An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
15 May, 2018

Oh hey, Writer’s Block.  What’s up?  Ugh, you guys.  I’ve tried writing a post – the same post – twice already, and just…I’m not feeling it.  So I’m officially ditching it and starting a new one.  Maybe I’ll circle back at the end though and try to recapture some of it though.  Not that you, dear reader, would know the diff if I didn’t tell you.  So why am I telling you?  Because it’s my blogue and I can ramble if I want to.

Anyway, Germany.  No matter how much I like this country and its fine people, there’s always gonna be some shit that’s just straight up weird, you know?  And by weird, I mean, yeah, every culture is different and they’re all valid and blah blah blah.  But listen to this and tell me if you don’t think it’s fucking weird.

So a couple of weeks back, I went for one of my walks.  I ended up in Friedrichshagen, which is adorable and one of my favorite spots in this neck of the woods.  There’s a Japanese joint I really like there as well as what passes for a good Vietnamese spot in this town.  It was at this Vietnamese outpost that I stopped for a late lunch after several hours of strolling.  I got a bowl of Pho, which was quite good for Berlin, but wouldn’t even make the menu at Pho Grand.  Such is life.

Anyway, after this lovely meal, I mosey up the block where I encounter a little gelato shop.  Well, remembering how nice it was to have a bit of gelato back when I was in Florence, I decided to get a little desert.  I mean, a little gelato never hurt anybody, right?  Well, it hurts me if it has lactose.  So I ask what they’ve got that’s lactose free and the lady behind the counter gives me my options.

And at first, it seemed like I was getting the answer I was hoping for.  Namely that they had both a chocolate and a raspberry that were lactose-free.  Great.  So I ask the lady if I can get a small half-chocolate-half raspberry.  And that’s where things got weird.  Cos the lady looked at me like I had three heads and said, “Halbkugeln geht nicht bei uns.”  We don’t do half scoops.  And I’m like, how do you say “Can’t…or won’t?” in German?

Like, what the actual fuck is that?  I mean, what exactly is stopping you from taking half a scoop of one and half a scoop of the other and jamming them into the same tiny little cup?  Sure, I get that they won’t be exactly halves.  And, yeah, maybe that offends your German sense of…what, even?  Exactitude?  I ain’t exactly asking you to go in the back and concoct an entirely new flavor, just for me, you know?  And I’m not asking for extra ice cream.

I’m literally asking for the same total amount of product for the listed price.  And you know what even?  Fuck the listed price.  If you need to charge me an extra twenty cents for asking for something “off-menu,” so be it.  Although, even that, honestly would be weird.  But just flat out being all, “Yeeaaah, sorry, we don’t do half scoops”???  Oh, and not even “sorry.”  Just straight up, “We don’t do that, [implied] you monster.”  Like, that can’t be normal.

Except, apparently, that’s totally normal.  Here, I mean.  Apparently it’s totally normal here.  It’s obviously not normal.  What I mean is, I’ve told this story to like three people here; three Germans.  And it was the same reaction each time.  Every time I get to the part where I ask for half-&-half, their eyes go wide and the look at me like I’ve just kicked their dog.  I can see it in their faces.  Oh gods, you’re going to take her side, aren’t you?

“So she says – get this – she says, ‘Halbkugeln geht nicht bei uns.’  Can you believe that?”  And they all said the same thing.  “Dude, this is Germany.”  As if that were sufficient as an explanation.  I try to reason with them.  I try to make them see where I’m coming from.  They can’t.  Because Germany.

They have a saying here.  Kunden ist König – the customer is king.  Unless the customer asks for two half scoops.  Then apparently, the customer is a mad king and needs to be protected from himself.  It’s weird, is all I’m saying.

Anyway, Saturday I went for another walk. I didn’t really have a plan.  Just, it was a nice day.  So why not grab a brew and stroll?  Well, so I do that, and it’s lovely.  I got back to my Infinite Monkey Cage podcast.1  For some reason, it feels like a summer podcast to me.  My first time here, in 2015, I listened to it a lot whilst exploring.  So it evokes that – this – time of year for me.  I’m rambling again.

Well, as my walk is winding down, I notice that it’s about 4pm and also that I haven’t really eaten anything yet.  Which isn’t as bad as it sounds, when you consider I couldn’t be bothered to get my ass out of bed before noon.  But I was hungry, is the point.

So I pass a döner shop and awkwardly pause to look in the window.  It looks good, but there’s another one up the block, so I decide to check that one out too before making a decision.  I dunno why.  Not like they’re gonna be vastly different.  Meanwhile, I say that, and sure enough, the second one doesn’t look quite as good as the first.

What I mean by that is, the huge rotating döner in the window of the first shop looked crispier.  Which I like.  Because first of all, I feel like if it’s crispier, then it’s less likely to be super greasy and therefore a bit easier on my not-so-iron gut.  But also, when it’s crispy, you get that nice little crunch.

OK, now I sound like Billy Crystal in the Princess Bride.  You know, with the MLT – Mutton, Lettuce and Tomato, when the mutton is nice and lean…

Right, so I decide I want to go back to the first shop.  The only problem is, I’ve now lingered in front of both their windows; long enough for the guys behind the counter to see me.  And like, that’s awkward.  I mean, it’s not awkward for the more well-adjusted among us.  But I’m like, Great, Döner Guy #1 is gonna be all, “Oh, now you want my sammich only after deciding you didn’t want the other one more?”  And then I’d have to re-walk past the second shop with my purchase from the first shop in hand.  So then Döner Guy #2 could be all, “Oh, I see how it is.  My sammich isn’t good enough for you?  So you bought one from my competitor and are walking past my shop with it, what, to rub it in my face?”

Am I overthinking this?

Anyway, I decide to walk around the block the long way.  That should buy me 5-7 minutes, by which time, hopefully, both Döner Guys will have forgotten about my awkward window shopping.  Except, on the other side of the block, I find a cemetery.  So obvi I need to go check that out.

And at first, it’s just your usual cemetery business.  Nothing’s very old, mind you.  The oldest stones might be from late 19th or early 20th century.  But that’s OK.  It’s still nice and peaceful.  And it reminded me of the time me and Niki went to a cemetery.  That was either one of our last “dates” or one of our first “friend activities.”  We made up stories for some of the people.  And this one guy, Ruben (or Rueben?), Niki actually found a picture of his family.  Crazytown.  Probably not any Rubens in this joint though.  Not a very goyish name.

Well, as I’m looking at these stones I’m noticing the dates.  And it gets my mind going.  Because a great many of the people buried in this cemetery lived through the Nazi times.  And for me, it’s impossible not wonder about that.  Who were they?  What did they do?  Were some of the Nazis?  Did some of them resist?  Did most of them just go with the flow?  The shit these people must have lived through.  And why?  Because they happened to be born at a certain time, in a certain place?

And that’s when things took a turn.  Because then I came to a most interesting part of the cemetery.  Most interesting indeed.  Here, there were not the usual upstanding gravestones.  More square plaques, almost flat in the ground.  And I start to notice, all the death dates are 1945.  These stones are very Spartan, I should say.  Just a name (or “unknown”), a birth date (if known), a death date (if known), and then at the bottom “1939-1945.”

So is this a military part of the cemetery?  There’s nothing to indicate branch of service, rank or anything else.  But all the stones are of equal size, make, layout.  And it’s got the war dates.  So what’s the deal?  I start to look closer, and some of the people died in their 20’s and 30’s.  But some are definitely teenagers.  And a lot of them have death dates of April-May ’45.  So now we’re talking Battle of Berlin?

But so far, I can’t find any sign or plaque that gives actual information.  So after reading a bunch of the first stones I stumble across, I make my way to the front of this little area.  (I had entered from the back of it).  And there I do find a plaque.  But all it says is, 1st and 2nd World War.

Hey?  First also?  I turn around, and sure enough, at the front of this area, all the stones – which are otherwise identical to the ones above described – show the dates 1914 – 1918 across the bottom.  Well now that’s interesting.

So what is actually the deal here?  Did this start as only a cemetery for WWI soldiers; if indeed actually soldiers?  Was it expanded after the second world war?  Or was it all done at one time, later on?  Were bodies exhumed from both wars and reburied here all together?  I don’t know, because I can’t find any information.

But there’s layers of history here, beyond the obvious.  One just has to look at the names.  What I mean is, while many of the names are clearly German, a whole bunch are also Polish.  Which means there are even more stories here.

First, we need to remember that a huge chunk of western Poland was part of Germany up until Versailles.  So Polish names in the WWI section shouldn’t be so surprising.  And Berlin, after all, is quite close to the border.  So at least for these guys – the ’14 – ’18 gang – it’s probably safe to assume they were German citizens of Polish descent.

But what about the Polish names in the WWII section?  Were they also German citizens, long settled in or around Berlin?  Could they have been POWs or other Poles forced to fight, forced to defend Berlin in the last days of the war?  Was that even a thing?  Or did they see themselves as “German” as the guy buried next to them?  And if so, what did they make of the war, of German aggression against Poland, of the Nazi position that the Slavs, the Poles, were subhuman?  How could they take up arms in defense of that regime?  Questions.  But no answers.

And then, going back to the WWII stones, the ones showing deaths in April-May ’45.  The dates are very clearly Battle of Berlin, and I think it’s a safe assumption given where they’re buried.  Right in the path of the advancing Red Army.

But even then, what does that tell us about them?  Almost nothing.  The Russian Army was brutal.  “The Big Red Rape Machine” would be un unflattering but historically not inaccurate epithet.  So even if you hated the Nazis, do you take up arms willingly, when these guys are knocking down your door; knocking down your house; knocking down your whole block?  Do you defend your family, even as you pray for the end of the Nazis and all the madness they’ve wrought?

Or were some of these guys true believers?  The younger ones especially would have known nothing else.  They would have been indoctrinated almost from birth.  How many of them willingly gave their lives for The Führer?  Again, questions.  No answers.

And another point of interest.  While all the WWII stones that I inspected showed 1945 death dates, some of them were as late as September, October, November.  The war was already over.  How did they die?  In POW camps?  As war criminals?  From wounds or sickness sustained in battle?  How does somebody die 4, 5, 6 months after the war is over and still get buried beside the fighting dead?  (Again, assuming these are the fighting dead).  More questions.  Still no answers.

And then, finally, some answers.  But answers that beg more questions.  All the way in the front of this little area, I find a plaque with the following inscription:

In diesem Grab ruhen über 60 unbekannte Frauen und Männer, die infolge von Kriegseinwirkungen verstorben sind.  Die Toten wurden im Jahr 2009 vom St. Laurentius-Friedhof in diese geschlossene Gräberanlage des kommunalen Friedhofsteils Rudower Straße verlegt.

In this grave rest over 60 unknown women and men, who died due to the effects of war.  The dead were lain here from the St. Laurentius Cemetery in this separated grave area in 2009, by the Rudower Steet community.2

Well, the only thing I know for a fact after reading this is that this special section was only dedicated in 2009.  The cemetery itself is St. Laurentius, so I gather that before ’09 all these people were buried elsewhere in the same cemetery.  Oh, and women also?  I didn’t see any lady names, but then I didn’t inspect every stone.  And also, this plaque seemed only to be about the 60 unknowns.  What about all the “knowns”?

And what about the Kriegseinwirkungen – the “effects of war”?  Did they fight?  Or were they just poor civilian bastards who bought it in the Battle of Berlin?  From shelling or bombing or gods know what?

Indeed, now that I think about it a second time, was this plaque for the “unknowns” who were under “unknown” stones or was this a separate 60 people who didn’t even get that much?  So that was good for like two answers and a shit-ton more questions.

So much of this was unexpected and unexplained.  But the most unexpected, and the most wanting for explanation were the final two stones I found, set apart from all the others.  Just two.  The stone themselves looked just like all the others.  Name, birthdate, deathdate.  Only instead of the war dates across the bottom, were these words: NS – OPFER.  Nazi Victim.

Well, shit.  What does that mean?  Political victims?  Resistance fighters?  Jews?  Probably not Jews.  I can’t imagine any Jews would find their way into this cemetery.  But then again, who knows?  I mean, maybe.  So what was their “crime”?  Why were they victims of the Nazis?  Again, no answers.  But whatever the reason, here they lie.  And for them, for these two poor bastards, I’ll give their inscriptions.  It seems worth it.

GOTTFRIED KILIAN
* 7.10.1892
+ 6.8.1940
NS – OPFER

ERICH JANITZKY
* 21.7.1900
+ 21.6.1938
NS – OPFER

I don’t know what you did, fellas.  But you pissed off those Nazi bastards enough to get yourselves killed.  So here’s to you.

Anyway, that was my detour to the cemetery.  I grabbed my döner on the way home.  From the first shop.  And it was quite good.  Not too greasy and with a little bit of crunch.  Just how I like it.

A few weeks ago, my friend-former student Margit asked me if I would do a bit of tutoring with her daughter.  I’ve written about Mag before.  She’s awesome.  Half buddy, half my Berin-mom.  Total wiseass.

I had written a whole thing about this, but I wasn’t happy with it.  So here’s the short version.  The tutoring itself was great.  Super easy.  Sarah, her daughter, is very smart, very good with English.  But more than that, we just had fun.  Not just me and Sarah.  But also Margit, her husband, the other two kids; even Sarah’s French boyfriend visiting from France.3  They’re just good people, you know?

But good people can also be boring people, amirite?  No fear here though.  Everybody in that family is a total wise-ass.  And I mean that as a compliment.  They’re all very sweet.  You walk in the door, and you know right away there’s a lot of love in that house.  But everybody’s just giving everybody else shit all the time.  I fit right in, is what I’m trying to say.

Mag is also taking classical guitar lessons.  So I asked if I could try her axe.  She gladly let me.  It’s a great instrument.  I ran through a couple of Bach preludes and the Sor variations.  Thoroughly enjoyed that, I tellya.  But even more fun was the Edith Piaf.

See, the kid is also studying French and has a bit of culture.  So during the tutoring time, she was goofing around with Je ne regrette rien.  So I’m like, “Hey kid, come here and sing this with me.”  So we sat together and jammed out on that for the fam.  Crazy fun.  Seriously.

Like, Mag is already one of my favorite people.  And not just in Berlin, either.  I think I said last time, she reminds me a lot of my mom.  Which, when I told her, I think she found alternately flattering and annoying.  Annoying if only because who wants to be thought of as a mom by their friends?

But flattering because this.  We went out for drinks around Christmas.  And we wound up at some not-so-cheap (for Berlin)4 German restaurant on Unter den Linden.  And she insisted on paying for the whole thing.  So next time we met up, we went to a Vietnamese spot.  Whereupon I insisted on paying.  At first, she wasn’t having it.  But I reminded her that she had paid last time and that it couldn’t have been cheap, so really she didn’t have a choice.  At which point she relented, and said, “You know, your mom did a good job with you.”  Which I’m not writing here to brag.  Only because I know my mom reads this shit and I thought she’d like to hear the compliment.  All to say, I think Mag is OK if I happen to notice some similarities between her and one Cindy A. Starr.

Anyway, I’m a big fan of this whole family.  Add a few more to the list of awesome people I’ve met in this town.  I mean, I’m still always wondering how much of this is luck, you know?  What if I went to a different city?  What if I worked in a different school?  No Anne.  No Margit and fam.  No Jan and Zibs.  No J-Dawg.

Would there be other awesome people?  As awesome as these people?  Maybe.  I dunno.  What I do know is, I think I’m pretty fucking lucky here.

Could I still kvetch?  Sure.  But it’s baseball season.  Why would I?

זײַ געסונט

 

  1. Highly recommended, btw.  It’s a BBC science/comedy pod. []
  2. My translation.  It may not be perfect, but it’s close enough. []
  3. He had virtually no English and even less German, so it was a good opportunity to speak some French; though I did get my wires crossed quite a bit. []
  4. Which means cheap anywhere else. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
24 April, 2018

Right, so this is weird.  Writing on a weeknight, I mean.  It’s gonna be an unusually short post, I think.  See, I’ve done all the Hebrew I care to do for the day.  And I’m not feeling up to hitting the Greek or cracking on with the Federalist Project.  But watching TV doesn’t really appeal to me either just now.  I want to do something that passes for productive, so why not write a bit?

So I did a mitzvah1 on Sunday.  Not intentionally, mind you.  And the whole thing was really rather surreal.  So strange was it, that I feel I need to write it down.  Here’s what happened.

The weather being just swell on Sunday, I set out on of my long walks.  And as I’m walking down Seelenbinderstraße, not ten minutes from my apartment, I see this strange-looking man ahead of me, further down the street.  “Strange looking” is perhaps a rather cruel way to put it.  It was clear that he was struggling with some sort of physical handicap, at the very least.

Now in New York, you would immediately think “troubled homeless guy.”  But as we shall see, things are a bit different here.  Anyway, I see this guy ambling towards me.  But I’m listening to a podcast and just doing my thing, so of course, I’m just kinda hoping to pass this guy without any kind of interaction.  Which is a polite of way of saying, I was hoping this guy wouldn’t stop me and ask me for change.

Either I’m that much of an asshole, or that’s how New York has got me conditioned.  Or both.  Anyway, that’s where I was at.  Judge if you must.

Well, of course he waves me down as I’m passing him.  Damn.  Well, even my asshole-ocity has its limits.  So I stop and take out my headphones, prepared for the inevitable asking for change.  Now, mind you, I’m listening to an English-language podcast, so my ear doesn’t tune in to his German right away.  I didn’t quite catch what he said, but it was clear he wasn’t asking for money.  “Wie, bitte?” I ask him to repeat himself.  And whatever he said, it’s very clear that he’s got some kind of physical disability; possibly a mental one on top of that.  He repeats:

Kannst du mich nach Hause bringen?”  Can you bring me home?

Oh, fuck.  I mean, yes, obviously.  But shit.  Sorry, let me clarify.  Not, “Shit, I don’t need this inconvenience.”  I mean, “Shit, that’s kind of heartbreaking.”  Can you bring me home.  Well, yeah, obviously.  Which is what I said: Ja, natürlich.  And I give him my arm.  Which he takes.  I know, how romantic.  And we start to walk.

I ask him where lives.  And he tells me the name of his street.  Which I didn’t know.  And so, I’m kinda like, Welp, I hope it’s not too far.  In hindsight, I should have known it couldn’t have been that far.  Because clearly this guy wasn’t built for cross-country, you know?

Anyway, there I am, walking down the street, with this old dude on my arm.  And I notice he’s carrying this wicker basket.  Well, I’m a curious guy.  I sneak a peak down at the basket.  And all he’s carrying is three SternisSterni – Sternburg – is a beer.  In fact, it is the single cheapest beer in all of Germany.  It’s kinda like their PBR.  Either you love it, and it’s your number-one go-to beer, or you turn your nose up at it.  Personally, I’ve never had one.  No real reason, I just haven’t.  But they also make a Radler, and I’ve certainly had plenty of those.

Anyway, I look down, and I see he’s got a basket of nothing more than three beers.  And I had two very opposite reactions to this.  On the one hand, there was something a bit heartbreaking about it.  Like, clearly this guy had left his home at great difficulty to himself, just to buy three not-very-good beers; which was probably all he could carry.  On the other hand, I kinda felt like this guy really wasn’t all that different from me, and I kinda wanted to give him a hug.

I was thinking this until I was interrupted by the sound of the three glass bottles beginning to clink against each other in the basket.  It took me, honestly, longer than it should have, to realize that the reason these bottles were clinking was because it was too heavy for him and his arm was starting to shake.

Shit.  Get your shit together, Davey.  So I got my shit together.  I stopped our walking and reached for the basket.  “Darf ich das tragen?”  Can I carry that?  He handed the basket over with not a little relief and we started walking again.  So now I’m walking with an old man on one arm and a wicker basket full of beer on the other.

I tried to make a bit of small talk.  I asked him how long he’d been living here.  He didn’t understand me.  I asked again, and he didn’t understand again.  So I gave up.  I hope this doesn’t sound dickish, but my German’s not that bad.  So I kinda chalked it up to maybe some mental disability.  So we just walked in silence.

And now I’m thinking, this is Germany.  Land of the Brothers Grimm.  Maybe this dude is fairy godmother in disguise and he’s testing strangers.  Maybe the last three people he asked to walk him home ignored him.  Maybe when I get him home, he’ll turn into the fairy godmother and grant me a wish or some shit.  Or, you know, not.

Then I had a darker thought.  Or a brighter one, depending on your point of view.  Because, again, I realized, this is Germany.  And how lucky for him that he lives in Germany now, where they do an excellent job of taking care of their people; excellent social safety net in this country.  But man, what if this was the 1930’s?  This guy would have been sterilized at the least; at the worst…well, you know.  But it’s not the 30’s.  It’s now.  And he has his own apartment and he can go out and buy beer.  In New York, this guy might be sleeping on the sidewalk outside of Penn Station.

Anyway, we finally get to his building.  Now he makes a bit of small talk.  Something along the lines of, “We’re almost there.  Number 22.”  OK, that’s not really small talk.  Whatever.  So he fishes out his keys and goes to unlock the front door.  That wasn’t so easy to watch.  His hands were all shaky and shit, so it took him a few seconds to slot the key.  And you could see that the metal plate around the lock was scratched to shit.  So yeah, that’s life for this guy.  Getting the key into the front door is a new adventure every day.  Fuck me.

We get inside and I ask him what floor.  Because everything here is a walkup.  I thought he said first floor.  It was the second.  And for a second, I was thinking, Shit, how’m I gonna get this guy up the stairs?  But he just grabs hold of the railing and starts climbing.  No problem.  Right, good.  But I stay close behind him, just in case.

Anyway, we get to his front door.  He opens it up and I give him his basket back.  He thanks me kindly and that’s that.

So yeah, that was that.  Like I said, very surreal.  But he was a very sweet man.  The thing that sticks with me most though, was his initial question.  Kannst du mich nach Hause bringen?  Can you bring me home?  I don’t know why, but that really got to me.  Just, I dunno, when you have to ask that to a complete stranger.  That’s rough.

Anyway, that happened.

The other thing I want to touch on in this post is my future.  Look, I’ve said a million times by now, I love my job.  And today was another great day.  I don’t feel like getting into it here, but maybe I’ll touch on it in my next full-length post.  Just that, I developed a new way of teaching some difficult material, and it seemed to be a big hit.  That was cool.

But the point is, no matter how much I love what I’m doing right now, I don’t actually know if I want to do it forever.  And that’s all things being equal.  But all things aren’t equal.  Bad shit is happening at home, and I’m often feeling like I’m not doing anything to fight it.  And I should be.  So what can I do?

Well, some months back, I got this crazy idea that wouldn’t it be cool to be a lawyer and do civil rights or immigration or something like that.  You know, help the people who are most defenseless and most under attack.

Well yeah, that would be cool.  But, I mean, I’m 37.  Am I too old for law school?  Could I hack it?  Is law school – never mind breaking into actually practicing law – a young man’s game?  Well, I didn’t want to make any mention of this until I had a chance to speak with someone who’d been through it.

So while I was home, I asked Adam about it.  Adam is my oldest continuous friend; we’ve been friends since the fourth grade; what is that – nine years old?  And he’s an attorney.  So if anyone would know, it’s him.

Right.  So I ask him.  And before I can even finish the question, he’s like: Yes.  Yes!  Do it!

Really?  Really.  So we discussed it at some length.  And he’s of the opinion that I’m not at all too old and that I absolutely could do it, and people older than me have done it, and he’d always thought I’d make a good lawyer.2  Which was amazing to hear and very encouraging.  Like, before that conversation, I thought maybe I was crazy for even considering this.

And Jared was there for the conversation.  And he says, “David, I think this is a wonderful idea.  And just so you know, when I finish my PhD [he’s doing a PhD now], I’ll be 39 or 40.  So of course you can do this.”  Which was equally great to hear and just as encouraging.

Of course there’s one major problem here.  Namely, how the hell could I hope to pay for this?  I mean, do I really want to take on even more student debt?  And it’s not like I’d make a whole lot of money if I did this.  Civil rights and immigration lawyers are not exactly well paid.  Which, to be clear, doesn’t matter to me.  I wouldn’t be doing it for money.  Just to say, do I want even more debt when I’d hardly be making enough to service said debt?

So that’s something I need to figure out, obviously.  And also, I’m not quite ready to leave Germany.  I’m not quite ready to put a bow on this whole experience I’m having over here.  To say nothing of the fact that I’m not done growing as a teacher.

To that last point, maybe you’re never done growing as a teacher.  But for example, when just today I tested a new methodology of my own device and saw it to be a success, well, who knows what else I can come up with before all is said and done?

But then, as far as that goes, here’s another thing.  And I’m almost ashamed to put this down, because I’m afraid it’s going to sound a bit arrogant.  But that’s not how I mean it.  So now I’ve had two students tell me they think I’m wasting my time and my talents at this job.  That I should be doing something bigger, more challenging, whatever.

And I dunno.  Am I too overqualified for what I do?  I hate to think that.  Like I said, I think it sounds arrogant.  And look, I’m not blind to the fact that most people who do what I do don’t have M.A’s in dead languages.  Most people who do what I do aren’t roping in French and Latin and Ancient Greek and Hebrew.  Most people who do what I do aren’t finding time to teach Shakespeare or rhetorical stylistics.

But you know what?  Just because you know a lot of shit doesn’t mean you’re good at communicating it.  All that stuff is great, but if people don’t leave my class being better at English than when they started, well, I’m not a good teacher, am I?  Now, I do think people leave my class better than when they started.  And I do happen to think I’m good at what I do.  But I also know I can be better.

And that’s what I’m focusing on right now.  Trying to be better every day, trying to be better for every class.  However good I might have been for the last student, I’m trying to be better for the next one.

So I try to remember all that when a student tells me, “Du verschwendest dein Talent in der Schule” – You’re wasting your talent in the school.  But when she says, “Du bist zu großer Angsthase” – You’re such a scaredy-cat3 – well, you gotta think about that too.  Don’t you?  I mean, I’d hate to think the reason I didn’t pursue a PhD, or don’t go to law school – if I don’t – is because I was too comfortable doing what I was doing or I was too scared to try.

So I’ve got all that going on in my head at the moment.  But six months ago, if I thought about the future, I couldn’t see anything beyond that day.  Now though, now sometimes at least, I think maybe I have a goal.  And that goal would be law school, and then civil rights or immigration law.

In any case, for now, I’m going to try and extend my visa.  I know I’m not ready to leave in November, when this incarnation of my visa expires.  I want to do this for at least another year.  But after that?  We’ll see.  If nothing else, I can at least be trying to save money, to ease the financial burden if I do decide to go down that road.

A quick note to my parents, who are hearing about this here for the first time.  I very much wanted to talk to you guys about this while I was in.  But I didn’t want to bring it up until I’d had a chance to discuss it with Adam.  And I didn’t see him until the Saturday before I left.  And after that, there wasn’t time to sit down and properly chat.  By which I mean, with wine.  Obviously.

Anyway, that’s enough for this post.

זײַ געסונט

 

  1. מצוח : The word technically means “commandment.”  But when, in English, we say “to do a mitzvah,” it means “to do a good deed.” []
  2. That last part has been true for a while.  He’s been telling me for years he thinks I’d make a great (or at least good) lawyer. []
  3. Angsthase – literally, “scaredy-rabbit.”  Sometimes you gotta love this language. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
24 March, 2018

Right, so I just posted the post which I’d written last week but only now just posted, which is redundant, but I kinda wanted to see how many times I could get the word “post” into the first sentence of this post, which, as a result, may not be the best first sentence of all the posts I’ve ever posted in my history of posting posts.  Am I…?  Yes, I think I’m done.

So anyway.

Since I’ve just posted published a post piece, this post edition will be a bit light in the news department.  One or two work stories, and some riffing on Torah and music.  And then Monday, I’m off to New York, bitches!

So it’s always tough when there is a big turnover in the class.  The new group needs to establish a new dynamic and relationship amongst themselves, and then we need to do the same between us.  And today (Friday) was my first day with the new advanced group (which includes three holdovers).  But it came together pretty nicely and they’re all very sweet.

I earned some cred when I wowed them with some off the cuff linguistic etymologies.  And I think they’re sufficiently interesting that I shall post them here.  Because I even dare to think that you people reading this might find them interesting.

So one student asks me, “What’s the difference between perhaps and maybe?”  To which I (too) casually reply, “Ain’t no difference.”1  So then she’s like, “But which one do you use?”  What, me personally?  “Yes.”  Well, I use maybe almost exclusively.  I hardly ever say perhaps.  But that’s not a right/wrong thing.  It’s not a more/less common thing.  It’s not a formal/informal thing.  It’s not even a British/American thing.  It’s just a Dave thing.

But OK, let’s look at these words, since you bring it up.  Because etymologically, they mean the exact same thing.  See, one thing that we don’t normally do, is break these kinds of words down; especially when we use them all the time; and extra-especially when they’re so small.  Right?  I mean, you just have a translation value in your head.  They mean vielleicht.

So let’s break them down.  may|be : [it] may/can be [possible].  per|haps : (Latin) according to chance.  Which is another way of saying “it can happen” or “it is possible.”  And in German, another way of saying vielleicht (maybe)2 is es kann sein: literally, “it can be.”  And in French (because one of my students speaks French), peut être: also literally, “it can be.”  So in all our languages, we express this idea with words meaning something like “it can happen, but it doesn’t actually have to happen.”  And the English words mean this too.  It’s just that they’ve been condensed down into single words that we take for granted.

So they were all pretty impressed with that.  You know, they had the “holy fucking shit, now it’s so obvious” faces on.  And one of the guys – actually, the guy I snapped at a few weeks back – he’s like, “You know, I really appreciate this.  I’ve never had a teacher who’s been able to explain things the way you do.”  Which was rather gratifying to hear, if I’m being honest.

Fast Forward.  We’ve just completed an exercise.  And I ask if anybody has any questions.  And this same dude, he’s like, “Yeah, what’s the difference between reimburse and indemnify?”  And I’m like, What the actual fuck?  And he’s all, “Yeah, I know it’s not related to what we’re doing, but you asked if we had any questions and this is my question.”  Touché, salesman.  I too have an uncle.

Fine.  But it kinda put me on the spot.  Because “indemnify” is not a word I use.  So I tell him, I’m not exactly sure, and I probably need to look it up in the dictionary, “which you are old enough to do your own damned self,” I absolutely said.  And he’s like, “I cooooulllllddddd….”

Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m the teacher.

So I start thinking.  Like, I know reimburse means to get back money you’ve spent.  And I have this feeling that indemnify has to do with righting a wrong.  But I’m not so solid on that that I’m prepared to teach it as fact.  But I figure, let’s have some fun with this.

“You guys wanna do a little experiment?”  And they’re like, Yeah, let’s do it.  So I put the first word up on the board.  “Let’s break this apart.”

re|im|burse

“What does re- mean, as a prefix?”  ‘Again,’ they answer.  “Good.  And -in- (because -im- is really -in-) just means in.  So far so good.  Now, German has a word like -burse, no?  Bürse? Bourse?”  ‘Börse,’ they tell me.  “OK, and what does it mean?”  Something about stocks, stock exchange, etc.  Fine.  “Good, OK and French has bourse, which also means this, but also something like wallet.  In fact, it’s connected to English purse.  So let’s just agree that -burse- is a place you put money, broadly speaking.  So reimburse literally means something like ‘to again-in-the-money-bag.’”

And you can see their minds are already half-blown.  But that was easy.  Because I already know what reimburse means and I’ve already defined it.  So that was just a parlor trick.  Now for the hard part.  Because remember, I don’t exactly know what indemnify means.  “OK, so now let’s do an experiment.”  And I put the word on the board.

in|demn|ify

“Right, so here, in- doesn’t mean in, it means un-.  And -ify is word ending with a specific job.  It’s a verb marker that describes the process of turning an adjective into a noun that is the condition of that adjective.  Sounds confusing, but let’s look at an example: simplify.  The adjective is simple.  So the verb simplify means to make something simple.  Or solidify, to make something solid.  OK, that’s clear.  So whatever this word indemnify means, it means to make something un-demn.  So what’s –demn- then?”

“Well, to me, it looks an awful lot like damn.  I mean, the vowel is basically meaningless.  But if – and big “if,” because I don’t actually know; this is an experiment, remember – but if I’m right, let’s say, broadly, that –demn- means to put somebody or something into a bad condition.”

At which point the dude who asked the question in the first place yells out, “Oh, like condemn!”  Motherfucker, yes!  Exactly like condemn!  Well done.

Right, so having done all that: “OK, so my guess – and I stress, this is a guess, albeit an educated one – is that indemnify wants to mean something like ‘to un-bad-condition somebody/something.’  Now, can anybody get me a German translation of this word?”

One guy has it ready.  He has entschädigen.  Which translates as indemnify, but which literally means, ‘to un-misfortune somebody/thing.’  Well, holy fucking shit, the experiment is a success!  Oh, and by the way, what’s the German word for reimburse?  Apparently it’s just zurück zahlen – literally, “to pay back.”

Well, there you have it.  Reimburse is just getting money back which you’ve already spent.  But indemnify means to redress a wrong, usually by getting money back.  And we just figured that out.

This time, their minds were fully blown.  I mean, I’m hearing oohs and aahs, the whole nine.  But the funny thing is, I’m like, “Y’all can do this already.  As German speakers, your brains are specially trained to break words apart like this.  You can look at a word like entschädigen, and yeah, you can know what it ‘means.’  But you can also see the two parts of it (three, if you count the verbal ending), and know what they mean individually.  And you know enough about English to at least sort out the prefixes and suffixes.  That at least gets you in the door.  After that, if you happen to know a bit of French and/or Latin, you’re basically unstoppable.  But even if you don’t, you can do an awful lot.”

And look, I’m not trying to toot my own horn here.  Yeah, I mean, OK, maybe a little.  But honestly, I’ve never blown a class away like that before.  Not to that degree.  It felt really good, I can’t lie about that.

But also, it was crazy fun for me.  Because, in real life, if I want to know what indemnify means, I’m going to walk through all those steps mentally before I ever open up a dictionary.  So that, hopefully, when I do open up the dictionary, I’m doing it to confirm my mental research rather than simply asking it for the answer.  And that, that was fun to share.  To maybe give them those tools a little bit.

And maybe this doesn’t work with every group, you know?  Maybe some groups don’t give a flying one and just want the answer.  But this bunch was genuinely interested.  You know, like for a minute there, they were seeing the numbers behind the Matrix.  Which I’m always trying to get them to do.

To sum up, I love my job.  I’ve said it before.  But I really do.  Also, I’m so ready for a fucking vacation, you guys.

Timo was in town.  He was in town last year, so I feel like he’s come up before.  But Timo is one of the festival dudes, from Joschka’s hometown.  So we all went out last night (Thursday).  Good times.  Timo’s a riot.  He speaks a crazy kind of German, which I don’t always understand.  But this time, I understood a helluva lot more.  I was quite pleased with myself, ain’t gonna lie.

Also, I took my shoes off at Joschi’s; as you do.  And Timo’s all, “Du hast Käseweiße Füße.”  Which literally means, you have cheese-white feet.  Which is hilarious.  And I honestly don’t know if that’s a Timoism or a thing Germans actually say.  But it’s great.

Anyway, it was just a lot of joking around and eating and drinking.  But absolutely great times.  I feel very lucky with the people I’ve gotten to know through Joschel.  Timo.  The Bavarians.  Actually, me and J are going to make another road trip to Bavaria in May.  I’m super looking forward to that.

Speaking of German, it’s starting to fuck with my English.  And I don’t like it.  I might have mentioned that one of my colleagues lives in some kind of hippie kibbutz thing.  And they make their own honey.  So he brought a jar of it for one of our students.  And she’s all, You gotta try this.  So I did.  And she’s all, What do you think?

And I say: “For me, it’s OK.”  For me, it’s OK?  What the fuck is that???  I’ve never said that before in my life.  That’s not English!  That’s a thing German people say when they speak English.  Jö, for me, it’s OK.  Like, it’s clearly just a 1:1 translation of what they would say in German.  Because no native speaker would ever say that.

We’d say, “Hey, yeah, not bad.”  Or, “You know, this is pretty good.”  Or something.  But certainly not that.  “For me, it’s OK.”  Fuck me.

Staying with German for a moment longer.  One thing English loves to do, is turning nouns into verbs.  The classic example is to google something.  Right?  Google is a proper name, a noun.  But we’ve turned it into a verb.  You might even say, we’ve verbed google.  E-mail is another example.  When was the last time you said you “sent an email”?  No, you’ve simply “emailed” somebody.

Anyway, for whatever reason, German doesn’t like to do this.  I mean, it certainly could if it wanted to.  But it just doesn’t.  The fuck knows why.  Fine, that’s their business.

Now remember, in a previous post, I mentioned that the German word for “to look (something) up” in the dictionary is nachschlagen?  Well, obviously we now look things up on the internet as well.

Right, so Timo is telling me about something he’d just looked up online.  And he says, “Ja, das hab ich nachgegoogelt.”  Nachgegoogelt.  He looked it up with google.  He googled it up.  Excuse me?  What the actual fuck did you just say, pal?  You literally took an English noun/verb and conjugated it Germanly.  Like, if that’s what you people are about now, then fuck it.  I’m done.  I refuse to learn even one more German verb.  From now now on, I’m just going to use English verbs and conjugate them Germanly.  Ab heute, ich werde nur englische Verben usen.  Hav kein Lust mehr, deutsche Verben upzulooken.  Understandst du?3

So Torah.  I’m confused.  Like, so confused.  Where do I even start?

OK, so the Exodus.  So my understanding is, they get the hell outta Dodge with not even time for the bread to rise.  And then they’re wandering in the desert.  That’s my understanding.  So where I get confused is, the next part of the story is God’s instructions on how to build the Tabernacle and the Ark and the Altar and all that jazz.

And he’s all, Thou needest so many cubits of acacia wood for this and so many cubits of acacia wood for that and so many cubits of acacia wood for…and wait a sec.  Are they not in the desert?  Where is all this lumber coming from?  I mean, he made it rain manna.  Which, already is a stretch.  But if you’re inclined to believe this shit, then fine.  He’s God.  He can make it rain whatever he wants.  But I didn’t see anything about him making it rain timber.  So where are they getting it?

And also, another building material is defined by my dictionary as “dolphin or porpoise skin” (תחש – thachash4).  Like, I was having a hard enough time with the wood.  Now they’re gathering (or have brought with them) fucking dolphin skins?  I mean, if I can paraphrase Scotty here, Ye can test me faith, but ye canna test the laws of physics!

But this interesting.  Because there’s a lot of debate on whether or not the Exodus was a “real” historical event.  Plenty of people have gone digging around the Sinai looking for archaeological evidence.  And so far, bupkis.  But maybe this is a place to start.  I mean, if we accept that they must have had access to these materials, then where, reasonably, could they expect to find such things?  Has anybody done research from that perspective?  I don’t know.  But it’s interesting.

Whatever.  What else can I say?  But now I’m in Leviticus.  And it’s all about how to deal with religiously unclean shit.  Skin diseases and whatnot.  And I mean, sure, why not.  Anyway, you’re supposed to perform certain rituals and sacrifices.  And when I say “you,” I mean the Cohenim, the priests.

It’s not that important.  To me.  What I find interesting is, what do Christians do with all this stuff?  Because, this is also word-of-god shit for them too, right?  But I don’t see them keeping up with all this.  And in Exodus, there were the rules about wearing tfilin.  And they sure as shit don’t do that.  So how do they decide?  How do they choose what to keep and what not to keep?  To me, that’s what’s interesting.  Super interesting.

But enough of that.  I’ve been on a Judas Priest kick of late.  Because last week, The YouTubes recommended to me a live video from 1983.  And it blew me away.  Rob Halford, the singer, blew me away.  He had the flamboyant showmanship of Freddy Mercury mixed with the metal-godness of Bruce Dickinson.  And his voice.  Oh my god, you guys.  Oh. My. God.

And look, it doesn’t have the intangible magic of Dio.5  It doesn’t have the, shit, I don’t even know.  But whatever makes Bruce so great, it doesn’t quite have that either.  But it’s got this range.  Like, he’s simultaneously a tenor, alto and soprano.  And he’s completely metal about it.  He’s doing things that shouldn’t be humanly possible, and he’s doing it like it’s nothing.  Like he’s singing in the fucking shower.

And the guitarists are super special.  If you’re a guitarist and a metal fan, then, fuck, Glen Tipton and KK Downing.  No explanation needed.  Actually, Charlotte’s cousin and uncle played (or still play?) in a Priest tribute band.  And while I was there, I totally nerded out with her cousin over Priest, and Tipton’s guitar playing.

We were both just like, “Dude, that solo, in Beyond the Realms of Death.”  And that was the whole conversation.  Because we both knew exactly what that meant.  We both knew the perfection, the glory, the infallible phrasing, the exquisite tone, the divine melodies of that work of art.  Instant respect.

So yeah, I’ve just been listening to a ton of Priest lately.  And in the 80’s, they got a bit cheesy, sure.  And now, Halford is old and his mid-range is shot.  But man.  Like, I forgot how good this band was.

And you know, they sort of invented metal.  OK, we say that about a lot bands.  Sabbath.  Purple.  Zeppelin.6  Motörhead even.  And there’s some truth to all that.  But Priest was the first band that accepted the metal moniker.  They’re the first band that said, “Yes, we are heavy fucking metal.”  Because all those other bands insisted – still insist – that they “just play rock’n’roll.”

And Priest is also the first band to really do the twin lead guitars with harmonies thing, in a metal context.  I mean yes, Thin Lizzy was doing it before them.7  And I love Thin Lizzy.  No, I love Thin Lizzy.  To me, they’re a truly special band.  In the way that Queen is a special band.  I’m not saying they’re as good as Queen.  Nobody is.  But for me, they’re on that level.  I could go on about Thin Lizzy.8  All I wanted to say was, although Thin Lizzy predated Priest with the twin lead guitar harmonies, they weren’t metal about.  Oh, they were glorious about it.  Just not metal.

Priest brought this to metal.  And every single metal band since, owes them a debt.  Iron Maiden included.  Also, I think I’m rambling now.  And I haven’t said half as much about Priest as I could, or even would like to.  But I think I’ve said enough, when I say, I’ve been enjoying the shit out of them lately.

No, wait.  One more thing.  In that travel camp summer, when I was 15 or however old I was, the one where Rob taught me how to play Iron Man and Paranoid in the back of the bus.  That summer, at some interstate rest stop, I bought a cassette of Priest’s live album “Unleashed in the East.”

I’d been reading about Priest in guitar mags for years already, but somehow, I still didn’t have any of their records.  And there, in some (possibly) Ohio gas station, was this cassette.  So I bought it.  Because this was 1995-ish, and I had a Walkman.  And I put the tape in and press play.  And I didn’t know what to expect.  Like, every guitarist I ever gave a shit about, in every interview I could get my hands on, all they said was, Priest was a major influence.  But what would that mean?

So I press play.  And oh my god shut the fuck up!  The first track.  Exciter.  The guitars.  Halford’s voice.  Never heard anything like it.  Changed my life.  And every track after that.  SinnerThe Ripper.  And get this.  The most metal cover of Joan Baez’ Diamonds and Rust.  To this day, I don’t know what the original sounds like.  Don’t care either.  The Priest version is definitive.  I texted Jared about it last week, or the week before.  He agrees.

Fuck yes, Judas fucking Priest.

And now a bit of copy paste.  Just my thoughts on Danzig and Van Halen, which I cut from my last post…

From the Day-Drinking with Anne post (3/17):

Towards the end, we switched to my iPhone.  The first thing I put on was Danzig I.  Because that’s a great fucking album.  Do I need to a Danzig thing here?  OK, fine.  Glenn Danzig was the singer for the Misfits.9  Then he went solo…

…Well, actually, first he did Samhain.  Which, come on, November Coming Fire.  Great album name.  Great album art.  Great music.  But after Samhain, he went solo.  Rick Rubin produced the first four albums, which are the ones that matter.

And I’m telling you, friends, these are special albums.  Dark.  Bluesy.  Heavy.  Evil.  But with a lot of soul.  They don’t call him “The Evil Elvis” for nothing.  And each one is unique.  Danzig I10 is a proper heavy rock album.  Danzig II: Lucifuge is bluesier, heavier and probably better.  Except when it’s not.  No, but if nothing else, the slide guitar on 777 is fucking…well, I’ve used the word already, but…Evil.  Then you get Danzig III: How the Gods Kill.  Which, first of all, as far as I’m concerned, is the greatest album name of all time.  And it’s less bluesy, but also heavier.  And darker even, if that’s possible.  And it has Anything, which, if you don’t like that song, then probably honestly you should think about going and fucking yourself.  No, seriously.  If you don’t like this song, you had better be some kind of special human being for me to want to still be friends with you.  It’s possible, yes.  Just, it won’t be easy, is what I’m saying.11

And then, yeah, Danzig IV.  Which is somehow Jared’s favorite.  Well, to each his own.  I mean, it’s a great album, no doubt.  It’s one of the Sacred Four.  But this is where he starts to introduce some techno shit.  And yeah, it works.  And yeah, there are great tracks.  But it’s my least favorite of the four.  Which means it’s still better than anything most bands have done.

Anyway, one of the great things about Danzig is the atmosphere it/he/they create(s).  I don’t know how he does it.  But you put on a Danzig album, and it doesn’t matter where you are.  You put on a Danzig album, and it’s automatically a cold, grey, rainy, autumn day.  And when it is actually a cold, grey, rainy, autumn day, well, it’s that…squared.  I love Danzig is what I’m saying.

Right.  So I put on Danzig I.  Which wasn’t even the point.  The point was, after that, I put on Van Halen II.  Ugh, do I need to do a Van Halen thing now?  And the answer is yes, because apparently I can’t ever get to my actual point.  But this will be shorter than the Danzig thing…

…OK, so Halen.  It’s a weird band.  Like, you can either love them or hate them.  You can even do both.  But it’s hard to be in between.  I tend to do both.  Sometimes I love VH.  Sometimes I think it’s the stupidest most self-indulgent shit ever.  But they’re fun.  Ok.  They’re more fun with Roth.  But it’s probably better music with Hagar.  Or is it?  I usually think so.  Except, do I?  Fuck, no, we’re not doing the DLR/Hagar debate here.

But I recently watched a live video of Dance the Night Away, which by any metric is just a good fucking tune.  And you watch this band, and you just see how much fun they’re having.  And that’s not nothing.

But also, Van Halen has this going for them.  They were always Shyer’s favorite band, along with Rush.12  Shyer, you may remember, was the drummer in my band and also my brother’s best friend; the band I played in with Jared and my brother and Rob.  Also the most wonderful, gifted drummer I’ve ever played with.  He visited me in Berlin last year.  Well, he visited Berlin last year.  Not for me.  But we met up.  The point is, I love Shyer.  And Shyer loves the Halen.  So I can’t listen to that band and not think of that guy.  And that always makes me happy.  Because I love Shyer…

So, uh, that’s what I cut from the last post.  And that’s where we’ll stop.  But first let me say this.  If you’re a metal fan, go listen to some Priest.  And while you’re at it, listen to some Halen.  Not much, because they get old fast.  But listen to Dance the Night Away.  And if you have “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” listen to Runaround, Top of the World and Right Now.  Trust me, it’s worth it.

And if you like dark, heavy stuff, acquaint yourself with the first four Danzig albums.  The best way is to just go through them chronologically.  But if you can’t be bothered, then just listen to
“Danzig II: Lucifuge.”  And if you really can’t be bothered, at least listen to Anything, off “Danzig III: How the Gods Kill.”  Which again, is the greatest album name of all time.

And if you’re any kind of music fan…no, you know what?  If you have a beating heart, go listen to Thin Lizzy.  If you want an album, it’s “Jailbreak.”  Or “Fighting.”  Or “Live and Dangerous.”  If you need a song, well, we all know The Boys are Back in Town.  But if you want a new song, heres’ three: Running Back, Angel from the Coast and Song for While I’m Away.  And yeah, Whiskey in the Jar.

And if you somehow don’t like Thin Lizzy, after listening to those songs or albums, then do me a favor.  Keep it to yourself, yeah?  I mean, I love you.  And I’d like to keep it that way.

זײַ געסונט

 

  1. I’m not sure how I feel about using “ain’t” in the classroom.  On the one hand, if they’re learning English for the workplace – which they are – it’s not only not useful, but possibly even counterproductive.  On the other hand, if they’re going to interact with music and television – which they do – I feel like it’s something they should know. []
  2. As I’m proofreading this, it occurs to me that if you break apart viel|leicht, what you get is something that literally means “very light.”  And, like, that’s an interesting way to think about a possibility, about a ‘maybe.’  There’s a very light chance of it happening. []
  3. I assume that’s lost on all but J-Dawg and Joschel. []
  4. What a beautiful language! []
  5. Bless his soul and may he rest in peace.  I love you, Dio. []
  6. Other people say that about Zep.  I don’t.  For my money, Zeppelin is shit.  If you want heavy, listen to Sabbath.  If you want actual good musicianship, listen to Purple.  Because Page isn’t fit to carry Blackmore’s guitar case, imho.  And Jon Lord alone is worth ten Led Zeppelins.  And maybe Robert Plant is “better” than Ozzy.  But he ain’t better than Ian Gillain or David Coverdale or Glenn Hughes.  Fuck Zeppelin, is what I’m saying.  Even though I know I’m pretty much alone on this. []
  7. And apparently Wishbone Ash.  But I never got into them. []
  8. I really want to go on about Thin Lizzy.  I won’t, but I want to.  I will say this though.  If you somehow don’t like Thin Lizzy, I’m going to have to think long and hard about if we can be friends.  I’m not saying it’s impossible.  But I am saying I’ll have misgivings.  That’s where I hold Thin Lizzy. []
  9. If you don’t know The Misfits, then, I dunno, I can’t help you.  Get out from under whatever rock your living under and go know The Misfits. []
  10. Really, it’s just called “Danzig.”  But this is easier. []
  11. So apparently, I feel about Anything the way I feel about Thin Lizzy. []
  12. No.  We’re definitely not doing a Rush thing here.  I mean, we could.  Even if we take two albums: 2012 and Grace Under Pressure…No!  Stop! []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
17 March, 20181

Welp, I’m 37 now.  And I don’t really know what to say about that except, perhaps, fuck you, Time, you merciless, relentless bastard.  And while we’re at it, it’s your fault Vin Scully won’t be calling ballgames anymore.  Like, what’s your deal?  One minute I’m 25, living in Manhattan, drinking unlimited mimosas at brunch after a late night out and feeling fine.  And the next minute, I’m 37 in Berlin and hangovers last 24 hours.  But every day of the Trump presidency is new, waking hell and one year is an eternity?  Like I said, fuck you, Time.

That said, I had a pretty decent birthday this year.  First of all, Charlotte came to visit, which was…fine.  It was fine.  She sends me a message about two weeks beforehand.  “How would you feel about your best friend coming to visit for your birthday?”  “What?  Jared’s coming??!!  How do you even know that??”  “What?”  “Ooohhh, you mean you.  Yeah, that’d be…fine.  It’d be fine.”

No, seriously though.  It was great.  I mean, that’s pretty special when your friend in another country just up and offers to fly to Berlin for your birthday.  Obviously we had a great time.  First of all, she’s the first proper visitor I’ve had to my place here.  I mean, Anne’s been over a couple of times.  And I had that dinner party.  But this was my first proper visiting guest.

And she was pretty excited to see my place as well.  As she put it, for the last two years in the states, I was living with my folks.  So it wasn’t really my place.  You have to go all the way back to 2014 for the last time she visited me in my own apartment.  Anyway, the moment she steps into my room, she smiles and says, “Ah, it smells like you!”  She meant the pipe smell, obvi.

It kinda reminded me of the last time Niki came to my apartment in Chinatown, after all my furniture had been moved out.  And she said, “I’m gonna miss this smell.”   Anyway, C loved my place here.  It was so me, she said.  The candles, the books, the wooden furniture.  So that was very cool.

And it was just a nice old-timey visit.  We played Yatzee, we talked shop, we drank bottles of wine, we played music.  We even learned a new kickass song.  Pourtant, by Vanessa Paradis.  For one thing, the guitar part is crazy fun to play.  For another thing, C does the singing.  That’s actually been one really cool thing to have watched develop over the years.

In the beginning, I did all the singing.  I don’t know how much of that was just me knowing the songs, or her being self-conscious.  I guess I don’t actually know if she was self-conscious about singing.  But she didn’t do it in the beginning, is the point.  After a while though, she’d start doubling up with me on a couple of songs: Bobby Darin’s Dream Lover, a French version of Rammstein’s Seemann that we had worked up.

But somewhere along the line, she started singing some songs on her own.  Carla Bruni’s Quelqu’un M’a Dit, Sympathique by Pink Martini and this song by Moriarty which I call “The Buffalo Song,” but which I think is actually called Jimmy.  Anyway, I rather enjoy when she takes over the vox.  First of all, it’s a nice break for me.  But also, her voice is…fine.  I mean, it’s fine.  No, seriously, she sings really rather well, and she has a nice voice.2  But also, as I wrote in my one of my previous posts, it just feels good to play with somebody.  To jam, to have that chemistry, to bring music to life.  Man, I miss that.

The one song we haven’t beaten yet is Sound of Silence.  Mostly because I haven’t been able to master the harmony.  Mostly bc I never work on it on my own.  But we’ll get it eventually.  And when we do, well, that will be fun.

As with most things, I left the planning of my birthday to the last possible minute.  Which Joschka loves.  Finally, I decided on going to this metal bar, which is the closest thing we’ve found in Berlin to Duffs.  Of course I was late.  To my own birthday.  Because of course I was.  Which Joschka also loves.  Anyway, me and C roll up to the metal bar – Blackland – to find J waiting outside with Annett and a friend she’d brought.  Apparently, there was a record release party that night, and thus a ten euro cover.  A fact I might have known, had I done any advance research whatsoever.  Well, anyway, fuck a ten euro cover, amirite?

So we went down the block to this Eckkneippe – corner pub – which was, in fact, the same Eckkneippe where me and Anne had got trashed on Glühwein earlier this winter.  It turned out to be perfect.  Plenty of room.  A big table where we could all sit together.  Pool.  Darts.  Cheap drinks.  Local Berlin flavor.  Next time I do a big outing, I think that’s where I shall do it.

So it was me and C, J, Annett and her friend.  A bit later Cindy showed up, and then Anne.  For a while we all just sat around the table, hanging out, drinking.  It was pretty great.  To my right, Anne and C are chatting away in French.  To my left, the others are chatting away in German.  And I’m sort of going back and forth between the two.  Because I’m so fucking cosmopolitan, ya know?

Side Note.  The next day, C told me she was really impressed with my German.  Not that she understands a word of it.  But just that it really looks like I’m fluent.  And she’s right.  It does look that way.  I mean, I can carry on, chat away at speed, make jokes, laugh at jokes.  “The trappings and the suits of fluency,” he said, adapting a quote from Shakespeare, because he’s so fucking cosmopolitan, ya know?

But what she doesn’t see, of course, is that it’s basically all wrong, what I’m saying.  Wrong genders, wrong cases, wrong prepositions, wrong word orders.  The whole “I must to go on the park to bring a piss” thing.  I spoke about that with Anne, because she’s in the same leaky boat.  We laugh about it.  But more on that later.  End Side Note.

At some point, the waitress puts a shot of whiskey in front of me, which I didn’t order.  “What’s this?” I ask.  And Joschka is like, “It’s from me.”  And I’m like, “Thanks!  What is it?”  And he’s like, “I dunno, nothing good.”  And I’m like, “Thanks?”  And he’s like, “It’s literally the best whiskey I could buy.  They have nothing here.”  Which was hilarious.  I mean, I can imagine him at the bar.  “One shot of your finest whiskey, please.”  “Sorry, we don’t have that.”

The waitress was great, btw.  Total local Berliner.  Not a word of English.  When C wanted to order a glass of wine, the poor waitress was like, “Can somebody translate?”  But she was super sweet, the waitress.

Later on, J-Dawg showed up.  J-Dawg, whose real name is Julia (pronounced Yulia), but whom I only ever call J-Dawg or Jules.  She’s the one, remember, the former student who invited me to her birthday and I was terrified to go, because speaking German with strangers.  Anyway, she came with her boyfriend.  Which was really great.  All the more so because it was totally out of their way, geography-wise.

But you know, I’m looking around the table.  And there’s Joschka, whom I’ve known since 2012 already.3  And Charlotte, whom I’ve known since 2103 already.4  And Cindy, who’s a total doll and speaks German with me and plays chess with me on the iPhone.5  And then there’s Annett, really the first friend I made in Berlin.  And Anne, my language partner, my drinking buddy, my fellow stranger-in-a-strange-land.  And J-Dawg, a former student who now is actually my friend.  And I’m thinking I ain’t doing too bad here.

Then at some point, I look around.  Some of my friends are over at the pool table.  Some others are talking amongst themselves at the table-table.  And I’m talking to who(m)ever I’m talking to.  And it was like my old birthdays in New York, at the 11th Street Tavern/Pub/Bar whatever it was called.  Where I used to get upwards of 20 people together, and just watch them all have a good time around me, where I was free to float from one crowd to the next at my pleasure, collecting free whiskeys wherever I went.  Those were some pretty great birthdays.  Some of the best in fact.  And it was a bit surreal to realize that Joschka and Charlotte were at those parties too.  And this was like that, just smaller.  I’ll call that a birthday win, I will.  Thank you very much.

I also did pretty well on the presents front.  My roommates gave me a bottle of Tullamore Dew.  C brought me a bottle of Pastis.  Joschka gave me a nice cigar.  Even my bosses gave me a taster set of four very nice Irish whiskeys.  And Anne gave me a picture of a hoody.  Which needs explanation.

So remember I said she found this picture of these two old broads wearing sweatshirts with “New York Drinking Team” across the front?  And we decided we needed to get hoodies made that said “Berlin Drinking Team”?  Well, anyway, I mention to her that I was looking around online, and I found something that might be nice, but it would run us around 50 bucks, each.

And she’s like, “Welp, I guess I’ll give you your present now.”  And she hands me an envelope, in which was a postcard-sized printout of a hoody with “Berlin Drinking Team” printed on it.  Like, this is your present, Dave.  We just need to sort out the font and all that.  And just, wow.  Right?

Oh, also, under “Berlin Drinking Team,” in smaller type, was our slogan.  Because we have a slogan now.  See, a while back, I told her I was watching a documentary on the French Revolution.  And this revolutionary – Danton – had this awesome quote.  “Do you know it?”  “Which one?  Danton has a lot of quotes.”  “Pour vaincre, il nous faut l’audace, encore l’audace, toujours l’audace!”6  And by the end, we’re basically shouting “Toujours l’audace!” together.  So yeah, she knew the quote.  And now that’s the official slogan of the Berlin Drinking Team.

So that’s about it for the birthday.  It would have been nice if the roommies could have come.  But they just had their one-year anniversary.  And the same day as my birthday outing, they had a huge family party that was like eight hours long.  So they were pretty dead by the end of it.  Schade.  Too bad.  But they continue to be great.  And they were really sweet with C too, which was lovely.

Monday I was over at Anne’s for a bit of day drinking, as I didn’t have any lessons that day.  She made lunch.  We drank many beers.  We played this great little game, the name of which I forget.  But it’s a little wooden board with a spinning top and…ah, fuck it.  I can’t describe it.  But it was a lot of fun.  I kinda want one.

We also listened to music.  As you do.  I found a record in her collection which I had to play.  Because on the cover was a middle-aged French dude with a baller moustache and a pipe.  So how could I not?  Georges something-or-other.  Anyway, it was really good, and I need to download some.  Just as soon as I remember the fella’s name.

Towards the end, we switched to my iPhone.  The first thing I put on was Danzig I.  Because that’s a great fucking album.  Do I need to a Danzig thing here?  OK, fine.  Glenn Danzig was the singer for the Misfits.7  Then he went solo…

[…]

Right.  So I put on Danzig I.  Which wasn’t even the point.  The point was, after that, I put on Van Halen II.  Ugh, do I need to do a Van Halen thing now?  And the answer is yes, because apparently I can’t ever get to my actual point.  But this will be shorter than the Danzig thing…

[…]8

Aaaannnyyyywwaaaay…the point – finally, the fucking point – is that after Danzig, I put on Van Halen IIDance the Night Away, specifically.  And Anne – remember, I’m at Anne’s house now, where this story started 37 pages ago – and Anne says “Is this also Danzig?”  What? No!  This is Van Halen!  And she’s like, “Van Halen?!  Omg we have to watch the Hot for Teacher video!”  And then she did the jazz hands.  Because in the video they do jazz hands.  So we watched the Hot for Teacher video.  Which was hilarious.  And then that was the end of Monday Day Drinking for the Berlin Drinking Team.

Tuesday, I met up with Dafna.  Dafna?  Yeah, she’s the Israeli girl.  My first time in Berlin, 2015, we did a Shabbas dinner for the goyim.  Then in 2016, we did a Rosh HaShanah dinner, also for the goyim.  And then she moved away for her studies.  Anyway, she’s back in Berlin and emailed me about meeting for a beer.  Which we did.  Well, which I did.  Actually, she drank tea.  Whatever.  But that was cool.  Well, apart from me being like 40 minutes late.  But she gave the wrong address.  Otherwise I would only have been 25-30 minutes late.  Because Dave.

Anyway, it was cool, like I said.  Like, it’s cool to have another Jew in Berlin.  But it’s also strange.  Because she’s an Israeli Jew.  And I’m a New York Jew.  Big difference.  She’s all tough and badass, and I’m all self-deprecating and borderline neurotic.  And the Israelis dumped Yiddish after the Holocaust.  Language of The Weak and all that.  So in speaking of my hour-long commute, I’m like, “What a schlepp!”  And she’s like, “Huh?”

Or another example.  Somewhere in the course of our conversation, the Jewish prayer shawl came up.  You know, as it does.  But for some reason, I couldn’t remember the name for it.  And she’s all, “Bad Jew, I’m not gonna help you.”  Anyway, like half an hour later, she’s talking, and I interrupt, slapping my hands on the table, giving her a bit of a start.  “Talis!” I yell, accent on the first syllable.  And she’s all, “Umm, what?”  “Talis!” I say again, “The prayer shawl.”  And she’s just looking at me like I have two heads.

And then I remember.  “Ooohhh.  Taleet,” I say, accent on the second syllable, ending with “t” instead of “s.”  Because, see, that’s the Israeli pronunciation.  And she’s like, “Oh, yeah.  What the fuck is a talis?”  And I’m like, “That’s how we say it.  In New York.  That’s the Yiddish pronunciation.”  And she’s all, “Yeah, that’s dumb.  We don’t say that.”  Which, they don’t.

Because that’s the point.  After the war, the people who went on to Israel decided, as I said, to forget all about Yiddish.  Language of the Weak, language of the sheep who marched their owned damned selves onto the trains.  So when the Israelis brought Hebrew back to life, they made a point of restoring the “original” pronunciation.  So they put the accent on the last syllable instead of the first.  And they pronounce final tav (ת) as “t” instead of “s.”  Although, really the “original” pronunciation would have had “th” instead of “t”; whence “Sabbath.”  But whatever.

Anyway, it was a good time.  Also a good time was, a few weeks ago I met up with another former student, Margit.  I kind of adore Margit, or Mag.  I don’t know how old she is, but she’s got two teenagers, so I’m guessing 50-something.  Anyway, she’s fantastic.  Like, simultaneously sassy and motherly.  Like, she’ll give me shit and joke about all manner of inappropriate subjects, but also kinda looks out for me.  Actually, she reminds me quite a bit of my mom.  Maybe that’s why I like her so much.  But the point was, I met up with Mag a couple of weeks ago, and it was lovely to see her.  And as I’ve said before, one of the things I love about my job, is just all the awesome people I meet, people who become my friends after they’ve left the school.

Speaking of which, Friday was the last day for three of my students.  One is that Polish girl who brought me the pickles.  She’s a real character.  But also, she started in the beginner class and progressed all the way to the advanced.  And she’ll have no problem getting B2 on her exam.  She might even get C1; she’s certainly capable of it.  Just that she doesn’t work fast enough yet, and it’s a timed exam.  Given another month, I’m certain she’d nail it.  The point is, I’m actually really proud of her.

Another one whose last day was Friday was the girl I mentioned last time, the one I hope maybe we can do some music together.  I love this kid, also my age, btw.  Total smartass.  For instance.  Today, I’m like, “So for her homework – ,” and she cuts me off.  “I don’t care about your homework, Dave!”  And I was just like, “Omg, have you always been such a bitch?”  And she just starts laughing and bites her tongue and gives me this little wink.  Like, you’ve reached a special place with your students when you can call one of them a bitch in class and have it be OK.  And yeah, obviously, don’t do that.  But also, cool.

Anyway, at the end of the day, she’s like, “Wait!”  And she pulls out of her bag two craft beers.  And one one, she wrote “Thank you…” and on the other, “…Dave.”  And she runs up to the front of the room and gives them to me.  And of course, I’m like, “Ugh, do I have to, like, hug you now, or something?”  And she all like rolls her eyes and shit, and’s like “You don’t have to,” and starts to walk away.  To which, of course, I’m like, “Fuck you, bring it in.”  So we had a little hug, and that was very sweet.  And also, she’s married, so don’t ask.

But also also, last week she helped me make a doctor’s appointment.  Yes, mom, everything’s fine.  Just, I was a bit under the weather, and I’m paying for this health insurance, so, you know, use it and shit.  But I’d never made an appointment over the phone before, and I didn’t know what questions they might ask and what if I didn’t understand something, yadda yadda.  So I asked her if she could just come with me to make the call, in case I needed help.  Because I do think of her as a friend, and I do trust her.  And she did.  And I really appreciated that.

And also also also, one other thing I like about this kid, she appreciates word play.  So I’m looking at the beers she gave me, and she’s like, “Look on the back!”  And there was a note on the back.  It said, “By Nina…Bye…”  Yes!  She punned on the beers she gave me!  I love my job.

Right.  So this post is already over-long, and even so, there’s things I haven’t gotten to.  Like, so many Torah thoughts.  But that’s for next time.  Right now, I want to close with a few words about Harvey Blatt.

I’ve known Bobby since I’m, what, 15?  We went to travel camp together.  He taught me how to play Iron Man and Paranoid on this little portable electric guitar while we rode the bus that magical summer.  He was the drummer in the first band I ever played in, Sweet ETP.9  He played bass in The Fury.  In those teenage years, Rob was the groundbreaker, the pathfinder.  He did everything first.  Among other things, he introduced us to all kinds of music, by way of his older brother Russ’ record collection.

Our band practiced in his basement.  We had parties in that basement.  I can still smell that basement.  For years, we were at his house, every Monday night without fail, to watch wrestling.  Hell, during college, we even went to his house to watch wrestling…while he was away at college!

That house was a second home to all of us.  To Harriet, his mom, we were “The Boys.”  She treated us like we were her own children.  She cooked for us.  She bought junk food for us.  She gave us advice about girls and about life.

To his dad, we were, I suppose, “Those Idiots.”  But there was no malice in those words, no contempt.  There was love though.  I mean, fuck, we were teenage boys.  What were we, if we weren’t idiots?  Harvey Blatt was Rob’s dad.

And look, I don’t pretend to “know” the man.  But I knew him how I knew him, if that makes any sense.

Harvey was incredibly sweet, and somehow, even more generous.  I’ll come to the generosity in a moment.  First the sweet.  Look, he wasn’t affectionate.  He wasn’t demonstrative.  And again, I’m speaking from my interactions with the man.  But what I remember, was a man full of zingers, almost always directed at Rob, but sometimes at us too, the idiots.

But man, he was funny!  He just made you laugh, you know?  And the thing with the zingers was, you never doubted that they were coming from a place of love.  I mean that.  You never doubted it.  Lemme try and paint a picture, though really more a silhouette.

Harvey was the lord of his manor.  Not in a heavy-handed way.  Not in a way that diminished Harriet in the least, who was very much the lady of the manor, so to speak.  Just that, when Harvey came into the room, you knew you were in his house.  But he had this way of surveying the scene.  Of looking down on us idiots.  No, literally, looking down.  Because the living room was sunk a bit lower than the rest of the house.  So he’d stand on the steps of the kitchen – adjacent to the living room – and look out over his domain.

And he’d see the idiots, watching wrestling, eating M&M’s, and just generally acting like stupid teenagers.  And this was his son.  And his son’s friends.  And you know, I believe he enjoyed that.  I believed he enjoyed seeing his youngest son enjoying life, having a good time, surrounded by his best friends.  I believe he knew how much love was in that room full of idiots.  And I think he was proud, you know?  I think he was proud to be able to give his son this life.  I think he was proud that it was his home that was the second home to all of these clowns.  And then, you know, he’d zing Bobby and we’d all laugh and Rob would cringe and that would be that.  Then Harvey would go elsewhere.

But this was a guy who, his home was our home.  This was a place where the boys could congregate and be idiots.  He gave us that.

I said generous.  There was one year – and I don’t remember the occasion – he bought us all, all six of us, tickets to WrestleMania XX.  At Madison Square Garden.  Look, if you’re not a wrestling fan, you just can’t grasp how big a deal this was.  But it was huge fucking deal.  And those tickets weren’t cheap.  And we were all just out of college, so we didn’t have the proverbial pot to piss in.  And he just, he just bought us those tickets.  For the idiots.  For the clowns that had been clowning around in his house all those years.

And he didn’t want anything in return.  He didn’t expect anything.  He just knew how much it meant to us, and that was all he needed.  And he didn’t come with us either, mind you.  It wasn’t, “I’m taking you guys to WrestleMania.”  Oh no.  He had literally zero interest.  But we had interest.  So he did that for us.

And I should add, just for the sake of clarity and at the risk of redundancy, we didn’t ask.  We didn’t hint.  We didn’t fish for it.  I mean, I have no idea if Rob spoke to him about it or asked for it.  But we certainly didn’t.  For us, it was a complete surprise.  And just wonderful.10

One other story of Harvey’s generosity.  One year, during college, the way the schedule worked out, I wasn’t able to make it home for my family’s Passover Seder.  Which, if you’re Jewish, you get; and if you’re not, just, it’s a big deal is all you need to know.

Anyway, I asked Rob if it would be OK if I came to his family’s Seder, which was on a different day.  And of course I was welcomed with open arms.  Harriet was delighted, because Harriet.  Anyway, it comes time to search for the Afikomen.  Which, I can’t believe I have to explain this for the gentiles, but here’s the short version.  The Afikomen is a piece of Matzah, a cracker basically.  The grownups hide it and the kids do a scavenger hunt for it.  And the winner gets some kind of prize.  A money prize.

Actually, it’s not a prize, per se.  Really, the kid who finds it is supposed to “sell” it back to the grownups.  I mean, we’re Jews, what did you expect?  But the point is, it’s for the kids, the children.  Normally, college age kids don’t participate in this.  You’ve aged out of it.

Fine.  So they do the whole Afikomen shtick.  And I stay in my seat.  But one of Rob’s (also college-aged) cousins says, “Dave, you’ll want to get in on this.”  And I’m like, “But surely it’s just for the children.”  And she’s like, “Trust me.”  At which point, she gets up and joins the hunt.  Well, when in Rome, right?

Fast forward to some little cousin finds the damn thing.  And we all line up, like ducks in a row, so Harvey can give the prize.  I should say here, that in my family, whoever found the Afikomen usually walked away with no more than $20, and probably less.  I say this, because Harvey put five hundred (500!) dollars into the hand of whatever prepubescent cousin had found The Big A.

But wait, there’s more!  Then, Harvey walks down the line, and into the hand of each loser, he places a fresh, crisp, hundred (100!) dollar bill.  I could have untied my shoes with my teeth, so far had my jaw fallen.

One last thing about Harvey and then we can wrap up.  This was a man who worked incredibly hard, built a business and did very very well for himself.  And then there was us.  It looks different now.  It looks different when Jared is a social worker and Adam is an attorney and on and on.  But way back when – and honestly, for me still – we didn’t know what the fuck we would do with our lives.

And Rob studied one thing, and then he studied another thing, and then he had one job and then he had a totally different job.  All of which is fine and normal yadda yadda.  All I’m saying is, Harvey was a guy who knew exactly what he was doing and Rob was a guy who was very much figuring it out.

And, you know, you read stories about demanding fathers.  Fathers who are disappointed in their sons, because the sons fail to live up to whatever impossible expectations the fathers had set for them.  Yes, it’s a trope.  But it’s a trope because it’s real.  That happens.

And I don’t pretend to know what went on behind closed doors.  I can only speak to what I saw.  But what I saw was this.  I saw a man who, without question or hesitation, supported his son at every turn.  A man who believed in his son, who wanted him to succeed.  But more importantly, a man who wanted his son to succeed at what his son wanted, not at what he himself might have wished.

And when you get down to it, what more can you ask from a father?

Unwavering, unquestioning support and love.  Generosity.  But a generosity that extended beyond the circle of the man’s own family.  A generosity that encompassed the loved ones of the people he loved.  And humor.  Because after love, what does more for the heart – for the soul – than laughter?

Rest in peace, Harvey Blatt.  And rest easy, for we will all will carry just a bit of that love which you have shared with us, in the kindness of your heart.

זײַ געסונט

 

  1. I wrote this post on the 17th, but for a number of reasons, it’s taken me a week to get it posted.  All temporal references are from the perspective of the 17th and not today, the 24th. []
  2. Ugh, she’s going to read this. []
  3. Jesus fucking Christ. []
  4. Cf. footnote 2. []
  5. And who lately has been kicking my ass. []
  6. “For victory, we must have audacity, and again audacity, always audacity!”  I’m going with the most literal translation of ‘audace’ here, but maybe there’s a better word. []
  7. If you don’t know The Misfits, then, I dunno, I can’t help you.  Get out from under whatever rock you’re living under and go know The Misfits. []
  8. You will notice the pair of lacunae here.  I had gone off on a couple of tangents.  One about Danzig, the other about Van Halen.  But this post wound up being way too long, so I cut them.  But I think I’ll do a separate post on music soon, in which I’ll include said tangents.  #yourewelcome []
  9. Elizabeth Taylor’s Penis.  It’s a fragrance.  Don’t ask. []
  10. Also, Chris Benoit won the title.  And I don’t want to go down a wrestling rabbit-hole here, but, at the time, that was just the most amazing thing in the world.  And to be there for that… []

The Federalist Project – #5

The Federalist Project
Federalist No. 5

Jay

10 November, 1787

 

Ostensibly on the advantages of Union, Federalist No. 5 – Jay’s last contribution to the series – really focuses on the dangers of dis-union and the various hypothetical futures which might attend it.  Several historical examples are also given in support of the argument.  As in my previous essay, we will proceed through J’s arguments paragraph by paragraph, beginning with the first:

Paragraph One begins with a nod to historical authority, in the form of a letter by England’s Queen Ann to the Scottish Parliament:

  • “Queen Ann, in her letter of the 1st July 1706 to the Scotch Parliament, makes some observations on the importance of the Union then forming between England and Scotland, which merit our attention.”
    • J begins by laying the groundwork for – preparing the reader to – expect a discussion on the manifold advantages of Union. Yet this line of argument does not really get beyond the second paragraph.  Thereafter, it is about the disadvantages of disunion.  But first, Ann’s argument for:
  • “An entire and perfect Union will be the solid foundation of lasting peace: It will serve your religion, liberty, and property, remove the animosities amongst yourselves, and the jealousies and differences betwixt our two kingdoms.”
    • Interesting that she (and by extension, J) leads with ‘serve your religion.’ Though I am no student of Scotch/English history, I know that there were plenty of religious wars between them, of the Catholic/Protestant variety.  Whose religion, then, is being served?  Or does she here mean the freedom to practice freely the religion of one’s own choosing?  If so, that would be interesting in itself, as it is not that long (1620) that the Puritans feld religious persecution in coming to the New World.  And can J really mean the freedom to practice freely the religion of one’s own choosing?  On the one hand, no doubt America is religiously pluralistic: Anglicans, Catholics, Puritans, Quakers, et al; even Jews.  On the other hand, H himself sang the praises of a nation which ‘Providence has been pleased to give…to one united people…professing the same religion…’ (F.2.5).  Therefore, I must conclude at least, that whatever its advantages, Union is hardly a guarantee of the “security” of religion, at least, any more than separate States or confederacies would be.
  • “It must encrease your strength, riches, and trade: And by this Union the whole Island, being joined in affection and free from all apprehensions of different interest, will be enabled to resist all its enemies.”
    • ‘It must encrease your strength, riches, and trade’ – This, no doubt, is the strongest – and most incontrovertible – of arguments.
    • ‘…being joined in affection and free from all apprehensions of different interest…’ – This is almost laughable. How many Scots – then or now – speak of England with ‘affection’?  As for ‘free from all apprehensions of different interest,’ I highly doubt this was absolutely true of England and Scotland, even if it were comparatively true vis-à-vis the time before Union.  As for the US, this would hardly be true of the various sections (i.e. North/South) in Union, certainly up to the Civil War.  One may even question how true it is now, to a certain degree (e.g. Coasts v. Heartland) when looking at strictly domestic  Though one must concede that the argument stands scrutiny when considering Union vis-à-vis foreign affairs.
  • “…[Union] being the only effectual way to serve our present and future happiness; And disappoint the designs of our and your enemies, who will doubtless, on this occasion, use their utmost endeavours to prevent or delay this Union.”
    • This will essentially serve as the Leitmotif of J’s arguments in this essay.

 

¶ 2 simply restates the thrust of F.4:

  • “It was remarked in the preceding Paper, that weakness and division at home, would invite dangers from abroad; And that nothing would tend more to secure us from them than Union, strength, and good Government within ourselves. This subject is copious and cannot easily be exhausted.”
    • F.5 is not all that different than F.4.  It makes much the same argument, and in much the same way.

 

J is always strongest, in my mind, when he bases his arguments in cold reality, whether that be the current geo-political situation or historical example.  In ¶3, J makes use of the latter:

  • “The history of Great Britain is the one with which we are in general the best acquainted, and it gives us many useful lessons. We may profit by their experience, without paying the price which it cost them.”
    • Right enough, and thus a good starting point. Though as for ‘the price which it cost them,’ I’m not sure what he means.  Perhaps this would be more obvious to the contemporary reader.
  • “Altho’ it seems obvious to common sense, that the people of such an island, should be but one nation, yet we find that they were for ages divided into three, and that those three were almost constantly embroiled in quarrels and wary with one another.”
    • How, in any sense of the word, is that ‘obvious’? Of the three, the weaker two – Scotland & Wales – were of a different ethnicity (Celtic opp. Germanic/Anglo-Norman), speaking their own distinct languages and having their own different histories.  Foregoing the earlier Roman and then Germanic (to say nothing of Norse) invasions, which pushed aside the native Celts (Britons included), the fact that they were ‘embroiled in quarrels and wary’ owes far more to English aggression, and ultimately domination, than to anything else.  And their eventual Union owed far more to England’s comparative strength than to anything that might be termed ‘affection.’  That said, problems of historical accuracy aside, the argument serves rhetorically to prepare the reader to agree with the real point of the paragraph, to wit:
  • “Notwithstanding their true interest, with respect to the continental nations was really the same, yet by the arts and practices of those nations, their mutual jealousies were perpetually kept enflamed…”
    • Here we get to the main point. They have more in common in terms of interest than they do with any other powers.
  • “…and for a long series of years they were far more inconvenient and troublesome, than they were useful and assisting to each other.”
    • This is essentially a re-stating of his warning that ‘independent and probably discordant republics or confederacies…[could] perhaps [be] played off against each other’ (F.4.17). But here it is given the weight of historical example.

 

In ¶4, J holds forth on the probable outcome(s) of disunion:

  • “Should the people of America divide themselves into three or four nations, would not the same thing happen? Would not similar jealousies arise; and be in like manner cherished?  Instead of their being “joined in affection, and free from all apprehension of different interest” [sic] envy and jealousy would soon extinguish confidence and affection, and the partial interests of each confederacy, instead of the general interests of all America, would be the only objects of their policy and pursuits.”
    • The rhetorical questions follow logically from the preceding paragraph. J then answers his own rhetorical questions.  The conclusion, based on his arguments, is logically sound.  The question is, does he imply such a rosy picture of Union while underestimating the degree of division between the sections, or to present a counterweight to those same divisions?  With knowledge of the Civil War to come, it may feel to the modern reader that he underestimates them.  Yet by giving the negative outcome of disunion so clearly and forcefully, it suggests that he has a firm grasp of the underlying problems and divisions inherent among the States.
  • “Hence like most other bordering nations, they would always be either envolved in disputes and war, or live in the constant apprehension of them.”
    • As an argument, it is more or less redundant. However, it is an interesting insight into what was considered the natural order of things at the time – and indeed up to 1945.  Yet we can look at Europe today, or our relations with Canada and Mexico, and see that this hardly need be considered de facto  Could J ever have imagined a world like this?

 

¶5 sees J directly addressing the proponents of smaller confederacies.  In so doing, he argues that nothing resembling a reasonable balance of power can be long maintained, if it is even possible to establish such a balance at the outset:

  • “The most sanguine advocates for three or four confederacies, cannot reasonably suppose that they would long remain exactly on an equal footing in point of strength, even if it was possible to form them so at first…”
    • Although J grudgingly admits of a (brief) theoretical equality between confederacies, he essentially sees the enterprise as effectively zero-sum. If one succeeds, another – or all others – must fail.  However, I fail to see why.  If all the constituent parts of the Union have what it takes to succeed together, does it not stand to reason that they could each do so separately?  Tearing themselves apart through jealousy is one thing.  Simply not being able to succeed on their own merits seems quite another.  But we will examine this further in the course of this essay…
  • “…but admitting that to be practicable, yet what human contrivance can secure the continuance of such equality.”
    • This is little more than rhetorical fluff, as the point is already made well enough in the first part of the sentence. But the rhetoric is worth looking at.  We should note the strong language: ‘what human contrivance.’  The proposal is beyond difficult, J argues.  So far beyond difficult in fact, that it exceeds human capacity.  It is thus virtually impossible.  Also of note is the assonance: ‘contrivance…continuance.’  Both words start and end with the same sound.  Finally, it is a rhetorical question, yet he ends with a period.  It is not even worth trying to answer against it.  It is as good as fact.
  • “Independent of those local circumstances which tend to beget and encrease power in one part, and to impede its progress in another…”
    • Presumably, he is referring to natural resources, technological development, internal improvements, etc. J treats this as a throwaway, yet to me, it is far more important than his main argument, which follows…
  • “…we must advert to the effects of that superior policy and good management which would probably distinguish the Government of one above the rest, and by which their relative equality and in strength and consideration, would be destroyed.”
    • “In other words, the quality of one Government must necessarily be superior to others, and to the detriment of others. It would be lovely to think that by this he somehow means that a Northern confederacy, free from slavery, would inherently be of a better and stronger Government than a Southern confederacy based on slavery, and that this must lead to a diminution of the power and strength of such a confederacy.  Yet, if he does mean this, it is super-buried, for he seems really to be speaking in the usual J-esque axiomatic absolutes.
  • “For it cannot be presumed that the same degree of sound policy…would uniformly be observed by each of these confederacies, for a long succession of years.”
    • The key here is ‘for a long succession of years,’ set off by a comma, which otherwise seems unnecessary. (Though admittedly, trying to read into commas of this era – and J’s in particular – may be a bit of a fool’s errand).  In any case, this is a direct rebuke of those who would argue that separate confederacies would absolutely establish good Governments.  Perhaps they could – at the outset, J argues.  But it won’t, nay can’t, last.  This argument from the future is, of course, unprovable.  And J knows this.  Thus he will make the case in the following paragraphs.

 

In ¶5, J predicts a collapse of cooperation and failure to achieve a balance of power.  In ¶6, he paints a more vivid picture of what that would look like:

  • “Whenever, and from whatever causes, it might happen; and happen it would, that any one of these nations or confederacies should rise on the scale of political importance much above the degree of their neighbours, that moment would those neighbours behold her with envy and with fear…”
    • J here continues his argument from ¶5, driving home the point as a fait accompli that a state of equality could not long endure. With his ‘and happen it would,’ he brooks no room for debate on this subject.
  • “…Both those passions [envy and fear] would lead them to countenance, if not to promote, whatever might promise to diminish her importance; and would also restrain them from measures calculated to advance, or even to secure her prosperity.”
    • J continues to see petty rivalries as a greater motivating factor than what he calls ‘interest,’ which would guide a Union.
  • “Much time would not be necessary to enable her to discern these unfriendly dispositions – She would soon begin, not only to lose confidence in her neighbours, but also to feel a disposition equally unfavorable to them: Distrust naturally creates distrust, and by nothing is good will and kind conduct more speedily changed, than by invidious jealousies and uncandid imputations, whether expressed or implied.”
    • J foresees an inevitable cascade of failures:
      • Discern unfriendly dispositions à lose confidence/feel equally unfriendly à mutual distrust à jealousies/uncandid or implied imputations à end of good will.
    • One other thought, and I am almost hesitant to write this. J here speaks of an individual nation/confederacy as a ‘she.’  And here also he imputes to ‘her’ emotional characteristics: unfavorable disposition, distrust, good will and kind conduct, invidious jealousy, expressed and implied imputations.  Does this in any way reflect the latent sexism of the period, i.e. that women were ‘emotional’ and unstable?  Or is it simply that any nation in any context would be referred to as a ‘she,’ and that the conduct described is natural to politics, to the men who operate governments, to human nature in general?  A very brief check of where J mentions other nations shows no use of singular pronouns, so I can, at the moment, add nothing more.  And since this is J’s last essay, there may not be much more to find.  Still, I shall endeavor to keep on eye on this going forward…

 

In ¶7, J speculates, rather presciently, on what a Northern and a Southern might look like, and what their relationship to each other would likely be:

  • “The North is generally the region of strength, and many local circumstances render it probable, that the most Northern of the proposed confederacies would, at a point not very distant, be unquestionably more formidable than any of the others.”
    • J here breaks from his theoreticals and hypotheticals and returns to the real world, and in so doing, suggests a very real, probable and believable outcome.
    • ‘local circumstances’ are left unexplained and to the reader’s imagination. We should naturally assume strength of economy, size and activity of ports, cities, internal improvements, etc.  Left unstated also, but hopefully implied, are the deleterious effects of slavery on the South and their corresponding absence in the North.  We would also do well to remember that in these pre-cotton gin times, cotton was not yet king, the South was not the (cotton-based) economic power it would later become, and slavery not as profitable as it would later be.
  • “No sooner would this become evident, than the Northern Hive would excite the same Ideas and sensations in the more Southern party of America, which it formerly did in the Southern parts of Europe.”
    • By italicizing and capitalizing ‘Northern Hive’ and by comparing it to Europe, J seems to be referencing some historical circumstance which, presumably would be known to the reader. For my part, I do not know to what he refers.
  • “Nor does it appear to be a rash conjecture, that its young swarms might often be tempted to gather honey in the more blooming fields and milder air of their luxurious and more delicate neighbors.”
    • Another rare use of metaphor by J. And as with the previous example, in which he spoke of Britain (cf. F.4.14), he here uses it to describe a real-world example, rather than one of his academic theoreticals or hypotheticals.  In both cases, he can hardly be said to have gone overboard in restricting himself to two metaphors in each instance (‘nursery for seamen,’ ‘prowess and thunder’ in the former; ‘young swarms,’ and ‘gather honey’ in the latter).  Though to be sure, this passage is far more poetic than the previous, using four adjectives (‘blooming fields,’ ‘milder air,’ ‘luxurious, delicate neighbors’).  We should also note the mild use of anaphora in his double use of the comparative ‘more’.

 

In ¶8, J essentially restates his the previous argument, but in more general terms:

  • “Those who well consider the history of similar divisions and confederacies…that those in contemplation would in no other sense be neighbors, than as they would be borderers; that they would neither love nor trust one another, but on the contrary would be a prey to discord, jealousy and mutual injuries; in short that they would place us exactly in the situation which some other nations doubtless wish to see us, viz. formidable only to each other.”
    • Essentially a rehashing of the foregoing. But after the very specific picture painted in ¶7, J returns again to the vague and theoretical, leaving it to the audience to imagine for themselves what this might look like, and what nations might be the source of our troubles.  In this way, those who most perceive France as a threat or enemy are sure to imagine France, those England, England, etc.  And again, he ends with a warning.
    • “discord, jealousy and mutual injuries” – J seems largely predisposed to using the Oxford (serial) comma. Yet here he avoids it.  I cannot see that there is even the slightest shade or variation of meaning expressed by its omission.  On the contrary, I think it highlights the dangers of trying to read too much into the use of commas generally from this period.

 

J counters directly, in ¶9, those holding the opposing view:

  • “From these considerations it appears that those Gentlemen are greatly mistaken, who suppose that alliances offensive and defensive might be found between these confederacies…which would be necessary to put and keep them in a formidable state of defence against foreign enemies.”
    • J rejects again the feasibility of disunion. By invoking real ‘Gentlemen,’ he uses this paragraph to pivot away from the theoretical and back to the real world with its real players.
    • We should also not that here, as in the previous paragraph, J closes with the adjective ‘formidable.’ But in ¶8, the divided States are formidable only to each other.  Here, they fail to be formidable against their enemies.

 

J uses ¶10 as ground to analyze the real-world geopolitical situation, and to make predictions based on those analyses:

  • “When did the independent states into which Britain and Spain were formerly divided, combine in such alliances, or unite their forces against a foreign enemy?”
    • By posing this as a rhetorical question, J is confident in having the reader’s agreement.
  • “The proposed confederacies will be distinct nations.”
    • But how distinct, I wonder. Remember J’s encomium on the one-ness of the American people in F2.5?  Slavery not withstanding, do the American people have more or less in common than the English/Scots/Welsh or Castile/Aragon?  The answer seems to depend on the argument J is trying to make.
  • “Each of them would have its commerce with foreigners to regulate by distinct treaties; and as their production and commodities are different, and proper for different markets, so would those treaties be essentially different. Different commercial concerns must create different interests, and of course different degrees of political attachment to, and connection with different foreign nations.”
    • J the diplomat returns, and as usual, his analysis is clear-eyed and realistic. No coincidence then, that he here speaks of ‘interest’ rather than ‘convenience,’ ‘jealousy,’ and the like.
  • “Hence it might and probably would happen, that the foreign nations with whom the Southern confederacy might be at war, would be the one, with whom the Northern confederacy would be the most desirous of preserving peace and friendship.”
    • Very astute. During the Civil War, the South would try to engage England, with whom they had strong economic ties, to their cause.  And of course, the North feared this greatly.  Only the question of slavery, not here addressed (and apparently never addressed by J in these essays) prevented it.
  • “An alliance so contrary to their immediate interests would not therefore be easy to form, nor if formed, would it be observed and fulfilled with perfect good faith.”
    • Once again, J ends the paragraph with an unambiguous prediction of failure if the constitution is not adopted.

 

In ¶11, J continues his predictions begun in the previous paragraph before pivoting to a historical example:

  • “Nay it is far more probable that in America, as in Europe, neighboring nations, acting under the impulse of opposite interest, and unfriendly passions, would frequently be found taking different sides.”
    • Here J, in his warning, combines ‘interests’ and ‘passions.’ This is a fitting summation of all his previous analyses.
  • “Considering our distance from Europe, it would be more natural for these confederacies to apprehend danger from one another, than from distant nations, and therefore that each of them should be more desirous to guard against the others, by aid of foreign alliances, than to guard against foreign dangers by alliances between themselves.”
    • Once again, J bases his arguments on what is ‘natural,’ leaving the reader little room to argue the point within himself.
  • “And let us not forget how much more easy it is to receive foreign fleets into our ports, and foreign armies into our country, than it is to persuade or compel them to depart.”
    • No doubt the quartering of British troops in American homes and British ships in American ports during the Revolution is still fresh in J’s mind; and no doubt he assumes it is just as fresh in the minds of his readers. And we should remember that New York City – to whom this essay is largely addressed – was occupied by the British for most of the war.
  • “How many conquests di the Romans and others make in the character of allies, and what innovations did they under the same character introduce into the Governments of those whom they pretended to protect.”
    • This question, and the previous, were marked out by M as being of special import. To my eye, however, J jumps rather quickly from foreign alliances to inevitable occupation.  Especially in light of the geographic distance, which he paints as an advantage when it suits him.
    • And again, we see rhetorical questions written with a period rather than a question mark, which paints them more as fact than question.

 

In ¶12, J’s last in the Federalist, he calls for sound judgment, albeit on his terms and based on the analyses he has presented:

  • “Let candid men judge then whether the division of America into any given number of independent sovereignties would tend to secure us against the hostilities and improper interference of foreign nations.”
    • J closes his last Federalist essay with a call to judgment based on what he has argued rather than a dark warning or prediction, as in his previous essays. In a sense, he can be seen to be encouraging his readership, showing confidence in them to make the right decision.  From this point on, it will be H & M making the arguments.  J has said his piece.

The full text of Federalist No.5 can be found here.

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
24 February, 2018

Busy, busy, busy.  Which is a good thing.  I’m trying to be busy.  Because winter in this town sucks a big bag of donkey dicks.  And also an idle mind is the devil’s playground yadda yadda.  For me, I find that routine is the key.  I like routine.  I get locked in.  It keeps me keeping on, so to speak.

At the moment, the routine is this.  Do some Hebrew when I get home from work.1  Then it’s a little bit of TV before the inevitable nap.  Usually I find some documentary on the YouTubes.  But lately, I’ve been forcing myself to try and watch something in French.  Because I’m at the point now where, yeah, I read pretty easily and pretty well.  And yeah, when I have a one-on-one conversation, I do alright.  But here’s the thing with French, you guys.  The way French people speak to each other, it’s like a totally different fucking language.  And I’ve got almost no handle on that.

So here’s what I’m finding.  I actually do pretty alright with documentaries.  Because the narrators use the sort of formal – and more importantly, clearly enunciated – French that I get from books and one-to-one conversations.  I’m not saying I understand every word, mind you.  But I get most of it.  And with practice, it’s getting better.  So that’s good.  But I just found these 45 minute cartoons of some Jules Verne books.  And theoretically, they’re for kids, right?  But the characters speak in that less formal conversational French that continues to elude me.

Which, in itself, is a bit funny.  Because, I mean, it’s still the language of JV.  It’s still “formal” French; old fashioned.  So it’s not the words themselves.  It’s the way they’re spoken.  The way they all seem to run together.  The way any e without an accent gets dropped, the infamous e-caduc, that Charlotte taught me about.  The way a million other letters and syllables get dropped.  So these characters are talking in a way that’s very much meant for children to understand, and I’m just like, what the actual fuck, you guys??  Or, as I like to say, quoi le fuck?  Which of course is not actually even French.

Anyway, so yeah, I’m working on that.  “But shouldn’t you be making an effort with German?” you rightly ask.  Well, yes, I should.  To that end, I’m also trying to watch some cartoons in the Teutonic tongue.  I recently discovered that German Amazon has the old Care Bears cartoons in German.  I feel like that’s a good starting point.

The Care Bears, btw, are hilarious.  And I’m borrowing from Dave Chappelle here, but the entire premise of the show is that these little bastards actually give a fuck.  They care.  Who does that anymore?  In any case, that’s about all the effort I can make with German at the moment.

I keep telling myself I need to be reading.  And I’m not.  I keep telling myself this, though, because I’m finally beginning to see the effects that reading is having on my French.  Right, I’ve written before how I read at least an hour of French every day on the train.  So my vocabulary is growing, my syntax and grammar are improving, yadda yadda.  Which is not to say that I’m good at it.  I’ve only just said how the spoken language continues to elude me.  But I do some work for a French company, and from time to time I have to write emails to them.

A year ago, every email was a struggle.  But now I can more or less bang something out, and it’s usually pretty decent.  Yes, of course there are mistakes.  But on the whole, it’s decent French.  And I’m knocking them out fairly quickly.  I might stop to look up the gender of a word, or to double-check an idiom.  But the point is, reading every day has made writing about a million times easier, and maybe ten times better.

Which brings on a bit of self-loathing when it comes to German.  Because I’m just not making that effort.  So on the one hand, I get angry with myself for being lazy.  But I inevitably counter this by telling myself, “Hey, man, every day you’re reading French, Hebrew and Greek.  And you fucking live in German.  Relax.”  Which, OK, fair point, Davey.  But just like, how much better would I be if I actually tried?

Because I know my German is decent.  Just decent though.  At the last Stammtisch – our monthly school get-together – I was chatting with one of my advanced students in German.  Which was weird for both of us, albeit in a good way.  Because I never use any kind of sustained German with the advanced class; they don’t need it.  Anyway, he tells me he’s both genuinely impressed with my German and that it’s a disaster.

Impressed because I can absolutely carry on a conversation, and also because I’ve picked up just enough idioms and slang to hoist myself safely above the ‘stupid American’ level.  And a disaster – Germans like the word Katastrophe – because it’s just full of mistakes.  He tried to give me an example in English.  It’s as if, after correctly using a bit of slang, I were to say “OK, I must to go now onto the park to bring a piss.”  Like, yeah, I know what you mean, but everything about that is just so wrong.

So I’d like to fix those things.  And I feel like the best way to get on top of it is just to read.  But I don’t.  I don’t want to.  And the reason I don’t want to?  Not because there’s no time.  I could make the time if I were properly motivated.  The problem is, there’s just so…many…words.  And I just can’t be arsed to be constantly nachschlagging2 shit, to be constantly looking shit up.  That, more than anything, is what makes me feel like a lazy POS with this language.

— Interpolation: I just saved this file. And in so doing, I saw that my last post was dated January 27.  So it’s been a month since my last post?  How is that even possible?  Where is the time going?  Fuck, I’m almost 37.  Fuuuuuuuuck.  :End Interpolation —

I had family dinner with the roommates last weekend.  We were celebrating Lucy’s new job.  She’s just finishing up her degree in geophysics (!?) and has been looking for her first real academic job.  And she just landed one, and not too far away either.  Something about growing crystals, I guess.  So we had to celebrate.

Funny thing about jobs in this country.  You’re actually required to give at least two-weeks notice.  And since that’s required, no job starts immediately either.  The whole, “So, when can you start?” thing isn’t a thing here.  They hire you and it’s like, “Great, see you in a month.”  It’s a strange place.

Anyway.  Normally when we have dinner, we’ll hang out for an hour or two afterwards, have a few drinks, chit-chat, that sort of thing.  This time though, we hung out until midnight.  Like, five hours, I think.  A good deal of it was them showing me funny videos on the YouTubes.  I don’t mean cat videos.  I mean, old TV shows and the like.  But all comedy, is the point.  I got maybe 20% of it.  I mean, comedy is the hardest thing to master.  It’s usually the last thing people get a handle on in a second language.  So the few things that I actually understood were quite funny, but most of it was over my head.

Well, at one point, they ask me, “So, Dave, what do you think is funny?  What do you watch?”  Monty Python obviously.  Obviously.  So I pull up the Cheese Shop Sketch.  One of my absolute favs.  And I’m loving it.  But at the end, they were so lost.  “So…he’s just naming like a million different cheeses?”  Yes.  “And the shop doesn’t actually have any cheese?”  Yes.  “Even though it’s a cheese shop?”  Yes!  Isn’t it genius???  “Well, now at least we know how you feel when we make you watch things.”  Erm, yes.

But it did remind me of the first time my Dad made me watch Python.  It was the Dead Parrot Sketch.  Obviously.  I must have been around 13 at the time, I’m guessing.  “So, he wants to return a dead parrot?”  Yes.  “And he’s insisting that it’s not actually dead?”  Yes.  “Even though it’s very clearly dead?”  Yes.  “And just so I have this straight, he’s insisting it’s not dead so he can return it?”  Yes!  Isn’t it genius???  Erm, yes?

So then I made them watch some clips from Airplane.  That was a little easier.  Though still a lot of it was over there head.  Like the Jive-Talkers.  Good times.  No really, it was good times.

Yeah, man, this Torah shit is boring me half to death at the moment.  I’m at the back end of Exodus now.  And there’s no story to it.  Like, they got out of Egypt and now they’re chilling in the dessert.  And now it’s just a lot of rules and instructions on how to build the ark of the covenant, and the altar and the menorah and all that jazz.  And then I remembered that the word תורה – Torah – literally means “law.”  Oh yeah, now it all makes sense.  Do this.  Do that.  Don’t do this.  Don’t do that.  And also you shall not suffer a sorceress to live amongst you.  Like, they just drop that in.  No reason, no explanation.  Just a one-liner.  No witches.  Uh, OK, God.  I’ll try to remember that.  You know, next time I see a witch.

Speaking of weird shit in the Torah.  Remember a while back I was going off on the whole Sodom and Gomorrah shtick?  And I was like, literally nothing in this is about homosexuality.  So how the hell did people turn this into an anti-gay story?  Well.  So I was watching a documentary on the subject.  And the narrator gets to the part where the Sodomites are banging on Lot’s door because they want to meet the angels he’s hosting.

Now remember, for me, the takeaway from this was, the motherfucker offered up his virgin daughters to the mob if they would only leave his guests alone.3  But the narrator has a different takeaway.  He says, and I’m paraphrasing, “And the Sodomites said unto Lot, let us in that we may know your guests.  And the Hebrew word for know here is a word that specifically means ‘have sexual intercourse with.’  And so the Sodomites were clearly depraved.”  That was the gist of it.

But surely that can’t be right?  I mean, I read this.  If there was a sex word, I’m pretty sure I’d have noticed.  So I go and look up the passage.  And the verb is ידע – yādha’.  And the primary definition for this word is simply “know.”  As in, “to know a fact.”  The vast majority of the time, that’s what this word means.  Now, to be fair, it can mean “know someone sexually,”4 just like it can in English.  But like, how often do we use that?  Would you say that know is a special English word that connotes a sexual encounter?  No.  You would not.  And usually, in Hebrew – at least as far as I’ve read – when it does mean this, the context is very clear.  It’s almost always with some version of “lie with” or “go to bed with.”  Like, “He lay with her and he knew her.”  Yes, in such a context, I think we can all agree they fucked.

But come on.  You have (male) angels visiting and a group of dudes shows up knocking on your door, saying they want to “know” your guests.  You mean to tell me that the first conclusion you jump to is, “Well, clearly these gentlemen would like to run a train on my visitors”?  Could it be possible, I mean, just maybe, that all they want is to meet some actual fucking angels?5  And look, if your other first reaction is to offer them your virgin daughters instead, well, OK, maybe that’s what you think is going on.  But also, if that is actually what you think is going on, you have to be some special kind of asshole to offer up your virgin daughters – wait, who even cares that they’re virgins at this point? – to offer up, I say, your human daughters to a foaming at the mouth gangbang mob.

At which point, my question becomes this:  Oh hi, God.  I see that you’re going to destroy this city of depraved perverts.  Fair enough.  But, you know, you had that whole bargaining thing with Abraham.  And you pretty much agreed to save anybody worth saving.  And, if I’m not mistaken, you intend to save this Lot guy.  The guy offering his daughters to what he apparently believes to be an unruly lot of train-running gangbangers.  I guess what I’m asking is, this is the guy worth saving?  Not that I’m questioning your omni-benevolence/all-knowing-ness/omni-potence.  I mean, I would never do that.  God forbid.  Err, no pun intended.  But seriously.  This guy?

Or maybe “know” just means “know.”  But what do I know?

I snapped at one of my students Friday.  Not cool.  The advanced group is a little different now.  I’ve got three who are still here from before.  Super high level.  One new guy, also super high level.  And two new dames, not at their level.  And the two dudes in the room (it’s two dudes and five chicks), they just love to show off.  Ask somebody a question, anybody, and after like five seconds, they just have to answer it.  Either out loud, or in a whisper.  And look, I get it.  They’re not trying to show off, per se.  They just want to demonstrate that they know what the teacher is asking.  On some level, they want me to realize how good they are at English.

Except I’m the teacher.  I already know.  I see your work.  I hear your answers when I ask you questions.  I know how good you are.  But what they don’t seem to get is, when I ask somebody a question, I’m asking that specific person for a reason.  Bitches, I know the answer.  What I’m trying to do, is get the answer out of this person.  And look, most of the time, it’s not about the answer, it’s about the process.

What I mean is this.  I’m very Socratic in my method.  I’ll ask a series of questions in an effort to lead the student to the answer, so that in the end, they can answer it themselves.  Usually, I think that’s much better than just giving them the right answer and then explaining it to them.  So for example, there’s a multiple choice question where they need to choose the right verb.  And the student has the wrong answer.  OK, so let’s figure this out.

What’s the subject?  Singular or plural?  What’s the verb in the next sentence?  What tense is it?  OK, good.  So what must the answer be?  And then, usually, they get it.  See, I’m trying to teach them how to read.  How to analyze a sentence.  How to break it down.  How to bring to bear the knowledge they already to have to confidently arrive at the only right answer.  It’s not the only way.  But it’s my way.

Fine.  So when I ask the student with the wrong answer what the subject of the sentence is, the last thing I need is some other mutherfucker whispering the answer.  First, you already know the answer.  So zip it.  And second, you’re not helping your classmate.  So zip it.

Anyway, Friday it was really getting on my nerves.  Because it’s hard when not everybody is on the same level.  And you see that the two who are a bit behind are already self-conscious.  They’d be self-conscious anyway, and now they’re more so because they know they’re not where the rest of the class is.  So now I’m not just trying to teach English, I’m trying to build their confidence.  I’m trying to get them to understand – nay, believe – that they have the tools to be just as good as everybody else.

So like I said, that shit was getting on my nerves Friday.  So finally I had to say something.  So I did.  And I was pretty firm about it.  Not rude, but certainly firm in a way that I’ve never been with them before; never had to be with them before.  And I could see that one of the dudes was a bit chastened, a bit embarrassed.  And I felt bad about that, you know?  I’m not trying to make anybody feel bad.  But it had to be said.  And after that, he didn’t do it no more.

But the other dude.  Man.  So later in the day, I direct a question to one of these fine ladies who happened to be struggling with a particular question.  And this dude just says out the answer, full volume.  And I just snapped.  “I swear to God, ______, do that again and you’re out!”   And he just turned to stone.  Like I said, not cool on my part.

First of all, I just felt terrible about it.  Notwithstanding that he absolutely deserved it – I’d already addressed the issue once that day – it was just unprofessional.  So that’s bad.  But also, did I just lose the room?  Were they all like, who is this asshole?  Thankfully, I hadn’t lost the room.  I think they agreed with the sentiment, if not its delivery.  But still.

Anyway, I caught up with this dude in the kitchen at the next break.  And I tried to apologize.  But at first, he wasn’t having it.  He was like, “No, I don’t accept that from you.”  At first, I thought he meant the apology, but he actually meant my little explosion.  And he’s like, “I’m going to talk to your boss about this.”  And I was like, well, fine, you should.  I mean, he has that right, and I’m confident enough in my standing with my boss that it wouldn’t be a problem.  But we kept talking and in the end, we sorted it out.  He may still talk to jefe.  Don’t know, don’t care.  But I think we’re good now.

Still though, I’m not happy with myself.  I get that it happens.  I’ve seen it happen with my own teachers, teachers whom I love.  So I’m not sitting here thinking I’m a shitty teacher or anything.  But I made a mistake today, and it’s one that I very much regret.

Kismet.  On the same day that his happened, two of my students who’d just finished the course got their exams scores back.  Both of them got C1, which is effectively the highest score.  One of them came in to the school, so it was nice to see her.  But she thanked me, which was nicer.  The other one didn’t come in.  But he texted me.  He texted me to tell me he got C1, and he thanked me for the “entertaining and helpful teaching.”  I deflected with “Just doing my job.”  To which he replied “But ur [sic] doing it good.”  To which I thought, Well, if I was any good, you’d have said “well,” but whatever.6

And on top of that, another former student contacted the office to ask that I get in touch with her about helping with a presentation.  She could have asked for another teacher, but she asked for me.  So on the same day that I fucked up and went off on a student, two former students aced their exams, one of them going out of his way to thank me for my efforts; and a third reached out for help on a presentation.  This on top of another former student who, a year after finishing his course, has sought me out for regular private lessons.

I guess what I’m saying is, I if had to fuck up like I did, Friday was a good to do it.

Oh, I started this post with my routine.  So just to finish up on that.  After dinner, I do a bit of Greek.  At the moment, I’m working through Demosthenes’ First Philippic with a commentary that Justin bought me a few years back.  I’m pretty interested in the art of oratory at the moment.  Maybe because I recently did that lesson on style and rhetoric.  Anyway, it’s super fascinating.  And then I finish up with some work on my ever-ongoing Federalist Project.  And I have to say, it’s nice to get back to that.

So much of what I’ve been focusing on lately has been straight up reading.  Just reading French, for fun.  Reading Hebrew, to get better at it, to learn the fucking language better.  Both of those things with Homer.  But there’s very little critical thinking involved.  So that’s the real joy of reading the Demosthenes with the commentary, of working on the Federalist Papers.  In the case of the former, reading academic commentary.  Not just reading the text for understanding, but really getting into the weeds.  And in the case of the latter, thinking.  Engaging the brain.  Writing my own quasi-academic commentary, as it were.  It feels good.  I’m a fucking nerd, what can I say?

Anyway, that’s about it.  Joschka and Cindy are in South America.  Anne is in France.  Jan is buried under his thesis and Zibs has just started a new full-time teaching gig.  Annett is busy with a new boyfriend.  OKCupid has been a dead-end of late.  So at the moment, it’s just me and my books.

But there’s shit on the horizon.  The overseaers will come back and the others will come up for air.  Also, I recently discovered that one of my favorite students was a singer in her past life.  Apparently she has some classical training in addition to having sung in bands, one of which it seems was a singer-songwriter duo where they wrote at least some of their own shit.  So we’ve been talking about getting together and jamming.  Admittedly, we’ve been talking about it at my instigation, so we’ll see if it actually happens.  But I would certainly welcome it open-armedly.

And that, I guess, is as good a place to stop as any.

זײַ געסונט

 

  1. Holy shit, you guys.  This shit got boring in a hurry.  But more on that later. []
  2. Nachschlagen means to “look up” a word in the dictionary.  (Schlagen, incidentally means “beat,” or “strike.”  Which is appropriate.  Because the sheer volume of vocabulary involved in this language just beats the shit out of you).  Anyway, one of the funner things about German is, that because English is Germanic in its structure, it’s super easy to transpose words back and forth.  Like I did here with “nachschlagging.”  You can only do it with people who already speak German.  But you can literally do it whenever the fuck you want, and it never doesn’t work. []
  3. Hashtag ξενία. []
  4. In my dictionary (Halladay), this definition is number six.  So, hardly the primary definition.  Not even the secondary.  Not even the tertiary.  (The…sextiary?  Ha!). []
  5. Hashtag Occam’s Razor. []
  6. This is the same guy from the Stammtisch, btw.  The one who was simultaneously impressed/horrified by my German.  Also the guy who was constantly giving me shit/bantering with me while he was in the class.  He’s a good egg.  Side story.  At the end of that Stammtisch, I was pretty drunk.  On top of all the beer, one former student decided we needed to do shots of rum.  This before this guy decided we needed to do shots of Sambuca.  So I was fairly half-in-the-bag by the end.  Anyway, we walked to the train together.  And he’s like, “Your train is over there, on that track.”  To which I could have replied, “Thanks, but I know where my train is.”  Or even just, “Thanks,” since all he was trying to do was be helpful.  But instead, I replied with, “Typical.  The German puts the Jew on the train.”  Look, sometimes you just have to laugh at these things.  He laughed. []

The Federalist Project – #4

The Federalist Project
Federalist No. 4

Jay

7 November, 1787

 

Easily J’s best work so far, this essay is grounded firmly in the real and current geo-political questions facing the new nation.  Where he does stray into theory, it is still much more down to earth and practical than in his previous essays.  The writing also, I think, is more focused, tighter.

One additional note.  I have lately been working through Demosthenes’ First Philippic, the commentary for which gives special attention to the rhetorical structure and style of the speech.  As a result, I find that my eye is more attuned to these things in general, and in these writings particularly.  As a result, I will, from time to time, be dropping in a bit of rhetorical analysis of my own.  However, that not being the purpose of these essays, I shall try not to go too far down that particular rabbit hole.  Nevertheless, I hope that this will give an extra layer of depth to my analyses; however little they may be worth.

As in my previous essay, we will proceed through J’s arguments paragraph by paragraph, beginning with the first:

 

  • “My last paper assigned several reasons why the safety of the people would be best served by Union against the danger it may be exposed to by just causes of war given to other nations…”
    • ¶1 serves to link F.4 with F.3, showing it to be a continuation and that the two properly form a pair. Here, he briefly restates the main arguments of F.3.

 

The just causes of war having already been addressed, in ¶2 J pivots to the pretended causes of war:

  • “But the safety of the People of America against dangers from foreign force, depends on…their placing and continuing themselves in such a situation as not to invite hostility or insult…”
    • Here, then, J introduces the main theme of F.4.
  • …for it need not be observed, that there are pretended as well as just causes of war.”
    • A decent bit of rhetoric. Of course Ju will proceed to look at these closely in order to strengthen his case and I’ll add here that I think he does a fair job of it.  But more on this as it comes.

 

In ¶3, J reminds the reader of the less than pure motives which often impel (other) nations to war; particularly monarchies:

  • “It is true, however disgraceful it may be to human nature…”
    • It seems like he’s getting ready to go off again on one of his broad theoretical jaunts. But in fact, I find his analysis in this ¶ to be very down to earth, practical and well-reasoned.
  • “…that nations in general will make war whenever they have a prospect of getting any thing by it…”
    • As an axiom, this was probably more true in his time than today – [as this Times article argues] – but it is by no means untrue today.
  • “…nay that absolute monarchies will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for objects merely personal, such as, a thirst for military glory, revenge for personal affronts; ambition or private compacts to aggrandize or support their particular families, or partisans.”
    • This is an excellent argument in itself against absolute monarchy. And yet, that not being the purpose of this essay, he takes it no further.
    • It is interesting to consider exchanging absolute monarchy with corporations and the motives of profit, and then to consider how true this might still be: e.g. Halliburton/Iraq, or for that matter, W. Bush and personal affront (i.e. Hussein)/Iraq.
    • We might also consider Iraq in the light of partisan aggrandizement as well, whether these partisans be corporations or fellow politicians.
  • “But…there are others [motives] which affect nations as often as Kings; and some of them will on examination be found to grow out of our relative situation and circumstances.”
    • A relevant distinction to make at the time, in a world still abounding with absolute monarchies (France) or constitutional monarchies (England). In any case, this segues into a detailed analysis of America’s geo-political situation.

 

In ¶4, J deals first with France and Britain:

  • “With France and with Britain we are rivals in the fisheries, and can supply their markets cheaper than they can themselves, notwithstanding any efforts to prevent it by bounties on their own, or duties on foreign fish.”
    • Our first real-world specific example.
    • “duties on foreign fish” is clear. I’m not sure hat J means by “bounties on their own.”  But it obviously refers to some kind of rigging of (their own domestic) markets in their own favor.

 

¶5 sees J turning to the rest of Europe generally:

  • “With most other European nations, we are rivals in navigation and the carrying trade; we shall deceive ourselves, if we suppose that any of them will rejoice to see it flourish…”
    • A clear-eyed analysis.
    • “navigation and the carrying trade” must simply mean shipping and transport, irrespective of the goods themselves.
  • “…for as our carrying trade cannot encrease, without in some degree diminishing their’s [sic], it is more their interest and will be more their policy, to restrain, than to promote it.”
    • The overall argument is probably more or less true, and most likely reflects the general thinking of the time. Yet it is interesting to note how J (and presumably other powers) view this as zero-sum.  After all, America, with its vast resources, could simply increase its overall production – and thereby shipping – without materially affecting the shipping of other nations.

 

J turns, in ¶6, to China and India:

  • “In the trade with China and India, we interfere with more than one nation, in as much as it enables us to partake in advantages which they had in a manner monopolized…”
    • I myself didn’t realize to what extent we were engaged in global trade at this early stage of our history.
  • “…and as we thereby supply ourselves with commodities which we used to purchase from them.”
    • Almost a throw-away passage. And yet, it serves to highlight how America is emerging as a) self-sufficient (or, at least, functionally independent of Euro-powers) and b) as a player on the world stage.

 

After addressing Europe and the Orient, ¶7 sees J pivot towards North America, which, of course, is of the most immediate interest:

  • “The extension of our own commerce in our own vessels…”
    • Even at this early stage, J sees America as an emerging power and as a legitimate rival to the older, established Euro-powers.
  • “…cannot give pleasure to any nation who possess territories in or near this Continent, because the cheapness and excellence of our productions, added to the circumstance of vicinity, and the enterprise and address of our merchants and navigators…”
    • “enterprise and address” – the hallmark of the American work-ethic, already present.
  • “…will give us a greater share in the advantages which those territories afford, than consists with the wishes or policy of their respective Sovereigns.”
    • J notes, without mentioning Providence, how America is uniquely situated to profit by the simple nature of its geography.
    • “Sovereigns” – again, America is, at this time, the only functioning democracy. All other great powers are governed by ‘Sovereigns’; even England, to whatever degree.
    • It is also worth noting, I think, that I have quoted the last five paragraphs in their entirety. This speaks, I think, to the tightness now of J’s arguments.  And shows that he is now, as the discussion is firmly in his wheelhouse, not wasting a single word.

 

¶8 addresses the physical/geo-political boundaries imposed upon America by Spain and Britain, who still, at this time, have holdings in North America:

  • “Spain thinks it convenient to shut the Mississippi against us on the one side, and Britain excludes us from the St. Lawrence on the other. Nor will either of them permit the other waters, which are between them and us, to become the means of mutual intercourse and traffic.”
    • In theory, ¶7 should have been enough. Yet, J drives the point home – and home, yes, to our very doorstep – with these specific examples.  In doing so, he brings a realness and immediacy to the issue which may not be apparent when considering China and India.
    • “between them and us” – J chooses to refer to ‘us’ de facto. In other words, the implication being, the default is that we are already one nation, one us.
      • Further to this, this is how things stand when we are united. Imagine how much worse if we allow ourselves to be broken apart, whether into individual States or 3-4 confederacies.
    • Note the structure of the first sentence, which is broadly parallel: Nation x deprives us of body-of-water a, and nation y deprives us of body-of-water b. Yet within this parallelism, J hides two rather subtle antitheses.  The first is in the choice of verbs and their objects.  Spain “shuts the M. against us,” while Britain “excludes us from the St.L.  More interesting, perhaps, is their respective methodologies, which are also antithetical.  Spain “thinks it convenient,” perhaps reflecting the capricious whims of an absolute monarchy.  Whereas Britain simply “excludes,” which may reflect the more (theoretically) rational processes of their parliamentary system.

 

With the scene clearly set, J begins to show in ¶9 how these conditions may fester into unjust or ‘pretended’ casus belli:

  • “From these and such like considerations…it is easy to see that jealousies and uneasiness may gradually slide into the minds and cabinets of other nations…”
    • “minds and cabinets” – interesting, as it stands in contrast to the ‘Sovereigns’ of ¶7. Perhaps the idea is that even in states that have parliaments (UK) or else royal counselors, this is inevitable.  Whether ruled by one man or many, human nature – ‘jealousies and uneasiness’ – cannot be avoided.
  • “…we are not to expect that they should regard our advancement in union, in power and consequence by land and by sea, with an eye of indifference and composure.”
    • For J, nobody is going to sit idly by and let a united America emerge as a major player. Only united can America defend its gains and continue to grow.  Whereas divided, the Euro-powers will take the first opportunity to snuff out the fledgling independent States/confederacies.

 

¶10 develops the potential threats outlined in ¶9 and then reiterates the prophylactic advantages of Union:

  • “The People of America are aware that inducements to war, may arise out of these circumstances, as well as others not so obvious at present…”
    • In the foregoing ¶‘s, J paints a pretty accurate picture of America’s current geo-political situation. Yet he is also aware that little things can become big things and that causes of war are essentially innumerable.
  • “…and that whenever such inducements may find fit time and opportunity for operation, pretences to colour and justify them will not be wanting.”
    • A bit ironic, perhaps. If one accepts the pretense that we went into Iraq for oil or familial revenge, nevertheless, it was ‘colour[ed] and justif[ied]’ by WMD which did not exist.  And so America itself would one day be guilty of that which J warns us to be ready for at the hands of other nations.
  • “Wisely therefore do they consider Union and a good national Government as necessary to put and keep them in such a situation as instead of inviting war, will tend to repress and discourage it. That situation consists in the best possible state of defence, and necessarily depends on the Government, the army and the resources of the country.”
    • The usual refrain for Union. What’s interesting is how J tacks on ‘the army and the resources of the country’ almost as a throw-away.  Up til now, I think, the argument has been efficiency of government and unity of policy.  And yes, mutual protection.  But the pooling of ‘army and resources’ I don’t think has been adequately addressed.  This will of course come to be the so-called “Arsenal of Democracy” some 150 years later.  But it seems that here, J either doesn’t fully recognize – or else takes for granted – America’s nascent industrial might; even if the industrial revolution has yet to really begin.
    • Rhetorically, there is a tendency in Demosthenes to put the most important point last, particularly when part of a long periodic sentence. Here, the first sentence is rather long and complex.  In it, he buries (while italicizing) the potential negative outcome (“inviting war”) and ends firmly on the positive (“will tend to repress and discourage it”).

 

¶11 sees J moving away from the ‘pretended’ causes of war and focusing more squarely on the advantages of Union per se:

  • “As the safety of the whole is the interest of the whole…let us inquire whether one good Government is not…more competent than any given number whatever.”
    • J takes for granted that the proposed ‘one Government’ will in fact be ‘good’; a point to which many would surely object.

 

¶12 is essentially an encomium to the quality of talent and the efficiency of government inherent in Union:

  • “One Government can collect and avail itself of the talents and experiences of the ablest men…”
    • Washingtons and Franklins for everybody!
  • “It can move in uniform principles of policy…In the formation of treaties it will regard the interest of the whole…It can apply the resources and power of the whole to the defence of any particular part, and that more easily and expeditiously than State Governments, or separate confederacies can possibly do…It can place the militia under one plan of discipline…and thereby render them more efficient than if divided into thirteen or three or four distinct independent bodies.”
    • A distinct enumeration of the benefits of Union vis-à-vis policy and defense. And by policy, presumably foreign

 

¶13 does little more than to illustrate the point of the previous ¶ by (hypothetical) analogy:

  • “What would the militia of Britain be, if the English militia obeyed the Government of England, if the Scotch militia obeyed the Government of Scotland, and if the Welsh militia obeyed the Government of Wales!”
    • To me, this seems an unnecessary and extraneous example. But I copy it here as Madison seems to have marked it out as being of particular importance.  Form where I stand, the point has already been well enough made.
    • Stylistically, it’s clear that J is enjoying himself here. The sentence would be tighter with a bit of ellipsis (why repeat twice “militia obeyed the Government of”?).  By this use of anaphora – the repetition of words or phrases – J nearly gives the feeling of shouting his point from the rostrum, with full-throated exuberance.  The exclamation point is the final touch on this (apparently) rare show of emotion.  (Perhaps this is what caused M to highlight the passage?).

 

In ¶14, J further pursues this more “oratorical” style as he develops the central argument of the previous ¶L:

  • “…and the time may come, if we are wise, when the fleets of America may engage attention.”
    • By focusing this ¶ on the British navy, J implies that if his prescriptions are followed, America has the potential to be a true rival and thus a world power.
    • Also of note here is J’s use (again, apparently rare) of apostrophe, of addressing the audience directly (“if we are wise”), rather than his usual indirect reference to the American “people.”
  • Otherwise, the paragraph is little more than an elaboration of ¶13. The purpose seems to be for J to give himself an opportunity to flex his rhetorical muscles.  He does this with metaphor and anaphora (which, to this point, he has generally avoided):
    • Metaphor:
      • “Britain…a nursery for seaman…”
      • “…their thunder would never have been celebrated.”
    • Anaphora:
      • Let England have its navigation and fleetLet Scotland have its navigation and fleet…Let Wales have its navigation and fleet…Let Ireland have its navigation and fleet…Let…
    • And finally the anaphora, in its final clause, pivots on an antithesis:
      • “…Let those four independent parts of the British empire be under four independent Governments, and it is easy to perceive how soon they would each dwindle into comparative insignificance…”

 

In ¶15, J turns applies the arguments of ¶13 & 14 back to America:

  • “Apply these facts to our own case – Leave America divided…what armies could they raise and pay, what fleets could they ever hope to have?”
    • The logical conclusion to ¶14.
  • “Would there be no danger of their [independent Governments] being flattered into neutrality by specious promises, or seduced by a too great fondness for peace to decline hazarding their tranquility and present safety for the sake of neighbors, of whom perhaps they have been jealous, and whose importance they are content to see diminished?”
    • Although J casts these as hypotheticals, no doubt he seeks to remind the readers of the very real rivalries that exist between the States.
  • “Although such conduct would not be wise, it would nevertheless be natural.”
    • Another classic J statement of “incontrovertible fact.”
      • But here he supports it with the example(s) of “The history of the States of Greece, and of other countries…” before suggesting that “it is not improbable that what has so often happened, would under similar circumstances happen again.”

 

¶16 begins with an unhappy picture of even the best possible outcome under disunion before closing with another argument for the efficacy of Union:

  • “But admit that they night be willing to help the invaded State or Confederacy…various difficulties and inconveniences would be inseparable from such a situation…”
    • Even the best case scenario under these conditions would be a “hot mess.” The ‘difficulties and inconveniences’ include:
      • “How and when, and in what proportion shall aids of men and money be afforded?”
      • Who shall command the allied armies, and from which of them shall he receive his orders?”
      • Who shall settle the terms of peace, and in the case of disputes what umpire shall decided between them, and compel acquiescence?”
    • “Whereas one Government watching over the general and common interests, and combining and directing the powers and resources of the whole, would be free from all these embarrassments, and conduce far more to the safety of the people.”
      • After using a tri-colon of rhetorical questions to illustrate the impracticability of ‘independent Governments,’ J states unambiguously the advantages of ‘one Government’ in the management of foreign affairs and the strengths of Union in concert.

 

¶17 – the final paragraph of this essay – sees J summing up with a predictive dose of Realpolitik before closing with an admonishing warning:

  • “But whatever may be our situation…certain it is, that foreign powers will know and view it exactly as it is; and they will act towards us accordingly.”
    • J’s Realpolitik prediction.
  • “If they see that our national Government is efficient and well administered…they will be much more disposed to cultivate our friendship, than provoke our resentment.”
    • He enumerates what he means by ‘efficient and well administered’:
      • “our trade prudently regulated…
      • “our militia properly organized and disciplined…
      • “our resources and finances discreetly managed…
      • “our credit re-established…
      • “our people free, contented, and united.”
        • Hidden in this is the assumption – taken as fact – that this would be the state of things under Union. He allows the reader to assume that all this would be guaranteed.  Allows?  No, encourages.
      • “If on the other hand they find us either destitute of an effectual Government, (each State doing right or wrong as to its rulers may seem convenient), or split into three or four independent and probably discordant republics or confederacies, one inclining to Britain, another to France, and a third to Spain, and perhaps played off against each other by the three, what a poor pitiful figure will America make in their eyes!”
        • First, J admits of a nation ‘destitute of an effectual Government’ only in the circumstance of disunion. He implies that Union would necessarily be ‘effectual.’
        • Second, the use of ‘convenient’ is an interesting choice. To me, this word implies emotional whim and would be better suited to a monarch (cf. ¶8).  Even independent States would still be republican democracies and would therefore be acting in their own “interests,” not out of ‘convenience.’  Or, if a republican democracy could be said to be acting from a place of ‘convenience,’ then this would be no less true of the Union as a whole.  Thus, if the Union ‘inclined’ to a particular foreign power, it would either be out of “interest” or else ‘convenience,’ no different from an independent State or confederacy.
        • Third, at the early stages, even a Union would be weaker than Britain, France or Spain and so almost certainly must ‘incline’ towards one or the other, even under conditions of ostensible “neutrality.” In this case, even a Union would be at risk of being used as a pawn and being played against one or more of the other Great Powers.
      • “How liable would she become not only to their contempt, but to their outrage; and how soon would dear bought experience proclaim, that when a people or family so divide, it never fails to be against themselves.”
        • Again J closes with a sort of admonition, warning the audience of the inevitable failure of disunion – the inevitable consequences of failing to adopt the constitution. In F.2, he does this by means of a Shakespearean quote (“Farewell, a long farewell to all my greatness.”).  In F.3, with a rhetorical question (“Would [Louis XIV] on any occasion either have demanded, or have received the like humiliation from Spain, or Britain, or any other powerful nation?”).  J seems to wish to impel his audience to action by means of leaving them with a lingering fear of the “inevitable” results of inaction.

The full text of Federalist No.4 can be found here.

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
27 January, 2018

Umm, how, exactly, is January basically over already?  Didn’t we literally just start this thing?  I can’t, you guys.  I seriously can’t.  Like, my visa is up in 11 months.  It’s probably time I started thinking about whether I want to extend it.  Anyway, what’s new?  Same old, eh?

Speaking of “What’s new?”, Germans are a funny lot.  I always have to explain to my classes that when somebody says “How are you?” by way of a greeting in the morning, we don’t actually give a shit.  It’s just a pleasantry.  I have to explain this, you see, because when I say “How are you?”, I often get answers like: “Well, not too good actually.  My cat is sick.  Or my father is in the hospital.”  Excuse me?  Do you actually think I’m emotionally equipped to handle such a response?  What exactly am I supposed to say to that?  “But you asked!” they insist.

I mean, yeah, technically I asked.  I guess.  But no.  I was just saying hello.  Your job, in this situation, is to tell me you’re fine.  Lie, if you must.  And don’t overdo it either.  Don’t tell me you’re “great.”  Because then I get suspicious.  Like, who the fuck is “great” at 9am?  Needless to say, they find this very confusing in the beginning.  But they get the hang of it.  Eventually.

My advanced class generally has a pretty good handle on this.  When I ask “What’s up?” or “How ya doin’?” I now get answers like “Same shit, different day,” or “Yeah, whatever, fine.”  I kinda love my advanced class.  More on them later.

I’m happy if the beginners just give me a “Fine, thanks.  And you?”  To the intermediate group, I recently explained that we New Yorkers have devised a rather clever work-around for this situation.  We ask and answer our own questions in one breath; all the other person has to do is confirm.  For example: “Howyadoin’, a’right?”  “How’re the kids, good?”  “How’s work, same old?”  In this way, we tell the other person the answers we are prepared to hear.  It’s easier that way.  Nobody wants to hear about your sick father.  Not at 9am.

“But how then do you ask when you really want to know the answer?”  That’s always the next question.  Well, that’s a bit harder, isn’t it?  Part of it, I explain, is inflection; the tone of your voice.  Also, we will add more words to indicate sincerity.  For instance: “Hey, you look a little down/out of it/whatever.  Is everything OK?”  That last bit, “Is everything OK?”, still means we’d prefer to hear “Yes, everything’s fine.”  But we’re at least prepared to hear the truth.

And yet.  And yet, the Germans are a funny lot.  They have – what seems to me, anyway – an almost pathological need to say “Guten Appetit” to anybody who might be eating anything within 15 feet 3 meters of them.  Like, you could be having lunch in the kitchen, and somebody will walk by in the hallway.  In theory, you should both be minding your own business.  But they know there’s food in front of you, and so they absolutely must stick their head in the door and say Guten Appetit.  And it’s just like, “Umm, thanks?”  But after the 17th time, I just can’t anymore.

They have this with “Guten Morgen” also.  Like, I’ll be in the kitchen, eating a croissant with my coffee, headphones in – headphones in! – and there’s just this never-ending cascade of Guten Morgens.  And I’m just like, Jeez, not yet!  OK, fine.  I’m clearly an asshole in the morning.  Which people gradually learn to accept.  Apparently there’s even a word for this in German: Morgenmuffel.

Anyway, I was explaining all this to my advanced class.  Cause, I mean, they get it.  And in making reference to the lower levels, I said something like “those Dummkopfs in the other classes.”  I chose that word because I remember hearing my Aunt Cookie use it the last time I was in.  And to me, at least, it seemed to have a bit of a playful air.  Like, when you don’t want to say “idiot” or “asshole.”  Like, in English, I would probably just say “clowns.”  No actual ill intent behind it, kinda thing.  But they told me that in German, Dummkopf is actually really quite mean.  Apparently the word I was looking for was Quatschkopf.  Which I guess you could translate as something like “silly-head.”

Well, like I said, I love this advanced class.  They’re easily the most advanced group I’ve had all at one time.  Here and there I’ve had a couple of students at this level.  But always at the same time there were other people who probably didn’t belong in the advanced.  At the moment, though, there’s only five of them, and they’re all really fucking good.

And they’re fun too.  Like, we give each other a lot of shit.  Give and take, in both directions.  Like, sometimes, one of them will land a properly good jab, and I’m like, “I don’t know if I should feel wounded…or proud?”  For example, Friday, we were talking about euphemisms.  And one of my guys says: “So, I can say…Yeah, Dave, he’s a…special…teacher.”  To which I can only answer something like, “Fuck you, you brilliant asshole.  That’s exactly how euphemism works.  Well done.”  Which I obviously didn’t say.  In those words.

And they appreciate puns.  Not only are they getting a feel for English punning, but they’re even starting to figure out bi-lingual punning.  Puns, in other words, that require knowledge of both languages to function.  I mean, that’s some next level shit.

I love my two days with this group.  At some point, you can’t even really call it “work.”  It’s just a good time.  Somehow or another, on Thursday, we got onto the connections between Yiddish, Hebrew and German; just for the last few minutes of class.  Apparently, there’s a rather decent-sized cache of Hebrew/Yiddish words that have been borrowed into German.  So we were talking about that.

Anyway, class ends at 2:30.  And at like 2:32, I said, “You know you guys can go home now?”  And they were just like, “No, we’re good.”  Yeah?  Cool!  So we just hung out for an extra half hour talking about Jewish loan words in German.  We all learned some pretty interesting stuff.  I’ll give a few examples, which I think are worth repeating.

Mezuzah: OK, we all know what a mezuzah is.  Well, the Jews reading this do, at least.  Anyway, apparently in German, mezuzah is a slang word for ‘whore.’  Because…get this…everybody touches it.

Blau machen:  OK, so blau just means ‘blue.’  And machen is ‘make/do.’  So blau sein (literally ‘to be blue’) is a slang-ism for ‘to be drunk.’  But blau machen means ‘to do nothing.’  Which makes no sense.  Until you realize that in this idiom, blau is a corruption of the Hebrew בלא (b’lo), which means ‘nothing.’  So blau machen means ‘to do nothing.’

Dufte: Apparently this is an old-fashioned slang word for ‘good’ or ‘super’ in Berlinerdeutsch.  Which, OK, Berlin-German has lots of weird slang words that the rest of Germany doesn’t have.  And I just assumed this was one more.  But apparently it’s a corruption of טוב (tov).  So it’s literally the Hebrew word for ‘good,’ pronounced Yiddishly and then Germanized.

There were a bunch more.  Like the word for ‘throw up’ – necessary vocabulary for any good lush – is kotzen.  I learned that one very early on.  But only on Thursday did I learn that it’s a corruption of קוץ (qotz), which according to my dictionary means ‘to feel sick, feel revulsion.’  Although apparently on a moral level rather than physical.

And it goes beyond German, too.  One of my students is this Polish girl.  And I used the word ‘schmatte.”  You know, ‘rag.’  And she just starts laughing.  Like, how do I know Polish words?  Because apparently ‘schmatte’ is literally the Polish word and it means the exact same thing.

The point is, you gotta love a class that chooses to stay late just to chat about this kind of stuff.  And what’s also cool, is you can tell they genuinely enjoy teaching me stuff too.  They’re always throwing me new vocabulary, new idioms, new slang and so forth.  That’s something I very much appreciate.

There’s this one dude in my intermediate class.  Cool guy, interesting cat.  Anyway, he distills his own rum.  So a while back, he gave me two little bottles – maybe a shot or two each.  I shared it with Joschka.  It was properly nice, if a bit woody.  Anyway, I told him that we quite enjoyed it.  So Friday, he brought me to larger bottles.  Maybe a flask’s-worth each.

Anyway, my advanced class saw themn and were all “What’s that?”  So I explained.  And then I offered that if they didn’t have to rush out, we could all taste it together after class.  So three of them (plus one girl from the intermediate) hung around.  And we just hung out for another 15-20 and tasted the rums.  I mean, what a great job.

Also, one of my girls even made a pretty great (German) pun.  Another person had declined to join us because she had to drive.  Now in German, the preposition rum– means ‘around.’  And fahren means ‘drive.’  So rumfahren means something like ‘drive around.’  Anyway, this person declines because they have to drive home.  So my student says, “Ja, du solltest nicht Rumfahren!”  (Yeah, you shouldn’t rum-drive!).  And I was just like, “Yaassss!”

So yeah, working with this lot is super fun on a social-banter level.  But speaking strictly as a ‘teacher,’ it’s kind of a dream.  See, because they’re starting from a position of being already quite good with the language, we can spend much more time focusing on what I call ‘the good stuff.’  This week, we’ve been talking about style.  Like, OK, you can all write “correctly.”  Let’s next-level this shit.  Let’s talk about writing “well.”

Thursday we looked at subordinate clauses.  Friday we looked at rhetorical structures and literary devices.  Things like anaphora, antithesis, periphrasis, alliteration, metonymy and synecdoche, simile and metaphor, asyndeton and polysyndeton and hendiadys, litotes and paraleipsis.  You know, shit that’s properly in my wheel-house.  And the nice thing, for them, is that these things all exist in German (or Polish or Arabic or whatever their mother-tongue may be).  So it’s not just an English thing.  It’s a literature thing.  And that’s fucking cool.  That’s much more interesting to me than “When do we use the past progressive?”

So as a way of seeing these things in action, I brought them copies of JFK’s inaugural address and of Trump’s.  And of course, the first reaction, before we actually look at the text, is to assume that Trump’s speech will be drivel and that Kennedy’s will be high art.  And yeah, that’s certainly one valid interpretation.

But then we get to talking about how both of these guys won their elections by super-slim margins.  Which means that their respective rhetorical styles deeply touch about half the population while really turning off the other half.  And I ask them to put aside their politics and just read for style.  Look for the things we talked about.  And I tell them to take it home and read it on their own time and come back the next day with questions and opinions.

And what do you know?  As non-native speakers, they found the Trump speech much easier to understand, much more approachable.  Which it objectively is.  But is that good or bad?  Is that more ‘small-d’ democratic, or is just appealing to the lowest common denominator?  Well, you can have your own opinions about that.

We’re not done with it yet.  We’re going to continue on with it next week, and really get into the weeds a bit.  But the point is, for me, I love doing this kind of stuff.  Yeah, working with the beginners is nice.  Watching them start from nothing and seeing them get to a place where they can really use the language is gratifying.  But also, it’s booooooring.  This, though.  This is almost like teaching a college class.  And that, my friends, is pretty f’ing fantastic.

I went to a birthday party last weekend.  Well, two actually.  Friday night was for Annett.  So that was mostly just me and Anne drinking our faces off, comme habitude.  She – Anne, I mean – sent me a picture of two old ladies wearing sweatshirts with the words “New York Drinking Team” printed across the chest.  We need shirts like that, she said.  Because we are the “Berlin Drinking Team.”  I love that kid.

Last week we met up for our usual conversation exchange.  One drink in French, one drink in English, many subsequent drinks in German.  Comme habitude.  Well, all I’d eaten that day was a croissant for breakfast and a small salad for lunch.  But I stupidly didn’t eat anything before we went to the bar.  So after four or five grogs, I was three sheets to the wind (Ich war ziemlich blau, you could even say).  Anyway, at the birthday party she said something about us playing darts the other day.  I had no idea what she was talking about.  So she showed me a picture of me throwing a dart from our conversation exchange.  And if there wasn’t an actual picture, I would never have believed it.  That’s how much I didn’t remember it happening.  Nevertheless, good times.  Apparently.

Where was I?  Oh yeah.  I went to a birthday party last weekend.  Although I kinda didn’t want to.  See, it was for a former student of mine.  And she’s great.  We meet up once every month or two for drinks.  But that’s one-on-one.  That’s fine.  This would be a party where I didn’t know anybody and where everybody would be German.  Stress!

Well, I get there and everybody is in the kitchen.  Something like ten or more people sitting around a huge kitchen table.  And there’s no empty seats.  So she has to pull in a chair from the other room and I’m kinda on the outside.  Awkward!  And for the first hour or so, all I’m thinking is, what’s the minimum amount of time I can stay before I leave without it being rude?

But at some point, of course, I start chatting with somebody.  And then somebody else joins the conversation.  And I’m drinking gin.  And next thing I know, I’m actually having a good time.  And also, nobody is speaking English.  What’s more, it’s clear that these people I’m chatting with can speak English.  But they’re not.  There’s no need.  Like, here I am, at a party with strangers, and we’re all just speaking German.  Like, holy shit, I can do this without a safety-net!  The training wheels are off!

Or mostly off.  Because at some point, I apologize to the first guy I’m chatting with for the poor state of my German.  And of course he’s like, “What are you talking about?  You’re German is very good!”  Which was a nice thing to say.  But even as I’m pulling this off, I’m fully aware that I’m making all kinds of mistakes, and my vocabulary is limited.  So I tell him, you know, what helps is, you’re very easy to understand.  You speak a very clear German.

To which he replies, “Oh, this isn’t my real German.”   And it’s not that he was ‘dumbing it down’ for me, so to speak.  It’s just that he’s speaking proper textbook German.  Because apparently his ‘real’ German is hardcore Berliner-slang.  Well, OK, that’s the same English I use with Germans; proper textbook English, I mean.  If I spoke the kind of English with them that I normally speak with, let’s say Vinny, well, they’d be just as lost.

So the training wheels aren’t totally off.  But we’re getting there.  I mean, when I hang out with Joschka and Cindy, yes, we speak German.  But, first of all, I know that it’s their ‘real’ German.  Just in general, they speak more ‘properly,’ more ‘textbook.’  But also, Joschka is there.  That’s a safety-net.

This was different.  Yeah, Jules – my friend – speaks pretty good English.  But our friendship isn’t rooted in English the way it is for me and Joschel.  This was new.  This was – I think – my first experience being thrown into an entirely German setting.  And I hacked it.  #AchievementUnlocked

Strangely, this got me thinking about French.  French – that bitch – always feels just beyond my reach.  Like, it’s objectively easier than German.  I have a bigger vocabulary.  I read in French quite easily; which I definitely do not in German.  And yet, it’s elusive.  Always like I’m looking at it across a schmutzy window.  I can manage with Anne for an hour.  I can scrape by in France.  But if you dropped me into a French party the way I was dropped into this one, I’d be up the proverbial creek…sans proverbial paddle.

Anyway, it got me thinking.  What if I had been living in France all this time?  How good would my French be?  Would it be even better than my German?  And I can’t say that it didn’t cause me not a little regret.1  Because French was my first second language.2  It’s the language of hockey, nevermind Dumas and Verne.  And it’s the language of two of my best friends on planet earth: Charlotte & Anne.  Maybe I should go live in France after this.  Or not.  Who the fuck knows?

When I was in France, I did the obligatory gift-buying for friends.  I brought back chocolate for the roommates.3  I brought back a bottle of rosé for one of my colleagues.  And I brought back something for Anne.

On my last day in Nice, Charlotte and I visited the modern art museum.  Which is not my thing, but hey, who doesn’t like a bit of cultchuh?  Anyway, there’s this artist native to Nice, whose nom d’art (is that a thing?) is “Ben.”  His stuff is all over the city.  But mostly, it’s just him writing clever things in his own cursive handwriting.  Hashtag modern art.  And of course, he’s got a ton of stuff in the museum.

So in the gift shop, I grab this little pocket-sized notebook/writing block for Anne.  It’s not lined paper, it’s just blank pages.  And on the cover, in Ben’s “art” are the words “J’aime les pages blanches.”  Or “vides.”  I don’t remember exactly.  Whatever, it translates to something like “I love blank/empty pages.”  And Anne’s an artist, right?  So I figure, that’s perfect for her.

Anyway, I bring it back.  And I’ve got a little spiel prepared.  Not much; just enough so I can explain who the artist is, how he’s native to Nice, etc.  And I don’t know why I was surprised – she’s an artist, after all – she knew exactly who he was.  I didn’t have to explain anything.  She was just like, “Oh yeah, Ben, from Nice.  Cool!’

It was cool.  I generally suck at gift-buying.  Like, you know how there’s those people who just always know the exact right thoughtful gift?  Even if it costs a buck-fifty, it’s perfect.  Because they know you and they’re thoughtful people.  Fuck them, the bastards.  I can’t do that.  But this one, I think I got it right.  She seemed to really dig it.  So that was cool.

She also had a gift for me.4  Remember her and Annett had an exhibition back in December?  Well, I’d had it in my head that I would like to support her by buying something.  But when I asked about prices, she showed me the list, and, well, it was too rich for my blood.  Not that the prices were unfair.  Far from it.  But for me, it would have been a luxury I can’t quite afford.

Anyway, at the end of the night, she’s showing me all the little red-sticker dots next to so many of her works.  If you’ve ever been to an art gallery, you know that a little red sticker-dot means the piece has been sold.  And she was so proud of herself.  Like, “Can you believe I sold so many pieces?!”  Well, yeah, I could believe it.  She’s really good, you guys.  And I was well proud of her too.

But also if you’ve ever been to an art gallery exhibition, you know there’s booze.  So at this point, I was a bit…blau.  Anyway, I said something like…well, first I told her how proud of her I was.  Because I genuinely was.  But then I said something like, “But you know, these people are idiots, because they didn’t buy the best ones.”

So she asked me which ones were “the best ones.”  And I didn’t hesitate.  Because I’d looked at them all already.  I knew which ones I thought were the best.  For me, I love things where the background has just enough to excite your imagination, but not enough to give real detail.

This was true in Florence too, when Jared and Josh and I went to the art museums.  The actual subjects of the paintings are fine.  But I love the backgrounds.  There are whole worlds back there.  People living lives, going about their business, loving, living, doing business, fucking (presumably) and dying.  And your imagination is free to invent all kinds of stories.

–Interpolation: Tolkien knew this.  He did this consciously.  In the Silmarillion most of all, but also in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.  He knew that if you just gave a hint of a story, the reader would imagine the rest.  And that’s where the real magic is.  :End Interpolation–

So she asked me which was my favorite.  And I still didn’t hesitate.  Because there was one.  I just loved it.  Somewhere, in the back of my mind, it reminded me of the cover of this old sci-fi book, The Day of the Triffids.  I vaguely remember the story.  It’s not important.  But it reminded me of the cover, is the point.

And that right there is enough.  That’s full of all sorts of good memories.  My teenage years devouring all the old sci-fi I could get my hands on.  But also, that all of that stuff came from my dad.  Either directly, from his own old books.  Or indirectly, from the stuff I found on my own as I branched out from that.  The point is, wrapped up in all of that, is that nostalgic feeling that comes with the whole father-to-son passing-things-on shtick.5

So there’s that.  But also, I just loved this piece, this little ink drawing that Anne had made.  To my eye, it’s these mysterious – almost alien – plants, growing underwater, anchored to the seabed.  And the background is kind of smudgy and mysterious.  And who knows what’s going on back there?  You can – or, I can, anyway – just look at it and get lost in your own imagination.  That’s what I love about it.

Anyway, that’s my favorite, I tell her, with zero hesitation.  Because it was very much my favorite.  And do you know what she says?  “It’s yours.”  That’s it.

What?  No.  I can’t accept that.  That’d be taking money out of your pocket.  Absolutely not.  “Stop that,” she says.  “It’s mine, and I want to give it to you.”  I continued to protest.  In the end, I got her to agree that she would try to sell it as long as the exhibition ran.  And then, when it was time to close up shop, if nobody had bought it, then she could give it to me.  That seemed fair.

That’s how I remember it anyway.  We were both drunk at the point.  And because of that, I knew that I would never bring it up again.  Indeed, I decided to forget about it.  Which I did.  And then, right after the exhibition, she went back to France for a month.

So when we got back together for our conversation exchange, she’s like: “I have something for you.”  And I’m like: “Well, I have something for you too.”  And I just figured she’d brought me back a little Kleinigkeit from France; last time she brought me back tea.  Anyway, she slides this brown envelope onto the table.  And I honestly have no idea what’s in it.

I was genuinely surprised when I opened it.  I really had forgotten about it.  But she hadn’t.  And I was just like…wow.  You know, I was really touched.  No, really.  I’m talking tears in the eyes, the whole nine.  Because this is her work, this is her labor.  And she can sell this.  I felt before, I felt at the time, and I still feel, that in some way, I’m taking money out of her pocket.  It doesn’t seem right somehow.

And look, maybe I’m making too big a deal of it.  I mean, clearly, she doesn’t feel that way.  She chose to give it to me.  I never asked for it.  I could never.  But that’s the point.  She decided she wanted me to have it, because I’m her friend.  And that’s like…I don’t know.  Even now as I’m writing about it, I’m getting a bit emotional.

Because actions speak louder than words, right?  We’re each other’s best friends here.  She has her life-long friends in France; I have mine in the States.  And we both have other very good friends in Berlin.

Joschka is also my best friend here.  But it’s different.  He is of this place.  He’s German.  Anne and I, we’re both strangers here.  We’re both fish out of water.  But we have each other.  We understand each other.  And you can say that.  We say it all the time, in fact, when we’ve had enough to drink.  But you don’t always get to show it.  And when she gave me this thing – this truc, as she would say – she showed me something special.  She showed me what our friendship means to her.  I fucking love that kid.

Look, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.  I honestly don’t.  But Keith and Murph and Flare have kids, and all of a fucking sudden, I’m “Uncle Dave.”  I go to France and C’s Uncle Dan gifts me a home-made flask.  Gallou gives me a hand-painted guardian-stone.  My students hang out with me after class, and some of them continue to drink with me even after they leave the school.  My roommates remember my birthday.6  And Anne – The Notorious ABG7 – she just up and gives me a piece of her artwork.  I may not know what the fuck I’m doing, but I must be doing something right…

זײַ געסונט

  1. Litotes! []
  2. Well, my first second living language. []
  3. Because if there’s anything they love, it’s pizza.  But pizza won’t travel.  So if there’s anything else they love, it’s chocolate. []
  4. If I wrote about this before, I apologize.  But a little exposition never hurt anybody. []
  5. It occurs to me just now as I’m writing this – and this is totally tangential – but it seems to me that the old Yiddish “shtick” and the modern internet “meme” have quite a lot in common.  A sort of constant re-imagining of an archetype that requires a baseline cultural understanding for its basic functioning.  Just a thought… []
  6. I mentioned to Marco that I’d be going home towards the end of March, and he says, “Yeah, OK, but your birthday is on the tenth right?  So you’ll be here for that?” []
  7. I love this nickname, which I’m fairly certain she doesn’t fully appreciate.  So obviously there was the rapper, Notorious B.I.G.  But then, some law-wonks started a tribute blog to Ruth Bader Ginsburg and called it The Notorious RBG.  Which then caught fire.  Because how could it not?  So Anne, whose initials are A.B.G., how could I not call her the Notorious ABG? []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
13 January, 2018

Well, well, well, Happy fuckin New Y – oh, wait, I think I did that gag already.  So I flew back to Germany on New Year’s Eve.  My flight was due to land at 11:30 pm.  Which was not ideal, but did at least have the virtue of being over a hundred Euros cheaper.  That said, we touched down at 11; which had me wondering if I’d somehow managed to get myself on the wrong aeroplane.  I still don’t know how we managed to land so early.  Maybe there was no traffic?

Anyway, one cool thing about it, I got to see fireworks from above.  This was very cool.  Small and far away, yes.  But popping off bright against the blackness, it was surreal and gorgeous.  I imagine it’s a rare sight, and so all the more precious.

The plan was to go straight to Joschka’s from the airport.  The timing was such that I was above ground on the S-Bahn, travelling through the middle of Berlin at midnight.  A bit lonely perhaps, but it afforded me yet another great view of the fireworks.

This city is crazy with fireworks on New Year’s.  They’re legal here, though possibly only for the one day.  So people kinda go nuts with it.  Just, like, in the streets.  Setting off all kinds of crazy shit.  Best to have your windows closed though.  You see plenty of rockets landing on roofs and bouncing off the sides of buildings.  I’ve heard stories of rockets going through open windows and starting fires.  It’s all a bit mad, if I’m being perfectly honest.  And “safe” isn’t really a word that comes to mind; at least not without an accompanying negation.  But it’s impressive.  Also loud.

Charlotte and the gang called me shortly after midnight as I happened to be on the sidewalk on Joschka’s block.  The downside of leaving when I did was that I missed what I assume was a killer party.  Anyway, it was very sweet of them to call.  Gallou and Marion took a turn on the horn as well, but to be honest, it was so loud – the fireworks, I mean – I could scarcely hear a blesséd word they said.  Still, it was a nice coda to that whole trip.

Meanwhile, the plan, as I said, was to meet Joschka.  Only he wasn’t answering his phone; neither texts nor actual calls.  Fortunately, I have a key.  So I went up anyway, only to find the apartment empty.  Well, that was weird.  But at least I could put my bag down.  Upon which I went back outside and went for a walk to take in the last of the fireworks shit-show.  Finally, Joschka got back to me.  He was at Cindy’s restaurant.  So I met them there.

I was starving, but sadly, the kitchen had already closed.  However, Cindy, being the absolute doll that she is, went into the kitchen and scored me a baguette.  Which I promptly devoured; not having eaten since something like two in the afternoon.  That was “socca” with C and P.  Socca, I take it, is a bit of a Nice specialty.  It’s like a fried chick-pea bread.  Sorta like if Matzah-meal pancakes and hummus had a baby.  Anyway, I was hungry, is the point.  And the bread was a lifesaver.

Also at the restaurant were the Dinner Party Gang.  These are the people I first met at Cindy’s for Christmas last year and with whom we periodically get together for dinner.  Hence the tag.  That was a happy surprise, and it was nice to catch up with them for a bit.  Also there were two of J’s cousins.  We kinda had the restaurant to ourselves, as they had already shut down for the night, save for one table of old ladies.  So it was cool.

When it was time to go, the Dinner Party Gang went their own way while we – J, C, the cousins and me – headed back to J’s place.  One of the cousins peeled off along the way, so in the end we were down to four.  After an obligatory Döner stop, we went up to chez-Joschka.

The first order of business was the (also obligatory and now traditional) Dinner for One reenactment.  I may have written about this last year, but Dinner for One is a black-and-white comedy sketch from the 50’s or 60’s, about 15m long.  It’s basically mandatory watching on New Year’s in Germany.  And it’s in English, which is weird.

Anyway, the plot is, this rich old lady has a dinner party for herself and her four best friends.  Only they’re all dead.  But that doesn’t stop her from setting a place for all of them.  And her poor servant has to drink all their drinks.  Four rounds.  Times four.  So he’s pretty soused by the end of it.  It’s good slapstick.

Right, so our tradition – J and me – is to also go the four rounds; though only one drink each.  A white wine, champagne, sherry and port.  When the servant drinks, we drink.  It’s fun.  And cultural, so you know, highbrow…in a way.  Funnily, Joschka’s cousin is like 21, and didn’t care a whit for the sherry or port.  Kids, eh?

The rest of the night was spent playing Settlers of Catan.  Which is more and more fun every time we play.  Very good times indeed.  I think I got home around eight.

I think I had to leave Germany and then come back to realize how far I’ve come with the language.  And don’t get me wrong, I’m still a disaster.  Mistakes everywhere.  Gender, word order, general grammar.  It’s a mess.  But at the end of the day, I’m fairly functional.

You know, in France, it took me about three days to even begin to feel comfortable.  And as I said in my last post, I definitely managed.  But with French, I’m missing so much of the day-to-day stuff.  The little filler phrases, the quotidian shit.  On the last day there, I was asking C about all the little things I now take for granted in Germany.  For just one example, I was asking about the words for “change.”  As in, “Sorry, I don’t have any change.”  Or, how do you say “exact change”?  That kind of thing.  And as I said before, my listening skills are basically garbage.

So I was genuinely surprised to see how easily I fell back into things with German when I got back.  Like, I could just understand people.  Now, to be sure, my vocabulary still isn’t great.  I miss words.  Sometimes I miss whole ideas.  But by and large, I get it.  And it was just German the whole night.  Barely any English.1  And I could participate.  I felt like I could be myself again; like I got my tongue back.2  Honestly, it was a huge relief.  However great my week in Nice was – and it was absolutely great – language-wise, it was a real slog.  Now I was free again.

Staying with the language thing here for a minute, I had dinner with Lucie and Marco on Tuesday for Marco’s birthday.  It was a great example of how far my language skills have come and how far they still have to go.

To the former, we somehow got into a very funny philosophical discussion about the use of the Future Perfect tense.  And I realized, after 18 months in this country, this was the first philosophical discussion I’d ever had in German.  Not because the opportunity never presented itself, but because I simply wasn’t up to it.  So I mentioned this to them.  And Marco said something along the lines of, “Well, yeah, actually we were just saying the other day how in the beginning it was pretty clear that you were just not understanding many things.  But now you seem to be getting most things most of the time.”  Achievement unlocked, amirite?

So much for progress.  And yet, I clearly still have a ways to go.  See, I cooked dinner that night.  Because on Sunday, Lucie asked me if I would cook dinner on Tuesday for Marco’s birthday.  At the time, I thought this just a touch odd.  After all, we have dinner together once or twice a month.  But always its at the instigation of whoever is offering to cook.  No one has ever asked someone else to do the cooking.  But I rationalized it as, well, it’s a birthday thing, so they probably just want to enjoy the night and not have to worry about shit.  And also, that’s a nice compliment, right?  I mean, they must obviously enjoy my cooking enough to actually ask me to do it.

Right, so I get home from work and immediately get to it in the kitchen.  Which, I have to say, was kind of a mess.  And I’ll be honest, I was very very slightly annoyed.  Like, come on you guys, you asked me to cook.  The least you could do is not leave the kitchen a mess.  But whatever, not a big deal.

Anyway, I finally get Big Bertha – that’s my cast iron dutch oven, remember – into the oven.3  And about an hour later, Marco is knocking on my door.  “Hey, how much longer do you need the oven for?”  Probably another hour, I tell him.  “Well, umm, Lucie needs it also,” he tells me.  Which I thought was strange.  “Are we not all eating together at like seven?” I ask.  “Are you cooking for all of us?” he asks.  “Well, yeah, Lucie asked me to.  That’s tonight, isn’t it?”  And he starts laughing.

“Dude, did you honestly thing we would ask you to cook?”  Well, yeah, I did think that was a bit unusual.  So I gave my reasons, just as I’ve given them here.  To which he was all, “Yeah, OK, my wife is demanding, but she’s not that demanding.”4  But I thought…

So we go find Lucie and tell her what’s happened.  And she’s like, “You’re kidding right?  I would never ask you to do the cooking.  All I asked was, if you were free to have dinner with us tonight.”  And I’m like, “Well.  This is embarrassing.”

Anyway, it all worked out, obviously.  And in the end, Lucie cooked her dinner on Thursday.  So Marco got two birthday dinners.  But I was just like, jeez man, just when I think I’m getting good at this language, I screw up something so simple, you know?

Oh, the dinner was great, btw.  I crusted the pork loin with this mustard-horseradish sauce that I made.5  And I used all sweet veggies, plus my homemade stock.  Parsnips, carrots, celery, sweet potatoes and regular potatoes and onions.  So the pan sauce was fucking fantastic, if I do say so myself.

Then on Thursday, Lucie made some killer steaks with green-beans and fries.  Terrific.  Yeah, so two darn good dinners this week.  And good times with the roommies.  Which is important, not for nothing.  Because I’m not generally very social when I’m home.  I mean, if I’m home, it’s probably precisely because I don’t want to be social.  So I often find myself feeling annoyed that there’s other people in the house when I want to be alone.  Which is absurd, I know; though true to my general misanthropic nature.

The point is, it’s important for me to spend time with those clowns every once in a while, if only to remind myself that I do actually genuinely like them and to reset my annoyance meter back down to zero.  Yeah, I know.  I’m an asshole.  Everybody knows that.

So.  The Torah.  That continues to be interesting.  It’s calmed down a bit.  By which I mean, no crazy shit on the order of Lot and his “skanky daughters,” as Josh dubbed them.  But here’s a thing I’m noticing.  It’s a very spare text.  What I mean is, there’s hardly any adjectives.  Oh sure, they’ll name like seven different spices and nine kinds of trees.  But like, nobody is tall or short, skinny or fat.  Sometimes somebody is strong.  Somebody had red hair.6  And of course plenty of things are “good” or “evil.”

But at some point, you start to feel like maybe God was slacking off a bit.  I mean, I don’t imagine he gets tired.  And yet, first week on the job, he’s already taking a day off.  Like, you couldn’t crawl out of bed for five minutes on Sunday Saturday for a quick “Let there be adjectives” before going back to sleep?

But OK, at least it makes learning vocabulary easier.  Anyway, I’m in Exodus now.  Just got through the ninth plague.  And I have to be honest, I’m not entirely sure I grasp the premise of all this business.  What I mean is, at the end of each plague, you get this formulaic: “And God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he didn’t let them go.”

And OK, if Pharaoh is just naturally stubborn or a dick, fine.  But God is making him stubborn?  Does that not defeat the purpose?  As far as I can tell, it always comes back to what I read as God’s inferiority complex.  I mean, for an all-mighty, he seems rather insecure.  What do I mean?  Well, see, there’s another formulaic bit.  With every plague, Moses says to Pharaoh something along the lines of: “So God says ‘Let my people go, or you will suffer this plague, so that you will know that I am the Lord God.”

What?  Is the point to free the Hebrews or is the point for the Egyptians to respect you?  And it’s not just Pharaoh who has to suffer, but all of Egypt.  It’s very clear.  Lots of “All the land of Egypt”s and “Every house”s.  Are we not shooting a mosquito with an elephant-gun here?

So my current – and admittedly blasphemous – reading of all this is as follows.  God is like some mafia don.  And Pharaoh is not showing him enough respect.  So Pharaoh needs to be taught a lesson.  And not just Pharaoh, but his whole family; and by extension, all his subjects.

So God says, “What a nice country you have here.  It’d be a shame if anything should happen to it.  Let my people go.”  Then he preordains that the people are not let go.  So he sends a plague.  Then he preordains that this will have no effect.  Because he needs to show what a big deal he is.  Rinse, wash, repeat.

Meanwhile, the Hebrews are still toiling away in slavery.  And the Egyptian population – who have not elected this Pharaoh, it’s worth pointing out – has to suffer the consequences.  And, I mean, who knows?  Maybe if the question were submitted to a referendum, the Egyptian people would agree to release the Hebrews after the first plague; maybe even at just the threat of a plague.  Who knows?  If they had some kind of recall mechanism, maybe they’d eject the current Pharaoh and replace him with one who was more attentive to their interests.

But no.  Death to all the crops and livestock.  Because Pharaoh is a dick.  And it’s not even clear that he’s actually a dick by nature.  Because remember, it’s God who keeps “hardening his heart.”  It’s weird, is what I’m saying.

So much for Torah.  I went for a long walk on Wednesday.  It was a very foggy night.  I like foggy nights.  It makes everything more mysterious, somehow.  So I just walked in a direction for a few hours.  Wound up someplace I’d never been.  Which is always the goal.

I don’t really know what to say about it.  It was good me-time.  And it was eerily beautiful.  The way the fog hangs out under the street lamps; the way buildings across the water float in smudgy darkness.  Out here, in this part of town, it feels like another world.  It’s hard to believe I’m still in Berlin, some of these places I go.

I wonder what the people are like who live all the way out there, in the middle of nowhere.  What do they do?  Also, where do they shop?  Where do they get Chinese food?  There’s a part of me that thinks it must be very peaceful to live in some of these places, so far removed from the hustle and bustle, so much closer to nature.  It must feel like a kind of luxury to have a whole big house to yourself; or with your family.  But like, what do these people do when they want noodle soup?  Do they even know about noodle soup?

School is good.  Or work.  I don’t know if I’m supposed to call it school or work.  Whatever.  One of my students brought me pickles from Poland.  Before I go on, I need to say something about the pickles in Germany.  They’re all wrong.  Which, I have to admit, came as a surprise.  I mean, in my mind, pickles are a part of the culture here.  Spreewald pickles – local pickles from Berlin-Brandenburg – are kind of a big deal.  But they’re all wrong.  The put sugar in them.  They’re all sweet.  What the actual fuck is up with that?  So I’ve been trying to find proper sour pickles for months now; or proper new pickles.  But with zero success.  My student didn’t know this though.

Right, so I have salad for lunch every day.  It’s boring as hell, and I don’t actually like it.  But I feel like it’s important to get regular vitamins and whatnot.  So I make a point of eating salad for lunch. Anyway, a while back, this student asks me one day for a bit of cucumber.  I guess she loves cucumber.  Sure, OK.  Well, one thing led to another and soon I was just giving her a bit of cucumber every day; she didn’t need to ask anymore.

Fine.  So we get back from the break, and she says, “Dave, I have a Christmas present for you.  It’s just a Kleinigkeit (“a little nothing”).  A joke really.  Because you give me ‘gherkins’7 everyday…I brought you gherkins from Poland…”  And she gives me a little gift bag.  And in the bag is a jar of pickles.  Not just pickles.  Actual sour pickles.

Naturally, the first thing I do is turn the jar around to read the ingredients.  “Please no sugar, please no sugar,” I’m thinking to myself.  And lo and behold: No sugar!!!  And as she’s watching me inspect the label, she must be thinking – well, I don’t know what she’s thinking.  But she says, “It’s just a joke, you know?

And I’m like, “Girl, this is no joke.  This is dead-ass serious.”  And now I think she thinks I’m just weird.  Which, OK, fair enough.  I proceed to do the only logical thing one can do in this situation.  I jump up and give her a big hug.  Which I’m sure she thought was all out of proportion.

So I try to tell her.  “Girl, you have no idea how happy you’ve just made me.”  And it was clear that she literally had no idea.  But I was – and still am – pretty damned over-the-moon about it.  I mean, proper fucking sour pickles.  If I didn’t already know she was married with three kids, I probably would have asked her to marry me on the spot.  Because pickles.  In fact, I nearly asked her to leave her family and run away with me.  I mean, I didn’t.  But it crossed my mind.  Like, let’s just elope to Poland and eat pickles and pirogis and live happily ever after.  Look, we all have dreams.  I’m just saying.

My advanced class is a lot of fun at the moment.  Hands down the most advanced groups I’ve had.  Every one of them is at a super high level.  They were four, but five as of this week.  We verarsch each other a lot – we joke around and give each other shit.  It’s often hilarious.

For example, when we reconvened after the break, I was telling them about my experience in France.  Specifically about my experience with the language.  And at one point, I said something to the effect of, “Well, I felt pretty good about my French with one-year-old Nino.”  And one of the girls was just like, “Yeah, well, you probably speak at his level.”  And I was just, “Nice!  My hat is off to you, my lady.”

The other cool thing is, and I may have mentioned this, there’s an Italian broad in the German class.  She’s very cool and rather a bit goth.  In a number of ways, she reminds me of an older, goth, Italian Niki.  Anyway, she’s helping me with my Italian.  Remember when I came back from Italy and I was all, “I’m gonna learn Italian, bitches!”?  Yeah, well, I’ve been slacking off there.  Between French and Hebrew and Greek I’m just not finding the time.

But she reads with me on the breaks and it’s both fun and helpful.  She’s a ballbreaker when it comes to pronunciation.  But half the fun of Italian is just making the sounds, so it’s totes worth it.  One thing she really gets on me about is double “n.”  OK, in English, if a word is spelled with one ‘n’ or two, we don’t really change the pronunciation.  But in Italian, apparently, this is important.

So the word for ‘year’ is anno.  And if you want to say it right, you really have to linger on that ‘n.’  Because, as she continues to remind me, with one ‘n’ – ano – it means anus.  Which I appreciate, but can’t feel.  To her, it’s hilarious.

Right, so we’re reading this stupid super-beginner-level story about some guy and he’s however-many-years old.  And I read his age, and she’s like, “Annnni.  You said ani, and I think, ‘ah yes, now I’m interested!,’ but that’s not what it says.”  And of course she’s saying all this with her Italian accent, and it’s fucking hilarious.  We’re just cracking up.

Anyway, that’s that.  It’s a nice little side-highlight from my job.  I guess it’ll last as long as she’s in the school.  But it’s very cool.  I kinda love Italian.  It’s just fun for my mouth in a way that German and French aren’t.  And it sounds so cool.  Like, when she speaks, I go all Jamie Lee Curtis in A Fish Called Wanda.

Which I just re-watched recently.  What a great film.  Like when Kevin Kline yells “ass-hoooole!!!”  Classic.

Well now I’m just rambling.  Let’s call this the end, shall we?  Until next time…

זײַ געסונט

  1. With the one caveat that when it’s just me and Joschka, we still tend to slip into English.  Probably because that’s just how we know each other. []
  2. Probably to the chagrin of those around me. []
  3. I was doing a braised pork loin with mad veggies. []
  4. Also, Lucie is like the sweetest person ever and not even remotely demanding. []
  5. Homemade horseradish, obvi. []
  6. Maybe it was Isaac? []
  7. In German, Gerken is the same word for both cucumber and pickle.  Which is insane, I don’t mind telling you. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
7 January, 2018

 

Well, well, well.  Happy fucking New Year.  Let’s get the preliminaries out of the way first, shall we?  Resolutions.  Nothing new this year, as I’ve already got my hands plenty full.  However, my goals – if not resolutions – are to keep my hands full with the things I set in motion last year.  Primarily, that’s three tasks.  The first is to keep on keeping on with Operation Read the Whole Fucking Torah in a Year.  The second is to keep on keeping on reading Greek.  I’d love for this to expand beyond Homer.  But since just trying to read a bit of The Poet before bed most nights is all I’ve been able to manage of late, at the moment my goal is to simply keep that going.  The last is to keep on keeping on with my Federalist Project.  This is going slower than I’d anticipated, but it is still going.  So any progress there – as long as there is progress – will be enough.  That was always going to be a long-game anyway.

Right, enough of that.  So I was in France for the week between Christmas and New Year’s, for to visit Charlotte.  Lots to say about that.  Where to begin?  Well, Charlotte I guess.  I hadn’t seen her in over a year.  The last time I saw her was when she was in Berlin last September.  Thereafter, she went to Australia for about a year with a month or so in Japan at the end.  That’s quite a while not to see a dear friend.

But as is common with dear friends, we picked up right where we’d left off.  It was as if no time had passed.  Or at least it was to me.  No doubt she’ll counter that sentiment in a [snarky] comment if she found it otherwise.  The point is, after many months and miles of separation, it was wonderful – though not surprising – to find our friendship as strong as ever.  As with our Great Western Roadtrip and the many other journeys we have together undertaken, I find again that she is one of very few people with whom I can spend so much time in so close quarters and not grow weary of.  Though I do grow weary of saying nice things about her, and so I shall now proceed to an accounting of my visit.

She met me at the airport, which was not the plan.  I was supposed to take a bus and meet her somewhere else.  Since she knew my schedule, there was no real need of communicating my deplaning.  It was only by chance that I turned my phone on and sent a text that I was on the bus.  Upon which she called me and told me to get off the bus, for she was upstairs waiting for me.  Another minute, and it would have been too late; the bus hadn’t left yet.  So I scrambled off the bus just in time.  Though it would have been better comedy – howsoever less convenient – had I not.

Anyway, happy reunion at the airport and then it was off to her new apartment to drop off my bag.  Not long after that, it was Christmas time.  By which I mean, Christmas dinner at her friend’s mom’s house.  Already I was nervous about this.  I mean, I’d only met her friend once, and that briefly in 2103; I’d certainly never met her mom.  Then there would be an uncle of Charlotte’s whom I’d never met.  Then Charlotte’s mom, dad and sister.  These, at least, I knew, had spent time with and already liked.  And finally, of course, Charlotte herself.  Which was…fine.  I mean, she’s fine.

Right, so this would be anxiety-inducing enough in a situation where everybody spoke English; or, dare I say, even German.  But French?  And just off the plane, no time to adjust.  Straight into the frying pan, as it were.  Well, at first it was a bit stressful.  And certainly, I was not understanding very much at all.  But look, friends.  These are problems that are easily rectified by wine.  And of that, there was plenty.  So I settled into a comfort zone soon enough, even if I was in the dark as to the general dinner-table conversation.

Before going any further, let’s put some names to these people, since they’ll all come up again.  The friend is Rapha.  Her mom is, well, Rapha’s Mom.  Charlotte’s dad is Philippe.  Her mom is Carine.  Her sister is Marion.  And the Uncle is Dan.  Also, I may have spelled one or all of those names wrong.  Désolé.

Off the bat, Rapha’s Mom was terrifying.  Try to imagine an old, stone-faced, stereotypical French woman.  And remember, she speaks no English.  And my French is, at this juncture, shite.  And I’m in her home for Christmas.  Like I say: terrifying.  That is, until later in the night – the drunken part of the night – when she puts on a ridiculous hat and feather boa.  At which point I was like, OK, this dame’s alright.  I believe there’s a picture of the two of us like that.

Anyway, it was all great.  The food, the times, the people.  As is wont to happen with that great social lubricant, things loosened up as the night went on.  People tried to speak to me in broken English.  I tried speaking to them in broken French.  We managed.

As a side note, this is now the second family that’s taken me in on Christmas.  As I’ve written elsewhere, I spent every Christmas from 2010 to 2015 with Jen and her family; we skyped last year.  This year, she sent me a picture of her uncle wearing a shirt which read: “Dave’s not here, man.”  Which is amazing.  Anyway, the point is, it’s extremely touching.

I mean, as a Yid, obviously Christmas doesn’t mean all that much to me.  But for the Goyim, it’s quite the big deal.  So when your friends take you in, with their family, treat as you part of the family…well, it means a lot.  That’s a lot of love coming my way, and it’s humbling, not to put too fine a point on it.  But more on this later.

Apparently we crashed in Rapha’s room.  I say apparently, because I woke up around six with an awful allergic attack (owing to two dogs) and not knowing where I was.  Took me a few minutes to get my bearings.  Anyway, it was bad enough, we went back to Charlotte’s place at that ungodly hour, which fortunately was only about two blocks away.

So much for First Christmas.  Second Christmas was with her dad’s family.  Though I was thankful to be included, it wasn’t nearly as enjoyable.  Possibly Definitely this owed to the severe hangover I was suffering.  Not my best work, but I got through it.

Moving right along then.  The next few days are a bit of a blur, insofar as I don’t remember the exact chronology.  I cooked dinner one night, for just the two of us, which was lovely.  There was a night where Rapha came over to hang out.

Man, that was fun.  This was really my first Rapha experience, even though I’d been hearing stories about her for years.  Simply put, she’s a riot.  We played dice, broke out the guitar, drank a bunch and just generally hung out.  Complete shit-show.  And complete fun.

Rapha’s English is kind of a train wreck.  But she makes it work.  Also my French is kind of a train wreck.  But I make it work.  So we were all able to chat and make it work.  For Charlotte this was hilarious, just listening to the both of us mangle each other’s languages, both of which Charlotte is fluent in.

Here’s another thing about Rapha.  And this is the sort of thing I normally would not write.  But since, in the end, I said it to Charlotte and, eventually, to Rapha, I see no reason to withhold it.  So the girl shows up wearing a black dress and a beige sweater.  Then, rather a bit later on, she took off the beige sweater.  And the neckline on this dress, well, “plunging” doesn’t go far enough.  We’re talking Olympic level high-dive here.  I believe my exact words were, “Her tits are out of control.”  Which, though vulgar, does at least have the virtue of accuracy.

But remember, this is really only the second time I’d properly met the girl and the first where we could be said to be properly “hanging out.”  Way to soon to introduce Inappropriate Dave.  In other words, no leering, no rude remarks.  This necessitated a reallocation of mental resources in the form of constantly reminding myself not to stare and to maintain eye-contact.  Unfortunately, this made conversation rather a bit more difficult.  But I muddled through.  And for that night, at least, maintained the (fraudulent) appearance of the perfect gentleman.

It was also on this night that I first learned of the ridiculosity of my French.  By now, we all know that I read plenty of Jules Verne and Alexander Dumas.  In other words, 19th century stuff.  And it has, theretofore unbeknownst to me, shaped my vocabulary in ways I had not expected.

So Rapha is telling this story of a girlfriend of theirs.  And in this story, the girl apparently broke some guy’s nose at a bar and wound up in jail.  She’s telling me this in her unique brand of English.  So naturally I try to reply in French, repeating back elements of the story.  So I try to say something like, “Wait, so she broke his nose?”

And as I’m organizing this in my brain, I’m not thinking about vocabulary, but grammar.  Because in French, the construction is not “She broke his nose,” but rather “She broke him the nose.”  And I’m getting ready to be pretty proud of remembering that.  So I say, “Alors, elle l’a brisé le nez?”  And immediately, they both start laughing.  Cracking up even.

Oh no!  What did I say wrong?  Did I screw up the construction?  Did I get the vocabulary wrong?  Did I somehow manage to say “She poured him a cabbage” or something equally nonsensical?  “What?  Is it wrong?” I asked flusterdly.1

No, no it’s not wrong they tell me, through unabating laughter.  It’s just, nobody says briser.  It’s sooo 19th century.  Apparently I should have used “casser.”  It would be akin to saying something like, “Verily, hath she smitten him upon the nose?”  Such is the state of my French vocabulary, apparently.  And “mistakes” like this just kept happening; and were always followed by a good laugh.

The next night (I think), we had a bit of a party.  Rapha again.  Laura, whom I know from New York.  She’s great.  We banter.  Magalie – which may or may not be how she spells it – who I also met briefly in 2013.  And Uncle Dan.

This was proper fun.  Music, booze, games, jokes, food, the whole nine.  It would have been fun under any circumstances.  But something about this was extra cool.  These were Charlotte’s besties.  The girls she grew up with.  But I didn’t feel out of place, I didn’t feel awkward.  I felt like I got on with everybody and they all accepted me; not as some random friend of a friend, but almost as a part of the family.  It was really quite special in that way.  Also there was a drunken Queen sing along.  Probably Don’t Stop Me Now.  Which is always glorious.

French-wise it was also interesting.  I’ve spoken about Rapha already.  Laura has been living in New York for years and London before that, so she’s basically native-speaker fluent at this point.  We speak – and banter – in English; anything else would be absurd.  Mag’s English is pretty decent.  But where all the others speak French fast and slangy, she speaks slowly and, dare I say, “properly.”

In other words, when she spoke to me in French, I could totally understand her.  Like, we just chatted away in French and it was totally fine.  Kinda like with Anne.  Which, now that I think of it, is kind of interesting.  Because when Anne and I meet up for our conversation exchange, I feel pretty OK about my French.  I can go for 30-60 minutes with her.  And yes, she slows down to speak with me, but she doesn’t dumb down.

And so that was kind of a cold bucket of water in the face, going to France.  Because although everybody was very patient with me, precious few of them know how to talk to somebody who doesn’t properly speak the language.  As a result, I suddenly felt very stupid, and my confidence with the language dropped like a rock.

But Mag was talking to me in “perfect” French, almost as if she had stepped out of a textbook.  And all of a sudden, I felt like, “Yeah, I can do this!”  Like, “I know this language.”  Well, early on in our conversation, Charlotte comes over and says to Mag something along the lines of, “Umm, you know he doesn’t really speak French?  Take it easy.”  And Mag was all, “Oh, no, he’s doing fine.”  And I was like, “Yeah he’s doing fine.  Kindly fuck off.”  Which to her credit, she fucked off, and kindly.

Next day, though, I was curious.  So I asked Charlotte.  “Hey, so Mag kinda speaks like a textbook.  Very easy to understand.  But I’m curious.  How much was she dumbing things down for me?”  To which Charlotte, “She wasn’t.  That’s just how she speaks.”  In other words, an actual French person was speaking their own actual French to me and it was no problem at all.  Fuck yeah.  Finger pistols.  I’m the man.  Right?

The next night, we had Carine and Marion and Uncle Dan over for dinner.  The good times continued to roll.  And my French was improving, though not as successful.  What I mean is, I felt more confident and was able to accomplish more.  But at the same time, this group was faster and more slangy, so it wasn’t nearly so easy as with Mag.  But again, I managed.

Here’s a funny thing.  My last two visits to Nice, Charlotte was living with her mom.  So that’s obviously where I stayed.  And during those two visits, Carine spoke zero words of English to me.  And to be sure, this time she didn’t “speak” English with me.  But she did break out some vocabulary and some fairly impressive idioms.  And I was damned impressed.  It was very cool.

Marion, on the other hand, speaks like no English.  So with her, I absolutely need to find a way to say what I want to say in French, or I can’t say it at all.  Based on that, you’d think she’d be hard to chat with, hard to connect with.  And yet.  And yet, I kinda love that kid.  I can’t quite put words to it.  All I can say is, something about that girl makes me feel like, this broad is peoples.  The word “cool” is so overused as to have little real value at this point.  But that’s the word I keep coming back to.  She’s “cool.”  Like, she gets it.

Here’s a humorous vignette.  Charlotte has a cat.  I’m sleeping on the pull-out sofa.  The cat insists on sleeping with me.  Fine.  Anyway, Marion says something to the effect of, “So you have to sleep with the cat?”  Well, that calls for a joke.  And it’s the same joke in French as in English, so I’ll give both.  “Je dois me coucher avec le chat…quand j’aimerais bien de me coucher avec une chatte.”  (I have to sleep with the cat…when I’d much rather sleep with a pussy).  Right, OK, it’s a middling joke.  But it had the element of surprise, since nobody was expecting me to able to do that in French.

Needless to say, Marion and Carine were dying.  So I turn to Marion and say, “Il faut pratiquer le français.”  (One must practice their French).  But she puts her finger to her lips, which is the universal sign for “Shut up, Dave.”  So I turn to her mom.  And she says – and this is just fantastic – she says, “Il faut pratiquer la langue.”  Which means, “One must practice the language.”  Except, literally it means, “One must practice the tongue” – the word for tongue and language being the same.  In other words, Charlotte’s mom just made an oral sex joke to me.  And I was just like, I fucking love you people.

Well, Charlotte wasn’t there for any of that, because she’d gone with Dan to pick up Gallou and little Nino from the train station; on more which shortly.  But just to finish up here.  So C goes and runs out for a bit and leaves me alone with her mom and her sister, neither of whom speaks very much English.  And that could have been awkward, you know?  Or difficult.  Only it wasn’t.  It was fun.  I genuinely enjoyed it.  And again, I had that feeling of belonging.

You know what I mean?  Like, I had come to Nice to visit my friend.  And here I am hanging out with her mom and her sister, and I don’t really know them.  And I was just enjoying it, having a good time.  It was easy.  I liked – no, I like – these people.  And yeah, on some level, this is the family of one of my best friends.  It makes sense.  I love Jared’s family.  And Keith’s.  And Rob’s.  And Jen’s.  But I grew up in their homes.  These people are new for me.  There’s a language barrier.  And yet.  And yet, it’s the same thing.  It’s familiar.  And it’s good.

So Charlotte went to pick up Gallou and Nino from the train station.  You remember them from last summer?  Summer of ’16, I mean.  The first time I met them was in the hospital, just after Gallou had given birth.  It was me and C and Philippe and Marion.  And then later we visited them at their home up in the mountains.  Anyway, their visit here wasn’t part of the plan.  She – Gallou – called while I was there and asked if she could come stay for a few days.  Well, of course.

Let’s do Nino first.  Last time I saw him, he was what, two months old?  There’s a picture of me somewhere, holding the baby.  And at the time, it was all very sweet.  But now he’s a year and a half or so.  I didn’t know what to expect.  And look, to be honest, when it comes to children, I’m rather partial to girls.  They’re cuter, for one thing.  For another, they tend to bounce off the walls considerably less.

But there’s Nino.  And he’s walking around now.  And you know what?  What a fucking beautiful child.  And that’s neither platitude nor exaggeration.  In his face, he’s just beautiful.  Great big eyes and that smile.  Man, that smile.  Just so honest and joyful.  And incredibly well behaved on top of it all.  If you don’t instantly fall in love with this child, you are a special kind of asshole.

And Gallou.  What a total sweetheart.  Her particular brand of French is the devil’s own invention.  But she’s a doll, no two ways about it.  Also, she often addresses Nino as mon cœur – my heart.  Which, I don’t know how that sounds to French ears.  But to my ears, fuck, it’s just beautiful.  Anyway, the second night she was there, we were the last two awake.  So we stayed up and chatted a bit.

Before that though, it was her and me and Charlotte, playing dice.  And honestly, I understood precious little of what she had to say.  The way she speaks, I mean, I just can’t.  Not in a group, anyway.  But after C went to bed and it was just us, it got easier.  She’s got just barely enough English to fill in the blanks.  And when she’s speaking directly to me, I can either sort it out or else tell her I can’t sort it out and ask for a rephrase.  The point is, we had a nice conversation.

At one point, I said something about how nice it was to see them again.  Something about how much Nino had grown and what a great kid he was.  And she said something about how, when he was born, her family was far away.  And how much it meant to her that we visited her in the hospital – C and Philippe and Marion; and me.  A lovely thing to say.  And at the time, I thought she was just being polite.  You know, she grew up with the rest of them.  It was just an accident really that I was there.  My presence, I figured, couldn’t possibly have mattered all that much.

Well, I’ll come back to Gallou at the end.  But for now, let’s keep going.  The next night, Philippe invited us over for apero – drinks and snacks.  He also invited another friend of his, Jerome – which, again, may or may not be the right spelling.

I gotta say something about Philippe here.  I kinda love this guy.  I first met him in New York, in 2013, when he and Chloe (C’s other sister) visited Charlotte.  Then we all did that roadtrip together in the summer of ’16.  First of all, C adores him.  She’s a world traveler, right?  And everywhere she’s lived, he’s gone to visit her.  It’s very cool.

Also, he’s a big music fan.  Which is fine.  But more importantly, he’s an AC/DC fan.  His first concert was AC/DC in Nice in 1979, with Bon Scott singing.  Every time I see him, he tells me the story.  And it never gets old.  Seriously.  I feel like a little kid.  Like, “Tell me the story again!”  You know?  It’s great.

Also, there’s this.  He’s the only person who, when he speaks to me in English, I don’t feel like an asshole.  Like, whenever anybody else speaks to me in English, I feel one of two things.  It’s either, “Well, your French is shit, so I’ll just speak English.”  Or else they just want to practice.  But with him, I genuinely feel like when he speaks English with me, it’s because he just wants me to feel comfortable.  Like it’s coming from a place of genuine kindness.  And look, maybe I’m reading that wrong.  What do I know?  All I know is, I don’t feel bad when he does it.

Because also, he takes the time to speak French with me too.  And he takes the time to teach me shit.  Phrases, idioms, etc.  He’s also the person who introduced me to pastis.  The point is, I’m a big fan.

Right.  So anyway, he has us over for apero along with this Jerome character.  And I go into it thinking, “Ah fuck, another new French person who doesn’t speak English and I’m gonna be in the dark and social situations are hard and I’m awkward and gna-gna-gna (which is how one whines in French, apparently).

Except here’s the thing.  This isn’t random.  Jerome is also a guitar player.  That’s why Philippe wanted us all to get together.  Anyway, Jermoe’s thing is Spanish and Flamenco.  So he’s brought his guitar.  And we have Philippe’s too, which he’d lent us for my visit.  But where P’s is a steel string, J’s is nylon.  So I ask if I can try it out.  He obliges.  So I bust through a Bach prelude and then the Sor variations.  And J is properly impressed.

Which is kind, because I’m quite mediocre.  But good enough to at least demonstrate that I can handle the instrument.  And that’s enough.  I’ve earned this stranger’s respect.  Achievement unlocked.  Then he takes the guitar and tears through some flamenco shit.  And his right hand is doing shit I might one day pretend to dream about.  Mutual respect.  Next level achievement unlocked.

Now here’s where things get interesting.  He wants me to take the rhythm section of some Spanish piece while he takes the lead.  Well, OK, show me the changes.  He does.  I get it down.  And next thing you know, we’re rocking this thing.  Gods, that was good.

It’s been years since I’ve been in a band.  I don’t know when the last time I jammed with another person was.  And now, we’re tearing up this song.  And man did that feel good.  I don’t know if I’d realized how much I’d missed playing with other people before that.  With no disrespect to all the wonderful people I spent time with on that trip, that might well have been the highlight for me.  It was fucking good.

I don’t want to oversell myself here, to be clear.  All I did was comp some changes.  But we put it together, and it sounded like real fucking music.  And that was shit-hot.  I was very very happy.  Like, maybe I suck at French.  But, bitches, I can play.

Anyway, Jerome left.  So it was just me and C and P.  And Philippe, gods bless him, put on AC/DC’s live concert video from 1979 – Let There Be Rock.  And what was cool was, you knew that me and P were loving this.  His first concert, my favorite band.  Nobody’s pretending to be polite for the other.  I was a very happy human being, watching that AC/DC concert with Philippe and Charlotte.

When we got back to C’s place, we were both quite happily drunk.  So we hung out for a bit.  And she gave me some spiel about how I’m her best friend and how much it means to her that she can take me to her family and to her best friends and I kinda kick ass.  There may have been something along the lines of watching me succeed with her nearest and dearest made her feel proud to have brought “that guy,” proud of me, even.

Well, she was drunk when she said it, whatever she said.  So I’ll simply take it as an exaggerated version of, “Thanks for not embarrassing me.”  Which is a shame really.  I mean, embarrassing you, Charlotte – if you’re reading this – is all I ever really wanted.  Well, one can’t have everything, can one?

We made a bit of a hike, on Sunday, around the environs; up a mountain.  Nice is beautiful.  And the view from above ain’t nothin’ to sneeze at.  And that brings us to the end of this visit.  Chronologically, anyway.  But before I close, I’d like to return to two of our characters.

First, Uncle Dan.  A strange cat.  His French was exceptionally difficult for me to follow.  C told me it’s very visual, perhaps even poetic.  Full of metaphor.  Which, if your French, I imagine must be quite lovely.  Anyway, he did seem a bit a fish out of water.  But then, so was I.  And so, while I’m not really sure I understand the man, it was nevertheless quite nice to make his acquaintance.  And he gifted me a flask he’d made, shrouded in ray-skin apparently.  And if he was a strange cat, he was nothing but kind to me, and for that I am thankful.

And Gallou.  My first impression of her was of a woman who had just lately given birth and who was not shy about constantly breast-feeding in my presence.  But this time around I got to know her a bit better.  And I found her to be a kind and sweet and loving person.  Yet, because of the language barrier, how well could I really say I know her?

Recall, for a moment, that she told me how much it had meant to her that “we” were there, to visit her in the hospital, after she had given birth; how she included me in that we.  When I went to say goodbye to her, at the end of it all, I said that I hoped we would see each other again.  But she cut me off.  I forget her exact words, because she spoke to me in French then.  But what she said, when she cut me off, was, “Of course we will.  You’re a part of my family now.”

Those words hit me hard.  That humbled me.  And I remembered back to when she first arrived.  Because I had said something about Nino probably not remembering me.  And her response was simply, “Just talk to him.  […] the sound of your voice.”  And I hadn’t thought anything of it at the time.  But I realized now what she’d meant.  She was telling me that I was there for him when he was a baby, and that that mattered.  And what’s more, it still mattered.  I wasn’t some alien friend of a friend.  I was part of the family.  Her family.

What can you say in the face of that?

I live in a foreign country.  And even as a I make a life for myself here, even as I make wonderful friends, I’m never entirely sure that I belong.  I left New York because I couldn’t make a place for myself there either; was never really sure that I belonged.  And yet, I go to Jen’s for Christmas and her family accepts me as one of their own.  I visit Jared in Italy and his family accepts me as one of their own.  I visit Charlotte in France, and there too I am taken in, not a stranger, but a part of the family.

Perhaps I overstate things.  Perhaps I make more out of things than they really are.  I have my own family.  And I am blessed in that they love me, unconditionally.  Some poor bastards don’t even have that much.  I have that.  And then I step beyond my own, and I have a second family and a third and even a fourth.

It is not clear to me what I have done to deserve this.  Indeed, there are days when I think that I do not.  Deserve it.  And yet I have it.  And I am humbled.

I am loved and I am over-loved.  If there is anything that I wish for 2018, then, it is that you all should know such love as I have known.

ז׳׳ געסונט

 

  1. Spellcheck doesn’t care for “flusteredly.”  Personally, I think it’s a perfectly lovely adverb, and much more efficient than “all-a-fluster.” []