An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
2 September, 2019
(Originally written 28 June, 2019)

Oh, hi.  I mentioned in my last post that I’ve got a couple of un-edited posts backing up. This is one of them; originally drafted towards the end of June.  So some of it may be a bit out of date, and some of it may have been covered in subsequent posts.  But it seemed best to me to just put it up as is…

OK, so listen to this. I’m leaving school the other day. And as I pass the second landing on my way down the stairs, I hear a door open behind me, followed by footsteps. One of those super awkward things where you know somebody is like two steps behind you but you don’t turn around cos that’s weird.  But you kinda want to speed up, because the distance between you is uncomfortably close. Except you don’t, because, wait, is that rude?  So you just deal with it till you get all the way down.  At that point, I open the door and stand aside with the universal gesture of, “After you, good sir.”  

Except Good Sir was all, “No, no, after you, good sir.”  And I’m like, come on man, I’m holding the door here, just go.  And he’s all like, but you were here first.  At which point it crossed my mind that good manners get you increasingly nowhere.  

Anyway, I gave up and went first.  Thinking – nay, hoping – that would be the end of it.  But of course Good Sir is walking to the train, same as me. Because of course he is.  And now he wants to chat.  “You live here?  Oh, you work here?  What do you do?  Where are you from?  Did you study German?  Your German is very good.”  Oh gods. 

And in the course of this forced and somewhat awkward conversation, I learn that Good Sir is from Syria, he’s Christian, lives in a sort of refugee hostel in the same building as my school1 and is studying German, having been in the country for three years now.  So yeah, lovely fellow, if a bit socially awkward.  And not at all tuned in to subtle social cues, because I was trying to politely show – without saying – that the last thing I wanted to be doing was having a conversation with a complete stranger after working all day. I think I tried to put my earphones in like three times on the way to the train…

So we get down to the platform.  Now normally, I walk all the way to the end.  Because that lines me up with the stairs at the station where I get off. But he stops towards the front of the platform.  At which point, I say, “Welp, I gotta go down to that end.”  Which apparently he took as an invitation to accompany me.  Ugh.

We keep talking.  The train comes.  We get on and continue the conversation.  Look, it wasn’t not interesting.  For work, he repairs iPhones, a skill which he taught himself by watching Youtube tutorials.  I mean, that’s impressive.

Anyway, he asks me where I’m from.  I tell him and ask if he’s ever been to the States.  He says no, he’s not allowed.  Because he’s from Syria; i.e. one of Trump’s Muslim banned countries.  “Ah, because of Trump?” I ask.  “Yeah,” he says.  “Er ist ein Arschloch,” says I.  (He’s an asshole).  “Doch,” says he.  (Nuh-uh). “Excuse me?” quoth I.  

And that’s when it started. “No, Trump is great!  I like Trump!”  He actually said that.  What the ice-cold fuck?2  I mean, I had to ask, right?  At which point I received my dose of Fox/RT/White House propaganda for the year. Trump is strong on the economy. China manipulates its currency. Europe is protectionist, that’s why you can’t find American products in Europe.3

“Okaaaaay,” I say slowly. “But, like, you know he’s a racist, right?  He plays people against each other.  He riles up hatred.  He’s corrupt and as criminal as you can be without being judged guilty in a court of law.”

To which he answered, “But there’s always been hatred and racism in America.”  I mean, yes.  But you can fight against that, or you can manipulate it and heat it up for your own personal gain.

“But he’s good for Syria. He’s on the right side in the civil war.”  Is what Good Sir said next.  And look, I wasn’t about to tell this guy his own business about his own country. (Even though he was pretty happy to tell me my business about my own country).  But also, to the extent that that’s true, wasn’t Trump continuing Obama’s policies there?  Until he wasn’t.  At which point, didn’t SecDef Mattis resign because Trump decided to basically pull out of Syria?

Anyway, I was only too happy when I could finally say, “Hey, isn’t this your stop?”  I breathed a sigh of relief when he got off the train, I ain’t gonna lie.  And look, he was a decent enough chap, right?  I mean, he was clearly a nice guy.  Thoughtful.  Intelligent, even.  Because you can be smart, and still be wrong.  Or you can be entitled to your own point of view based on your personal life experiences, which in this case are so tremendously different than my own. I mean, let me just thank all of the gods right now that I’m here in Germany because, well, I feel like it, and not because I’m fleeing a civil fucking war.

And on another level, it was refreshing in a way.  What I mean is, when was the last time you were able to have a political discussion with someone you didn’t agree with?  When you were both able to express your opinions politely and without judgment? To be more specific, when was the last time you were able to talk politics with a Trump supporter and notwalk away thinking the person was a racist, a Nazi, a raging idiot, or some combination thereof?  That’s what I mean, when I say it was refreshing.  But also, what the ice-cold fuck, you guys?

In the same vain, I was party to a conversation a little while back.  And by “party to,” I more mean “witness to.”  Because really, this was a conversation between two other people; middle aged Germans, it’s worth mentioning.  And one of them was expressing the “Why are we taking all these refugees when we already have homeless German people?  Why are we paying such high taxes to support these people? And don’t we have a housing crunch without taking in even more people?”  And look, I know this person.  This cat is my friend.  So I was pretty sad to be hearing this stuff from the mouth of a friend.  

But I get it.  I mean, up to a point.  And when I say “I get it,” I do not mean that I agree in any way, shape or form.  I just mean, I get people’s anxiety.  Because that’s how people are.  When you’re already worried about your own housing sitch, or your own job, or when you feel like you’re being pinched tax-wise, well, it’s human nature to look askance at the “competition.”  And when the competition is “other,” however that’s defined in any given scenario, the askance-ness gets magnified.  It sucks, but that’s how it is.

But also, that’s what we’ve got to fight against.  And then I had this thought.  This poor person.  Fuck, this is how the AfD gets voters.  The AfD don’t talk like Nazis, right?  They’re not openly racist.  Well, not usually.  They just play on people’s fears.  They let decent people think, “Hey, I’m not racist.  I’m just trying to take care of myself.”

Also, I should state clearly, I have no idea how my friend votes.  I mean, I have no actual reason to think this cat would ever vote AfD. All I mean is, the views being expressed, they were coming in the language used by right-wing nationalist parties.  Or rather, I should say, right wing nationalist parties have coöpted the language people use to express their fears in order to make their own heinous views more acceptable in polite company.

And I have to say, man, I was embarrassed by how I handled this at first.  Because like I said, this cat is my friend.  So I was trying to be somewhat conciliatory.  You know, things like, “Well, yeah, I know what you mean. I don’t like to see my money disappear in taxes either.  And gods know I’m living this housing crunch, having been trying (and failing) to find my own apartment for nigh on seven months now.”  And only after all that was I able to muster some “buts.”  But these people need help.  But they’re feeling a civil fucking war.  But the homeless problem here isn’t half as bad as in NY or SF. But healthcare in the US is fucked, don’t these people deserve medical care?  But you don’t know how good you have it.  

It was weak tea though. And I’m embarrassed, straight up. I should have been stronger on my principles.  Which brings me to…

Thank gods for my other friend.  She wasn’t having any of it.  She was on top of it from the get.  “You think their taking our housing?  You think they have it nice?  They’re living in corrugated metal shacks.”4  “Homeless problem?  Yeah we have homeless people.  We also have a lot of Germanpeople who just don’t want to work because they’re only too happy to collect social welfare.”5

I forget what her other arguments were now.  But the point is, she was on top of shit, and she wasn’t having any of this nativist bullshit.  But also, she had the credibility to take that stand.  She was able to express these things on a level that I just can’t with my German.  No, that’s not quite right.  I could have got those points across.  But it would have soundeddifferent.  And that’s not nothing.

Because I noticed something super fucking fascinating as this conversation progressed, as they each took to defending their views with increasing vigor.6  Their accents shifted.  Their Berlin accents became more pronounced.  And it certainly wasn’t intentional.  It wasn’t even conscious, I’m quite sure.  Just, they were getting their emotions up, and the pretenses were falling to the wayside.  

I mean, from a purely linguistic standpoint this was just amazing to watch.  But that’s what I mean by ‘credibility.’  They weren’t just talking to each other as friends, or even as ‘Germans.’  They were talking to each other as ‘Berliners.’  That’s what I mean, when I say I wouldn’t have been able to express myself with myGerman on their level.  I open my mouth, and it’s instantly clear that I’m not a Berliner, not the way they are.

None of this is meant as an excuse, by the way.  It’s absolutely no excuse for not being stronger on my principles at the outset. Just that, the same arguments carried more weight coming out my friend’s mouth than my own.  That perhaps my native Berliner friend was more ‘entitled’ – for lack of a better word – to make them than a transitory Yank.

Anyway, hearing my friend say the things I should have been saying woke me up, snapped me out of my shit. It was like, “Oh, shit, yeah, that’s who I am.  That’s what I stand for.”  And again, I’m embarrassed that I even needed that.  Hopefully it can be a learning experience, and I’ll be better prepared next time I find myself party to such a conversation.  

So when I heard my friend speak up, I spoke up too.  And I was pretty forceful, I think, doing the best I could with my German.  Among other things, I said, “Hey, you know, I came here from another country too, you know.  And not for nothing, when my people came to America, they didn’t speak the language.”  Like, come on.  You don’t have a problem with me, because I’m your friend.  But I contribute to the housing crunch.  I came here not really speaking the language.  I’m a part of the gentrification that’s going on around us. I said other things too, and the conversation continued on for a while.  In the end, we sort of agreed to disagree.

But there were a couple of takeaways from all that.  First and foremost, I need to be stronger in expressing my views.  Yes, it’s important to be able to have these discussions in a civil way; to be able to disagree with people without being an asshole. But I don’t have to be conciliatory, I don’t have to give ground just because I like somebody, because they’re my friend.  That’s the most important lesson here.

Also, though, I was super proud of my other friend.  I’d never really talked politics with her before, so I really had no idea where she was on any of this.  And the way she just stepped up to the plate, the way she was just “Nope.  I love you, but I’m not buying what you’re selling, and here’s why.”  I mean, that was fantastic.  I was just so proud of her.  And I was like, “Take notes, Davey.  That’s what we wanna be like.”

As for the first friend, the one with whom I disagreed.  Yeah, that made me sad.  But it was also a good case study.  It was a chance to listen to somebody you care about, to listen to their fears and concerns and try to get at what makes them tick.  To recognize that you can disagree with someone and still care about them, still likethem.  To not just fucking judgepeople.

Oh, and there’s one last thing about this which struck me as rather interesting.  One of these cats is a Wessie(a West German) and one is an Ossie(an East German).  In other words, the Wessie grew up in the ‘Free West,’ if we can say that, with connections to America and all the rest.  And the Ossie grew up behind the Iron Curtain.  And it was the Ossie who shared my views.  It was the Wessie who was on the other side.  Which is weird, because it’s in the East where the AfD has its base.  And we think of the West as leaning liberal.  Yet here it was reversed.  I don’t know what that means.  Just, I found it interesting.

In other news, Torah. I’ve written a bit before on what reading Torah means to me on a spiritual level and on an intellectual level. About how it relates to my Jewish identity, about how reading Torah in a foreign country with no other Jews around keeps me “Jewish.”  

But I’m finding something else now.  I’m finding the rhythm.  Last year was my first time through The Book.7  And so last year meant reading every single day, my face buried in a dictionary.  But I’ve done the hard work now.  I’ve got four notebooks filled with vocabulary. Which means, now, I can just read. Read the text, read the commentary. 

And now, it’s three days a week.  Which Is what it’s really supposed to be.  Even if you go to shul every day, the Torah only comes out three days a week. So I’m on schedule, as a I should be. Reading each weekly reading in the prescribed week.

That’s what I mean by rhythm.  Like, whatever else is going on in my life, there’s always8 Torah, three days a week.  And you know what?  It’s almost always super peaceful.  Like, it’s my time to shut out the world.  Crack a beer, light the pipe, read some Torah.  Sure, that’s probably not what משה רבנוhad in mind when “he” “wrote” the damn thing.9  But it works for me.

And look, that doesn’t mean I always love what I’m reading, right?  I mean, בראשית ושמות– Genesis and Exodus – are pretty fun. Cosmogony, Garden of Eden, Noah and the Flood, Tower of Babel, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; Moses’ origin story, the ten plagues, leaving Egypt, splitting of the waters, revelation at Sinai, Golden Calf and subsequent shitshow.  I mean, it’s good storytelling.

But man, after that?  You know Torah means “law,” right?10  It’s three books of Do This, Don’t Do That.  You Fucked Up But God Is Merciful…Unless You Really Fuck Up In Which Case Look Out.  Also, the original DIY guide on How to Build a Tabernacle.  And of course, the bestselling “How to Survive 40 Years in the Desert on One Serving of Manna per Day: A Wanderer’s Guide.”  

All I’m saying is, it’s not necessarily the content what keeps me coming back.  It’s the ritual, the rhythm.  Which isn’t to say it’s not interesting.  I mean, I’m learning a lot.  It’s fascinating to see what our greatest minds have made of this text through the centuries, even if I don’t agree with all of it.  

And to be fair, I do like quite a bit of it.  There’s a lot of stuff about how you ought to treat people, how you ought to help people less fortunate than you.  But also, just because you’re poor or powerless doesn’t mean you can’t do anything.  Whatever. Now I’m getting into content, which I didn’t want to do.

I just wanted to say that it’s becoming a part of the background music of my life.  And in a way that’s somehow quite reassuring, quite peaceful.  It’s just always there.  It’s “me time,” when I can work and think (and drink and smoke) alone. But also a way for me to connect with my people across space and time.  

And it weaves itself into the rhythm of the year itself.  You know, reading Genesis is just part of the fall now. And the new year brings Exodus. You remember where you were and where you are.  Like there’s this poetic passage towards the end of Genesis, which – let’s call a spade a spade – is a real bitch to read.  But the first time I read it, I was staying at Charlotte’s place in Nice, for the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  So now, whenever I read that passage – which I guess will be every year now for the rest of my life – it’s always gonna bring me back to that week in Nice, and all the good memories that come with it.

Are there weeks when it just feels like homework?  Sure.  There are definitely weeks where the text is so…ugh, boring.  When I’m like, “OMG, I don’t care about anyof this!”  Oh, also, reading Torah has in no way limited my use of “God” as a swear word.  Like, pretty sure I say “Oh my fucking God, what the actual ice-cold fuck?!?” 87 times a day.  Like a Facebook status, it’s complicated.

All to say, this whole reading Torah thing has become rather important to me.  Last year – the first year – it was a challenge.  Just to see if I could read the whole thing, on schedule, in a year. And I did, mission accomplished. But now, it’s become something more. Like I said, it keeps me “Jewish,” in a land where I feel really very alone as a Jew.  But also, it’s become a part of the rhythm of things.  And that ain’t nothin’.  

One last thing before closing.  I signed up for a week long Yiddish seminar.  It’ll be held in Weimar, the last week of July.  I’m so excited, you guys!  Also a bit nervous.  I signed up for the intermediate course.  There were four options: Beginner One, Beginner Two, Intermediate and Advanced.  Well, I’m clearly past Beginner One and just as clearly not ready for Advanced.  But I was sorta stuck between Beginner Two and Intermediate.  Would the former be too easy?  Would the latter be too hard?  

But I wrote an email to the administrator, and he said I should take the Intermediate, if I was up for a challenge.  Which I am.  Anyway, point is, a weeklong intensive Yiddish course!  I can’t fucking wait.  Also, it’s part of a larger program which includes Klezmer music courses. I won’t be taking any of those, but there will be concerts.  And also, opportunities to jam with people, apparently.  So I’ll definitely be brining my guitar.  And who knows?  Maybe I can meet a nice Jewish girl.  We’ll see. Point is, I’m amped.  

Anyway, that’s enough for now.  Obviously I’ll have more to say on the Yiddish course after it happens.  In the meantime, the Yanks just keep rolling. 

Oh, baseball!  I bought a second baseball glove.  So Joschka has promised to have a catch with me at Tempelhoferfeld at some point during the summer.  And maybe I can snooker one or two other friends into throwing the ol’ apple around. Funny how much you can miss such a simple thing has having a catch when you live in a foreign country…

זײַ געסונט

  1. I always knew there was a hostel in our building.  I didn’t know it was for refugees.  Pretty cool, no?  Good on you, Berlin. []
  2. “What the ice-cold fuck” is actually what came into my head.  I know it’s not a thing.  But I think it sounds great, and I would very much love for it to become a thing.  So please, can you all start saying “What the ice-cold fuck?”  Let’s make it a thing, you guys. []
  3. My first reaction to this final point was to be somewhat incredulous.  I mean, there’s McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway all over the place.  Half the country is walking around with iPhones. But the more I thought about it – and discussed this with other people – it does seem that these companies seem to be the exception and not the rule.  So he may actually have a point there. []
  4. Which is true.  Tempelhof airport has a whole colony of prefab metal shacks for refugees.  And as I later learned from Good Sir from Syria, they’re living in hostels for years on end. []
  5. Such people absolutely exist, though what percentage of the homeless population they make up, I have no idea.  I should add that my friend was in no way disparaging the social welfare state (nor am I in repeating her argument).  She was simply saying that, to the extent that there’s a problem of people taking advantage of the social welfare state, the problem lies far more heavily with native Germans than with refugees, who would like nothing better than to have a job and be able to support themselves. []
  6. Vigorous, but always polite, always civil. []
  7. The Scroll?  No, but actually, it is in bookform.  I’m reading from a Chumash, with vowel-pointing, translation and commentary. I am definitely not anywhere near good enough to “just read” from a sefer torah, the actual scroll, with no vowels, no translation and no commentary. []
  8. Always.  I should say usually.  I still have a life, right?  So some weeks – this week, for example – I need four days.  Some weeks, even five, if time is tight.  But such weeks are exceptions; three days a week is the rule. []
  9. משה רבנו.  Moshe Rabbeinu: Moses, our teacher.  Tradition has it that Moses himself wrote down the Torah, literally transcribing the word of God, as given to him on הר סיני, Mount Sinai. []
  10. Well, it does mean “law.”  But it also means “teaching.” []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
26 August, 2019

OK, so I think this is gonna be a short one.  See, I’ve got like two or three unpublished posts in the pipeline.  It’s just that I haven’t had time to proofread and edit them. And by “proofread and edit,” of course, I simply mean, give them a sober once-over.  Which is probably what I should be doing now.

Except that, today (Saturday), I had my first post-Weimar Yiddish experience.  I mentioned in that post that I had made plans to meet with one of the guys on Skype1 to do some reading and have a bit of schmooze. So that was today.  But before I get into that, I should probably introduce this “one of the guys.”

That would be a Polish goy by the name of Bartek.  Actually, I’m pretty sure his name is whatever the unpronounceable-unspellable Polish version of Bartholomew is.  But in Weimar, everybody got a Yiddish name, and those were the only names we used. So he’s Bartek.  And for the record, I’m Dovid (yes, with an ‘o’),2 or sometimes Dovidl, which is the diminutive.3

Two things about Bartek. First, he’s just a lovely human being. You know, one of those genuinely warm and kind mutherfuckers.  Also, he’s a total language whiz, or Sprachgenie.  And look, I know some of you think I have some kind of knack for languages.  I’ve never thought that.  I just find them fascinating and apply myself.  But nothing about language comes natural to me. And to the extent that some things come to me a little easier, I put that down to experience rather than any innate skill.

But this guy.  Sheesh. He goes to polyglot conferences. Hell, he’s Turkey right now.  Just cos he wants to learn Turkish.  And the only book he brought is a Turkish-Arabic phrase book.  (Yes, he speaks Arabic).  And he’s just all, “Yeah, I’m basically gonna work backwards from the Arabic and just try to listen to people and put myself out there.”   You know, the way nature intended.

Anyway, this is the guy I was reading with today.  As for the text, we picked to two short poems by Itzik Manger. One was about Esther getting ready to see the king; so a Purim story.  And the other was about Rachel and Leah and how they both loved the same guy.4

We prepared the texts in advance.  Which means we did the work of looking up the words we didn’t know (if we could find them; which was not always the case) and reading through the poems a few times to try and get a basic understanding.  Needless to say, poetry in foreign languages is not always the easiest thing.  So that was kind of the starting point.

Naturally, he calls me up from a café somewhere in Turkey.  And I’m like, “Are you sure it’s OK to speak Yiddish in public over there?”  And he’s just like, “If anybody hears me, they’ll probably just think it’s German anyway.”  Fair point.

So the little video window opens up, and there’s Bartek.  “Vos hert sich?” he says.  The Yiddish “What’s up?”  To which the answer is, of course, “Vos zol sich hern?”  “Up? What should be up?”  And from there, a bit of catching up before getting down to business.

Ah, the business.  Now this is the shit that I love.  First, I should explain that each poem tells a narrative story.  And the poems themselves are divided into four line strophes, or stanzas.  So we would take turns reading a strophe out loud.  Then we’d go back over it and deal the vocab word by word before finally coming to some kind of agreement on what the whole thing meant.  

As I mentioned, the vocab was not always easy.  Neither of us have access to a top-notch dictionary at the moment,5 so we were both working with second rate resources. Add to that, Yiddish was standardized pretty late in the game, so the same word can be spelled in a variety of different ways.  And finally, it’s poetry.  So sometimes words are used metaphorically in ways that are not immediately obvious. Sometimes words are straight up invented for a one-time use.

But even just this process – trying to determine what a given word might mean – was fascinating.  Sometimes only one of us found a definition.  Sometimes each of us found a different definition.  Sometimes he’d know a word from Polish or modern Hebrew; and yes he also speaks Modern Hebrew.  Or I might recognize something as being similar to an obscure-ish English word.  Or we might both recognize something that looked German.  And yes, he also speaks German and English.

And, you know, sometimes you just have to settle.  Like, there was this one word ‘lak.’  And the sentence was something like, “and he gave her shoes of lak.”  The best we could do there was to say, “Right, well, it’s obviously something nice and something you can make shoes out of.”  Well, you can’t win ‘em all.  At least not without a better dictionary.  

As for what the poems actually fucking mean…well.  We had some good discussions there.  I mean, there was a lot of, “OK, the way I read it, it means xyz.  What do you think?”  “Oh, that’s interesting.  I had read it as abc.”  And then you present your argument.  Sometimes I convinced him.  Sometimes he convinced me.  Other times, we just sort of agreed that both readings were possible.

And all this is happening in Yiddish, btw.  I mean, at times we would re-state things in English, just to avoid confusion.  But really, we were discussing the texts in Yiddish.  And just, that was so much fun, you know?  I mean, this kinda shit is fun anyway, right?  Like, this is what I do with Phil, my professor, with Greek.  So it’s a good time regardless.  This is my jam.  But to be able to do it with Yiddish texts, inYiddish?  Achievement unlocked.

All told, we chatted for like 2.5 hours.  And at the end, we were both pretty well overjoyed.  Beyond the obvious fun-ness of the whole thing, we both also walked away from it with a very strong feeling of, “Shit, I understand these texts so much more than before we spoke!”  Which, of course, was the fucking point of it all anyway.  

So where do we go from here?  Well, Akivele is super keen to get in on this reading group business.  He didn’t join us today, obvi, bc Shabbos. But he’s already picked a new text for us; by the same author, as it happens.  

Interpolation: This has nothing to do with anything, but.  As I’m writing, I’m listening to the first Diamond Head album.  This is a band that made, I think, a grand total of two albums.  And in the big picture, their biggest contribution to metal is their influence on Metallica, which could not ever have been Metallica without them.6  In fact, I’m pretty sure Metallica has covered literally every song from that first Diamond Head album.

And with good reason.  It’s what I call “internally perfect.”  What I mean is, as a complete whole, it cannot be improved upon in any way. If you changed any aspect of it, even in the slightest, it could only be worse.  That’s not say there aren’t “better” albums.  Albums with a couple of true classic hits, or superior production. But even better albums have that one track you don’t love.  Or the production could be better.  Or whatever. Not so this album.  Every song, every note, every sound, it’s all as perfect as it could possibly be.  How many albums can you say that about?  It really is something special, that first Diamond Head album.  :End Interpolation.

Anyway.  Going forward with the Yiddish stuff.  Bartek and I agreed that we could probably manage this amount of text and two hours of discussion once a week or so.  For now, at least.  So that’s the plan.  And I’m super jazzed about it.  Plus, it’ll be great to get Akiva in on the action.  

Two thoughts on all this, and then I’ll wrap up.  Cos like I said, this is gonna be a short one.  The first thought is not a new one.  But how fucking lucky am I to meet people like this, to have people like this in my life?  I mean, if I had gone to this Weimar Yiddish thing a different week, or a different year, I wouldn’t have met these bochayrim, these fellas.  It’s pretty amazing.  

And look, there’s no way of knowing how long these people will be in my life.  Akiva is in the states, Bartek lives in Poland.  But for however long it lasts, it’s a fucking win.  I mean, I know people will say you’re probably gonna meet interesting people wherever you go, whatever you do.  That is, it’s self-selecting on some level.  You are who you are, and as such, you’re going to meet like-minded people.  

But it always feels so random, so down to chance.  Anne, Joschka, Vinny, Charlotte, Esma,7 and so many others.  And now these two.  But always in the back of mind, there’s this sense of, “Damn, you know, if just one little thing had gone differently, you never woulda met this or that clown.”  I may not always be lucky.  Lucky in love, I sure as shit ain’t.  But this kind of luck?  I just keep coming up aces.  And I’ll never not be thankful for that.

Second Interpolation: The Diamond Head album has ended, on this playlist I’m listening to, and now the first Def Leppard album is playing.  And look, I’m not – broadly speaking – a fan of that band.  Way to cheesy, poppy, whatever you want to say.  But the first album is so different from everything that would come after. It’s very much a NWOBHM album. And all things NWOBHM have a very special place in my heart.  But really, it’s a very very good record.  Not as good as the Diamond Head, mind you.  But good enough to be on the same playlist.8  :End Second Interpolation.

I said I wanted to end with two thoughts.  The first was how lucky I am with the people I meet.  The second…umm, I got distracted by the Def Leppard.  And now I’ve forgotten.  But I thinkwhat I wanted to say was, just how bloody well pleased I am to have an opportunity to speak Yiddish.  Like, it just makes me happy, you know?  It just feels right.  

Akiva put me in touch with this Jewish couple in Berlin.  The husband and wife, they’re both rabbis. And every week, they host a Shabbos dinner.  So I went Friday.  And it was great.  Which, that’s an entire post to itself.  But just to say, there were 12 people at this shindig.  And with twelve people, there were a lot of languages on offer. English, German, Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian.  But not one Yiddish speaker in the bunch.  

So even in a situation where it’s like, omg finally, other Jews in Berlin!  Still, not one person with whom I can kibitz in Yiddish.  Which only serves to emphasize both how lucky I am to have met Bartek and Akiva, and how truly grateful I am for that.  Because those guys are giving me something that I don’t just want, but something which I really kinda need at this point.

Put it another way.  I’ve decided to make reading Torah something central to my life.  But like, not cos I enjoyit, you know?  I mean, there are times when I do enjoy it, of course.  There’s a certain sense of peace that comes with reading Torah with a beer and my pipe.  Which, granted, is probably not what Moishe Rabeynuhad in mind.  But it’s a time to shut out the world, and think and study and learn.  Cheesy, I know.  The truth is though, I do it in large part out of a sense of responsibility. Like, ich bin nicht keyn gleybiker. I don’t believe in God, per se. I don’t keep kosher or observe the Sabbath.  I mean, I’m generally breaking most of the first four commandments.9

But I’ve come to the opinion that, if I’m going to actively identify myself as Jewish, if that’s going to be important to me – and I do, and it is – then I need to act on that.  And if I’m serious about that – and I am – then, if nothing else, I should know the Torah.  Because without Torah, who are we?  What are we? 

So I read – I hesitate to say “study,” because that’s so freighted a word in this context – but I read Torah, as I say, more from a sense of responsibility than anything else.  It’s a mitzvah.  Maybe themitzvah, I dunno.  When I was growing up, my mother used the word ‘mitzvah’ to mean “a good deed.”  Like, if you help an old lady cross the street, you’ve done a mitzvah.  

But really, the word ‘mitzvah’ means “commandment.”  Something, in other words, you mustdo, because The Big G commands it.  And that seems to carry the sense of, “Yeah, dude, it’s a fucking burden, I get that.  But it’s a burden with rewards.  That’s why y’all mutherfuckers are my chosen peeps.”  I paraphrase, of course.  

To put it another way, I guess, I do it to feel connected with my people.  Yeah, it’s a burden.  I mean, it’s real work.  Setting aside an hour-plus a day, three days a week.  Every fucking week of the year.  Anyway, it’s more responsibility than fun, was the point of this whole fucking detour.

But Yiddish.  That’s fun. Just plain fun.  There’s no responsibility there.  Unless you wanna get super meta and somehow wrap it into honoring your parents and grandparents and your family’s heritage, and all that jazz. And yeah, that’s in there.  It’s very much in there.

But at the end of the day, dude, it’s just fucking fun.  And fun in way that touches my heart and shit. Like, I’m just fucking happy when I’m chatting away in Yiddish.  To the point even where it’s working its way into my German.  But that’s for another post.  One of those aforementioned written-but-as-yet-unedited posts, btw.

So lemme end this already-too-long post with a little dedication to Bartek and Akiva.  A sheynem dank, fellas.  A dankfor coming into my life and being generally awesome.  But also for giving me an opportunity to speak some Yiddish. Y’all don’t know what it means to me.

זײַ געסונט

  1. In the event, it was actually WhatsApp. []
  2. Or a qometz-alef, if you spelled it out phonetically in Yiddish.  Which you wouldn’t, because it’s a Hebrew word/name, and loshen-koydishe verterdon’t get spelled phonetically, they get spelled Hebraically; in other words, without vowels. []
  3. Apparently, Dovidl is how the Hassids call DVDs.  A little DVD is a dvdl, or dovidl. []
  4. And both married the same guy.  Because Torah? []
  5. I’ve ordered one – well, two actually – but they haven’t arrived yet. []
  6. One of the guys from Metallica once said, “There are more great riffs in one Diamond Head song than on the first four Sabbath albums combined.”  That should tell you everything you need to know. []
  7. Esma, my former student, is “the Turkish girl” from previous posts.  It’s time a put a name to her. []
  8. Also on this playlist are Motörhead’s “Bomber” album, which fits perfectly with the other two.  And also AC/DC’s “Razor’s Edge.”  Which fits less perfectly.  But hey, it’s my playlist, bitches. []
  9. The whole ‘graven images’ thing is pretty easily avoided.  As for the other six, I can generally manage to honor my parents, not to murder, steal, commit adultery or covet shit what ain’t mine.  Generally. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
18 August, 2019
Schlepping Goles Edition

So as some of you know, I recently completed a week long intensive Yiddish language class.  It was part of larger, month long cultural program called Yiddish Summer in Weimar.1  And omg you guys, did I love the ever-loving shit out of it.  And I’ll tell you all about it.  But first, a bit of background.

As I’ve written about previously, I’ve spent the better part of the last year methodically working through a Yiddish grammar book.  Which I finished literally the week before the class started, btw.  In addition to that, I had also started reading articles in Yiddish in The Forward (or Der Forvarts, if you prefer), which is a newspaper/magazine out of New York that still publishes weekly in Yiddish.

All of that was proceeding nicely, if slowly.  But as the course drew nearer, I started to worry that I had literally zero contact with the spoken language.  I mean, sure, I have a small vocabulary of assorted words and phrases dating back to my childhood.  But that’s a far cry from being able to speak, to understand.  

So I started digging around to see if there were any podcasts that might help with this.  And I discovered that there’s a weekly, hour-long radio program out of Boston, entirely in Yiddish.  Tchikave.2  (That means ‘interesting’).  So I downloaded an episode and sort of held my breath, you know?  Like, what am I actually getting myself into here?

Anyway, I hit play. And you know what?  I fucking understood that shit!  Like, 90%.  First time listening to real, spoken Yiddish and it’s just like, I got this!  Now, to be fair, speaking German is a huge leg up. Yiddish is classed as a Germanic language, after all, with roughly 80% of the vocab being straight up teitsch– German.  And while it stems from a different dialect than what predominates in modern Germany, and while it’s like 1000 years old on top of that, it’s nonetheless quite accessible.  And where it differs from modern German in grammar, syntax and vocabulary, well, my grammar book and readings had prepared me pretty well for all that.  

So in the span of one hour, I went from fearing that I would be way over my head in this Yiddish course (I signed up for the intermediate level class), to being like, “I fucking got this!”  That was a pretty great feeling.  And that was just the beginning.  

Right, so the class itself. What a joy.  The format was as follows.  10am-1pm with one teacher, Khayele.  And then 3pm-6pm with a different teacher, Mendi.  That’s six hours a day of class time, if you’re counting at home.

The morning teacher, Khayele, is this tiny little old lady who is also a total spitfire.  And straight off the bat, she’s just talking Yiddish.  No English, no German.  She speaks English with a rather posh British accent.  She knows just enough German to know the mistakes it causes in Yiddish, but she doesn’t speak the language.  So there were times when she would resort to English for a definition or a short explanation.  And she might shut down something you said with a headshake and the words “That’s German.” But really, she just spoke to us only in Yiddish.

And it was fine.  I mean, I’m sitting there listening to a person speaking Yiddish to me for the first time in my life, and I’m just fucking getting it, you guys.  But more than that, I love listening to it.  I love just hearing it.  Because even though it’s mostly German, it doesn’t feellike German.  The rhythm and the melody of the language are totally different.  

Different from German, but totally familiar.  There’s a word for this.  The word is heymish.  It’s hard to translate the full force of it.  The root is heym, “home.”  So it means something like, “feels like home; cozy; warm; comfortable; familiar; full of love.”  Heymishis somehow all of those things at once.

What I mean is, as soon as I heard her speak, I realized that I’d been hearing Yiddish my whole life. Just with English words.  Her rhythm, her melody, the words she chose to accent in a sentence, all of that kinda stuff.  I mean, she speaks Yiddish the way my dad speaks English.  Like, I literally felt at times like I was listening to my father speak.  

It was the same with Mendi, btw.  He speaks a different dialect, with a different accent.  But that rhythm, that melody, the rise and fall, it’s all the same. It just sounds and feels like home. In a way that German never does or can. S’iz geven a machaya.  It was a pleasure.

So that’s the listening side of things.  Speaking though, whoa.  That was a mindfuck, in the beginning.  It was a mindfuck because it required a total re-writing of mental pathways I’ve spent the last 3+ years in Germany writing.  Changes in pronunciation of the most basic words, changes in word order and sentence structure.  

Perhaps counterintuitively, the easiest part was adding in all the loshen-koydishe verter, all the Hebrew and Aramaic words.  Because, really, that was just a matter of dropping in new vocabulary.  This actually creates new problems now that I have to switch back to speaking German all the time.  But I’ll come back to that later.

In any case, the first two or three days were pretty rough going, in terms of speaking.  But we all got the hang of it sooner or later.  And by the end, we were all kibitzingandschmoozing with each other outside of class.  Which, I mean, so much fun.

Anyway, they called it an “intermediate” class.  But man, that was some kind of intermediate.  I mean, yeah there was some basic language instruction.  And Khayele particularly spent time on tog-tegliche leben conversational stuff, the stuff you use in every day life.  Which was as fun as it was necessary.  But we also read a lot of poetry, literature and even songs.  We did some of that with Khayele, but that was really Mendi’s side of things.  Especially the songs.

Mendi, man.  This guy is one of a kind.  Whereas Khayele is very much an academic, Mendi is definitely very much not.  And where Khayele is super secular, Mendi is…well, also secular.  But secular in that old school Jewish secular way.  The way where you don’t keep kosher or regularly observe Shabbos, but you also know all the prayers and are steeped in the traditions.

So with Mendi we read a bunch of poetry and literature.  And like I said, songs.  Which was weird on the first day.  Like, right from the get, he’s just “OK, lomir zingen.”  Let’s sing. And it’s like, uh, what?  I think it took us out of our comfort zone a bit in the beginning.  But by the end of the week, we were all singing along, full throatedly.  

In any case, the course itself was a huge success.  Between the two of them, we got a ton of culture, built up our listening skills and learned to speak the language rather well.  Now, obviously, “rather well” is open to interpretation.  So I’ll come back to that.

But the language course was just one part of this whole thing.  Every night there were what I’ll call “formal” performances.  In other words, events – usually concerts – which required buying tickets, were open to the public and held in a large theatre. I skipped all but one of those. Mostly because I needed that time to get away from people and also to catch a nap.

That’s not a knock on my classmates, btw.  They were honestly all fantastic, and many of them were kindred spirits.  I plan/hope to stay in touch with at least a couple of them.  But more on that later.  The point is – and I said this to them – we’re together six hours a day in class, plus lunch and dinner and then again for the cabarets (more on that to come!).  How do you people do this?  I was loving every second of it.  But, personally, I was also at the limits of my social interaction skills.  So I was skipping the concerts to get some alone time, which usually took the form of a nap.

Ah, but after the concerts…the cabarets.  Friends, these were emes chanoya, truly proper fun. Mendi MC’d these events, which were held in a little coffee house.  I’ve never really been to a ‘cabaret’ before, so I don’t know if this is the standard. But basically, it was just a lot of singing, dancing and drinking.  

Mendi sang a bunch of tunes just with an accompanying piano.  But it was open to anybody and everybody.  But we’re talking Klezmer here.  Because while we were doing a language class, there were also music classes. So those students got up and did various Klezmer tunes.  It was all great.

On the first night, I just sorta hung out in the back with some of my classmates and drank and observed. That all changed, though, on the second day, when Akiva showed up.  And so now, I gotta make a little detour and talk about my new friend Akiva.

So on the second day, this tiny little dude sporting a huge jew-fro with a yarmulke pinned to it shows up in class.  And he’s just this little ball of energy and positivity.  In other words, the sort of person I normally struggle to tolerate.

Except, this guy is so earnest and so warm and so kind and enthusiastic.  I mean, it’s like he danced his way out of some old folktale and into our classroom.  And he was really the only religious person in our group.  Out of fifteen or so people, maybe ten were Jewish.  And of those, none of us are observant.  

Then there’s this kid, with the Yeshiva education.  Shomer Shabbos, davening three times a day, keeping kosher, citing Talmud, the whole nine. And he’s from Boston.  But hey, nobody’s perfect.  Anyway, we hit it off straight away.  It helped that he had brought a harmonica with him, and I had my guitar. So on the breaks, we were always popping out for a quick jam.  But there was also a bit of a brother vibe there.  Because he’s 22 and I’m, achem, not.   

Anyway, dude shows up to cabaret, and all he wants to do is dance.  And he’s like dragging me into the circle dances and shit.  Which, anybody who’s ever been to a wedding or a bar mitzvah with me knows, is not really my thing.  But hey, the beer is flowing, the Klezmer is playing, and my little folktale friend is just lighting the place up.  So why the fuck not?

And that’s when it hit me. I was supposedto be there.  I mean, I’ve gotten so used to being the only Jew in my circle here.  The only Jew in my world, really.  Erm, I said “gotten used to,” but that’s not quite right.  I’m not used to it.  It’s very lonely, in fact.  I have a world of references, a treasury of vocabulary, a life of experiences, all of which mean nothing to nobody here.  I read Torah.  But I read Torah alone, holed up in my room.  It’s lonely being Jewish in Berlin.  And I’m not “used to it.”  But I have accepted it.  

Anyway, all of a sudden, I’m in a circle dance, listening to Klezmer, people are speaking and singing Yiddish all around me.  And it’s just, hang on, I belonghere.  I’m not lonely here.  I was gonna say, it felt like a weight had been lifted.  But that’s not quite right.  Better to say, I felt like I could put down my burden for a few minutes. 

You may have noticed that the subtitle of this post is “Schlepping Goles Edition.”  ‘Goles’ is the term for diaspora, although also with the stronger/sadder force of “exile.”  And for the handful of goyim reading this, “schlepp” means something like “carry a heavy burden.” And that term, “goles schleppen” showed up in one of the poems we read.

And as soon as I read it, it resonated with me.  It hit me hard.  Because it described for me, in two words, all that I’ve been feeling here.  Exile is not something you live.  It’s something you carry.  On your back.  Every minute of every day.

Now, traditionally, goles schleppenis meant with respect to Isreal. The Jewish diaspora and exile from our ancestral home.  That aspect of it doesn’t get very far with me.  For whatever reason, I’ve never felt any great connection with die heylige medinah, eretz ha’koydesh, Israel. But Berlin, at least from a Jewish perspective, is a sort of Babylonian exile.  Only, from New York, not from Israel.  What I mean is, you can live and prosper in this land.  You have the freedom to be Jewish.  But it is not, and never will be, home.  Your family, your friends, your community, your history; they’re all somewhere else.

All to say, I’m at these cabarets, and I’m drinking and dancing and singing.  And I’m going around in a circle, holding hands with the person on my right and the person on my left, and I’m just smiling.  And I just had this moment of, omg, I can finally put down the goles.  Even if it’s just for a few minutes.  You can’t put a price on that.

Also, the lads from our class performed.  Man, this was the fucking tits, you guys.  Seven of us in total, I think.  We did Somewhere over the Rainbow.  In Yiddish, obviously.  Side note, and I did not know this.  Whoever wrote the lyrics to Somewhere over the Rainbow was Jewish, and apparently the song is quite intentionally a metaphor for Israel.  The Holy Land isthe somewhere over the rainbow land.  That was news to me.

Anyway, Akiva and me worked up a really nice intro with the harmonica and guitar.  Then we all got to singing.  But wait, there’s more.  Mendi procured two people from the Klezmer class to play with us; a fiddle player and a clarinetist.  So they each took a solo in the middle of the song.  It was really fucking special, y’all.  Somewhere there’s a video, but I haven’t got my hands on it yet.

Also, the clarinetist was this (super-pretty-not-that-it-matters) French girl. So I chatted with her for all of two minutes.  At first, I just wanted a chance to talk a little French.  Which, you know, fine.  But then we switched to Yiddish.  And just, wow.  Friends. Yiddish with a French accent.  It may be the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard.  And then I asked her what her name was.  “Leah,” she said.  This Genesis-old name, with a French accent.  Out of a mouth that makes the clarinet sing in the key of Klezmer.  

My little friend Akiva may have danced his way out of some old folktale.  But this dame was like one of those messengers in Genesis, where you’re never really sure if they’re humans or angels.  Loshen-koydeshmeans something like “the sacred tongue.”  And as I said, it traditionally refers to Hebrew, and to a lesser extent, Aramaic.  But for me, the emeser loshen-koydesh– the true sacred tongue – is Yiddish with a French accent.  Just, wow.  

Tellya what was really beautiful though.  After the cabarets, we would spill out of the coffee house and onto the street, to make our ways to our various accommodations.  And in the dark of night, in the still of small-town Weimar, we would speak Yiddish, all the way home.  Yiddish af der gas.  Yiddish on the street.  

It was beautiful, but it was also bittersweet.  Because, like, it wasn’t real, you know?  We were all there for this festival/course/thingy.  So it’s an illusion, right?  I mean, it’s real, insofar as it’s happening.  But this doesn’t exist anywhere in the real world. Like, where’s the place where you can party all night and then just bullshit in Yiddish in the streets as you walk home?

You know, on the one hand, it was some kind of powerful.  What I mean is, you felt connected with your ancestors somehow. Like, maybe, over a hundred years ago, my parents’ great grandparents were also spilling out of some tavern, and just yakking away in Yiddish as they marched drunkenly aheym.  And in that sense, it was an emese simcha, a true joy.

But it was also some kind of heartbreaking.  Like, in a few days, we would all disperse back to our respective cities and countries. And then there would be no opportunity for this.  In a few days, I’d have to pick that golesback up again and get back to schlepping.  

As long as I was there, though, I tried to push those thoughts away and just enjoy it.  And I think I did a pretty good job of that.  Yeah, it hit me pretty hard when I got back to Berlin.  But while I was there, I loved the shit out of it.  I forget where our how it came up, but in reviewing my notes from class, I found that I’d scrawled the following sentence into my notebook: ich hob gefunen an oytzer af der velt. It means something like, “I’ve found a treasure in the world.”  Well yeah, I have.  

I have so much more to say about all this.  And perhaps I’ll return to it in future posts.  Like, I want to talk about the teaching styles of Khayele and Mendi. Both for how it relates to my own teaching style, and what I learned and observed from them.  And also to talk about what they both did for me on a more personal level.  

This whole experience also got me thinking about what I’m doing with my life, and, more to the point, what I shouldbe doing with my life. But there’s no way I’m getting into that now.  So what I’d like to do, is end this on a positive note.  Which I will.  But before I do, there’s another sadness that came out of this, that I’d like to briefly touch on.  And that’s do with a girl.

I should recognize a good omen when I see one.  What happened was, I had received some wrong information about where exactly our class was being held.  And the only other person to receive the same wrong info was this madel.  With the result that the two of us showed up over 45 minutes late on the first day, while everybody else was on time.

And in the course of this being in the wrong place-being lost business, we, well, maybe ‘bonded’ is too strong a word, but I mean, we definitely developed something there. And over the first few days, we were getting on pretty well.

But see, I’d had this idea in my head that maybe, just maybe, I might meet a nice Jewish girl at this thing.  And this girl was definitely not.  She was very German.  In fact, we only spoke German for that first hour or so before we got to class.  So yeah, we got on pretty well.  But a lot of good that does, when you’re sort of pre-disposing yourself to meet a Jewish girl.  

For context, on the first day, she showed up straight off the train.  By which I mean, she’s slumming it in her travel clothes, schlepping a giant backpack and just looking the part of the weary traveler, you know? Day two, though, that was a different story.  Because by that point, she’d a good night’s sleep, a shower and a change of clothes. And by change of clothes, I mean gray pencil skirt and black sweater.  I kinda had to pick my jaw up off the table.  Like, no way this is the same broad, right?

Oh, and also, she’s interested in Yiddish, speaks Polish, and is doing a Ph.D.  So she’s clearly got a brain.  And I’ll take a brain over legs any day.  But she’s got both.  Or is it all three?  Nevermind. Point is, gorgeous and brilliant. 

So now I’m going to give what I think any normal red-blooded male would say in this situation:

Hmm.  I seemed to have developed some kind of rapport with this young woman yesterday. This young woman, who is as smart as she is pretty and who is also interested in my culture and this language I’m trying to learn.  Let me bend heaven and earth to try and make something of this.

And now, I’m going to give you what this idiot said:

Meh.  Shixa.

Like, what the actual fuck is wrong with me?  Anyway, to make a long story short, I think there may have been an opportunity.  I think she may have had interest.  I mean, I’m notoriously bad at reading these things. So maybe it’s all in my imagination anyway.  But I think all this in hindsight.  In the moment, I was horrifically oblivious, and if there was a chance, I missed it. And after I missed it, it was too late. Because she was clearly done with me at that point; at least on that level.  I think.  Like I said, maybe I’m making this all up.  

But if this really happened, if I really fucked this up, well, I didn’t realize how tremendously I’d fucked up until the last day.  Because on the last day, Mendi made us a Shabbos Kiddush party.  With wine and kugel and all kinds of foods.  And he explained the week’s parsha– Torah portion – in Yiddish.  And we sang songs and did the prayers.  Hell, I even did the brucha– the prayer – for the candles. 

To digress but a moment, this was so great.  It was Shabbos, it was a Kiddush, but it was somehow secular.  What I mean is, it was more about the tradition than the belief. Like, this is what wedo.  This is what we’ve always done.  It doesn’t matter if you believe in God.  It doesn’t matter if you go to schul.  We’re Jews. We celebrate the shit out of the Sabbath, and we have a good time doing it.  Traditionnnnn….Tradition!

But back to the madel. She was all in on it.  In fact, she was all in on the Jewish stuff (as opposed to the language stuff) the whole time.  She sat next to me for most of the class.  And she was always asking questions about this word, or that prophet, or some or other Jewish thing.  Just really keen to learn, you know?

Anyway, at the Kiddush, Mendi needed something done.  Maybe with the lights, I don’t remember.  Whatever it was, it was something you’re not supposed to do on Shabbos.  And she just throws her hand up in the air and is like, “Do you need a Shabbos-goy?”3  And in that moment, I was just like, “Oh, hang on, this girl is amazing.”  

Like, I’d had my head so far up my own ass about meeting a “Jewish girl.”  Which, yes, is important to me.  But it’s not a deal-breaker.  Never has been.  What is important to me, what is a deal-breaker, is having somebody with whom I can be myself; somebody with whom I can not just pursue this part of my life, but actually share it with.

I mean, I don’t know how this whole Torah thing works with somebody who has zero interest in the whole “Jewish thing.”  Like, hey, just so you know, I need at least an hour a day, three days a week to study Torah.  It would be kind of disappointing if whoever-she-is is just, “Sure, you go do your thing,” in the same way she might say that about playing video games with my friends.

Meanwhile, here’s this girl – brilliant and with the legs (not that they matter) – who’s showing a genuine interest in all this.  Which is not to say she’d have any interest in actually reading with me.  But at least that she’d appreciate it in a way that would matter.  

And I could only put all this together after it was too late?  Because sometimes, Davey, you’re afucking idiot.  

So much for girls.  I said I wanted to end on a positive note. So here it is.  And you know what?  Let’s make it two.

At the end of the course, I was talking with one of my classmates and we were talking about what we could do to not lose what we’d just learned, and, if anything, even progress a bit.  So we hit on the plan of trying to organize a skype to do some reading.  The plan is to start with some of the texts we received in class but didn’t actually get around to reading.  So we would prepare a text, meet on skype, schmooze a bit in Yiddish and discuss the text.  It hasn’t happened yet.  But we’re still talking and planning.  So if we can pull it off, that would be pretty wonderful.

The other thing is, my boy Akiva was in Berlin for a few days after the course ended.  So we met each other for dinner.  Which was fun on the merits.  Good food, good drinks, good company.  But also, we sat in a restaurant in Berlin and spoke nothing but Yiddish for three hours.  And I couldn’t have been happier.

He too has expressed interest in some kind of reading group.  Which would be grand.  Azoi, mir vellen zen.  So, we’ll see.  But both of these guys are people I would be well pleased to have in my life going forward. And if we can read and talk in Yiddish too?  I’m ready to call that a big win.  

I’ll have more to say about this if it actually pans out.  But until then…

זײַ געזונט

  1. Weimar, of course, being a city in central-east Germany. []
  2. I’ve chosen to transliterate all the Yiddish words in this post into the Latin alphabet.  Partly because I’m pretty sure nobody reading this can read Yiddish as it’s normally written, in the alef-beys, the Hebrew letters.  But mostly because typing in Yiddish on this machine is a godsdamned pain in the ass. []
  3. Shabbos-goy is the term for a person Jewish people hire to perform necessary tasks which we ourselves our not allowed to perform on the Sabbath. []

Word Play

Write.  Write when you have something to say.  But also, write when you have nothing to say.  Who knows what might fall out of your fingers?  Or run off your fingers?  Or, making your fingers the subject, who knows what they might…what is the present tense of wrought?  Is it wright? As in ‘playwright.’  Or ‘wainwright,’ if you prefer wagons to the theatre.  In which case, your fingers can both write and wright.  But your ears surely won’t know the difference, even if your eyes do. In other words, you can see what has been written, whereas you can hear what’s been wrought?  

For that something be written, one first must write.  For that something be bitten, one first must bite.  Yet one can also bite what has been bought.  But only because it’s a tad rude to bite what has been stolen. Though, in times of need, one might steal, that one may bite.  But one certainly wouldn’t want to bite steel.  

If a community has but one bicycle, to be shared by all, is it a common wheel for the common weal? And suppose this community should be by the sea, on whose shores dwell plump, seagoing mammals.  And suppose they should make such a mammal the symbol of their land.  Would they have their national seal upon their national seal?

Suppose further that the commerce of such a place was built upon the trade in these animal hides. Then must they sell seals.  Unless business were bad.  Then seldom would a seal be sold.  Or so I’ve been told.

For that something be told, one first must tell.  Well, I’ve heard tell of a bell, courageous in winter.  That is to say, bold against the cold.  Yet if that bell should, after many a year, come lose and plummet to earth, you must tell that it fell.  Though it would never be told that it fold, no matter how old.

Suppose then, that there were two bells.  The one which was built the first must be the elder, yet could it never itself be eld. And if this be true of bells, so must it be with berries.  Yet what is younger than an elderberry?  The cran, the rasp and the straw, to be sure.  

Now suppose you have a tisket, at tasket, a little yellow basket of strawberries.  And suppose you drop your basket, and the fruit thereof scatters hither and thither.  Your former strawberries would now be strewnberries.  Amusing perhaps, but not half so clever as Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury. Which thankfully still runs. Though when it eventually ends, must, of necessity, become Donesbury.

So long as it runs, it is Doonesbury.  And when it runs no more, it shall be Donesbury. But in hindsight, shall we say that so long as it ran it was Dansbury?  Which sounds like a town in Connecticut.  A place where, I think you’ll agree, manners are highly esteemed. In other words, the name of the the game in Connecticut is etiquette.  

That a male should conduct himself with proper etiquette, he is said to display good manners.  May we then conclude that for a female to do likewise, she would display good womanners?  In any case, etiquette in Connecticut.  But what is of prime importance further north?  That is to say, what’s the main thing in Maine?  

Whatever question one might ask in Maine, there’s only ever one answer.  “You can’t get there from here.”  It’s all you ever hear.  Or so I’ve heard.  I mean, of course, the past tense of hear; that’s ‘heard.’  Not to be confused with many a cow, which is, naturally, a herd. Whereas ‘flock’ is the word for many a bird.  Which, you must admit, is rather absurd.  

Ah, see the bird take wing. It flies.  Flies, however, are a nuisance.  But if we speak of yesterday, they both flew.  And indeed have flown many times afore.  The bird has wings, as does the fly, and so they fly.  The airplane has wings but no mind of its own, and so it is flown.  The leaf has neither wings nor mind of its own, and so, it is not flown but blown.  

And the leaf was blown because, of course, the wind blew.  Although the sky was blue.  ‘Tis true! And that which is true, must then be truth.  But the one who speaks many true things does not speak treeth, whether his mouth have but one tooth or many teeth.  

Suppose now that the one who says true things should inhabit but one tiny room.  Then the one who speaks truth lives in a booth.  Whereupon would we do well to name his abode The Sooth Booth. Let us suppose then that persons in distress should address themselves to The Sooth Booth.  And suppose further that upon hearing the truth, their troubles should be assuaged.  Then would the sooth soothe. 

But perhaps the truth might not assuage.  It may be, rather, that the truth would rouse one to anger.  In which case, one might be said to seethe at the sooth.  And should the worst transpire, and one should strain one’s muscles in a state of a rage, then one might be said to be seether sore.  These, then, are the two potential outcomes of hearing sooth.  Happiness, or seether sore.  One or the other.  That is to say, either or.

“Either or,” said the miner. “What do you mean?” I asked him. “I just want to strike it rich,” he said.  “I don’t care if it’s gold or silver.  Either or.” 

“Ah, I understand,” quoth I. “You don’t mean ‘either or,’ you mean ‘either ore’.”

“That’s right,” said he. “Either ore or ore.  So long as it’s ore.”  

I’m sorry to say, that for this poor fellow, it wasn’t so much ‘either ore’ but ‘neither nor.’  But for me, that’s neither here nor there. For, in the end, it was his mine, not mine.  And that’s the risk one takes in mining.  You might strike silver.  You might strike gold.  But just as like, you’ll strike neither ore nor ore.  

Ores are more important to a miner than are oars to a sailor.  After all, a sailor can work with wind as well as an oar.  That is to say, for the sailor, it’s either oar or wind. But of course, if one is to row, one needs two oars.  And yet, the oars are identical.  Any oar can be used just as easily by the right hand as the left.  So while it may be either ore for the miner, it is surely either oar for the sailor.

It is a difficult thing, rowing.  It is easier when one has help.  Ideally, one oarsmen will sit behind another.  In which case they row in a row.  And if they are strong enough, they might even drag another watercraft behind them. Whereupon do they row in a row with a boat in tow.

And if the following boat is connected to their own boat by some sort of cable or rope, then it must be said that they not only tow the boat, but that they tow the line as well. Whereas, if it is the policy of their shipping company to tow other boats, and they do adhere happily to this policy, then we must admit that not only do they tow the line but also that the toe the line.

But do they do so because they agree with company policy?  Be that the case, then they toe the line because they think it fine.  Conversely, if they adhere to such practices because they dread punishment, then we must admit that they toe the line because they fear a fine.  Fine or fine? That is the question.

Write when you have something to say, I said.  Write also when you have nothing to say, I also said.  I think have done both.  I have written.  The apple has been bitten, the beast smitten.  Should not then a small kite be a kitten?  A small glove a glitten?  A bat flies, as does a dove.  Yet it’s a cat that’s kitten and a glove that’s a mitten.  English is fine thing.  And this post is now Donesbury.  

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
10 June, 2019

A couple of weeks ago, Joschka and I drove down to Bavaria to visit our friends there.  Always a good time.  Last time we went, J took a train down and I took a bus.  The bus is certainly cheaper than renting a car. And of course you can read or sleep on the bus.  But there’s something about a roadtrip.  

There’s the freedom, sure. Stop when you want to.  Leave when you want to.  You’re not a slave to the bus or train schedule.  And also, you guys, this is Germany.  Mercedes Benz.  Autobahn.  You pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down?  You can mutherfucking fly, y’all.  I mean, normally, when I have the wheel, I’m cruising at around 180 kmh (111 mph); which is downright conservative in this country, no joke.

But I had to see what this car could do, just once.  So on one wide open, flat piece of road, with no other cars around, I floored it. Pedal to the metal time.  I got up to 217 kmh (136 mph), before I got scared and backed off.  Because I’m old?  I dunno. It certainly wasn’t because the car didn’t seem like it couldn’t handle it.  Smooth as could be and quiet as a whisper.  

But you start to feel the wind at that speed.  And you realize – or at least I realized – there’s no margin for error going that fast. So I took my foot of the gas and let it float back down to an even 200 until we started seeing other cars, or the road stopped being straight and flat.

Man, that was fun though. “German engineering.”  Yeah, it’s for real.  If you don’t have a reference frame, you can creep up to 200 without realizing it.  You don’t feel it and you don’t hear it.  You just look down, and it’s like, “Oh, I’m going 125 mph.  Who knew?”  And then some dude in an Audi blows by you like you’re standing still.

Here’s another thing about the Autobahn.  People follow the fucking rules here.  People really actually just drive in the right lane and only use the left for passing. And if someone does happen to be in the left when a yet faster car comes up behind them, they just nonchalantly slide back into the right so Mr. Audi can scream past on his merry way.  Oh, and Mr. Audi hardly ever tailgates either. Like, he knows he doesn’t have to. Because the guy in front of him will yield.  Because dem’s the rules.

A student played me this joke a while back.  It’s a conversation between a British guy and a German guy, about driving without a license. It goes like this:

British Guy: So like, what happens in Germany in if you get caught driving without a license?

German Guy:  You can’t drive without a license.

BG: No, I know.  But I mean, ifyou did.  What would happen?

GG:  You can’t.

BG: I understand that. I’m just asking, hypothetically, what would happen if you were to drive without a license?

GG: It’s not possible. You can’t drive without a license.

And it goes on.  But you get the point.  And it’s really like that here.  People just actually follow the fucking rules.  All the damned time.

Anyway, Joschka asked me if I wouldn’t mind taking some of the driving, so he could “work” in the car. I told him I’d take over once we got out of Berlin.  I wasn’t about to drive in the city.  So that’s what we did.  Except he didn’t actually get any work done.  We just talked the whole way down.  Because roadtrip!

So Bavaria.  I’ve written before about how lucky I am with the people I’ve met here, the friends I’ve made.  How it all comes down to luck, and how good must my luck be, etc. And our trips down south are no exception.  Apart from me and Joschka and the Bavarians themselves, a friend form Joschka’s hometown (and also from the metal festivals) – Björn – joins us too.  And it’s just an amazing group of people.

What I struggle to wrap my mind around, though, is the extent to which they treat us like family when we’re down there.  I’m not exaggerating.  There’s so much love with those people.  We usually stay with Anna and her family.  But that’s not even the right way to say it.  We stay with Anna and Stefan and Lisa, the latter two being her parents.  And our adopted parents for the weekend.  

Because it’s not like we visit our friend and stay in her parents’ house.  We all hang out together for the weekend.  We eat together, drink together, play games together, stay up all night together.  Usually Anna’s sister will come by with her little daughter too.  Which I love, cause you know me with kids.  I’d usually rather play on the floor with a child then sit at the table with the grownups.1

And there’s so much affection.  Like, just the way they hug you.  Stefan has this way of hugging; not just me, all of us.  He’ll hug you.  But then, after, he’ll sort of take you by the forearms and and look you in the eye, and he’ll just say your name and smile.  And Lisa, man, she hugs me like I’m her own flesh and blood.  These people love us, and that’s the word for it.  And we love them.

So there’s all this love there.  And it’s beautiful.  But I can’t say I totally understand it either.  I mean, we see them maybe four or five times a year.  Where does love like that come from?  How does it develop?  I feel truly blessed by it.  Like, I hit the lottery to have people like this in my life.  But I struggle to understand it.

I was outside with Björn at some point.  He was having a cigarette and I needed some fresh air.  Anyway, we got to talking, drunkenly.  As you do. It was kinda funny.  I don’t know how we came to it, be we decided that he would speak English and I would speak German.  

Anyway, it somehow became one of those drunken “I love you, man” conversations.  I mean, it started with him saying to me a lot of what I just said.  How great the Bavarians treat us whenever we visit, how lucky we are to know them, how much love is in that house.  But then he got to giving me the “I love you, man” spiel.

I shouldn’t say “spiel.” He was 100% genuine.  But he was explaining how he has friends he’s known his whole life, Joschka who he’s known forever, and so on.  And even though he sees me just a couple of times a year, he loves me the same we he loves those guys.  How music brings us all together.  And other things I’ve forgotten in the drunkenness of it all. Everything he said to me, I could have – and did – say to him in return.  

But I walked away from that conversation thinking, “Shit, this makes as little sense to him as it does to me. He’s struggling to understand this as much as I am.”  Like, how do such people just fall into your life?  How can it be that, even though you hardly ever see them, you love each other like family?  Like, we’ve all of us received this wondrous gift that we treasure.  But why?  How?

One way – maybe the only way – you know you’re talking about genuine love, the real McCoy, is when people see you at your worst and just don’t give a shit.  That’s certainly true of Jared, Joschka, Anne, Charlotte.  They’ve all seen the worst of me.  They’ve all seen the depths to which I can be an asshole. They’ve all seen my cry, not for nothing.  Never batted an eye.  Not one of them.

Well, I’m happy to say I’ve never cried in Bavaria.  And I don’t think I’ve ever been a proper asshole down there either.  But I’ve certainly been not at my best.  They don’t care.  Friday nights are always rough.  You travel all day, and then you drink all night.  Not much time to rest or eat in between.  The result is, I’m usually a hot mess on Saturdays.  Tired, hungover, grouchy.  And really, who wants a tired, hungover, grouchy guest in their house?

But they see me.  They see I’m riding the struggle bus.  And you know what they say?  “Dave, why don’t you go upstairs and sleep for a bit?”  That’s it.  No pressure to be “on.”  No pressure to be “a good guest.”  Just sympathy, if that’s the right word.  Or patience. Understanding.  Just, here’s some Gatorade and go take a nap.  No, sympathy isn’t the right word.  Grace.  These people have fucking grace.  I fucking love these people.

Meanwhile (mittlerweile),2 the guitar.  I’m trying to up my game here.  At 38, I’m trying to be better at this instrument than I’ve ever been before. Which isn’t saying much, come on. But still.  Also, I’m talking about classical guitar, just to be clear.

Anyway, I’m trying to up my skill level.  I’m working on this Carcassi study, Matteo Carcassi being a musician.  His opus 60 is a series of 25 estudios.  Each one is designed to develop a particular skill.  Study number 1 is written to build your finger picking skills, particularly your index and middle finger.  

The piece itself is deceptively difficult.  It’s in C major, and it’s 99% scalar or arpeggiated chords.  And if you don’t pay attention to the fingering, you could learn it in an afternoon.  What I mean is, the left hand work is child’s play.  But man, the right hand.  Fucking brutal.  For me, anyway.  That is, if you do it correctly.  

Look, I could bludgeon my way though it with any old fingering.  It’s easy enough, both in terms of tempo and left-hand work, that it should be super easy.  But that’s the point.  The fretwork is supposed to be easy, precisely so you can focus on your right hand. And the right hand is…and this is an adjective I don’t normally use…wickedhard.  

Deceptively so.  It’s just constantly index finger, middle finger, index finger, middle finger, on and on.  But it’s not instinctive.  That’s the problem.  And it doesn’t give a shit.  It’s like Goodfellas.  Switching strings?  Fuck you, keep the fingering going.  Going up the neck?  Fuck you, keep the fingering going.  Going down the neck?  Fuck you, keep the fingering going.  It’s the “Fuck you, pay me” of guitar work.

And it’s super frustrating. Like, I’ve been playing guitar for some 25 years at this point.3  How can I not just do this?  But I’m working on it.  And I’ve got the first 8 measures pretty solid now.  Only 30 more to go.  And then after that, just 23 more studies.4  The point is, though, I’m building skills I didn’t have before.  I am, in theory, becoming a better player.

The other piece I’m working on is Gaspar Sanz’ Suite Española.  I’ve mentioned this before, because I was also working on it last year.  It’s a long piece.  It’s got 10 movements, the last of which is the Canarios.  I mention it by name because it’s what my mom calls “a Starr piece.”  Something both my uncles and I myself have been playing forever. 

But as I say, it’s just the last part of this bigger work.  I learned the first seven pieces last summer.  I’m working on the 8thnow.  I’ve nearly got it to a good place.  Probably needs another week or two.  The 9thbit has an A and a B section.  The A I’ve already got down.  So when I finish this part, it’s on to 9B.  And then I’ll have the whole thing.  At which point, I shall give myself a little pat on the back.  And then also curse myself for not being good enough.  But that’s how it goes.  No, but really, I’m looking forward to having this whole big work under my fingers, because it really is a wonderful piece of music.  

I mean, the music itself is gorgeous.  But it’s more than that.  For one thing, it’s sounds “Spanish,” if I can say that.  Like, just when you hear it, you think of Spain.  Which, I dunno, how can I put this?  It transports you.  It brings you somewhere.  You hear it, and you’re in the Spanish countryside, or in the court of the king and queen, sipping wine in summer.  Or something, fuck do I know?  

But also, it’s not (mostly) a fast piece of music.  There’s so much room for expression.  I love the slow bits.  You can just wring out a vibrato or linger with a hammer-on and pull-of and it just sings, you know?  

It’s really the first piece of music where I’ve felt, jeez, you know, I need a better instrument. Shit.  I feel guilty even writing that.  Because I love this guitar.  Her name is Outis, btw.  And that’s a story too.  

My electric guitar, my Gibson SG Standard, cherry red, the apple of my eye, her name is Rosie.  But for a long time, I never named my acoustic guitar.  And then, in Greek II, we read Book IX of the Odyssey.  And there, the Cyclops asks Odysseus his name.  Which of course he doesn’t want to give.  So he says, “My name is Nobody.”  And in Greek, ‘nobody’ is οὔτιϲ, outs.5  And I was like, Shit, that’s perfect!  So my acoustic guitar is Outis.  

Anyway, I feel guilty saying I need a better instrument.  Because I love Outis.  She’s my first classical guitar.  She’s the guitar I learned to sing with.  The guitar I learned how to write my own songs with.  The guitar I’ve turned to when I’ve been sad or lonely or happy or just so full of energy I needed to rock.  She’s the guitar I’ve stayed up all night making music with Charlotte with, the one I pay extra to bring to Nice or Brussels or the Great American West for that same Charlotte, because making music is a language for us as much as French or English, and man do we love language.  She’s the guitar I brought to the metal festivals and entertained my friends with, the guitar I bring to Bavaria and make up silly songs for and about those same friends with.  I love her.  Always have, always will.

But also, she’s a starter guitar.  Cost something like $200 bucks, and sounds like it.  And when you’re playing rock or folk or just having fun, she’s worth her weight in gold.  But she has her limitations.  The sustain’s not great, and neither is the tone.  And when you’re trying to play classical music, you hear that.

Margit has a wonderful guitar.  My uncle Richard buildswonderful guitars. And when I play instruments like that…when I try to play a Bach prelude on instruments like that, I hear the difference.  And look, nobody is going to confuse me with Segovia.  Like, ever.  But I know I can sound better than I do, with a better instrument.  And so, if I’m serious about making myself a better player – which I am – then it’s probably time to start thinking about getting myself a better axe.  

Which I can do, I think. I mean, I’ll have to save.  It won’t be cheap.  But I’m setting that as a goal for myself.  Because I want this.  I love playing guitar.  And I can do it well enough that it brings me peace.  

Something piano never brought me, btw.  You know, my parents made me take piano lessons when I was a kid.  As many parents do.  And I’m grateful for that.  It gave me a lot.  It taught me how to read music, it taught me how music works.  And it absolutely furthered and deepened my appreciation for classical music.

And in college, I took piano lessons.  Freshman year, I practiced like a mofo.  Every free hour, I was off to a practice room.  And I got nowhere with it.  I ran up against my own limitations.  No matter how much I practiced, I could only do so much.  And I hated it.  I loved – still love – Beethoven and Bach.  I knew what I wanted the music to sound like.  I knew what I wanted to do with it.  And I discovered that I was entirely incapable.  I found out the hard way that, no matter how much I practiced, I would never be able to play a Beethoven sonata or a Bach fugue and get it to sound the way I heard it in my head.  And I hated it.  Hated myself. It brought me something worse than disappointment.  It brought me rage.

But the guitar is different. I’ll never be Segovia.  I know that.  But it’s ok.  Because I can do enough.  I can make the music I want to make.  And I can do it well…enough; for me.  The guitar, in a way that the piano never could, brings me joy.  And on good days, it brings me some kind of peace.  So yeah, I’d like a better instrument.  I’d like to have a tool that can help me get more out of myself.  So that’s the goal.  All in good time.

Welp, it’s 4am.  And here in Berlin it’s the…un-gloaming? Gloaming.  That’s a word I love.  It means ‘evening’ or ‘twilight.’  But the root of the word means something like ‘glow.’  The way the sky glows between afternoon and night.  Gloaming.  Just, what a great fucking word.  And now, at 4am, the sky is the same color.  Only, going in the opposite direction.  So, un-gloaming.  Or maybe Second Gloaming.  Or, better still, maybe First Gloaming.  It all depends upon your point of view.  Thus spoke Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Right, well, if I’m quoting Star Wars, it’s surely time for bed.  Whereupon do I bid ye6pleasant dreams.

זײַ געזונט

  1. They didn’t come this time though; I gather the kid was a bit sick. []
  2. Mittlerweile– this word looks like it should mean ‘meanwhile.’  And maybe it does?  Sometimes? But it also means other things. People use it all the damn time and I’m struggling with its usage.  My current goal – Germanwise – is to get a handle on this word. []
  3. I’ve been playing guitar for 25 years? Fuck me, I’m old.  Feels like yesterday I was begging, yes begging, my parents for my first guitar.  Which I still have.  A POS Lotus, a Strat knockoff, that buzzes up around the high frets because the strings touch the pickup if you’re not careful.  It also has a picture of The Rock and a printed “The People’s Guitar” label. Also a Gore/Lieberman 2000 campaign sticker.  And it weighs a ton.  But it was my first guitar.  And it has a single coil, which gives me that Ritchie Blackmore sound (kinda), and also sounds like a beast on my ‘Midnight’ solo.  Justin knows what I’m talking about. []
  4. Study number 7 I learned in college and still play.  Oh, and that’s a badass piece, I ain’t even kidding. []
  5. In Latin, this is ‘nemo,’ btw.  Which is why in 20k Leagues Under the Sea, the captain’s name is Nemo.  He’s a man without an identity.  He’s nobody. He’s Outis. []
  6. Did you know ‘ye’ is plural and ‘thee’ is singular?  I love English, y’all.  But we’ve lost some shit.  Shit we maybe shouldn’t have lost.  Just saying’. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
31 May, 2019

It’s funny how things connect, things that you would think couldn’t be further apart.  So, remember back in December 2017 I visited Charlotte in Nice for Xmas?  Well, part of the deal with all that was a gift exchange.  Everybody was randomly assigned somebody else to give a gift to. Not like a Secret Santa, of which there was also.  In this case, you knew who you were getting your gift from.  

Anyway, I was assigned to Charlotte’s friend Rapha, who is fantastic btw.  At the time, I was just finishing (or had just finished) the Three Musketeers.  So her gift to me was an annotated edition of the 3M and the sequel, Vingt Ans Après, which had at one point belonged to her grandfather. Which, to me, is just so special. Because I love things that have history, that have a story, that have a personal connection.  

But she also gave me another book, which seemed to me, at the time, to be totally random.  It was by an author I’d never heard of, it was modern, and it seemed to be about a subject that would not normally be in my wheelhouse.  The name of the book is Rue des Voleurs– Street of Thieves – by one Mathias Enard.1  

I asked Charlotte if she’d read it, but she said she’d never even heard of it.  She simply said, “It’s from Rapha,” or words to that effect.  Which either meant that Rapha had read it and liked it, or that she had picked it off the shelf at random.  I don’t honestly know.

Anyway, going by the back of the book, it looked like it could be interesting.  But it didn’t really fit into my schema of alternating Dumas and Verne.  So I kinda just stuck it on the shelf to be read at some indeterminate future date.  

Fast forward to January of this year.  This Turkish girl shows up in my class.  Well, born in Turkey, but she’s a German citizen now.  I mentioned her once before; wears a headscarf, curses like a sailor, cool af.  Well, a while back, she asked me if I wouldn’t mind taking a look at something she had written in English.  Which of course I was happy to do.

Turns out, what she was working on was a sort of memoir/autobiography kind of thing.  At that point, she only had a couple of pages in a notebook.  But you could see immediately that she had a helluva story to tell.  And her English wasn’t bad.  I mean, it was full of all the mistakes you would expect.  Wrong prepositions, idioms that weren’t quite right, that sort of thing.  

More interesting to me, as an English teacher, was the structure, the nuts and bolts of building sentences and paragraphs.  Because you could see that this was a person who, on the one hand, was clearly intelligent, thoughtful, well read.  But on the other hand, clearly didn’t have a whole lot of experience or training in formal English writing.

Which made this exactly the kind of project I love to work on as an English teacher.  You have somebody who already has a voice, who is smart, who wants to learn.  I mean, what else can you ask for, right?  

So we’d sit down after class for an hour or so.  And the small corrections go quickly: change this preposition, put the adverb here, that sorta thing.  But then we can work on style.  I’d present her with several different options of how she might compose a sentence; paratactic, hypotactic, subordinate clause first or last, all that jazz.  

And she’d learn it, you guys.  Sit down the next week, and shit I showed her last time would be cropping up in the new stuff.  And the process is fun.  Like this weird bilingual conversation goes on.  She’ll explain an idea in German and I’ll offer some ways of dealing with it in English.  Or I’ll explain a grammar point in German and she’ll turn around and work it out on the page in English.  

Also, she pays for my alcohol while we work, which is just all of the winning.  And also funny, because she doesn’t drink on religious grounds. So you have this American alcohol-imbibing Jew working with a Muslim tee-totaling Turk working on an English memoir in Berlin. 

So I said she’s got a helluva story to tell.  And it’s hers to tell.  So I won’t say much about it here.  But briefly, she comes from a religious family and she’s kind of the black sheep. She’s making a life in a country she wasn’t born in.  She’s been through a lot of shit.  I think I can leave it at that.

Well.  I had to take a break from my boy Dumas.  The first three Musketeer novels were some of the best shit I’ve ever read.  The stories are epic, the characters are badass,2 and his style is just a pleasure to read. So I was on the fourth book.  Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, vol ii.  And it picks up where the last one left off, still kicking ass.  

And then, all of a sudden, that shit hit a wall.  And fast. One minute, I’m reading about middle-aged D’Artagnan and how he’s basically completely out of fucks to give. And then, next thing I know, I’m in the middle of some gods-awful love triangle between a young, angsty Louis XIV, some other even angstier clown, and this horrific, absolutely useless woman. And just, omg you guys, I couldn’t. I had to put that shit down.

Naturally, at this point, I turned to my boy JV.  Jules Verne has never yet let me down.  This time it would be Le Cinq Cent Millions de la Bégum.  Hoo boy, this was a good one.  Dark. I love when JV goes dark.  I mean, there’s always a happy ending with this guy. But you can tell he had a dark side. And from what I can gather, it was really his editor who reigned that in, who pushed the happy ending shit on him. Although maybe he still had some embers of optimism burning.  Who knows?

Point is, shit was dark. And excellent.  And totally relevant to my life.  The premise, in short, is that a French guy and a German guy each set about building their own competing Utopias.  But each man’s vision was based on his cultural-national identity, as Verne understood them.  So the French utopia was based on education, the arts and humanities.  The German utopia was based on industry and cold Prussian efficiency.  

And that shit spoke to me. Now look, obviously, he was playing up the stereotypes.  There’s not a lot of nuance there.  But reading it, I was just like, man, the French are soFrench!  And the Germans are sooo German!  In ways that I have personally experienced.

More than that though, it had the usual touch of Jules Verne prophecy.  Because the German industrial utopia was basically a giant Krupp Werk– an arms factory.  Like, the sole purpose of this city was to manufacture artillery.  And not just artillery, but bigger, stronger, more destructive than anything that had ever been built before.  We’re talking Dicke Bertha, Schwerer Gustav level shit.3  Except he’s writing this in the late 1800’s.  

And of course the Germans are aggressive, expansionist.  The German guy’s sole purpose is to wipe out the French utopia, thereby establishing the supremacy of German culture for all the world to see.  I mean, he’s basically predicting major elements of both world wars, decades in advance.  

Fine.  So I finish Bégum.  And I look over at Bragelonne, with the bookmark sticking out from 200 or so pages in.  And I know I should finish it.  But also, just, really?  I mean, can I make myself care about this love-triangle cluster-f?  Like, I know at some point the Man in the Iron Mask is gonna show up.  But when? Fuck it, says I.  I can’t, says I.  

So I think, Hey, maybe this is a good time to crack into that random book Rapha gave me over a year ago. Which is what I do.  And at first, it’s slow going.  I mean, it’s one thing to read “the classics.”  When you read Dumas or Verne, you’re reading “textbook” French.  What I mean is, you’re reading the language as it’s taught in schools; not as it’s spoken on the street.  

Well, I’ve gotten pretty good with “textbook” French.  I don’t pretend to be native-speaker fluent.  I absolutely use a dictionary.  But I can read that shit on the subway, no problem.  This new book, though.  Different kettle of fish, friends.  Horse of a different color.  Slang.  Modern idioms.  Informal constructions.  There’s also just a lot of everyday vocab.  Like – and I’ve already forgotten the word – but the other day, I came across the word for “bra-strap.” That’s just not coming up in the Three Musketeers, know what I mean?4  So it’s something much more in line with what you hear on the street (or hanging out with friends in Nice), than what you learn in school.  It took some getting used to, is what I’m trying to say. 

So it’s slow going. My dictionary is my new best friend. It’s “work.”  But that’s OK.  The first Verne that I read was Around the World in 80 Days.  That was slow-going too.  Needed the dictionary ten times a page.  But I got through it.  And now I read JV on the subway.  Like a boss, y’all.

I’ll get there with this book, too.  Just, it’s slow going now.  But it’s fun. I enjoy it.  If it’s “work,” it’s rewarding work.  And it’s opening me up to a new kind of French.  A “real” French, in a way that Dumas and Verne have ceased to be “real.” 

What I mean is, last time I was in Nice, I would occasionally say things and people would laugh at me.  Like, “What century are you from?”  Because the only words I had were from these oldschool dudes.  But now I’m getting exposed to a kind of French that real people are speaking, today, in my time.  And that’s fun.  So I’ll report back when I finish this book. In three-to-six months, or however long it takes me to get through this.

All that being said, it’s a great story.  The main character is this Moroccan kid.  Comes from a religious family, but isn’t himself religious.  Loves to read, dreams of seeing the world.  Runs away from home and winds up getting taken in by a Mosque, which gives him a job in their bookshop.   Only the Mosque turns out to be pretty fundamentalist, in the middle of the Arab Spring.  There’s a bombing, maybe the Mosque is behind it, but he doesn’t know.  Shortly thereafter, the Mosque itself  burns down and all the people disappear, including his best friend.  Meanwhile, he gets a new job and falls for this Spanish dame. And that’s about where I’m at.

Anyway, I’m really enjoying it.  Both for the story and for the challenge of this new kind of French which I’ve never read before.  But I’m reading this, and I’m thinking, Hey, you know, that Turkish girl might like this. She might identify with some of what’s going on here.  So I recommend it to her, thinking there’s probably a German translation out there, based on what the back of the book said.  I wasn’t really expecting her to dig around for it, if I’m being honest.

But then, one day, I meet her at Potsdamer Platz, and she’s sitting there reading some book.  And she’s all, “Look!”  And she turns the spine towards me, and I see “Straße der Diebe” – Street of Thieves.  Oh shit!  She found it! And homegirl was already halfway through the damn thing.

I asked her what she thought.  She said she was loving it, but also, it was pretty…I think starkwas the word she used – strong, but that’s probably not the right translation.  I gather it was hitting pretty close to home.  But like, in a good way.  Not easy, maybe, but good.

“But you know, Suzyn, you just can’t predict baseball.”  I mean, in December 2017, I get this random book for Christmas from the friend of a friend. It sits on my shelf for over a year. Finally, I start reading it just as this Turkish girl shows up in my class.  And it’s like, Hey, you might dig this.  And lo and behold, she totally connects with this book.  It’s funny how things connect.  

In other news, my beloved Islanders are done.  Out in the second round of the playoffs.  Heartbreaking, yes.  But also, they got much farther than anybody had predicted, back before the season started. So I’m proud of those guys.  And it was a great ride.  Can’t wait til next year.

For my actual day-to-day life, though, I’m (ever so slightly) relieved that it’s all over. The games were starting at 1:30am, Berlin time.  And being the playoffs, I was naturally staying up to watch the whole damn thing. In other words, I was routinely going to bed at like 4:30am and waking up two hours later for work.  It was tough, I ain’t gonna lie.  The sacrifices we make, amirite?

But I had fun.  One night during the playoff run, I made myself a little viewing party.  Homemade buffalo wings, roasted potatoes (tossed in buffalo sauce – omg, so good!) and carrot sticks.  First of all, best wings I’ve yet made.  Still not Inn Between good, but real progress here, folks.  In any case, I enjoyed the shit outa that.  Great way to watch the game.

Oh and speaking of great ways to watch the game.  Canadian French, you guys.  Lemme explain.  See, the games were being nationally televised.  Which on the one hand is great, because national exposure for my boys. But on the other hand, we lose having our hometown guys call the came.  

Now on the internet, where I was watching, you had two viewing options.  You had the US national feed (NBC) and a Canadian national French broadcast.  Well, obviously, if I couldn’t have my own home-team guys, I was gonna go with the French. And what a joy.  Really, I love Canadian French.  And here’s why.  It’s my first French.

I’m sure I’ve written about this, but back when I was in grad school, I had to pass a French reading comprehension exam as part of my degree.  So I taught myself to read French.  And hockey was my way in.  Every day, I was reading game recaps in French on the CBC website.  I was listening to Montréal games on French radio. 

The result being, Canadian French has this dual attraction for me.  It’s my first real exposure to the language, and it’s inextricably linked to this game that I love.  Which, in 2019, feels like another life.  I live in Europe.  I have French friends – Charlotte, Anne – from actual France.  I don’t play hockey here.  I read “real” French: Dumas, Verne.  

And all of a sudden, I’m watching my favorite team…over a French Canadian broadcast.  And it’s like, well, can I say this?  It’s like, if you grew up in the country, with a backwater version of the language, a version that doesn’t have international prestige.  Then you move to the big city and leave that behind and become all cosmopolitan and shit.

But then, years later, you go home.  And you’re hearing this “provincial” language that you “grew up” with.  And it’s like this warm cozy blanket, you know?  Like, tuck me in and tell me bedtime stories about les faits glorieux demes gars, the glorious deeds ofmy boys.  

As always, my French experience stands in contrast to my German experience.  Or maybe, actually, they’re finally aligning.  

My thing with German is, I love the spoken language.  And yet, I have almost no interest in the written language.  Which is not something I’m proud of, not for nothing.  But the written language strikes me as artificial.  Nobody I know speaks that way.

And above all, I just want to communicate.  I want to be accepted by my friends.  I want to be taken for one of the group.  I don’t want to be seen as an outsider.  To that end, I’m not trying to speak “correctly.”  And reading, I dunno, Goethe, for example, ain’t exactly at the top of my to-do list. 

I’d much rather be able to have a conversation, trade insults, make jokes, listen to and tell stories.  That’s where German is interesting to me.  I guess that’s where I’ve always sorta been with it.  

Sure, there are days when I think it would be nice to be able to code-switch up.  To be able to speak formally.  But only when I needto. Only when it would be to my advantage. Not as an end, but only as a means to an end.

There are other days, though, when I reproach myself for this attitude.  When I think that this is an incurious way to deal with the language of the country in which I live.  And that to be incurious about anything is a grievous sin.  One should always be curious.

But in my heart, I know, it just doesn’t interest me.  What interests me is the spoken language, as I’ve said.  And to that end, I think it’s time to admit something.  I’ve leveled up.  Which means, it’s time to grow up.

I’ve “leveled up.” What do I mean?  I mean, it’s time to stop patting myself on the back for the little things.  Up til now, I’ve considered it an achievement when I’d hang out with German people and we’d speak only German.  Well, no more, I think.  Or, I hope, anyway.

I saw Margit a while back. We played music with her guitar teacher and afterwards, she took me out for dinner to celebrate my birthday.5  All in German.  Two days later, I met a former student for drinks and dinner.  Previously, we’ve only really ever spoken in English.  This time, the first beer in English.  But after that, we had several more beers and a long conversation about politics and culture, all in German.  The next day, jammed with Bibi and Ralph, all in German. Two days later again, lunch with former/current students, all in German.  The following weekend, dinner, drinks and board games with Joschel and Cindy, all in German.  

Hell, on my birthday, the Bavarians called me – actually called me, on the fucking telephone – to wish me happy birthday.  All in German.6  And a few weeks ago, dinner with Jules at her boyfriend’s restaurant – where he’s the head fucking chef – in German.  And after hours, he and the cook joined us at our table.  More German.

The point is, it’s time to stop thinking of pulling off a night in German as some kind of accomplishment. I’ve been in this country for 2.5 years. If I couldn’t swing that, I’d be doing something wrong.  So this will be the last post where I write, “Oh and we spoke only German the whole night, look how much progress I’m making!”

Which is great, right? That’s 100% a positive.  But also.  But also, it resets the counter to zero.  I’m back to square one.  Here’s what all this means.  It means, if the people around me are now comfortable enough with my German that the idea of switching to English would never occur to them, it also means, the bar has been set to a whole higher level.

It means, getting through a night without English isn’t good enough anymore.  It doesn’t deserve a pat on the back anymore.  It means, I’ve actually got to be goodat this.  Somehow. It means getting things right without being corrected.  It means telling a story without boring the shit outta people because I can’t find the right vocabulary.  It means, I gotta be better.  That’s the next step.  The next goal.

But I think I can do this, you guys.  Not because I’m smart or because I’m somehow gifted with languages.  But because I have awesome friends.  I have friends who are not only willing, but actually happy, to help me.  Friends who are patient, and who don’t get annoyed by my mistakes or by my asking them to repeat shit. 

I’ve leveled-up once. If I can get to the next level, it will be because of my friends.  So to them I say, in advance, thank you.

Meanwhile, all that being said, things have a funny way of happening.  After class one day, one of my students comes up to me and gently, politely says something along the lines of – and I’m gonna paraphrase here – “You should make an effort to hang around the universities.  You’ll meet more ‘educated/academic’ types.  And they’ll speak a ‘better/higher’ kind of German. Not the ‘street’ German you’re picking up here in this school.”  Again, I paraphrase.  And she was bending over backwards to not sound narrow-minded or racist or anything like that.  Her heart was in the right place.  But I kinda pooh-poohed her.  Like, a) not interested, when you put it that way and also b) hey, that’s my friends you’re talking about.  I might have been a little defensive.  

Well, not long thereafter, I found myself sitting next to this girl with a laptop, who was clearly working on some kind of presentation.  So I asked her politely what she was working on.  I forget the details now, but it was some kind of presentation on German Lit that she was going to give at an academic conference at Princeton.  

And bang, just like that, for the first time in all my time here, I was embarrassed by my German. Embarrassed that I didn’t have that ability to code-switch up.  And again, that’s not how I actually want to talk in my everyday life.  Just that I’d like to be able to.  

So after all that business about, Meh, I don’t really want to read, I just want to sound like my friends, blah blah blah…after all that, I find myself talking to an academic and sounding like, well, sounding like a person who doesn’t read.  

I just got done saying that it’s time to level-up again.  And I just got done saying that if I succeed in leveling-up, it’s gonna be because of my friends.  Which is true.  But also, maybe it’s time to pick up a fucking book already.

But like also, when exactly? Because I still have the weekly Torah readings.  I still try to read some Homer every night before bed.  And Herodotus on Mondays with Phil.  And Yiddish.  And Old English.  And French. And Spanish, apparently.  When, pray tell, am I supposed to find time to slog through a bit of German?  

Well.  Clearly I have a lot on my plate.  But things are mostly good, outside of the never ending apartment hunt #fml.  And it’s finally starting to summer around here.  Which means I can finally start wearing linen and only linen all the damn time. Oh, linen, how I do love thee.

And that, I suppose, is as good a place to stop as any…

זײַ געזונט

  1. According to the back of the book, Enard won the 2015 Goncourt prize (no idea what that’s awarded for, btw) for a different novel.  The back of the book also mentions that his works are translated throughout the world. This last point will become relevant later. []
  2. I heart Athos and omg, you guys, Richelieu. []
  3. Not for nothing, I’ve named my cast iron Dutch oven “Dicke Bertha.”  And I’ve decided that when I buy a cast iron skillet, it will be named “Schwerer Gustav.” Also, whenever I get around to buying my own set of quality knives, I will name them after First Age Elvish blades. But that’s another story… []
  4. Although that may have something to do with the fact that in Duams/Verne’s time, ladies were all girdled up to the point of near suffocation… []
  5. She’s a doll. []
  6. Except Anna, who wants to speak English and doesn’t have much opportunity to do so down there.  So for her, I’m always happy to speak English. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
9 March, 2019

Hola!  Que paso?  Yeah, so apparently I’m learning Spanish now?  I don’t know why I said that like it’s a question.  It’s not.  Apparently I’m actually learning Spanish now.  Mostly for the same reason people climb Everest.  It’s there.

So remember a while back I mentioned that in our school we have a woman from Columbia who teaches German? And I said that she would often chat me up in the kitchen in Spanish.  Usually I could understand her, but I was also pretty incapable of answering back.  Well, anyway, we’ve been working together for over two years already, so we’ve gotten to be pretty friendly.

And somehow or another, the idea of doing Spanish lessons came up.  Which is weird, in a way.  Cos it’s not something I ever thought about pursuing.  I mean, I’ve never been particularly attracted to Spanish as a language; certainly not the way I’m attracted to Italian or French, for example.  And also, I’m busy.  Not just life busy, but language busy.  In theory, I should have my hands full with German and French and Hebrew and Greek and Yiddish.  So going after Español wasn’t exactly something that was on my mind.

But at the same time, when you’re offered free lessons by someone you know, by a teacher you like, well, how you gonna say no to that?  And they are free, btw.  She – Claudia is her name – just likes doing this.  Although in a way that was vaguely reminiscent of The Godfather, she did say something along the lines of, “I don’t want your money.  But one day, I may ask you for a favor.”  Probably on the day of her daughter’s wedding, amirite?

Anyway, it’s fun.  And she’s really encouraging.  We always start with her asking me about my week, and I just have to do my best to answer in Spanish.  And at first, I was super shy.  Like, I forgot 99% of what I learned in HS and the little bit the remained was bound to be a mess.  Funny thing though, she told me what I always tell my own students.

“Just fucking talk. Who cares if you make mistakes? That’s how your gonna learn and that’s how I’m gonna see what you know and what you don’t.”  Oh, yeah, good advice, fam.1  Since then, I just roll with what I got, no fucks given.  And every week, it’s a tiny bit better than before.

She also gives me HW, which of course I need.  But rather than do it at home, I do it in the mornings before class starts.  It’s actually a nice way to start the day.  I get to work super early anyway.  So I grab a couple of clementines and a cup of tea and sit down and do 15-20 minutes of Spanish every day.  And it’s just a very relaxing way to ease into the day.

The whole thing makes for a rather fascinating look at how my brain works too.  See, cos I had Spanish in HS.  And while I never really learned it as a “language,” in the way that I understand that to mean now, I did learn a lot of vocabulary.  What I mean is, in school, I never understood the grammar. And I never really managed to be able to usethe language, you know, for communication.  But somewhere deep in my brain, there’s this decent repository of words, and on a very basic level, some gut-feeling of how shit is supposed to sound.  Which helps with conjugating verbs, believe it or not.  

But the other thing I find interesting is the role that French plays in all this.  Because they’re obviously both romance languages, right? So when I need a word, and I can’t remember anything, I often go to a French word and try to reverse-engineer it into Spanish.  It doesn’t always work, but often as not it gets me close enough that Claudia at least understands what I’m after.  

It’s also hard to break out of some French patterns for the most basic words like “and” and “but.”  Like, I find myself saying maisinstead of peroand etinstead of y.  Which is hilarious.  Because I feel like an old world grandmother.  Or better yet, my own old world great grandmother.  In those tapes of Bubbi, she’s always saying shit like “UndI remember mein schwester…”  Like, yeah, I guess that’s English…ish?  So sometimes I say shit like “mon amigo,” bc I get my wires crossed.  But it’s all good.  That shit will straighten itself out eventually.  If I do this long enough, anyway.

One nice thing Claudia said to me, she said she likes working with me bc it’s easy.  “You’re a teacher.  You studied Latin.  You get it. I explain things once, and you have it.” Which is not to say that “having it” is the same as “mastering it.”  I still make plenty of repeat mistakes.  Just that conceptually, I understand things with little difficulty.  But she said that, and I was just kinda like, “Oh, thank gods.”  

Bc one thing I’ve found in this job, teachers make the absolute worst students.  I get students sometimes who have taught languages; who have even taught lower level English.  And they’re insufferable.  They can be very know-it-all-y.  And they have their own opinions about howto teach, about pedagogy.  And just like, shut up, you know?  You want me coming into your class and telling you how shit works?  

I’m the same way, not for nothing.  Or I was, when I did my CELTA.  I was always showing off my Greek and Latin and grammar and whatnot.  I must have been insufferable.  But now that I’m on the other side of it, I can see how wretched that all is.  

So I’m conscious of that when I work with Claudia.  She’s the teacher, I trust her.  I’m just along for the ride.  I try to check my own shit at the door now and let her run her show.  So far, it seems to be working.

Anyway, I said earlier that I’ve never really felt any great attraction to Spanish.  And that’s true enough.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum.  Or the biblioteca, as it were.  Reconnecting with Spanish has brought back a flood of happy memories.  The oldest being just doing vocab flash cards with my mom, back in the day.  I mean, that’s definitely something I took for granted at the time.  Hell, I probably even found it rather annoying, since I didn’t enjoy Spanish in school.  But come on, how many kids have a mom who will just sit and quiz them on vocab flash cards?  Pretty cool. Gracias, mamita.

But it’s also bringing back a ton of memories from my time at Starbucks.  Which surprised me, tbh.  Bc look, I did that job for a year.  And that year was 2004-05, so that’s a long time ago already.  But we were a really tight group down at the William St shop. We would often hang out after work, pouring vodka into our passion fruit ice teas.  They’d come over to my apartment and we’d drink on the roof.  Or I’d go up to the Boogey-down and we’d kick in the BX.2

And when I said we were a tight group, I mean it.  It’s kinda the only job I can think of where I can remember all the names and all the faces. And that’s 15 years ago.  Compare that to the school I worked at before coming to Germany, and already most of the names are gone, the faces are fuzzy. But from Starbucks?  Man, we had fun.

It was always super slow on Saturdays.  So that was always a good time for whoever I was working with to teach me some Spanish. And they were great about it, you know? Like, they’d encourage me to try and talk to a Spanish speaking customer in Spanish.  Which I definitely did not have the balls to do.

I remember I’d learn one bit of slang from a Puerto Rican one day.  And then I’d try it the next day with a Dominican, and they’d just laugh at me.  Like, “Where you learned that mierda?” And vice versa.  I remember the way this one girl, would always roll her ‘r’ when saying the number three. That was adorable.  Or the way one of the girls would teach me Spanglish.  “Dave, you ready for lonche?”3

And like I said, none of this was because I had some overriding love of Spanish.  Just, these were my co-workers, who became my friends for a time.  And they were happy to share their language and their culture with me.  And I just loved that.

Because it was the culture as much as the language.  There was this one girl, man she was super cute.  And one day she tells me, “Dave, I gotta put on some weight, yo.”  And I’m like, “Are you kidding?  You look amazing.”  And she was just like, “Nah, you don’t understand.  Spanish girls gotta be bigger.”  I mean, it was a longer conversation.  But the point was, she opened me up to a whole nother cultural conception of what ‘beautiful’ is.  That was new for me, and I’ll never forget that.  Or how one of the girls introduced me to pernil, which is a roasted pork shoulder.  Eye-opening shit for a 23-year old. 

Later, I had a temp gig at an investment bank.  So obviously everybody that worked there was rich and white.  Except for my direct boss (who I guess was like an operations manager?) who was black and the receptionist, who was from Ecuador.  They were both great.

I was pretty close with the receptionist for the time that I worked there.  And she also was always happy to teach me little bits of Spanish.  I’ll never forget, at the end of my first day, when I was leaving, I said goodbye to her in Spanish.  We didn’t really know each other yet.  So I’m all “Te veo mañana.”4  And she’s like, “Wait, are you Spanish?”  To which I said, “Umm, do I lookSpanish?”  You know, cos I’m so white, I get sunburnt in the shade.

But she was just like, “Dude, come on, that doesn’t mean anything.”  Which was news to a 24-year old who went to all levels of school with almost exclusively white people.  Anyway, she was great.  And she’s another one, I remember the name and the face, even though we never spoke after I left that gig.  But while I was there, she was only to happy to share her language and her culture with me.

And the funny thing is, both of those jobs kinda sucked.  The jobs themselves, I mean.  Being a barista.  Being a temp. These were not nice jobs.  But the people.  They were fucking great, man.  And 15 years on, those are such happy memories for me.

So it’s interesting to compare those experiences with my current job.  Y’all know I love this job.  I look forward to going into work.  It’s great.  And you bet I like my colleagues.  But I’m not tight with them the way I was tight with that lot.  And I don’t imagine I’ll remember the people I work with now as fondly as I do the Starbucks gang or the investment bank receptionist, in another 15 years.

But I guess it’s one of those Breakfast Club kinda things.  You all get thrown together in a less than ideal situation.  People who might never be friends in the real world. But you bond in that environment. And you’re tight for as long as it lasts.  And then your paths diverge again.  But what’s the song from that movie?  “Don’t you…forget about me…”  Well, I haven’t so far.  And I don’t think I ever will.

The point is, I miss those mutherfuckers.  And learning Spanish brings that all back.

So much for Español. I’ve also decided it’s time I finally learn English.  What’s that you say?  You’re a native speaking English teacher?  Surely you know English already?  Oh, sorry. I meant, oldEnglish.  As in, Anglo-Saxon.  I’m talking Beowulf English.  The OG. 

Justin sent me this great meme.  It goes something like this: “Q: How come we say bakedbut also naked? Shouldn’t those sound the same? A: That’s because English isn’t actually a language.  It’s actually three languages dressed in a trench coat pretending to be one.”  

Which is more or less true. I have two analogies that I use with my students.  The first is that English is a French house built on a German foundation.  The other is that English is the unruly teenage child of French and German that does whatever the fuck it wants.  Which is true enough.  

But although we say “German,” what we really mean is “Germanic.”  To put it another way, Old English (Anglo-Saxon) was a dialect of German spoken in the NW of what today is Germany.  It has much in common with the local dialects of that region still.  But that is not the dialect of German that won out when Germany became a unified country in the 19thcentury and a single standard German was agreed upon.  So in that sense, Old English is not German.  A modern day German can’t pick up Beowulf and understand it.  But the similarities are there if you know what you’re looking for.

Aaaanyway.  I’ve said before that one of my strengths as a teacher is my knowledge of the languages that influence English.  I can give Greek and Latin roots.  I can trace the origins of words through French or show their cognates in Modern German.  Hell, I can even show how some Slavic words have the same roots as English words.

And so it is perhaps ironic that my biggest blind spot in English is, well, English itself.  I have no working knowledge of pre-10665English.  And tbh, I’m kind of ashamed of that.  So finally, I’ve decided to tackle Old English. 

Well, I say “finally,” but really, this is my third attempt.  I tried once in New York and got nowhere.  I tried again like 18 months ago and also got nowhere.  But now I’m going at it again, this time more slowly, more methodically.  I’ve just started.  But this is for real this time.  I can feel it, you guys.  

I’m not setting any goals, in terms of time.  It’ll take however long it takes.  I’m just gonna work through it.  But can I tell you something?  I kinda love it.  Like, a lot. First of all, it just soundsbadass.  But more than that, it’s like lighting a candle in a dark room.  You can’t see everything, not even close. But all of a sudden, you’re seeing shit you never knew was there.

Also, though, there’s something deeper at work.  I’m talking birthright/heritage shit right now.  Who am I?  Where do I come from?  Linguistically, I mean.  On the one hand, there’s Yiddish.  All of my family on both sides is out of Eastern Europe.  So literally every branch of my family was speaking Yiddish 150 years ago.  

But my mother tongue is English.  And it doesn’t matter that I’m not a WASP.  I was born into English just as I was born into Yiddish, albeit in very different ways.  My connection to those languages may be radically different.  But there is one common outcome.  A desire to know whyI say the things I say.  A desire to know whereit all comes from.  And so it makes sense to me that I’m trying to learn Yiddish at the same time as I’m trying to learn Old English.  They both teach me something about who I am.  

In other news, the music stuff keeps on keeping on.  I get together with Bibi and Ralf once a week, and that’s coming along nicely.  I’m also working on this Scarlatti sonata, which is pretty cool.  Still a ways to go with that one, but it’s a pretty sick sounding piece.  

One thing I was thinking about the other day, this may be the farthest I’ve ever come with classical guitar.  I mean, yeah, I took lessons in college.  Whereas now I’m just working on my own.  And my repertoire may be smaller now than it was when I was taking lessons.  But if it’s smaller, it’s also more advanced.  Not that anybody’s ever gonna mistake me for a professional musician, but I’m handling pieces now that I was never able to handle before.  

So my technique is perhaps the best it’s ever been.  And that’s translating somehow to the music I’m doing with Bibi and Ralf.  I feel like my coordination is better, my picking is tighter. On the other hand, the music that we play tends to be on the slow side, so maybe it’s all just an illusion.  An illusion.  An illusion.  Aww Yeaahhh.6

What I mean is, obviously when I was playing metal, the music was much much faster and therefore more technically demanding.  So while I feel like I’m more technically proficient now, maybe I’m the same as I ever was and it just feels that way bc we’re doing slower stuff.  

I guess it doesn’t matter in the end.  The point is, I’m enjoying it and I think I’m doing some good stuff with those two.  

Reading-wise, my boy Dumas seems to have taken a sharp and sudden turn for the boring.  One minute it’s D’Artagnan and the boys kicking ass. The next, it’s some creepy unrequited love triangle between Louis XIV, some other joker and some married dame, who, best I can tell, is hot, coquettish and totally useless.  So I had to put that shit down for a little minute. 

In it’s place, I’ve just re-read 1984 which…just…sigh.  I mean, that’s a whole nother conversation.  And I’m reading some Lovecraft short stories.  He’s pretty great, if you like dark and creepy.  Umm, let me clarify.  His writing is great if you like dark and creepy.  As a human being, he was apparently, well, dark and creepy. And not in that good way.  Seems he was quite the raging racist, is what I’m saying.  But whatever, he’s dead.  So Imma just enjoy his stories.  

When I finish with those, it’s back to my boy JV – Jules Verne – who never lets me down.  I’ve just picked up a new paperback, Les Cinq Cents Millions de la Bégum.  Apparently, it’s supposed to be somewhat dark and dystopic.  So I’m fairly amped to get going with that.

And that’s when I realized. On any given day, I might be interacting with no less than eight languages.  French on the train.  A bit of Spanish and Yiddish before class.  English in class and German in the real world.  Hebrew when I get home.  A bit of Old English in the evening and some Homer before bed.  

You know, sometimes I get the question, “Jeez, Dave, how many languages do you speak?”  To which I invariably respond, “I speak English.” Because my French and German, while functional, are hot messes.  My Spanish and Yiddish are hardly usable.  And the other ones are dead languages.  And I like dead languages.  You don’t have to deal with people.

So I speak English. But yeah, on some level, I’m doing something with up to eight languages.  Meanwhile, I spoke to Charlotte yesterday.  She’s in South America now, remember.  So we had a long conversation about Spanish.  It was great.  We totally nerded out over Spanish grammar.  I mean, there’s a reason we’re friends, right?

Anyway, she’s like, “So. Still no Italian, huh?”  And I’m just like, “Fucking sigh, no.”  Like, all I ever wanted to do is learn Italian. And all I do is keep learning shit that’s not Italian.  And she’s like, “Welp, you’ll just have to move to Italy.”

And you know what? Maybe.  I mean, putting aside the part of me that’s all “Go be of service to your country and become a civil rights/immigration lawyer already,” why not go live in Italy?  It’s a tempting thought at this time of year, as winters in Berlin are objectively shite. And how long do I really want to live in a country where I find the culture too rigid, where the architecture is dull and where the food is, shall we say, less than inspiring?  

And maybe if my job was different, I’d be more apt to leave.  But I love my job.  I love the freedom I have to make it my own.  I love that it’s steady and I don’t live the normal freelance teacher life of constantly trying to find the next gig.  And I have friends here that I love, that I’m very close with.  I mean, what are the odds I could build friendships on the level of Joschka or Anne or Zibs and Jan somewhere else?  

But on the other hand, how long do I really want to be here?  And if I go home, for the purpose of pursuing a law career, then that’s kinda it, isn’t it?  That would be the end of this whole living abroad adventure.  

So on some level, I have a feeling like I owe it to myself.  Whether it’s in one year or three or ten, shouldn’t I at least make a go of living in Itlay for a year or two?  I mean, every time I go there, the second I get off the plane, I’m hit with this feeling of “Why don’t I live here?!” 

I dunno.  That’s not a plan, by any means.  I’m not even sure it’s a goal.  But it’s something that’s on my mind.  And in the winter, it’s on my mind all the more.  

Also France.  It’s a source of great frustration to me that I can read French as well as I do, but that the spoken language is a struggle. And it’s only a struggle bc I’m not immersed in it.  With French, I always feel like it’s just beyond my fingertips.  Like, if I could just be surrounded by French for six months, I could manage that language really quite well.  Better than I manage German even.  I’d love to be able to do that.

So there’s this conflict. On the one hand, there’s this feeling that I should be doing something more important with my life.  On the other hand, I have this strong desire to live in Italy, to learn the language that, before any other, lit my love affair with languages.  Also to eat good bread.  On the third hand, to live in France and get properly good at that language.  And also to eat good bread.  But on a fourth hand, I have a great job here.  And relationships that are super important to me. There’s so many hands, Imma need an octopus to figure this shit out.

But all that’s for another day.  For now, Imma just keep on keeping on.  I’ve got enough to keep me busy.  More than busy.  Engaged. Mentally, socially, emotionally, musically.  I guess what I’m saying is, good bread can wait.  Just maybe not forever…

זײַ געסונט


  1. Did I use “fam” correctly?  Also, are we still saying “fan”? []
  2. Living in Germany has not been good for my command of urban slang.  Also, getting old doesn’t help either. []
  3. Lunch, obvi. []
  4. Like a boss jefe. []
  5. The year of the Norman invasion, which forever changed the English language.  The conquering (French) Normans basically dropped their own language on top of the existing language.  It took about 300 years, but eventually they merged into what we would recognize as “English.”  Compare Chaucer (AD 1300-ish) and Beowulf (AD 800-ish) and you’ll see what I mean. []
  6. Fury throwback! []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
18 February, 2019

So one of the hardest things about living in a foreign country is that you don’t share the same cultural touchstones.  And for me, one of those touchstones is baseball.  I live in a world where the name Mickey Mantle mean nothing, where people have never heard of Joe DiMaggio but they sure know his wife.  A country where “Who’s on First?” isn’t funny, because nobody knows what a baseball diamond looks like.  It’s tough, I’m tellin’ ya.  

Anyway, the other day in class, we were doing some or other exercise and a student reads the sentence, “Jackie said blah blah blah.”  So I ask, “Is Jackie a boy’s name or a girl’s name?”1  And one student says, “Maybe a girl’s name?  I mean, Jackie Kennedy, right?”  Yes, that’s right, I said.  But also, Jackie Robinson.  And all I got was blank stares.  So I’m like, “Wait, does nobody here know who Jackie Robinson is?”  Now it’s blank stares mixed with slight embarrassment. Like, you can see them thinking, “Hang on, are we all idiots?  He’s asking like it’s obvious.  But I’ve never heard of this Jackie Robinson…fellow?”

“You guys, he’s was the first black baseball player in the Major Leagues.”  At which point, any embarrassment immediately evaporated.  Because they were all like, “Dude, you’re in Germany. You don’t honestly expect us to know the name of a baseball player.”  And yet, when asked, they’d heard of Babe Ruth.  So, you know, there’s that.

Anyway, I sorta sighed. And that’s when I said, “I can’t believe I moved to a country where nobody’s heard of Jackie Robinson.  Like, a little piece of me just died inside. What have I done to myself?”  I think they thought that was perhaps a slight overreaction.  Because they then said something like, “OK, but be real.  What did you expect?  And anyway, what’s the big deal?  He’s just a baseball player.”

Just a baseball player. But he’s so much more than just a baseball player, I tried to explain.  “Look, y’all’ve heard of Martin Luther King, right?”  Of course they had.  “Well Jackie Robinson was just as important.  He’s a major figure in the fight for civil rights.”

Oh, and also the baseball. Jackie stealing home is the stuff of legends.  And the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Boys of Summer.  But you can’t teach them the glory of Jackie and Pee Wee and Hodges, Campy and the Duke of Flatbush when they don’t even know the difference between a touchdown and a homerun.  Which is not an exaggeration, btw.  One of my guys actually thought a touchdown was how you score in baseball.  Like I said, a little piece of me died inside.

Anyway, I decided I had two choices.  I could either go home and cry about it (which I may or may not have done), or I could get off my ass and do something about it.  #WWJD?  What would Jackie do?  So I decided to do something about it.  I went online and started looking for an article about the man and his life, with minimal emphasis on the game of baseball itself.

Because this couldn’t be a lesson about batting average and RBI.  It had to be a lesson about the fight for equality and civil rights, and Robinson’s role in all that.  After a bit of digging around, I found a piece that fit the bill.

Last week, I brought it to class and we read it together.  As a purely English exercise, it was worthwhile, just for the reading practice and new vocabulary.  But more importantly, they learned not only about Jackie Robinson, but some of the history of race relations in general in America.  Like, I had to teach them about segregation and shit.

Anyway, at the end, I thanked them for indulging me in this.  But also, I said something along the lines of, “And also, the world is a better place now because a few more people know about Jackie Robinson.”  Hard to tell how serious they were, but more than a few of them thanked me.  Said they genuinely appreciated learning about him and the history and found the whole thing generally interesting.  

Also, two of my girls each have a pair of young sons.  So I volunteered to teach them how to throw a baseball.  They kinda lit up at that.  They’ll probably be out of the class by the time it’s warm enough to have a catch, so we’ll see if it actually happens.  But it’s nice to know people are interested.

In the article, there was a Roger Kahn quote, from “The Boys of Summer.”  At which point, I had to mention that “Boys of Summer” is one of the best books ever and one of my personal favorites.  One girl circled the quote.  Maybe she’ll read it one day.

This girl is great by the way.  She’s Turkish and an observant Muslim; wears a headscarf, keeps halal, that sort of thing. She studied theology when she was younger, studies architecture now.  Great sense of humor and very smart.  But what I love is, she’s this observant Muslim…and she curses like a sailor.  She gives me shit, too.  So she’s fun to have in class.

She sits next to Mr. A-Touchdown-is-Baseball-Right?, who is an otherwise smart young lad, also with a good sense of humor, who also gives me shit all day long, now that I think about it.  They have a very cute brother-sister thing going on.  It’s kind of adorable.  I’ll come back to them later.

Anyway, we’re sitting in the kitchen for lunch.  And as I’m about to start eating my salad,2each person at the table has to say “Guten Appetit.”  Which means I have to put my fork down seven times and say thank you seven times before I can finally start eating.  You know, bc Germans have a near-pathological need to say “Guten Appetit” to anybody within a 5-meter radius.

So I’m like, “What’s the deal with this Guten Appetitthing?  Why can’t I just eat?”  And Mr. Touchdown is like, “Well, what do you people say?”  And I’m like, “Watchoo mean, you people?”  And he’s like, “Well, in America, don’t you all say ‘grace’ or something like that?” And I’m like, “Uh, I don’t know what the goyim do.”  And he’s like, “The who?”  And I’m like, “The goyim.  The gentiles.”  Blank stare. Me: “The…non-Jews?”  Him: “Wait, your Jewish?”  

Seriously?  Dude, I say “Oy vey” like twelve times a day, and my pedagogical style can best be described as “shtick-based.”  What did you think?  

Anyway, that was kinda funny.  And the conversation moved on from there.  But I’ll use that as a segue to something else I wanted to talk about. Namely, the question of anti-Semitism in this country.

Uncle Art, when he was still among the living, would always ask me if I’d ever experienced any anti-Semitism in Germany.  And I always told him that I hadn’t.  Which is true.  Not once have I personally experienced it here.  What’s more, I’ve always been open about being at my job and with my friends here. And reactions have always ranged from not giving a fuck to genuine curiosity and desire to learn more about Judaism, being Jewish, etc.  Such that I can honestly say, not only have I not experienced any anti-Semitism here, but that indeed my experiences with regard to Judaism have been positive on the whole.

I said that I’ve been open about it at my job.  That’s been true at both language schools for which I’ve worked here.  But at one, my boss was gay and at the other, my boss is Jewish.  

In the case of the other school (I no longer work there), where my boss was gay.  At my interview, he made clear to me that our classes were to be safe spaces and that intolerance would not be, well, tolerated. And he told about negative experiences he’d had as a gay teacher, and that he was determined that such things would not occur on his watch.  At that point, I told him I was relieved to hear that.  Because I was Jewish, and I didn’t want to feel like I should have to hide that.

At my current job, my boss is also Jewish.  And he screens all the students himself.  He doesn’t let just anybody in.  The result is that we naturally have an open-minded student body.  So again, it’s a safe space, in that way.

And as for my friends, well, that’s obviously a self-selecting group.  I mean, I’m not likely to consort with racist, prejudiced or generally closed-minded people.  So it’s no surprise that I don’t experience anti-Semitism in my social circles.

It’s only when you dig a little deeper that some disturbing patterns start to emerge.  I’ve heard more than once that it would be unwise to walk around wearing a yarmulke.  Maybe not everywhere, but certainly as a general rule.  I’ve heard that in certain neighborhoods, people have been attacked just for speaking Hebrew on the street.  Every synagogue, every Jewish bookstore, the Jewish Museum and the Holocaust Memorial, they all have permanent, armed police guards stationed out front.

Margit’s sister-in-law did Judaic Studies when she was younger.  I once asked her if she would be interested in reading some Torah together.3  She said she would, but that we’d best do it at her apartment.  It’s not something we should be seen doing in public, she said.  

I have one student now, apparently both her grandmothers were Jewish.  And she’s keen to learn Hebrew.  Anyway, she pulled me aside one day and was almost whispering when she asked me if it was true that I can read Hebrew.  The implication being that it would be unwise for such a conversation to be overheard.  I offered to let her borrow my textbook, which she was very happy to do.  But when she brought it back, it was wrapped in a black bag and she made sure to give it to me privately.  A precaution which was certainly unnecessary in our school, but which speaks to the bigger picture, to be sure.

And so, no, to this day, I have not personally experienced any anti-Semitism here in Germany.  But neither is the picture so rosy as it might have seemed upon my arrival.  And it may be that a major reason I haven’t experienced anything is because you can’t know I’m Jewish by looking at me.

Compare that with the experience of my Muslim student.  On the one hand, there are many more Muslims than Jews in Berlin.  So in a very real way, she has a community here that I do not. But at the same time, Muslims are still a minority here; even if they are a large one.

And so she was telling us about a job interview, where only a few questions put to her were actually about her experience or qualifications.  Most of the questions were about her dress and her religion.  And you could see, as she was telling the story, she was becoming angry.  I was getting angry right along with her.  I mean, that’s fucked up.  And if I showed up to a job interview wearing a kippah, should I really expect that I wouldn’t be subject to the same bullshit?

One thing I’m realizing, is that, as a New Yorker, there’s something I’ve taken for granted my whole life. And that’s the idea that “everybody is from somewhere.”  What I mean is, on some level, every New Yorker is a hyphenated-New Yorker.  There’s nobody who doesn’t define themselves somehow by their family heritage, and with pride.

Irish-New Yorkers. Italian-, Puerto Rican-, Dominican-, Korean-, Chinese-, Nigerian-, whatever-New Yorkers.  And we’re all proud of our heritages.  The food, the languages, the world-views, etc.  But you just take it for granted that any ‘real’ New Yorker is from somewhere.  Otherwise they’re from the Midwest of some such bullshit.  #NoDisrespect.

And then you get to Europe. In this case Germany.  And you ask people where they’re from.  And they say ‘Germany.’  And you say, yeah, fine, but I mean, where’s your family from?  And they’re like, ‘Germany.’  And you’re just like, shit, right.  People are just fromhere.  You don’t live in a place where every last motherfucker has an immigrant story.  You don’t live in a place where everybody’s grandmother cooks food from ‘the old country.’  I mean, my whole family came through Ellis Island.  Came in on a boat, with the Statue of Fucking Liberty in the background.  For people here, that’s some Hollywood shit right there.  In New York, that just is. OK, maybe you came later.  Maybe you came through JFK instead of Ellis Island. But it’s all the same, at the end of the day.

And I think about my circle of friends back home.  Jared and Adam and Rob, the Yids.  But Keith is German.  His grandmother wasGerman, and his mother understands the language.4  Michael fucking Murphy, whose mother speaks Gaelic and speaks English with an Irish accent.  Vinny, my paisan, whose parents are off the boat and make their own beautiful tomato sauce.5

I fully recognize that the experience of African Americans is its own thing.  But an African-American-New Yorker is as much a New Yorker as anybody else.  And whether they see themselves as part of the Great Migration from the South, or from a distant African homeland, they too come from somewhere.  

The point is, part of being a New Yorker, is inherently knowing that you and both assholes sitting next to you on the subway come from somewhere else, that we all have our own histories and cultures of which we are rightly proud.  But we all ride the subway together, and together we make our city great.  Even if you think the person on your left is an asshole, and the person on your right is also an asshole.  And they both think you’re an asshole.  In the end, it doesn’t matter.  Because all three of us know, the hayseed across from us with the upside-down subway map is the real clown.

Compare that with Berlin, where people have this weird parochial, territorial, jaundiced view of what it means to be a ‘real’ Berliner.  For them, it means you’ve lived here all your life.  And your parents before you and their parents before them.  “But I’ve lived in Berlin for five years,” you protest.  Meh.  They’re not impressed.

More than once, I’ve asked people “How long does one have to live here before they get to call themselves a Berliner?”  And I’ve gotten answers ranging from, “Minimum, ten years,” to “You can’t.  You have to be born here.”  The fuck kind of attitude is that?

You know how long you have to live in NY before you get to call yourself a ‘real’ New Yorker? However long it takes you to stop looking up.  However long it takes you to realize the jerk in front of you is walking too slow.  If you can do that, well, welcome to the club. You’re in, asshole.

French Charlotte lived in New York for two years, maybe three.  And homegirl had to ride the J train into work from fucking Bushwick. You could smell Popeye’s from the front door of her apartment.  She bought Coronas at the bodega.  For as long as that was true, she was a New Yorker.

My point is, that’s something I’ve always taken for granted, this idea that everyone is from somewhere.6  Something I never actively thought about until I got here.  And it’s just not that way here.  Either you’re from here, or you from somewhere else.  And the people who are from here, well, I often get the feeling that they think they have something over the people who aren’t.  It’s not my favorite thing about this town.

I remember once I was out having a drink with Anne.  And there were these two dames sitting at the very next table, quite close to us. Anyway, at one point, Anne gets up to go to the bathroom.  And I’m listening to these two girls.  Because they’re talking accented English, and that’s kinda my job.  So I’m curious where they’re from.  And you know, I’m debating with myself if I should interrupt them and ask.  Cos I don’t want to be creepy, you know?  But on the other hand, I’m clearly here with a female.  So in theory, I should be pretty non-threatening.  Fine, so I ask.

“Excuse me, sorry, but can I ask where you guys are from?”  And one girl says some country, I forget which.  But the other got all up on her high horse and shit, and was all, “I’m from Berlin.  I guess you don’t meet many of those.”  Like, she was pretty arrogant about it.  Because, Berlin, like New York, attracts a lot of young people.  So if we’re only talking about young people, there’s a good chance they’re either from somewhere else in Germany or another country altogether. And that’s only more true in the hip parts of town, which was the case here.

Anyway, so she’s all Miss Thang with her “I’m from Berlin, can you imagine?!”  And I’m just like, “Bitch, I’m from Brooklyn, you think I give a shit?”  Which I definitely did not say.  I just rolled my eyes and waited for Anne to come back. But I mean, the nerve!  

Because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to Duffs – or wherever – and some young transplant asks me where I’m from.  And you know, I gotta say it, I’m from Brooklyn.  Fine.  And often as not, people – transplants and tourists, I mean – get a little wide-eyed, you know?  Like, Wow, a realNew Yorker!  A real person-from-Brooklyn.7  Cos like I said, if we’re only talking about young people, NY is full of transplants and tourists.

But those reactions always make me feel a little embarrassed.  Like – and this is what I’ve been saying – fucking, everybody is form somewhere.  I happen to be from here.  NBD, you guys.  If anything, I’m more impressed by you. Luck of the draw, that I was born here. You actually got off your ass and gotyourself here.  That’swhat it’s all about. At some point, the fact that I remember Ed Koch, how much should that really count for?

Funny thing though. Being from New York often buys me instant cred here too.  Remember that student with the two Jewish grandmothers, wants to learn Hebrew?  She’s Russian, btw; which I only mention bc we’re on the subject of people being from places.  Anyway, one day in class, I’m writing something on the board with my back to the class.  And somebody calls out a question.  But like this: “David?!”

The fuck?  I spin around.  Who just called me David? I’m only ever “Dave” in school. And Little Miss all sheepishly raises her hand.  At which point, she explains that one of her sons is named David.  And he’s quite adamant that people call him Davidand not Dave.

“Funny story,” I tell her. “I was the same way when I was a kid. I wouldn’t let people call me Daveuntil Middle School.  How old is your son?”  I forget, but I wanna say something in the neighborhood of six-ish. Anyway, this was her response.

“Oh!  Well, I’ll tell him that my English teacher – from New York– let’s people call him Dave.”  Like, I could be an axe-murderer.  But I’m from New York.  That’s all the cred you need.

Same thing with Bibi. You remember Bibi, we’re playing music together.  Anyway, her son (13-ish) is also named David.  Remember now, he’s playing a bit of cajón(percussion) with us.  But he’s a tad reluctant.  Like, at 13-ish, does he really want to be jamming with his old mom?  That kinda thing.  

Anyway, she sent me a recording of a song we’re working on.  And in the recording, it’s her singing and playing guitar, and David is on the cajón.  And you guys, it fucking killed.  He was laying down this march beat.  Shit was on point.  So I told her that, and that I was looking forward to jamming with him.

And her response: “Wait til I tell him, Dave – from New York– thought it was cool!”  As if that right there is enough to make jamming with your mom a rad afterschool activity, right?

But always when I hear this shit, I’m just like, “Yo, chill with that.”  Because like I said, everybody is from somewhere.  So when she introduced me to her guitar teacher, it was, “This is Dave, from New York!”  But what does that mean?  Usually it means I’m grumpy because I can’t get a good bagel in this town. I’d much rather be introduced as, “This is Dave, he’s not totally shite with a guitar.”  

Oy.  So the title of this blog is “An American in Berlin.” Which, I’ll be honest, was a conscious play on Gershwin’s An American in Paris.  But maybe it should be called “A New Yorker in Berlin.”  Certainly that’s been the thrust of the better part of this post.

But at the end of the day, that’s how identify myself.  I may live in Berlin.  But I’m always a “Jewish-New Yorker.”  Sometimes that means always being in a rush, impatient.  Sometimes that means missing ‘good deli.’  Usually it means being some version of neurotic.  And my sense of humor is certainly self deprecating.  It also means consciously – perhaps even precociously – sprinkling Yiddishisms into my German.  Sometimes that means saying “Mishpucha” instead of “Familie.”  Other times it means pronouncing a word like Antwort(“answer”) as entfer(ענטפער). But also, it’s about how I see the world.  That we’re all from somewhere.  But wherever we’re from, we’re herenow.  Together.  And it’s that combination of past and present, of diversity and unity, that gives us a chance to be greater than the sum of our parts.

Now if I could only find a bowl of congee8

זײַ געסונט
9


  1. In the traditional binary gender male/female paradigm, obvi. []
  2. I fucking hate salad, btw.  But I eat it every day for lunch, bc healthy? []
  3. Imagine that, studying Torah with a goy. And dollars to donuts, she’d know more about it than me! []
  4. Hell, even Keith knows how to ask “Was hast du gesagt?” – What did you say? []
  5. Also known as “red gold,” that’s how fucking good it is, I shit you not. []
  6. Hell, even when we lived in Massachusetts, everybody was fucking Portuguese. []
  7. Let’s be honest.  Transplants and tourists don’t know the word “Brooklynite.” []
  8. A kind of Chinese rice-porridge, which I would often buy when I lived in Chinatown; with strips of pork, fresh chives and ginger matchsticks.  I’m tellin’ y’all, nothing better on a cold winter’s day. []
  9. זײַ געסונט: “zei gesunt”means “be healthy” or, more colloquially, “be well,” in Yiddish.  Both of those words, however, are German.  And while they are German words, it is not a German expression.  Recently somebody ‘corrected’ me.  “You mean, Bleib gesund.”  Which would mean something like, “Stayhealthy/well.”  And I was like, “No.  I mean, Sei Gesund“ (to use the German spelling).  At which point I had to explain that, “Actually, it’s a Yiddishism, and something my grandmother used to say.”  In fact, it’s one of the last things I remember Ida – my dad’s mother – saying, when we visited her in the nursing home.  It was towards the end, and she wasn’t really all there.  I don’t ever remember her speaking Yiddish when I was growing up.  But then again, if she had, I wouldn’t have recognized it.  But there, at the end, that was how she chose to end visits with the family.  It wasn’t, “Be well,” or “See you later,” or “Goodbye.”  It was something other, out of the depths of time, from the language of her own mother. זײַ געסונט, she said.  It is from Ida, “Grandma,” that I have these words. And these are the words with which I close every post. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
4 February, 2019

Right, so obviously if I write a post going on about how much progress I’m making with my German, what’s the first thing that’s gonna happen?  Yup, you guessed it.  Reality check.  All the way from Bavaria.  But that’s as may be.  First, the visit.

So last weekend, our friends Anna and Stefan visited Joschka and me in the big city.  I’ve written about them before, but by way of a refresher, we know them from the metal festivals.  Anna is in her early-mid twenties and Stefan is her father.  And they’re both wonderful people.  Stefan and I bond over our love of NWOBHM;1 I think we’re the only people we know who are really into that stuff.

Anyway, they came up for the weekend.  Now, whenever we go down to visit them, they always take proper good care of us.  They take us out to the local pubs, give us waves of high quality schnapps and Stefan always cooks up a top-notch meal. As a result, it was really important to Joschka and me to return the favor.  

That meant a proper feast. Appetizers, main, sides, dessert and good quality drinks.  For the apps, Joschka made a slamming hummus from scratch, part of which was also a homemade tahini base.  He also made a pumpkin soup, again from scratch.  To go with the hummus, I went to Neukölln, where all the best Arabic and Turkish bakeries are, and got some really nice bread.

For the main, oh boy, skirt steak.  Now, I’ve been looking for skirt steak in this country since I got here, and I’d never been able to find it.  Finally, I asked my students last month if they knew anything about this.  And none of them did.  But one at least knew somebody to ask.  So she came back with the 411.  She helped me special order it, which was the only way to get it.  And from the date of ordering, I had to wait a week for it to arrive.  And yet despite all this, it was pretty cheap.  10 Euros/kilo, which I guess is like 5 bucks a pound.  Because they just consider it nothing more than “Suppenfleisch,” soup meat.  I gather that’s why nobody bothers to carry it.  Boy are they missing out.

Now, grilling is not an option here in January.  But Joschel has this new sous-vide machine, which is not anything I’d ever heard of before. But basically, you vacuum seal the meat in a plastic bag and then in immerse it in a water bath which is maintained at a constant temperature.  End result, the meat is cooked perfectly every time.  All that’s left to do, when you take it out of the bath, is to give it a quick sear in the pan to get a little crispy crust on the outside.  Anyway, the steak was a bit of teamwork.  I prepped the meat with a soy sauce marinade and did the pan work at the end.  J took care of the sous-vide process.  

For the sides, I made “my” string beans.  Normally, I sauté them in bacon fat and at the end, give them a squirt of lemon juice and sprinkle them with rock salt.  Super simple, but super good, and a creation I’m not a little proud of. This time we didn’t have bacon fat, so I just sautéed them in the steak drippings, which worked pretty well. Alongside that, I seasoned up some potatoes and roasted ‘em in the oven.  

I took care of dessert as well.  Back to the Neukölln bakeries, I picked out two different kinds of baklava as well as some cookies with chocolate and pistachio and some kind of jelly squares with nuts inside and a pistachio crust.  Joschka curated the wine and schnapps selections.

Well, it was a fucking hit, you guys.  The hummus and pumpkin soup were killer, and the bread was a perfect match for the hummus. The steak came out fucking perfect, and everybody loved it.  None of them had ever had skirt steak before, so they didn’t really know what to expect. But by the end, they were asking all kinds of questions: what’s it called, where did you get it, how do you get, etc.  At the end, there was not one piece of meat, not one string bean, not one potato left, not one spoonful of soup left.  The drinks were on point.  Our guests couldn’t have been happier.

For that matter, neither could me or Joschka.  Seriously, we spent the rest of that night and most of the next day high-fiving and patting ourselves on the back.  The phrase, “Dude, we fucking nailed that” was uttered more than a few times.  So that was a fucking win.

Which is more than I can say for my German.  Now look, it wasn’t a total fucking failure.  A total failure would have been them being, “OK, this is too much effort, so we’re just going to English at you.”  That didn’t happen.  We Germaned the whole time.  And if I didn’t understand something or needed something repeated, explanations and repetitions came in German.  The only exceptions were when Joschka and I were cooking, and when Joschka explained the rules of a board game to me; which, fine, I can live with that.

So in that sense, it was OK. But I very much ran up against my limitations with the language too.  Because look, it’s one thing to chat and converse.  And I mean, I’m even at the point where I’m fast enough to crack one liners and make puns with proper timing.  Which is big for me.  

But where I fall down is story telling.  Because it’s one thing to relate the main points of a story in an accurate way.  It’s another thing to make that story interesting and fun.  I can handle the former.  The latter, not so much.  

Which is tough for me, because I like to think I can spin a pretty decent yarn in English.  In fact, it’s part of my job.  Maybe I always had some skill with this, but it’s definitely something I’ve honed in my 2.5 years of teaching.  

Digression-wise, I’ve found story-telling to be a very effective teaching tool.  It’s something I picked up from one of my CELTA instructors. There are a number of benefits, if you do it right.  First of all, it humanizes you.  It makes you more relatable to the students.  And – again, if you do it right – it’s entertaining.  You get laughs, you build rapport.  You also give the students a welcome reprieve from the drudgery of “work.”  Well, it works for me, anyway.  And, I think, I can read a room.  I can see when a story is working with an audience.  

And I can see when it’s not. Which is what happened with the Bavarians.  Once or twice, I tried to tell some story or other.  And I could just see in their faces, it wasn’t going well.  I could feel the vibe drop; the energy just go out of the room.  

Nobody said anything, of course.  They’re my friends, and, like I said, they’re lovely people.  So they were courteous enough to listen attentively.  But I could tell they were doing it out of kindness and not any sort of edge-of-the-seat what-happens-next-ness.  Sort of like when a comedian bombs.  Only without the heckling.  

So one measure of success with a foreign language is the extent to which you can be “yourself” in that language.  And I don’t totally fail here.  Like I said, I can pun rather well in German.  Hell, I can pun bilingually; puns, in other words, that only work if you know both languages.  I can lob zingers and say inappropriate things in German.  That far, at least, I can be some version of “myself.”  But man, fucking storytelling eludes me.  

Sometimes I feel like my German is a station car, the beat up piece of junk that you only drive to and from the train station.  Like, it definitely gets me from A to B.  But it doesn’t have AC or power windows, the heating doesn’t really work, and there’s a knock in the engine that you can’t get rid of.  Yeah, it gets me where I need to go.  But I’d be embarrassed to pick up a date in this bucket of bolts.

But it does get me where I need to go, and that ain’t nothing.  So I think I mentioned last time how I’ve started jamming with this student of mine.  It seems to be becoming a regular thing.  And Friday we took it to the next level.  She invited me to come and jam with her and her guitar teacher; and also her son, who is learning the cajón.  The cajón is basically a wooden box that you sit on and drum with your fingers; it’s a percussion instrument.  Maybe you knew that, but I didn’t.

Anyway, she invited me to come jam with her teacher and her son.  So we get there, and her teacher couldn’t have been nicer.  Super lovely guy.  And at first, he’s like, “We can speak English.”  But Bibiyana, my student, was like, “Dude, he can German.” And after that, it was all German. Which is great.  Really.  I love that I’m beginning to build relationships here where German is just the language.  Makes me feel more a part of this place, you know?2 

But the point is the music. Now, she told me he had a guitar I could use, so I wouldn’t have to schlep mine, which was nice.  So he hands me this flamenco guitar.  And thank gods for that, bc I hate playing steel-strings. But also, I figured that moment was kind of my best chance to set a good impression, to let this guy know he could take me somewhat seriously as a player.  So I sit down and run through the intro to the Sor variations.  And he was like, “Whoa, you can play classical? Not bad!”   Boom, instant credibility.  Which is important.  Because it’s nice to have something in the bank when I make mess of improvising later.

Anyway, we got tuned up and started running through some tunes.  Mostly stuff me and BIbi had already been working on, but also a couple of new tunes.  And you guys, it sounded good.  Like, we were making this three guitar thing work.  She would do arpeggiated finger-picking, he would strum chords and I would put some melodies and harmonies around what they were doing.  I gotta say, it was a pretty good sound.  And it’s not just me saying that.  Everybody was pretty high on it.  We all left feeling pretty excited to do it again.

Plus, having her son there to work the cajónand put some percussion under it all was a fine touch.  This kid is great, btw.  I think he’s like 13, or thereabouts.  But he’s a super-sweet kid and made for a pretty cool group dynamic.

Me and Bibi were talking about where we’d like to go with this, and the idea is, we’d love to get enough stuff together to take this thing on the road.  By which I mean, play a gig at a pub or something.  We’re not there yet, mind you.  We haven’t even perfected the songs we have.  Nor do we have enough songs yet to fill out a whole set. But that’s the goal, and we’re working towards it.  We’ll see where it all goes.

One thing that’s interesting about all this is, Bibi and her teacher – Ralph, btw – aren’t into the same stuff as me.  They’re pretty into the 60’s and sort of softer folk-rock kinda stuff.  Nice music, but not normally my scene.  But that’s actually kinda cool for me, and here’s why.

Most of the songs we’re doing, I’ve never heard before.  Which means I get to come at them fresh.  I’m not trying to copy the original.  I can’t, bc I have no idea what the original sounds like.  I get to put my own imprint on the songs, find my own music in them, if I can say that.  And that’s a fun challenge for me.  And apparently, they seem to like what I’m doing.  So, you know, good stuff there.

“Apparently,” I said. Now there’s an interesting word. It came up in class this week.  I used it once or twice.  And then a student was like, “So what’s the deal with ‘apparently’?  I hear this word all the time.”3  Whereupon did I explain that it’s kind of a cultural difference between English and German.

Because, see, in German, there’s a higher degree of rigidity.  What I mean is, people are very comfortable making bold, declarative statements, with little or no mitigation.  Whereas in English, we like to mitigate everything.  We don’t like to claim anything as a fact, absent absolute certainty.  And even then….

I mean, without firsthand experience, nothing is certain for us.  Everything is ‘apparently,’ or ‘like,’ or ‘-ish,’ or ‘I guess.’  You get the picture.  But they didn’t.  Not at first. So I gave them an example.

“My brother,” says I, “is married.  He has a wife.  And a dog. And also, apparently, a horse.”  Now why did I say apparently here?  After all, I ‘know’ they have a horse.  I’ve seen pictures.  They talk about it all the time.  But like, I’ve never actually seenthis horse.  And anyway, come on.  Who has a fucking horse, amirite?  So yeah, until I actually see this beast with my own two eyes, it’s apparently.

(A further clarification here.  I’ve just discussed this whole apparentlything with Niki, and she pointed out – quite rightly – that we also use ‘apparently’ for things we know to be true, but somehow feel shouldn’tbe true.  For example: “Apparently, this is what the Germans call pizza.”  Which of course, there’s no ‘apparently’ about it. They absolutely call this flatbread-with-sauce-and-cheese “pizza.”  But they sure as shit shouldn’t, say the two jaded New Yorkers.  So we add ‘apparently’ to the comment, to underline the ridculosity of the premise).

Well, they got the picture. And now, they’re using ‘apparently’ with abandon.  And using it correctly, too.  It’s fucking hilarious.  And also kinda awesome.  

And I gotta say, it’s a really good group right now.  I’ve said that before, I know.  And maybe it’s not the most amazing group of all time.  But it’s a really fucking good group.  They’re smart, they’re funny, they’re curious.  And we give each other shit all day long, which is just fun.

We were all having lunch in the kitchen the other day, one of my guys hits me with some or other zinger. I don’t remember what it was, but it was pretty solid.  But you know, I’m like, “Dude, come on.  I’m on my break.  I didn’t come here for abuse.”  And he was just like, “But you taught us this.  We learn abuse from you.”

And I was just like, “Shit, you’re right.”  Like, I’ve created monsters.  Sarcastic, piss-taking monsters.  And just, I couldn’t be more proud, you know?

So yeah, work is a lot of fun right now.  And sure, it usually is, right?  But it’s not always.  End of last summer, beginning of fall, it was really kind of a drag.  But it’s fun again now.  Like, I really look forward to going in every day.4

But also, after almost 2.5 years, I’m finally starting to get some real feedback.  And it’s almost all really positive.  I have students telling me how much they love my class.  Myclass.  They tell me I’m really good at explaining things.  Which is obvi pretty important.  But they also tell me it’s fun, which is just as important imo.  Because you learn better if you’re having fun, I think.

And my boss, too.  One nice thing about my boss, he also likes a tipple.  So Friday before last, after class, we split of a bottle of sparkling wine.  We chatted about a number of things.  But he also said some really nice things to me. Things like he’s really happy he has me; that he thinks I’m properly good at my job; that the students “love” me – his word.

And yeah, also that other thing I’ve heard two or three times before.  You know the one.  The old, “You’re too smart to be doing this forever.”  So he asked what I wanted to do after this.  Academia? he wondered.  Maybe, I said.  Or law. Which is still very much on my mind.

This question also came up in class a few weeks ago.  I went around the room asking the students what they wanted to do when they finished their courses.  And after they’d all answered, they asked me what I wanted to do “when I grow up,” which is actually how I put the question to them.

So I told them about the whole law thing.  And I explained that I feel like I need to do something good for my country, to help my country in these difficult times.  That although I absolutely love my job, I think it’s kind of selfish of me to be over in Germany, enjoying myself, while my country – and the people in it – need help.  And after a bit of a silence, came a most unexpected response. 

“But you are helping your country,” said one of my girls.  “You’re representing your country.  You’re showing people here that there are actually good people in America.”   Or words to that effect.  At which point, one or two other students enthusiastically seconded the point.

I was pretty touched.  Honestly.  I mean, in no way was I fishing for compliments.  Fuck, I wasn’t even expecting a response of any kind.  And then that.  They weren’t blowing smoke, either.  You could tell, they were quite earnest in saying that.  

And the truth is, that’s an angle I’d never considered.  But I guess there’s some truth to it.  After all, what do these people see about America on a daily basis?  Trump? Mass shootings?  Racism?  Ask a German on the street what they think of America, you’re likely to hear about one or more of those things before you hear anything good.

But how many Americans do they actually know?  Well, they know me.  And whatever else I’m doing, it seems I’m being a good ambassador for the ol’ US of A.  Apparently.

Does that change how I feel about things?  Probably not, in the big picture.  I still think it’s selfish of me to be here, doing what I’m doing. And I don’t think being a good ambassador to a group of 8-12 students at a time does nearly the good that working in civil rights or immigration law could do.  But I guess it ain’t nothing, neither.  

I met Anne and Annett for drinks earlier last week.  Which was great.  But it was more great than usual.  So Annett, right?  She’s really my first friend in this country.  I mean, Joschka, but I met him in the States.  Annett is the first person I met herewho’s really my friend.  We met at a language meet up in 2015 when I was doing my CELTA.

And I love Annett.  She’s a properly wonderful person, by which I mean, she has a properly good heart.  She’s kind.  But she’s also a bit of a lost soul.  And most of the time I’ve known her, well, I hesitate to say it.  But, really, I don’t think she’s been a very happy person.  I think she’s someone who’s sort of looking for purpose a little bit.  As long as I’ve known her, she’s sort of bounced from job to job, never really finding anything that has any meaning for her.

Well, now she’s trying something new.  She’s taking a course to become a German language teacher.  Which I think she’ll be great at, not for nothing. Anyway, we’re there having drinks. And all of a sudden, we’re talking shop. Phonetics and pronunciation mostly. But man, she lit up like I’ve never seen before.  She was just really excited to be talking about this stuff.  

And of course, this is in my wheelhouse now.  This is my “profession”…apparently.  But I love talking about this shit.  So I’m getting excited, just having somebody to talk about it with.  And she’s getting excited.  And man, that was just a fun conversation.

But really, the big thing is, I think – I hope – she’s finally found something that will be fulfilling for her.  Because, yeah, she deserves it.  But more than that, I think she needs it.  So I’m really excited for her.  I mean, I can’t tell you how happy it made me to see her jazzed up for something, anything.  But especially this thing.  Because, fucking yes, I think she’s gonna be great at it.  

Oh, and also, just a great fucking time with those two.  I dunno, I wonder if there’s something special about a tripartite friendship.  If you wanna go back to ancient history, you get the two Roman triumvirates.  Or more recently, high school: CoDog, Jared and myself.  Or post college: me, Joschel and Vinny.  And now here, Anne, Annett and me.  

There’s a kind of perfection in three, when it comes to friends. Like, any given two have their own unique relationships.  But then the complete three also have a really special thing.  You know – and I’m talking out of my ass now, riffing – but I wonder if maybe that’s the reason why Dumas titled his book Les TroisMousquetaires– The ThreeMusketeers.  Even though there’s fucking four of them.  Because maybe, I dunno, but maybe even my boy Alex was thinking, “Hey, yeah, three is the magic number for friends.”  

All to say, I love the shit out of Anne.  She’s my drinking buddy.  She’s sarcastic and caustic and vulgar and sweet and talented and hilarious. And I love the shit out of Annett. She’s kind and earnest, giving and empathetic, and also fucking talented.  Very different people, those two.  And yet, not all that different.  And then we get together, and it just fucking works.  Annett tempers me and Anne and we open her up a bit.  Is what I would say, anyway.  But whatever it is, it fucking works a treat.  Apparently.

Almost time to wrap this bitch up, but before I do, lemme go back to music for a second.  The Barry Sisters, you guys.  The fucking Barry Sisters.  Holy shit are they fucking fantastic.  And yet, you’re asking yourself at this very moment, who the actual fuck are The Barry Sisters?   Well, I’ll tell you.

They’re a duo.  Sisters, obvi.  From the mid-century.  And they sing in Yiddish.  But they sing like big-band and jazz.  And yeah, some traditional stuff too.  But omg so good!   Killer harmonies.  Great tunes. And fucking Yiddish, you guys.  

This will be the weirdest comparison ever, but here goes.  They’re like a wholesome, Yiddish, jazzy B-52’s. I know that sounds ridiculous, but give a listen.  Tell me I’m wrong.  Really. You’ve got two broads singing catchy tunes with sick harmonies in a way that’s so fun, even a grumpy SOB like me has to smile.  And they do it in Yiddish.  I don’t normally do links in this blog, but I’ll make an exception here.  Four songs: Vyoch Tyoch TyochYuh Mein Liebe TochterZug Es Mir Noch AmoolChiribim Chiribom.   Uh, I said four.  But actually, also this tune, which they do with some dude who scats the shit out of it: Halevai.  This last one has more of a klezmer vibe, but it kicks proper fucking ass.

So there’s that.  But let me also say this before closing.  Here we are at the beginning of February, the halfway point of the National Hockey League season.  And my beloved Islanders are sitting in first place in the Metropolitan Division.  After years of futility.  After our once-adored captain, that Benedict Arnold, the snake, he-who-shall-not-be-named, ditched us for Toronto.  Here we are, and the team for whom my heart pumps blue and orange is not just in first place, but is also super fun to watch.  Maybe the wheels fall off.  Maybe they crash and burn.  But also, maybe, just maybe, I’m watching something special here.

But you know what, it almost kinda doesn’t matter.  This team that, in theory, I love through thick and thin, but in reality, I’ve basically just loved through only thin…this team, I say, is now an absolute fucking joy to watch.  And I’m so proud of them.  איך קוועלע.  I’m kvelling.

Hockey is beautiful.  My team is gorgeous.  Music is a joy.  And my friends are fucking fantastic.  דינו.  Dayenu.

זײַ געזונט


  1. NWOBHM – New Wave of British Heavy Metal, a bright-burning quasi-DYI metal scene, ca. 1979-1983.  The big bands to come out of this movement are Iron Maiden and Def Leppard; major bands known to metal fans would be Saxon and Diamond Head. But for the most part, the great majority of NWOBHM bands were one and done. []
  2. Follow up note.  We jammed with her teacher again this past Friday.  And now I’m even starting to pick up some of the German music vocab.  The words for major, minor, strings, etc. Cool. []
  3. I paraphrase.  My students don’t say “What’s the deal with ___ ?” []
  4. Which is not to say I look forward to waking up at 6:38 every day.  #eww []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
7 January, 2019

Well, well, well. Happy fucking new year.  Another year in Germany, another year of speaking German.  And you know what?  It’s getting better.  Like, it’s still a hot mess, but like, I can kinda do it for real now.1

Finally.  Finally I’ve got German friends who are just speaking to me in German now.  And that’s really gratifying, you know?  Cos like, in a way, I feel like I’m finally being taken seriously as a German speaker by actual Germans.  Well, some Germans anyway.

J-Dawg, for instance. Y’all remember J-Dawg – Julia – former student, now friend.  Well, we went to an ice hockey game together towards the end of last year.  And while we were there, I told her I really want to next-level my shit.  So I would appreciate it if we could just speak German, no English.  

Which, tbh, is not a small ask, I don’t think.  After all, she likes English.  She reads in English.  She speaks well.  And as a teacher in general, and her teacher specifically, I’m sure she would like to take advantage of that to practice some English.  But in fact, when I told her I wanted to German, she was all in.

To the point where, when I ask a question about a word or how to express a certain idea, she just explains in German.  No English translations.  Which is just so fucking great, you know.  Because first of all, that’s really the best way to learn.  But also, like I said, it makes me feel like I’m being taken more seriously.

We went to a second game, this time with her boyfriend. And her boyfriend is a professional chef. He’s been to America more than a few times.  He’s certainly capable of speaking good English.  In fact, in the past, we have spoken English.

But this time, it was all German.  We had a whole conversation about muscle cars.  It was great. And I never felt like he was dumbing things down for me.  And same thing, if I had a question about a word or whatever, the answer always came back in German.  I dunno, maybe he was just thinking, Dude, we’re in Germany, why the fuck would I speak English with you?  But whatever the reason, no English.  Fuck yeah, bitches.

And all this is coming at the right time.  Because my job is warping my feelings towards English in certain ways.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love my language.  And my job has given me a new and deeper appreciation for things I’d never even thought about before.  I love the elegant practicality of our verbal system.  I love the freedom with which our language nouns adjectives and verbs nouns. I love how user friendly it is; how somebody who is “bad” at the language can nevertheless make themselves understood and carry on a perfectly interesting conversation.  I love the manifold varieties of the language: American, British, Australian, New York-ese, Southern, what linguist John McWhorter calls “black English,” and by extension Spanish-English and any other type of “non-standard” English.  I love it all.

But.  But but but.  There’s one thing that has become a bit strenuous for me.  And that, friends, is the particular brand of English as manifested by native German speakers.  The word orders, word choices, idiomatic renderings, etc. utilized by the people of this country.  And to be clear, I’m not judging it.  I’m in no way saying it’s less valid, or somehow worse, than other varieties of English. Because of course it’s not.  

What I’m saying is, when I hear it, it feels like “work.”  And not work like, “oh this is difficult.”  Hardly.  No, what I mean is, it makes me feel like I’m “at work.”  Because this is what I hear all day, every day.  At work.  

And I know it’s not rational.  I’m no prescrptivist.  I in no way judge a person based on how they use the language.  People who say “ain’t” or “aks” instead of “ask” aren’t stupid. Likewise, a German who says, “Oh, that’s quite interestingly” isn’t stupid.  They’re just a person who hasn’t yet mastered the difference between adjectives and adverbs.  Nbd.  

But here’s the thing. I want to leave my work at the office, just like anybody else.  And it’s just that it’s hard to do that when you hear your job all around you.  The result being that, when I speak English with Germans now outside of school, I’m often hit with a feeling of, “Come on man, I’m off the clock, why I gotta listen to this shit?”  

Which, I know, is totally unfair to the speaker.  And obviously I don’t ever say that to a person.  That’s my mishigas.  All’s I’m saying is, increasingly, I find myself feeling an almost desperate desire to speak German outside of school.  Partly just to improve my German, yes.  But mostly just so I can, please gods, turn off my English-teacher brain for a few hours.  

That’s how I was feeling last month when I had plans to meet two former students for coffee.  And yes, actually coffee.  See, these two ladies are teetotalers.  Which, to each his own, right?  But I found myself nearly praying that this little get-together would be conducted in German.  To the point where I was actually mentally rehearsing asking them if we could just speak German and here’s why.

Well, turns out I needn’t have worried.  Without any prodding from me, the entire meetup was in German, start to finish. What a relief, you guys.  Oh, and also, it was a grand old time.  These two ladies are great.  We had a great time just catching up and shooting the shit. Fantastic.

Also fantastic, Christmas, of which I had 2.5 this year.  The first was by Margit.  How great is this?  Knowing a) I’m Jewish and b) I have no family here, she invited me to spend Christmas Eve with her family.  How can you not love that?

And what made it kind of extra special was, I was the only person there who wasn’t family.  So it wasn’t like some big Xmas party, you know? It was her, her husband, the kids, her mom, her brother and his wife, and her husband’s sister.

Anyway, it was a great time. And obviously I’m really thankful that I’ve got friends like that here in Berlin who think enough of me to bring me into their home and share their family Xmas with me.  That’s pretty great on it’s face.

And this too was all German. And not just German.  But I was exposed to some pretty hardcore Berlinese at this shindig.  Mag’s mom, for example, speaks with a pretty serious Berlin accent.  Now, I’ve met her a couple of times before.  And in the past, I always had a pretty hard time of understanding her.  But this time, somehow, I understood her no problem.  Level-up!

Also, we played Taboo. In German.  And it was kinda funny.  Because, first, they were like, “Uh, Dave, you can just do your cards in English.”  And I was like, “Bitches please, I can German.”  So then, they were like, “Well, OK, but you can use the ‘taboo’ words, we don’t mind.”  And I was like, “Bitches please, I can German.”  And guess what?  I fucking nailed it.  I wasn’t the best player at the table, but I’ll tell you this.  I wasn’t the worst either.  Level-up!

Alright, so I’m making progress with some people, German-wise.  But this is coming largely with former students.  Much harder is making the switch with people with whom I’ve already built a strong relationship exclusively in English.

Which brings me to Second Xmas, which was with Jan and Zibs.  You’ll remember I did my teacher training with Zibs, so her English is pretty perfect.  And Jan’s English is also nearly prefect.  And so, based on where my German was when I got here, it never made any sense for us to speak that language.  

Side-story: Those two met while at Uni in Norway.  So their first common language was English.  Only after years of being married did they finally move their relationship into German.  And they’ve got this other friend here, Felix.  Who I’ve got a total man-crush on, I’m not embarrassed to say.  Now Felix is German, but his bae is Swedish, so their common language is…wait for it…English.  And so naturally Felix, and Sophia his boo, also speak nearly perfect English.  So that, when the five of us get together2 we always speak English.

Sub-story to the side-story: Zibs and Jan had been hearing about Anne for like literally years.  But somehow, they’d never met.  Anyway, finally, last month, we went out to dinner. Anne and me, J&Z, Felix and one of Zib’s friends.  And before we got to the restaurant, I warned Anne that we might be speaking English the whole night.  Since that’s been our modus operandi.  

So naturally, as soon as we sit down at the table, the first thing Jan asks Anne is, is it easier for you if we speak German or English.  To which Anne says, German, duh.  Well, alright.  This should be interesting.  Will they speak German with her and English with me?  Or will they actually finally speak German with me?

Right, so the way we were sitting, it was me, Anne and Jan on one side and Felix, Zibs and her friend on the other.  Anne is between me and Jan.  Felix is across from me.  And wouldn’t you know, it’s just German going on all around.  Anyway, at one point, Jan hears me carrying on with Felix.  And I guess he was sufficiently impressed, for lack of a better word.  Because he says to me across the table, Jan does, “Hey, Dave, wir sollten mehr deutsch reden.”  Hey, Dave, we should speak more German.  And I’m like, “Mutherfucker, yes, I’ve been asking you to do this for like forever!” 

So much for the side and sub stories.  Anyway, I was at J&Z for Second Xmas.  Which was great, btw.  We cooked a bœuf bourguignontogether, which was delish.  Drank a bunch, which was fun.  And just had the usual good times.  The first part of the evening was in English.  But after dinner, I asked if we could do a bit of German. Which, finally, they were only to happy to do.  So that was a first.  Just the three of us, Germaning.  I don’t know if that’s quite a level-up, but it’s certainly progress.

That leaves Joschka. The final frontier.  He’s the last friend where I just haven’t been able to break down that barrier.  One-on-one, I mean.  Because as I’ve written, when we’re together with Cindy or in Bavaria, we all speak German together and it’s fine.  More than fine, even.  But mano-a-mano, we’re not there yet.

Part of the reason is, we’re such good friends.  I mean, I know him twice as long as anybody else here, bc we met in New York in 2012.  So we’ve been mad tight for, shit, six years already.  That’s a lot of inertia.  That’s a big ship to turn around.  And look, no matter how good my German has gotten, I can’t pretend like I can just carry on in this language as well as I can in my mother tongue.

But the other thing is, that mutherfucker demands perfection.  Like, sometimes I’ll ask if we can switch to German for a bit.  And he’ll sorta shrug and say something like, “Yeah, we should because you need to get better.”  But at the first mistake, he’s correcting me.  Which, on its face, fine.  I mean, sure, fix my German.  Please. But corrections derail a conversation, you know?  So after about five minutes, it’s back to English.  

And look, I get it. It’s work for him.  Same as speaking English with Germans is work for me. For whatever reason, he can’t just let my mistakes ride.  I mean, he can in a group.  But one-on-one, he can’t.   And I don’t mean that as a negative.  He genuinely wants to help me improve.  But that’s work, for him.  So like, I somehow need to up my game far above it’s current level before we can German together at length.  So…not level-up.  But maybe that can be a goal for this year.

In any case, the Bavarians are visiting later this month.  So they’ll be plenty of German with Joschka and our “country cousins” when they get here.  And, like, they kinda are our “country cousins.”  Like, we’re thinking of things to do with them when they’re here, to show them “the big city.”  Which is funny and adorable in its own right.  But, and I mean this only with love, most of them are really “country” people. As in, they don’t care for big city life.  Not that they aren’t looking forward to visiting.  But we’re from different worlds in that way.  Same as when we go down to visit them, right?  I love to get away for a weekend.  But I couldn’t imagine living down there.  Anyway, I’m really looking forward to having them here. It should be a fucking blast.

I mentioned 2.5 Christmases. The first was with Mag and fam. The second was with J&Z.  The half-Xmas was by skype, with Flare and her fam. You’ll remember that for every year from 2010 until I moved here, I spent every Xmas with those peeps.  To the point where, my first year here, it felt weird for all of us that I wasn’t there with them.  

Anyway, Flare skyped me up and I got to see her and the whole mishpucha, which was great.  And her uncle was wearing a shirt that said, “Dave’s not here, man.”  Which, come on, how fucking cool is that?  And I got to see her baby.  And I met the baby last time I was in, but he was still pretty fucking new-born at that point.  Now the little dude is all walking around and shit.  And that is one cute kid, lemme tell y’all.

One last thing on the whole German deal.  So I cooked dinner for my roommates tonight.3  And we’re chatting, and at one point, I said something incorrectly.  So Marco corrected me.  But then he made a comment about my German.  He said I’m thinking about it less.  Which, coming on the heels of an error, I wasn’t sure how to take.

But what he meant was this. In the beginning, he said, it was clear that I was carefully considering the grammar and whatnot as I spoke. Which resulted in a very slow, disjointed sort of conversational style.  Whereas now, I was very clearly “just talking.”  It was much faster, much more fluid.  But also, with less attention to detail.  So that, despite the speed and fluidity, my English was showing through much more.

Now this was very interesting.  And before going on, I should say that he meant this as a compliment.  Or at least, that’s how I understood him.  What he was was saying, I think, was I’m now much easier to chat with, it’s a much more natural experience.  Just that there’s a bit of a tradeoff.  That all this comes at the expense of “correctness,” if I can say that.

Which, for me personally, is to be preferred.  I mean, given the choice of being “correct” or being interesting, I’ll take interesting every time.  Which is also how I feel when speaking English with non-native speakers, my previous comments notwithstanding.  Because in my job, I get both.  And I’d much rather talk to someone who can carry on a conversation at speed, even if half the shit is “wrong,” than with somebody who is “perfect” but takes all day to get to their point.  

To borrow from a rather old example from this blogue.  Imagine talking with two people at a bar.  And at some point, each person hears the call of nature.  Here’s how this goes down, by me.

Person 1: “I must to going after the toilets to bring a piss.”

Me: “Sure, I’ll be here.”

Person 2: “Please…excuse me…I…have…have to going…no, have to…go, yes go…to the restroom.  I will be back, no…I will…I’ll, yes, I’ll…be back, be rightback.  Yes, I’ll be right back.”

Me: “Yeah, and while you’re doing that, I’ll just hang myself with my scarf.  Tell my parents I love them.”

So I’d much rather be the “bring the piss guy” than “Mr. Takes Three Hours to Craft the Perfect Sentence but I Get there in the End.”  Which, apparently I am.  Or, at least, that’s what Marco was trying to tell me.  I think.

Of course, in theory, you should be able to have both.  That should be the goal.  I remember I was talking with a student about (linguistic) gender in German.  And she was saying how a lot of Turkish people here, who speak a kind of “broken” German,4 just omit the gendered article altogether. In English, this would be like saying, “I missed bus,” instead of “I missed thebus.”  So I asked her, in view of my problem of getting the gender right, which was worse. Is it worse to use the wrong gender, or no gender at all?5

To which she gave the most German answer ever.  “Of course, the best thing is to just get it right.”  Yeah, great.  Thanks.

So much for German. But what about Greek, my one and only? Also, it’s not my one and only.  In fact, on an emotional level, Yiddish is beginning to rival the Hellenic tongue. But it sounded nice to say “my one and only.”  I mean, how often do you get to use that?  Whatever, the point is, I love Greek.  And I always will.

Anyway, now that I need less time for Hebrew, I’ve decided to spend some of the surplus study time on Greek.  And as a text, I chose Herodotus, the so-called “father of history.”  Although I prefer to think of him as the “drunk uncle of history.”  Because he spins a good yarn, but he also wanders off on tangents like a mofo.  

Tangentially – and indeed this is a very Herodotian tangent – you may remember that I’m still in touch with my second year Greek prof, who is also a huge Yankee fan.  All summer, every summer, we email each other about the doings of the Bronx Bombers, mixing in a healthy helping of puns. Sub-tangentially – which is also a rather Herodotian device – when I was in his class, we read…you guessed it…Herodotus.

So in my reading, I came across a bit of text about which I had a question.  Well, who else could I ask?  So I sent him an email.  And of course he answered my query.  But he added at the end of the email something along the lines of, Herodotus is great and I’m kinda jealous that you’re reading him.

Eh?  OK, I said.  Well, we could read it together if you want.  Which he thought was a great idea.  So now, we Skype on Mondays and read Herodotus together.  And what a fucking joy, you guys.  I mean, I finished grad school in 2013.  So since then, everything I’ve done (Daitz aside), I’ve done alone.  I haven’t had access to “The Academy.”   

And look, it works, right? I mean, I have an MA in Classics. I can Greek.  I read Dumas on the subway.  I taught myself Hebrew well enough to read the fucking Torah already.  So I can work alone.  And I get by.  But that’s what it is.  It’s getting by.  I don’t benefit from the wisdom of others.

And now, all of a sudden, I’m reading Greek with an NYU prof, a proper fucking expert.  So on a technical level, it’s a huge benefit. Already, he’s corrected mistakes I’ve been making, reminded me of things I’ve forgotten, taught me things I never knew and would never have discovered on my own.

But more than that, it’s just fun.  I mean, we really get down into it.  In 90 minutes, maybe we get through two pages of text.  Maybe.  But that’s because we go back and forth debating about a word here, a phrase there, this verb tense or how this usually means something in Homer so what might it mean here?  And also we crack wise and make puns.

We’ve taken a break for the holidays, but the plan is to get back to it in the coming weeks.  And I can’t wait.  It’s 90 minutes, maybe 2 hours.  But it’s become a highlight of my week.  I mean, I’d be enjoying it anyway, if I was just doing it on my own.  But this ups the fun-factor by an order of magnitude.  

And let me tie this back to the German thing.  I said that when people speak only German with me, it makes me feel like they take me seriously as a German speaker.  Well, when we do Herodotus together, I feel like he takes me seriously as a classicist. 

Which is not to say he takes me seriously like a peer or an equal.  He’s been doing this longer than I’ve been alive.  So he’s very much the prof and I’m very much the student.  But he definitely treats me as somebody who knows their shit and with whom he can do this in a way that it’s fun and not work; another recurring theme in this post, apparently.

All to say, this Herodotus reading group (can two people be a “reading group”?) happened by accident. But it’s kinda fucking gorgeous. It’s all of the things I love. Good people.  Greek.  Puns. Intellectual engagement.  What’s not to love?

So I’ll leave it here. It’s 2019.  Hopefully this is the year where German overtakes English as the primary language in most of my relationships.  This is the year I read the Torah for a second time; this time trying to understand what the fuck it’s actually talking about rather than just muddling through the Hebrew.  This is the year I finish my Yiddish grammar book and get that language to a level where I can actually read shit.  And who knows what else?  But it’s 2019.  This is the year…

זײַ געזונט

  1. Sometimes. []
  2. When I’m not rockin’ the third wheel, I’m rockin’ the fifth. []
  3. I wrote this post a week ago and am only proofing it now… []
  4. I don’t care for this term, but it serves the purpose here. []
  5. In German, “bus” is masculine: “Der Bus.”  So the correct sentence is, “Ich hab denBus verpasst.”  I would almost certainly make “bus” feminine: “Ich hab dieBus verpasst.”  Whereas Turkish “street” German would omit the gendered article altogether, giving “Ich hab [_] Bus verpasst.” []