t there. Epic fucking fail.

Nat, in his speech, also mentioned me by name. “I could see the shadows lengthening,” he said, “when he gave Dave Starr and I a piece of pentelic marble from the Athenian quarry.”18  Even now, that piece of marble rests upon my bookshelf, at the end of a long line of Greek texts.

In any case, if you’re counting, that’s two name checks; one from his wife and one from his longest tenured student. That’s all you need to know about the difference between how others saw me and how I saw myself. And all I can say for that is, I was pretty fucking happy that only a handful of people in that crowded room actually knew who Dave Starr was.

At the end, Mimi announced that if anybody wanted to come up and say a few words, they were free to do so. A few did. I was not among them. For one, I didn’t know what I would have said. For another, I’m a shy, awkward sonofabitch. I looked left and I looked right. To get up there, I’d have had to climb over several people. I looked around the room. These people, many of them advanced in age, had been sitting for quite a while now. Did they really want to hear one more student say what had already been said, and likely better said? I stayed in my seat.

Afterwards, I found Mimi. A hug and a kiss on the cheek. “It was a beautiful service,” I said. “I thought you were going to say something,” she said. And there it was. I fucked up again. I’d been given a second chance to say goodbye. I’d been given a second chance to be there at the end. This time, I was there and I still managed to not show up.

And so I’ve written this. It’s the best I can do to say goodbye. And it’s not enough. I watched two fat fastballs go by, and now I’m down two strikes. Well, I’m not going down with the bat on my shoulder. I’ve got to say something, Professor Daitz, even if you’ll never hear it.

Stephen Daitz has given me a gift. It is a gift that I will carry with me until the end of my days, and one which, if I am lucky, I will be able to give in my own turn. For a long time, I thought that the gift was academic. He taught me how to read Homer, and I’ll be reading Homer till the day I die. But that was not the gift. Homer was just the vehicle.

The real gift was Hope. Hope that the song never stops. Hope that even in the Twilight Years, when the body fails and the mind decays, there is still love. Hope that even when you fuck up, the good outweighs the bad. Only you can abandon Hope. Hope never abandons you. That is what I learned from Stephen Daitz.

I’ll never truly know what the Old Man thought of me. But he left a clue. Of all his books, there was one in particular that he demanded I receive. Even in my absence, he did not lose faith in me. Dave must have this book, he decreed. And so I have it.

It is his own working text of the Odyssey, books I-VI. The printed text is a solid column of hexameters, running down the center of the page. But on either side, he had diligently scrawled in pencil his own notes, his own thoughts. He had carefully marked every single verb, noting the tense. He had made notes on the vocabulary. He’d made more scholarly notes, connecting one bit of text to another. His notes begin with the very first line of the Odyssey:

Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦϲα, πολύτροπον, ὃϲ μάλα πολλὰ

And they continue down every page, all the way ‘til the last. But they stop at the top of the last page. He never finished. It was, in all probability, the very last thing he ever labored upon. And he wanted me to have it.

I had failed him in the end, and he looked straight past it. He saw only the bearded kid, full of bad puns and with a taste for French, who showed up every Saturday, September to May, for five years. Whenever I wonder what I meant to him, and I often do, the answer is there in those pages.

The Old Man left his mark on me in another, more quotidian, way. I don’t fancy myself a writer. To do so, without a paycheck, is both obnoxious and pretentious. Nevertheless, I do write. Sometimes, I think, it’s the only thing that keeps me sane. All the same, I’m not much of a writer. How can you be, when you read hardly any English?19

But still I write. ‘What I have in my heart must out,’20 Beethoven once wrote. And so it is with me, albeit on a plane far below those old masters. Beethoven, after all, wrote 16 string quartets, nevermind breaking the mold on the symphony. Nevermind perfecting the piano sonata to the point where you have to wonder – or at least I wonder – why anyone who came after him even bothered to try.21

But I digress. What I mean to say is, simply, that I write. And when I do, Daitz is always looking over my shoulder. I pay especial care now to the tense of each and every verb. Simple past. Imperfect. Pluperfect. I didn’t used to care. But I do now. He showed me just how much can be conveyed by the mere tense of a verb.

And so, say what you will about my writing. But in every sentence there is a verb. And each one has a thought behind it. Maybe I think Homer fudged on his verbs here and there. But Daitz didn’t think so. What he really meant was, you don’t ever have to put down anything you don’t mean. There’s always a way to say exactly what you want. You just have to find it.

And so at last I come to the end. I come to say goodbye. It is a late goodbye and it is, I’m afraid, all too hollow. But then, I was never any good at goodbyes. I have a hard time letting go. And yet, in a way, it’s not goodbye. He’s still with me. He’s with me when I write. And he’ll be with me the next time I try to speak – haltingly, flirtatiously – with the next French girl. And he’ll be with me each and every time I open up a page of Homer and begin to read.

I like to think now that Daitz has gone to the Elysian Fields, the land of heroes, where there is no death, only immortality. Akhilleus died, as we all must. But his deeds live on in song. Without the song, there is no hero. The song lives through me now, and my voice was given to me by Stephen G. Daitz. To the extent that the fallen heroes still walk among us, so does he.

I have not read any Homer since he died. I could not. But it is time now. It is time to start the song again. Goodbye, my friend. Thank you and goodbye. The song goes on…

  1. “Stentorian – very loud and powerful in sound,” so dictionary.com. The Old Man used to love pointing out that Στέντωρ (Stentor), from whose name this wonderful adjective derives, appears but a single time in all of Homer (Il.5.785-6). []
  2. Answer: A man in his mid-eighties. []
  3. Θρόνοϲ (thronos), whence is derived the word ‘throne.’ In Homeric Greek, a thronos was a chair with arms, as opposed to a diphros (δίφροϲ), which was more of a stool. I mention this not because I think the average reader will find it interesting, but because it is a distinction over which we in the Homeric Reading Group expended a fair amount of discussion. In Homer, you see, every word is important. []
  4. The Old Man often enjoyed pointing out that the word inspire derives from the Latin inspirare, which literally means “to breath into.” Thus, it is as if the Muse breathes the song into your lungs. []
  5. But then again, maybe we did. I’m a shy, awkward sonofabitch, and interpersonal relationships have always been difficult for me. So now I get to wonder if he ever would have been down for the odd extracurricular glass of wine. Apparently, I’d later learn, he was quite the oenophile. ((Which we should better spell oinophile, since it’s clearly a Greek word; but don’t get me started…) []
  6. He absolutely had fans []
  7. The instinct is to fall back upon that colloquialism, “mano a mano.” But if you ever said that in front of him, he would (pedantically) make sure you knew that it meant ‘hand to hand’ and not ‘man to man.’ []
  8. Eww. []
  9. He always began his comments to me with, “Well, Dave…” []
  10. I remember one time, for instance, when we were discussing the significance of a particular prepositional prefix to a sex-verb. The prefix was ὑπο- (hypo-), which generally means ‘under.’ In any case, he was explaining that this little prefix almost certainly described the position of one of the participants, and what this might say about the rôles of men and women in the bedroom and the broader implications for relations between the sexes in Ancient Greece. It was, shall we say, an interesting conversation to be having with an octogenarian at 11am on a Saturday. []
  11. He was, it turns out, quite the Francophile. Naturally, he studied at the Sorbonne. Of course he did, because he was a fucking genius. In fact, I learned after his death, that he raised his children to speak French at home. []
  12. In Paris. His ego had no need of bragging that he wasn’t just in Paris, he was at the fucking Sorbonne. []
  13. Regular price: north of $600. []
  14. During the last year or so, he’d grown increasingly enamored with Homer’s use of verb tenses. In his opinion, the Poet deliberately chose the tense of each and every verb, thereby to give a specific color or flavor to any given scene. Nat and I were less convinced of this. But for him, in Homer, no word was errant, nothing out of place. So when he spoke of my being a pillar of the group in the past tense, he damn well meant it. []
  15. Je l’adore! []
  16. There’s no space for it here, but the short version is, he went through hell and high water to get his hands on the original manuscript, held in a then Jordanian controlled area of Jerusalem. And when you see photos of that manuscript, you can only wonder at the skills that were required to make anything out of it. []
  17. When I got it home, I immediately began to leaf through it. To my amazement – but not surprise – I found that he had made his own notes in the margins. But more than that, he had made emendations to several of the entries. To put it another way, the man had corrected the fucking dictionary. Needless to say, his Autenrieth now lives on my own desk. And that, at least, I think he’d be happy about. A dictionary belongs on a desk, ready to be used, not collecting dust in some library. []
  18. Again, I paraphrase. For any Hellenists that might read this, I’d say, see Thucydides 1.22 on trying to get down, to the best of your ability, unrecorded speeches. For the uninitiated, just understand that I’m trying to capture as best I can the words that were said. But the phrase “lengthening shadows” was used. []
  19. When I was in grad school, I used to joke that whenever I’d eventually graduate, I’d get back to reading books in English. Only I kind of haven’t. Le Roman de Tristan & Iseult. Kinder- und Hausmärchen, von den Brüder Grimm.   Le Tour du Monde en 80 jours, par Jules Verne. (The Romance of Tristan & Iseult ; The stories of the Brothers Grimm ; Around the World in 80 Days, by Jules Verne). []
  20. Ach es dünkte mir unmöglich, die Welt eher zu verlassen, bis ich das alles hervorgebracht, wozu ich mich aufgelegt fühlte. Literally, “Oh, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world, until I had brought forth all that I felt within me.” From his Heiligenstädter Testament. []
  21. It seems fitting here to make special mention of Beethoven. For me, Beethoven was always the greatest. He was rock before rock, metal before metal. But nobody was ever sadder than Beethoven, and nobody ever more elated. Beethoven, more than anyone in the history of music, could throw you up against a wall, kick in you in the balls, punch through your chest and grab hold of our heart, and be divinely fucking sublime about it. After Daitz died, Mimi showed me a portrait of Beethoven, which hung on the wall outside his study. Beethoven, she said, was his favorite. I never knew. I would have loved to talk about Beethoven with him. []