An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
29 December, 2022

Ho, ho, ho.  I mean…hi, hi, hi?  Actually, just, hi.  How’s it going?  So I started this post on the 24th, which is one the bulk of it was written.  But towards the end, there are a couple of updates vis-à-vis a new song I’m working on.  Those will be dated accordingly.  Just so we’re on the same page here…

Original Post (24 December):

Well, it finally happened.  After nearly three years of dodging the bullet, I finally got covid.  And all I can say is, thank gods I got it now.  What I mean is, it was basically just a flu.  Whatever variant I caught, there doesn’t seem to be any apparent respiratory ramifications.  Which, as an asthmatic, was always my biggest fear, right?  So all things considered, this was kinda best case if I had to get it.

The funny thing is, I think I’m generally more careful than most people these days.  I’m pretty religious about masking up on mass transit and whenever I go into the supermarket or shops with more than one or two people in them.  I’d say the majority of people are going maskless in shops these days, and even on the train (where it’s still mandated), you find a number of maskless folks in every car.  At the same time, I’m living my life, ya know?

So last Friday, I met my tandem partner per the usz…usj…yuzh?  (How are we abbreviating ‘usual’ anyway?).  Then, later in the evening, another former student joined us.  And it was a lot of fun.  I mean, me and the tandem girl always have a good time of things.  But this other former student – the two of them met in my class – this was my first time meeting her irl.  This lady, she’s like 53, I wanna say.  Born in NW Germany, she’s spent upwards of the last 30 years in East Berlin, where her dad is from.  Very cool lady. 

Anyway, she shows up with two little paper gift bags for me and Miss Tandem.  And she’s like – as we’re opening the bags – “I baked you guys cookies.”  How nice, right?  And sure enough, there are cookies in the bag.  But also in the bag are other cookies, star-shaped, wrapped in plastic.  What’s with the plastic?  “Oh, those are weed cookies,” she says nonchalantly.  Now, I’m like, I know what I heard, but that can’t be right.  So I’m all, “Did you say wheat cookies?”  Thinking, you know, that’s a choice.  And she’s all, “No, weed cookies.”  I see. 

But like, who does that?  I mean, on the one hand, it’s not like we’re strangers.  She was in my class for a solid three months.  (Although three months, but just twice a week).  But it’s not like drugs is a topic we discuss in class, you know?  So it’s not like, “Oh, I know how much you guys like pot.”  Which, for the record, is not exactly my jam.  So this was just her being friendly.  And to be clear, when I say “who does that?”, I’m not offended.  I don’t think it was inappropriate or anything like that.  Just surprised.  Because, who does that?  Anyway, like I said, she’s a very cool lady.

Now here’s a thing.  My tandem partner is from Hannover.  And as any German will tell you, the Hannover dialect/accent is the “purest” form of German.  All that means is, when they were unifying the country and the language along with it, the Hannover dialect was chosen as the standard.  Much in the way that the Florentine dialect was chosen as the standard in Italy amongst the multitude of regional dialects.  Had I learned German in school, it’s a safe bet that the Hanoverian version is what I’d have gotten. 

The thing is, I didn’t learn German in school, so it’s a bit alien to me.  Now, this doesn’t mean I have trouble understanding my tandem partner.  It just means I have to concentrate more, it takes up more mental bandwidth.  It’s more work, to put it shortly.  The more I hear her, the easier it gets.  But it’s work.  And then Miss Weed-Cookie rolls up, rocking her heavy East Berlin accent.  And right away, my brain just relaxes.  Like, this is home base, you know?  Like with Bibi or Alex, it’s just easy.  So that was fun.

Although when the two of them were talking to each other, my brain had to track the two accents simultaneously, and it’s like, gaah!  I mean, I can do it.  I did it.  But it was a bit of a lift.  Fun though.  We had a good time. 

Funny thing, though.  We had our tandem again Friday, and she told me this little story.  The day before we all met up, the two of them had their end of course test in the school.  So they went out after.  And at one point, Miss Tandem calls me up to make plans.  And she just calls me up and talks in her normal German.  No problem, right?  And after she hangs up, Miss Weed-Cookie was like, “Who was that?”  And Miss Tandem was like, “Dave.”  And Miss Weed-Cookie was like, “But you were just talking regular real German.”  And she’s like, “Yeah…Dave’s German is pretty good.”  Which apparently shocked Miss Weed-Cookie.  Three months in my class, and she had no idea I can actually German.

But I didn’t know any of this when I’d met her.  She just rolled up and started talking her normal East Berlin shit.  She didn’t seem surprised.  If anything, I felt like she found my version of Berlinisch more than credible, all things considered.  So that was pretty cool.  Sometimes you have bad days with this language shit and sometimes you have good ones.  I guess that was a good one.

Anyway, that was Friday a week ago.  Sunday, Miss Tandem texts me and is all, “Hey, just a heads up, I have covid.  Miss Weed-Cookie has it too.”  Crikey.  So Monday, I did a home test.  Well, actually, first I went to two separate doctors to get some scrips refilled.  Of course I wore a mask.  But when I got home, I did the test.  And sure enough, it was positive.  The funny thing was, I felt totally fine.  Until about 8 that night.  That’s when I started to feel like something was up.

That was a rough night.  Fever, some minor aches and pains.  Not fun.  And yet, hardly the worst I’ve ever been.  If I didn’t know better, I’d have just guessed it was the flu.  And like I said, not even the worst flu I’ve ever had.  Fever broke by the next morning.  After that, it was mostly just fatigue, some minor aches.  By Friday, I was feeling pretty much back to normal.  Now I’m just waiting to test negative again.

Technically, you’re supposed to quarantine.  But I did have to go to the drug store to pick up my scrips.  Other than that, stuck at home.  And I learned something about what’s possible delivery-wise in this city.  There are a number of options, but I went with one called Flaschenpost, which would translate as ‘bottle-mail.’  Primarily, they deliver things in bottles.  Water, juice, beer, liquor, whatever.  But they also do groceries. 

And this was a revelation.  First off, just for the bottles.  Normally, when I go to the supermarket, if I want to buy seltzer or beer, I’m limited by what I can carry.  But these guys, they deliver crates of beer (1 crate = 20 bottles) and crates of seltzer (1 crate = 12 bottles).  Why would I ever schlep bottles from the supermarket again?  But I also decided I wanted to make myself chicken soup.  So I hit up their grocery department as well, and was able to get everything I needed.  And they deliver same day, too.  They give you a two-hour window, and sure enough, the guy shows up right smack in the middle of it. 

Now, I don’t know how often I’ll use this for groceries.  The selection is limited, to some degree.  And also, sometimes you just get inspired when you’re at the supermarket.  You walk in not sure what you’re gonna cook, and then suddenly, the leeks look good and you get an idea.  And then of course there’s the special stuff that only the Turkish or Asian markets carry, so those are never going away.  But, I do hate going to the supermarket more than pretty much anything.  So knowing that I have the option of cutting out at least some of those trips?  Huge win.  The chicken soup came out pretty well.  Never as good as my mom’s though.  But that’s the nature of these things.

Was noch?  Oh, I wrote a new song.  You guys, this is gonna be a banger.  I mean, it slaps.  I’d had elements of it laying around for a while, but I couldn’t quite figure out what to do with them.  Then, Thursday before last, I had to do a bit of running around.  So I used my phone to record some of the chord changes with a bit of a melody “la-di-da’d” over top.  And I just kept playing it back over and over while I was walking around.  And it just sorta came together. 

I started recording it over last weekend.  Originally, I was going to do it in that 50’s rock/do-wop style that I love.  I mean, this song has a lot of Buddy Holly in it.  So I laid down a rough version with three-part harmonies.  And it was sounding pretty good.

Before I go on, let me interrupt myself here for a second.  For the first time, I did this song right.  As always, I started with a scratch track.  A scratch track is the simplest version of the song: Just me and my acoustic guitar played against a click track.  The sole purpose of the scratch track is to lay out the structure, in time.  It’s basically a reference against which you can start building the actual song.  So I found the right tempo and got the scratch down.

But this is what I mean when I say, for the first time, I did this right.  The first thing I did was to build the drum track.  No loops, no pre-programmed grooves.  I built a proper drum track from the ground up.  I’ve written before that this the way to go, but that I’d never yet actually done so.  Well, now I have.  And it’s paying off.  Also, while I’m not a master at this drum stuff by any stretch, I think I did solid work here.

On top of that, I did some research on how to “humanize” the drums.  Because see, when you program drums, by default, every hit goes in precisely on time and each at the exact same velocity, or volume.  The result is that it sounds too ‘perfect.’  Because no human, no matter how good, is machine precise 100% of the time.  Nor would you want that.  There’s no feel. 

But my software has all these great capabilities.  It can randomize the velocity of the hits within whatever parameters you set.  Likewise, it can randomize in timing ‘errors,’ some hits coming in milliseconds late or milliseconds early, again within whatever parameters you specify.  If you set the parameters too wide, it will sound sloppy or just flat-out wrong.  Too narrow, and you won’t hear the difference.  But if you do it right, you get something sounding a bit more human.  Which, without buying an electric kit and then actually learning to play drums, is the best that can be done.  All to say, I think I’ve got a pretty credible drum track for this song.  And instead of filling it in after the fact when it’s too late, I did it first and now it’s the foundation for the whole tune.  This is real progress, is what I’m saying.

Anyway, by the end of the weekend, I’ve got a solid rough draft of this song.  The backing harmonies were pretty on point.  I’d just need get good takes on the lead vocal and the guitar solo.  But as I was listening to it, I heard something.  This song has crazy potential to be a real pop-punk rocker.  Think Green Day or Blink 182. 

So I got to work redoing it in that style.  Heavy guitars, bigger drums, more aggressive bass.  Gone are the do-wop harmonies.  In as a more aggressive lead vocal.  I said before that the writing just sorta came together.  Well so did the arrangement.  Like, my guitar arrangements just worked.  Tight on the verses and then suddenly huge on the chorus. 

All those years of playing in metal bands, all those guitar mags containing interviews with the lads from AC/DC and Metallica.  Combined with the little I’ve learned about building a drum track.  And holy shit.  The chorus just explodes.  What did I learn from those AC/DC interviews?  Use power chords on the verse and open chords on the chorus.  Even if you do nothing else, the chorus is already gonna sound big.  And boy, does it ever.  What have I learned about drums?  Go steady on the closed hi-hat during the verse and switch to a ride on the chorus.  It brightens the whole feel.  Such a tiny thing, but the difference is night and day.

On top of that, there are no harmonies on the verse, apart from the odd accented word.  But then, on the build to the chorus, there’s this ascending three-part harmony, the voices coming in one at a time, the last on a high A.  Tension, drama.  It all just fucking works.  And it works big. 

And yet, I thought it could be bigger.  So I listened to All The Small Things by Blink 182.  They’re a 3 piece, one guitar.  And yet, the chorus on that song sounds huge.  Why?  How?  I discovered that there’s an extra guitar added on the chorus that’s playing some power chords way up the neck.  It’s not in your face.  You don’t know it’s there if you’re not looking for it.  The harmonic overtones blend so well with the vocals, you could be forgiven for not noticing it.  But it’s there.  So I’m like, lemme try that. 

Which I did.  And wow.  Subtle, right?  Just in the right speaker, low in the mix.  But definitely there.  And it just fills out the sound.  Then I had another idea.  I set up a guitar track with a heavy 1/4 note delay.  Now on the left side, still low in the mix.  So low it’s hard to properly identify even what it is.  But it just adds this vibrancy, this pulsing energy to it. 

Seriously, I feel like it’s all coming together on this song.  Arrangement, production, vocal ability, and not for nothing, a pretty solid hook.  Now to be sure, there’s still a lot of work to do.  I’ve got to get this thing to the finish line sounding like a professional product.  And that’s gonna be the hardest part, no doubt.  But all the elements are in place.  Very soon, it’s going to be time to see what I’ve really learned as a producer.  I hope I’ll be able to have something that will allow you all to hear what I’m hearing.  Because I’m pretty proud of this one, I’m not gonna lie. 

Other than that, there’s not a whole lot going on.  Stephan, from Bavaria, was up a couple of weeks ago.  So that was a weekend filled with beer, whiskey, good times and good people.  Par for the course, in other words.  And the rest of the Bavarians will be up for Joschka’s NYE party.  So that should be great.

I’m supposed to go Flensburg next week to see Jan and Zibs for a couple of days between Xmas and NYE.  But that’s on hold because covid.  But we’re supposed to talk Sunday and we’ll make a call on it then.  Hopefully it works out. 

And I guess that’s all for now.

Update 1 (28th December):

A couple of updates since I started this post.  Flensburg is off.  I’m still testing positive, so there’s just no way.  We’re going to reschedule, but I don’t know yet for when. 

As for the song, lots of progress, and then…brick fucking wall.  Recorded the last of the vocals today.  Put together the final comps for the rhythm guitars as well as all the vocals, lead and backing.  Bass and drums have been done for a while.  As is the first half of the guitar solo (I’m pretty sure).  So recording-wise, I either need to re-record the second half the solo or else figure out how to get it sounding better.  But other than that, all the recording is done, comped and ready for use.  Which is big.

(“Comped,” btw, is short for “compilation” or “compiled.”  Basically what you do is, you record two or three takes of a guitar track, for example.  And you do this knowing that you’re bound to have at least a couple of tiny mistakes in there somewhere in each take.  Then what you do is, just knit together the best parts of each take to create a unified whole free of mistakes).

So what’s the problem?  Well, I had the feeling that the whole thing was sounding a bit thin.  Just how thin though, I wasn’t prepared for.  I loaded up a reference track today.  A reference track is what the name implies.  It’s a professionally produced track that you think you kinda want your song to sound like.  Not ‘sound like’ as in having the same melody or anything like that.  But ‘sound like’ in terms of production values.  And you use that as a reference to see what you want your mix to be doing.  Ideally, when you’re done, you should be able to play them back to back and not notice a drop-off in quality or general ‘sound.’

Anyway, the song I chose for a reference is Blink 182’s All  The Small Things.  And omg they’re not even in the same ballpark.  Everything in that mix sounds absolutely huge.  And nothing in mine does. 

Well, it’s good to have that reference obviously.  It’s shown me where my problems are and what I’m aiming for.  And yet, I’m completely stuck on how to get there.  The balance seems right. In other words, the levels of all the instruments and voices relative to each other is broadly where I want it. 

But as things stand, I’m already pushing the meter.  Any more and I’m absolutely in the red and it’s gonna sound like shit.  So how do I make the guitars sound big without blowing out the mix?  I suspect the answer lies somewhere in finding the right balance between the gain of the input signal, the output on the amp emulators and the slider on the mixing board.  But every combination I try seems to be worse than the last and I have no idea what to try next.  I suppose I’m gonna have to dive into some YouTube tutorials and hopefully find my answer there.  I’m having a similar issues with the vocals, though to a lesser degree.  Still, I’m pretty stuck right now and that’s very frustrating.

I feel like I’m real close with this song.  It’s a good song.  The arrangement is on point.  The performances are solid.  And yet, it’s this last mile, as it were.  Right now it sounds like a garage recording and I need to get it sounding like a studio recording.  It’s absolutely possible.  Just, how?  It’s gonna take a lot of work, research and experimentation.  But I need to be able to do this.  Because if I can’t, then what the fuck am I even doing here?  I’ve got my work cut out for me, is all I can say. 

Update 2 (29th December):

Got a lot of good work done on the song today.  I’m calling it Can You See; at least for now.  But it’s getting close now, and I feel a lot better about it than I did yesterday.  Got some good feedback from Justin, some of which I’ve already put into effect.  Sent my last mix of the night off to Rob for his input (at around 430am, my time). 

On the whole, I think there’s a lot of good stuff happening.  Overall, the mix might still sound a little thin.  I may want to beef it up in the midrange on the mix bus.  I’m not totally in love with the guitar sound.  I don’t know if that’s purely a function of using emulators rather than proper amps, or if I’m just not using the emulators well enough.  Nevertheless, they sound a far sight better than yesterday, and that’s owing to a trick I learned on YouTube.

And it’s a simple trick too.  Here’s how it works.  You’ve got two rhythm guitars, one panned left and one panned right.  Then what you do is, you send each guitar to a reverb channel, but you pan the reverbs opposite to the guitars.  In other words, you’ve got the reverb for the left guitar coming through the right speaker and vice versa.  And holy shit does it fill out the sound.  I was so happy with the effect that I wound up doing the same thing with the vocal harmonies on the chorus.  It’s makes everything so much bigger and warmer.  Such a simple fucking thing.  Love it.

I also started messing around with some mastering software.  For the moment, I’m just letting it create a ‘smart’ master on its own.  You feed it your reference track as well as your own mix and then the algorithms work up a master processing chain.  It’s pretty slick.  For now, this is an experiment, to get a feel for what the algorithms do.  Ultimately, once I feel I’ve got a handle on that, I’ll either modify it or build up my own mastering chain from scratch.  But I need to learn a bit more about it all before I can do that.

As for the reference track, I’m now using two, and I’ve created unique ‘smart’ masters based on each.  One, as mentioned, is All The Small Things.  The other is Black Sabbath’s Neon Knights.  Reason being, it’s tight and clean and has the virtue of having been produced by (imo) the greatest metal producer of all time, Martin Birch.  He did all the Deep Purple albums, the Rainbow albums with Dio, the Sabbath albums with Dio and all but one of the Maiden albums from the 80’s.  His work is exemplary.  It’s also quite a bit different from Blink.  In the end, I suppose I’m hoping to land somewhere in between in the two.

As for the overall sound, Justin made some observations that I’m really happy about it, because they all point to me being on the right track here.  For starters, he didn’t know the direction the song was taking.  The last time he’d heard it, it was just me and my acoustic.  And when you hear it that way, it sounds like a Buddy Holly song.  That was my intention at the time, and his observation as well.  But he didn’t know I was taking it heavy.

Anyway, upon hearing this new mix, he had two observations.  Just from the opening chords, he said, “It kinda sounds like the Ramones.”  Which is great, because what are the Ramones, after all, but a stripped down and sped up version of Buddy Holly, right?  So far, so good.  Then, as the song goes on, he says, “You know, it’s got this early 2000’s pop-punk kinda vibe.”  And I’m like, Yes!  I’ve been listening to the first Blink 182 album basically non-stop since the summer.  And that’s absolutely the vibe I was going for with this song.  So the fact that he heard both of those things with no prompting means I’m doing at least something right here.  Very happy about that.

So there’s a couple of things yet that I want to tweak, plus whatever Rob’s feedback puts me on to.  But this song is nearly there.  And I’m pretty excited about it.  Hopefully I’ll be able to share it in the next couple of days, a week at the outside.  Stay tuned.

Oh, I guess there’s one last minor update worth mentioning.  Maybe I’ve already mentioned it in passing.  But Akiva mentioned to me that the local Hillel group (which meets a seven minute walk from here) was starting a Torah reading group on Saturday afternoons.  So of course I signed up.  We’ve only met two or three times so far, but it’s been great.  It’s a small group, max five or six people.  But the girl who runs it is great.  She’s gotta be in her early 20’s, but she’s ‘wicked smaht’ and well learned.  She does a great job of bringing down classic commentary as well as modern perspectives.  And everybody is encouraged to offer their input, opinions, observations.  It’s a good vibe.  

Interpolation: Speaking of Akiva, he was in town two weeks ago.  He organized a dinner outing which I of course attended.  It was fine.  Nice.  You know, another social situation with limited alcohol.  I managed.  Anyway, dude’s like, “So um, would it be possible for me to crash with you for a night?”  Gimme a break, tatele.  Of course!  So he did, and it was great.  We drank a bunch of wine.  Discussed Torah and also Love, since apparently he was attending some conference on the latter and had to give a short speech thereon.  Point is, we had a great time and I was all too happy to put him for a night.  I love that kid so much.  A proper גוטע נשמה, a gute neshuma.  We agreed, again, that it’s just a beautiful thing, how we randomly met at the Yiddish course in Weimar and have managed to remain friends since.  ברוך השם.  :End Interpolation.

What we do (in the Torah group, he added resumptively) is, we read the weekly parsha in German and discuss (in German) as we go.  This has advantages and disadvantages.  The advantage – for me – is that it’s great German practice.  A guaranteed extra couple hours a week of just German.  The disadvantages are twofold.  First, I’m obviously less comfortable discussing the finer points of Torah in a foreign language.  Second, it wouldn’t matter if it was German or English, we’re not dealing directly with the Hebrew.  That would obviously be ideal.  But you have to respect that not everybody has the Hebrew to do that.  Even with my Hebrew, it would be a lift.  So I get it.  Nevertheless, when it comes to key words or passages, we will dig out the Hebrew and break it down.  So it’s there.  Just not front and center.

Still, it’s a pretty great thing and I’m really happy to be doing it.  In a way – a very small way – it fills a void that’s been there since Daitz died.  What do I mean, “in a small way”?  Well, it ain’t Greek and it ain’t Homer.  Also, there’s no Daitz.  And as I said, even though it’s Torah, it’s minimal Hebrew.  Still, the idea of meeting with a regular group to do scholarly shit on a Saturday, that’s been missing from my life.  I’m glad to have that back.  Plus, where with Daitz we’d meet at 10am, this group meets at 3pm; which makes my life a bit easier.

Speaking of Daitz.  I got a surprise email from ol’ Nat this week.  Oh, Nat.  Me and him were the two constants in all my years reading with Daitz.  Five years I read with that man, every Saturday morning, rain or shine or hangover.  People would come and go.  But Nat, he was there on my very first day, my very last, and every day in between.  An older gentleman even then, he taught (still teaches) at a private school.  But he had deep interests in gemology and architecture and gods know what else.  And by Zeus did that man know his Greek.  He’d just show up and sight read that shit cold and it was masterful.  As my friend Miranda once put it, he would absolutely ‘beast through’ the Greek.

My relationship with the man was a curious one.  We weren’t close.  And even to say we were ‘friends’ would be a stretch, insofar as we didn’t really talk outside of the reading group.  And yet we were bonded through Daitz.  There was a mutual respect and, I dare say, admiration there.  Me for his sheer ability with the language, and him for my reading/performance skills.  (In his email, he said: “You and Alexander [another from the group] are the best rhapsodes around, though I’m no slouch either”).  I can think of the man with nothing but fondness.

Anyway, out of the blue – and after many years of living here – I get an email from ol’ Nat this week.  He starts just by saying that Mimi (Daitz’ wife) wanted to get in touch with me but had lost my email address.  But then he tells me that the Homeridai (the name of our group) are still going strong, mentioning the name of some current members.  Those that I remembered, I remember as high school students from back in the day.  They must be college grads by now.  And קודם כל, it just warmed my heart to know that Nat is well and that the Homeridai are still a going concern.  Beyond that, just to know that Daitz’ teachings are still being carried on is a wonderful thing. 

You know, all this time, I’ve felt like a wandering exile who’s lost his master, carrying around these traditions and this knowledge, not knowing what to do with it beyond the simple business of making sure I don’t forget it.  It’s a burden I’m proud to bear, but a burden all the same.  Like, I’m supposed to be doing something with this gift, you know?  Which, I’ll be able to do, when it comes time to record the text of Frogs and Mice for George and Phil; assuming that happens.  But apart from that, it’s mostly just been making sure the flame doesn’t go out, as it were.

And now I learn that Nat has been – and is still – shepherding the Homeridai.  And the burden is a little lighter.  It’s all a touch less lonely.  And if that’s all it was, that would be huge.  But wait, there’s more.

So in his email, Nat tells me that they now meet by Zoom.  I don’t know if that started as a covid thing or what.  I don’t know if the members have scattered, geographically.  The point is, they meet by Zoom now.  And so, Nat asked me if I’d be interested in (re-)joining.  וואָס פאַר אַ פראַגע!  Of course I’d be interested!

I told him as much, asking him to have one of his ‘minions’ get in touch with me about the Zoom deets (he’s not super tech-savvy himself).  And now I’m waiting.  No email from Mimi as yet.  Nor any response from Nat, though I suppose they’re taking a holiday break.  But I sincerely hope this is gonna work out.  It might not be easy with the time diff.  And I sure as shit hope it’s not gonna wind up conflicting with the Torah group.  Maybe I won’t be able to do it every single week.  But it would kinda make my world if I can somehow get back to that. 

Reading with Daitz and Nat, that was a central part of my life for five years.  More than that, it was – and remains – a part of my soul.  When I think about the things I’ve had to give up in coming here, there are the things that would be obvious to anybody, obvious for anybody in my position: family and friends, being a part of the lives of my friends’ children as they grow up.  But for me specifically, I’ve had to sacrifice two other things in coming here that are terribly dear to me.  One, of course, is ice hockey.  The other, reading Homer with Nat and the Homeridai, which continued even after Daitz died.  If I can get that back?  I can’t even.

So we’ll see.  Like I said, I haven’t heard back from the man yet.  But if there’s a way to make this happen, I’ll fucking bend over backwards and you can take that to the bank.  In the meantime, I wish you all a happy, safe and healthy new year.  See you bitches in ’23…

זײַ געזונד

Am American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
24 November, 2022

This post is likely to be a bit scattershot and the writing of it spread out over several days, as opposed to the usual one long night and a bottle of wine.  But there are some things to be updated, and I’ll try to tackle them as I can.

Cooking.  I’ve been working on my Asian game of late.  Two Fridays ago, I think it was, I took another stab at miso Ramen.  It came out quite nice, I have to say.  But the real lesson from that one was the pork belly.  See, I did a quick stove-top braise, which I’d never done before.  And also a new marinade.  All this from some Japanese dude on YouTube by the way; I’m not taking any creative credit here. 

The marinade was light soy sauce, sake and a touch of sesame oil with minced garlic and finely sliced ginger.  OK, I’ll actually take a small bit of creative credit.  The video called for some other kind of wine and sugar.  But not having the wine, and knowing that sake has a sweetness to it, I subbed in the sake.  Worked a treat.  Anyway, fry that pork belly up in a bit of peanut oil on high heat, not more than two minutes a side.  And had I stopped there, the taste would have been good, but the meat would have been chewy; this much I know form having worked with pork belly in the past.  This is where the braise comes in; and here too, I kinda just followed my instincts.  I added back some of the marinade to the pan and mixed in a bit of water.  Just enough so the liquid came up about 1/3 the height of the pork belly.  Covered, lowered the heat and let it go for ten minutes or so.  And holy shit.  Totally tenderized the meat.  It wasn’t just tasty, but juicy, succulent.  And while it’s a different cut, it had the exact flavor of the boneless ribs you get from the Chinese restaurants back home.  This, friends, is a keeper. 

That Sunday, Joschka came over and I shipped out from Japan across the sea to China.  He sous-chef’d for me as I did a stir fry.  Pork again, but the marinade was different this time.  Light soy, shaoxing wine (Chinese cooking wine, similar to a dry sherry or marsala wine), corn starch to thicken and baking soda, which apparently ‘velvets’ (a term I learned on YouTube), i.e. tenderizes, the meat. 

I’m learning something interesting about stir-fry technique.  And that is, that it’s pretty much always the same.  Just like western techniques, the principles and basics remain the same even as you change ingredients.  So this is no longer about making a particular dish, but rather about developing my Chinese stir-fry game. 

And my game is coming along nicely.  So French cooking has its mirepoix: onions, carrots and celery which forms the foundation for everything else that’s gonna go in the pan.  Well, the Chinese version of a mirepoix seems to green onions (the white part), ginger and (optionally) garlic.  And here I gotta pause to say something.  As a Western person, I grew up with the smell of onions frying in oil.  And what a smell, right?  It just announces that good food is on the way.  I love that smell.  But this smell of green onions and ginger going off in peanut oil?  Oh man, do I love that!  It’s totally new, but also…not entirely new; I’ve been eating Chinese food my whole life.  But it’s a new smell in the kitchen and I’m officially obsessed. 

I need a new wok.  I mean, the wok I have is fine insofar as it’s a wok.  It’s the right shape.  But it’s cast iron, so it’s super heavy, which means you can’t move it, you can’t give it the ol’ flick of the wrist to get things moving.  So I’m gonna have to get myself a carbon-steel wok at some point.  But for now, she does the trick.  Although she probably needs a name, like my cast iron Dutch oven (Dicke Bertha) and my cast iron skillet (Schwerer Gustav).  I guess I need to research more German heavy artillery?

Anyway, you get the wok nice and hot and throw in your meat.  Real quick, basically just to sear it.  Then you take it out, at which point you gotta give the wok a quick rinse, because the marinade stuff will burn and get bitter otherwise.  Then it’s in with the ginger and green onions.  Shortly thereafter, you start adding your veggies in the order of how much time they need.  For example, string beans and peppers first, cabbage last.  Finally, the meat goes back in. 

But this all happens fast.  See, the point of stir fry is, you want all your veggies to have a nice crunch.  So you gotta cook ‘em hot and fast.  And you gotta be careful that you a) don’t “crowd the wok” and b) don’t let too much moisture collect at the bottom.  Because if you do either (or both) of those things, you’ll wind up steaming your veggies, thereby robbing them of their crunch.  So everything – every last thing – needs to be prepped before you ever turn on the stove.

OK, so now your stir fry is done, cooking-wise.  But the last step is, you gotta hit it with just a touch of sesame oil and dark soy.  I’ve always associated sesame oil with Asian cooking.  But one thing I’ve learned is, you can’t cook with it.  The smoke point is way too low.  Rather, you add just a little at the end for flavor.  And before I embarked on this, soy sauce was just soy sauce.  But the difference between light and dark soy is huge; and important.  Light soy has the consistency of water and the flavor is not overpowering.  That’s what you use for the marinade.  Dark soy is viscous and the flavor is quite strong indeed.  A little goes a long way, and it’s all too easy to overdo it (I know, because I have); but again, just a tiny bit at the end for flavor and color.

Et voilà (or whatever the Chinese equivalent is).  Fucking stir fry, baby!  And let me tell you, that shit was good.  Serve with a side of rice, which my rice cooker nails every time, and you’re golden.  And that’s it.  That’s the basic elements of stir fry as I understand them.  You can change the veggies or your choice of meat, the principles are essentially the same.  I haven’t mastered it yet, but I’m starting to get the hang of it.  This week, I aim to have a go at pork fried rice.  And I’ve got my eye on black pepper beef too. 

[Quick follow up.  I did the pork fried rice and it was…okay?  I mean, it wasn’t amazing.  But it tasted like pork fried rice, so that’s a start.  Needs improvement though].

Now to be sure, I’ve got lots and lots to learn.  I’ve yet to fuck with oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, chili oil.  (There was chili oil in the miso ramen, but I’ve yet to use it in a stir-fry context).  So there’s a long road ahead of me with this stuff.  And that’s just talking about Chinese and Japanese cuisine.  There’s a whole world of Vietnamese and Thai food out there.  But those are for another day.  For now, I’m just excited to be expanding my cooking game to China and Japan.

One last thought on this before I move on.  I make a point of watching YouTube videos by people who are actually Chinese or Japanese, or of that descent.  Not to say other people can’t do this stuff really well.  But I’m after the “this is how my grandma does it” kinda stuff.  And I want to do this right.  I feel like there’s a lot of talk these days about cultural appropriation – and fairly so.  I want to be careful not to do that.  In doing all this, my goal is not just to broaden my cooking horizons, but to learn about other cultures, to appreciate the different ways things are done around the world, to share in the richness of it all.  If I have anything like a role model in all this, it’s absolutely Anthony Bourdain, עליו השלום.  Because he was the master of learning about other cultures, other ways of doing things all the while showing the utmost respect and appreciation.  And also in sharing it.  Which is why I loved making chicken katsu and miso soup for Charlotte, loved doing a stir fry with Joschka.  There’s a whole world out there.  Let’s not just enjoy it, let’s appreciate it.  Together. 

So much for cooking.  Hebrew.  My experience learning Torah with Akiva has reinvigorated my desire to get a handle on this Rabbinic Hebrew stuff.  So I’ve finally cracked that book I bought and am beginning to (slowly and painfully) work my way through it.  I mean, I’m only on chapter seven (of like, a million).  But dude, this shit is hard

It’s super dense and condensed.  They just leave out words all over the place.  It’s not just learning a new dialect with new vocab and slightly different grammar rules.  The whole organization of ideas is different and, for me at this point, brutally opaque.

I’ll give an example from my book.  ברב חכמה רב־כעס.  You don’t need to be able to read Hebrew to see that this is just four words.  To translate literally: “In the amount wisdom amount anger.”  Um, okay.  My own translation: “To the extent that one is wise, to that extent is one also angry.”  You’ll note that’s a lot more than four words.  The book gives: “With great wisdom comes great vexation.”  Which is much nicer than what I said, but the same idea.  But you can see how getting from A (the original Hebrew) to B (the general meaning) to C (a useful bit of knowledge) is a long fucking walk.  But this is a “wise saying” and wise sayings are often pithy; difficult in any language.  Think: “Two in the hand is worth one in the bush.”  Now imagine you’re not a native English speaker.  What exactly are you supposed to do with that?

So I beg the reader’s indulgence as I give one more, this time prosaic, example.  יפה שעה אחת בתשובה ומעשים טובים בעולם הזה מכל חיי העולם הבא.  Literally: “Beautiful hour one in repentance and good deeds in this world from all lives of the world to come.”  What it actually means: “One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is more beautiful than life in the world to come.”  Maybe it’s not so bad when you have the translation in front of you.  But when you don’t?  Man, that’s a long walk.  For me, at least, it requires some real mental gymnastics at this point.  Presumably, at some point this gets easier, you get used to this style of thought-organization.  But right now?  Woof. 

So it’s a slog.  But a fun slog.  Like, I enjoy this shit.  On the merits, but also because of what it is.  I’m on my fifth turn through the Torah now.  Torah has become part of the background music of my life.  But you don’t stop there.  It’s not enough to read Torah, you have to learn Torah.  And to do that, you need this shit.  I mean, yeah, I could Rashi and Talmud and whatever else in English.  But that’s not how we roll.  Not most of us anyway.

Here’s a funny thing.  When I was younger, before my Bar Mitzvah, and going to Hebrew School, we were members of a ‘conservative’ synagogue.  So were some of my friends.  But others of my friends belonged to ‘reform’ synagogues.  At the time, all that meant to me was that they had it easier.  The reform crowd had less rules to follow, shit was generally less strict.  And at the time, I was like, “Mutherfuckers have the right idea,” you know?  I mean, what kid want’s more rules to follow?

But now I’m glad that we were rolling conservative.  Part of that has to do with this memorial book Bartek and I are translating (there’s only about eight million pages to go, so we should be done sometime before moshiakh comes).  I’m reading about what life was like in the shtetl, and those yidn didn’t fuck around.  And when you know that’s where you come from, what your own family was doing back in the day, you feel a bit more inclined towards preserving at least some of that. 

And in the old country, nobody was learning Rashi in Polish; nor even Yiddish.  If they were doing it (and not everybody did, to be sure), they did it the right way.  They learned this shit, this harder version of Hebrew; Aramaic where Talmud was concerned.  That’s how we rolled.  That’s how I wanna roll.  I’m working on it.  But it’s a bitch.  Dollars to donuts, I’ll master the art of Chinese stir fry before I ever get properly good at this shit.  But I’ll keep at it.  And this time next year, I’ll be better at it than I am today. 

Anyway, music.  Remember when I was all, “Maybe I’ll work on one of my songs first, since it’s mostly done?”  Ha.  Well, yeah, it’s mostly done in that the recording part is all done.  But I need to re-program the drums so they’re proper nice and not just loops.  I spent a solid 90m the other night messing with the vocal EQ and I’m still not sure I’m happy with it.  Yeah no, this song needs lots of work.  I mean, it’s pretty good as is.  I could play it for people as is.  But it’s the last mile.  Getting it from “good enough” to “actually good” – that’s gonna be some real work.  And while I really want to get it done, I also need to get back to the stuff with Philippe and Paulina; because that’s time sensitive in a way that my own shit is not.  So I’ve got my work cut out for me there…

Staying with music, I’ve been getting back into classical guitar again.  Finally.  And, um, I suck?  No, that’s not a question.  I’m objectively shite.  Which is frustrating.  Because I was playing quite a bit in Köpenick, and by the time I left that place, I had a pretty good repertoire going.  Then I moved to Pankow and just kinda stopped playing.  Classical, I mean.  So now I’m trying to get my shit back together.

It’s slow going, but it’s coming back.  So far, I’ve got two Carcassi studies more or less down plus the Prelude to Bach’s first cello suite.  Also, when I say I’ve got them down, I do not mean that I’m playing them well.  I am not.  But I’ve relearned them, and now they just need a bunch of practice.  Which I’m doing.  But there are pieces I used to play (passably well) that I want to get back.  Chief among them, Fernando Sor’s Variations on a Theme by Mozart and Gaspar Sanz’ Suite Española.  And a bunch of other shit besides. 

My feeling right now though is, I want to get these three pieces back up to a respectable level and then build out from there.  Which probably means getting a few more Carcassi studies under my fingers.  Because the whole point of those is to develop specific skill sets, whether it be right-hand picking skills or left-hand fingering skills.  So if I can get a few more of those in shape, the rest should come easier.  [Update, I’ve since added two more Carcassi studies].

Also fun (and by ‘fun,’ I mean ‘not fun’) has been having to re-learn to reading sheet music.  Well, reading the music is easy.  Knowing where the notes are on the neck of the guitar?  That’s the hard part.  It’s like, “Ah, yes, Mr. Johan Bach, I see you would like me to play an A…on the G string?  Just give me thirty-seven seconds, please, whilst I figure out where that is…”  It’s coming back, but slowly.  Still though, glad to be doing it. 

Was noch?  This week is my last week with this current group of students.  That’s kinda sad.  I mean, I really like this bunch.  I’ve said this before, but when you get a group like this, it’s barely work.  It’s a job, but it ain’t work.  We laugh a lot.  More than that, we give each other shit.  I recently gave a writing assignment.  And one of the girls writes a sentence that starts with something like, “Sometimes I can be a know-it-all, but…”   And I’m like, “Yeah, great sentence actually.  Just one question.  What do you mean sometimes?”  And in answer, she just kinda scratches her nose with her middle finger.  And I’m just like, “Yes, this.  I am here for this.”  It might sound weird, and I’m sure it’s not everybody’s teaching style, but I feel like I’ve been successful when I can give a student shit and they feel comfortable enough to flip me off in class.  That’s the dynamic I’m going for.  That’s what I want my classroom to be.  And with one week to go, we got there.  איך קוועל.

So yeah, Imma be a bit sad when I have to say goodbye to this lot.  But then, that’s the nature of the beast, innit?

Been thinking a lot about what I want to do with the apartment.  I think I need to paint it.  I don’t want to.  But it needs it.  So I’ll have to figure that out.  Also, I gotta start hanging my art.  I’ve been putting that off, and the walls are empty, which ain’t great.  So add that to the list.  Art-wise, though, Joschka brought me this wonderful housewarming gift.  It’s a wood panel, etched with a map of Third Age Middle Earth.  It’s gorgeous, honestly.  The question is, where to hang it.

Here’s what I’m thinking.  My whole Tolkien library is back in the States.  So I’m thinking I need to rebuild that library here.  My current idea is, to build a second bookshelf, like the first but bigger, and custom size it to fit the yet-to-be-ordered Tolkien library.  I’ll hang the shelf in my room, a bit lower than the first, and then hang the map above it.  I think that’ll be nice.  But it costs money to buy a bunch of books, and more to build a shelf.  So that’ll take some time.

Moving right along, a most interest development occurred Saturday.  So I do English lessons with this guy Carsten, whom I know through Bibi.  Not really on the reg, but we’ll do a month or two at a time if he’s going to the States or needs to prepare for something work related.  I think I’ve mentioned him before.  Absolutely lovely guy, full of great stories.  We pretty much hit it off from the get.  He works in radio, I may have mentioned, which is pretty cool.

Anyway, he started a side gig ‘coaching.’  Yeah, everybody’s a coach these days.  I don’t mean to diminish what he does, I hope it didn’t sound that way.  Alex, who I alternate reading German and English with is also a coach.  Well, Carsten landed himself a rather large, big-deal kinda client; you’ve likely heard of them.  And in the course of things, he winds up recording a series of interviews with something like eight or nine of the big machers in the company.  And they want to turn those interviews into a podcast; I think for internal consumption only, but I’m not entirely sure on that point. 

Well, he sends me a message asking if I’d be interested in helping out on the audio production side of things.  This because…well I forget how it came up actually.  But for his audio work, he has Apple’s version of the software I used in my own studio.  There’s four or five of these programs out there.  The one I use is called Cubase, Apple’s version is called Logic Pro and the most famous one – maybe you’ve heard of it – is called ProTools.  They’re all essentially the same, the main differences being what they name things within the software and where those things are located.  Point being, he has Logic Pro, but he doesn’t really know too much beyond the basics about how to use it.  So at some point, I’d offered to him that I could help in that regard should he ever need it.

It was with this in mind that he messaged me about helping out with this podcast project.  So we had a short meeting Saturday for the purposes of discussing what exactly he had in mind.  And he’s like, “Look, I know you offered to help teach me how to use the software.  But honestly, it would take too long and anyway, I’m not actually all that interested.  So basically what I’m asking you is, would you like to be my audio engineer?  Because I guess you know you’re doing.” 

Right, what with my extensive podcast producing experience and all.  Yeah, I’m being a bit facetious here.  But also, I mean, yeah, I’m pretty sure I can handle this without too much trouble.  So hey, why not, amirite?  If nothing else, it’ll just be good studio experience, good production experience and all that.  But it’s not nothing else, because it’s a paying gig.  He asked me to name a price.  I did.  He agreed.  Which means I should have asked for more.  Will I ever learn? 

But I’m happy with the price, honestly.  I mean, I’m pretty sure I’m undercharging?  But on the other hand, I don’t actually have any experience with podcast production.  And he’s either a friend, or at the very least a friend of a friend.  And in any case, he came to me, so it’s all a bonus anyway.  But as I said, I am actually happy with the price, insofar as rate-wise it’s now my highest paying gig.  It’s a good deal higher than what I get for private lessons and triple what I make when I have to go through a school.  So that’s fantastic, at least when looked at from that perspective.

The downside, to the extent that there is one, is that it’s limited to the eight or nine interviews/episodes he’s recorded.  And once we hammer out the details in the first episode, all the others should go pretty quickly.  So going forward, it probably won’t add up to a ton of work.  But it’s a start.

The first episode, though, turned out to be a good deal of work.  Partly just because it’s the first, right?  So there was bound to be some back and forth in terms of “Is this what you wanted?”  “Actually, could you do x, y and z?”  Beyond that, though, there was some trouble with the source material, in that there’s three voices but they’re all on one track, which presents a host of problems.  Going forward, he assured me that each voice will get its own track, which will significantly speed the process.

All to say, the first ep was be a fair bit of work.  But once I knew what he wanted, it moved pretty quickly.  Plus, a lot of the stuff that I needed to work out for this first episode was stuff I was able to save as presets or templates to be used in future, which wound up saving a fair bit of time.  So in that sense, this wasn’t really a great windfall.  More like, some properly nice pocket money.  Or, if I’m wise, money I can just save or put towards investing or something more useful than just, I dunno, whiskey.  Although, perhaps it wouldn’t be entirely out of order to celebrate this development with a bottle of nice whiskey…

But beyond whatever happens to land in my bank account, this is actually kind of a big deal.  And here’s why.  Although it’s coming in a way that was entirely unlooked for and entirely unexpected, it represents the first time I’m actually going to earn a bit of money from my studio.  And that, in and of itself, is pretty damn cool.  And kind of exciting, not for nothing. 

And hopefully it will lead to more work.  I get the impression that my boy Carsten might want to make this podcasting stuff, if not a regular part of his business, then at least a service he offers.  And if I do a good job here, it could mean more work for me down the line.  Beyond that, I’ll be able to add it to my own portfolio, add it to the list of services I can offer.  Now that this project is finished though, I should (in theory) be able to advertise on the back of it.  And that’s pretty cool.

Here’s a thing though, about me.  I’m not looking at this as a way to earn more money.  I’m looking at it as a way to work less.  This one job won’t be enough, mind you.  But in theory, if I can build out from here?  The goal is to make the same money, but to work less for it.  To have more free time to dedicate to study or music or whatever.  I suspect most people don’t think that way.  I suspect most people would be thinking about increasing their income.  But that’s just not where I’m at.  Well, all that’s for another day.  Let’s see where it leads.  But if I this goes well and I can pick up more of this kind of work, then I can teach less.

Not that I don’t love teaching, but the pay is shit.  And it requires me being social, which is exhausting.  I don’t think I’d ever give up teaching completely.  But to not have to depend on it entirely?  To be able to turn down teaching gigs because I’ve got extra income from audio production?  That would be pretty sweet.  But as I say, that’s for the future. 

For now, I’m just happy that Carsten approached me with this.  And not just approached me, but trusts me with it.  Because there is a level of trust here, since it’s tied to his own business.  He’s depending on me to do a good job for him, to not let him down.  I’m confident I will and I won’t.  [Update: he let me know today that he was indeed quite happy with my work and that the finished product was well received].  But it’s a good feeling that he trusts me.  And that the trust comes entirely from our work together just doing English lessons.  Because he hasn’t heard any of the music I’ve produced.  That, too, is pretty cool.  All of this is pretty cool.  And I’m kinda pinching myself that I’m on the verge of earning a dime off my studio.  Fuck yeah.

One last thought on this, now that the project has been completed.  This was different than the other audio work I’ve been doing insofar as I didn’t have to wear the producer hat for this one.  Just the audio engineer hat.  The man tells me what he wants and I give it to him.  Yes, I put my own stamp on it, in terms of, much of his directive was, “Make it sound good, please.”  So it was up to me to do that based on my ears, intuition and experience.  But it was kinda nice – easy – to not worry about ‘producing’ and just do some straight up audio work.  And it was nice to be able to call on my experience and all I’ve learned so far and to able to wield that effectively to create a nice product.  You just gain a little more confidence with each step, you know?

To that end, I had another conversation with Rob recently, just asking him to listen back to a couple of tracks and to give me his feedback.  As always, he pointed out some things I hadn’t thought of, some things that could be better.  But a lot of stuff, we were very much on the same page.  That builds the confidence too.  Since this last project, I’m thinking of setting up a LinkedIn page for this audio stuff.  Who knows, maybe something will fall in my lap.

Esma had a little dinner get-together Saturday night.  She starts by inviting me, Chris and Dženita in the group chat we’ve got going.  And then, only after I say I’m in, she mentions, “Oh yeah, and two of my girlfriends will also be coming.”  And I’m like, “Wait, what?  Now I have to be social with strangers?”  And she basically answered with the German version of – because this was all in German, “Fuck you, asshole.  Nobody expects you to be social.  Just fucking be there.”  Fair enough.

Anyway, I show up an hour late, because Dave.  Chris was already there, but not the strangers.  And my first reaction was, “Wait, you mean I could have come even later?”  Because Dave.  Well, we ate, just me, her and Chris (Dženits is out of town).  Which was great.  Great because Esma is a fantastic cook and she always makes proper Turkish food.  It’s Berlin, so Turkish food is kinda everywhere.  But to get a homecooked Turkish meal?  That’s just fantastic.  For her part, she’s like, “Meh, I’m whatever with cooking.  My mom though.”  Well, yeah, we all feel that way about our moms’ cooking.  Vinny pulls the same shit, and yet every time Vin cooks a meal, it’s out of this world.  Same with Esma.  Not for nothing, I pull the same shit too.  Twice I’ve cooked my mom’s spaghetti and meatballs for the metal crew, and twice they’ve absolutely devoured that shit.  Nicht gegessen doch gefressen.  And of course I’m like, “Yeah, it’s not great.  It’s about a million times better when my mom makes it.”  So yeah, we’re all like that.

So far, so good.  Eating good food, catching up and quatsching around with two of my very good friends over here.  And we laugh a lot, right?  Because we’re all wise-asses.  It’s like, go ahead, try to tell a story.  You’ll get through it.  Eventually.  But mostly you’re just gonna be interrupted with sarcasm and insults flying at you from all corners.  To be clear, I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Then, a bit later, her friends show up.  And I’m like, “Great, strangers.”  Now I’ve got to be social.  And there’s no help to be had.  By which I mean, no alcohol, The Great Social Lubricant.  Chris straight up just doesn’t drink.  Esma is an observant Muslim, so alcohol is right out for her.  On top of which, it’s her home.  I’d bring booze into her home just as soon as I’d bring pork fried rice to a kosher home, which is to say, it’s out of the question.  So now, I don’t just need to be social, I need to do it – gasp – dry.  #fml.  Needless to say, it took me a while to warm up.  And by a while, I mean several hours. 

But warm up I did.  And in the end, it was a great time.  Needless to say, Esma’s friends were awesome.  I mean, awesome people tend to have awesome friends, right?  And of course they share her/our sense of humor.  Which is to say, sarcastic af.  Though they were, perhaps, more sparing in the flinging of insults and their use of curse words.  Here would be a good place to add one of my favorite things about Esma.  On the one hand, she this pious observant Muslim, right?  And all that goes with that: kind, warmhearted, of charitable spirit, etc.  On the other hand, she curses like a sailor.  The words Fick dich (Fuck you) are never far from her lips.  There’s a reason we’re friends is what I’m saying.

Chris too.  I mean, he doesn’t really curse.  And he’s probably one of the most German Germans I know, with all that entails.  But he’s also sarcastic af, when he wants to be.  And he’s always ready with a zinger, he can verbally zetz you in the schnoz with the best of them.  But also like Esma, he’s got a big heart.  And when he’s your friend, he takes that seriously.

Every now and then, not often, he’ll call me on the phone, just to catch up.  And he knows I’m not a phone guy.  He knows I’d never do that.  But it’s important to him, because we’re friends.  So, you know, I put up with it.  Last time he called, I think we talked for almost two hours.  And at the end, he was like, “This was hard for you, wasn’t it?”  And I was like, “Yeah it fucking was.  But I’m still glad you called.”  Both of those statements were true.

The hardest thing about this dinner shindig, though, was not actually being soberly social with strangers; which was a big lift, if haven’t mentioned that.  No, it was just speaking German the whole night.  Because honestly, I’m not in a great place with that right now.  Which is weird, because by any metric, this is the best my German has ever been.  And Chris, entirely unsolicited, actually remarked that he noticed my German was much improved; then added that he was entirely serious.  And the proof of this, if any were needed, was that we left the dinner together and walked as far as his train.  And we spoke German the whole way.  In the past, when the two of us would be left alone – even for just a couple of minutes – he’d usually switch to English with me.  His English, I should add, is top notch.  But that was always an indication of, “Your German is good enough for the group, but between us, it’s just more efficient to speak English.”  So when he never bothered to switch on the way to the train, that was the first time I’ve ever felt with him, “Hey dude, your German is now good enough there’s really no point in switching.”  That’s a feather in the cap of sorts. 

Only, like I said, I’m not in a great place with my German right now, at least in my own head.  און פארוואס?  Well, I’ve got this new tandem (conversation exchange) going, in addition to my tandem with Alex.  It’s with this girl from Hannover.  So already, her Hanoverian German (i.e. standard textbook German) is weird to me and my Berlin-trained ears.  Conversation-wise, though, I do alright.  I mean, yeah, there are times when I have to ask her to repeat things.  And there are times when she says things I’ve never heard before and have to ask what they mean.  But that’s the whole point of this tandem business anyway.  So I don’t feel too bad about that.  And anyway, conversationally, my German is, if not quite to her level of English, at least hanging out in the same neighborhood.  So if that’s all there was, I’d probs be feeling pretty good about myself.

The problem is, that’s not all there is.  Because see, the last two times we’ve met, she presented me with newspaper articles to read.   And oh my gods, the wheels just come off.  I mean, I can’t believe how shit I am.  Like, I’ve been living in this country for over six years.  I have multiple relationships that exist entirely in German.  And then it comes time to read a simple newspaper article and I’m almost completely lost.  It’s like it’s a whole nother language entirely. 

And we’re not talking high literature here.  It’s not like we’re trying to read Goethe or something.  It’s a fucking daily.  And I got nothing.  I mean, it’s absolutely brutal.  So of course I start to feel super self-conscious.  To the point that, every so often, I’ll just stop and be like, “I’m sorry, this has to be so boring for you.”  And invariably, she’s like, “No, not at all, you’re doing fine.”  Friends, I am not ‘doing fine.’  I am at the very limits of my ability and it’s embarrassing.

Maybe I wouldn’t feel so bad if I was a proper novice.  But I’m not.  In addition to having lived here 6+ years, in addition to having whole friendships entirely in German, I also have to negotiate my life in this language.  I have to go to the doctor, the allergist, the dentist in German.  I have to do my taxes in German.  I have to call customer service lines in German.  And I manage all of that.  Oh, but a newspaper article?  Haha, fuck you, noob.

It’s deflating.  I feel like a fucking failure.  And this girl, bless her, she’s so supportive and patient and encouraging.  Maybe because I can give her something in return.  I don’t mind saying at this point that I’m a pretty good English teacher.  So I’m able to offer her quite a bit, even at her impressively advanced level.  So I’m guessing she doesn’t feel like it’s a one-way street, which almost certainly helps.  The point is, it’s not anything she says or does that makes me feel bad; if anything she should be making me feel better about things.  But man.  I do not. 

So then, I show up to Esma’s already not feeling good about my German.  And now I’ve got to do it with strangers?  Ugh.  I felt like I was tripping over my tongue the whole night.  Felt like I was missing things the whole night.  We played this card game.  Lots of fun.  But I feel like I needed to have shit explained to me like three times at least.  Nobody else did, mind you.  Just Dave, who’s not actually that good at German.  Fuck me.  At least nobody switched to English on me.  At least there was that. 

But what a strange fucking feeling.  Rationally knowing that, by any metric, this is the best I’ve ever been at this משגע׳נע language.  And at the same time, feeling like a complete fucking failure.  Man, that was brutal.  Like, already my inclination in a social situation with strangers (and without alcohol!) is just to keep my mouth shut.  Now, every time I open it, feeling like I’m gonna fuck it up? 

I’m focusing on the negative here, obviously.  The dinner shindig was, language shit aside, a great time.  It was great to see my friends, and the new people were a lot of fun.  And whatever the state of my German, however I might be feeling about it, I did manage to get through the night without resorting to English, without anybody else resorting to English.  I’m glad I went, is the point.

And to put a more positive spin on things, this – all this – is exactly what I need to be doing.  I need to be putting myself in more social situations where the only language is German.  I need to be challenging myself with actually reading this language (I hate reading it in equal measure with how much I love speaking it), and I’m lucky to have people that will hold my hand through it with a seemingly endless amount of patience.  These are good things. 

And the best way to stop feeling like a fucking failure is – no surprise here – to just get better at it.  And the best way to get better at it is just to fucking do it.  Well, I’ve got opportunities to do just that, don’t I?  

So what can I do?  I can keep doing it.  I can accept that embarrassment and feeling like a failure at times are simply the cost of doing business.  I can recognize that nobody else – at least, not the people who actually care about me – seem to be judging me, are in fact supporting me.  And if I’m smart – an open question – I can learn to stop being so hard on myself.  To take my own advice.  If you want to get better at language, you’ve got put yourself out there.  That inevitably means falling on your face sometimes.  But it’s the only way.  Because that’s how we learn.  And I’m lucky enough that I’ve got people around me who are willing to help. 

So next time I meet with tandem girl, we’ll try another article.  And I’ll surely suck at it.  But the goal is not to be awesome at it.  The goal is to better than last week.  And the next time somebody invites me to something with people I don’t know, I damn well better show up.  Because that’s an opportunity.  An opportunity to embarrass myself, but also an opportunity to learn something new, to get better at this shit. 

Man, living in a foreign country is hard work sometimes…

I’ll probably have another update on the whole podcast thing in a later post, when all is said and done.  But I feel good about it.  I feel good about my own work here, and I feel good that he’s pleased with it.  So this looks promising.  It’s been fun and a good learning experience; different from working on music in some ways.  Plus I’ll get a nice little paycheck out of it.  And hopefully it will lead to more work.

He wants to pick up English lessons again in December for a bit, so I’m sure we’ll discuss this at length then.  I’m looking forward to that as well.  Oh, and one last really nice thing to come from all of this.  Remember I said I know this cat through Bibi.  Well, when I saw her at Knut’s birthday (before any of this podcast business), she was like, “Dude, you know Carsten fucking loves you, right?”  And I’m like, “Um, yeah, I mean, we have a pretty good rapport, sure.”  And she’s like, “No, he fucking loves you.  He wants to get drinks next time he’s in Berlin.  Are you down?”  Ha, what a question.  Am I down for drinks.  “Yeah, sure!  I’d love to meet him in person.  Sounds like fun.”  So presumably that’ll happen at some point.  But, you know, that’s just nice to hear.

זײַ געזונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
7 November, 2022

I was very busy week before last, working on my bookshelf.  To the point where it kinda supersumed all other projects and tasks.  But let me be clear, I was so happy to be doing it.  Lotta fun, honestly.  Like, working on it was a thing I looked forward to every day after work (and even on my breaks), even though I knew it was coming at the expense of other shit that needed to get done. 

Now it’s done.  Hung it Friday before last.  And can I just say, I’m really fucking pleased with it.  Pleased with it and proud of my handiwork.  All the more so because I don’t have a proper shop here.  The only power tool I had was a drill, and even that only came into play when it came time to hang the damn thing.  Everything I did, I did with hand tools.

I made a cornice piece.  Is that the right word?  In my last post, I described the bookshelf as basically a square-ish wooden frame.  What I’m calling the ‘cornice piece’ is an extra slab of wood on top of the frame which slightly overhangs the front and sides.  And I added a beveled edge to this piece.  That is to say, the edges are angled.  And I fashioned this bevel not with a router or some other power tool (which, honestly, would be the fastest and most efficient way to do it), but with a hammer and chisel and lots of sandpaper. 

Is it perfect?  No.  The casual observer might not notice anything amiss, but I know the mistakes I made.  I went a touch too deep with the chisel at one point, such that there’s ever so slightly a bit of a divot in the front facing.  A couple of other spots where my hand slipped a bit with the chisel.  These I puttied over.  Barely noticeable, except that the putty doesn’t quite take the stain exactly the same as the wood itself.  These are things I notice, but which the causal observer likely wouldn’t.

Then came the question of how to finish it.  My first thought was a varnish.  So I tested it out on a piece of scrap would and decided I didn’t love it.  So it was back to the Baumarkt to pick up some stain.  Only with stain, it’s not just stain.  It’s actually a three-step process.  First you stain.  Then you hit it with…shit, I don’t know.  See, I’m learning to do this in German, so for some of this shit, I only know the German names.  You hit it with Schnellschleifgrund.  I guess I’d translate that as ‘quick-sanding-foundation.’  It’s meant to either open or close the pores of the wood (I should probably know which, right?).  After that, you apply a layer of lacquer; in this case a matte lacquer.

This has been so interesting, btw, just having to learn all the German names for shit.  Varnish is Lasur.  Stain is Beize.  Lacquer is Lack.  I was talking to Joschka about power tools and said I might want a chopsaw.  He had no idea what that was.  Apparently it’s a Kaapsäge.  And there’s a verb with that.  It seems that when I had the guy at the store cut my wood for me, this is kappen.  Wall anchors – toggles – are Dübbeln.  I’ve already forgot what my clamps and chisels are called in German.  But it’s been a ride, just learning all this new vocab.  A fun ride, to be clear. 

Anyway, I tested the stain on a piece of scrap wood.  I didn’t love that either.  It was way too dark.  Maybe it was just the wrong color, but I it didn’t seem right.  So I sent some pictures to my parents, just to see if they liked one more than the other, the varnish or the stain. 

And my dad was like, “Well how heavy did you go on the stain?  Did you wipe it off as you went?”  Excuse me, what?  How heavy?  I applied it the same way I would apply paint.  And no, obviously I didn’t wipe off the shit I’d literally just applied.

And he was like, “Yeah, but here’s the thing.  Stain is not paint.  The point is not to cover the wood, but rather to bring out the natural grain.  So you need a light touch.  And as the name implies, it’s going to stain the wood, it’s going to seep into it.  So you’ve got to wipe it off as you go, otherwise it’ll be too much.”  Wait, seriously?  I had no idea.

So I went back and did another test strip, this time following his advice.  And lo and behold, it looked great!  Well, not, like, amazing.  I mean, I’m working with pine here.  Not oak or maple or anything nice.  There’s only so much lipstick you can put on a pig, right?  But the difference was night and day.  And when I saw it, I was like, “Oh, shit yeah!  Stain, baby!”

And not for nothing, btw, my dad’s been a huge help with this, every step of the way.  I mean, I was constantly sending him pictures, updates, questions.  But the feedback has been invaluable.  Sure, sometimes it’s just supportive.  “Looks great!”  But other times, it’s shit I need to know.  “OK, so far so good, but you’re gonna need to do x and y.” 

It’s funny.  When I look at the shelf now, hanging on my wall, I’ve got this great sense of pride.  Like, “Damn, I made that!”  But at the same time, in a very real way, I feel like we did this project together.  The actual construction, the assembly, the craftsmanship of the wood: yeah, that was me.  Even as it was based, in part, in the experience I gained building the bookshelf with him last time I was home.  But the staining and the mounting?  I’d have for sure fucked those up without his help. 

So that’s another thing I’ve really enjoyed about this project.  Somehow being able to do a long-distance woodworking project with the old man. 

Anyway, I built.  I stained.  I schnellshcleifgrund’ed.  I lacquered.  And I mounted.  As to the mounting, the Baumarkt sells these prefab cast-iron pipe fittings.  They’re meant to support shelving or to serve as coat racks or whatever.  Anyway, I ‘designed’ a base for the shelf out of them.  Imagine a rectangle made of cast-iron piping.  Now cut in half the long way.  At the ends, there are flanges (circular iron disks fitted to the pipes); these are what you screw into the wall.  And on the long side of the rectangle, there’s another flange, facing upwards this time, such that it serves as a base upon which the shelf can rest.  That’s the mount.  Brackets in the top corners of the shelf-frame which are also screwed into the wall, to keep the thing from tipping forward or shifting side-to-side.  “It feels rock-fucking-solid,” he says, waiting for the day it all comes crashing down. 

Oh, and also I leveled it.  Or nearly so.  Before I screwed everything into place, it was dead-on-balls level.  After I screwed it into place, it was ‘just level.’  What I mean is, the bubble was between the two lines; so yes, level.  Just not ‘dead-on-balls’ level.  Well, it’s my first project. 

Oh and screwing shit into walls.  Different animal over here.  In The States, I was so used to everything being sheetrock, right?  So either you just find the stud, in which case you’re golden.  Or, if it’s going into nothing but rock, you get some molly toggles and you’re good to go.  But here?  Haha, fuck you.  No, everything is plaster.  And there’s a good chance (but no guarantee) that behind said plaster is either straight up brick or else some kind of cinder block. 

This is where I’m glad I bought that drill.  Because you better believe I was drilling into brick/cinder block to get this shit up.  And that was a bitch.  Except when it wasn’t?  Because in a couple of places, I just basted through the plaster and into…the void?  That was weird.  But I’ve got at least two toggles on either side going into brick/cinder block.  And each toggle is rated at…well, way more than the self weighs, even laden with books.  Plus ,the toggles for the brackets in the frame itself.  Pretty sure this thing ain’t goin’ nowhere, is the point.  But yeah, mounting it here was such a different experience than working with sheetrock back in The States.

Anyway, I got it mounted Friday before last.  It’s done.  And honestly, I think it looks great.  I’m super pleased with it.  And being thus pleased with it, I want to do more.  I want to build more shit.  But that’s for another day.  After I got it mounted, I filled it with the books I’d intended for it.  Two Homeric dictionaries, a text on lyric Greek meters, a French book on Ancient Greek morphology, a Hebrew/Aramaic lexicon, two Yiddish dictionaries, reference grammars for Greek, Latin, German and French.  The Ajax I’m reading with George.  And the memorial book I’m reading with Bartek.  And I’m looking at it, and I’m thinking, “Damn, that looks good!”  But more than that, it’s me, on a shelf.  The shelf, and its contents, represent me. 

You want to know who Dave is?  Look at my studio.  Look at my kitchen.  Look at the bookshelf I built for myself and the books that are on it, the bookshelf that’s in arm’s reach of my desk, where I write and and read Greek with George and read Yiddish with Bartek and learn Torah.  I don’t just live in this apartment.  I’m, ever so slowly, making it my own, making it an extension of myself.  I feel good when I look at it all.  The studio I’ve created.  The kitchen I’ve organized.  This bookshelf I’ve built.  It’s not just that some guy lives here.  Dave lives here.

That Saturday afternoon, I started the next (and final) element of the project.  I wanted to mount two homemade candelabras (candelabrae?) on either side of the shelf.  These also use the iron pipe fittings, this time as the basis of the structure.  Picture an L shape, coming out and then up from the wall, 10m out and ten up.  A flange to mount it to the wall and another flange on the other end as a base.  To this flange, I’ve fixed an 11x11cm square piece of wood, upon which sits a green glass gin bottle, serving as a candlestick holder.

Now, it would be enough just to have these wood squares to rest the gin bottles on.  But I decided I wanted to do some edge work on the three sides not facing the wall.  In this case, two beveled edges, sloping from both to and bottom, meeting in the middle, with sort of half-diamonds on the ends.  I’ll post pictures of all of this on the Insta when it’s done, btw.

Anyway, this time, I had a power tool to help me.  Why?  Because the Brothers Cutter – my friends in Maine from college – sent me a housewarming gift.  Namely, a Dremel.  And not just a Dremel, but a whole Dremel set, with all sorts of bits and attachments.  And also a really nice bottle of scotch, but that’s beside the point.  Point is, I was able to use the Dremel to do my edgework.  I’d never used one before, so it took some getting used to.  But by the second square, I was really getting the hang of it.

I have to decide now if I want to redo the first of the two squares.  I think it could be better.  But I won’t know for sure until I do some work sanding it down by hand.  I don’t want to settle, but I’m also excited to get these up.  In my heart, I know I should probably redo it.  In any case, I’m pleased with my design and more or less satisfied with the execution; at least on the second piece.

And look, they’re not examples of expert craftsmanship.  As I’ve said, I’m no master carpenter.  But on some level, I’m willing to accept less-than-perfect at this early stage of things.  And to the extent that things are less than perfect, a bit uneven – well, I’m prepared to simply say it’s “rustic” and just go with it.  I’m feeling good about this though.  Loving it, actually.  The product, sure.  But also the work, the process, the experience. 

As I was working in the courtyard – I didn’t want to use the Dremel inside, for all the sawdust it was gonna kick up – various people would come and go, most of them saying hello to me as I worked.  Which was nice.  Like, for no good reason, I was kinda worried some asshole might interrupt me and tell me to knock it off with the noise or tell me I shouldn’t be making a mess in our common space.  But they were universally friendly, these my neighbors whom I do not know.  And if it should happen that I’m kinda known as the dude who lives off the courtyard and sometimes does a bit of carpentry work outside, well, that’s not a bad thing. 

And of course I cleaned up after myself.  Got most of the sawdust with a dustbuster, and did a general sweep after that.  After which, I made sure to put all my tools away before doing anything else.  Like I said last time, cleaning up after yourself is part of the job.

[Update: After a bit of sanding work, I deemed the first piece to be acceptable.  Stained them to match the bookshelf and mounted everything.  I think it makes for a nice ensemble].

I was at Joschka’s that Saturday night, to (finally) watch the last installment of this Amazon Lord of the Rings jumpoff.  (Do people still say ‘jumpoff’?  I can’t imagine).  It was fun.  I mean, the show’s alright.  Good, but not great.  Yet, we have fun with it.  The real fun being a) criticizing it’s shortcomings in realtime and b) researching and debating Tolkien lore in the aftermath.  That’s where the real fun is. 

I also met Joschka that Friday afternoon for brunch.  After my dentist appointment; because my dentists is basically in his neighborhood.  We did this after my last dentist appointment as well, so I guess it’s becoming something of a tradition.  And it’s a nice one.  I would sometimes do brunch in NY, mostly for the bottomless mimosas.  But it’s been less of a thing here.  So it’s kind of a special treat for me when we can do that.  And while the mimosas aren’t bottomless, they’re cheap enough.  And one or two usually suffices.  The key is making sure an hour has passed since the appointment before I start putting anything in my mouth…

I walked all the way home from Joschka’s again that Saturday, taking a slightly different route this time.  It’s on the long side of 90m, but as always, I had podcasts and music and beer.  The first 45m or so was more Chumash with Rashi; subject: The Tower of Babel.  Music after that.  And two beers.  Not to mention some really nice scenery, which I’ll also post to the Insta. 

But another thing I’m enjoying about these walks is that they’re allowing me to stich together a more complete picture of the city.  Or at least, the part of the city that lies between my home and Joschka’s .  But I passed through a number of places where I was like, “Oh, I know this place!” or “Oh, I’ve been here before.”  But places to which I’d universally arrived by means of mass transit.  In other words, they were to me heretofore isolated islands within the city.  Now though, I know better how they connect to the surrounding areas, to each other, and to where I live.  And that’s pretty cool. 

Walking.  It’s good for the body, obviously.  But it’s also a time for me to just think.  Sometimes, I just let my thoughts wander.  Other times, I can focus on a specific issue or question.  Other times still, walking will elicit a bout of creativity.  I remember, back when I was doing my CELTA (my teacher training), I got my best ideas during my hour-long walk home from the school to the apartment I was staying in; also in Neukölln, not for nothing.

And that’s another thing.  Just coming home to Neukölln.  In truth, I used to love coming home to Köpenick back in the day.  Not the trip itself, which from Joschka’s late at night invariably involved a night bus (Feh!).  But arriving there, seeing the sun come up over the water?  Brilliant.  Just, you know, not the city.  And Pankow?  Feh!  I never had any great love for that neighborhood.  But coming home to Neukölln?  It’s great.  I love it.  Even at 5am, the place is alive.  It’s just a nice feeling is all.

OK, I’ve been wanting to say a few words about my recent ride through The X-Files for some time now.  But before that, it’s worth mentioning what that show meant to be back in the day, when it originally aired.  I was late in coming to it and in fact, it was Justin who put me on to it.  But once he did, I was hooked.  And for the year or two before I went to college, that was appointment viewing for us.  Every Sunday (I think it aired Sundays?), we’d lay down on the floor in front of the TV and watch.

And it’s one of those shows with a slew of regularly returning guest stars.  So just watching the opening credits, we’d get excited.  “Guest starring: William B. Davis.”  CSM (Cigarette Smoking Man)!  “Nicholas Lea.”  Oh shit, Krycek!  “and Mitch Pileggi.”  “Skinner baby, hell yeah!”  When I went off to college, I immediately found other X-Files fans, and we’d gather every week until the show ended, oft bemoaning its decline during the final season.  The point is, it was a huge deal. 

It’s also worth noting the way the show was organized.  It was split, roughly 2:1 between standalone episodes (known as Monster of the Week, or MoW, episodes) and Conspiracy (or ‘mytharc’) episodes respectively.  The standalone eps are what the name implies.  One-offs which, if you’re looking for a comperandum, think Twilight Zone but often with more humor.  Whereas the conspiracy eps were the slow unfolding of a greater, series-stretching story-arc. 

I bring this up because my perspective and feeling on these two types of episodes has changed over the years.  Back in the day, it was the conspiracy eps that were most exciting, the ones that most drew you in.  Because you didn’t know how it would end.  Each new chapter was a furtherance of the story, a new piece of the puzzle.  It kept you on the edge of your seat and you couldn’t wait for the next one.

In the rewatching, though, all the mystery is removed.  Those elements of suspense and surprise and dying to know what comes next are no longer there.  And so sure, they’re still fantastic.  Well, they’re fantastic through the first 5.5 seasons; after which it all kinda goes to shit.  But they’re sorta bereft of that magic, if that makes any sense.

Adding to their diminishment is the realization that there was never any greater plan for this mytharc.  You begin to realize – and this is confirmed in interviews and whatnot – that the writers are just winging it.  And it suffers for that.  It’s less coherent than I’d remembered.  And it sorta ambles on without purpose.  Again, not so much during the first 5.5 seasons.  In those seasons, it’s bloody brilliant.  But the show (originally) ran for 9 seasons.  So you’ve got 3.5 seasons of constant “Wait, what the fuck now?”

And so, in the rewatching, what I’ve discovered is, that the real magic is in the standalones, in the MoW eps.  Because those have a way of staying fresh, being independent of a broader (apparently half-cocked) arc.  And those episodes are what really create the vibe of the show.  And oh man, what a vibe!

Or, better to say, vibes, plural.  Because the vibe of the show changes over time.  It’s much darker over the first four seasons or so.  And a lot of that’s to do with who’s doing the writing.  For most of the first four seasons, the creative team is primarily Chris Carter (the creator), Frank Spotnitz (producer, I think) and Glen Morgan and James Wong (writers).  And when that’s the team, it’s dark.  Wonderfully so.  Full of mystery, intrigue, the fantastic and inconceivable.  Sure, even then, elements of humor are present.  But they’re subtle, backgrounded.

Then, somewhere around season five or so (I could look this up, but can’t be bothered), a new writer joins the team.  Maybe you’ve heard of him.  Fella by the name of Vince Gilligan.  Yes, that Vince Gilligan.  The Breaking Bad dude.  Turns out, he was a huge part of this huge show well before BB was ever a thing. 

Side note: Having watched X-Files as I did in real time, when I finally got around to Breaking Bad (I was late to that party too), and I saw the opening credits, I was like, “Wait, Vince Gilligan did this?  The dude from The X-Files?”  And now, דער יינגער דור, the young folk, are like, “Wait, the Breaking Bad dude worked on The X-Files?”  I feel old.

Anyway, you could see the tone of the show changing as his involvement grew.  The comedy stuff became more front and center.  Which, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing.  He’s behind some truly wonderful – and not for nothing, classic – episodes.  But it’s sort of a different show.  Less dark.  More ironic.  Shocking, I know. 

It’s weird though.  Before this binge, were I to list off some of my favorite MoW eps, a great many of them are Gilligan eps.  And yet, when you watch the series in order, it’s almost too much.  Like, at first, it’s “Omg, another classic!  And shit, it’s Gilligan again.”  But then, as they start to string together, it’s like, “But wait, where are those classic dark episodes from the early years?”  Take any one funny episode alone, and it’s brilliant.  Five in a row, though, and you start to wonder what show it is you’re watching exactly.  The show changed is all, from one kind of brilliant to another.  And people will have their preferences. 

Whatever my preferences, though, I stan this show.  I loved it when it was new, and adored it this time around as well.  It takes you on a journey.  But it also takes you places.  It creates a vibe and an atmosphere.  It creates a world that you want to be a part of.  Even the theme music/intro.  On all the streaming services now, they give you a ‘skip intro’ option.  It’s an option I take advantage of.  I might watch the the intro of the first episode of each season, but after that, ‘skip!’  But with The X-Files?  I never skipped the intro, not once.  It does so much to create the mood.  The music, the imagery.  It’s all too perfect.  It is not to be skipped.  It’s a part of the show in a way that no other intro I can think of is. 

As is the music in general.  Mark Snow is the dude who did all the music.  And he just nails it, hits it out of the park.  And he gets all the moods.  Dark, moody, sad, joyful, humorous, all of it.  And it’s very synth heavy, which gives it a unique quality.  Like, it sounds like The X-Files, which is the best compliment I can think of.

Of course we need to talk about the characters, and the actors that play them.  Mulder and Scully, first of all.  It’s their show.  Played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.  Back in the day, all the guys wanted to be Mulder and all the girls wanted to date him.  Vice versa for Scully.  And it’s no less true in the rewatching.  Mulder/Duchovny is brilliant.  Super smart, good looking, with a wicked deadpan sense of humor.  How can you not love him?  (Well, Jared found him ‘smug and squinty-eyed,’ I believe is how he put it; but what does he know?  Bupkis, apparently). 

But here’s a funny thing.  The X-Files – and now I’m talking about the actual files of unexplained phenomena, not the show – are Mulder’s beat.  He’s the one who Want[s] to Believe.  Scully is there to play the skeptic, to keep him honest, made his partner by the higher-ups to ‘debunk’ his work.  So Mulder is the guy who wants to take you on this wild ride while Scully is the one who is constantly popping your balloon.  You love her, don’t get me wrong.  But you almost want to grab her by the collar and ask, along with Mulder, “Scully, after all that you’ve seen, how can you not believe!?”  At least, that’s how it was for me the first time around.

So it’s funny how things change.  Maybe it’s because I’ve seen it all before.  Maybe it’s because I’m older now and I don’t see the world the same as I did when I was nineteen.  But this time around, I found this whole new appreciation for Scully.  Her honesty, her integrity, her unfailing loyalty.  Like, she might not believe the way Mulder does.  But damn if she won’t put her career – nay, her life – on the line to protect him.  Also, she does all the autopsies and is fazed by nothing.  #bossbitch

But it’s also a great ride just watching Gillian Anderson grow as an actor.  This was her first gig and she was in her early twenties when they started.  And look, she’s always good, right from the get.  But as the show goes on, you watch her blossom into this absolute beast of an actress.  To the point that, by season four or five, I found myself constantly saying, “Oh shit, Scully is the fucking GOAT!”   And she is.  I mean, I’m putting her forward – right here, right now – as the greatest female lead of any show ever.  Show me one better.  I defy you. 

And then there’s the Mulder-Scully relationship.  Platonic, or at least ambiguous, for many years, and most of the best part of the show.  It seems that, back in the day, the internet was a-flutter with fans posting on message boards about wanting them to get together.  Apparently, this gave rise to the term ‘shippers’ (i.e. ‘relationship-ers’), something I only learned about watching this time around. 

But here I’ve got to say, I’m no ‘shipper.’  I loved their relationship just as it was.  Friends, but more than friends.  More than friends, but less than lovers.  Their relationship was built on trust, loyalty and faith in one another.  Nothing more.  And to be honest, I found that to be one of the most beautiful relationships ever portrayed on the small screen.  For the reasons I’ve just mentioned, but also perhaps for its uniqueness.  I am unable to name the like of it.  And for me, it suffered when they did finally get together.  Because then, they were just like anybody else.  That made me a little sad, if I’m being honest. 

The show can be broken up into several periods.  The Vancouver period, where the show was shot for its first five (and unquestionably best) seasons.  The LA period, where it was shot for seasons 6-9.  The Mulder-less seasons, 8-9.  The reboot seasons, 10-11.  And two movies, the first of which was central to the mytharc and which was released during the show’s original run; and a standalone MoW film in the aughts. 

Pretty much all of what I’ve written to this point pertains to seasons 1-7.  For season 8, Duchovny (owing to a contract dispute) was replaced by Robert Patrick (best known as the T-1000 from Terminator 2; though he also had a role in the Sopranos).  Mulder would come back periodically, but it wasn’t the same.

Thing is though, I think season 8 is actually some of the show’s finest work.  I mean, you have to accept that it’s a different show now, and clearly not everybody did.  But I did, and I thought it was great.  And here’s why.

First of all, Robert Patrick was tremendous as an actor, and I loved his character (John Dogget), the prototypical ‘hard-boiled ex-NYPD copper turned Fed.  But his character ushered in this great role-reversal.  Because now he was the skeptic, partnered to Scully.  And Scully, for all her skepticism had to find ways to open his mind, to make him believe.  And it gave this whole new dimension to Scully the character to Anderson the actor.  And like, I thought she was the GOAT before.  But in season 8?  Wow.  It’s like, is there anything you can’t do?

And not for nothing, these two actors built a relationship between their characters that I could not just believe in but indeed get behind.  At first, they’re suspicious of one other, each thinks the other is trying to sabotage the other or has ulterior motives.  But as the season goes on, you watch them figure out, first, that they need to trust each other if they’re going to succeed, and then, finding that trust.  Which leads to this wonderful and unbending loyalty.  And they never quite see eye-to-eye.   She thinks he’s to stubborn to see the truth and he thinks she’s gone off on the Mulder crazy train.  But they would – and do – go through a wall for each other, risk everything to protect each other.  It’s a relationship that I truly enjoyed watching unfold and develop.  And you just want to root for them.

Then, in season 9 – the last season of the original run – Scully is reduced to a bit part and she is replaced as Dogget’s partner by Agent Monica Reyes (played by Annabeth Gish).  And friends, she’s fucking useless.  Now look, I don’t want to cast aspersions on a professional actress.  Maybe she’s a brilliant thespian and the fact that I viscerally couldn’t stand her character and was weekly hoping for her demise is a testament to her work.  All I know is, Agent Reyes was fucking useless and it’s best they killed the show rather than make me sit through another season of her bullshit. 

Still though, even season 9 had its moments.  Usually these centered around Dogget being a champ or Scully stepping in to remind you that, yes, she is in fact the GOAT.  But mostly, it was just kinda sad watching your friend of nine years waste away. 

Meanwhile, there was a spinoff, called The Lone Gunmen, based on characters of the same name.  Friends of Mulder, they published a conspiracy-minded newspaper.  Great recurring characters on the original show, they got their own (very short-lived series).  Was it great?  Probably not.  But it was good, at least.  And more than that, it was a lot of fun.  And your boy Gilligan was central to it, so you know the comedy was on point.   It was fun to wrap that into the whole rewatch experience.

Oh, and a footnote about Mr. Gilligan.  He wrote an X-Files episode which was basically the show’s version of the movie Speed.  You know, where if you slow down you’ll die.  Anyway, cast as the main character was some guest actor by the name of Bryan Cranston.  Yeah, that’s how Vince Gilligan found his Walter White.  And from what I’ve read, when he pitched Breaking Bad, he pitched it with Cranston as the lead.  And the studio was like, “Yeah, but no thanks.”  Until he showed them that X-Files episode.  Apparently, that’s what convinced the studio to give Cranston the role.  I mean, ain’t that some shit?

Anyway, the show got a reboot sometime around 2017-18, two seasons.  This was my first time watching the new seasons all the way through.  And they were a mixed bag.  In the same way that the original series was a mixed bag.  The MoW eps were great.  Not good, I tell you, but great.  To the point where I was like, “Wow, they’ve still got it!  This is as good as anything from the original series!  Give me more!”  Whereas the mytharc episodes were atrocious.  Like, unwatchabley bad.  So that elicited…feelings. 

But part of the reason it was good, when it was good, was because they brought back the original writing team of Morgan and Wong.  To be sure, there were eps written by other writers as well which were fantastic.  But these guys brought the mood, the vibe back.  And no Gilligan this time around.  So while there were comedic elements, it wasn’t übertrieben (I can’t think of the English word).

And here, I have to mention one other writer.  Glen Morgan has a brother, Darin.  And this guy Darin wrote maybe five eps during the original run of nine seasons, plus one a piece for each season of the reboot.  And omg are they funny.  Not hipster-ironic funny in the Vince Gilligan vain, but properly out-and-out funny.  And smart.  Damn are they ever smart. 

The reason I mention these, and him, is because it’s somehow personal.  See, I love lots of different writers, from a variety of genres.  Lots of people where I’ll read or watch their stuff, and just think, “Hey, that was excellent and ‘I enjoyed myself immensely’ (as my old boss Mark Z would say).”  But Darin Morgan, his type of comedy, his wit, his intelligence, he’s one of the few writers where I’ll watch or read his stuff and just think, “Wow, I wish I could write like that!”  Just truly wonderful stuff. 

Anyway, it took me about six months – April through September – to binge eleven seasons and two movies of The X-Files.  It was a great ride, a great journey.  And even though I watched it alone, it didn’t feel like I watched it alone.  Because with each episode, I’d read that installment’s Wikipedia page.  The production notes were always interesting, sure.  But I enjoyed reading snippets of reviews from websites that had critiqued the show in real time.  Such that, after a time, I found myself looking forward to reading what my boy at AV Club or my girl at Cinefantastique had to say about it, anticipating their reactions, having fun agreeing or arguing with their interpretations.  Stupid maybe, shallow almost certainly; and yet it added depth and dimension to the experience.

And it was an experience.  A great one.  Look, it’s one thing to be able to go back and rewatch random episodes of your favorite series ad infinitum.  I mean, I do it with Star Trek (TOS and TNG) all the time.  Ditto Rick and Morty plus a dozen others.  But there are few shows where I find it worth it to go back and rewatch the entire damn series, in order, start to finish.  I said ‘few,’ but really I mean two.  One is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; which, let’s be honest, warrants it’s own post.  Seven seasons, I’ve done it three times and each time has been a source of wonder, excitement and joy.  The X-Files is the only other show I can do that with.  It’s terribly special in that way. 

The thing is, I need about five years between watchings.  That’s what I’ve found so far.  So DS9 is due up in another 2-3 years.  The clock resets now with The X-Files.  Five years should be enough time, long enough so that it will be fresh again. 

Man, TV is so stupid most of the time.  But when it’s done well – and I mean really well – it can take you places.  The X-Files is one of those special shows.  Five years, and I’m already looking forward to it…

זײַ געזונד

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
29 October, 2022

Went for my first official skate at THF last Thursday.  A good start.  I’m out of shape.  But it was a lot of fun.  Felt good just to be on skates again.  But I’ve definitely lost some of my game.  On a dead straightaway – hello runways! – I can still get going at a pretty good clip; although even there I can tell my balance isn’t what it should be.  And turns, forget about it.  Sloppy.  And I don’t know where my ‘edges’ are anymore. 

To that end, Thursday night I ordered some hockey gear.  A stick, three balls, gloves, tape and some cones.  The plan now is not only to skate for exercise; the long straightaways down the runways will give me plenty of that.  But now also to set myself to some drills.  At the moment, I’m thinking mostly crossovers and stickhandling through and around the cones.  Well, crossovers and also sharp turns at the end of a series of cones.

I used to take such pride in my skating.  Back when we were regularly playing roller hockey, I always held myself as amongst the best skaters, if not the best skater, out there.  Right now, I’m a long way off from that.  And it occurred to me.  For the last ten years+ of my hockey playing ‘career,’ I was only playing on the ice, playing goal.  So yeah, I was skating.  But I was skating with those big ol’ goalie pads on.  Totally different animal.  So it’s even longer than I thought since I’ve been properly skating on rollerblades. 

I’m also hoping that brining a hockey element to this will encourage me to do it more often; regularly in fact.  Because as much fun as skating is, if all I’m doing is flying down the runways for exercise, it’s bound to get boring.  But if I’m working on hockey skills, agility, stickhandling and the like, I mean, that’s a thousand times more fun.  So let’s see what I can do.  But I’m excited.  Like, super excited.

Friday night, I walked home from Joschka’s.  All the way home.  Turns out it’s a solid 90m walk.  Long, but doable.  For reference, that’d be like walking to Chinatown or Fidi from, say 59th street or so.  Like I said, eminently doable.  But with considerations.  If it’s been a long night of drinking – which Friday actually wasn’t – one would do well to know where the public restrooms are; or at least parks, and failing that, secluded shrubbery.  One would also do well to organize the route in such a way that one will happen upon an open Späti an hour or so into the walk.  Because at 90m, this is what I shall henceforth refer to as a “Two-beer walk.”  

I hadn’t planned on walking all the way home.  The plan was to just walk as far as Alexanderplatz and catch the subway [sorry, U-Bahn] from there.  But the weather was gorgeous and anyway, I still had a solid half a beer left.  So at first, I figured I’d just follow the subway route and pop downstairs when I finished my beer.  But because the weather was so nice, I just kept telling myself “Hey, come on, let’s a go a bit further.”  Until at some point, it became, “Who are we kidding, let’s just do this.” 

I don’t know how often I’ll wind up doing this.  I don’t imagine it will be much fun to walk 90m in the winter, when it’s properly cold out.  But who knows, maybe once the blood gets flowing, I’ll arrive at the same mindset.  I mean, with a beer and a good podcast or the right music, it’s fucking great to walk. 

And you know me, I love walking in the middle of the night, when things are mostly dark and still and peaceful.  That said, this walk is quite a bit different from my old walk.  If you remember, that old walk was one of decay, where you sort of watch the city disappear around you.  This walk is a bit more varied.  After Alex, you get stretches of quiet neighborhoods, closed shops, empty streets.  But these are punctuated every so often by by pockets of life and activity, light and music and people, bars and Spätis, even at the late hour of 4-5am.  These pockets are generally to be found around the subway stops. 

Podcast-wise, that night I opted for a bit of Chumash with Rashi.  I’ve previously written that I’d been listening to a Chumash with Rashi podcast by a Chabadnik that Aunt Cookie put me on to.  But having completed an entire turn through the Torah with that guy, and having found that it just repeats (i.e. he doesn’t record a new series every year), I decided to try a new one.  This one is less fun but more educational.  The Chabadnik was often telling jokes and parables and stories, occasionally even in Yiddish.  It was indeed a lot of fun. 

This new guy, though, doesn’t do that.  But he gets deeper into the Rashi and adds bit from other commentators.  And he’s super Yiddish about everything.  Like, the Chabadnik, he delivered his lessons in an English that anybody could understand.  And if he did tell a joke or story in Yiddish, he would translate it. 

This guy, though, you gotta come correct.  You gotta show up already knowing Yiddish and Hebrew.  Because his English is barely that.  He consistently subs out words, and even entire phrases, into Yiddish or Yiddish-Hebrew, such that if you don’t know these languages, you’d be hard pressed indeed to follow what the hell he’s talking about.  I’ll give an example from Friday’s podcast.  The words in brackets are my translation for your sake; he does not translate them.  So, for example: “So HaShem [G-d] waited until Noyakh [Noah] was five hundred years old for him to have bonim [sons], that way he would only have three bonim and he wouldn’t have to build many teyvas [arks] when HaShem sent the mabel [flood].  Sogt Rashi [Rashi says]…”

So I mean, I love this shit.  Hook it to my veins.  If anything, I’m slightly saddened that he’s even bothering to do this in “English” at all.  Like dude, you’re basically just speaking Yiddish with English words, why not just do this in actual Yiddish?  One other example, not from Friday’s podcast, and this time just a phrase.  “So here we learn that one must be makriv [bring] a karbon [sacrifice].”  We have to be makriv a karbon?  This is not English.  Why are we pretending?  And yet, I love it.

Staying with the subject of Torah, Akiva and I had our first Zoom Torah-learning Friday afternoon.  It just happens that this week marks the beginning of the cycle, that this week’s parsha is the very first parsha.  “In the beginning” and all that.  So that’s what we decided to learn.  And in an hour of study, all we managed to read of the actual Torah was the very first verse.  That’s it.  One verse.  בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ.  “In the beginning, G-d created the Heavens and the Earth.”  An hour, and that’s the only line of Torah we read.

Why?  Because we then dug into the commentaries of Rashi and Ramaban.  In Hebrew.  And this was the real highlight.  I’ve touched on this briefly before.  But these commentaries are written in a different dialect of Hebrew than is the Torah.  I touched in this on account of the fact that I’ve bought a textbook with which teach myself this dialect.  But I haven’t actually started with it yet.  OK, so we’re looking at these commentaries, and they’re Hebrew, but a dialect I’m still unfamiliar – or, at least, uncomfortable – with.  And yet, it was fantastic.

און פאַרוואָס?  Well, because I got to be the student for a change, and Kivele got to be the teacher.  See, I was prepared to just let him walk me through it and to just try and keep up as best I could.  But that’s not what happened.  No, he was all, “Why don’t you read this?”  Uh, cause I don’t think I can?  “Dude, come on, just give it a try.”  So fuck it, why not?  I gave it a try. 

And sure, there was a fair bit of hand-holding.  Like, I’d ask if I didn’t know a word.  And he had to set me straight on the syntax in places, even when I did happen to know all the words.  (The syntax is a bitch, not for nothing).  But I managed it.  Indeed, there were whole sentences where I’d read the Hebrew and then take a stab at translating it.  “I’m not sure, but I feel like it should mean this?”  And he’d be like, “Dude, that’s great, that’s exactly what it means!”  I’m not gonna lie, I felt pretty darn good about myself.  I mean, when I was able to do that, it was entirely on the back of my own efforts, my own self-learning.  

To be clear, I couldn’t have done it alone.  Even when I was getting shit right, I never would have had the confidence to believe I was getting it right.  I mean, I was just making educated guesses, right?   Without the experience or depth of learning to trust those judgments.  But with Akiva’s help, I was getting by.  And he’s a wonderful teacher.  Truly.  Supportive and encouraging, but also good at recognizing what I know and what I don’t.  Good at giving hints rather than full-on explanations or translations, when a hint was all I needed to get over the hill.  What’s more, I could tell it was fun for him.  And it was fucking fun for me too, you guys.  Yeah, I know.  Nerd City, Population: Me. 

But there was also this really nice symmetry to the experience.  Let me explain what I mean.  Through Akiva, I met this dude Igor, originally from Ukraine, but he grew up – and still lives – in West Germany.  We’ve since become friends.  Anyway, he’s just now getting started on his own journey of learning biblical Hebrew.  And so we’ll usually meet once a week or so on Zoom, and for part of our meeting, I’ll just help him with his homework.  You know, just try to share some of my own knowledge and experience.  After all, I once did what he’s doing, and when I did it, I had to do it alone. 

Anyway, after one of our Zooms, he sends me a voice message (in German, so I paraphrase), but basically saying, “Dude, thank you so much for helping me.  It means so much to me.  You explain things to me in a way that I can finally understand them, and you make it so clear and so easy.  Thank you!”  He kinda went on for a bit, but that was the gist.  You know, and I’m kinda like, “Settle down, champ.  First of all, you’re my friend, so obviously I’m gonna help you if I can.  And anyway, it’s literally a mitzvah.” 

Obviously I didn’t say that.  I just said something along the lines of, “You’re very welcome and it’s my pleasure.  Come at me any time with any questions you got.  You don’t need to wait for the next Zoom.  I’m happy to help.”  Which I am.  Happy to help, I mean.  And it does make me happy.  I mean, it’s fun for me to help him with his Hebrew.  Like, yes it’s a mitzvah, yes he’s my friend.  But it is, in point of fact, fun.

I wouldn’t normally have mentioned that (unless I have already.  Have I?).  It’s no good to boast about doing a mitzvah.  HaShem knows you’ve done it and that should be enough.  Or, it would be, if I believed in G-d, but that’s another story.  No, the reason I bring it up, is because Friday, the roles were reversed.  Friday, I was the one trying to learn (a new dialect of) Hebrew, and Akiva was the one helping me.  That’s why I mean by symmetry.

But I love this so much.  I love the way we take care of each other and help one another.  And I love that we do it, not out of a sense of obligation – even though we are aware that it is an obligation, a mitzvah – but because it brings us joy to do so.  It brings me joy to help Igor, to watch him grow and make progress.  And I could tell it brought Akiva joy to hold my hand through a bit of Rashi and Ramban, and to see me succeed at it, to whatever extent I could be said to be succeeding.

What’s more, I love that this joy is centered around learning.  Clearly, as an individual and having nothing to do with Judaism, learning is central to my life.  But for us as a people, learning is central to our way of life. 

A slight digression.  One of the things I love about Judaism is that it’s not dogmatic, not in the way, for example, that I understand Catholicism to be.  There is no one central authority or truth.  Akiva and I were talking about this Friday.  As Jews, our job is to learn as many interpretations and teachings as we can and to hold them simultaneously in our head.  The goal is not to read the first line of Genesis and say, “Well, it means this.  End of discussion.”  The goal is be able to say, “Well, Rashi argues that it means x.  But Ramban disagrees and says it means y.  Meanwhile, Rambam teaches z.  And of course the Vilna Gaon has a to say about it.  And my understanding is now richer for having learned all of these things.  And not only that, we’re now free to argue about it.  More than free.  We are encouraged to argue about it.”  I fucking love that. 

My point is, it brings me joy to help Igor learn just as it brings Akiva joy to help me learn.  And I love that this is a thing we find joy in. 

And it doesn’t have to be about Torah.  I’m a teacher for a reason.  And a student for life.  When Charlotte was here, we were talking about teaching, and somehow we got on the subject of the passé composé – the standard past tense in French.  And she was saying how it’s actually deceptively difficult, both to learn and to teach.  On the surface, it seems like it should be straightforward, but in point of fact, it’s anything but. 

Well, now you’ve got my attention, sweetheart.  Tell me everything.  And I mean, fucking everything.  And she did.  She grabbed a pen and a scrap of paper, and proceeded to walk me through the nuances of this particular verb tense, complete with example sentences to illustrate her points.  And I just ate it up, you know?

But she had fun with it too.  Which ain’t nothing.  Because, no matter how much we might love our respective languages, no matter how much we might love teaching them, having to do this shit that you’ve done a thousand times before on your off-hours can be tedious af.  Right, I mean there’s a reason I hate speaking English with German people when I’m not working.  Nobody’s paying me to listen to your denglish-isms, so can we please not?

So I asked her, “Hey, you don’t mind doing this with me off the clock, do you?”  And she was like, “Not at all.  I’m happy to do it, if the person I’m doing it with actually gets it and wants to learn.”  All to say, for people like us, Jew or Gentile, there’s great joy in learning, and it doesn’t matter what side of the desk you’re on.  I fucking love that.  And I love that I’ve got people in my life – good friends – who are the same way. 

Saturday night was Knut’s 60th birthday.  Glad I went, and it was more fun than I’d anticipated.  Philippe, Brigitte and Deb were there, and it was great to just bullshit with them and drink wine.  Bibi was also there, and I hadn’t seen since her before the move, so I was actually really happy to catch up with her.  I’ve written plenty about all she’s done for my development as a musician.  But I’m not sure I’ve written enough about how she’s also just my friend, and she very much is.  So it was great to catch up with her and shoot the shit, you know?

One thing I probably haven’t written about, with respect to Bibi, is that I just love speaking German with her.  I mean, she’s a ‘real’ East Berliner.  I wrote not long ago about how I love Linda’s German, because it’s a very real, very gritty East Berlin kinda German.  But Linda herself is a child of the 90’s.  (I think?  She’s twenty-five, if I’m not mistaken.  Point being, she’s Post-Wall).  Which is to say, while it’s authentic, it’s also a sort of ‘legacy’ East Berlinish, if you accept the term.  But Bibi, she grew up in the DDR (or ‘GDR,’ I guess we say in English?).  

No, you know what?  I’m not proud of that analysis.  It’s bullshit to value one person’s version of the language over another’s.  That’s gross, not to put to fine a point on it.  So gimme a sec here (I drank a lot of wine at the party [I originally wrote this after coming home from the party.]).  For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, but probably having to do with just being closer with Bibi than Linda – no, I’m still comparing.  And it’s still gross.  Let me try again…

I often write about how, despite my efforts to ape the Berlin dialect, and more precisely, the East version thereof, English and Yiddish exert a considerable pull.  For reasons which, at present, I have no wish to examine, those influences are most suppressed when I’m talking with Bibi.  I hear her German and I give back what I’m hearing.  And for whatever reason, with her, I feel most confident in my German.  With her is when I most feel, “Yeah, I actually do speak this language and you know what?  I’m actually pretty damn good at it.”

Don’t get me wrong, I still make all manner of mistakes.  I’ll still go into the occasional syntactic tailspin.  Huh?  What does that even mean?   I forget what movie it’s in, but there’s this brilliant Marx Brothers routine, where Chico is at the piano.  And he’s playing this wonderful piece of music.  Until he gets to the end.  And it should be the end.  You can hear it.  You can feel it.  But it doesn’t end.  He just gets stuck in this endless loop of a chord progression.  And he’s like, “I don’t know how it ends!”  That can happen to me in German.  I’ll get to the end of a sentence, and suddenly, I’m like, “I don’t know how this ends!’  And I’ll just keep adding verbs until somebody slaps me upside the head.  Usually figuratively. 

Yeesh, that was a digression.  All I really wanted to say was something like this.  Often people back home will ask me if I’m “fluent.”  And to this, I have two stock answers.  Answer #1: “I don’t know what fluent means, but I’ve got plenty of friends where the only language we speak is German, so…yes?”  Answer #2: “Meh.  It’s a shitshow, but it get’s me from A to B.”  But when I’m shooting the shit with Bibi, that’s when I most feel like, “Hey, you know what?  Actually my German is just fine, thank you very much.” 

To be fair, I get this with the Bavarians as well.  Except the experience with them is mitigated by two factors.  One, I don’t see them that often.  Two, Bavarian is much closer to Yiddish.  So with them, I give the Yiddish influence plenty of room, and it just works with them in a way that doesn’t quite fly up here.  I feel like I’m doing a terrible job of describing this and so I think I should just shuddup already.

There was this girl there, at Knut’s birthday.  Oxana.  Or perhaps Oksana?  I literally have no idea about the spelling conventions when it comes to Slavic languages.  Anyway, she’s a Ukrainian refugee, taking [pro bono] German lessons form Knut.  And I gather he hired her to work the party.  Just to pour wine and hand out dishes and glasses, that sort of thing. 

But I chatted with her for a bit.  Partly because everybody else at the party was fucking old (Knut was turning 60, after all).  And partly because, omg was she ever gorgeous.  Total smoke show.  But also smart.  We wound up talking a bit about literature.  Russian and Ukrainian lit, to be precise.

Which was fun for me, because I know fuck all about that.  And what a wonderful position to be in.  I sometimes worry that I can sound pretentious when I talk about my own shit.  Example.  After asking my students what they’d done the previous day (mostly as a way to push them into using the past tense), one of them asked me what I’d done the day before.  Now, it happened that the day before I’d had my regular Zoom with George.  So all I said was, “I’ve got this friend back home, and once a week, we meet on Zoom to read together.  And that was yesterday.” 

But of course one of them asked what we read.  And I got all quiet and self-conscious and stammer-y.  Like, I somehow felt that were I to say, “Ah, yes, well, we read Ancient Greek together,” I’d sound like a pretentious asshole.  I’m not kidding when I say I literally froze.  In the end, I did answer honestly, and explained that we’re currently working through Sophocles’ Ajax.  But I was embarrassed to say that. 

Which is fucking weird, right?  Nevermind that it’s the truth.  But I run my mouth all the time about this shit.  “Hmm, yes, well of course this word derives from the Latin, and so we can see it means something like ___.”  Or, “But I’m sure you have the same word in German, because it’s Greek, and the Greek words are usually the same everywhere.”  Like, I don’t mind being a know-it-all when I’m teaching.  But ask me about my personal life and I’m suddenly embarrassed.

Gods I’m going off on tangents tonight.  My point is, I was talking to this girl, and she’s telling me about Pushkin.  And suddenly, all my knowledge about Greek and Latin and French and Hebrew was out the window.  It was worthless.  And that was some how incredibly refreshing.  Like, it was a chance for me to shut my big fucking mouth for five minutes and maybe learn something.  And yeah, it didn’t hurt that while I was learning, I got to look at this gorgeous face that was talking to me.

It was nice.  And it was כדי.  But in the end, I don’t think there was any real connection there.  It was just a nice way to pass the time at a party.  A way to avoid the usual bullshit of socializing at a party.  And a chance to learn.  וואָס איז תמיד כדי. 

But if I may indulge in a point of curiosity.  This girl has two kids, צוויי בנים, 16 and 11.  Which was most surprising because (and forgive me) she did not look like a woman who’s had two kids.  And also, I’d bet money she was younger than me.  To be clear, there is no judgment attached to any of this.  Merely surprise is all.  And even that may be unjust.

But my point of curiosity is this.  Maybe she was – or under other circumstances could have been – interested in me.  Or perhaps one look at me was enough for her to say, “Ha, as if!”  All that’s the beside the point.  What I find myself curious about is this.  She’s a single woman (or, at least, I’m given to believe she is [upon further reflection, for all I know, she has a husband fighting in the war; it didn’t come up]), with two sons, 11 and 16.  What kind of defenses must she have up, just as general practice, you know?  How hard must that be? 

I’m asking now not as a red-blooded male, but as a curious human.  Is she always on her guard against men?  Is she…well, not mistrustful, but…eminently careful?   I just try to imagine how I would be, were I a single father with two kids that age.  I’d be wary of letting people in for sure.  Add to that the whole refugee business.  That can’t be easy. 

Look, I’ll probably never see her again.  But I do believe that, that night, I chanced to meet an example of some of the best that the human race has to offer.  A kind, thoughtful and educated person.  A person who, presumably, took great risk to leave her home not just for her own sake but for that of her children.  The strength that that must take.  All I’m saying is, in the grand story of the adventures of my life, of all I’ve done and experienced, and all the people I’ve met along the way, somewhere in there is a footnote about how I spent part of an evening chatting with a stunningly beautiful girl who is all of the things I just mentioned.  That’s a helluva footnote.

And believe it or not, those footnotes go a long way.  Because there’s been a lot of “the grass is always greener” bound up with my decision to make my life over here.  I’ve had conversations not only with friends, but even with my own father, where they’ll express some version of, “I envy you and what you’re doing.  The freedom you have.  The adventure of it all.”  To which I universally respond with some version of, “Yeah, but come on, you have a family!  Do you really think I’d be fucking around over here if I had a family?”

So it’s perhaps surprising that it’s not in the day-to-day where arise the justifications to do that which I have done.  Because the day-to-day is exactly that.  It’s a way to keep going.  It’s a way of existing.  And for all I do to fill it with meaning – learning, language, music, friends, cooking, whatever – there are times when I go to bed feeling hollow. 

But these little moments, like chatting with this girl that night, those are special.  Those are the times when I most feel like, “Hey, you know what, I just got something unique and special, something that would never happen if I’d stayed in the States.”  The experience of being a bit rootless in this world and meeting someone else who’s also a bit rootless. 

And it makes me feel closer to my ancestors somehow.  Figure four branches of family: maternal and paternal grandparents, each with their own families and histories.  And somewhere along those branches, somebody decided on the bold move of coming to America, די גאֶלדענע מדינע, ‘the golden land.’  The risk and the challenge would be great, but they saw it as the best thing for their own future and that of their children.  And while I have no children of my own, that’s nevertheless what I’ve done.  And I share in those challenges and those risks. 

As great as it was to talk with Oksana about what it was like for her coming to Berlin and what she makes of the city, wouldn’t it be something to be able to talk with Bubbi?  Not the way Uncle Rich did, not to just sit back and listen to her stories.  But to actually compare notes.  To trade experiences. 

You know that old parlor game of, “If you could invite any three people, living or dead, to dinner, who would you invite?”  (And inevitably, there’s some asshole who wants invite Jesus.  Spare me).  Well, I’ve got two answers to this bullshit game.  One answer is just to invite my dad and my grandpa and – actually, you know what?  Fuck you.  Why three?  I want Carol there, and I want Mike there.  And I want Rich there.  And Gail.  And Judy, even though I never knew her.  Grandma has to be there.  And while we’re at it, Millie and Don.  And if we’re doing this, then  my mom needs to be there, and Justin and Jay and Lisa and Scott and Melissa.  And it will be Thanksgiving.  Because we had the best Thanksgivings.  That’s the dinner I want.  Three?  Fuck you, three.  I’m not crying, you’re crying.

Deep breath.  That’s one answer to the question.  The other answer starts the same way, but goes in the other direction.  It still starts with, “Three?  Fuck you, three.”  But this time, just gimme a dinner with Bubbi.  I just wanna sit with her and compare notes over this whole immigrant experience משגעת.  I’m not looking for, “Oh wow, you did that?”  I’m looking for, “Omg, I know, right?”  And we’d do it in Yiddish.  None of this, “Bubbi, English please,” bullshit.  Give it to me in Yiddish and I’ll do my best to keep up.  And instead of her being all, “What’s the English word?”  I’ll be all, “ווי זאֶגט מען אַזוי?.”  I want that dinner too. 

Changing gears.  There are furnishings I need for the apartment.  I’ve already written about the butcher block for the kitchen, and how I have it in mind to build it.  Well, that inclination has grown.  See, I’ve decided I want a small, single-shelf bookshelf to hang on the wall behind my desk.  There I would keep the books I’m constantly reaching for.  Mostly foreign language dictionaries and reference grammars. 

Now, a bookshelf can be just a plank of wood, right?  The problem with that is, the books fall over.  So I got in in my head that what I really want is a ‘shelf’ in the shape of a square frame, such that the ‘wall’s of the frame double as bookends.  Fine.  So I spent way too much time over the last few days googling around for such a shelf.  Only, I was either finding garbage or else nice things that I thought were too expensive. 

So last week, I decided, Fuck it.  I’ll build my my own damn shelf.  Whereupon did I betake myself to the local Baumarkt (home improvement center; think, the German version of Home Depot).  And I filled my shopping cart not just with wood for said shelf, but also with a number of hand tools: clamps, a saw, two chisels, a can of varnish and some brushes, mounting hardware, a sanding block, sandpaper, safety glasses, nails, glue, screws. 

One of the nice things about these Baumãrkte is that they’ll cut the wood for you in the shop.  So I took my planks to the cutting station, gave the dude my dimensions, and in five minutes I had my shelf pieces.  And when I got home, I got straight to work.  I framed up the shelf, glued and nailed it together and fixed it with the clamps to dry overnight.  The next step is to make it look pretty.  That will require the last piece of wood, a bit of chiseling and sanding and, finally, a coat of stain or varnish (I haven’t decided which yet). 

But I can’t tell you how good it feels to be doing this.  One thing the reader may or may not know about me is that, once upon a time, I delighted in carpentry work.  And I wasn’t half bad at it.  (Which also means that I was just slightly less than bad at it).  But I worked doing set construction in my university theatre.   Indeed, one of the reasons I chose that school was because I was so impressed with the scenery of a production we saw during my visit, and all I could think was, “I want to do that!”

My first semester, I landed a job washing dishes in the cafeteria.  It sucked, but I needed the money.  And I amused myself by playing ‘Moby Dick’ [wich I was then reading] with the dishes in the sink.   One floating plate was the Pequod, a white floating bowl was the much sought after whale.  Don’t judge.

Also during that first semester, I got myself into the ‘Stagecraft’ class.  And I do mean ‘got myself into.’  More people wanted in than there were spots.  I don’t remember how I finagled it, but I made it happen is the point.  Anyway, at the end of every semester, the guy who ran the shop would pick a handful of promising students from the class and actually hire them to work for him.  And I do mean ‘hire.’  It was a paying gig.  But it was also an apprenticeship of sorts.  If you already knew how to something, then he – John – would just tell you to do it.  But if you hadn’t yet learned how, he’d teach you.  And he was a wonderful teacher. 

I learned so much from him.  Sure, all the technical shit.  But also, just how to run a shop, how to organize a shop.  And I carry that with me to this very day.  One thing is, your job’s not done until you’ve cleaned up after yourself.  However long a job is gonna take, you start by factoring in the clean-up time.  And to be perfectly honest, when I encounter professionals who don’t do a good job of cleaning up after themselves, I immediately lose all respect for them.  Like, I don’t care if you expertly fixed the leak in my sink.  You left a mess behind yourself.  Do you even take pride in your work? 

Interpolation: Not for nothing, Gerry – the electrician for whom I worked a year or two – was like John in this way.  He was immaculate.  Yes, he was a master electrician.  But when he was done working, you could eat off the floor where he’d been.  And for that alone, I had the utmost respect for him.  End interpolation.

Anyway, the lessons I learned from John, I carry them with me in anything I do which I take seriously.  I made some noise in a previous post about the kitchen being a scared space.  How I need to be able to reach for any implement with my eyes closed, how everything must have its place.  That comes form John.  He taught me that.  And while he never would have used the word ‘sacred,’ the way he taught me to keep the shop is 100% how I keep my kitchen; and my studio and my desk. 

I might be a slob in my every day life.  Dirty clothes strewn all over the floor.  But come into my kitchen.  Come into my studio.  You want the slotted spatula?  It’s on that hook.  You want the paring knife?  It’s in this drawer, in the leftmost slot of the cutlery tray.  Do I think it looks cool to have my headphones hanging from the ceiling of the loft?  Sure.  But they’re in arms reach when I’m in my chair and I can grab them with my eyes closed.  Because they will always be there.  Because that’s where they live.  Thank you, John Larrance.

So that was a trip down Memory Lane.  But to return to the point of all this – if there ever was a point – once upon a time, I had a carpentry job in the theatre.  And I loved it.  I loved creating.  I still do.  I love writing stories and songs, I love producing other people’s music.  But I loved building and creating, bringing something into the world that didn’t exist before.  And the feeling of looking at your creation and thinking, “Yeah, I made that with my own two hands.” 

And then I got away from carpentry.  The second half of my college career, as pertains to my job in the theatre, was more focused on lighting.   Still a creative endeavor, to be sure.  And one which I very much enjoyed.  To the point that I worked professionally as a lighting designer for a time after school.  But you can’t hold a lighting scene in your hands.  And it’s ephemeral.  Come the next cue, the lights change and your creation is gone forever. 

Ah, but carpentry.  You’ve built something that lasts. Every day, you get to look at with fresh eyes and experience that feeling of, “I made this!” 

And that’s where I am today.  Even though it’s not done.  Even though all I’ve done is to knock together the basic frame of the thing.  And yet, already, I’m looking at it, I’m touching it.  It’s mine.  My own.  My precious.  (Wait, what?).  No, but seriously.  I feel this great sense of pride, even just in the having-begun-ness of it.  And the knowing that, when it’s done, I’ll have this little bookshelf in my room, that everyday, every time I pull a book off of it, I’ll get just a touch of that feeling.  “I made this.” 

And it wont be perfect.  Because a master carpenter I ain’t.  It will have flaws.  I’m sure, that when it’s done, I’ll look at it and be entirely unable to not see the imperfections.  Even so, that’s preferable to looking at a shelf and thinking, “Welp, that cost me x euros.” 

Another sign of what it means to be to be building my own shit.  It took precedence over a nap.  Did you catch that?  You people know me.  You know that my existence is nap-dependent.  Just like, not Saturday.  I mean, I had this party to go to.  Under any other circumstances, I would have taken a nap to prepare myself.  Just like, not Saturday.  All I wanted to do was work on this shelf.  And so that’s what I did.  I worked until it reached a point where, if I went any further, I would be unacceptably late.  (There was no way I was ever gonna show up ‘on time,’ no matter what.  In the event, I was two hours late, which was fine).  The point is, I didn’t just want to work, to create.  I needed to.  And if that cost me a nap, well, that’s the price.  

I should probably wrap this up.  So let me say this.  Moving down to Neukölln, I feel like I’m getting back parts of myself that I’d lost.  I’m skating again.  I’m working with my hands again.  Am I overwhelmed?  Absolutely.  There’s not enough time in the day, not enough days in the week, to do all that needs doing.  I’m exhausted and it feels like there’s no end in sight.  And yet, for all that, I feel as though I’m somehow becoming a better version of myself, somehow finding my way back to the person I want to be.   Not just a dilettante amateur-hour scholar, but a person who does things, a person who creates things.  I feel better about myself than I’ve felt in a long time….

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
18 October, 2022

Part three of the Moving Saga Diary, as I’m now calling it.  Except, much like ‘Rambo,’ you won’t find ‘Moving Saga Diary’ in the title of the first post.  I was like 39 or 40 when I learned that the name of the first Rambo movie wasn’t “Rambo,” but “First Blood.”  Not even “Rambo: First Blood.”  Just, “First Blood.”  Also, turns out Frankenstein is the doctor, not the monster.  You think you know things…

I often watch some TV during dinner.  Nothing serious and not every day.  But usually.  Although I’d taken a break from that for the better part of the last two months.  For quite a while there, I was just working my way through many seasons of The Simpsons.  Not for nothing, The Simpsons remains brilliant as far as I’m concerned.  But now I’m working my way through The Golden Girls.  And in so doing, I’ve learned something about myself.  This is what I’ve learned.  My whole life, all I’ve ever wanted to be when I grow up is Sophia Petrillo.  

Anyway, back to the Moving Saga Diary…

9 October, 2022

The futon arrived this morning, so C is now sleeping in the living room.  Well, I think she’s still up, but she’s taken over the living room.  Also, I have a living room!  Anyway, we’ve put away at least two bottles of wine each of the first three nights, and we stayed up pretty late, so passing out wasn’t much of a problem.  That said, it should be better for both of us to have our own space for the rest of the visit.

We had dinner with Esma tonight.  That was great.  They got along very well, as I knew they would.  Good conversation and a lotta laughs.  And I was both happy and proud to introduce them to each other, as they are two of my very favorite people.  (Unless they happen to be reading this, in which case, bitches). 

C and I started recording some music as well.  Not sure how much of it we’ll keep, but it’s good we got started.  As with everybody, it took C some time to get acclimated to singing in a studio environment; if she’s even used to it yet.  But I should have enough to work with by the time she leaves to be able to knock together something nice.

We worked up a new version of Dream Lover; a proper duet now.  It’s the first song she ever started singing with me.  As such, until now, we’ve always just sung in parallel octaves, the whole song together.  But now we’ve worked it into a duet, trading off parts of the verses, harmonies on the choruses and bridge.  And I think it’s really nice what we’ve got now.  I’m really looking forward to recording it properly. 

Life continues to be an absolute whirlwind.  Still no proper sense of time going back to before the move.  And now, I’m basically settling in at the same time as C is here.  It’s funny, I haven’t been here long enough to develop any real routines concerning the general management and maintenance of this place.  And since C has been here, she’s basically taken it upon herself to do all the cleaning.  Not just putting things in the dishwasher, but putting them away afterwards.  I cook.  But it’s like, I moved into this magically self-cleaning apartment.  It’ll be weird to start having to clean up after myself after she goes.  But also, I guess that will really be the first time I start “living” here on my own.

We’re gonna have Philippe and Brigitte down tomorrow to see the place and have a few glasses of wine; after which we’ll head out somewhere for dinner, though where I have no idea as yet.  But that should be nice.  I’m sure they’ll get along just fine.

The eating at home has been good so far.  The first night was leftovers from the first proper meal I cooked in this joint – Brussels sprouts and zucchini with chicken breast and spaghetti in a white wine sauce.  The next night, C basically went through my Instagram and made requests.  We settled on chicken katsu, basically a Japanese chicken cutlet with a particular sauce; salad with a homemade sesame-soy-ginger dressing and rice on the side.  And Thursday for lunch, I made us miso soup with cabbage, zucchini and egg plus kimchi rice on the side.

For Saturday’s dinner, I went to the Turkish market and picked up a bunch of little things.  Roasted eggplant, pickles, pickled turnips, olives, Turkish cheese and grape leaves.  So we made a sort of Turkish tappas, or as C said, a sort of Turkish breakfast.  Which she loved.  Having spent several months in Turkey, she’s quite keen on the culture, the food and the language.  So that was a win.  She’s also requested my coconut milk cauliflower and chicken, so we should have time to squeeze that in as well before she leaves. 

I also gotta give C some credit here.  I found her kinda tough to be in close quarters with in her own home.  Don’t get me wrong, it was easy enough and we had a great time.  But she has her way she want’s things done, how she want’s things to be.  And it wasn’t always easy to stay ahead of that.  But as a guest, she’s been top notch.  And I don’t just mean the cleaning.  Little things.  Like, she’s been really observant about shit.  She noticed that I keep the lid off the tea kettle when not in use, so she just started doing that without saying a word.  And when I’d mention a few peculiarities about how I prefer things, she’s just like, “Oh yeah, sure, no problem.” 

And she mentioned that I’m easy to ‘live’ with. She feels totally at home.  Which is great.  I mean, of course that’s how I want any guest to feel in my home.  So it’s gratifying to know that that’s the case.

We were even drunkenly talking about her family visiting.  There’s certainly room.  We were both pretty sure we could get her dad in for a visit, which I would love.  I mean, I love her dad and would be delighted to have him visit.  But she was like, “We could even get Chloe (her sister) and Emil (her nephew) to visit; they could sleep on the futon and I’ll sleep up on the loft.”  And I was like, are you kidding, of course!  After all the visits I’ve made to her family, I’d love to have them visit and put them up.  I think that would be a lot of fun, but like, also good for my heart.  Whenever I visit them, they don’t just make me feel like a welcome guest, they make me feel like family.  I’d love nothing more than to return the favor. 

This week is the last parsha of the year.  I’ll start tonight when I finish writing.  Upon completing this week’s parsha, it will mark my fifth time through the Torah.  That in itself is an accomplishment, and one I’m proud of.  This year, I’m hoping it will take on an additional social aspect.  I’m hoping to get some semi-regular learning with Akiva; it’s something we’ve talked about.  Just need to find the time to make it happen.  But if I can find a way to bring Moritz or Nikolai or others from that group into it somehow, or to find another way to share some Torah learning with them, that would be really great.  But first things first, as far as they’re concerned, I gotta make an effort to just show up to events and be social.  I think I’ll touch base with Moritz this week and see if he’s going to shul on Friday, and if so, if I can tag along.  More on that if and when it actually happens…

Good enough place to stop as any.  Time to learn a little Torah and then head to bed.

11 October, 2022

We got some good music done today, C and I.  Knocked out all her vocals for Dream Lover and most of mine.  Maybe all of mine.  I’m not sure I love what I’m doing on the last verse, but otherwise my shit’s in place.  I wrote a three-part harmony for the bridge, which I then asked her to sing the two higher parts of.  At first, she was just like, “You want me to sing this?  OK, sure, it sounds nice.”  But when I played them back together, I had another one of those moments.  She just lit up and was like, “That’s me?!”  And then when I played all three parts back together with the main vocal for the bridge, she declared it her favorite part of the song.  And yeah, it’s probably mine too. 

But it was an interesting process.  She’d never harmonized with herself before.  And in a way, she still hasn’t.  What I mean is, we had to do each voice as a solo shot, because hearing the other vocal would throw her off.  So she handled each line as if it were the only one.  Which is perhaps why it was such a surprise for hear to her it all together in playback; it was the first time she’d actually heard the parts together.  But she did it, and she did it well.  I didn’t need to do any pitch correction on it.  The only thing I did was to stretch or shorten the phrase-endings of all three parts – mine included – so that they matched up with each other.

I’ve also started on the mix.  I knocked out a quick and dirty processing stream for our vocals, the harmonies and the guitars.  It might need some tweaking, but it’s mostly what I want.  I just need to clean it up and tie it all together.

After she fell asleep I started messing around with a drum track, which I think will greatly benefit the song.  I think the rough idea of it is more or less fine, but I may hand it off to Justin and see if he can do better; I’m sure he can.  But here I ran into a new problem.  Or rather, an old one that just keeps coming back.

I really should have done the drums first.  I mean, I laid down the guitars to a click track, and they’re in time.  But trying to sync the drums with the guitars is just ass-backwards.  Even if everything is in time, it doesn’t mesh the way it should, it doesn’t feel as tight as it should.  And of course the vocals are laid down over the guitars.  So they’re good with the guitars but equally ‘unmeshed’ with the drums.  Maybe Justin will be able to actually play something that meshes better than anything that can be written in via the drum editor.  But part of me wants to get the drums down early tomorrow and re-record everything.  I’ll run it by C and see what she thinks, but I can’t imagine she’ll be enthused about it.  In the end, we may just have to settle for the best we can do. 

But the best we can do will still sound nice.  I mean, she sounds really good, I have to say.  She’s got a totally different voice from Pauline or Bibi.  Much higher and ‘cleaner’ for lack of a better word.  But it’s very pretty and her pitch is pretty good.  I think she would really benefit from some lessons though, which I’ll mention to her tomorrow.  Because there are things that I can’t teach her but which I hear can be improved.  Just thinks like breathing and support, which would really take her to another level.  But like I said, that’s beyond my ability to coach at this point.  But even as things are, she sounds great and I think we’re gonna have a really nice product by the time I’m done with it.  The harder work will come with the other two songs, as we are now running out of time.  But I’m hopeful we’ll still be able to do enough work so as to arrive at a good product in the end.  Obviously the most important thing is to get her vocals down as best we can, and then I can keep working on it after she’s gone.

Not that I don’t have enough to do.  I’ve got the three songs we did with Pauline while she was in that I haven’t touched yet because of the move and C’s visit.  And still two outstanding songs for the band.  To say nothing of four of my own songs that are in various stages of completion.  One of them, though, is nearly done.  I’m considering giving that my full attention first, just to clear it from the roster. 

One last thought on working with Charlotte, at least for tonight.  I’d written a few times that I was looking forward to ‘getting my hands on her voice,’ so to speak; to see what I could do with it.  Tonight, I finally got that chance.  Now obviously, it all starts with the raw product.  If she doesn’t sing well, there’s little I can do.  But she did sing well.  So I got to work, doing the EQ, adding some compression and just a touch of saturation and delay.  And I’m quite pleased with the result.  I think I’ll have given her something she can be proud of, something she can show off to people and say, “Hell yeah I can sing, listen to this!” 

And something I can be proud of as well, something to add to my slowly growing portfolio of work.  Because this makes now five voices I’ve worked with: myself, Bibi & Ralf, Pauline and now Charlotte.  Plus the spoken word stuff I did with Helmut.  I still don’t consider myself a whiz with EQ, but I’m learning to trust my ears and I think I’m getting solid results.  I will of course send my work with Charlotte off to Justin and Rob for feedback, and I’ll press Rob for input on the EQ side of things.  But I think I’m in a pretty good place.  Room to grow and improve?  Of course.  But still work I can be proud of and show off as an example of what I can do.

As for potentially opening my studio to strangers for money, well, I feel like I’m running up against my limitations.  Like, sure, if a singer-songwriter were to come in with just their voice and guitar, I can definitely handle that.  And at this point, I feel confident that I’ve developed a solid ear for harmonies and structure.  I feel good about my ability to work with artists to try and get good results from them.  But on the other side, there are things I can’t do at all.  Piano and synths as well as anything beyond the most basic of drums.  So if those are things an artist is looking for, I’m out of my depth. 

With that in mind, I think it’s important that I invest in a good quality full-sized keyboard for the studio.  That won’t come cheap, so it can’t happen tomorrow.  At the same time, it’s going to be necessary going forward, and the sooner I can get to experimenting and learning the better.  I also need to get my hands a decent quality steel-string guitar.  For that, I’ll talk to Michi and see if she has anything she’d recommend for studio work.  The last big investment that I have in mind is a proper studio desk.  It’s not terribly pressing, but if I’m to add a full-sized keyboard, I’ll have to make more efficient use of my space, and a proper desk will help me do that.  Of course, once I do have a proper desk, I might start thinking about some kind of small physical mixing board; eight – or, at most – sixteen channels.  Now, that’s definitely a luxury.  I can, of course, do everything I need right in the computer, and my two monitors makes it quite practical to do so.  Still, a mixing board would be fun!

Well, it was good to write that out.  It’s easy for me to make excuses.  Excuses like not being able to do anything with keys, synths or drums.  But it’s also clear that there’s plenty of music I’m ready to take on right now. 

So, originally, I had set a vague goal of advertising my studio “some time in 2023.”  I think it’s time to get more serious about that.  The biggest impediment is not, in fact, my ability or experience.  It’s just workload.  I can’t take on any more projects right now.  So let’s say this.  I need to clear out what’s on my plate.  I need to finish the songs with Pauline, with Charlotte and for the band.  By rights, the stuff with Pauline should come first.  But the stuff with C is sufficiently minimalist that I can get it done the fastest.  So I’ll try to bang those out in the next two weeks if not sooner.  The stuff with Pauline I’d like to have finished by the time she comes back in December.  Then the stuff for the band.  And then, finally, my songs.  (Although I may push Met You to the front of the queue, since it’s so nearly done). 

But once I’ve finished all of that off, then I think it’s time to hang up my shingle.  Where and how?  No idea yet.  I don’t even know who to talk to about that.  But I’ll keep my ears open and see what’s out there.  One idea, if it’s not in bad taste, might be to show up to an open mic and see if any singer-songwriters strike my fancy as being people I’d like to work with.  Then I can approach them and see if they’re interested.  But of course to do that, I’ve got to also figure out my price structure.  And that will take a bit of research.  And there too, I don’t even know where to begin.  But none of that can happen until I clear out my current workload. 

So besides the million things I need to do for and around the apartment, I also need to make sure I find time to do steady work in the studio.  It’ll be a challenge, but a good one.  This summer was rough, and I was super unproductive and in a very deep funk because of all this apartment shit.  But that’s all squared away now and there’s no more room for excuses.  It’s time to get to work!

I’ve been writing almost every night now for some time.  Which is good therapy, I believe; and also, just good on the merits, good to be writing, to keep the skills fresh, even if it’s self-reflective and not creative.  But come this weekend, or next, I need to start organizing some of this into a blogue post.  Much of what I’ve written in the last two weeks will serve, so that will mostly be a cut and paste job.  But I think I should also start a post from scratch, dealing with the new apartment and the new ‘hood.  I’ve not reflected on either as much as I’d have liked to this point.  And on those subjects, whoever actually reads my blogue will surely be interested.   Yay, more work to do.

Tomorrow is C’s last full day.  Crazy that she’s been here for nearly a week already.  It doesn’t feel like it.  She’s so easy to have around and we get along so well together.  Before she came, it was like, great, I’m gonna have a house guest before I can even get settled.  But now, she’s basically been an integral part of that settling in, such that it will be kind of weird when she’s gone and I’ll have to re-settle all over again.  I mean, I’ve basically had her here for longer than I’ve been alone in this place.  So in a way, my adventure won’t really begin until she leaves.  She leaves Wednesday, but I have to work, so we’ll probably just have lunch together and then that will be that.  We’re talking about trying to meet up in Vietnam sometime this winter though. 

I think it’s important that I try and make that happen.  Because on the one hand, I’d love to go to Vietnam – noodle soup!  On the other hand, I kinda don’t see myself going on my own.  So if the opportunity exists to plan a joint adventure there, I think I can’t let that slip by.  Nothing’s written in stone, but it seems realistic.  She’s already planning a trip to SE Asia; so her plan is to be in Thailand no matter what.  And if that’s the case, there’s no good reason why we can’t make Vietnam happen.  We’ll see…

C and I went to THF on Sunday.  At one point, we laid down in the grass.  The sun was shining and warm.  So naturally I fell asleep.  And I loved it.  It was also just great to be there again.  I really do love that place and I can’t wait to start skating there.  Let me say it here so I hopefully lock myself into it.  I’m done with work at one on Thursday.  I want to go skating as soon as I finish.  Time to get the ball rolling on that as well.   I’ve got to make that a habit, a routine.  Not just because I need the exercise; I do.  But because I need to be on skates.  I feel incomplete without that.  I mean, what kind of Dave is a Dave who doesn’t skate?  It’s time to set that arights. 

That’s more than enough.  It’s ‘only’ quarter after three, but I should get to bed.  I’d like to be up comparatively early tomorrow (say, 11), so I can hopefully get some work done in the studio with C.  She’s got work at three, so I can take a nap then.  And then, we’ll have one more dinner and one last night of wine.  It’s been good.  I’ll reflect more fully on her visit after she’s gone.

12 October, 2022

Charlotte’s last night.  We worked on another song, so that now we’ve got four in total.  Or at least, her vocals and most of the guitars.  Justin is eager to drums for Dream Lover and had good things to say about C’s voice.  We – me and her, I mean – spent some time today digging into the last song, working on her breathing and trying to bring some more intention to the vocal.  We definitely succeeded on the breathing front.  And I think she was brining more to the song by the last take than she was when we started.  So it was worth the effort, and I think she heard that.

And she was really appreciative that I took the time do that with her, to work on those things.  I told her that’s one of my favorite parts about this.  Like, in the end, the artist has to do all the work right?  But helping them get from A to B, helping them find something within themselves they didn’t know they had, that’s a lot of fun for me.  And she said it was fun for her too.

She also has a lot of patience with me.  I mean when I don’t have patience with myself.  I wasn’t happy with the way some of my guitar work was coming out and I was starting to get pretty annoyed, losing my cool, cursing a lot.  The more I do this, the more I’m discovering that I actually hate recording guitars.  Like, with vocals, it’s so much fun.  And with the bass too, even.  Maybe because they’re new instruments for me, and there’s so much room to learn and experiment in the process.  But the guitar is my instrument, and maybe because of that my standards are higher?  I don’t know.  Whatever the reason, I get super frustrated when things aren’t perfect.  And they almost never are.  But she just takes me as I am.  She doesn’t get put off by my moods or hate being around me when I get like that.  She’s just like, very gently, “Hey, Dave, maybe you want to take a break?”  Or just a a little shoulder rub for a second or two.  Enough to bring me back down a bit.  It’s great.

And the whole week has been great.  I’ll get more into it when she’s gone.  But we’ve had our last night now.  And we were talking today about how easy it’s been.  I mean, we’ve been sharing the same apartment for a full week.  There’s no guarantee that something like that will be easy, no matter how good friends you are.  But with us, it’s just easy.  I think she used the phrase “living around each other.”  In the sense that we’re both plenty independent, we can be left alone, we can work alone, we can feel at home in our respective space without needing anything from the other.  But then, we’ll have lunch together.  We’ll share a beer.  We’ll play music and drink wine and play games and do some recording. 

And we always share beers.  Like, even if we wind up drinking two – normally, each person would have their own beer.  But we just take two little glasses and share a half-liter.  And when that’s done, we’ll open a second if we’re of a mind to, and share that.  And it’s just nice and easy.  On the one hand, a week is enough.  But on the other, she could stay even longer and it would be fine.  That’s a pretty special thing.

We’ll have lunch again tomorrow.  And then, when I finish class, it’s time for her to go.  The plan is for me to make miso ramen for lunch.  That’ll be a nice way to end things for this visit.

15 October, 2022

I’ve got a lasagna in the oven that probably needs to come out soon (it’s only 4:15am), so I don’t have a ton of time here. 

Still struggling with my schedule.  Still a lot of running around every day picking up this and that for the apartment.  Exhausted after school because I go to bed so late.  Result, it’s only two days since C left, but I’ve yet to go skating or do any further work in the studio.  Although my patch cable arrived today, so I was finally able to hook up my headphone amp to the DI box; which means I can now have both headphones plugged in at the same time; which means I can now listen to the mix when a singer is doing their vocal.  Two days late to be of any use with C, but as I’m sure I’ll be doing plenty more recording with others, I’m quite looking forward to using it.  Very excited in fact.  And even just for me, it’ll be nice to not have to unplug and switch headphones every time I go from recording to mixing.  Really happy with the way the studio is coming along.

Charlotte was in love with the rough mix of Dream Lover I shared with her.  She then promptly shared it with like all her friends and family; which I advised her not to do as it’s not finished.  Rave reviews so far, which is nice.  But then after she got back to France she got all worried, like, “What did you do to my voice?  Is this what I really sound like?  I feel like a fraud.”  Which I guess is understandable on some level.  So I tried to explain to her what I’d done: zero pitch correction, just EQ, compression, saturation and delay.  I don’t think I’d even mixed in any reverb yet.  But that did nothing to assuage her fears.

So I sent her a mix with the raw vocal.  She couldn’t hear the difference.  Which is both a good thing and not entirely surprising.  It reminded me of when I first started out with this stuff.  I’d add compression according to the tutorials I’d read and watched, but I couldn’t really hear it myself.  Same with EQ.  I’d follow the guidelines I’d found, but I wasn’t any good at picking out frequencies on my own or hearing the difference except when I’d do a side by side comparison.  To be honest, I’m still no whiz with EQ.  But I trust my ears more now, and I’m better at hearing things.  So to me, the difference between the raw vocal and the processed vocal is night and day.  But admittedly, I’m listening with a producer’s ear at this point; even if it’s a very inexperienced producer’s ear. 

Anyway, I take the fact that she couldn’t hear a difference to be a good thing.  Because in the end, you’re not trying to change the vocal.  You’re trying to make subtle adjustments to bring out its best qualities.  On the hand, to make it sound more like itself, because the mic doesn’t hear a voice the way a human ear does, so you’re trying to compensate for that.  On the other hand, you’re trying to fit into the mix, to give it its own dedicated frequency space.  The rest is cosmetic. But like any good cosmetic job, you’re just trying to highlight what’s already there.  So if, to her untrained ear, there’s little to no difference, I feel like that’s in some ways a success. 

18 October, 2022 (again)

Well, I guess that brings us pretty much up to date.  I’m still exhausted and overwhelmed.  But things are good.  Now that I’m all caught up here, I can (hopefully) turn my nighttime attention elsewhere.  I need to take a break from writing and start getting back to work in the studio.  Also, Torah starts all over again this week.  “In the beginning” and all that.  Which is fitting.  This is a new beginning after all…

Oh, and one final, embarrassing, note from today.  Weather was absolutely gorgeous.  So I decided today was the day.  Today was the day I get off my ass, lace up the skates and hit THF.  Then, in act of complete hubris – all the more so considering I haven’t been on skates once in Germany – I decided to lace up at home and skate over to the park.  Then I get outside and discover that the sidewalk in front of my house is cobblestone.  You can’t skate on that shit.  I know because I tried.  Got my wheel stuck in a rut between two stones, spun around and had to catch myself on a parked car.  Who knows how many people saw that.  Anyway, I kept going.  After my block, the sidewalks smoothed out until Schiller Kiez, which I had to cross to get to the park.  There, the sidewalks and streets were made of even bigger cobblestones.  Caught my wheel again and fell.  A controlled fall, I came down not too hard on one knee and one hand;  not even a scratch.  But still a fall.  And more people saw that.  Still having a ways to go before I could get to the park, I decided it just wasn’t worth it, turned around and made my home.  Picked up chicken tenders and fries on the way to soothe my battered ego.  The tenders were ok, the bbq sauce and fries were not.  Anyway, lesson learned.  Next time, I’ll walk to the park and lace up there.  Not my finest moment, to be sure.  But that’s what you get when you don’t skate for literally years.  Next time will be better.  And I’m already looking forward to it.  Right, let’s stop here.  Time to learn some Torah.

זײַ געזונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
17 October, 2022

The goal here is to follow on the last post with bits and bobs of my thoughts and reflections on the new place that I’ve written since I moved in.  But first a couple of new thoughts.  Was up at Joschka’s tonight catching up on this Amazon Lord of the Rings Series.  It’s ok so far, but we’re only through five of the eight episodes.  Anyway, it was my first time coming home here from up there.  Foregoing any walk tonight, I took a tram from his pace to the subway and then took the train the rest of the way.  It’s been years since I waited on a subway platform for a train at 3:30am, but man it was refreshing.  Just felt right, you know?  Like, yeah, I remember this, this is normal, this is what living in a city is supposed to feel like.  In the future, I’ll likely skip the tram portion of the trip and just walk to the train.  For the walking, but also so I can enjoy a beer on the way…

I took a walk on a stretch of Sonnenallee today, and here I have an addendum to my previous post to add.  Whereas Hermanstraße is predominately Turkish, Sonnenallee seems to be predominately Arabic; the signs, the restaurants, the shops, the butchers and so on.  So it’s a bit of a different flavor.  I also passed by a ‘West African’ restaurant.  I didn’t get a look at the menu, but just seeing the food on the plates of the people seated outside…damn, it looked good.  I will be checking that out in the near future for sure. 

I mentioned that the Turkish market around the corner has a solid butcher counter in back.  But on Sonnenallee, I passed by a couple of full-on Halal butcher shops, one of which had a line out the door on a Saturday afternoon.  Not nearly as convenient, location-wise, but I’ll have to see what all the fuss is about.  I also want to do some research on the differences between Kosher and Halal.  Also curious if Halal is going to be more expensive, the way Kosher butchers are back home.  Could be worth it though.  I’ll keep y’all posted. 

Anyway, back to the first two weeks here in the new place…

30 September, 2022

Second night in the new place.  In my place.  I’m still wrapping my mind around that.  Tonight is not the night to ponder that, however.  I just got my desk set up.  Finally, a feeling of ‘home.’

The first night was rough.  I was exhausted, had been up for something like 35 hours straight.  Everything was all over the place, nothing had taken shape yet.  It didn’t feel like ‘home.’  Now it’s starting to.  Did a decent amount of work today in the living room.  I’m starting to develop a vision for it; and for the kitchen as well.  And not for nothing, I’m really digging the vision that’s developing.  Lots of work to do.  I’ll have to make some purchases as well of course.  Chief among them, a butcher block for the kitchen.

The kitchen is small.  Too small.  Not enough room for all my stuff.  Not enough room period, but not even enough to have the most key things ready at hand and within reach.  But that’s when it hit me.  At first glance, the kitchen in Chinatown was too small as well.  But then we got that butcher block.  And once that was in place, I fell in love with that kitchen.  A place for everything, and all I had to do was pivot for whatever I needed.  I’m gonna do that here.  And watch how the kitchen goes from too small to a dream in the blink of an eye.  Then the only thing I’ll need is a bigger fridge.  But that can wait. 

Futon has already been ordered, which will serve as a nice couch.  And together with the Sessel, I think it will make a for a really nice sitting area with guests.  I still need to figure out what I’m gonna do about a dining table (and chairs).  Not a rush, exactly.  And I’ll hardly need it when it’s just me and Charlotte.  But Anna and Rudi are coming later this month, and it sure would be nice to be able to host a dinner.  But for that, I’ll not only need the dining table and chairs, but the butcher block as well.  I can hardly cook in this kitchen the way it is. 

One thing I haven’t found a solution for yet, kitchen-wise, is how I’m gonna replace the pantry I’ve lost.  That was a wonderful thing to have, in that it allowed me to keep a ready supply of staples: various kinds of pastas, canned goods, etc.  Maybe the butcher block will solve that problem.  But if it doesn’t I’ll have to figure something out.  Maybe some shelving…

[Update, 10/16/22: The kitchen is now in good shape.  Still need the butcher block.  Still a crunch on storage space.  Still want a shelf so as to better organize my spices.  But as a work space, it’s more than adequate.  Lots of hooks for cooking utensils and more than enough counter space to work.  The (electric) stove gets very hot very fast, so as those things go, it’s great to work with.  I made my zucchini lasagna last night.  I cooked for Charlotte when she was here.  Yes, it can – and will – be more and better.  But already, I really like working in there].

I still gotta finish up cleaning out the old apartment.  Clearing it out and cleaning it up, the latter of which will require a bit of paint and spackle.  We’ll see how far I can get tomorrow.  But it must be done by Saturday, as I’m giving the keys back to the landlord on Sunday.

Lighting is another thing that will need attention here.  The necessary bulbs are in place such that I can do everything I need to do and not be in the dark.  But they suck.  I’d like to get some nice fixtures in place, certainly for the living room and my bedroom.  With such high ceilings, I’m thinking chandeliers.  I also need to get the internet sorted asap.  And I rather desperately want to replace the toilet.  I don’t know how much of this I’ll be able to deal with while C is here…

Back with the class today.  I’ll say it again and again, but I really like this bunch.  I held class from the old kitchen.  Set the computer up on the counter and stood the whole time.  Which was actually kinda nice.  I miss being on my feet for class.

This one woman was struggling today with conditionals.  Which is not unusual.  Conditionals are a bitch and I teach them hard and fast.  It’s a lot for even the most advanced students, and she’s not.  So at the very end, I made a point of praising her instincts, which are indeed quite good. 

But she’s like, “I always speak English with my friends, and now that I’m taking this class, I see how bad my English really is.”  Oh, honey, no.  Like, it’s super denglish-y.  But it’s not ‘bad.’  Indeed, she communicates quite well.  So I told her that her English is like a house that’s being renovated.  Yeah, you gotta rip out all the walls, redo the wiring and put up all new walls.  But the house is there, it’s standing and it’s a strong house.  I think she grokked the analogy and appreciated it.  (Which I guess is part of grokking; I’ve been reading Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land).

Anyway, when I got done saying what I had to say, I concluded with something like, “Alright, well listen, that’s all the nice things I really want to say to anybody for the rest of the day.  So don’t worry, when we see each other next week, I’ll be back to my usual self.”  At which point, one of the girls positively lit up with a big ol’ smile and said, “Yay, grumpy cat!”  Yeah, she calls me ‘grumpy cat’ sometimes.  Which, hey, if the coat (?) fits.  Clearly on some level, this student appreciates my vibe.  Am I using ‘vibe’ correctly?  I need to get chatting with some younger Americans if I’m ever gonna grok this new usage…

1 October, 2022

Some quick reflections before bed (it’s 4:30), because tomorrow is gonna suuuuuuck.  I don’t want to talk about it.  Not yet.  So, reflections.

Joschka is a champ.  We rented this big ol’ van, originally to help me move my studio over (I didn’t want to trust it to the movers), but in the end also to pick up this giant banana plant thing for his place.  But he drove that van like a boss, parked (illegally; twice) like a pro.  I would have been terrified.  He handled it with aplomb.  After all the running around, we went for dinner in my neighborhood, to some hipster joint.  Food was excellent, although right now it’s playing hell with my stomach.  I will be going back though.  I think I’d like to elaborate on this further at some point.

But something funny happened today in the course of those events which made me very happy.  Neukölln, my new ‘hood, is in the south of Berlin; his ‘hood of Prenzlauerberg is in the north, kinda straight north from me.  Both are within The Ring, that is to say, the confines of the Ring-Bahn, which is to say, within the confines of the city proper.  No more ‘outer borough’ shit for this guy!  

Anyway, I was explaining that after dinner, I needed to go back to the old place to do some more work.  And then I said, “So I’ll probably ride uptown with you.”  Did you catch that?  “Uptown”?  I no longer have to talk in terms of “going into the city.”  Now, when visiting Joschka, I can talk of going ‘uptown.’  And when I’m going home, I can talk of going ‘downtown.’  (Because of course I live downtown.  I am, and always have been, a downtown kinda guy).  And if I have cause to go to West Berlin, I can talk of going ‘crosstown.’ 

Now to be clear, words like ‘uptown,’ ‘downtown,’ ‘crosstown’ and ‘into the city’ are not words that anybody who actually lives here uses.  They’ll just say they’re going to such-and-such neighborhood.  “I’m going to Prenzelberg” or “I’m heading back to Neukölln” or “We’re going out in Bergman Kiez tonight.” 

But you know what they say.  You can take the boy outa New York but you can’t take New York outa the boy.  And even if I wind up living here for the rest of my life, I’ll always be a New Yorker at heart. 

The point is, it gave me such joy – joy unexpected and unlooked for – to be able to spontaneously, and accurately, say that I was going ‘uptown.’  I mean, that’s just how I orient myself.  For six years of outer-borough life, I was always going ‘into the city.’  Now, finally, I live in the city again.  I don’t wait for trains on an elevated platform, I wait underground.  And it just feels so right.   

And that’s the biggest thing right now.  Everything about living in this neighborhood just feels right.  The whole world is once again at my fingertips.  Joschka is a big fan too.  At dinner, he said, “I’m so glad there’s a ton of good restaurants in my neighborhood, otherwise I’d be feeling pretty jealous right now.”  Not that I would exult in a friend’s jealousy, mind you.  But the point is, I now live in a place where people would actually want to visit on the merits of the place itself, as opposed to schlepping out Nowheresville for my sake alone. 

I used to say, when I lived in Köpenick and Pankow, that when you live ‘outside the ring,’ you’re basically a second class citizen in this town.  For all sorts of reasons I won’t here get into.  But now I’m ‘inside the ring,’ and it’s wonderful.  For the first time, I feel like I live in Berlin instead of just ‘in Berlin.’  It’s a good place to be.

Tomorrow I have to mop and paint and clear out.  And to paint, I need to go to the hardware store to get paint.  And to clear out, I’ll almost certainly need to call a cab to get all the last of my stuff…downtown.  But I did a shit ton of work today, so hopefully tomorrow won’t be too bad.  If I finish early enough, I’ll see if I can get the keys back to the landlord tomorrow.  Otherwise Sunday, as planned.  But I’m so looking forward to being done with it all, being done with Pankow, to not ever going back there, save the odd time when I want to hit up my Indian spot.  Or, on the off chance that I should want to play a solo acoustic set at Anna’s café.

I should say a few words on that last account.  The other day, I made a point of stopping by the café to say goodbye and thank you to Anna, the owner, who gave us all those gigs.  She was always very kind and gracious with me, and always had free whiskey for me after the shows.  So it was important to me to thank her in person. 

When I went, she was sitting outside, just drinking coffee.  She saw me enter the courtyard and gave me a big smile, told me to sit down.  So I did, and said what I had to say.  And as always, she was very kind and gracious.  She even offered me some whiskey, which I gladly accepted; and wouldn’t let me pay for it.  We wound up chatting for a half hour or so.  In the course of which, she said I’m welcome any time to come do an acoustic set of my own music; she knows I have my own stuff. 

And hey, why not?  I tell you what I’d really like to do.  Next time Justin visits, I’d like to set up a show for the two of us.  I guess we’d mostly do my songs.  And we’d have to work out the arrangements.  But I think it would be a lot of fun if we both played guitar and both sang.  And if she’s offering, well, that’s just great, isn’t it?  That could be a lot of fun. 

And I do like her, btw.  I’d bump into her on the street sometimes, and we’d always have a brief little chat.  It was a nice thing because she’s a nice lady.  But it was also nice because it made me feel like a part of the neighborhood; not that I ever had any great love for it.  Even so, it was nice to walk around, bump into a local café owner that you know and exchange a few pleasantries.  Didn’t feel so much like a stranger. 

Well, that’s over.  And I won’t miss it.  Just, it was nice while it was.  I’m looking forward to checking out some of the local spots here, on my own.  There’s a few just on my block even.  I mentioned that to Joschka, and he was surprised.  Like, “Sure, Dave, you’re just gonna start going out now on your own.”  Hey, he knows me.  This isn’t really thing for me.  Or hasn’t been.  But, at least in Berlin, I’ve never lived in a place where that was really an option.  True, I wasn’t much for that in NY.  But either I’ve matured or NY was too expensive.  Or both.  But here now, in Neukölln, I don’t just want to live here.  I want to experience living here. 

And who knows, maybe I’ve learned something from Joschka.  OK, in point of fact, I’ve learned a great deal form Joschka, and that probably warrants its own post.  But I mean in this regard.  He’s always going out on his own, to his favorite joints.  Such that he often knows the owners or the chefs or the bartenders or the regulars.  He’s got his own little world in that regard.  And look, I’m not saying I’ll go that far.  But it might be cool to have a couple of local joints where I’m more than just some rando.  Plus, it would be good for my German, assuming they don’t try to talk to me in English; a distinct possibility in this part of town.

But maybe that’s a goal for this new year, i.e. the new Jewish year; L’shana Tovah btw.  To become a part of the fabric a) of my neighborhood, but also b) of the Jewish community I’ve met through Aikvele.  Local bars, cafés and restaurants on the one hand, shul and Moritz’ minyan on the other.  All while continuing to work on my music and making this apartment into a proper home.

Yes, I’ve been working on music all along.  Yes, I just taught myself the basics of Aramaic.  Yes, I have my regular Greek and Yiddish readings, my weekly Torah readings.  Yet somehow, I feel I’ve been terribly and unaccountably idle for way too long.  Perhaps this move will be just what I need to kick my ass into gear and get back out in the world. 

I mentioned this to Joschka; well not the part about shul, but the rest of it.  And he was like, “You?  I’ll believe it when I see it.”  Then a few minutes later, he was like, “Sorry, I’m not trying to discourage you.  I think it’s great.  Just, I know you.”  And he does.  Better than anybody at this point.  And he’s not wrong.  I’ll believe it when I see it too.  But I’ve got goals now.  Goals that go beyond studying in my bedroom or working in my studio.  And that feels good. 

2 October, 2022

Fuck, I’m exhausted.  So exhausted I shouldn’t even be writing.  But it’s such an unusual exhaustion, I feel I want to say something about it.  It’s now the end of Saturday, by which I mean 3am Sunday.  I haven’t had a nap since Tuesday.  Tuesday I had a midday nap, but then stayed up for some thirty to thirty-five hours straight for the move.  Every day since has been both work here and at the old place.  I’m still up til three or four every night.  Just without napping.  And it’s entirely distorted my sense of time. 

If we consider today properly Saturday, which I do, it means I only moved three days ago.  And yet it feels like aeons.  (You know, first I typed ‘eons.’  Then I decided I wanted to be a snob and use the Latinized spelling of the Greek word: ‘aeons.’  The spellchecker says it’s wrong.  It’s an odd feeling when you know you’ve gone one up on the machine).  It feels like aeons, I say, and not in that way where things have changed so much that it feels like another life.  Not in the way that so much has happened that it feels like another epoch.  It’s just, I’ve been constantly awake and constantly busy for these three days, it’s warped the hell out of everything.

The only proper leisure time I’ve had is when I get to write a bit before bed.  Unless you count the down time in the car with Linda or Joschka or the taxi today.  Linda shuttled me downtown with a bunch of my stuff on…well I truly don’t know whether it was Thursday or Friday.  Which day did Joschka and I do the studio and his plant?  Linda was first, that much I know.  So I guess it was Thursday with her. 

Actually, I took Linda for tea as a thank you for schlepping my ass downtown during rush hour.  So that was a bit of leisure time, I guess.  And it was nice.  Better than nice, we had a really good time.  Just talking and laughing.  She’s an interesting cat.  I wouldn’t say we’re close necessarily.  And yet, she’s a good friend.  Like, she’s a person you just know you can count on with no strings attached. 

We don’t have a ton in common, but like I said, we laugh a lot together.  And when you’ve got that, you really don’t need much else.  I try to be a good friend to her too.  I’m always on call when she needs help with English, which she does from time to time for school.  On call and no strings attached.  For background, she was my student back in the day, in the same class with Esma and Chris.  Her and Chris used to date actually.  Then they broke up and we haven’t yet gotten the whole band back together.  But I make a point of staying friends with the both of them. 

She’s fun to drive with.  Fun because she trash talks other drivers the whole time.  But like, not in an angry way.  She does it in a sweet way.  Yeah, sweet trash talk.  Like, “Komm, Schatzi, du schaffst das…ein klein Stück weiter…ein klein Stück weiter.”  (Come on, sweetheart, you can do it…just a bit further…just a bit further).  Or when somebody honked at her: “Hey, cool, du hast ne Hupe, ich hab auch ne Hupe!” (Hey, cool, you have a horn, I have a horn too!”).  It never ends and it’s always good for a laugh.

Plus, driving with her – talking with her in general – is good for my German.  First, because she uses a lot of slang.  But also, because she speaks a real, honest-to-god, East Berlin (working class) kind of German.  I actually really love her German.  Just the sound of it, the phonetics, the pronunciation.  Her kind of German is actually the version I most try to model my own after, sometimes intentionally, sometimes subconsciously.  The extent to which I succeed is up for debate, and obviously English and Yiddish exert their own considerable pull on my speech.  But her kind of German is exactly the kind of German I’m after.  So riding with her is great because I get to just listen and study.

I finally finished with the old apartment today, around six.  I hope it’s going to be OK with the landlord.  I think I did a decent job, painting what needed to be painted, mopping, deep clean of the bathroom and kitchen.  Who knows what he remembers, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s actually in better shape than when I got it.  At 2pm tomorrow, I give him the keys back and then it’s done, over, finished.  Close the book on Pankow and the last three years of my life.  And open the book for real on Neukölln. 

I took a taxi downtown, just because I still had so much stuff to carry.  Mostly just all my cleaning stuff, painting materials, and also my lamps that I used to light the place.  I never did install any proper fixtures.  And then, in the cab, I passed right the fuck out.  To the point that when we got here, I thought the guy hadn’t gone far enough down the block because I was looking at the wrong side of the street.

I need to get a candelabra for the wall, away from the window.  Because right now, the wind is blowing in directly on my candles and they’re burning down double time.  That won’t do. 

I did a lot of work in the kitchen today.  It’s coming together, but it’s still a shit-show.  Still lots to do.  I also started putting the studio together.  Everything is in place save the speakers and my larger monitor.  Nothing is wired though.  I need to get a power strip, because the studio is going to share an outlet with the ceiling light fixture.  So if I wired it up today, I’d be in the dark.  Of course, I can’t even get a power strip until Tuesday because tomorrow is Sunday (#Germany) and Monday is a holiday.  So Tuesday I gotta get a power strip.  But I also gotta pick up a new set of sheets for the bed and new pajamas.  The ones I have (of both) are full of holes.  I’d put off replacing them until after the move.  So now it’s time. 

I also need to get some tools.  Chief among them a drill, because I need shelves and I can’t hang anything in these walls without a drill.  It’s not sheetrock here, so you really gotta properly drill.  But, sooner than later, I also want to get one or two saws and sawhorses.  Because I’d really like to do some woodworking. 

On the subject of the butcher block, it turns out the previous guy had left behind a cutting board, quite large, quite thick.  So rather than buying something, I got it in my head today that I think I’d like to build a butcher block around said cutting board.  I think that could be a nice project.  And look, I have a cellar.  I can’t build a proper shop down there.  But I should start putting together a decent collection of tools.  The living room is big enough that I should be able to do most any projects in that space. 

This is an area where I really miss having Dad around.  Because it would be great if we could work on some of this stuff together.  As it is, I’ll be reaching out to him for advice and design ideas.  He’s got a better eye and feel for these things than I do.  And they’re coming for a long weekend in November – for his birthday actually – so who knows, maybe we’ll be able to do some work together while they’re here.  Last time I was home, we built a bookshelf together and that was one of the absolute highlights of that entire trip.

In the meantime, I’m gonna see if I can get Joschka down here Monday or Tuesday to help me hang a shelf in the kitchen which will serve as a spice rack.  Because right now, my drink cart is doing the job, and it’s really not up to it.  I’ve always said, my kitchen is a work space, just like the shop in the theatre at SLU back in the day.  I need to be able to reach for anything I need and grab it with my eyes closed.  If I have to rummage around twenty-odd spices looking for the garlic powder, I’m wasting my time.  I can’t be pushing the tarragon out of the way to be able to extract the soy sauce.  No, the kitchen is a scared space, a work space.  Like my studio or my desk.  Things need to have their proper place.  Davey needs shelving in the kitchen.

I ordered internet today.  Apparently nobody needs to come and set it up, which is a good thing.  No appointments, no waiting through a six-hour window for some clown to show up.  They mail me the router and I hook it up myself.  Hopefully it comes soon.

I finished unpacking the last of the boxes today, save for the ones with my dishes.  And that’s bc the previous guy left behind a bunch of dishes.  So I need to figure out which I’m going to use and what to do with the ones I don’t.  That’s not to say I’m done.  There’s shit lying around all over the damn place.  But the boxes are unpacked.  Tomorrow, I can move them to the cellar.  And then I’ll have a ton more free space.  Then it’ll be the job of finding a place for everything.  But it’s coming together nicely. 

And then, Charlotte comes on Wednesday.  It’s not ideal, in terms of how this place is going to be, to be receiving guests.  Hell, the futon won’t even arrive til Saturday.  But it should be good enough.  And she’s not high maintenance, so I’m sure it’ll be fine.  I’m looking forward to seeing her, to having her here, to showing her my place and my new ‘hood.  And I’m also curious to see if she’ll be able to use any of the Turkish she learned.  If so, that will be very cool.  I’m trying to think who we should see while she’s in. 

I’d say Joschka, but his (teenage) sister is visiting at the same time.  So we’ll see if we can swing that.  But I’d like for her to meet Esma.  And Philippe. 

I’m exhausted and writing this has been a real effort.  Not a mental effort; the brain seems to be working per usual.  But the physical act of typing.  Man, my fingers are not cooperating.  I’m constantly misspelling things; and when I’m not, I’m going super slow in an effort to be accurate.  I’m running on fumes.  Which means it’s probably time to call it quits…

4 October, 2022

So many impressions, so many thoughts, so much going on.  I feel a bit like Mike in Stranger: I can’t hope to process all this now so I need to file it away for grokking later.  Man, I have so many thoughts just on that book and now on Heinlein.  Let’s see when I can find time to write about that, shall we?

OK, so all the big work is done.  Or rather, the post-move big work.  Most things have now found a home.  All the boxes and packing stuff have been moved either to the cellar or the trash.  ‘Cellar’ is an interesting word.  I grew up using the word ‘basement.’  ‘Cellar’ was a word other families used.  But here in Berlin, ‘cellar’ seems more approps.  Partly because the German word is ‘Keller.’  But also, because in my own head, I’m developing a distinction for myself between the two English words.  A ‘basement,’ is a subterranean floor of a house, roughly matching the footprint thereof.  Whereas a ‘cellar’ refers to one’s allotted space in the basement of an apartment building.  So the building has a basement, but I store my stuff in the (or my) cellar.

I wired up the studio today.  Well, as wired as it can be without having electricity.  Will buy the necessary power strip tomorrow.  But I ran all the cables and tied them up in a neat and tidy way.  Gratifying in itself.  I also figured out how to make excellent use of the loft under which the studio is now built.  The loft itself is a welded steel frame overlaid with wooden boards.  What I’ve done, is to run a couple of curtain rods between several bars of the frame.  And to the curtain rods, I’ve attached some modified coat hangers, such that now my headphones are stowed hanging from the ceiling of the loft; likewise extra mic and guitar cables.  Personally, I find it to be not only an elegant solution, but an aesthetically pleasing one as well.  Indeed, I’m rather proud of it.

In point of fact, I’m rather proud of the whole setup.  Because I’ve made the entire under-loft area into a music room of sorts.  Next to the studio, I’ve set up a music stand and a guitar stand, along with a footrest.  So now I’ve got a permanent, and comfortable, setup to practice classical guitar again.  And again, I’ve done it in a way that I personally find quite aesthetically pleasing.  The lighting is ad-hoc for now, so that will need attention.  And I do want to do something to treat the walls for sound.  These things will happen.  But I’ve got my studio and a dedicated music space all set up and I’m really quite pleased with it.  With it and about it.

I’ve also found a temporary solution for the candles at my desk.  Since I no longer need the standing lamps I had at the old place, I returned them to their original packaging.  I then taped the two boxes together so that they function as a sort of tall, slender stand upon which I’ve set two green, empty gin bottles as candle holders.  Now out of the way of the window, they don’t smoke or burn too fast anymore, all while providing plenty of light.  It’s good enough for now.  The ultimate goal is to find an antique wall-mounted candelabra to hang in roughly the same spot, and to fix a mirror behind it.  That should serve quite well, and once again, should look quite nice when it’s all in place.

I’ve also got the kitchen more or less squared away.  I’ve done all I can do with it until such time as I’m able to build the butcher block I’ve got kicking around in my head.  But I’ve got a pretty neat workspace now, such that tonight, I was able to cook my first meal in this joint.  Brussels sprouts, zucchini and chicken breast with pasta in a white wine sauce, for those of you scoring at home.  I’m using every inch of space I’ve got in there, but I think I’m using it efficiently and effectively.  And I enjoyed working in there tonight.  So I’m feeling good about that too.

The way into the apartment: through the front door, there’s a tiny little hallway that leads to the apartment proper.  In German, this would be called a Flur; think of it as a sort of foyer.  On the end of it that connects to the apartment, I hung a little curtain.  Mostly to keep the light out in the mornings, but also to help just a tiny bit with insulation.  There’s no heat in there, so it will by default be the coldest part of the joint.  Hopefully the curtain will, if not act as proper insulation, at least help to cut down any kind of drafts that may occur.  And of course, I think it looks nice, adds to the overall aesthetic of the place.

As to that aesthetic, I haven’t hung any art as yet.  I suppose I’m waiting til the futon comes, which will help properly fill out the living room.  Then I’ll have a better idea of what my wall space is and what should go where.  But I’ve got quite a bit more wall space than in the old place, in the living room sure, but overall as well.  So I’m going to need more art.  I don’t know if I’ll swing it while C is here, but I need to get over to that place in Bergman Kiez I passed by with J&Z and pick up that art deco-y Tempelhof print (and get a frame for it).  And I’m hoping Justin will come through with some photography work for me as well.

In the old place, my room was small and dark.  Well, it wasn’t dark per se, but I kept it so.  Such that there was never any need to adorn the walls in there.  But here, my room is bigger and better lit.  So I’ll need to think about some artwork for in here as well.  But there’s no rush on that. 

One piece of art I want – probably for the living room – is a piece from Deb.  She does some pretty cool stuff and I think it would look great in there.  The only thing is, she don’t come cheap.  I believe her usual asking price is in the thousands.  I don’t mind the price, if I can swing it.  But I can’t swing it just yet.  I’m thinking next year.  We’ll see when and how I can make that happen.  But I like the idea of having some art made by my own artist friends in here.  I’ve already got two pieces from Anne; and I certainly wouldn’t mind another.  Add one from Deb to that, and hey, that would be pretty cool.

Just thinking about art now, when my folks visited Bayeux years ago, they brought me back a full-sized print of the Bayeux Tapestry.  Fully unfolded, it’s massive.  Maybe only eight or ten inches high, but long af.  Maybe there’s a way to ring that around the living room or something.  I’m gonna ask them to bring it when they come.

The biggest outstanding lack right now is internet.  I do feel a little hobbled not having wifi.  Not that I have time to be screwing around watching Netflix.  But I haven’t been able to do any of my admin stuff; invoices, paying bills, etc.  I haven’t been able to do any research or shopping for household stuff.  I haven’t’ been able to download any podcasts.  Haven’t been able to publish any blogue posts.  (The first/next post, I suspect, will just be a זאַמלונג of many of the impressions I’ve been putting down here).  And I’ll need to figure out a how to work until I’ve got internet.  Will I need to go to the school?  Can I bother Joschka to use his extra space that early in the morning?

So I’m feeling really good about this place.  What I’ve done with it so far, in just these few days, and my vision for it going forward.  I wonder if it will ever feel ‘done.’  There’s always something to do, to fix, to improve, to customize.  But maybe that’s a good thing.  Maybe it keeps you energized and engaged.  But I like where things stand, at time of writing.

I’m not sure I’m totally ready to have guests just yet, but if there’s anybody I wouldn’t mind having with things as they are, it’s surely Charlotte, madame à l’arrache.  Easy going, low maintenance, she won’t mind that things aren’t quite complete.  But already I’m looking forward to hosting people.  I’ve still got to get a fold-away dining table sorted; the biggest impediment to a dinner party.  But soon, very soon, I’ll be inviting people over.  In a way I’d hoped to but never quite pulled off in the old place. 

Beyond the fact that the old place was out of the way, I had it set up with a sofa and a coffee table.  Comfortable enough for drinks, but not in any way ideal for sitting down to a meal.  To avoid falling into that trap again, I disposed of that sofa and coffee table (leftovers from the Köpenick roommates).  Jared and Josh have this really nice dining table where the wings fold down lengthwise, resulting in a long skinny piece that can easily be stowed.  My aim is to get something like that.  Then it’ll be regular dinner parties.  And not just my friends proper, but I’d like to extend it out to the Jewish group.  Wouldn’t it be something to host a Shabbos?

I know a lot of people are keen to get a look at the place; the place itself and what I’m doing with it.  Without wifi, I’m trying to watch my data, such that I haven’t sent any videos yet and only a scant few pictures.  But I’ve been keeping my folks, Justin and Joschka somewhat current.  In addition, and what’s been really nice, is keeping my Aunt Cookie in the loop.

When I lived in the city and had an hour-long walk home from work every day, I used to make a point of calling her every few weeks or so, just to chat.  I always enjoyed those talks.  But when I got to Berlin, I didn’t have those regular long walks anymore, to say nothing of the fact that using data to call the states for hours at a time would’ve gotten expensive in a hurry.  It’s another thing I’ve missed in coming here. 

But I’ve made a point of keeping her updated with this whole apartment saga.  Just texting updates and pictures, that sort of thing.  But she gets really excited about, is very enthusiastic and supportive.  I only get to see her now once a year, when I’m in.  So it’s been nice to have this point of contact.

Let me end with this thought.  In a lot of ways, the idea of ‘home’ is very much bound up with the idea of ‘comfort.’  Not just being physically comfortable, not just the creature comforts.  But the sort of comfort that reaches to your heart. 

There are four rooms in this apartment, none of them finished, none of them yet what they will be.  But four rooms, all the same – bedroom, living room, bathroom, kitchen.  And in each room, I’ve created a place of comfort for myself.  A place that feels like home, not just for my body but for my soul.

In the living room, I’ve got my music space.  Not just my studio stuffed into the corner of the kitchen anymore, but a proper dedicated space.  And a permanent setup to practice guitar, with plenty of elbow room and good acoustics.  A space I want to be in and a space I rejoice in looking at when I’m not.

In the kitchen, I’ve now got a proper work space.  This is important.  For me, there are few things as frustrating as going somewhere – a friend’s place, an AirBnB, whatever – and trying to cook in a kitchen that doesn’t meet your standards.  Like, “This is the sharpest knife you’ve got?”  Or, “What do you mean you don’t have a Dutch oven…how do you braise??”  The kitchen, like the studio, is a sacred workspace.  In both cases, if they’re not yet a בית־המקדש, they at least do yeoman’s work as a משכן.  The kitchen, the studio: קדש־הקדשים.

The bathroom.  Well, it’s a little silly to talk of it as a sacred space.  But, a place of home, of comfort?  Look, I’ve got a bathtub now.  I’ve taken two baths in the five days since I’ve moved in.  Maybe that’s just a creature comfort, οὐ περὶ πολὺ ποιείϲθαι.  But what a joy it is, after a long hard day of moving boxes and setting shit up to settle into a nice warm bath.  And over here, they’re big on these bath oils.  Shit to relax your muscles or aromatic shit to help if you’ve got a cold.  One does feel just a touch of royalty as one partakes of such a simple pleasure.

And then my room.  It needs the most work, is lacking the most furniture.  First and foremost, I need a new mattress.  The one I’ve got is just a piece of foam, to say nothing of the fact that it’s the one I inherited from Köpenick, and it was already second-hand when I got it there.  So the bed is no great place of comfort or repose as yet.  But the key thing is, I’ve got my desk set up.  I’ve got this computer in place so’s I can write.  And I’ve got my book stand adorned with my Chumash, a gift from Aunt Cookie, which she herself was gifted from Uncle Art.  So I’ve got my sacred workspace in here too, where I can write and learn Torah. 

Home.  Comfort.  Sanctuary.  And the sacred.   As a Jew, the term ‘holy trinity’ carries little weight with me.  And yet, in just five short days, I’ve built for myself my own sort of holy trinity in this new home.  A place to make music, a place to cook and a place to learn.  Really, is there anything else?  I mean, for a single feller, anyway.

I’m still exhausted, but it’s getting better.  I slept for a solid twelve hours last night; very much needed.  That was wonderful.  I’m starting to get back on track, starting to un-fuck the go-go-go of the last week.  Tomorrow (meaning properly today, but tomorrow when I wake up) will be Tuesday.  Lots of errands to run.  And then C comes on Wednesday.  So that will be a different sort of go-go-go.  But I’m looking forward to it.

16 October, 2022 (again)

OK, this was longer than usual.  Sorry.  But this seemed like the natural stopping point.  I suppose this will wind up being three posts, instead of the intended two.  I’ll pick up again with Charlotte’s arrival.  No spoilers, but we had a great time.  Big fucking surprise, I know.  Anyway, stay tuned for that…

זײַ געזונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
16 October, 2022

Happy New Year, first of all.  לשנה טובה.  May we all be healthy, happy and prosperous.  As many of you know, I’ve moved to a new apartment in a new neighborhood.  Without getting into any of the details, it will be enough to say that the move was forced upon me.  And that kinda ruined my summer.  I went into a pretty deep funk for a while there.  What am I gonna do?  Where am I gonna go?  Will this be the end of my Berlin experiment?  But in the end, it all worked out.  I found a great place, and bigger than the last one.  What’s more, it’s in a neighborhood I absolutely love.  Neukölln, in fact.  Which, if you remember, is where this whole Berlin adventure originally started.  And anybody’s who’s been reading this from the beginning will remember that one of the main reasons I love this ‘hood, is because it feels the most like home, the most like New York.  Loud, busy, fast, ethnically diverse, a little dirty, a little gritty, full of life. 

There’s a subway stop around the corner, and station for a second line less then ten minutes walk the other way.  I’m walking distance to Tempelhofer Feld (love it!), where I intend to do quite a bit of skating one I’m a bit more settled.  And across the main drag, ((There’s three ‘main drags,’ actually.  Hermanstraße, the nearest and to which I here refer.  The next is Karl Marx Straße; my apartment is a bit less than halfway between Hermanstraße and KMS.  And then after KMS is Sonnenallee, which once upon a time marked the border between East and West Berlin.  Also, I now live in “West Berlin” for the first time in six years.  Although, to be honest, it has more of an Ossie (i.e. “East”) feel than the rest of “West Berlin.”)) is the sub-neighborhood of Schillerkiez, which is full of hipster bars and restaurants sufficiently popular that you either need to wait forever or make reservations. 

Beyond that, the neighborhood has great shopping and eating in general.  Huge Turkish population.  In this, it kinda reminds me of Chinatown.  Lots of places will just have Turkish names.  And when you go inside, you’re more likely to hear people speaking Turkish than German.  Lots of small, mom-and-pop cash-only businesses.  Food – weather at the markets or restaurants – that you just won’t find in most neighborhoods.  I absolutely loved living in Chinatown and this just feels like a natural extension of that. 

The only difference, obviously, is that there’s no good Chinese food here.  And yet, even then, I’ve already found a fantastic Asian market where I can get all the Chinese, Japanese and Korean (read: fresh Kimchi) ingredients I could ever want.  Well, almost all.  I haven’t seen any chicken feet.  But, I mean, I’m pretty sure I can live without chicken feet. 

There’s a great little Turkish market just around the corner and the butcher counter in the back is fantastic.  Chicken legs and chicken wings.  No more prepackaged chicken cuts for this guy.  And lamb!  You know, for whatever reason, it was impossible to find lamb in Pankow or Köpenick.  Now there’s fresh lamb everywhere!  What I’m saying is, there will be a proper shepherd’s pie happening this winter.  Can’t wait, you guys.

Anyway, that should be enough to give some context.  I’ve actually been doing quite a bit of writing over the past month or so, reflecting on the upcoming move and then my first experiences and impressions in the new apartment and neighborhood.  So I think what I’ll do is, just some cut and paste from those writings, to take you all along on a bit of the journey I’ve been on.  And so, without further ado…

17 September, 2022

Had dinner and drinks tonight with Jan and Zibs, as they’re in town for the weekend.  Sebastian was along as well, and he’s just a lovely fella.  Great times, as always.  So happy to see them.  Just saw them last month, when Justin and I visited them in Flensburg.  So to see them again so soon is a real treat.  Almost like they still lived here. 

I mean I just love those guys.  I also love making fun of German culture with Zibs.  She married a German, she lives in German, she works in German.  But man, can she laugh about this place, its customs, its people.  She’s better at it than anyone else I know.  Not to say Jan (or Sebastian) can’t laugh at these things as well.  But with them, it’s in that sort of self-deprecating way; it’s their culture after all.  But Zibs brings this wonderful outside perspective to things.  It’s a perspective I share.  That of the outsider who has somehow decided to put down some kind of roots in this verrucktes Land

Conversation ran the usual gamut.  Everything from serious political discussion to puerile jokes.  I think one of the reasons I love them so much – maybe even the main reason – is that I can be myself with them.  Or perhaps better stated, every version of myself.  So yeah, so fucking happy to see them.

Of course, they just happen to be here the same weekend that Stefan is visiting form Bavaria.  And that Paulina is still in town.  So I don’t even have the luxury of dedicating the whole weekend to them.  Tomorrow night is for Stefan and Joschka.  Sunday is for more recording.  But I may yet see them tomorrow afternoon.  Because we passed by an art shop that had this print, sort of art deco in style, of Tempelhofer Feld.  And I really want it for the new apartment.  So I’ll probably meet them again down that way tomorrow afternoon to pick it up.  After which, I’ll probably had back up home for a nap.  I suspect it’s going to be a long night with Joschka and Stefan.

There are apartment updates, but I don’t want to get to deep into it.  Only two more weeks in this apartment, this neighborhood.  And honestly?  I’m ready to go…

22 September, 2022

Lots going on.  Hardly the time to write or process.  I wrote about seeing J&Z.  Stefan was Saturday night.  Always wonderful with that guy.  Long night with him and Joschka.  I must have gone home around six or seven.  Even took a cab, which I wound up regretting.  Shoulda just trammed it.  But I just wanted to get home and into bed bc Pualina and Philippe were due over at 6pm.  Got a lot of good work done.  Not enough time to reflect on that either.  But we got some good work done and drank a bottle of wine after.  I’m really glad those fuckers are in my life now.  Three days in a row of just fantastic people.

Stressed beyond belief with this moving משגעת.  Once I’m in and settled I’ll be able to sit down and write about it.  Just not, like, right away.  Charlotte will be visiting from the 5th to the 12th.  I’m looking forward to seeing her, of course, and to showing her the new place.  But it’s sure to be a bit of a shambles still when she shows up. 

Taking a break from language learning at the moment.  The break is needed.  But I do miss the rhythm of my daily Aramaic work.  I’ve had a look here and there at my Rabbinic Hebrew textbook.  Fascinating as all get out, but I obviously don’t have the time to really dig into it yet.  And won’t, at least not til after C is gone.  And I need to figure out how I’m going to tackle Polish. 

One thing from class today that kinda made me laugh.  Or rather, makes me laugh, as it’s not the first time I’ve heard it.  So we’re chatting and this girl says whatever she says.  And it’s fine, right?  I mean, it’s clear, expressive, easily understandable.  Just not quite idiomatic.  So I explain that to her and offer her a more idiomatic way of expressing the idea.  And she’s like, “Thank you for that, I really appreciate it.”  And I’m just like, “You don’t have to thank me, I mean, it’s literally my job.”  And she’s like, “Maybe.  But not everybody does that.”  And I’m thinking, “But don’t they?”  Not that I’m doubting her.  It’s more just, how does one do this job and not do that?  What are the other teachers getting up to?

I just learned about this pop artist, Marina Diamandis (or, earlier apparently, Marina and the Diamonds).  Fucking fantastic.  Great voice, good hooks.  But also, a bit new-wave-y, a bit kitschy.  And just a touch of that B-52’s silliness.  I’m hooked. 

I’m hooked, but also, what a great study tool, what a great learning device.  Listening to this broad, I’m getting all kinds of ideas of things I can do with Pauline.  Little things, like doubling the vocal in places I wouldn’t previously have thought to double them.  Or adding a headvoice/falsetto line over a chorus to be way down in the mix. 

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me, that if I want to grow as a producer, I need to listen to more pop music, music Metal Dave would never have considered listening to.  And in doing so, I’m discovering that there’s more music out there for me to love.  That I might even love pop music.  Not all of it, mind you.  But I’m finding new stuff, great stuff.  I’m finding new music to love for myself.  But, Hauptsache, it’s helping me grow as a producer.  And that’s a win.

To that end, I’ve begun studying a bit of Michael Jackson.  Mostly Thriller and Bad at this point.  And when I say ‘study,’ I just mean, listening closely and seeing what I find, what I notice.  Self-study, in other words.  But hey, self-study is kinda my thing, no? 

23 September, 2022

You know, for quite a while now, I’ve had this feeling of, I don’t really wanna work.  Three days a week will get me everything I need, and if I could work less than that I would.  But I used to do this four days a week before the מגפה, and I loved it.  I wasn’t looking to cut my hours.  It was only when everything went online that so much of the joy went out of it.   Now though, I find I’d actually enjoy a third day per week with this bunch.  [Note: I have two days a week with the class and a third (and sometimes fourth) day with a one-to-one].

It may also because they’re good.  They learn fast and I can do a lot with them.  And what I can do with them is limited when we only have two days a week.  It’s like, we have so much to cover and so little time. 

The funny thing is, I make them all laugh.  And I love making them laugh.  I love making people laugh in general.

It’s that thing that standups always talk about.  It’s like a drug.  And it also comes with wanting to be liked.  I talk about this with Paul [my friend and colleague] sometimes.  Because Paul will give me shit occasionally; or he used to, when we were in the school together.  He’d be like, “You know they love you, right?  No, they really love you.  They don’t love any of the rest of us the way they love you.  What’s that about?”

What’s that about.  I’d always say this, “Paul, I don’t have anybody.  You get to go home to a family that loves you.  This is all I got, so I kinda need that love.  I want to be liked.”  So I take an interest in their lives.  I try to make them comfortable, try to build their confidence.  And vor allem, I try to make them laugh.  Because if they’re laughing, then they’re having fun.  And if they’re having fun, then they probably like me.  It’s not that complicated. 

Or maybe that’s already too complicated.  Because it’s in my nature to make people laugh, to play the clown.  I don’t mind being laughed at, if it serves a purpose.  Self-deprecating humor is what we do.  It’s our shtick.  And as I’ve said before, if we’re not laughing, then what the hell are we doing?

Interpolation: I love this idea of ‘do a mitzvah.’  It’s funny.  The word ‘mitzvah’ literally means ‘commandment.’  But in the way that it was only ever used, at least in my family, the correct translation of ‘mitzvah’ is ‘good deed.’  Like, you help an old lady cross the street, you did a mitzvah.  And you don’t think, “I fulfilled a commandment.”  You think, “OK, I did a good deed.”  But see, that’s something I love about Judaism, or at least, our version of it.  I love that ‘commandment’ is synonymous with ‘good deed.’  End interpolation.

25 September, 2022

P&P were over again today.  Got a lot of good work done, but mostly just the verses.  We had a lot of harmonies to work out.  It’s fun though.  And the process is nice.  Like, I don’t always intuitively know what harmony I want.  I mean, when I’m singing, when it’s one of my songs (or for the band), I just go in and work it out on the mic.  But with Pauline, I find that I’m more likely to work out a line on the keyboard before I give it to her.

What’s nice, though, is she’ll just sit there while I work it out.  And then when I have something, she’ll just go in and do it.  Maybe it works, maybe we need to try something else.  But she seems to have complete faith in the process.  Like, she’s totally patient while I’m doing my thing, you know?  And happy to try whatever I suggest.  And then there’s that magic moment;  well, magic for me as a producer. 

When the harmony works and she hears it for the first time.  Justin and I sometimes talk about this idea, or skill, of “audiation.”  Trying to hear something in your head before you actually record it.  That’s a skill that I’ve been trying to develop as a producer.  But I think it’s not a skill most people have innately; I sure don’t.  Point being, Pauline doesn’t hear it necessarily before she sings it, or even as she’s singing it.  She really only properly hears it for the first time on playback.  But when it works, there’s that moment.  The one where the eyes go wide, and the mouth broadens into a smile.  Like, “Yeah!  That’s really pretty!”

And again, she trusts me.  She trusts me to work out it, and to sit there patiently waiting while I work it out.  Which, again, doesn’t mean every attempt will work.  But she trusts me that I’ll find something in the end.  Which is so great. 

The trick is, though, to make sure I also give her time to work out her own shit.  Because she’s got a good ear, got good instincts.  She’ll find great stuff on her own.  Mostly what she’ll find is ad-libs and secondary lines, or variations of the main line.  She will, to be sure, also find the odd harmony.  But her wheelhouse is the freestyle stuff.  And it’s the perfect compliment, bc my wheelhouse is the more structured harmony stuff.  So between the two of us, we have a way of finding a wide range of cool shit for her to sing.  I could go on.  And I will; some other time.  Just to say again, I love working with her.

The only people in this country I’ve ever really spoken my own English with are J&Z, Anne and Joschka.  And even then, in those cases, I need to be drunk.  Drunk and worked up about something or other.  And then it’s “fuck this” and “dis fuckin’ guy” and “tawk” and “gimme a fuckin’ break.” 

As it is, I feel sufficiently comfortable with this group to at least throw around a bit of Yiddish here and there.  Like, “Yeah, this grammatical feature איז אַ ביסל משגעע,” or (regarding the Stammtisch), “Like I need to schlep (my ass) to Ostrkeuz?”  Already, that’s pushing it.  But nobody seems to mind. 

If they even notice. Cos here’s the thing about students; like, in general.  Even though I make a point of explicitly saying, “If I’m talking too fast, if I say something you don’t understand, please please please tell me.”  Even though I say that, and even if they do, there’s always some shit that they’re gonna let slide.  Right?  I mean, you’re not gonna stop the teacher at every word you don’t understand, even if he says it’s OK to do so.  Because it’s the nature of a student – and I include myself in this – to let shit slide sometimes.  Whether it’s because you figure you either should just know it or because you think you’ll get it from context, or just because you don’t want to interrupt the flow of the class.  So I’ll throw a bit of Yiddish around and nobody will say anything.  But are they silent because they get the context or because they just don’t want to say anything?  Or because it’s close enough to German that they actually understand and just think I’m speaking bad German?  I don’t know.  What I do know, is that I need (on some level) to be my authentic self, whatever that means. 

I guess it’s funny, though, that I seem to define ‘being my authentic self’ as throwing around a bit of Yiddish and not, as it were, pronouncing ‘tawk’ instead of ‘tok’ for ‘talk.’  Although, I know that if I start pronouncing ‘tawk,’ it’s sure to be followed by some profanity.  And while I will curse in class, I do try to keep it to a minimum. 

Weird to think I may have already cooked my last meal in this [the old] apartment.  Broccoli and chicken with pasta in a white wine sauce.  And using the leftover oil from a jar of dried tomatoes instead of the usual neutral olive oil.  It was really good, not for nothing.  But I’ve only got a few days left, and I doubt I’ll cook again.  Weird.

Torah remains a great comfort.  In the midst of all that’s going on, to have that regular reading, it gives some air of stability.  And when I finish my parsha reading on Monday or Tuesday – which I’ve been doing a lot of lately – I regret, later in the week, that I don’t have more Torah to calm me down.

There are two solutions to this, as I see it.  One is simply to get through this Rabbinic Hebrew text so I can confidently add Rashi to my readings.  The other, is to go and re-read portions that are not part of the parsha and just get to know them better.  In any case, there are only three parshos left this year.  So that’s a problem for next year.  Which is fast approaching.

Rosh HaShanah falls in the middle of this week, just when I’m moving.  I have too much on my plate to be able to celebrate.  The group that Moritz invited me to has all sorts of celebrations planned.  And I’m in no position to take part.  Which is a shame.  But I’m looking forward to getting settled in the new place and being able to be more active in this shit.  I’m even thinking about going to shul for Shabbos once in a while.  Because I’ll be near a shul in the new neighborhood.  And I know Moritz goes nearly every week.  So I won’t have to go it alone.  I have a lot more to say about that, but not here, not now. 

26 September, 2022

Lemme keep this short.  Not counting tonight, I only have two more nights in this apartment, as I’m set to move on Wednesday the 28th.  Already done a lot of packing, but still plenty to go.  I’m hoping to be 99% done by the end of tomorrow, with only a few small things to take care of Tuesday.  Also, Tuesday I’m set to take the keys for the new place.  This is really happening. 

I’ll still have to come back here to do some final cleaning and pick up the last of the Kleinigkeiten.  As it stands, I’m to see the landlord on Sunday (the 2nd) to hand over the keys.  Here’s hoping that goes well and without incident.  And here’s hoping he doesn’t try to screw me on the condition of the apartment.  I mean to give it back just as I found it.  Hopefully that will be fine.

The parsha is super short this week; possibly the shortest in the whole Torah.  Which is perfect timing.  It means I’ll be able to finish it tomorrow.  It means I’ll be able to pack up my desk without the feeling of unfinished business.  And I won’t have to worry about it when I get to the new place.  Starting next week, only two more Parshos.  And then it’s time to start all over again, in my new home.

The only thing that sucks is that I’m gonna have to work straight through Rosh HaShanah.  Normally I wouldn’t mind.  But the group that Moritz introduced me to is having all kinds of celebrations and I simply won’t be able to take part this year.  I find that to be a shame.  I really would have liked to.

But once Charlotte is gone, on the 12th, I’m hoping to start taking a more active role.  Being more engaged with the group, and perhaps getting my ass to shul once in a while.  So much more to say about that.  Just not tonight.

Also, I should be able to finish the last episode of the X-Files tomorrow.  A lot to say about that journey too.  Again, for a later date.  But that will be a nice way to close out this joint. 

I broke down the studio today.  Surreal.  With the exception of my monitor speakers and the larger of the two computer screens, all my gear fit into one box.  But seeing as how I built the studio up piecemeal, it was strange to see all my stuff boxed up in and in one place.  And by boxed up, I mean just that.  I kept all the original packaging.  So to see it packed, everything looks just like new.  Looking forward to putting it all back together.  And to building it out more.  A bigger desk, a full-sized keyboard – both piano keyboard and computer keyboard.  I’d like to add a decent quality steel-string acoustic.  And to do some work treating the walls.  All that will depend on money and won’t happen over night.  But I’m quite looking forward to it.

Another subject I’d like to dive into here when I have time: pop music.  Further discussion to include: studying Michael Jackson; this artist Marina (and the Diamonds/Diamandis) that I’ve lately discovered and whom I think is just fantastic. 

Finished the recording work with P&P today.  Pauline leaves Wednesday for France.  So her work is done.  Mine is only just begun.  Philippe came today with a guitar part he wanted to add to the last song.  It’s a good part.  Just a jazzy little lick, but it adds a lot of color.  I got a few takes from him.  The idea is great.  The execution is not.  I’ll have to discuss with him if he’s OK with me re-recording it.  If not, he’ll have to come over and spend some real time on it.  One way or another, we’ll get it sorted.  And when we do, the song will be better for it.  I just don’t know quite yet how we’re gonna do it. 

But look, we got three songs down, which was the goal from the beginning, so we should all feel good about ourselves.  I believe we all do.  Realistically, I don’t see finishing all three of them before December.  I say this because Pauline will be back in December.  So we may yet add a fourth (or sixth, if one counts the songs we’ve already done) to this project before we call it a day on this EP we’re doing. 

Right, that’s enough.  One more X-Files episode for tonight, and then hopefully I can get some sleep.  Long day of packing ahead of me tomorrow…

27 September, 2022

Last post in this apartment.  Nearly said ‘the old apartment’; which it shortly will be.  The big packing is basically done, but the odds and ends seem…endless.  OK, I coulda worded that better.  I’m wound up tighter than…something that’s known for being wound extremely tightly?  Words fail.  Or I do.

I’ve said I’m looking forward to getting going with skating at THF.  True as that’s been, it’s more true now than ever.  I think it’ll do me good in terms of clearing my head and just getting the blood flowing, help me unwind just a bit.  I can’t believe I haven’t been on skates once in all my six+ years here.  That’s just not who I am.  Or at least, not who I was.  And certainly not who I want to be.  I should be on skates all the damn time.  Time was, it was as natural to me as walking.  I want that back rather desperately. 

And I guess that’ll do it.  Time to go to bed.  Tomorrow I break down my desk, which means writing won’t be an option for at least the next few days.  Until then…

16 October, 2022 (again)

Well, that brings us to the end of my official residence in Pankow.  As this post is now sufficiently long, I shall stop here.  I’ll come back with a follow up, where I talk about life in the new place and new ‘hood.  Until then…

זײַ געזונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
10 July, 2022

Just spent the last weekend in Bavaria for Rudi’s Summerfest.  There’s not a whole lot new to say here in that it’s kinda the same shtick every time I go down there.  Though that’s not really fair.  It’s not that it’s the same.  It’s more just, how many times can I write about how great these people are, the way the welcome me into their lives, the way they have of making you feel like family. 

But it’s not exactly the same.  This time we stayed at Anna and Rudi’s.  The first time I’d ever been to their place.  And they have this big old dog which hardly troubled my allergies at all, much to my surprise.  I also met Rudi’s mom.  She’s a real pistol.  We hit it off pretty well the first night when everybody was drunk.  So that was fun.

We all – the kids, I mean – also went out in the old city.  That was my first time doing that as well.  The city, by the way, is called Weiden, and it’s more of a town than a city.  But by medieval standards, it was a city, and part of the old wall is still standing.  The old city is really nice, but there’s too many Americans, as there’s an army base nearby.  We stopped into one bar, an Irish pub, but left before ordering a single drink, much to my dismay.  Toby wasn’t feeling it, wasn’t into the vibe there.  Which I guess, if you’re already showing up with your girlfriend, then why do you need to be in a crowded bar with a bunch of young and loud folks.  So we’re leaving and I ask why.  And Tobi’s like, “I don’t like it here.”  To which I replied, “Ja, junge Mädels mit dicke Titten, aber gut, lass uns gehen.”  Which Anna thought was like the funniest thing and would retell that story at least three or four more times over the course of the weekend. 

We also went to a wine bar.  The wine bar was called Milch Bar (Milk Bar), because why wouldn’t it be?  At one point, the bartender (and possibly owner?) came over to our table.  An older dude, he spoke with a heavy accent and in a low and soft voice; so not necessarily the easiest guy to understand.  Anyway, the rest of the people at our table (Anna, Rudi, Toby and Marina; Joshcka hadn’t arrived yet) got into a discussion with him.  I didn’t participate, I was just listening. 

At the end, someone (I think Anna) asked me if I understood what they were talking about.  At which point I basically repeated the conversation, point by point and in my own words, pausing after each point to make sure I’d gotten it right.  I got all of it right.  And they were like, “Wow, Dave, your German is getting really good!”  I still suck at taking compliments, but rather than deflecting, my stock answer at this point has become, “Well, after six years in this country, it oughta be.”  I’ll allow myself the odd back-handed compliment, I guess is the point.

But in point of fact, I got quite a few compliments on my German this visit.  Like, Rudi’s mom for example.  At one point, she was just like, “You know, Rudi said I would need to speak slowly to you, but I can just talk to you like normal.”  Which was great.  But then I looked at Rudi, and I was like, “Dude, really?”  He kinda shrugged and smiled and was like, “Well, I said she’d need to speak clearly.”  Which was funny because Rudi kinda has a mumbly way of speaking himself. 

But also, he wasn’t wrong.  Because what I found on this particular trip was not so much that I felt a language barrier per se.  Right, it’s not like when I’m in France.  In France, I just miss a lot of stuff.  My ear isn’t good enough.  But here, where I had the most trouble, was the Bavarian accent.  It’s weird.  Sometimes, I feel like I tune into it really well.  And that’s a really cool feeling.  Cos it’s like, yeah, I speak German well enough at this point that you can change up the accent on me and it’s not a problem.  But then there’s other times where I just can’t hear through it, you know?  And then it’s like, yeah, as good as I am at this (or if not objectively good, then at least so much better than in the past), it’s still not my language, at the end of the day.  And new accents are a lot of work.

But of course there’s accent, and then there’s dialect.  Accents are a challenge, but dialects are sexy, you guys.  Dead ass.  Cos that’s where the language gets real.  It’s not just sounds, but it’s a whole new way of expressing words.  I’ve written that I’m pretty comfortable at this point with the Berlin dialect.  I’m prepared for the non-standard vocab and the particular and peculiar way that words get contracted, mushed together, here. 

I’ll give one example, from Bavarian, that I can remember. I was talking to Anna and this other girl Tamara who I’d only just met.  And I guess I said something about myself that this girl Tamara had already learned from Anna.  So T says – and I hope I get this right – she says, “Ja, Ich hab sho-ghert.”  And I’m like, “Shoghert?  Was heißt shoghert?”  And Anna looks at me and says, “Ich hab es schon gehört…hab shon gehert…sho-ghert.”  And I’m just like, whoa, mind blown.  Like, you’d just never hear that particular way of combining those words in Berlin.  And I thought that was so cool, you know?

Another cool thing about Bavarian is that in many ways it’s actually quite similar to Yiddish.  And that’s not just my own personal observation.  I’ve had that confirmed to me by a number of people who are familiar with both.  But this time around, I actually heard it much more than I ever had.  Just one example.  In standard German, when you want to say that somebody has left, you say “Sie ist gegangen” – she left.  But in Yiddish, you would say, “zi ist avek (or, in German orthography, sie ist aweg).  And sure enough, at some point, Anna was talking about some girl who had left, and she said that exactly, Sie ist aweg.”  And I was just like, Oh shit, cool!

So I decided to, well, not exactly speak straight up Yiddish, but to really Yiddish up my German when speaking with the Bavarians.  Just to see how it would go over.  Would anybody notice?  Would people understand me?  Would people think it was weird?  I’ll give one example.  Standard German, like English, abhors a double negative, even though it’s very much a living feature of the language.  Consider “ain’t no,” for instance, as in “I ain’t got no time.”  It’s a valid English expression, but it’s non-standard, and you can find plenty of people who think it’s just straight-up wrong.  Same in German.  But in Yiddish, the double negative is actually the standard.  Let’s use the same example.  In standard German, you would say “Ich hab keine Zeit.”  But in Yiddish, you would say, “איך האָב נישט קיין צײַט” (Ikh hob nisht keyn tseyt).

Now, I can promise you that if I were to say that at band practice, if I were to use a double negative with Ralf and Bibi (or really with any of the non-Bavarian Germans that I know), they’d be on me before I even started the next sentence.  “Dave, double negatives, just no.”  But I’d heard that the double negative is a valid feature of the Bavarian dialect.  So I decided to try it out, just to see what would happen.  And sure enough, nobody batted an eye.

But what I also noticed is how much Berlin is just fixed into my German at this point.  Now, remember, my brain knows it’s speaking German, no matter how much I might try and Yiddish it up.  At the end of the day, I’m speaking deutsch.  And so certain features of Berlinisih are just part of the way I speak German now, totally unconscious at this point.  Like replacing ‘g’ with ‘j/y’ in past tense forms (e.g. “jemacht” instead of “gemacht“).  Or replacing certain instances of the letter ‘t’ with ‘s’ (e.g. “wat” for “was”).  And other such examples of pronunciation aspects that I wont’ get into here.  The point is, for this weekend, my German became this very odd mix of Yiddish and Berlinish, in a much more extreme way than it ever is up here.

One last example.  In standard German, the first-person plural subject pronoun (“we”) is wir.  And the first-person singular dative pronoun (“to me, for me”) is mir.  But in Yiddish as well as in Bavarian, mir doubles also as the first-person plural subject pronoun.  So in standard German, to say “We are drinking beer,” you say “Wir trinken Bier.”  But in Yiddish and in Bavarian, you say, “Mir trinken Bier.”  And more than once, I’d be talking to someone and they’d reflexively say mir and then instantly correct themselves to say wir.  And it just made me laugh, you know?  Like, guys, I get it. 

But that’s also an example of how there are limits to how much I can Yiddish up my German.  Like, when my brain knows it’s speaking Yiddish, saying mir for ‘we’ is no problem.  But trying to force that into my German, even when I’m trying to bridge the gap between Yiddish and Bavarian, was super hard.

One last thought on my experience with Bavarian this weekend, or more precisely with my being able to recognize and understand it.  It’s no secret that our friends, when they get together with us and the rest of the metal gang, go out of their way to try and speak a more standard kind of German.  You might catch them falling into dialect a bit here and there amongst themselves, but it’s quite limited.  This weekend, though, we were in their home.  At their party.  With all of their friends.  And so I think they felt much more comfortable speaking something closer to their own dialect than they otherwise normally might.  And that was even more true for some number of their friends who don’t have much reason to get out of Bavaria and therefore have less experience in the code-switching department.  All to say, it was a real feast for the ears.  Like, beyond the fact of just awesome people and loads of fun, it was a real linguistic adventure to boot.

Anyway, it’s Germany, right?  And the party is cookout/bbq type of affair.  Which means, just, loads of Bratwurst.  The point is, on the first day – the day before the party – Rudi asked me if I can eat pork.  So of course I told him that it’s no problem, I eat pork all the time, it’d be pretty hard to live in Germany and not eat pork, etc.  I assumed he was asking to make sure the party menu would be ok for me. 

But in fact, that’s not what he meant at all.  He didn’t mean can I personally eat pork.  He meant, Halachacly speaking, was I allowed to eat pork.  But of course “Halacha” is not in his vocabulary, so he probably said something along the lines of ‘according to the rules or the laws.”  Anyway, it turns out he had a personal reason for asking.  See, his grandfather had owned an inn of sorts.  And owing to a large Jewish family in the village – the Mandelbaums, apparently – it seems his grandfather had kept an entirely separate set of cookware so as to be able to serve kosher meals.

Which I just thought was really cool, you know?  I mean, sure, objectively it could have just been a good business decision.  But anti-Semitism being what it is, it very often trumps what’s good for the wallet.  And look, it’s not like I have any doubts about my friends in that regard.  Nicht im Geringsten.  I’m also not in the business of judging my friends today for what their ancestors might or might not have done.  Nevertheless, knowing that this is how his grandfather had run his business was somehow quite comforting.  Like, not that I needed any kind of reassurance, right?  I mean, you’d never even think to ask such a question.  But learning that, it’s just like, yeah, I’ve not only got good people around me, but they also come from good people.  Respect. 

Moving on, I was told that there would be another Yank at the party.  It seems one of Rudi’s cousins is dating some dude in the army.  And my reflexive reaction was just like, “Ugh, I didn’t come here to talk English, let alone hang out with another Ami.” ((Here’s a funny thing.  German and French share some two-part words.  Pommes-frites; döner kebap for example.  And in normal speech, they refer to these things by only one of the words.  But different words.  So in France, fries are frites, but in Germany they are Pommes.  In France, you get a kebap if you’re hungry, but in Germany, you grab a Döner.  Anyway, the French refer to us Yanks as les ricains.  To the Germans, we are die Amis.))  Which  admittedly is not fair to this person I’ve never met, nevermind being selfish for my own part. 

So of course I got “stuck” talking to him.  At one point, I’m sitting there minding my own business, and this dude just turns to me and says, “Hey, I heard you’re also American?”  Oh great, here we go.  And of course he’s got this thick southern accent too.  Because of course he does.  But I know how to be polite and I can manage small talk in short doses.  So that’s how that started.

And just to prove the point that you shouldn’t prejudge people, he obviously turned out to be a pretty solid dude.  Given that he’s in the army, and that I don’t know anybody in the army, I took it as a learning opportunity.  I just asked him a whole bunch of questions and let him teach me shit.  Turns out he’s airborne.  And I went skydiving once.  So we actually had a nice discussion about the experience of jumping out of an airplane and how counterintuitively peaceful it is on the way down, once the chute opens.  I also asked him about if and/or how the war had changed things for him.  We talked a bit about his being from Kentucky and our different accents.  His girlfriend, Rudi’s cousin, was also there.  She’s in the army too, I guess.  And she was also really nice.

But later on, we got to talking – me and Kent; that’s his name – about the experience of living abroad, experiencing new cultures, learning another language and all that.  And this is where he turned out to be a really good guy.  He basically told me that a lot of guys on his base are pretty closed-minded and not interested in learning a new culture or examining their own preconceptions.  But that for him, living a new country was a real eye-opener, that he loved learning about different ways of seeing and understanding things, that he wanted to learn German and was indeed learning some very little bit from his boo.  So yeah, just a good, solid dude.  And in the end, I really enjoyed talking with him.  Sure, in the future, I’ll continue to avoid Americans.  But I’ll try to remember this experience and avoid them in a less judgey way. 

Funny follow-up to this story.  Later on, one of Anna’s cousins came up to me – I already knew this dude, good guy, a highway cop on the Czech border – and he asked me in German what I though of the Ami, cos he noticed I’d spent some time talking with him.  And without actually saying anything about Kent personally, you could see he was kinda skeptical.  Now, I made my answer honestly and said what was on my mind, which was basically what I’d just written above.  But I happened to notice, by chance, that his gf happened to be standing nearby.  And I could see out of the corner of my eye that she was trying to furtively listen in.  So while I didn’t change my answer because I knew she had an ear on us, I did make a point of speaking loud enough for her to hear.  After all, I only had good things to say, and I thought she might like to hear that. 

Anyway, after I said what I’d had to say, she came over and was like, “Hey, just so you know, I was kinda secretly listening to you guys, and that was really nice what you had to say.”  I mean, yeah, you could tell it made her happy to hear that her bf had made a good impression.  Later though, Fabi – that’s Anna’s cousin – came up to me, and you could tell he was kinda embarrassed.  He was like, “Dude, I didn’t know his gf was standing right there when I asked you!  Why didn’t you say anything?”  And I was just like, “Well, why would I?  You didn’t say anything bad, and I only had good things to say.”  In the end we just laughed about it.  But it was just kinda funny that, the whole time, I knew she was listening and he had no idea. 

I guess the last thing to say about the party is about how it ended (at least for me).  Which is to say, it ended how these things always end.  With me playing guitar and singing for whoever happens to be left awake.  In this case, it was Joschka and Anna, plus that girl Tamara and her bf Daniel.  Tamara and Daniel: nice Hebrew names for a coupla goyim. 

In one sense, there’s really not much to say, because these things are always the same.  Either people get really into it, or at 4am after a day and night of drink, it hits them like a lullaby and they fall out one by one.  In this case, Anna was the first to get sleepy and go to bed.  Daniel followed not long after.  But Joschka and Tamara were in for the duration.

I said these things are always the same, and they more or less are.  But each time it’s a little bit different, each time is a little unique, and this was no exception.  See, there’s a certain core group of songs that I always play, that people come to expect at this point.  And I did those.  But I also added some new ones.  One of them being ‘Runaway Train’ by Soul Asylum.  It’s a 90’s song and American, so I had no idea if anybody would actually know it.

But sure enough, I look at the gang as I’m playing and there’s Joschka and Tamara singing along, knowing most of the words.  Cool!  A new one to add to the usual list.  I also threw in ‘Otherside’ by the Chili Peppers.  That one was for Joschka, as I know he loves that tune.  And again, they’re just singing right along.

So that was already cool.  But also cool was the reaction I got from Tamara.  It’s not so often that I get to play for new people at this point.  I mean, it’s pretty much just the usual suspects when we get together.  So this was new for me, but also for her.  And man, she loved it.  I mean, she was gushing.  “This is so fucking cool!”  “Dude, you’re really good!”  “I fucking love this!”  That kinda shit.  And yeah, that’s nice to hear, נישט אזוי? Yeah, זיכער אזוי!

And I mean, it’s nice to hear, no two ways about it.  It’s nicer still when it’s coming from a pretty girl, which she is.  But like I said, her boyfriend is sitting right there with us, also enjoying the music.  So after one particularly effusive compliment, I just looked at her and, in German, was like, “You got a sister?”  And she’s like, “Yeah.”  And I’m like, “Single?”  And she’s like, “Married.”  And I’m like, “Happily?”  And then she frowns.  “Yeah.”  Verdammt.  Well, what was I gonna do with a girl in Bavaria anyway?

And then of course there’s the inevitable German improv towards the end of things.  Look, are there mistakes in my German when I do this?  Of course.  Nevertheless, I don’t know how I ever pull this off, just making up funny songs in German on the fly.  Obviously the booze helps.  But that’s always so much fun for me.  I never know what’s gonna come outa my mouth.  And I relish the challenge, you know?  Not just finding shit that makes some kinda sense, but actually figuring out how to make it rhyme off the cuff.  Just a blast.  And they’re always joke-songs, right?  Like they’re meant to be funny.  So when you see people laughing, you know you’re doing something right. 

And people remember them too, or at least the gist of them.  Like, for me, they’re gone as soon as I finish singing.  I could never recreate a one of them.  Nevertheless, they have a way of sticking with folks; or at least the feeling of them does.  I mean, Anna still brings up ‘The Squirrel Song” from like six years ago.  They still talk about the “Fuck Palace” song from last summer.  Come on, that’s pretty cool.

Anyway, another party, another gem; if you can call them gems.  But people fall apart laughing, which is good enough for me.  And at the end, I managed to stich on the chorus of this song we always sing at the festivals.  That caught people by surprise, but like, in a good way.  Like, “Oh shit, I did not see that coming!”  But they hopped right on and started singing along.  Fucking great.

I wrote in the last post about how nice it is, not just singing with Charlotte, but singing for her.  And this was no different.  It’s obviously gratifying to see people rocking out to your music, and of course the compliments make you feel good.  But it’s no less gratifying to watch people fall peacefully asleep.  The power of rock and the power of a lullaby, all in one.  It’s a very warming feeling is all I can say.

Also, it’s not all I can say.  Look, I love everything about this.  I think that’s clear from what I’ve written; not just here, but in other posts too.  So what I’m gonna say next is not a complaint, not in the least.  Just an observation, a curiosity.  I do wonder why it is that I’m the only one.  Like, how is it that nobody else plays or sings, that we might do some songs together?  Well, that’s just how it is.  I guess it makes me a sort of travelling troubadour.  And that ain’t so bad.

And I guess that’s enough.  Another trip to Bavaria, another great weekend filled with wonderful friends, drink and music.  When I moved here six years ago, I never could have dreamed of any of this.  And now look.  Pretty spec-fucking-tacular, if you ask me.

Quick band update before I close.  We had a gig maybe three weeks ago or so.  And to be honest, I was pretty dissatisfied with it.  I felt it was sloppy and that we were underprepared.  And the more I thought about, the more I realized I was growing rather dissatisfied with the way we do things in general.  So I met Bibi for a beer and decided to tell her what was on my mind.

The first thing I did was to put a simple question to her.  Was she satisfied with how we were operating?  Because if she was, I’d keep my mouth shut.  But if she actually wanted to grow this thing, actually get better as a unit, I had thoughts.  This was not a question, it turns out, that required a lot of thought on her end.  Straight away, she’s just like, yeah, I want us to be better, tell me everything.

So here’s the short version of what I said.  We’re a band that, at best, practices two hours a week.  And that’s exactly what we sound like.  People need to be responsible for their parts.  I can’t be telling Ralf – on stage – if a song needs a capo, and if so, on what fret.  I can’t be reminding people when it’s their verse or not.  For myself, I needed to shore up my solos.  I’m a little too content to improvise and it doesn’t always work out.  Finally, for the love of all things holy, the two of them need to be ‘off book.’  I mean, when we play at this café, her and Ralf show up with music stands and iPads and because they haven’t memorized the lyrics or the chord changes.  I basically finished by saying that if this were my own band, I would not go on stage at a bar or a club as things were.

I tried to be direct without being an asshole about it.  The good thing about Bibi is, direct is her language.  You might annoy her, she might disagree vehemently.  But you’re not gonna offend her by shooting straight.  So that was good.  Anyway, she heard what I had to say and thought it over for a few seconds.  At which point, she was just like, “You know, you’re right.  Let’s do it.”  The only thing was, we’d have to have this same conversation with Ralf and see where he stood.

But there was one other thing.  After I’d said my piece, she looked at me and was like, “OK, now I need to tell you something.”  OK, shoot.  And she’s like, “You need to take more of a leadership role in this band.  You’re the only one of us with actual band experience.  We don’t know what we’re doing.  You need to take more charge of things at practice.”  And look, she’s not wrong.  I mean, it’s not my comfort zone – like, at all – but she’s not wrong. 

It’s just funny, cos I remember how this all started.  How shy I was in the beginning.  How I felt that this was their project and that I was just there to add some color.  I really didn’t want to assert myself.  I didn’t want to suggest songs, I didn’t want to sing unless somebody told me I should, all that kinda stuff.  But as time went on, I stopped feeling like a hired gun.  I have suggested the odd song.  I’m very comfortable now hopping on the mic without prodding, adding harmonies on my own, even asking if I can take the odd verse.  But for all that, I still didn’t really want to assert myself.  They’re much more in tune with each other in terms of the kind of music they want to play.  And I’ve always been content to follow their lead in terms of how much work I’d put into this project. 

And just in general, it’s never really been in my nature to dictate pace.  Whether in school or hockey or whatever, I have a tendency to work or play at the level of the people around me.  If I was playing hockey against properly good skaters, I’d do everything I could to play up to that level.  But if the guys in front of me were no great shakes, I’d be pretty content to coast.  In high school, and even college, I was always content to roll along at a high-B or low-A if my classmates were more or less average.  But in grad school, surrounded by the super smart, it forced me to up my academic game.  And that’s how I’ve been with the band this whole time.  You guys don’t want to learn the songs by heart?  Fine, I’ll just hang back and do my job.  But rarely would I go the extra mile.

Only now, I was being asked to set the pace.  Like I said, that is not my comfort zone.  But like I also said, Bibi was right about it.  So, time to grow up and step outside the comfort zone.  But first, we needed to talk to Ralf.  Which we did; and he was on board.  Now that we were all on the same page, we decided to choose five songs to focus on at the next practice. 

Which we did.  And at the end of practice, I told them that the thing to do was, next practice, we start with these same songs.  If they’re tight, we play through each one twice and move on.  If they’re not, we keep working.  They agreed.

Anyway, this week was the second practice.  Four of the five songs were in good shape, and twice through was enough.  The fifth required some extra attention.  But we were able to move on to some different songs as well.  And I gotta tell you guys, we’re making real progress here.  And I wasn’t shy about asserting myself either.  Instead of asking if the others wanted to go through a song again, I simply said, “OK, that was good.  Now we do it again.”  Even when Ralf was like, “Hey, that was really good!”, I was still like, “Yes, it was.  Now we do it again.”  And we did.  Ralf gave me some shit about ‘cracking the whip,’ but it was all in good fun, and in the end, if I said a song needed another run through, he didn’t argue.  And look, I’m certainly not trying to be a dictator here, or even a ‘band leader,’ whatever that means.  But I am trying to provide some structure and some guidance. 

And they seem receptive to it.  For now, at least.  But it’s good.  It’s important for me.  It’s similar to working on our stuff in the studio.  It’s kinda on me at this point to try and get the most out of my bandmates.  Sometimes that means using a soft touch, some times it means putting my foot down a little.  But if they’re serious about taking this thing to some next level, then I know for myself the standard we need to reach for me to be satisfied.  And I guess I’m gonna push them as far as they’re willing to be pushed.

But let me tell you this.  After just two practices, already it’s making a world of difference.  Like, I’m watching Bibi now, working without a lyric sheet.  And it’s almost like we got a new singer.  She’s working the mic instead of just singing into it.  There’s more energy in her voice.  And unencumbered by the crutch that is the iPad, she’s doing more to make the songs her own.  Instead of just following a wrote melody, she’s putting her stamp on things.  And Ralf too, there’s more energy in his playing.

So it’s a big step up in terms of individual performance.  But more importantly, we’re playing more as a unit now.  Paying more attention to each other, feeding off each other.  What I really want to say is, for the first maybe ever, I really felt like I was playing with a band.  And man, that felt good. 

Now look, there’s a long way to go.  At this point, out of twenty-odd songs in our repertoire, we’ve got maybe, maybe, seven or eight ‘off book’ like this.  So we’ve got a lot of work to do, to get the other tunes into shape.  And then there’s the question of maintaining this, building momentum, establishing this in our bones as our way of doing business.  We’ve got our work cut out for us.  But yeah, this is far and away the best I’ve felt about this project since I joined on. 

It’s funny, in a way.  Funny in that, for the most part, we’re not playing music I’d choose to play on my own.  Sure, one of my own songs is in the set.  And yeah, one or two of the songs we do were at my suggestion.  And yeah, there are more than a few others that I’ve grown really fond of for various reasons.  But still, even as we’re – very slowly – growing into a proper band, we’re never gonna be a rock band of the sort that I’d personally choose for myself. 

But then I think of how I’ve grown as a result of my participation in this project; musically, but also as a person.  I bought a bass and learned the rudiments of that instrument because of this project.  I’ve learned to harmonize on the fly because of this.  I’ve learned to be comfortable taking a lead vocal, singing into a mic, singing to a crowd. 

Of course there’s some cross-pollination here with my own work.  I’d have had to get and learn to play a bass for my own studio work.  I’d have had to learn to harmonize for my own songs.  And in terms of lead vocals, I’ve learned more on my own, in my little studio, than I have with the band.  And it’s the same on the personal level.  In the studio, I’ve learned how to ‘handle’ artists (for lack of a better word), to get the most out of them as studio musicians.  And now, I’m learning how to ‘handle’ my bandmates (for lack of a better word), to get the most out of them as live musicians.  The point is, they feed each other.  My own work is better because of my work with the band and vice versa.

One thing I don’t ever want to lose track of here is, how much I owe Bibi in all of this, how thankful I am to her.  Part of this goes back to how direct she is in her speech, right?  There’s just no beating around the bush with her, no bullshit.  Not in my comfort zone?  Too bad, do it.  But that’s the point.  She’s pushed me when it was clear I wasn’t going to push myself.  She’s the one who encouraged me to just try harmonizing all over the place.  She’s the one who pushed me to take a turn here and there on lead vocals.  And now, she’s the one who’s pushed me to take more of a leadership role with band. 

As much as I try to grow on my own, sometimes I need that push.  It can’t all just be me being all cloistered in my room studying dead languages, right?  I need to grow out there in the real world too.  And she’s been just tremendous in helping me do that.  I owe her a lot, and I’m deeply thankful for it. 

I played in bands for many years.  Good bands, I like to think.   But here I am now, doing things with this band that I’ve never done before.  And helping them to do things they’ve never done before either.  I might be 41, but it turns out this old dog can still learn some new tricks…

זײַ געזונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin

1 July, 2022

Note: About two thirds of this post was written over a month ago, shortly after I returned from second trip.  The final third was written this week.

Well, I’ve just been to France twice in the last month, so that’s probably worth a post on ye olde blogue.  Both trips were for the expressed purpose of visiting friends: The Morgenstern clan in Paris and Charlotte in/around Lyon.  Hard not to be happy about that.

Paris first, according to the order of the trips.  Look, Paris is great, right?  So much to see and do.  Architecture, museums, the various neighborhoods.  But let’s be honest.  This adventure was really about seeing my friends, eating and drinking.  And we did well in that regard.  Real well.

I was there for five days.  This time, I sprung for my own hotel room.  See, the last two times we did this, somebody was good enough to get a cot in their fancy-pants hotel room for me, as a way of easing the monetary costs involved on my end.  In Paris, just before the last New Year’s of The Before Times (2019), Monica (hereafter MoMo) set me up with a cot.  And in 2018, in Florence, Jared and Josh did the same.  And I’m sure we could have worked out a similar arrangement this time around.  But honestly, at the age of 41, I felt like it was time to do this trip like a grownup.  So I got a room near the Opera.  Nothing fancy.  But it was an absolute luxury to have my own, private home-base this time around.  And it was 10 minutes walking to MoMo’s hotel, 15 to the Morgensterns’.  Plus, there was a subway stop around the corner.  So it was quite practical as well.

I don’t really have much experience staying in hotels by myself, so it’s hard to form a basis for comparison.  But it was a nice experience, with the staff and all.  I was able to manage entirely in French with them without them ever having to switch to English on me, which was nice.  Nothing major, but things like asking for a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign, asking about checkout times and if I could leave my bag before and after checking in/out. 

And the staff were really nice.  Like, after the first day or so, they knew me by name and room number.  I sprang for the daily breakfast, just a little continental deal, nothing special.  But a nice way to start the day.  And the girls who ran the breakfast knew me too.  After the second day, they stopped asking me if I wanted coffee or tea and simply brought a pot of hot water to my table.  So it was a pretty positive experience.  Sometimes, being a grownup ain’t so bad.

It was great to see everybody of course.  Not just Jared and Josh, but Paul and Carol (the parents), Amanda and now four-year-old Sabine, MoMo and her sister Andrea (hereafter DreDre).  Great to catch up, eat, drink, laugh, tell stories and forge new memories.

On the food side of things, Paul had restaurants picked out for each of the first four nights.  Some really nice spots.  Good food and good wine, always.  The last place we went to was this place they called “Louis’,” although I think the full name is something like “Chez l’ami Louis” or some such.  Apparently, it’s Paul’s favorite restaurant in Paris.  So I asked him how he came to know about it.  He said he’d read about it in the Times back in the 90’s (I think) and had been coming ever since.  So I just said, “Well, thank you for sharing it with us.”  To which he replied, “You know I don’t do this for just anybody, Davey.”  What a thing to say, you know?  Just lovely.

Every night after dinner, some smaller group of us would go to one of the hotel bars (i.e. either Jared’s or MoMo’s hotel bar) for drinks.  Sometimes it would just be Jared and Josh, sometimes MoMo and DreDre would come; even Amanda would show up for a bit, after putting Sabine down or leaving her with the ‘rents. 

I don’t remember if it was the first or second night, but after the post-dinner drinks, Jared and I decided we weren’t done yet.  So we went in search of a bar.  Turns out it was some kind of public holiday, so lots of places were closing early.  After being turned away by three or four different establishments, we stumbled upon a bar.  “Trop tard?” I asked the barman; “Too late?”  He looked at me like it was a stupid question and waved us in. 

So in we went.  And it was just like old times, drinking scotch and talking about any number of things.  It was great to have that time, just the two of us, just like the old days.  We really tied one on, such that I don’t remember everything.  Jared tells me I wound up speaking German with one of the waiters at one point.  Who knew?  Anyway, that was a definite highlight of the trip.  Also, there’s no way I could ever find that bar again, no matter how hard I might try. 

Another night, post-dinner drinks were held at MoMo’s bar.  This time, all the kids were there.  At one point, some guy at a neighboring table interrupts us to tell us that he overhead something that Amanda had said (I don’t remember what) and that he really appreciated her words.  The guy had a slight accent, so I asked him where he was from.  He said California.  Sure, why not?

Well, we’re talking with the guy for a few minutes longer, and he recommends a restaurant called Balagan.  Balagan is a Yiddish word, borrowed out of Polish.  “Balagan,” I say.  “That just means ‘a mess.’  Odd name for a restaurant.”  He says, Yes, it’s an Israeli joint ((‘Balagan’ is one of those Yiddish words that’s found a second life in Israeli Hebrew.)).  Israeli.  Ah, now I had his accent.  And that kind of made me laugh.  I mean, here we were, a bunch of Jews sitting around a table in a Paris hotel bar, shooting the shit in our Lon-Gisland accents.  And this guy with a clearly Israeli accent chats us up and tells us he’s from California.  Like, who are we kidding and why are we pretending? 

Come to think of it, it reminds me of a story from that Yiddish memorial book Bartek and I are translating.  In the story, this guy is telling of journey he was making by ship.  And the ship is full of Jews.  And yet, all the other Jews are speaking Russian because they don’t want to give themselves away.  Jews are speaking to other Jews in Russian instead of their native Yiddish, just because they never knew who might be listening.  Some things never change, I guess.

There were no post-dinner drinks on the last night.  Or if there were, it was very short, on account of everybody else had to a catch an early flight the next morning.  Meanwhile, my flight wasn’t until 8pm.  So finally, after four days, I decided to do some walking around, do some sight-seeing.  And that was wonderful.

I walked along the river to the Eifel Tower, resplendent in its nighttime illumination.  From there, I made my way to the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysées before ultimately heading back to the hotel.  The weather was perfect.  And it was just nice to walk around alone, get some fresh air and take in the sights.  I mean, yes, I’d seen these things before.  But the last time I was down that way was probably 2003, when I visited the city during my semester in London.  So I was due for a reaquaintance.

On the last day, owing to my late flight, I basically had the whole afternoon to kill.  So I made a quick stop by Notre Dame.  Not much to see there, as quite a bit of it is covered in scaffolding and walled off with the sort of wooden fencing you find around construction sites.  But the island it’s on is quite nice.  And that, I did not remember.  Old buildings, old and narrow winding streets.  Quite charming really.

After that, I made my way to the old Jewish Quarter.  In French, it’s known as Le Marais.  But apparently it has on older Yiddish appellation, דאָס פּלעצל (dos peltzl), which means ‘the little place,’ or possibly ‘the little plaza.’  I bought a little magnet in the shape of a Parisian street sign with the word פּלעצל where the street name would normally be.  It is now on my fridge.

Anyway, I found a really nice bookstore, a proper Jewish bookstore.  I mean, one of the lads working there was even wearing tzitsis.  It had loads of fancy religious texts, prayer books, bibles, volumes upon volumes of Talmud, and so on.  But it also had a world of secular books.  Lots of stuff I would have loved to buy, but which I didn’t have the space to carry.  I did, however, find one actual book in Yiddish, and that I did buy.  A book on the 6-day war, originally written in Hebrew but translated into Yiddish. 

When I brought the book to the register, the lady who took it from me opened it up to find the price, as is so often the case with used books.  And seeing that the book was Yiddish, she raised an eyebrow, looked at me and nodded approvingly.  Given that there were other books I would have liked to buy, I asked in French if they shipped to Germany.  She said they did, and not only that, but if there was something specific I was looking for, I could always call or email.  And then she added, with a smile, that she couldn’t guarantee they’d have anything more in Yiddish.  Well, that’s alright.  There’s more than enough there to keep me busy. Oh, and I also bought a little French paperback on Rashi.  Ostensibly it’s a historical overview of his Torah and Talmud commentaries, but it includes a biography of the man himself and some history on Jewish life in the France of his day.  It’s quite interesting and I’m about halfway through it.

There’s one other highlight from the Paris trip I need to include, and that’s the fact that I had the opportunity to meet up with Anne.  We wound up going for drinks at the same bistro ((Bistro.  I’ve learned two things about this word.  I don’t know about you, but I just always assumed it was a French word.  Apparently, it’s actually Russian, and means something like ‘fast’ or ‘quick.’  Also, in France, it seems they spell it with a final ‘t,’ bistrot.)) where we went last time we met in Paris, in 2019.  Not only that, we wound up sitting at the very same table.  How about that?  Anyway, it was great to see her and catch up and laugh and drink.  Added bonus, Jared came along as well.  That was really great, and I’ll tell you why.

See, Jared and Anne are two of my best friends, two of my favorite people.  Why shouldn’t they meet, you know?  And of course they hit it off, because why wouldn’t they.  At one point, Jared went to the bathroom, and Anne took the opportunity to tell me how great she thought Jared was.  And Jared had the same to say about her after we left. 

Now, maybe it’s a bit of an odd thing to say, but I was actually kind of proud of that encounter.  Like, proud to show off the quality of people I have around me to those who are dear to me.  I’ve been over this ground a thousand times, how lucky I think I am to have found the friends that I have, how that’s not to be taken for granted.  But I don’t normally have the pleasure of introducing my friends here to my friends from home.  So to have that opportunity, and to have each of them see what I see, it’s a good feeling.

I said I was proud to show off the quality of the people I have around me.  But ‘pride’ isn’t really a great word.  After all, ‘pride’ can often carry with it a sense of haughtiness or self-aggrandizement, which is not at all what I mean.  To really capture the feeling of my emotion here, I have to turn to Yiddish; English just doesn’t seem up to the job.  So rather than pride, I would say either קוועלן (kvelln) or שעפּן נחת (sheppn nakhes).  Those will have to stand as they are, since if I could translate them, I wouldn’t have needed to write them in Yiddish in the first place.

And those are pretty much the highlights from Paris.  A strange trip in that it wasn’t so much Parisius gratia Parisii, but rather Paris as background for a social gathering.  Yet for all that, it was nonetheless a great time.  And just a 90m plane ride away.  Sometimes I love Europe.

The Charlotte visit was no less excellent, but quite different in nature.  Instead of hotels, there were couches and futons.  Instead of fancy restaurants, there were homemade sandwiches and salads.  Instead of rounds and rounds of drinks at bars, there were bottles of wine and beer at home.  And while I certainly enjoy being pampered, enjoy eating at fancy restaurants, if I’m being honest, I’m probably more at home in this simpler environment. 

After landing in Lyon and taking two trains into the heart of the city, I met Charlotte and her sister Chloe down by the riverbank, where Chloe’s little son, Emil, was joyfully picking up little fistfuls of mud and throwing them into the water.  Believe me when I tell you, this kid is cute as all get out.  I’m talking million-dollar smile over here.

After hanging around by the water for a bit, we made our way into the city for drinks at a random café; an Aperol Spritz, for those scoring at home.  After that, we went up to Charlotte’s friend Rapha’s place, where we’d be spending the night.  I’d met Rapha briefly, a million years ago back in 2013, the very first time I visited Charlotte in Nice.  In fact, I’d met Chloe even earlier, when she and her dad came to visit C in NY.  But I’d also re-met Rapha a few years back, the first time I did Xmas in Nice with C and her fam.  At that time, I’d also met her boyfriend, Charles.  A lovely guy, we’d jammed on a couple of Irish tunes.  So while I wouldn’t call them friends, at least I knew and liked these people who’d be putting us up.  The only difference was that now, they had a little baby, Daria.  Beautiful child, another million-dollar smile.  And so sweet and peaceful.  I don’t think the kid cried once the whole time we were there.  Apparently she sleeps through the night too. 

For breakfast the next day, Rapha hit up the bakery.  Fresh croissants and sourdough bread, among other delights.  Friends, this is a country that knows how to do bread, I’m just saying.  All to say, it was a very nice visit with them, albeit a short one.

Not long after breakfast, we began our journey to Joyeuse, the village where Charlotte is currently residing.  The first leg of the journey was a train ride to Valance.  We only had an hour to kill there, but we did some walking around, found a lovely park overlooking a valley and the river beyond.  Very picturesque, though annoyingly windy.  I reached out to a former student of mine who lives not far from there on the off chance that he might be able to pop over for a quick coffee, but in the end it didn’t work out. 

We sat for a while at a café across from train station having seltzers and something like a ciabatta baguette with baked-in emmental cheese and olives; delish.  Across the street, there stood a statue of a man with a raised arm and open hand, as if reaching for something.  I asked C if she knew the story about this man.  She laughed and said, “No, but I’m sure you do.”  So I said simply that the poor guy had lost his balloon.  She laughed again.  After all, the dude really did look like he was reaching for a balloon that had only just escaped his grasp.  From there, I made up some story about how he had followed his balloon all the way from Paris to Valance.  He never did get his balloon back, but he wound up meeting his wife in Valance and they raised a family there.  Moral of the story, never stop searching for your balloon.  You never know what you’ll find.  Who knows, maybe I’ll write it up into a real story one day.  In any case, it helped pass the time until our bus to Joyeuse.

The only thing was, the bus didn’t quite go all the way to Joyeuse.  So in the event, we wound up hitchhiking the last 20km or so.  Hitchhiking?  I know.  It’s not something I’ve ever done, or would ever have considered doing.  Too many horror stories, right?  But I guess she does it all the time, and alone too, as a female.  Apparently the south of France, especially in village country, is just a safe place.

And so of course – I mean, fucking obviously – some dude in a literally windowless van picks us up.  And I’m just thinking, “Welp, this is how it ends.  At least it’s in a beautiful place.”  But the guy turned out to be really nice.  Not only that, it seems he’s an actor of sorts in some kind of local community theatre.  He even had posters in the van for his next upcoming show, to which he kindly invited us.  (We didn’t wind up going in the end, though it hardly seemed like a bad option).

Anyway, the guy drops us off and now we’re in this little village of Joyeuse.  Well, I say “little,” but C informed me that as villages go, it’s on the larger side with *checks notes* all of 1,500 inhabitants and its very own supermarket.  I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess that more than 1,500 people lived on my side of the street on my block in Chinatown.  I guess it all depends, as Obi Wan Kenobi said, on your point of view.

Be that as it may, it’s a lovely little town.  As best I can describe it, the village is bisected by the main road that runs through it.  On one side of the road is a hill, upon which are built all these old, stone houses, the sort you expect to see in the southern French countryside.  Lots of winding little streets to go with little stone alleys and passageways cut with stone staircases going from one level of the hill to the next.  The other side of the road is downhill and leads to the river.  It’s on this side where the supermarket, bank and most of the bars and restaurants are to be found.

Charlotte’s apartment is up on the hill, on the ground floor of one of those old stone houses.  It’s what we would call a studio.  But really it’s a converted ‘cave,’ that being the French word.  Really it was designed as a root or wine cellar.  Just a small room of arching stone walls outfitted with a kitchen, bathroom and some wooden shelving.  But the stone walls are painted white, and the furnishings are rustic in a very cozy kind of way.  Gemütlich would be the German word.  ‘Cozy’ is the best I can do in English.  But really, the best way to describe it, is to say that it’s actually a kind of Hobbit-house.  Not a rich Hobbit like Bilbo, but a hobbit of average means.  For those who are not LOTR fans, I should emphasize that I mean this as high praise.

In any case, she is subletting the room from the woman who lives upstairs.  Also, the woman who lives upstairs happens to be one of her very best friends, Annelise.  Annelise also happens to have a nine-year-old son, one Django.  I’ll come back to him in a bit.  But it’s such a homely vibe they have going on there.  We were sitting on C’s little patio in front of the apartment, drinking our beers, when Annelise appears above, sticking her head out over the balcony to chat.  Soon after, Django’s head appears, and then that of their dog.  And from where, I’m sitting, craning my head back and looking up, I see three upside-down faces looking back at me. 

Like, on the one hand, it’s comedy.  It reminded me of The Honeymooners, how when Alice and Trixie wanted to talk, they would just open their kitchen windows and call up/down to each other.  But it was also very sweet, very homely, very gemütlich.  Just a good vibe, you know?

Not long after I got settled, Django popped down to meet me.  He knew I was coming and wanted to see what I was about.  This kid, lemme tell ya, he’s a trip.  Good heart, that much is clear.  But he’s also definitely a little hell-raiser.  Shoulder-length blonde hair.  Full of energy, as boys that age are.  I can’t describe it exactly, but something about this kid reminded me of a little D’Artagnan from The Three Musketeers.  Like, he’s a got a clear sense of right and wrong, has a good heart, like I said, but also quite mischievous.  Anyway, that first day, he and I played some card games he’d brought down with him.

It was all I could do to keep up with his French patter, especially after C went upstairs to hang with Annelise.  On the one hand, he speaks like a nine year-old, which is to say not overly complicated.  But on the other hand, he speaks like a kid, which is to say, fast and with no sense of how to moderate his speech for a foreigner.  But I was able to keep up sufficiently to play the games and even trash talk a little.  And when I say ‘trash talk,’ I just mean in the way that you joke around with kids.  Like, “With this game we will see who’s the best.  Also, I am the best.”  And he’s like, “No, I’m the best!”  That kinda shit.  It was fun.

They also had an acoustic guitar which they let us borrow for the duration of my stay.  Which was key, right?  Because any time me and C get together, there must be music.  So of course we played a bunch of songs we’ve been playing forever.  But we also worked up two new ones, which was definitely fun. 

I’ve said it before, but I love playing music with that girl.  It’s always free and easy, always just fun.  No egos, no bullshit.  Very different from playing in a band.  And honestly, she’s like the only person I do that with.  It’s one of the best things about spending time with her.  But beyond playing music with her, it’s also really nice to play music for her. 

It’s the same as with the metal crew when we get together.  As we get into the small hours of the night, as people get tipsy and tired, it seems that that’s the moment when people want somebody to sing to them.  Whether it’s sitting around a fire with the metal gang or in an apartment with Charlotte, it’s a special feeling to sing to people and watch the effect that such music can have on the spirit. 

And it doesn’t matter if it’s a beer-swilling German metalhead or wine-sipping French girl.  You can just see the power of music, how it brings people to a particular state of contentment.  As much as it’s a good feeling for them, it’s a good feeling for me too.  It also doesn’t hurt that C had some really lovely things to say about my voice either.

Tellya what surprised me though.  One night, I’m playing the ol’ guitar and C is laying there on the couch with her eyes closed.  And then she’s like, “Hey, can you play that Mary Jane song?”  And I had no idea what she was talking about until she fished some partial lyrics out of the depths of her memory.  Then I realized she was referring to a Ramones song I used to play back when I was still living in Chinatown.  I hadn’t played that song in years, probably, although it came back to me pretty quick.  Anyway, she starts singing along.  Knew every fucking word.  Of this song I last played for her – quite probably – some eight years ago on the other side of an ocean.  And while she has recording of many of the songs I do myself or we do together, I don’t think we ever recorded that one.  So, yeah, I was pretty surprised when she a) requested it and b) knew all the words.  Surprised, but in the happiest of ways.

Other highlights of the visit.  We went for a hike, which was just lovely.  At some point, we ended up on some cliffs overlooking a small canyon with a river running through it.  Look, there’s a reason people talk about the south of France the way they do.  We shoulda brought more water, but other than that, good stuff.

We went to some hippie-ass carnival, which, admittedly, is not really my scene.  There we watched a performance by this girl who was doing a…well, I don’t really know.  I mean, it was like an aerobic-hula hoop shtick, but also kinda interactive; geared towards the kids in the crowd.  Lotsa kids at this thing, btw.  Anyway, the girl seemed to be a novice of sorts.  Like she seemed nervous and there were some mistakes in her routine, which I couldn’t decide if they were intentional or not.  Charlotte found it all a bit cringe, I think.  But I thought it was actually rather endearing.

When we left, we had to hitch a ride back to her place.  This time, a young woman picked us up.  A mother, she had her two little kids in the back seat.  So I mean, for me, yeah, this was preferable to a windowless van.  But I was surprised that a mother with her own children in the car would pick up a couple of strangers.  Sure, we looked pretty harmless, and we were all coming from the same carnival.  But still, to me, that’s unusual.  Except, in that neck of the woods, I guess it’s not.

I also took C out for a nice dinner.  By which I mean, we went to a local restaurant and I paid.  This was not a big deal.  But it was just nice to go out, you know?  Like I said, everything else was homemade sandwiches and salads and what not.  So, nothing fancy, low maintenance, but still dinner at a restaurant.  Good vibes. 

We also had a picnic in the park near the river.  We brought the guitar and a homemade salad.  That’s where we knocked together a version of the theme song to this Japanese show we both love (Midnight Diner, it’s called); so C sings in Japanese now.  Nothing really else to say about it.  The only reason I bring it up is because, also at the park, was a donkey.  Yes, you read that right.  There was a fucking donkey.  Tied up to a tree, as if it were nothing more that someone’s dog.  Umm, ok?  At one point it brayed.  That shit is loud, you guys.  So I guess the short version of this story is, I went to France…and saw a donkey.  Hey, you travel to forge new experiences, right?  Well, that was…one.

My flight back to Berlin was ass-early, such that there was no way to get to the airport from C’s place on the day-of.  Thus, I wound up going back to Lyon a day early, by myself.  Rapha and Charles put me up again, and of course they were just lovely and gracious as could be about it.  It also gave me a chance to explore Lyon on my own.

It was alright.  I mean, I didn’t fall in love with the city or anything, but I had a nice time.  Saw the cathedral, as one does.  Visited the ruins of the Roman amphitheater, which was pretty damn cool.  Oh, and I stumbled upon a public urinal.  Which, already, is a great thing.  But, what makes this noteworthy, is that this public urinal had a built-in cupholder!  And this, friends, is why I love the French.

I also stumbled into a cloister-type museum.  See, the cathedral and amphitheater are way up top of a very large and steep hill.  It’s a schlep, is what I’m saying.  And on top of that, it was roughly one million degrees.  So when I saw this little cloister-thingy about two thirds of the way up, it seemed like a good place to stop and have a bit of a rest.  Which is all I did at first; just sat and relaxed in the courtyard.  But when I saw that there was a museum as well, I decided to check it out.  Turns out it was about some early Christian martyrs who were put to death by the Romans back in the day.

When I went in to buy my ticket, I chatted briefly with the only two people working there.  A young woman working the register and an older dame who was the resident tour guide.  Lovely people, they asked me where I was from and all that jazz.  And even though I didn’t pay for a guided tour, the older woman escorted me to the first room of the museum and explained to me the nature of the videos which were to be viewed there.

After watching the videos and taking in a few other pieces, I returned to the register area.  The girl at the counter pointed to where I should go next, assuming I was lost.  I actually knew where to go next, but had another question.  See, it was already late afternoon, and I wanted to know how much longer they’d be open.  Then the girl frowned and said I only had about 15-20 minutes.  Then she asked me how long I’d be in Lyon, because given the time and how late I showed up, she’d be happy to let me back in the next day, free of charge.  Which, I mean, how classy is that?  But I told her it wouldn’t be possible owing to my early flight.  At which point, the older woman took it upon herself to give me an express version of the guided tour, also free of charge.  Pure class, like I said.

The tour was basically of the catacombs.  This was where, at first, the martyrs had been imprisoned before dying the usual martyr deaths at the hands (paws? teeth?) of wild animals or else being sworded to death somehow or another.  The catacombs, originally a prison, had since been turned into a shrine of sorts by the faithful.  Anyway, for all how fast it was, it was nevertheless quite a nice little tour.  My guide was quite knowledgeable and friendly and quite ready to answer any questions I might have. 

And all of this was in French, btw.  My interactions with the girl at the register as well as the tour.  And that’s gratifying, you know?  I mean, they knew I was from New York.  And they’d clearly heard the poor state of my French.  Now, maybe they just didn’t speak any English; a distinct possibility.  Nevertheless, they just talked to me in their normal, everyday French without any apparent doubt about my being able to handle it.  So we’ll call that a win.

I had a rather unexpected reaction to the story of these martyrs as portrayed by the museum, btw.  See, as a Jew, we are accustomed to thinking of Christian fanatics as the ones having power, as the ones doing the oppressing.  But in this case, these poor bastards were the powerless, the oppressed.  And it was hard not to sympathize with them, it was easy to empathize with them.  Poor religious wierdos, they just wanted to do their thing and be left alone.  But of course the bloody Romans would have none of that.  Off with their heads.  Throw them to lions.  What on earth for?  I must confess, I don’t normally give much thought to the early Christian martyrs.  And when I do, it’s with the hindsight of knowing what their progeny would become.  So to be in this place, to be forced to consider them in their own context, it put a whole new spin on things for me.  By the time I’d left, I had this feeling of, “Wow, you know, we were all in the same boat, once upon a time.  Why can’t – or couldn’t we – get along?”

I really wanted a burger for dinner.  So a found a diner that looked fitting.  I asked the waiter for a glass of pastis.  They didn’t have any.  I ordered the burger.  It was not great.  Can’t win ‘em all.  Then it was back to Rapha and Charles.  We didn’t really hang out as they were both exhausted, but like I said, they were most gracious.  Next morning, 5am Uber to the airport and then it was back to Berlin.  Thus ended my second trip to France in a month.  Sometimes I just kinda love Europe…

זײַ געזונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
10 June, 2022

“You haven’t written anything in quite some time,” remarked my friend Esma to me over dinner.  “Sure I have,” I replied.  “I just haven’t posted any of it.”  I forget exactly what she said after that, but I think it was along the lines of, “Asshole, that’s my point.”  Well, fair enough, Esma.  But also, fair enough, Dave.  So I’m going to try and get back on track here by slapping together some previously unpublished shit along with some newer thoughts and updates.  And I think I’m going to break it down into two or three posts.  This post, I’m mostly going to focus on music.  In the next post (or two), I actually want to spend some time talking about sports, of all things.  Anyway, here we go…

From March 20th:

>> Clearly it’s been a while since I’ve written, though not for lack of trying.  There’s been a couple of draft posts since the last one, but I haven’t been satisfied with any of them.  So here we are.  Again.  Or, well, here I am again, anyway.

Speaking of being here again, I had a birthday this month.  Forty-fucking-one.  And all I have to say about that is, the ceaseless march of time can fuck right the fuck off.  I didn’t plan anything this year, but I wound up having an accidental dinner with my boss and the husband-wife of the French musicians.

I say accidental because what happened was, the French guy – Philippe – whatsapped me and asked if I wanted to meet for beers one of these days.  So I said sure, how about Thursday, since I was off Friday.  And then, like two days later, I realized Thursday was my birthday.  But I didn’t tell him that on account of I didn’t want to make a thing of it.

Then a couple of days later, he messages me again and tells me that Knut – my boss – had asked him if they were free Thursday for drinks as well and would it be alright if Knut came along.  And then Knut emailed me to ask if I would mind terribly if he crashed our little get together.  Of course I was happy to have him along.  So that’s how that all came about, my accidental birthday outing.

Anyway, we had a lovely time of things.  How could we not?  They’re all lovely people.  And the whole vibe of it is cool.  I mean, it fits my Accidental narrative quite neatly.  You know the one, where I keep meeting great people by accident.  Like, I know the French people because they’re properly friends of Deb, who I only know because Knut asked me to teach him and her some Yiddish.  And I only know Knut because Paul, who I did my teacher training with, had already gotten a job with him and suggested my name when Knut needed a teacher.  So yeah, good people just keep falling into my lap.  How about that?

Back to dinner, and Philippe mentioned that Pauline – the daughter – would be in Berlin for just like three or four days the following week.  So I asked if maybe they’d have time to come over and record the new song they’d recently sent me.  And he’s like, yeah, that’s why I’m telling you.  Sweet.

So he and his wife came over that Sunday for him to record his guitar parts.  It took a bit of time, but we got it down in the end.  And then they came back with Pauline on Monday and Tuesday to do the vocals.  And man, that was great.

We got on really well the first time, but there was still a get-to-know-you period involved.  Now, though, having established a good rapport, a good comfort level the last time, we were able to dive right into things this time around.  And what’s really nice is, you can tell we all just really enjoy working with each other.  I mean, you can imagine that it might be somewhat difficult to show up at a stranger’s house and just start singing, you know?  And not just singing, but singing into a mic with headphones on.  But for whatever reason, she seems to be really comfortable working with me.  Which is great for two reasons.  First, she needs to be comfortable if she’s going to make good music.  But also, it makes me feel good as a producer and, uh, proprietor of my little studio, that a person can come in and feel good working in my space, with me.

And I’m sure I said this last time around, but I just love working with this kid.  I mean, for starters, she’s just so talented.  But beyond that she’s really receptive to criticism and to trying out new things.  And she’s creative in her own right.  So I can tell her, go try this specific thing.  But I can also tell her to just go in and experiment.  And in that way, we hit on some really nice stuff.

Like, she hit on this really pretty little harmony, just a little ah-ah thing, which I then elaborated into a 3-part harmony with different lyrics/phrasings for each verse.  And it really swings, you know?  I love the collaborative process.  Also, she’s not afraid to disagree with me, which is super important. 

One thing I’m learning this time around is, all the extra takes we do, all the ideas we try that don’t quite work, they wind up being a veritable gold mine of extra usable material.  Like, I asked for some more freestyle-type takes and some add-libby kinda stuff.  And in the context of putting down the song, they wound up not really working.  But now, going back and mixing, I’m finding that in all those extra takes, there’s little snippets everywhere that I can cut out and add in for color and makes the whole thing so much richer.

But even if I couldn’t use any of it, it’s still a valuable part of the process.  Because both times they’ve come over so far, the songs were pretty new for her, she hadn’t made them her own yet.  So doing all these various takes and experiments and whatnot, I’m finding that it helps her to really discover the song, to find her own voice, her own interpretation.  And man, it’s a lot of fun to midwife that process.

And it’s great too because her read on the song is not necessarily my read.  I should back up here and say that Philippe writes the songs, he writes the music and the lyrics.  And he’s good.  Good hooks, good melodies, good chord progressions.  The guy does nice work is what I’m saying.  But anyway, I read the lyrics and I get a certain impression, a certain emotion.  But that’s just my take.

So after a couple of runs through, I asked Pauline to sit with me and go through the lyrics.  Have you had an experience in your own life like what’s happening in the song?  How did it make you feel?  Can you make me feel that?  What’s your emotion on this verse?  Can you bring that out in your singing?  And wear those emotions on your face when you’re singing, because I’ll be able to hear your smile or your frown or whatever.  So there was some of that involved, beyond the regular, try this-try that.  And in the end, she really found something, she really connected with the text, really made it her own.  So that now, I’ve got some really killer vocal material to work with. 

And it gets better.  So as we were working, trying to find our way in this song, I hit on the idea of dropping in a bit of cello.  Midi cello, obviously.  And I didn’t do much either, just a really simple line in a few strategic places.  And immediately, she was like, I love this!  And I was happy with it too, or at least the concept of it.  The actual lines needed some work, and also I kinda hated the fake midi sound.

So I asked Justin if he knew anybody that played violin/cello who could either record decent quality on their own or else come to his house and record.  He had a colleague in mind.  And when he asked the guy, the dude was like, are you kidding me, I live for this shit!  I think those were actually his words.  Anyway, turns out, not only is he a trained violinist, but he’s even studied French folk fiddle.  I mean, how much more perfect can you get? 

So I passed on the track along with my basic cello lines and some general guidelines.  I’m waiting to hear back now with what he comes up with.  But I’m super excited about this.  I mean, if it works out, it’s gonna add something really special to the track.  You guys, this is gonna be a banger.  Is that right?  Do the kids say ‘banger’?  It’s going to be good, is the point. 

On the last night they were here, I offered to cook dinner.  In the end, the mom wasn’t feeling so well, so I wound up not actually cooking.  But we did like an apéro – wine, cheese, some fresh veggies, that kind of thing.  And it was really nice.  I mean, beyond being so much fun to record with, they’re also just good people to spend time with.  Smart, funny, French.  It was great.<<

Well, in the end, it never worked out with the violin guy.  It seems he had too many work and family commitments to find the time.  Oh well.  So I finished the song using midi instruments.  It actually worked out fine.  The French people didn’t even realize it was a midi cello and even Justin wasn’t sure.  Which means it passed muster.  Fine by me. 

And actually, it worked out for the best.  Because waiting for the guy, it wound up forcing me to take like a two-month hiatus from the song.  Which meant I was able to come back to it with fresh ears.  And I finished it in an afternoon.  All I really had to do was rebalance a few things in the mix and work out the cello part to completion.  Like I said above, super simple.  One line under the chorus and one line under a vocal breakdown in the middle.  Really satisfying, if I do say so myself. 

I’m really quite pleased with the final product, actually.  I want to say it’s my best work yet.  Which is as should be.  I should be making progress with each new mix.  I sent it, as I always do now, to Rob for feedback.  I told him that I was pretty pleased with the result but that of course I’d love any feedback he had to offer.  He wrote back saying emphatically that I should be pleased with it and that nothing really jumped out at him as needing attention.

He then said that if there was one thing, it was maybe the sibilance.  In other words, how sharp the letter ‘s’ can sound in places.  And I was glad he said that actually.  Because per my own diagnostic, that was also the one thing that I felt could still be better.  But I didn’t want to tell him that, because I didn’t want to draw his attention to it.  So the fact that this was the only thing he pointed to acts as a sort of confirmation that I should feel more comfortable trusting my own ears; that we’re both hearing the same thing.

He then gave me some advice on how to handle that particular issue going forward, which of course I appreciate.  Indeed, I had gone in and attacked some particularly strong sibilants at the waveform level.  But that’s surgery.  Rob’s feedback will help me to improve that on a more global level without having to break out the scalpel, as it were.  After the last track, he gave me that tip on sidechaining the reverb, which was I able to apply this time around.  Next time, I’ll be able to apply his tips to the sibilants.  Good stuff.

Anyway, it’s one thing for me to be satisfied with my own work, which of course is important.  But at the end of the day, even though this is an exercise in my own development as a producer, I’m really serving the artists and their vision for their own song.  So what matters in the end is that they’re satisfied with it.

To that end, I’m happy to report that they were not just satisfied but positively delighted.  Pauline and Philippe, both of them just love it.  I mean, you can tell, even through Whatsapp, that the enthusiasm is genuine.  So that’s already gratifying.  But what really makes me happy is how they appreciate what I bring to the music.  What I mean is, it’s not just, “You make my voice or my guitar sound great.”  They love the cello that I added, what I did with the harmonies, all the extra stuff.  To put it another way, they appreciate not just my technical work at the mixing board, but what I bring as an actual producer.  And that means a great deal to me.  Because even though it’s their music, at the end of the day, I put a lot of myself into it as well. 

I know I said it above, but I love this collaborative process.  The process of working with the artists to get more out of themselves than they knew the had, to get more out of the song than they knew it had.  And that’s something that we do together.  I fucking love that process, you know?

I’ve mentioned before how valuable I find Rob’s input and support.  But I want to come back to that for a second.  I was talking to Jared recently, and he brought this up himself.  He told me that Rob had told him about my work and that Rob was really positive about it.  From Jared’s perspective, he was just really happy to see his two friends connecting in this way.  And that’s important to me too.  Obviously I don’t get to see Rob very often.  Rob, whom I’ve known since we’re teenagers.  Rob, in whose basement I spent a gazillion hours, whose whole family I know forever.  So yeah, the feedback he provides is invaluable.  The positivity and support he offers give me confidence that I need.  But beyond all that, it means a lot to me to able to stay connected – and indeed to forge this new particular connection – after all these years.

You know, for as long as I’ve known Jared, he’s had this line about friendships: They either grow or they die.  Well, for almost six years now I’ve been living in Germany.  We see each other twice a year (lockdowns notwithstanding) and we text periodically.  But under those circumstances, can a friendship really be said to be “growing”?  And if it’s not growing, is it dying?

So I asked him about it.  I asked him as we were getting drunk one night in Paris.  And by the way, I can think of few things better than getting drunk with a lifelong friend in Paris.  I highly recommend it.  Anyway, I asked him.  And in answer, he introduced a new category.  Sometimes, he said, friendships endure.  And that seemed right to me.  I mean, for my part, I do not notice the least bit of drift.  Because for all the time and distance between us, things seem to be as they always ever have been.  So this is a friendship that endures.  Despite.  And this new connection with Rob now, over music, is something that allows our friendship to endure as well.  And for that I am grateful.

Anyway, back to the music.  This, from April 8th:

>> Let’s see, what else?  I had Bibi over today to start recording another song for the band.  I’m happy to report my real-time production skills are showing some improvement.  That’s surely a result of the work I’ve done with Pauline and Philippe.  What do I mean?

Well, one thing about doing songs for the band is, they’re songs we’ve been playing for ages.  Everybody already knows their parts, how they sing them, how they play them.  In the beginning, this felt like an advantage.  Now I see it’s the opposite.  Because I already had a preconceived notion of how the performances should sound, I think it blocked me from getting the best out of them vocally.  I was basically expecting them to go in and sing what I always hear them sing.  I wouldn’t really ask for much unless I heard something egregiously wrong or wanted a very specific harmony. 

Whereas working with Pauline, the songs were basically new for both of us.  So I felt like I had a freer hand not only in asking for experimentation, but also to try and mold her performance to a degree with respect to phrasing, pronunciation and emotional expression.  Going through that process with her really opened me up to how I might try and get a bit more out of Bibi.

Anyway, we did a few rough takes of this song we’re doing now.  I guess it’s called Redemption Song, by Bob Marley; I dunno, never heard the original.  But I know our version through-and-through, obvi.  So we lay down a couple of rough takes, and while they were fine, I felt like something was missing.  So I ask her what the point of the song was.  And she says something to the effect of, “It’s about freedom and also somehow like a religious experience.”  And I’m like, “OK, you think you can convince me of that with your vocal?”  She shrugged and agreed to try.

Well, sure enough, she goes in and all of a sudden there’s this power in her voice that just wasn’t there before.  I knew we had something just listening to her lay it down.  But when she finished, she came out and we listened back to it.  Yeah, it was good.  And you could see her whole face light up.  She was like, “Wow, it’s totally different!  It’s so much more powerful!”  So we did a couple of more takes with that in mind and honestly, it was so much better than what we’d had before.

And once I saw that I could push her a bit and get more out of her, I decided there were some pronunciation things I wanted to work on.  There were a couple of phrases that ended with the pronoun “I,” and they were sounding kind of week.  Knowing that her background is in theatre, I decided to try and tap into that.  I said she must know from the stage that although it’s only one letter, “I” is properly a diphthong, a combination of ‘ah-ee.’  So I asked her to close the syllable with a touch of emphasis on the ‘ee’.  She found it pretty quickly and the results were tangible.  Again, we listened back, and again, you could just see her face light up when she heard the difference, how much stronger it sounded.  We took a similar approach to a phrase ending with the word “strong.”  Originally, the ‘g’ was getting lost.  But we spent a few minutes on it and, again, got a much improved result. 

And I’ll tellya something.  It’s one thing when you ask for something and you yourself can hear the difference.  But when the performer can hear the difference, and not only hear it but actually recognize the marked improvement, that’s really gratifying.  And gratifying is the word.  I mean, I’m really pleased with my work as a producer today.  Not only for having learned from my experiences with Pauline, but for getting better at spotting problems in real time.  And then, not just spotting them, but addressing them and getting an improved result.  One of my goals as a producer is to get the best possible performance out of my artists.  Now, did I get the very best performance possible?  Maybe not.  But I got a better performance than the one we started with.  And that’s real progress.

Tellya what also was really nice ((What was also really nice?  Fuck, German is playing hell with my adverb placement.  I literally don’t know which word order sounds better.)).  At the end of our session, Bibi turns to me with this big ol’ smile on her face.  And she’s like, “Wow, Dave.  You’re like a really good vocal coach!”  Or words to that effect.  It was hours ago and in German, so I’m paraphrasing.  But the point is, it was pretty cool to get that little bit of recognition.  It’s kind of a big step, actually.  To go from the artist being like basically, “Well, my work is done, I trust you to make something nice of it,” to the artist genuinely feeling like I helped them to find something nice within themselves that they wouldn’t have found without me.  It’s shit like this that makes producing a helluva lotta fun. 

The next step is to get Ralf down to do his guitars and vocals.  It was kinda funny, Bibi’s thoughts on that part of the process.  Because she found something new today, not only in herself, but in the song too.  And she was basically like, “Do you think you can get this across to Ralf, get him to match what I’m doing?”  It’s an important question, because they trade off lines during the verses, so the intensity and emotion definitely need to match.  And I was like, “Pretty sure it won’t be a problem.  Ralf’s actually pretty open minded when it comes to recording.”  She was of course pleased to hear that.

But it’s true.  Ralf is actually great about that kind of stuff.  I’ve asked him to do all kinds of stuff on the other songs.  Playing the chords with different voicings, singing new harmonies he’s never sung before, doing extra takes when he thinks we’ve already done enough.  And he’s always game, always happy to try anything.  So based on my past experiences with Pauline and my work with Bibi today, I’m fairly confident I’ll be able to get some good stuff from Ralph.

And I’m pretty excited about it too.  Because I really like this song.  It’s one of the first songs we played together.  I don’t sing on it, but I really enjoy my guitar parts.  I think they add some really nice color to the whole thing.  And when you put it all together, I think it’s one of the better tracks we do.  So yeah, I’m looking forward to doing up a nice studio version of it.  I feel good about this one.  So far, anyway.<<

So that was that.  The next week, I got Ralf down to do his parts.  Not just vox and guitars but also the cajón.  We started with the guitars, and that went more or less pretty smoothly.  We had to do a couple of takes to get him acclimated to the metronome.  But once we’d done that, he was good to go.  Here’s a nice thing though.  Once we got a really nice take down, he actually asked if we could double-track it.  In other words, he wanted to lay down a second guitar track to accompany the first. 

Now, this is something I was always going to ask him for.  But the fact that he volunteered to do it, even before I asked, was a most pleasant surprise.  It made me happy for two reasons.  First, it means he was coming prepared with more of his own vision for what he wanted for the guitars.  This is, on its face, a good thing.  But second, it means that he’s growing as a musician, that he’s becoming more comfortable and familiar with the recording process.  And that’s great for him as an artist, great for me as a producer and great for us as a band.

Next, the vocals.  As always, we started by just laying down a couple of rough takes, the way he always sings his parts.  From there, I took the same approach as with Pauline and Bibi.  I sat down with him and we went through the lyrics, line by line, translating them into German.  And you could just see, with each line, he was gaining this new and deeper understanding of the song.  When we’d gone through the whole thing, we talked about the meaning of the text in a big picture kind of way. 

That done, we were ready to record again.  This time, he sang the song according to his new and deeper understanding.  The thing was, he was singing it as if it were this deeply personal and private revelation.  And objectively, it was very good.  But it didn’t quite jive with what Bibi had done.  So I asked him to try singing it as if he had discovered this great truth and his job now was to convince a crowd of a thousand people.  “Like I’m on stage at the Mercedes Benz Arena!”  He liked this idea.  And so that’s how he sung it.  And I’ll tell you something.  It worked.  He really did some nice work, no joke.  Then, same as with Bibi, we went back and attacked a handful of particular syllables.  And same as with Bibi, he lit up when heard the difference.

Then it was on to the cajón.  We worked out the parts together.  We both had ideas and in the end, we hit on something that I think really serves the song.  This time around, we had a better instrument to work with.  Combine that with the fact that I think I did a better technical job of mic’ing the thing, and I believe we’re gonna have a really nice percussive sound for this track. 

In the end, Ralf too was really pleased with the whole process.  He also complimented me on my work guiding him through the lyrics and nudging his performance in the direction I did.  So yeah, again – and at the risk of over-tooting my own horn – it was really gratifying.  Not only to get that kind of positive feedback, but to have done a better job getting the best performance out of my artist.

I haven’t done any more work on the song since then.  I still need to put down my own guitar parts.  I have decisions to make about whether or not to add my own vocal harmonies as well as what I’m hearing for the song, big-picture.  And that’s all before I can even think about mixing it.  So there’s a lot of work to do yet.  But I think we’ll wind up with a nice track in the end.

Well, I guess that’s enough for today on the music front.  One last update before I close.  This also from the 8th of April:

>> I’ve decided it’s time I learned some Aramaic.  The people who put out the Hebrew book I learned from also have a textbook on this subject, so naturally that’s the one I bought.  After all, I was quite pleased with that Hebrew book and with how far it brought me.

That said, they’re both super goyish.  I mean, they’re published by Christian theologians, and right there in the forward, they’re like, “If you’re going to be a good Christian preacher, you need to know your Aramaic.”  Uh, OK.   I mean, that’s not a bad thing per se.  But it’s limiting.  Their entire purpose, it seems, is just to be able to read the handful of verses in the Old Testament that are written in Aramaic.  And yeah, I’d like to be able to do that.  But it’s not my main purpose.

My main purpose is, well, more Jewish.  There are a bunch of prayers that are written not in Hebrew, but Aramaic; the kaddish – the prayer for the dead – to give but one example.  And the most important translation of the Hebrew Bible (from the Jewish perspective) is the Onkelos translation, in Aramaic.  But more than that even, Talmud.  The Talmud (or, the gemara anyway) is in Aaramic, and I’d like to be able to handle that, if only on a superficial level.  Because right now, if I want to look at a page of Talmud, I need to look at in English.  And we all know that’s not how I roll. 

The question, then, is how far will this particular textbook bring me in that direction?  I don’t know.  I just don’t know enough about the language.  But since I know literally nothing about the language – apart from the fact that it’s already quite similar to Hebrew – an introductory text like this seems like a good place to start.  I can always build out from here.

Anyway, I’ve only just started.  If I can work at a good pace, it’ll take me at least a couple of months to slog through this book.  And then I’ll see where I’m at.  But I’m kind of excited about it.  It’s been a while since I’ve tackled a new language.  Gotta keep those neurons in shape, yo!

And speaking of learning new languages, I have another project in mind.  Although this one has the distinct air of biting off more than I can chew.  See, I’ve asked Bartek to recommend a good textbook on Polish.  Polish?  Why Polish?

The reasons are twofold.  One is professional.  See, we get a fair number of Polish speaking students at our school, and even more Slavic speakers in general (mostly Russians, but some Ukrainians and assorted other as well).  And the Slavic languages are a blind spot for me.  Maybe I’ve discussed this before.  But with native speakers of German and French – and for that matter, Spanish and Italian – when they say weird shit, I know where it’s coming from.  I can see what they’re thinking in their native tongue and how that gets manifested into English.  It’s a useful tool, actually, when you want to explain why and how things are different in English.  But with the Slavic speakers, when they say weird shit, I can only shrug my shoulders and assume, “Welp, that’s probably makes some kind of Slavic sense what you just said, but uh, don’t say that.  Because.”  And that’s weak tea.  So if I can gain even some small insight into the workings of the Slavic languages, that figures to make me a better teacher.  So that’s one reason.

The other reason is Yiddish.  Yes, there are a ton of Polish loan-words in Yiddish – yarmulke, balagan, shmata, papiros, bupkis, just to give a few – but that’s vocabulary, that’s kindergarten shit.  The real shit is found in the organization of thoughts, the construction of whole sentences, the expression of ideas via idioms.  I can’t begin to count how many times Bartek and I have read a sentence in the memorial book we’re translating where my reaction to said sentence was either, “Well, that’s fucking weird and I don’t get it,” or “I suppose this means x but I could just as easily imagine it meaning y.”  And then Bartek will say, “Well, it makes perfect sense to me actually, because that’s exactly how you’d express this in Polish.  To me, it’s literally like reading a Polish sentence with Yiddish words.”  And while I’ll never have his native-speaker feel for that sort of thing, I rather desperately want to at least be able to grasp it.  I very much want to be able to look at a Yiddish sentence and have my reaction be, “Well, a year ago this would have boggled my mind, but now that I understand some basic Polish it’s actually quite clear.”  And that, friends, is reason enough to at least try and make an effort at learning some Polish.

In any case, I’m still waiting for him to get back to me with a recommendation on a text.  And then we’ll see if I can find the time and muster the energy to make any kind of real progress on that front.  But I certainly need to try.  It doesn’t do the brain any good to be idle.  One must always find new mental challenges.  One must always be learning. 

But it’s nice to know that if I do make the effort, I’ve got a built in advantage.  I know that Bartek is quite keen to help me.  Every time I’ve mentioned in the past that I really ought to learn some Polish, he just lights up and very eagerly lets me know he’s more than happy to help.  The risk is not that he won’t have time or interest to help.  If there’s any risk at all, it’s in abusing his generosity.  And I intend to be mindful of that, if indeed I can get this going.

It’s good to have friends who speak other languages that are enthusiastic about helping you.  Most of you know I’ve had this long running love-affair-from-afar with Finnish.  It started with Tolkien and the influence of Finnish on his creation of Elvish.  It progressed to my personal discovery of the epic poem Kalevala (the Finnish version of Homer, to be crude) and my journey to Finland to meet the last living oral singer of that work.  And finally, the whole milieu of Finnish folk-metal.  But of all the languages one can learn, Finnish is way down the list in terms of practicality.  So few people speak it, it’s notorious for being difficult, and most Finnish speakers you’re likely to meet speak excellent English anyway.

Point is, I’ve got a Finnish friend here, Marcus.  Lovely guy.  Drinks like a fish, loves hockey, produces (electronic) music, language nerd (we sometimes speak French together) and is also friends with Joschka.  Anyway, he’s also supportive of my interest in Finnish and is teaching me phrases here and there.  He’s enthusiastic about it too.  Says things like, “I think you’d be a good person to teach some Finnish to.  I like the way you think about languages and you’re good at them.”  I sometimes wonder if he mistakes experience and practice with native ability or if that’s just me being self-conscious, but the sentiment is real and appreciated. 

In any case, I’m a long way from buying a Finnish textbook.  It’s not related to any language I know, which means I don’t have even the most elementary vocabulary to hang my hat on.  I men, even with Hebrew, which is not a part of the Indo-European family – like English, French, German, Spanish, Yiddish, etc. – I had a basic starting vocabulary which had the effect of making the language anything but alien.  But man, Finnish?  I’d really be starting from zero.  I’m not saying I couldn’t do it.  But the amount of time and effort that would be required to make a proper go of it is, at present, beyond me.  Nevertheless, I do hope to make some small inroads this year. 

Because I gotta tell you guys, to my ears, when it comes to listening to a language where you can’t pick out a single word, nothing sounds more beautiful, more musical, to my ears than Finnish.  I mean, at a recent party, Marcus taught me how to count to four in Finnish.  Well, five, really, but I seem to have forgotten the word for five.  And I gotta say, not only does it sound sooo cool, but just making those sounds with your mouth is a stupid amount of fun.  Sounds that we just don’t get in any of the languages I know.  Yksi, kaksi, kolme, neljä.  It looks weird on the page.  But go find a video of someone speaking it.  Just gorgeous.  So we’ll see what happens with that.  I’ll tellya, though.  If I live long enough, I’d love to get even some basic skills with Finnish.  It’s a real party for the mouth!  OK, yeah, I heard it.<<

So that was on the 8th of May.  Since then, I’ve been making steady progress with the Aramaic.  I mean, it’s basically just weird Hebrew, so it’s not all that taxing.  But you still gotta do the work.  And I’m doing it.  At this rate, I should be finished with the book well before the end of the year.  Then we’ll see to what extent I can apply it to Talmud.  But one step at a time.

As for the Polish, that’s naturally on hold til I finish with the Aramaic.  But it is still very much the plan.  And Bartek has recommended a plethora of resources.  So whenever I do get started with it, I should have some good tools at hand.  But that’s for another day.

Well, that’s surely enough for tonight.  I hope you’ll forgive this post being longer than usual in light of my not having posted since January.  I’ll try not to be so long before the next post.  Until then…

זײַ געזונט