An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
27 May, 2017

I must confess to feeling a bit burned out these last few days.  Two roadtrips in two weekends will do that to you.  The first trip was up north to the Ostsee, the Baltic sea.  Last weekend was down south to Bavaria.  Two totally different experiences that were, in fact, not all that different in the end.

The trip to the Ostsee, that was with Jan and Zibs and Zibs’ friend Marianne, from Norway.  I was the driver on this trip, as we rented the car under my credit card.  It was, in all likelihood, my last time renting a car in this country.  Apparently, after living in Germany for six months, one is required to get an actual German license; you can no longer legally drive on a foreign one.  I learned this fact accidentally, when I made the mistake1 of updating my address information with the rental agency.  Fortunately, I came in just under the wire, as I was a week short of the six-month mark according to my Anmeldung.2

So we pile into the car, the four of us, and off we go.  Me, two close friends and a complete stranger who was about to get thrown head-first into my awful jokes, my worse advances, and just general Dave-ness.  The poor thing.  Or so I thought.  But we’ll come back to that later.

The drive was more or less uneventful, if pleasant.  It’s always nice to take roadtrips, to just hit the open road and go.  Plus, I mean, Germany.  Autobahn.  No speed limit.  Which isn’t to say that I drove recklessly; I didn’t.  But you can definitely go.  The countryside was pretty, albeit mostly flat and covered in fields of rapeseed, which has its own unique smell.  Ah, rapeseed.  There’s a name for you.  We’ll come back to that too.

Anyway, we finally got to our little cottage, quite literally in the middle of nowhere.  In fact, it hardly seemed as if anybody actually lived in the area.  It seemed to be entirely composed of rental vacation homes.  My old dad sometimes talks about how they used to go to a “bungalow colony” when he was a kid.  To this day, I have no idea what the actual fuck a “bungalow colony” is,3 but I imagine it must not be too far off from this.

The house itself was adorbs, being all wood everything on the inside.  The first night, we went shopping for the essentials.  You know, beer & wine.  But also food.  I cooked us a late-evening meal of beef stew, in which, for lack of mushrooms, I added an eggplant.  Never did that before, but it added a really nice flavor, I thought.  Anyway, everybody seemed quite happy with it, as there were no leftovers.

After that, the drinks started flowing.  Jan and I both brought our guitars, so we had a nice little jam sesh.  Beyond that, it was just the usual good-times hanging out stuff.  I quickly became a fan of the new girl.  She was very quiet in the car, so I really didn’t get to know her until this point.  Turns out she’s got a razor-sharp wit and gives as good as she gets.  “Impressed” wouldn’t be too strong a word.  In fact, she even succeeded in leaving me speechless with some of her well-timed, whip-smart comebacks.

I don’t know how to describe her exactly.  She’s Norwegian, yes, but also Nordic, if that means anything.  In other words, she doesn’t say much.  But when she does speak, it’s always very soft, as few words as possible.  But she can make those words cut like a knife.  And funny as hell.  So she was a good fit, for sure.  I’m glad she was there.

I’m also glad she was there because without her, I would have been a third wheel.  I hang out with J&Z all the time, and they never make me feel third-wheely.  But for a whole weekend?  That could have been different.  In any case, that potential problem was neatly avoided by the addition of their diminutive Norse friend.

The second day, we took a trip to the nearby vacation/resort town of Boltenhagen.4  Absolutely gorgeous and right on the water.  It was a lovely place to walk around.  I even made up a little fairy tale there, just based on the random things we were seeing.  It started at the end of a long pier.  Over the railing, was a shorter wooden post sticking out of the water, with a copper plate on top.  On that plate were two dozen or so pennies that people had thrown.  That was the starting point for the story.  I’ll give a short version here, because why not?

There once was a king in these parts, and he had a daughter of surpassing beauty.  Every man in the kingdom wanted to marry her.  So the king offered a challenge.  Any man who could toss a penny from the end of the pier and land it on the copper plate could marry his daughter.  Only, as evidenced by all the pennies, the challenge wasn’t nearly hard enough.

Whereupon did he contract the local witch to add some danger to it all.  Now, anybody who failed to land a penny on the copper plate would be turned to stone.  Proof of this, all the stone statues scattered throughout the area.  But if they did manage to land the penny, they would first be turned into a swan.  Proof of this, all the swans in the area.  In the end, only a man with true love in his heart, who also managed to land the penny, would be able to marry the princess. 

So every day, the princess would go down to the pier and await her true love.  But many years passed and she grew tired of waiting.  Still, she did not wish to forsake hope.  Yet neither did she wish to grow old in her waiting.  So at last, she asked the witch to turn her to stone until her true love should appear.  Proof of this, the stone statue of a young woman at the foot of the pier.  And so, she waits to this day.

Maybe one day I’ll sit down and write that out into a proper story.  But for an on-the-fly story, made up on the spot, I thought it was pretty nice.  The others thought it was alright, I guess.  But it made me think for a moment of Charlotte, who always loves this sort of silliness.

After this, we sat down for lunch.  We got Fischbrötchen, fish rolls, which is apparently the thing to do at the German seaside.  It’s basically a piece of whitefish, breaded and fried, inside a roll, with some kind of tartar sauce I guess.  It was pretty perfect, to be honest.  So after we’d all enjoyed our lunches, I collected the empty plates to throw them out.  Marianne said something along the lines of, “Oh, that’s very nice of you.”  To which I replied, “Honestly, it’s just an honor for me to touch anything where your mouth has been.”5  To which she then replied in perfect Nordic deadpan, “Wow.  That’s like 30% creepy…but 70% charming.”  Which may well be the nicest thing any girl has ever said to me.

On the way back, we hit the supermarket again, as our plan for the evening was to make a little BBQ.  The house had a grill, after all.  And this being Germany, we were obliged to buy at least two different kinds of sausages as well as potatoes and probably something green.  No wait, definitely something green.  We bought asparagus, which we proceeded to wrap in bacon.  And also salad.  Jan worked the grill, while I did some variant of my oven roasted potatoes.  The girls took care of the salad.  Oh, and we also bought a bottle of whiskey, because Jan wanted whiskey sours.  To which I wondered, why spoil perfectly good whiskey?6

So dinner was fantastic.  Apart from the obligatory bratwurst, we also had Krakauer sausage, which basically tasted like the American version of kielbasa.  It was a gorgeous feast.  Jan was a master on the grill.  Everything was delicious.  Not least, for me, because I insisted on the spiciest mustard we could find.  It was funny to watch all their faces go red as they tried it, while I put it away effortlessly.

Upon which, I shared with them the story of my family’s Passovers vis-à-vis horseradish.  Because, as you know – or should know – mustard isn’t spicy like peppers.  It doesn’t burn in your mouth.  It goes straight up to your sinuses with a bomb strapped to its chest.  So I told them how Uncle Art and Uncle Don usually make their own horseradish; how I usually bring a jar from The Pickle Guys; how all the men pass it around the table, testing themselves in the most macho way Jewish men are able, namely to just eat straight horseradish and try to handle it with as much dignity as you can mustard muster.  In other words, it was a very long way of saying, “Y’all are pussies for not being able to handle your mustard.”  I think they appreciated the story, if not the sentiment.  But after the first bite, they steered pretty clear of that yellow fire, while I devoured it.

After dinner, we moved to the living room for drinks and music.  First, we jammed out for a bit, which was obvi a good time.  But then they wanted to watch Eurovision.  This, apparently, is Europe’s version of American Idol.  Which is an incredibly arrogant and Americo-centric way of describing it, since, apparently, it’s been around forever.  But I didn’t know that, and I’m guessing you didn’t either.  It reminded me of back in the day, back when Amanda was still hosting Wednesday Night Dinners, and we’d retire to the living room to watch American Idol.  Yeah, I didn’t love it then, either.

Two short remembrances from this Eurovision experience.  First.  Each country had a representative video in to deliver their countries votes.  And invariably, each representative would say a word or two in Ukrainian, as that’s where the show was being held.  But it was always something generic, like, “Greetings!”  Then the Israeli guy gets on, and speaks like a paragraph of flawless Ukrainian.  And you just know that, somewhere, his mother was kvelling.

Second.  It was fascinating to see English function, in real-time, as a lingua franca.  What I mean is, everything was conducted in English.  And yet, outside of Australia, England and maybe Ireland, English was the native language of none of these countries.  Nevertheless, that was the standard.  And at first, it was super interesting to watch.  To observe the type of English they used, to see how they used it.  Because it was full of “mistakes.”  None of which mattered, of course, to the people speaking it or hearing it.

By this time, I was hitting the whiskey pretty hard.  And at some point, this went from fascinating to frustrating.  Because they were saying things where I felt, “Wait, was that a passive-aggressive insult, or is that just a function of your un-nuanced use of the language?”  I suppose I could have just let it go.  But it’s hard for me to turn my brain off with this stuff.  I can’t hear it passively.  I’m constantly analyzing it.  And it became exhausting.  So eventually I went outside to have a pipe and just sit in the grass and look at the dark night sky.  Which was very serene and just what I needed.

I want to clarify my remarks on English for a moment, because I’m not sure how they read.  Under no circumstances do I take a parochial view of my language.  I don’t think it “belongs” to native speakers.  Nor am I a prescriptivist.  I take a dim view of the words “right” and “wrong” with respect to English.  In fact, I love the myriad ways non-native speakers use the language, and how that usage reflects their own language and culture.

My point is simply this.  It’s so completely fascinating that I often can’t hear the forest for the trees, so to speak.  I get so focused on the little things, that I lose sight of the actual content.  Every odd turn of phrase, every “misplaced” adverb, raises a question.  Add to that a fair helping of scotch, and it becomes exhausting.  That’s all I meant.

If Sunday taught me anything, it’s that I handle my spicy mustard better than I handle my whiskey these days.  I woke up around three, and I was not feeling well.  The plan was to return to Boltenhagen for dinner.  Technically, only I was allowed to drive, as the car was under my name, and we didn’t sign up for a second driver.  But Jan was sufficiently worried to the point that he offered to drive.

But I was fine.  Or would be.  I just needed to puke, and I’d be better.  I knew that from experience.  Γνῶθι ϲεάυτον – know thyself.  I’ve done this enough times by now to know.  So I went and had a very lovely throw-up and I was good to go.  I hope that doesn’t read as a brag.  It’s rather a bit embarrassing, actually.  But, you know, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

So we went to a nice Italian joint in Boltenhagen.  It was great.  My state solved the problem of being the designated driver.  The day before, it had struck me as an awful proposition.  But in the moment, I was happy to do it.  So I had an Apfelschörler – apple juice with seltzer – with my meal, and it was perfect.  After dinner, we went back out to the pier for sunset, which was lovely.  And then back to the house.

There we had more music and more drinks; I had, by this point, returned to myself.  But we all took it pretty easy, as Monday was a travel day.  On the way back home, we stopped into the city of Schwerin.  It was gorgeous.  Had a castle and everything.  In fact, the local government conducts all its business in the castle.  It’s functionally their city hall.  You have to admit, that’s pretty cool.  So we spent a few hours wandering the castle gardens before having lunch.  And then it was back to Berlin.

Funny thing.  The reason we rented the car on my credit card, was because my card provides free auto-rental insurance.  But when it came time to making the reservation, I could tell that Jan was a bit nervous about not taking the actual insurance offered by the rental agency.  So I said, fuck it, let’s just do it.  Because, the way I see, if you’re going to be worrying about something, then you’re not actually on vacation.

Well, this proved a wise choice.  Because about 15 minutes from Berlin, a little stone got kicked up by a truck in front of us and smacked into our windshield, leaving a nice little crater.  Now, maybe my cc insurance would have covered this anyway.  But it would have been a process.  Now, we were simply covered.  No worries.  So that worked out just fine.

And so, yeah, 15 minutes later, we were back at the airport, dropping off our car.  And that was the end of our trip.  Personally, I thought it was a success.  I had a blast.  It’s always hard to know, though, right?  And maybe this is just me being self-conscious.  But you never know how other people see it.  I mean, I’m a very “sleep-til-whenever, we don’t need a plan” kind of guy.  And not everybody is that way.  So maybe they walked away thinking, “Geez, let’s not travel with a guy who doesn’t have his shit together again.”  I dunno.  But for me, I had a great time.  And there was some talk of making a trip to visit M in Norway.  Which, I would fucking love to do.  I mean, FJORDS, you guys.  Fucking fjords.  So we’ll see.

OK, so that went longer than I thought.  I’m not about to now start in the whole Bavaria trip.  That will have to be another post.  Instead, I want to take a few minutes to ruminate about German.  More specifically, my German.

What does it mean to make a language your own?  What does it mean to speak a language your way?  Certainly I have my own way of speaking English.  I definitely have my English.  As does every native speaker.  But German is not my native language.  And so, yeah, of course I have my German, my own way of speaking the language.  And obviously, some of that is just down to the routine mistakes that I make.  But that’s not what I’m talking about.

You can learn the “textbook” version of a language.  And this is good for writing.  But nobody speaks this way.  Everybody has their own idiosyncrasies.  Some of that is down to word choice and phrasing.  Some of it is down to dialect and regionalisms.  But what does that mean for me as a non-native speaker?  What is “affectation” and what is “real”?  What do I choose and what happens naturally?

The question of “what do I choose” is what interests me.  Because I’m reaching the stage now where I find that I’m making choices.  By which I mean, I’m consciously suppressing things I naturally do/say in favor of things I choose to do/say.  At the moment, this manifests itself in two ways.

The first is what I call “Berlinese.”  There is, in fact, a Berlin dialect and a Berlin accent.  In terms of dialect, there are slangy things that Berliners say that don’t show up in textbook Hochdeutsch, never mind the rest of the country.  I’ll give one example, out of many.  In German, when something is far away, you can simply say that it is weit weg: literally, “far away.”  But in Berlin – and apparently only Berlin (& Brandenburg) – you can say that something is JWD (pronounced: Yod-Weh-Deh), an acronym which stands for Janz Weit Draußen.  I try to use this whenever possible.

But already this gets complicated.  Because, much like New York, most of the people that live here aren’t actually from here.  So it’s entirely possible that when you say JWD to somebody, be they German but from somewhere else or simply from another country, they won’t understand you.  And the point, after all, is to be understood, isn’t it?  So on a practical level, it may not serve me that well.  It’d be like, if you were from, I dunno, Pakistan, and showing up in New York you asked for directions to “toity toid ‘n’ toid.”  Yeah, you can find people that speak this way.  But most people don’t.  And your cab driver from Gana might have no idea what you mean.  It’s an affectation.  An attempt to be “authentic,” whatever that means.

So that’s on the level of idiom.  But it also operates on the level of accent, or dialect.  Born Berliners tend to pronounce their “g”s as “j”s (or “y”s to our ears).  Take the above example.  JWD.  As I said, the acronym stands for Janz Weit Draußen.  “Janz” is how Berliners pronounce “ganz.”  So they take their pronunciation, and create an acronym not from the actual words but from how they say those words.  Which I love, by the way.

Anyway, I find myself making an effort to change all the “g”s I learned into “j”s.  I find myself making an effort to say “schlaff jut” instead of “shlaff gut” – sleep well.  Or “jut jemacht” instead of “gut gemacht” – well done.  And I know it’s an affectation.  But my question is, is not the totality of my German an affectation?  Aren’t I always trying to mimic something?  If the answer is yes, then why not try to mimic the speech patterns of the place that I live, as opposed to the speech patters of some generic “neutral” German?  For me, I think, it’s all a part of trying to make this place my home, of trying to be a part of this place.  Maybe it’s bullshit.  But at the moment, I tend to think it’s no less bullshit than anything else.

I said there were two ways I was making choices.  The first is the adoption of at least some elements of Berinese, as just discussed.  But the second, and more complicated, is the conscious effort to sprinkle in Yiddishisms.  And the reason it’s complicated, is because while the vast majority of the Yiddish lexicon is German, the words don’t always have the same meaning.

Let’s take the word verbissene, for example; which we might spell farbissine in Yinglish.  Having learned this word from my mother, it seems the perfect way to describe the sour, grumpy old lady who lives downstairs, who knocks on the door when my music is too loud.  But in German, verbissene, simply means somebody who is super-dedicated and hardworking.  The root is the verb bissen, which means “to bite.”  In German, this goes in one direction: somebody who bites down hard and gets to work, and doesn’t “unbite,” so to speak, until they finish the task at hand.  In Yiddish, it goes in another direction.  It’s somebody who maybe is always biting their lower lip out of frustration or annoyance.  I mean, you can picture it.

So, in German, I often want to refer to “Die verbissene drunter” – the sour, grumpy old lady who lives downstairs.  And yet, if I say that, people raise an eyebrow.  “Wait, what?”  And I need to explain.  Same goes for the word “menschlich.”  In Yiddish, this means basically, ‘decent,’ ‘kind,’ ‘good.’  For example, you bring your sick friend a bowl of chicken soup.  The response is, “Thank you, that’s very menschlich.”  But in modern German, it simply seems to denote something of human – as opposed to animal – quality.  So when I say, “Danke schön, das war sehr menschlich” – Thank you, that was extraordinarily decent of you,” well, the heartfeltness of it tends to get lost.

One more example, one that is more day-to-day.  German has two words for “remember.”  There’s gedenken and there’s erinnern.  Now, it’s been my observation – and it’s always important to remember that I don’t speak  the language, I just know words and phrases – it’s been my observation, I say, that Yiddish uses gedenken exclusively.  Whereas in German, there’s a distinction.  Erinnern is your everyday “remember,” but gedenken is reserved for serious matters, as in “Let us remember those who have fallen in the war,” as opposed to “I don’t remember where I left my keys.”

So on a very basic level, I can use these Yiddishisms.  They will, if only after a question or two, be understood.  But they will sound off, there’s no two ways about it.  So does it make sense to use them?  Does it make sense to choose to use them?  Some words, like verbissene or menschlich I would use even in English.  But others, like gedenken, only function – for me – as “German” words.

So the question, again, is, does it make sense to use them?  Does it make sense to go out of my way to use them, to make a conscious decision to choose the Yiddish word over the German word?  I don’t know.  Clearly, in some way, it’s a manifestation of my trying to assert my own identity over the language.  Fair enough.  We all assert our own identities over whatever language we speak.  I just wonder, if it’s more conscious and less organic, is that OK?  Is that less “authentic,” for lack of a better word?  And is it practical?  Just some of the things that have been on my mind as I continue my journey – and hopefully progress – with the German language.

Right, so that’s enough for tonight.  Next time, Bavaria.

זיי געסונט

 

  1. I say “mistake,” because I wonder, had I just let them run with my New York address, could I keep renting indefinitely? []
  2. Remember that thing?  It just keeps coming back. []
  3. Let alone a bungalow; apart from it’s being a silly looking and sounding word. []
  4. The “town” where we were staying, Zierow, had literally nothing in it.  Even my German spell-checker has never heard of it. []
  5. #davestheworst []
  6. It was not perfectly good whiskey.  It was cheap scotch.  But I stand by my question. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
7 May, 2017

A busy week, indeed.  I must admit, I’m not entirely sure that I want to sit down and start writing now, at 2am.  But the longer I put it off, the more I will have to jam into the next post, and I’m not really keen to do that either.  So I’ll at least make an effort to begin this evening morning.

A busy week, indeed.  A week ago, that is, last Saturday, I was over Joschka’s for dinner.  We ate comparatively early; in other words, before midnight.  I’ll come to the dinner later.  The big news is, he went out and bought this Virtual Reality system, Oculus.  Let me tell you, friends, I was absolutely blown away.  Maybe because I went in with pretty low expectations.  Maybe because the damn thing really was so incredibly impressive.  Maybe a little bit of both.

But I honestly felt like I was in a different world.  It was like being in the holodeck on Star Trek.  I really felt like I was in a huge space.  Everything seemed so real.  In one of the demonstrations – where you can just look around, but not actually do anything – they have you on top of a skyscraper, right on the edge.  And you can look down.  And when I looked down, I actually got a pit in my stomach.  I really felt like I was in danger of falling.  My body couldn’t tell the fucking difference.  That’s how real it was.  I was floored.  Still am, to be perfectly honest.

A bit later, Cindy came over.  She approached it with the same “yeah, yeah, I’m sure it’s great” attitude that I’d had.  And she came away equally impressed.  For dinner, we knocked something together just with whatever was in the house.  I tried something with sautéed eggplant, sprinkled with cinnamon.  It didn’t really work out.  Nonetheless, dinner was perfectly fine and we all had a good time of it.

Later in the week, I tried again with the eggplant and cinnamon.  But this time, I did it a bit different.  I chopped up some bratwurst, and cooked that up first.  Then I added onions, string beans and eggplant.  Once they cooked down a bit, I did up a bit of a sauce with white wine, pork stock and tomato paste.  Only once the sauce started to take shape did I finally add the cinnamon, and also caraway seeds.  At the end, I mixed in some rice.  And this came out really quite nice.  In fact, I think I’ll do it again.

On Wednesday night, Annett invited me to go see a band.  Anne was there too.  Anyway, the band was English; she was friends with them from her time living in that country.  It wasn’t really my kind of music.  It was kind of just a wall of very loud sound, very little melody, lots of screaming and a bit of electronic stuff mixed in.  Well, she loved it, which is what matters.  And it was fun to get out and see some live music.  Plus it was just nice to see Annett again; I don’t think I’d seen her since January or so, as she’d been out of town on an internship.

The highlight of it all, though, was when she got on stage with them for the last song (or two; it all kind of blended together).  She rocked out and “sang;” more screaming, really.  But it was very cool to see, and you could tell she was loving the shit out of it, which was the most important thing.  The guys in the band were very nice as well.  We chatted and had a few beers before the show.  Funny thing though, I often enjoy talking to other native English speakers, because I can speak my own English as opposed to the moderated English I usually have to speak here.  But they, being from Manchester, well, their English was sufficiently different that I didn’t actually enjoy it all that much.  I mean, it was nice chatting with them.  But from a language perspective…meh.

It was also pretty great to see Anne again, as it was only the second time I’d seen here since before I went to the States.  Since this wasn’t a language-exchange meetup, we only spoke German.  Our German is pretty funny though.  We both make plenty of mistakes, and when we don’t know a word, we usually ask for it in English or French.  But the point is, we always seem to understand each other.

What I don’t think either of us was quite prepared for, however, was how screwed up our version of the language sounds to actual Germans.  Because it wasn’t just the two of us, Annett was chatting with us as well; Annett who is a native German.  And she was basically like, “OMG you guys, what the hell are you even talking about?  That’s not even German!”  To which we replied something along the lines of, “Well, we know what we’re talking about.  And if it’s not properly German, it’s our German.”  To which Annett, “Tja, pidgin German.”

Of course, it wasn’t that bad.  And it was all in good fun.  I mean, the three of us could obviously talk together with no problem.  But it did get me thinking a little bit.  Because lately Joschka has been giving me shit about my German.  I don’t know if it’s actually gotten worse, if he simply expects more of me at this point, or if it’s just good-natured ribbing.  Anyway, it did get me wondering if Anne and I are developing, and then reinforcing, bad habits.  Maybe.  But if so, it just means I need to spend more time talking with native speakers.  Which brings me to Thursday night.

Cindy invited me to a little dinner shindig.  In fact, it was the same crew as was at her Christmas party.  First of all, she invited me directly, which was super nice.  Somewhere along the line, we had exchanged phone numbers for logistical purposes; we don’t normally talk to each other otherwise.  But she just as easily could have invited me through Joschka.  So the fact that she invited me directly, well, I thought that was really sweet.

The dinner was a lot of fun.  And here was a night speaking German with three native speakers, as well as an Italian dude who is way above my level.  I was able to keep up; even crack some well-received jokes.  And Joschka didn’t give me any shit.1  Though perhaps that was more not to embarrass me in front of the others rather than any kind of reflection on my ability.  Still, I’m going to count going to a dinner party and not using English as some kind of success.

The dinner itself was centered around white asparagus, which apparently is a very big deal here and has just lately come into season.  The whole meal was really quite good.  Also good were the cocktails.  It was a lovely evening, although one which I had to cut a bit short, as apparently I was the only one who had to get up for work in the morning.

Work on Friday was pretty cool.  For the first time, I had planned my Thursday-Friday lessons as a pair, building the latter off of the former.  The central idea was to spend some time focusing on style.  Thursday, we spent a lot of time on relative clauses.  But Friday, I led this to a larger discussion of parataxis and hypotaxis, how those work, what kind of feeling you can get from them, the merits and disadvantages of each, and so on.  But the ultimate point was to wind up comparing a bit of JFK’s Inaugural with Trump’s Inaugural.  I think it was pretty fun.  And the students seemed to enjoy it.  Or, at least, they seemed to enjoy the end of it, when I read off a bit from each speech.  My terrible JFK accent was good for a laugh or two as well.

Technically, we’re supposed to pay more than a little attention to “business” English.  And my boss is a grammar nut, so he prefers a focus on that as well.  And obviously I love that.  But sometimes, it’s nice to look at the more artistic side of the language.  Style, poetry, literature, whatever.  It’s a big ask for the students.  Even if they are interested – and most of them are, though not all – it’s pushing them to their limits in a lot of ways.

But I do think it’s good for them.  And it’s not like they can’t use this stuff with respect to German; a fact I’m sure to remind them of.  After all, the languages function in much the same way.  So when they read a book in German, or listen to politician’s speech, I think – or hope, at least – that I’m giving them some new tools with which to interact with their own language.

You can’t do this stuff every week, of course.  And maybe it’s a little bit selfish on my part.  On some level, it’s about me finding a way to teach the sort of class I want to teach.  On some level it’s about the part of me that would rather be teaching a university class than an ESL class.  That doesn’t make it a bad thing, either.  I don’t think it does, at least.  Like I said, I try to find ways to make it useful to them in English and in German.  The key, I think, is not going overboard; which is very easy for me to do.

So it’s a process.  But I think it’s a process that’s headed in the right direction.  And also, I like to think that when we do these kinds of things, I’m giving them something they (likely) won’t get anywhere else.  I mean, I doubt the Unemployment Office is paying the freight on these English classes so they can read Shakespeare.  But I’m prepared to argue that the world would be a better place if more people would spend some time with The Bard every once in a while.

Friday evening, I met Anne for an actual language exchange.  I was a little nervous about this, insofar as I hadn’t spoken a word of French since the beginning of March or maybe even the end of February.  Well, apart from a bit of nothing at that Theatre evening a few weeks ago.  And I haven’t been reading as much French either, lately.  I mean, I’ve been reading Rousseau, but that’s dense as hell, and probably doesn’t help very much in the way of conversational French.  And I’ll come back to JJR a bit later, because I’m having some thoughts on that mofo.

Anyway, it was fine.  The French, I mean.  We did our usual routine.  One beer in English, one beer in French.  All subsequent drinks in German; and these were manifold.  All to say, it came back pretty quickly.  I didn’t have too much trouble expressing myself.  Harder was understanding, as I hadn’t actually listened to any French at length since our last exchange, several months ago.  And while I certainly missed more than a few things, I was never really lost.  So I was quite pleased about that.  And yeah, after that, several more beers topped off with a couple of shots of Berliner Luft, which is a kind of peppermint schnapps.  Just good times, you know?

Tonight, Saturday night, was family dinner with the roommates.  Lucie cooked a pork goulash with potatoes and red cabbage.  Delicious.  As always, we eat, we sit around, we drink, we chat.  They’re really great.  I mean, everybody always gives me shit about living all the way out here in the sticks, but the truth is, it’s hard not to feel like I really got lucky with these two.

Once nice thing is, we’re all interested in each other’s languages.  So there’s a lot of “how do you say this in German” and “wie sagt man das auf englisch”?  Also, they now both need English for school.  So whereas before, these nights would be almost entirely in German, it’s now more of a 70/30 or even 60/40 split.  Which, on the one hand, is maybe not the very best for my development.  But on the other hand, it gives my brain a bit of a break, and makes the whole affair less stressful.

Nicer though than simply being interested in each other’s languages, they both have a clear interest in word play, in puns.  So I’m always trying out puns in German.  Sometimes they work, sometimes not.  But often when they don’t work, Marco suggests a correction.  And from there, he’ll offer up a variation or two as well.  I was thinking tonight, it reminds me a bit of Thanksgivings back in the day, when the Starr family would just go around the table, each person punning off the last person’s pun.  I feel pretty at home with it.  I think I’ll try to put down an example.

So the German word for toy is Spielzeug.  And the word for train is Zug.  And the word for to show is zeigen.  So I tried something like, “So a toy train is a Spielzeug Zug.  And when a boy shows you his toy train, er zeigt dir seinen Spielzeug Zug.”  Which was OK.  But Marco improved upon it with, “Better, when he wants to show you his toy train, Er will dir seinen Spielzeug Zug Zeigen.”  He then went yet a step further by pointing out that a toy airplane would be a Spielzeug Luftzug, which has a lovely trochaic bounce to it.

I don’t know how well any of that comes across in written English, especially to people who don’t speak German.  But the point is, it was very funny to us, and a whole lot of fun.  I nailed some puns at Cindy’s dinner party as well, some of them even bilingual ones, though I don’t remember them now.  This rather impressed the other guests; even Joschka, who is often not easily impressed.

Funny thing was, the two guests who I’d only ever met that one time at Christmas were sufficiently impressed as to tell me that my German must be really quite good if I can pull off puns like that.  I tried to explain that this was hardly true.  I mean, I see their point that being able to pun would seemingly require a certain degree of mastery of the language.  But for me, having grown up with puns, it’s all second nature.  You have two words that sound similar and you jam them into a sentence.  It’s childsplay simply because I’ve been doing it since I was a child.  The fact that the words happen not be English is almost irrelevant.  So to me, this doesn’t require any mastery of the language at all; not that they were buying this argument.  But I mean, ask me to explain in German what I did at work that day, and forget it.  I can’t do it.

I’ve talked about this whole pun thing with Charlotte in the past.  I mean, I can do (admittedly bad) puns in French as well, even bilingual Franglish puns.  So at some point, she asked me about the how, about the process.  And I think it’s like a muscle.  When you exercise it, as I do – to the chagrin of my friends – it doesn’t take much effort.  I think my ear is always listening to words, what they sound like, what they mean, making connections with other words.

Remember my Yankee fan Greek professor?  We hardly talk at all during the offseason.  But come Spring, we’re always going back and forth about the Bombers.  And mixed in with these baseball emails are a never ending series of puns.  It’s like playing verbal catch, if that makes any sense.

Anyway, he’s in Abu Dhabi.  So a few weeks ago, he sends me an email.  The email was a sort of transcription from a dinner party he attended in which they spent the whole night making bilingual puns in Arabic/English.  It was super fucking impressive, if we’re being perfectly honest.  But what was extra nice was, he wrote in the email, “we could have used you.”  It’s one thing when you can impress your friends.  But when your NYU Ancient Greek professor friend respects your punning ability, that’s something else.

Anyway, that’s enough of that nonsense.  If I don’t stop tooting my own horn, I’ll wake the neighbors.  I said I wanted to say something about the Rousseau I’ve been reading, namely On the Social Contract, du Contrat Social.  I’m not sure I’m ready to say anything about the content itself yet, though at some point I think I’ll want to.

What I do want to talk about is the language.  This shit is not easy.  I mean, it is easy, in a sense.  The vocabulary is no problem.  And the grammar, the syntax, the style – all of it is fine.  The difficulty arises in trying to understand what he’s saying.  I find that I have to read each paragraph twice at a minimum, sometimes five or six times before I get it through my head.  I mentioned this to Anne, and she said, “It’s the same for French people, don’t worry about it.”2

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I’m reading it.  It is most certainly fascinating.  But it’s also most certainly a challenge.  But Aristotle is a challenge.  And Hebrew is a challenge.  And when I finally finish with this, I’m going to want to read – and honestly just enjoy for the sheer pleasure of it – some Jules Verne.

Staying in the vain of political literature, this whole Federalist Project is proving to be more intense than I’d anticipated.  I sort of thought I’d just read an essay and than write a page or two in response to it.  Instead, I find I’m taking copious notes, copying down quotes and passages, adding bits of commentary all over the place.  And all this for Federalist No. 1, mind you.  It’s very slow going.  When I outlined this project a couple of posts ago, I said my goal was to try and knock out one or two a month.  And that was based simply on the fact that I’m so busy with other projects.  But in fact, at the moment, it seems like I’ll be able to do one a month, yes, but only with a great deal of effort

And maybe that will change.  Maybe I’ll find a better method of approaching this.  But at the moment, the only way I can see of doing it is the way I’m currently doing it.  Eight-five Federalist essays.  At one a month, this will take me seven years.  And look, if it takes seven years, then that’s what it takes.  But wow, that’s a big fucking project then.

Which isn’t to say I’m not enjoying it.  Because let me tell you this.  Alexander Hamilton is a gorgeous writer.  I haven’t seen the play, let alone heard the soundtrack.  I don’t know how his words are presented there.  And in a sense, I don’t care.  I’m not trying to be snide.  I think the play has great artistic merit in its own rights.  And if it brings more people to American history, if it revives Hamilton’s image, then that’s all for the best.

But I suspect there’s a great difference between Hamilton the Musical and Hamilton the writer.  And holy cow can this guy write!  I want to talk about this here for a bit, because I don’t want to clutter up my eventual Federalist post on issues of style; that should be about substance.

So his writing is gorgeous, as I’ve said.  That doesn’t mean it’s easy.  At least, not in a modern sense.  It’s dense af.  The man is capable of packing a tremendous amount of information into a single sentence.  And those sentences aren’t short either; it’s very hypotactic, returning to an earlier theme of this post.  Nevertheless, it’s clear, it’s direct, it’s to the point.  And for the length of his sentences, he’s nevertheless concise.  He’s plain, in the sense that he doesn’t waste words, but he’s ornate, in that the words he chooses are precise and elevated.  He’s also plain in the sense that in the whole of Federalist No.1, I think there’s but one extended metaphor.  He’s writing to be understood.3  He’s writing artfully, but he’s not writing art, if that makes any sense.

And yet, it is a sort of art.  I think that the way I’m describing his writing is the way Latinists4 tend to describe Caesar.  Which is twice ironic.  Because on the one hand, there was a bit of Caesar in ol’ Alex.  But on the other hand, The Founders reviled Caesar as the murderer of The Great Roman Republic.  To tie all this together, I’m going to give here a passage from Federalist No.1 in which he attacks demagogues.  And let us try to bear in mind that he is quite implicitly attacking Caesar himself while very much writing in a style really quite similar to Caesar’s own…

…A dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people, than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics the greatest number have begun their career, by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing Demagogues and ending Tyrants.

They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but this guy wields the English language as if it were a fucking sword.  One the one hand, he turns a beautiful phrase: “the specious mask of zeal,” “paying obsequious court to the people.”  On the other hand, there’s no ambiguity, he’s perfectly clear, when he talks of “the introduction of despotism,” “men who have overturned the liberties of republics,” and “commencing Demagogues and ending Tyrants.”  To put it another way, he uses fancy words when they serve to illustrate his point, but he never lets his point get bogged down in loquacious blather.

My point is, he’s a pure joy to read.  Not for the content, which is integral to the very understanding of our constitution and which stands firmly on its own two legs already.  But for the style.  For the elegance of it, for the clarity of it, for the so-well-orderedness of it.  It wasn’t my intention to set out on a project that could take me half a dozen years to complete.  But if it means reading Alexander Hamilton closely for seven years, well, there’s worse things.

Right, well, I think that’s enough for tonight.  It’s 4:15 and I still need to proofread and publish.  And I want to go to bed.  So until the next time.

זיי געסונט

 

  1. A side-thought for the one French person who reads this.  I had originally written, “And Joschka didn’t give me shit about my German.”  But then I replaced “about my German,” which was already understood, with “any.”  And, I think, this is how French uses “en.”  Compare (and I hope this is right): Il n’a moqué de moi pour mon Allemande with Il n’en a moqué de moi.  So I’m wondering if there’s a relationship between the way English uses “any” in this situation compared with the way French uses “en,” which, by the way, don’t sound entirely indifferent.  Anyway, I’m sure the French reader will have something to say about this. []
  2. Also, apparently, she’s not a big fan of Rousseau.  Apparently he was a very “Do as I say, not as I do” kind of guy.  So I can get that.  But he’s a pretty big figure in the Enlightenment and certainly had an impact on the American Revolution.  So the fact that he might personally have been a cunt doesn’t interest me so much. []
  3. And this is in stark contrast, it seems to me, with Rousseau, I must say. []
  4. And even Cicero, for that matter. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
2 May, 2017

Who are we?  That’s an easy one, right?  Let me narrow that down.  How do we define ourselves?  As individuals, I mean.  What makes you you?  What makes me me?  In our own eyes, I mean.  It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately.  And I think – I hope – I’ve been drawing nearer to an answer; for myself at least.  On more which shortly.

I was listening to an interview on NPR a while back, with an author – the name escapes me – who was talking about what he thought the economies of the future would be like.  Specifically, what would happen when, due to ever-increasing mechanization, there simply won’t be enough jobs for everybody.  In fact, I think we’re already entering that world.  But it’s not yet reached a scale where we can’t overlook it; as many, nay most, governments still seem content to do.  Ultimately, this led the author to the inevitable conclusion of Universal Basic Incomes.

In his mind, this would be a wonderful development as it would allow people to pursue their passions without the hindrance of being forced to work a job one dislikes, simply to pay the rent and put food on the table.  But then a caller asked, what about those of us who have jobs we love?  To which the author replied with something along the lines of, identifying yourself by your job is an outmoded way of thinking.  In a future of UBIs, he argued, people will no longer say, “I am a sanitation worker,” or “I am an office clerk,” or whatever.

The caller, however, found this unsatisfactory.  After all, some of us, she argued, do we what we do because that’s how we identify ourselves.  Doctors, teachers, artists, were some of the examples she gave; or if not the specific examples, at least the sort of examples.  Anyway, this got me thinking.  Am I “a teacher”?  Surely that’s my job.  It may well be my career.  But is it who I am?  Certainly other people have said that about me.  “Dave, you’re a natural teacher.”  Meaning, there’s something in my nature that makes me “a teacher,” as opposed to simply that being the job I happen to have.  And perhaps that’s true.  I’ll come back to it.

I have a friend who keeps a really quite wonderful Instagram feed.  The pictures are of course lovely, to be sure.  But when I say “wonderful,” I mean more the comments she attaches to the pictures.  For, there seems to be a tension – and I don’t mean the word negatively, but I can’t think of a better one – between two concurrently existing identities.  One is that of an independent person who also happens to be an artist.  The other is that of a mother and wife.

And what I read in the comments, is that she struggles to find time to be both.  I also think she succeeds wildly at both.  But it seems not to be easy, as I read it.  One picture will be of her kids playing outside, and the caption will express the sheer joy of raising these children, at seeing them grow, and all the rest of it.  And she seems to be saying, “This is who I am, I am a mother.”

And then she’ll post something as simple as a cup of coffee.  And the caption will be something along the lines of, “It’s so nice to have a few quiet moments to myself, to be free to be me.”  I paraphrase, of course.  But my point is, in all of that, she seeks her own identity.  A proud mother, who nevertheless must be a strong and independent individual.  I hasten to add; this is how I interpret her Instagram.  I’ve not yet had the chance to have this conversation with her; and gods know when I’ll next get home to do so.  And so, obviously, I imprint my own experiences onto my reading of her timeline.  Nevertheless, even if I may be wrong in some of the particulars, it helps me in my quest to answer this question for myself.

So then, who am I?  Am I simply a teacher?  I don’t seek to deny it.  Yet neither do I think that this is a complete answer.  What gets me a little bit closer to my answer is an examination of how I choose to spend my free time.

Until this month, all of my free (productive) time had been bound up in my efforts to complete my Hebrew course book.  Now that I have, I find I have the freedom to apply myself to a broader range of interests.  I continue, of course, with my Hebrew studies.  But to this, I have added a (long-overdue) return to Greek.  At the moment, I’ve undertaken to read Aristotle’s Περὶ Ποιητικἢϲ (Poetics).  And I’m already thinking I’d like to move on to Sophocles when I finish this, to read Oedipus at Colonus and then Antigone; I’ve already read Oedipus Tyrannus twice.

If that’s not enough, I’ve finally got to work on my Federalist Project, which I explained in my last post.  And I’ve started reading Rousseau’s Du Contrat Social (On the Social Contract).  All that to say nothing of keeping this blogue a going concern while trying to find the time to write creatively, i.e. the odd bit of silly fiction.

And so, most days look something like this.  Go to work and read French on the subway.  Teach.  Come home and nap.  Ease back into life with a bit of Netflix before cooking something for dinner.  But after dinner, it’s down to work.  An hour or two of Hebrew followed by an hour or two of Greek.  Lesson planning, if necessary.  Do up a blogue post of there’s time.  Some days I’ll switch out the Greek or the Hebrew to work on the Federalist.  Oh, and squeeze in some time for the guitar if nobody’s home.

But lately, when I climb into bed at the end of it all, I’ve been feeling rather good about myself.  Something along the lines of, “Yes, I’m (finally) doing the things I want to do.  This feels right.”  Or, at least, most of the things I want to do.  Because I’m still not finding any time to actively improve my German.  Though lately, I’m thinking, if I can find the time for all these other things, I ought to be able to schedule in 20-30 minutes a day to do the hard work of reading some German.

And it is hard work, I say by way of a slight detour.  The problem with German, for me, is not one of difficulty, per se, nor is it one of grammar.  It is, quite simply, a question of vocabulary.  There are just…so…many…fucking…words.  The French lexicon is a fraction of the size, which is why I actually can simply read it on the subway.  But with German, I find I must constantly be looking up words.  And I know that if I would simply do a little bit every day, my Wortschatz would grow of its own accord.  But to try and read something and have to look up every third word is, not to put too fine a point on it, frustrating as all hell.  But if I’m ever going to get beyond my present level, I shall simply have to do the hard work.

And yet, I’m working hard already, I say by way of brining it back around.  I make the time every day to study Hebrew and/or Greek and/or to write.  Surely I can make the time – a mere 20-30 minutes – to grind through a bit of German; until it stops being a grind at all.

So who am I? I ask again.  And I find that “teacher” is too narrow, even if it fits seamlessly into all of the other things I’ve just touched on.  “Academic” sounds nice to my ear, but I don’t have a PhD, much less a University position, much less do I publish academic articles.  So that’s out.  “Intellectual” sounds pretty good to my ear too.  But I think calling oneself an “intellectual” sounds a touch arrogant; though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t facny the idea of other people seeing me that way.  But two steps down from “academic” and one down from “intellectual” we find “dilettante.”  Which, let’s face it, sounds a bit foppish.

Nevertheless, dictionary.com defines dilettante this way: “1) a person who takes up an art, activity, or subject merely for amusement, especially in a desultory or superficial way; dabbler.  2) a lover of an art or science, especially of fine art.”  Foppish though it may sound, that does seem to fit the bill.

It also seems to match up pretty well with who my friends are here.  And we must add, that however much time I spend on these pursuits when I’m alone, I am also a social creature.  Or, at least, as social a creature as a misanthropic sonofabitch like myself can reasonably be expected to be. But as I say, look at my friends here.

There’s Zibs & Jan, who all along I’ve been referring to as my “intellectual” friends.  And Annett and Jan, my “artist” friends.  Also an artist, my friend/conversation partner/stranger-in-a-strange-land comrade, Anne.  And Joschka – who, along with Dale, is one of the most effortlessly brilliant people I know – is a computer programmer by trade (which is both an art and a science), but also a music lover.  And I don’t know how you classify the person you can drunkenly talk politics with over a game of chess at 3:30 in the morning, but “intellectual” has to come pretty close.

Now, admittedly, who my friends are here in Berlin owes as much to accident as anything.  And yet, you’re always going to be friends with the sort of people you’re going to be friends with.  Which, I grant you, is tautological.  But I have to admit, I’ve really lucked out in that department.  My friends match up really quite well with the person I think I am, the person I’m trying to be.

So, finally, to answer the question, “Who am I?”, well, I guess “dilettante” is the best I’m going to do for now.  Maybe one day I will have the good fortune to be able to add “father” to that.  But that’s a question for Κλωθώ, Λάχεϲιϲ καὶ ¨Ατροποϲ, who are the Fates, for you lay-people.

So much for that bit of self-indulgent solipsism.  I’ve been wanting to put down some thoughts about living in “the East” for a while now.  So let me hit on that for a bit.

The thing that strikes you about East Berlin in 2017 – or that strikes me, anyway – is that there’s a certain degree of romanticization with the whole thing.  In fact, German even has a word for it.  Because of course it does.  The word is Ostalgie, which is a portmanteau of Ost and Nostalgie – ‘East’ & ‘nostalgia.’  It’s not a just a vibe, it’s something that’s actively marketed.  As a transplant who’s only been here a scant ten months, I surely can’t cover the full semantic range of this word.  But it seems to be a fondness for a bygone time, a bygone way of life, when (and obviously where) things were simpler.

For example, we still have the tram here; which was torn up in West Berlin after the war.  And trams/trollies/street cars are romanticized everywhere: Brooklyn, Roger Rabbit, etc.  They’re seen – I think – as symbols of a time from before Big Auto remade our cities for the worse.  But anyway, my first impression of the tram was a positive one.  I like having the tram around.  And the fact that it’s only in the East, well, that’s kinda cool.  And while it would be silly for me to self-identify as an East-Berliner – whatever that even means in 2017 – it’s nevertheless where I live.  And so I want to find things I can like about living here, things I can be proud of, even.  The tram, generally, is one of those things.

Hell, even the pickles have been made into…well, if not a big deal, then, at least, kind of a big deal…or, at the very least, a deal.  If you go to the right shops, you can find Spreewaldgurken, which – to my understanding – are held to be a holdover product, one of the few consumer goods that was born in, and subsequently survived, the DDR.  Like, “Whoa, actual communist German pickles!  That’s so oldschool!”

Ugh, fucking hipsters ruin everything.  But that’s what it is, though.  It’s the hipsters that have created this cool “vibe” around The East.  Because here’s a thing I’ve learned.  (Or, at least, an observation I’ve made in my limited and self-selecting experiences).  There’s three kinds of people, when it comes to The East.1

First, there’s the hipsters, just mentioned.  Either transplants like myself,2 or else just people who, even if they were born before the wall fell, are nevertheless too young to have any meaningful memories of what life was like in the DDR.  These people can cherry-pick all the nice things and dither around in rose-colored nostalgia.

Then there’s the people who actually lived in the DDR, and hated it.  Hated the oppression, the spying, the economic stagnation and lack of opportunity.3  With them, go the people from The West.  Though obviously they don’t have the same emotional investment going on.  I’ll give the example of two former students: one grew up in the East, one in the West.

The one who grew up in the East, man did she hate it.  Any time I’d ask her about it, she’d make a face and say it was terrible and immediately try and change the subject.  In fact, I was able to learn very little of substance from her on the topic, so unwilling was she to speak of it, so bitter (apparently) were her memories.  But that’s not nothing.  Her visceral, emotional reaction to the subject of “East Germany” spoke for itself.

My student from the West comes at it from a totally different perspective.  I’ve written about her before.  This is the one who gave me a map of the city and a list of things to check out in West Berlin; the one who gave me a book before I left for New York.  Apparently she had family in the DDR.  She told me stories of how difficult it was to travel between West & East, how you’d have to change your money at bend-you-over-a-barrel rates.  And she told me that when her relatives would visit, they would give them oranges as gifts.  This struck me.

It struck me, but apparently I gleaned the wrong impression from it.  I understood this as, “Shit, how bad must life be in The East when something as simple as a fucking orange becomes a meaningful gift?”  However, when I mentioned this to Joschka, he told me that I’d had it all wrong.  It wasn’t a question of life being bad, he said.  It was simply that you couldn’t get oranges in The East; it was a novelty.  No different than a uniquely Chinese food product that you can’t find in America.  It doesn’t mean life is bad in America.  It just means you don’t have access to that particular product.4

I mention this thing about the oranges to illustrate the point that my impressions are, per se, superficial.  I don’t have – I can’t have – the full picture.  When I report my impressions here, that’s all they are: impressions.  It doesn’t mean they’re invalid.  But we – I the writer, and you the reader – should always be aware that there may be more to the picture than I can see.

Anyway, I asked her once – my West German student – if, growing up, she thought of the DDR as a different country, the same way she might think of France, or Italy or China; or if she conceived of one Germany that had had a division forced upon it from the outside.  After all, as an American, born in 1981; as a metic living in Berlin but not a proper Berliner (and certainly not a German); after all of this, I say, I’ve only ever thought of Germany.

Germany as an idea, as a country, was always, for me, a simple fact.  America was a country.  France was a country.  China was a country.  And Germany was a country.  It was just that, after the war, we split them up for a while, as a precaution.  A unified Germany always seemed to me to be a fait accompli.  Nevermind the fact that I actually remember my father sitting me down in front of the TV and making me watch the wall come down, because it was “important.”

All to say, that’s what I was bringing to the table when I asked my student how she saw things.  And her answer surprised me.  For she told me that, to her, the DDR was a foreign country, just as surely as China was a foreign country.  Yes, she happened to have family there.  Yes, they also spoke German.  But they speak German in Switzerland and Austria too.  Fine.  The point is, you had Germans in the DDR who hated it.  And you had Germans in The West who thought it was sufficiently different as to be a genuinely different country.

Then there’s the third group.  These are the people who genuinely liked the DDR.  Some of them even want it back.  And that’s a whole different sort of Ostalgie.  To them, life was better.  You were guaranteed a job, even if it wasn’t something you wanted to do.  You were guaranteed a home, even if it was a boilerplate Plattenbau.  You were guaranteed a car, even if it was a shitty Trabi5– which you might have to wait years for, not for nothing.

I’ve never met any of these people.  But I’ve read about them.  I’ve written previously about a former student who was studying “memory and the DDR.”  We read many articles together about people who miss the “good old days,” as improbable as that may seem.  Most of them missed the DDR for the reasons given above.  But we also read about people who were part of the system.  People who were either outright Stasi informants; others who would simply benefit from an anonymous tip at their neighbor’s expense.  Look, I won’t split hairs.  To my mind, it was a twisted system, and good riddance to it.

But there were people who profited by it.  Well, there’s people who profit by any system.  More troubling to me, there were people who did perfectly alright by it.  And many of these people are not doing alright by the current system.  At the risk of injecting my own politics into this – which as I rule, I try to avoid – we’re all getting screwed by the current system.  But to me, that means, fix the current system in accordance with the ideals of free speech and economic mobility.  I’m troubled by people who recognize that they’re getting screwed but who then think that the answer is totalitarian government enforcing a minimum baseline of survivability hand-in-hand with a secret police that promotes neighbor-on-neighbor, even family-on-family, surveillance.

So no, I don’t personally know any people like that.  But I know they’re out there.  And more to the point, they’re out here.  In East Berlin, where I live.  In Köpenick, where I live.  Hell, apparently the NPD – the current day Nazi party – has their headquarters in Köpenick.  And no, I’ve never seen it.  I’ve never seen any public displays of rightwing activity here.  But it is here, all the same.  And in a broader sense, the right-wing nationalist stuff tends to be concentrated in the East.  AfD, for example, is big in Dresden.

And so, fairly or not, I do walk around my neighborhood with a bit of a skeptical eye.  Especially when I look at older folk.  I do wonder, “Have you lived here your whole life?  Do you miss the DDR?  How do you see the world?”

I also wonder, why is it that nationalism takes deeper root in the East.  I mean, sometimes I wonder, “What does 60 years of Gestapo and Stasi do to a people?”  And I know it’s not fair to paint with that kind of broad brush, to look at old people on the street and just start wondering.  But sometimes it’s hard not too.  It’s got to warp people, doesn’t it?

But then I look at people my age.  I have students, my age or younger, who’ve lived their whole lives in Berlin.  Some were born in East Berlin before the wall came down.  And they seem to be entirely unaffected by it.  For them, Germany is Germany and they don’t know anything about the DDR; don’t care to, even.  So even if it has somehow warped the older generations, young people seem to be remarkably free from it all.  And that, I think, is a great cause for optimism.

I surely have more to say on the subject.  But what’s the rush.  I’ll no doubt return to this in a later post.  This, at least, gets down some of the impressions I’ve formed of the whole East/West divide, to the extent that it exists at all; which, as I hope I’ve shown, is no sure thing.  But politics is a shitty note to end on.

So I’ll close with this.  Of the six tomato seeds I’ve planted, five of them have sprouted.  Not much, so far.  Just tiny little sprigs of green with two tiny little leaves at the ends.  And I know that for people who normally do this shit, it’s totes nbd.  But to me, it’s amazing.  You see them stretching towards the window during the day, leaves wide open.  But at night, those little tiny wings fold up and their stalks straighten out.  Nature is incredible.  They’re actually growing, right before my very eyes.  They’re alive!!!6

I showed them to Marco and he was quite pleased.  But also cautious.  It’s a good start, he was saying.  But it’s far too soon to tell if we’ll actually get tomatoes from them.  So I guess we’ll have to wait and see.  Nevertheless, it’s 10,000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean a good start.

It’s still a bit chilly here.  Spring hasn’t quite sprung yet.  But maybe my tomatoes have.  So here’s to finding out what you’re going to grow up to be.  Here’s to growth.

זיי געסונט

 

  1. Three kinds of people?  That’s a nice break from the usual, “There’s two kinds of people” duality that we construct around every blessed issue. []
  2. Though, “No hipster am I,” I say defiantly behind my overgrown beard and stupid hat, disproving myself in the very act. []
  3. As they see it. []
  4. This, btw, is why I loved living in Chinatown. []
  5. The Trabant, as I understand it, was basically communism in car-form.  Ugly and underpowered, yet practical and utilitarian.  There was only one model.  Everybody got the same damned car.  I once passingly insulted the Trabi to another student of mine (roughly my age), and she chastised me for it.  If I understood her correctly – and I’m not at all sure that I did – what I derided as nothing more than a jalopy was, for generations of Germans, something to aspire to. []
  6. Where’s Colin Clive when you need him? []

The Federalist Project

The Federalist Project
Introduction

For the usual readers of this blogue, who are accustomed to finding here either stories about my travels and experiences or the odd bit of silly fiction, a few words of explanation are probably in order.  The following will be the first in a series of short postings about a collection of documents generally referred to as The Federalist or The Federalist Papers, a group of essays written in the late 18th century to defend, and to argue for the ratification of, the United States constitution.  I shall give my reasons for embarking upon this new series of posts shortly.  Suffice it to say, this subject matter may not be for everybody.  If that should be you, do feel free to skip the rest of this post as well as any future posts with the word “Federalist” in the title.

Right.  So why do this at all?  Well, if you haven’t noticed, we Americans tend to be pretty proud of our constitution.  This despite the fact that no two people seem to have the same view as to what the constitution actually means.  Like the bible, people tend to find in it what they want.  The constitution itself is sparsely worded and really quite short.  And, generally, it must be taken together with its first ten amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights.

And while today, the ratification of the constitution is generally seen as a fait accompli, back in 1789, it was no sure thing.  The people, or rather the several states, needed to be convinced of it.  After all, at the time of its drafting, the United States were operating under a different charter, the Articles of Confederation.  Indeed, there was no legal provision for ditching the Articles and starting over with a new constitution.  This made the constitution itself, if not an illegal charter, an extra-legal one.  That is, it was born outside of the existing body of laws.

The deal was, if any nine of the original thirteen states agreed to make the switch, then the Articles would become null and void and the new constitution would take effect.  But as I said, the states needed convincing, and some more than others.  None more so, apparently, than New York.  Because even back then, what’s America without New York?

In any case, New York was iffy, at best, at the outset.  How then to convince the Empire State?  The answer came in the form of 85 essays, published between October 1787 and May 1788.  The essays would serve two main purposes.  The first was simply to allay fears that the new proposed federal government would be too powerful, at the expense of the states.1  The second was to explain the purpose and meaning of the constitution; something which the constitution itself noticeably does not do.

And who was behind this effort?  Well, it was primarily the work of two men.  One was the very “father of the constitution” himself, Virginian and fourth president, James Madison.  The other, of course, was that brilliant – and lately quite popular – New Yorker, Alexander Hamilton.  Of the 85 essays, Hamilton wrote fully 51 of them to Madison’s 29.  John Jay, first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, also a New Yorker, wrote the remaining five.

Most American students will have at least learned of the Federalist in high school social studies class.  We learn, roughly, of the role they played in getting the constitution ratified.  We may also learn that they are still read today by constitutional scholars and lawyers, especially when the constitutionality of a given law comes before the Supreme Court.  We may even have read, perhaps in college, selected essays; or at least parts of essays.2  But I suspect that very few of us who do not go into careers as constitutional scholars or lawyers have read them in their entirety.

And yet, they are often in the news.  As I just mentioned, when a new law is argued in front of the Supreme Court, the relevant essay might be trotted out for public consumption.  When it is suggested that president Trump may be doing some thing (or, let’s face it, many things) that were never intended by “the Founders,”3 some or other Federalist argument is often presented to make the case.

Which brings me to this, my so-called Federalist Project.  My goal is to read each of the 85 essays in their turn and to publish a short blogue post in reaction.  I shall do my best not to bring any personal ideology to this project, to not inject my own opinions into these posts; though, on some level, that is surely impossible.  I simply wish to read them and to understand them.

To the extent that I am able, I wish to do this both diachronically and synchronically.  In other words, I wish to understand them as best I can both in terms of how they read today but also in the context of their own times.  In the case of the former, though I shall try my hardest, I suspect it will be impossible to leave my own views at the door.  As for the latter, I shall surely make errors in my knowledge of history.  I beg forgiveness in advance for both of these inevitable failings.

I set no specific timetable for the completion of this project.  That said, I will hope to tackle at least one or two essays each month.  Even at that pace, it will take me upwards of four years to finish this.  But what’s the rush.  These documents have been around for more than two-hundred years.  And I’ve so far gone thirty-six without reading them.  So it will take as much time as it takes.

As for the text, I will be working from the Bantam edition, published in 1982 with an introduction and commentary by Gary Wills.4  Direct quotations will be taken from this source.  That said, The Federalist Papers are obviously in the public domain.  And so, I will add a link in each post to the relevant essay in order that the interested reader (if he or she should exist) may read the document for themselves, stripped of my own opinions and necessarily cherry-picked quotations.

We Americans love our constitution.  Yet often, I fear we are over-proud and under-learned of it.  In the course of this endeavor, I hope to come to know our national charter more intimately, to better understand what is at the very heart of American political identity.  I hope, too, that some of you will choose to join me on this journey; will argue with me when you don’t agree; will set me right where I am wrong.  In these times of sound-bites and growing ignorance, we could all do with a little more learning, a little more thought.  Let this be a small step towards those ends.

  1. Remember, we had just revolted from monarchical England. []
  2. Madison’s discussion of ‘faction’ in No. 10, for example. []
  3. I’ve put “the Founders” in quotes because I think it’s ridiculous that we refer to them as one block of people, as if they all shared the same views and opinions.  They most certainly did not. []
  4. On a personal note, I ordered this book from Amazon way back in 2001, while I was studying early American history in college.  (I did my senior thesis – which was not at all good – on Hamilton, Adams and the Federalist party).  Anyway, years later, I was looking over my purchase history and discovered that I’d ordered the book on September 11, 2001.  I surely didn’t go shopping that day, so I can only assume it was sometime after midnight of the 10th.  Still, that’s always struck me as an eerie coincidence of history, as a serious dose of jingoistic patriotism was on the very verge of being ginned up… []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
24 April, 2017

April, April, der macht was er will.  This is a little saying that they have here in Berlin.  It means, basically, April does whatever the fuck it wants.  The beginning of the month was lovely and warm and all Spring-like.  But the last couple of weeks have been cold and windy and generally rubbishy.  The sun sets much later, and during the day, if you manage to find a spot of direct light, it’s actually quite nice.  But cross the street, or step into a shadow, and you start to shiver.  Well, friends, I’ve had enough.  I’m ready for Spring.  So come on already!

Anyway, I’m settling back into life here.  Things with the roommates are good.  We’ve had two “family dinners” since I’ve been back.  And it’s a good vibe here, when we see each other.  Although during the week, we don’t see each other all that much.  I’m out at work during the day and napping when I get home.  They’re usually in their room by the time I’m ready for dinner.  So, for me at least, it’s a very nice blend of time together and time to myself.

For years, he wrote, changing gears, I’ve dreamed of having my own little herb garden.  What could be better than picking my own fresh basil or dill or whatever?  So last weekend, I went to Hellweg, which is the German version of Home Depot1 and I bought a bunch of seed packs, two window boxes and some dirt.  Only thing was, I don’t know the first thing about gardening.

Fortunately, Lucie and Marco are big fans, and I guess Marco has sort of grown up around this stuff.  So they helped me get started, teaching me how to plant the seeds and so on.  They even gave me some soil, as apparently I’d bought soil for flowers, which I guess you shouldn’t grow things you want to eat in; I’ll have to get more.  They also gave me some extra flower pots to get started with.

I don’t know how well this is going to work out, if at all.  On the one hand, my balcony is South-facing, so it gets plenty of light.  On the other hand, there’s no shade, so maybe it gets too much light?  We’ll see.  But I’ve got cherry tomatoes, basil, parsley, dill, coriander, peppermint and rosemary.  I dream about coming home in the summer, walking out to the balcony, plucking a fresh tomato and wrapping a fresh basil leaf around it.  Or cucumbers with fresh dill.  Or cooking with fresh parsley.  Or making fresh mint tea.  Or getting some fresh coriander into my beef stock for homemade Pho.  All that, and also just looking out the window and seeing green; living things that I planted.  So either that, or it’ll all burn to death in the sun.  Like I said, we’ll see.

Zibs, Jan and I finally booked our little roadtrip.  We’re going for a three-day weekend, along with some Norwegian friend of theirs from college, up to a little vacation house on the Ostsee, which in English is the Baltic.  This will be the second weekend in May.  Hopefully it will have warmed up by then.  Anyway, the house – which we booked through Airbnb – seems to be right on the water.  So I’m thinking it will be quite nice.

Then, the next weekend, Joschka and I are planning to drive down to Bavaria to visit our friends from the metal festivals.  Another festival mate, from Joschka’s hometown, will be meeting us there too apparently.  I’m definitely looking forward to this.  I’ve never been to Bavaria, and I’ve never seen this crew outside of the festival.  The kids – and they are kids; they’re all in their early 20’s – are just all around good people, to say nothing of fun.

But in addition to the kids, I’m also looking forward to seeing the dad of one of the girls.  He also comes to all the festivals.  I guess he’s probably around 50 or so.  But at the last festival, we bonded over our love of old school classic rock and metal, which the young’uns don’t seem to be into so much.  He’s probably the only guy I know who’s into Gary Moore, for example.

So that will be two trips in two weekends.  And after that, I think I’ll just stay home for a bit and not spend money.

I’m settling into my new work schedule too.  Now it’s three days a week at the heretofore “Friday school,” which I guess I’ll just call my “main school” going forward.  At the moment, I’ve got beginners on Tuesdays and the advanced on Thursday/Friday.  The beginners are absolutely sweet and motivated and hardworking.  But two or three of them barely speak any English at all, so in that sense it’s quite challenging.  And then there’s another guy in the class who, while not quite ready to move up to the intermediate group, is nevertheless well ahead of the others.  The upshot being that you’ve got to find different work for him.  Meaning, basically, that you’re teaching two classes at once.  I enjoy working with them, but it ain’t easy.

Having the advanced group two days in a row, though, is pretty great.  It means I get to connect my lessons; use Friday to build on what we did Thursday.  I think – or at least I hope – I’ll be able to get a lot more out of them this way.  And of course, the material is just more interesting.  This week, for example, I did Shakespeare Sonnet 116 with them.2  The language is tough, but I walk them through it.  The real point, though, is to get some conversation going.

Basically, the poem is about “true love.”  But from there, everybody has their own ideas and opinions and they’re usually pretty good about expressing them.  Some people think it’s beautiful, others find it naïve.  Some think it’s a worthy goal, others find it constraining.  But they talk, is the point.  And there are some pretty smart people in that room, which makes it a lot of fun.

Not to say there aren’t smart people in the beginner group.  There certainly are.  But they don’t have the tools to handle that kind of discussion yet.  It will be cool, though, to do this with them, when, several months from now, they find their way into the advanced class.

Anne, my French tandem partner/stranger-in-a-strange land friend, is back in Berlin.  So Friday, she invited me to this little theatre piece she was working.  It’s a French company, in Berlin.  So the show was in French with German supertitles.  The show itself was very cool.  It was a one-woman spiel, in which she played the characters of several social workers3 who work with refugees.  The actress was very good indeed, and the text itself was both touching and terribly relevant.  Though in the case of the text, I couldn’t feel the full force of it.

Despite the fact that the actress spoke her lines quite clearly, I was really up against the limits of my French.  And so, while I could follow the story and generally knew what was going on, I wasn’t getting the nuance.  The supertitles weren’t much help either.  See, to watch something in German or French with English subtitles is one thing; that’s no problem.  But to try and grab the German supertitles at the same time as the French sound, well, 1) I’m too slow and 2) it’s an extra step, because I’m filtering it through English either coming or going.  Going direct between two foreign languages – both of which I’m functional in, but neither of which I’m fluent in – that’s hard work.

So hard was it, in fact, that I found myself either listening to the French or reading the German.  Not, as I’d hoped, filling in the French gaps with German when I needed it.  Because once I switched my attention to the second language, the first had moved on sufficiently that I could no longer catch up.  So I needed to wait for a pause before I could switch back.  But even with all this, it was a pretty cool experience; and not anything I’d ever tried before.  And I was fairly pleased with myself to have been able to keep up as well as I did.  It just wasn’t easy.

After the show, Anne asked me if I cried; I guess a number of people did.  But I didn’t.  It was all I could do to simply understand.  Interacting with the show on an emotional level was beyond me.  Which is instructive too.  It’s something to keep in mind when I put 16th century English poetry in front of my students.  Granted, we have the freedom to stop and discuss and explain.  But on some level, there’s going to be a wall there.  In that sense, I’m all the more impressed with what they’re able to give me.

So I mostly hung out with Anne after the show, and we mostly spoke German.  Ostensibly, we were also hanging out with her colleagues – the writer, admin people from the theatre, etc.  But since they’re all French, and were speaking French, I couldn’t really participate.  Listening to one actress in a quiet theatre is one thing.  Keeping up with a conversation in a noisy bar, that’s a horse of a different color.

Anne’s boyfriend was also there.  He’s a lovely chap; a sound engineer by trade, and often not in Berlin.  I’d only met him once before.  He hardly speaks any English and his German is pretty rudimentary.  So one-on-one, we were mostly doing French, with a smattering of the other two.  But he’s sweet as can be, and – thank the gods – speaks quite slowly.  So with him, I could manage.  In the end though, it was just great to catch up with Anne.  I probably hadn’t seen her in at least six weeks.

Around midnight, everybody started going their separate ways.  My way led me to Joschka’s, as the theatre was literally a three-minute walk from his apartment.  I hadn’t seen him in at least six weeks either, but for the one time at Vinny’s while I was home.  I’d say it was classic times, but we didn’t really drink much.  We had a couple of very nice beers, but no cocktails or scotch.  On the other hand, we made dinner (or breakfast) around two or three in the morning, and that’s not not classic.  I think I must have got home around six.

Saturday night, we – Joschka and I – went to go see this Austrian metal band, Harakiri for the Sky.  He’s a big fan.  I thought they were alright.  They’re very “soundscape-y.”  What I mean, I think, is that their music, while melodic, kind of drones on.  It’s very nice and atmospheric when you’re listening at home, but I think it’s not so great for a live show.  They weren’t bad, mind you.  Just not very exciting, to my mind.  Also, I found the bass player kind of disappointing.  He was clearly extremely talented, wielding a six-string axe.  But there was a lot of open space in the music where he really could have added something special; and he never seemed to.

Taken altogether, though, I went to the theatre on Friday and a metal show on Saturday.  I spent time with two of my Berlin besties whom I hadn’t seen in quite a while.  It was a pretty good weekend, any way you cut it.

The difficulty now is finding time to work on all my “projects.”  I’ve put off getting back to Greek long enough.  For a while, I’ve been debating with myself what text I should read.  Thucydides is wonderfully relevant – to say nothing of being the best prose in any language ever – but also quite difficult.  Herodotus is a wonderful story teller, and quite readable, but also quite long.  So I’ve decided I’m going to do Aristotle’s Poetics.  It’s not that long, and his style is pretty clean.  I think that’ll be a good way back in.  I’m off Mondays, so I’ll start that tomorrow.

Then there’s my “Federalist project.”  I wrote about this in my New Year’s Resolution post, but in short, the plan is to read each Federalist essay and write a short post reacting to it.  I’ll give a full explanation as an opening post.  The difficulty lies in the fact that this becomes my third on-going writing project.  The first, obviously, is this blogue.  The second is another silly fairy tale I’m working on.  So when I sit down in front of the computer, which do I write for?  I do want to get that under way though.  Hopefully this week or next.

And of course, there’s the Hebrew.  After I finished the course book, I bought a new workbook by the same authors.  If the course book is designed as a first-year Hebrew course, then this new workbook is designed as a second year text.  It’s got about thirty or so biblical passages of varying length.  But they’re all unabridged, real-deal readings.  So I’m working on that as well.

And, frustratingly, it’s giving me second thoughts about my original goal of keeping up with the weekly parsha readings starting with the new year in September.  I don’t mean that the language is so difficult that it’s beyond me.  It’s not.  But it is difficult, and it’s slow going.  So on the one hand, I’ve no doubt that I have the skills to read The Five Books.  On the other hand, I’m far less certain that I have the skills to read so much so fast.  It’s a question of pace.  But that’s still four-plus months away.  I’ll reassess again when I finish this workbook.  I’m still going to try, but I may have to modify my goal a bit.  We’ll see.

Last weekend, I tried my hand at an Eisbein, which is a sort of German ham hock.  It’s a part of the pig’s leg, with a giant bone in the middle of some rather tough meat.  Traditionally, it’s roasted and served with Rotkohl (red cabbage) and kraut and maybe potatoes.  However, I did it as a braise with leeks and pears.  The meat itself was pretty fucking fantastic, if I do say so myself.  The difficulty, for me, lies in the skin.  We don’t usually buy pork products with the skin attached.  After all, pork skin is quite think and quite chewy.  If you roast it right, you can get it to crisp up pretty nice; which, I guess, is why they do it that way.  But I chose the braise, because it seemed to me that this would be the best way to get the meat tender.

But what to do about the skin?  The first problem is, we have an electric oven.  In other words, no broiler, no direct flame.  If I had a gas oven, I’d have just finished it underneath broiler and that should have crisped up the skin just fine.  So I experimented.  After about four hours, I removed half the skin.  Removing the cover, I put the rest of it back in under high heat for 15-20 minutes.  That didn’t do much of anything, and that part of the skin remained rather chewy and flavorless.

But for the skin I removed, I cut it into little squares and fried it up in olive oil.  First of all, man did that shit pop and dance around in the pan!  That’s what aprons are for, my friends.  Also, I don’t have an apron.  However, the end product was pretty fantastic.  It was crispy and crunchy and full of flavor.  I guess it’s a take on pork rinds?4  I dunno.  I was inspired to try it from something I saw in Anthony Borudain’s No Reservations.  I don’t think that’s exactly what he did, but it gave me the idea, anyway.  In the end, I was damned pleased with that, and it’s just what I’m going to do the next time.

The only other thing, then, that still requires some experimentation is the braise itself.  The idea behind the leeks and pears is that pork has an inherent sweetness, and I thought they would pear pair well together.  And they still might.  But I found them to be somewhat bitter.  So maybe I need to put them in closer to the end?  Or maybe just do it with something else entirely?  I dunno.  Like I said, I still need to experiment there.

But that’s enough of that.  To the extent that anybody actually reads this thing, I don’t think people are coming here for my rambling thoughts on cooking.  In fact, I think that’s enough for this post in general.  I keep wanting to put down my thoughts about this whole East Berlin/East Germany thing.  But it’s a lot to go into now.  And also, it’s not that late, so I’m thinking I may take another crack at that silly fairy tale or even get started on this whole “Federalist Project.”  So until next time…

זיי געסונט

  1. Or, “Home Shithole,” as my old electrician-boss Gerry used to call it. []
  2. …Love is not love / which alters when it alteration finds… []
  3. Or possibly just one social worker. []
  4. But not the gross shit they sell in plastic bags at the supermarket as junk food. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
19 April, 2017
A Berliner in New York, Part III

Right, so Part The third of my time in New York; and hopefully Part the Last as well.  After lunch with Uncle Art, we dropped him back off at the factory/office.  It’s always great to see that guy.  That said, it’s also a touch bittersweet.  You see him slowing down, you know he’s 90.  God willing, he’ll be around for a long time yet.  But you don’t take these visits for granted.  It was important to me to see him while I was in, so I’m glad I got the chance.

He asked me at one point during the visit if I’m living in “East Germany.”  And I honestly wasn’t sure if he just meant the east of the country or the DDR.  My impression was that he meant the latter.  So I started to say that it’s all just one Germany now.  But than I realized that if he was going to ask about what life is like in Berlin (and East Berlin, at that), I’d soon find myself saying something like, “Well, things are pretty different in the East, actually.”  Which they are.  In the end, though, the conversation didn’t go much further than asking about my job and if I was happy there/here.

Anyway, as I said, it was great to see him.  After we dropped him off, we drove down to Jersey to visit Aunt Cookie, my mom’s sister.  As it happens, I’m probably closer with her than any of my other aunts and uncles.  This despite the fact that she doesn’t travel anymore with the result that I only see her maybe two or three times a year.

But when I was living in the city, I’d usually call her about once a month or so.  I was in the habit of calling during my walks home from work, which as a general rule was a great time to catch up with people.  Anyway, I’d ring her up and our chats would usually last the whole of my walk, which is to say about an hour.  So that was a lovely thing.

Anyway, we drove down – me and the ‘rents – for a visit; this was the Tuesday before I flew back to Germany.  We had a very nice time.  Just the usual catching up and joking around.  She’s always excited to have company, so she tends to fuss over me/us rather a bit.  I’m not generally one to be fussed over, but that’s her way and you’ve got to let her have it.  And anyway, she puts up with my surly, sarcastic, deadpan ass, so I’m certainly not going to throw stones from my glass house.

Also, she’s great about respecting my boundaries.  What I mean is, she’ll ask me any question on any subject, but if she senses that I don’t want to talk about something, she’ll dead it, no questions asked.  So that’s something I definitely appreciate.  Add to that the fact that I can speak pretty candidly with her and never have to worry about offending her.  She’s good people.  And as I said, it was a very lovely – if short – visit.

After that, my next stop was Queens, to have dinner with Flare1 and Garth.  Shout-out to my dad for driving me to Astoria on their way home.  Anyway, Flare is another one of these people I’ve known since High School; though we didn’t go to the same HS.  She’s another one who fits the “friends as much as family” schema.  Indeed, the family thing goes a bit further with her.  See, I’ve spent every Christmas with her and her fam from 2010 to 2015.  And this past Christmas, they Skyped me in.  That’s a pretty special thing for me.  I mean, they don’t treat me as a guest, they treat me like part of the family.  And this past year, her mom, her uncle, her cousins, they all got on the Skype and said some variation of, “It’s weird that you’re not here; you’re a part of our Christmas.”  That’s pretty fucking special.  And for a Yid, it beats the hell out of Chinese food and a movie, don’t it?

When I got there, Garth hadn’t come home from work yet, so we had some nice one-on-one time to catch up.  But it was a little different than the usual catch-ups.  By which I mean, we’ve had a lot of the same experiences.  She did a year in Spain, so she’s a) got the living in Europe thing and b) the learning a foreign language in a foreign country thing.  She’s an art teacher now and has done ESL teaching in the past.  So while there was of course just regular catching up, we also did a lot comparing notes, which was really cool; and not something I was really able to do with anyone else.

For dinner, we ordered in Chinese.  Halal Chinese.  Which, I mean, I fucking love New York.  That was my first reaction, right?  Like, where else in the world do you get halal Chinese food?  My second reaction was, “Well, fuck, that defeats the purpose of getting wanton soup.”2  Garth Vader3 picked up the food on his way home, so we all ate together which was great.

Garth is lovely, gregarious, nerdy, jock-y, funny and wicked smaht.  He also works for the city DEP4 doing waste-water treatment.  Which is fascinating.  He’s another one I just ask questions to and listen to the answers.  I learned a lot about how the city functions, but a part of the city that we a) never see and b) take for granted anyway.  It’s downright fascinating.

Well, it was a late night for both of them and you could tell they were both pretty tired by the end of it.  So I didn’t stay too late, and caught a reasonable train back to the Island.  But it was wonderful to see them.  Two of the sweetest people I know.  And I’ll tell you something else, they’re too of the best huggers.  Seriously.

Wednesday I was supposed to have lunch with Heather (Keith’s wife) and the girls, by which I mean her two daughters and also Mike & Jen’s daughter, whom she had for the day.  But in the event, Jen was able to come along as well.  And then Murp surprised me by showing up too.  We went to the Inn Between, which is the definition of classic with that crew.  I normally get the wings there, because they make the best fucking wings.  But I didn’t want to eat that the day before I was flying, so I opted for the chicken Caesar salad, which is also top fucking notch.

This was perfectly lovely.  Though, as you can imagine, with three little girls at the table, it wasn’t necessarily easy to carry on an in-depth conversation.  But it didn’t matter.  It was just nice to have a little extra time with those clowns.  And little Kelsey is just starting to become an actual talking person, so it was definitely fun to chat with her a bit too.

Dinner was at a pre-grand opening for a new Shake Shack on Long Island.  Jo recently landed a big-deal job with the company, so she got us all invited to this thing, which was otherwise closed to the public.  And yet, it was so fucking crowded!  I have to admit, at first, I was like, fuck this, I don’t want to stand on a line for fast food.  But the line moved pretty quickly, and it turned out to be pretty damned good.  I mean, it’s Shake Shack after all.  Also, it was nice to have the whole fam together for one last dinner before I split.

Afterwards, Justin came back to the house for a final few rounds of NHL; in which I totally thrashed him, btw.  So that was great.  For me.  Which is what matters, right?  No, but seriously, the game itself is only half the fun.  The other half is just the sheer ridiculous of acting like idiots, yelling like crazy people and the general comedy that ensues from all that.  But also I won.  So, you know.  Party all around, points all around.5

And that was my last night home.  Next day, my ‘rents drove me to the airport.  My flight was delayed over an hour, so they hung out with me for a while before I finally went through security.  The goodbyes are always tough, no question.

But also, it felt a bit weird to be going back.  Even with that crazy busy schedule, there were still people I didn’t get to see.  In fact, after I published the first part of this post, I got an email from Amber being all, “Don’t come to New York and not see me.”  Which, she’s absolutely right, and I immediately felt guilty.  I also wanted to visit my old Jewish special-needs school, to see some of my old colleagues and students.  I didn’t get to do that either.

So I left feeling like I didn’t have enough time, not seeing everybody I wanted to see.  I also left feeling not at all rested.  I mean, I basically spent the entire two weeks either drunk, hung over or sleeping.  I really could have used a third week.  But I also couldn’t have afforded a third week.  So that was tough.

Add to that, it was a bit surreal leaving.  By the end, I wasn’t sure if “home” referred to Berlin or New York.  It was surreal leaving Berlin to go back to the states, and now it was surreal in the other direction.

Back in Berlin, I got through immigration with zero difficulty.  Which is how it should be, but I didn’t know for sure.  I was definitely playing out worst-case scenarios in my head with regard to my visa.  But in the end, there were no problems.  Well, other than the flight being delayed and it taking forever to collect my bags.

Amongst which was was a duffel bag filled with about 20 kilos of books; mostly Greek stuff.  I mean, I’ve got a proper book shelf here, and it was distressingly empty.  Also, how could I get back to work on Greek if all my books were across the Ocean?   So now I’ve got my books here, and that is glorious.  Also, my bookshelf looks amazing.  But lugging that bag home was no fun.  It was worth it, but it was no fun.

After dropping my stuff off, I went back out and grabbed a Döner for lunch.  And since that is pretty much the most Berlin thing I could do upon my return, I mark that as the official end of my visit home and my official return to Germany.  And with that, I’ll also end the official recording of my vacation.

זיי געסונט

 

  1. Her name is Jen.  In high school, we called her Jen-a-Flare (instead of Jennifer).  Anyway, Flare stuck and that’s all I ever call her. []
  2. #nopork []
  3. Garth Vader is not a Dave nickname; that’s a real nickname. []
  4. Department of Environmental Protection. []
  5. #ifyouwannabemyturgeon []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
17 April, 2017
A Berliner in New York, Part II

Diving straight in and picking up where I left off in my last post, I had just parted ways with Shuman – this is Wednesday – after bialys at Kossar’s.  Not long after, I was supposed to meet up with Codog for more noodle soup on Bayard street (still Chinatown).  But first I had to sneak in a quick beer with my friend Rachel, who was good enough to go out of her way to meet me in the neighborhood.

Rachel is part of the NYU extended “Greek” family, so to speak.  I’d see the rest of the gang Friday night for Dale’s birthday.  But Rachel couldn’t make that shindig, so it was now or never.  For years, we’d spoken together of our mutual love of pickles.  Yet, somehow, in all the years of my living around the corner from The Pickle Guys (and possibly Guss’ Pickles; was Guss’ still on the LES when we first moved in, or when did they pack up and head for Brooklyn?  The LES used to be pickle city, but now all that’s left are The Pickle Guys.  Also, why am I writing this in an extended parenthetical and not a footnote?), in all those years, I say, Rachel and I had somehow never gotten1 together for pickles.

So now we decided that’s exactly what we must do.  Only TPG would be closed by the time she could get down there.  So I ran in to their new shop, which is directly across Essex from the old shop.  And you know what?  That was fucking weird.  I mean, I’d been going to TPG for years.  Like, my thing was, anytime I went anywhere, that’s what I would bring: pickles.  Except on Pesach.  Then I’d bring a jar of their absolutely lethal, sinus-destroying, god-manifested-in-horesradish horseradish.2  But seriously, I used to bring pickles even all the way up to Maine; on the bus, no less.  I’d pop in and buy a single pickle while I was walking around or buy whole quarts for the house.  I was there all the damn time, is my point.  And while I’ve been away, they move into new, fancier digs across the street.  Like I said, it was fucking weird.

Anyway, I bought a pair of new pickles, a pair of sours & finally a pair of spicy pickles.  Got in just in time too, right before they closed.  A few minutes later, Rachel shows up and we head around the corner to some rando bar for a beer.  Now mind you, Rachel is tired from a long day at work while I’m already half-in-the-bag3 from an afternoon of day-drinking with Shuman.  So I felt a bit bad about that; but good ol’ Rach didn’t seem to mind.

Right, so we sit down with our beers and I pull out the bag of magic pickles.  At which point, Rachel confesses something to me that I was not expecting.  Turns out, for all her love pickles, she (inexplicably) doesn’t like new pickles.  Takes all kinds, I suppose.  But that’s OK, I’ll eat them later.  It certainly didn’t stop us from enjoying the hell out of those sours and spicies.  Man, I forgot how much I love pickles.  Which is weird, right?  I mean, pickles are supposed to be a big deal in Germany.  And they are, insofar as they’re everywhere.  But they’re all kinda sweet and dill-y.  I haven’t had a good sour pickle over here; not yet anyway.  So between the bialy and the sour pickle, that was some classic LES Jewish cuisine right there.

Anyway, me and Rach did the ol’ fast version of the catch-up.  It was great, if all too short.  Still, it was really nice to see her.  And I have to say, it meant a lot to me that she would go out of her way like that, knowing we’d have to rush through a single beer and speed-eat those pickles.  Seriously, I was touched.

But it was over almost as soon as it had started.  I was already late for noodles with Codog.  So I stumbled up and over to Bayard, where I found another one of these guys who’s been around for more than half my life already.  There was a time, back in high school, where Jared and I would be over at Codog’s, playing Super Bases Loaded II every single weekend in his basement.  On Sunday afternoons, we would get a tray of 50 buffalo wings and devour them while watching the Yankee game.  Those were the good times, man, I tellya.

So I meet Codog at the noodle ship.  And right after I show up, in walks his fiancée, Arlene.  Which was great, because I adore her; but I didn’t know she was coming.  So that was a lovely surprise.  Anyway, we all ate noodles.  And it was great.  How could it not be?  After that, we headed back to their place, where I was crashing for the night.  This was my only other crash of the vacation.  And for good reason.

During my first stint living back on the Island, while I was still working in the city, I was crashing at their place once a week, basically every week, for I don’t even remember how many months.  It was like a second home, and I needed it.  More than that, they were great to me.  First of all, there are no easier people to get along with.  Second, they always had a home-cooked dinner for me; always had something to drink.  The couch was comfortable.  And they both leave for work mad early; they were both gone by the time I’d wake up, which meant zero-stress mornings.  And instead of the hour-long train ride from hell, it was a twenty-minute subway ride from their place to the office.

So beyond just wanting to spend time with two of my favorite people, there was a bit of nostalgia to crashing at their place again.  We hung out, caught up, cracked all sorts of inappropriate jokes and generally just had a classic good time.  After they went to bed, I watched some cooking channel TV, which was my old routine, before finally passing out.  I didn’t see them in the morning.

Which was probably for the best, because I felt awful.  Seriously, I was not in good shape.  But I had to get it together, because I was scheduled to have lunch with my mom and my old boss.  This too was pretty classic.  I’ve had a lot of great bosses over the years, but MZ might well be my favorite.  So many laughs.  And if I was having a day, I’d just walk into his office and launch into some or other rant.  Which he always seemed to appreciate.  And the jokes were gloriously inappropriate.  Those too were the good times.  All to say, I was glad I got to have lunch with him.  Even if I was hung-over and feeling shite.

After lunch, I went over to that godforsaken shithole of a train station on 34th & 7th, only to find I’d just missed the train by like four minutes.  And the next one wasn’t for another 90.  Which sucks under ideal circumstances.  And these circumstances were definitely not ideal.  So that was quite possibly my least favorite 90 minutes of my time home.  I don’t remember the rest of that day, but I’m sure I did fuck-all, beyond climbing into bed.

Speaking of Penn Station, when I got in on Tuesday, it was rush hour.  So I had to wade through that hot mess of The Public.  Which normally I would have hated.  But it was the first New York rush hour I’d seen in at least nine months.  And actually, strangely, it was quite refreshing.  Remember what I said about the diversity at JFK?  Well, it was that all over again.  But also, just sooo many people.  I mean, when you’ve done rush hour in the Big Apple, rush hour in Berlin is, I dunno, quaint.  Cute, even.

Friday night was Dale’s birthday party.  This was at Swift’s, on E. 4th, as usual.  I walked down from Penn, because honestly, I desperately needed to walk the streets of Gotham once more.  I took Broadway all the way down to 4th and then headed over.  It was a bit surreal, knowing I don’t live there anymore.  But it was also comfortable.  Like a pair of old slippers, or some other equally shitty clichéd simile.  Maybe better, it was also a bit Good Night Moon-y.  Like, good night Herald Square, good night Union Square; Good night Flatiron Building, good night Madison Square, good night NYU; good night My Old Liquor Store on 8th Street.4

So look, Swift’s is not my favorite bar.  I’m still salty over the fact that they charged me for a fucking seltzer at 3:30am at one of Dale’s previous birthdays.  I know that sounds petty.  But, come on, it’s fucking seltzer.  It’s the non-alcoholic aqua vitae, the water of life.  You don’t charge for that.  Especially at that hour.  Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m going to regret committing this paragraph to the internets.  Like, I’m going to apply for a job one day, and the asshole interviewing me is gonna be all, “Well, your CV is impressive, but we’ve read the entirety of your blog[ue],5 and while that Star Wars spoof was mildly entertaining, we’re just not prepared to hire somebody who can’t let go of getting charged for a seltzer fifteen years ago.  But, you know, good luck.”  Then they’ll go and hire somebody whose sext pictures they’ve all seen.  What a world.

Where the hell was I?  Oh yeah, Dale’s birthday.  This was great.  The whole rest of the extended NYU fam was there.  Fredo, Lesley, Katy and Ang, who did the hard work of coming all the way down from CT.  I know I wasn’t the only reason she made the trip, but as with Rachel, it meant a lot to me.  I also know it was a pain in the ass for her to get there after working all day in the Nutmeg state; so it was kind of extra special, if you know what I mean.

For the most part, there’s not too much worth reporting as far as the party goes.  It was just great to see everybody and to catch up and hang out like old times.  What’s funny though, is that somewhere along the line, we realized that this September will mark ten years that we’ve known each other.  Dale, Katy, Fredo and I met in Greek 101, way back in the Fall of aught-seven.  I can’t believe it’s been ten years.  Neither could they.

Funny side-story with Fredo.  First of all, her name isn’t Fredo.  It’s Miranda.  But I’ve only ever called her Fredo.  She has kinda red hair, so right from the get, I was calling her “Red.”  But then she said her hair wasn’t really red.  Which meant it was faux-red.  Faux-red –> Fred –> Fredo.  Nobody else calls her that.  But I do, and she answers to it.  So it’s stuck.  Anyway, she says to me at the party, “You know Dave, when we first met, you told me I would reach ‘peak hotness’ at 27.  Well, guess what.  I’m 27.”  OK, so first of all, who says that?  Well, I do, apparently.  “And you look great!” I said.  And she did.  She’s a very pretty girl.  “Yeah,” she said, “but ‘peak hotness’ means it goes downhill from here.”  At which point, I kinda looked uncomfortably at my shoes and said something along the lines of, “Well, to be honest, at the time, I didn’t think we’d still be friends ten years later, so I wasn’t really planning on dealing with the consequences of that prediction.”  She just laughed.  It was all in good fun, anyway.

But it does get at something, that to me anyway, is quite nice really.  See, when I went back to school – when I met this lot – I was already 26.  But Fredo was a freshman.  Dale and Katy were juniors I think.  The whole bunch of them were in that stage where you’re just beginning to transition from awkward teenager into real person.  Lesley and Dale are both tall and skinny.  Back then though, they were all gangly limbs and bones.  (I dread to think how people would describe 19-year-old Dave; yeesh).  But they’ve really grown into themselves.  Lesley is positively elegant and Dale, it must be said, with his impeccable taste in dress, cuts a rather dashing figure.

What I’m trying to say – and almost certainly making a mess of – is that they were basically children when I met them.  And now they’re proper grown fucking humans, living proper fucking adult lives.  Ang lives in an actual house with her boyfriend.  Katy is married.  Dale is moving to Austin (heartbreaking; as if I was still in New York to feel the pain of it).  Lesley, Rachel and Fredo are all living with or soon to be living with their boyfriends; having actual careers and whatnot.

All my other friends, we’re roughly the same age.  We’ve grown up together.  But this lot, over the last ten years, I’ve watched them grow up; kind of like an older brother, though I’m sure none of them would ever describe me that way.  I adore them all, and I’m genuinely proud of them.  And I occasionally take the time to reflect on how special it is that they’re still a part of my life.  It very easily could have gone a different way.

If there was one downside to the evening, it’s that I didn’t get very much one-on-one time with Dale.  That, of course, was a function of his being the man of honor and having to spend time with they myriad folk there to celebrate his birthday.  But we did get to catch up a bit.  Also, he brought me back of book of Icelandic mythology from Iceland.  In Icelandic, mind you.  The book is gorgeous, though I can’t do a thing with it.  Yet.  Obviously I’ll have to learn Old Norse at some point.  Still, I can’t believe he’s moving to Texas.  Him and his girl have an artisanal craft something-something business.  They make cool stuff.  I’ll even plug their website, which is not a thing I’m in the habit of doing.  http://www.fesswavy.com/  Anyway, he’ll be fine.  Dale is one of the most effortlessly brilliant people I’ve ever met, and he’s good at literally everything he puts his hand too.  Anyway, either he’ll find a way to visit me in Berlin or I’ll find a way to visit him in Austin.  Or both.

Saturday was Niki’s wedding.  This, btw, was the reason I came home when I did.  No way was I missing that.  Aaand…then I missed it.  Not the whole thing.  Just the actual marriage part.  See, we left the house a half hour ahead of schedule.  Then we hit the worst ever traffic.  And got there after the ceremony.  Dave was not pleased.  Niki was very understanding.  And Harry was lovelily,6 “Aww, now worries mayte, wee’re jist glad ye could mayke it,” in his darling Ozzie accent.

Anyway, the wedding was great.  Very small affair; less than 30 people, I think.  They had it in the garden of this cute little Italian joint in Carol Gardens.  Vinny was my date.  No, seriously.  Due to some last minute cancellations, Niki asked me if I wanted to bring a plus-one.  Vinny was the obvious choice.  After all, they already knew each other.  They’re both part of what I call the “official Duffs crew.”  Loosely defined, the official Duffs crew is Vinny, Joschka and me; the Finns, Lus, Niki and somehow also Dutch Eddie.7  So it felt completely appropriate to drag Vinny along.  And honestly, if he wasn’t able to come, I wouldn’t have brought anybody else.

Oh, I should clarify.  When I say “we left,” I mean me and parents, as they were also invited.  Niki worked at my old job with me and mom and then took over most of my work after I left.  Her and my mom got pretty close, so that’s how my ‘rents got invited to this shindig.

Meanwhile, Vinny got there on schedule.  So by the time I show up, he’s already chatting away with a couple of Australians.  I mean, that’s Vinny.  He’ll make friends with a lawn gnome if you put a beer in his hand.  Him and Codog, the two friendliest sons of bitches I’ve ever met.  Seriously though, it was great to have him there.

And of course it was great to see Niki.  Much like Dale’s birthday, with her being the guest of honor, I didn’t get as much time with her as I would have liked.  But honestly, I was just glad to be there.  My last two years in the city, I was probably tighter with her than anybody.  I lived with Jared, of course.  But we weren’t going out together much by then.  He was busy with school, and anyway, leaving the house at midnight and coming home at 530 after WoHop just isn’t his scene.

So Niki was my comrade in arms when it came to partying.  Duffs, RockaRolla, noodles in Williamsburgh or WoHop.  To say nothing of all the Archer Nights.  My last 18 months in the city, I don’t know what I would have done without her.  So if there’s anybody I’m going to fly 4000k miles for their wedding, it’s that kid.  And now she’s in Australia.  And I’m in Berlin.  Those Duffs days won’t come again.  Getting hammered and watching Always Sunny over Skype just won’t be the same.

You know who I fucking hate?  Holden fucking Caulfield.  Catcher in the Rye is shit, I’ll say it.  Fucking Holden Caulfield, what an unhappy sonofabitch.  But I’ll be damned if sometimes I don’t want to take those good times – the best times – and lock them up in a glass case and keep them forever.  Except, you know what?  Fuck you, Holden Caulfield.  We’re gonna make new good times.  And when we do, we’ll raise a toast to Dutch Eddie, and Duffs and RockaRolla and the good old days.  That’ll be the first drink.  After that, let the [new] good times roll, bitches!

Sunday was another busy day.  First up, brunch at Keith and Heather’s.  And it’s back to that family vibe.  The whole gang was there, and this time all the wives and kids, too.  Keith made omelets and pancakes.  Jared & Josh brought bagels from H&H.  Rob & Meg brought desert.  Nothing special to report here.  Just classic good times.  Lots of laughs.  By which I mean, we all just make fun of each other.  I played some video games with Kelsey, Keith’s daughter.  Because sometimes you just need a break from grownups, right?

But I did have one weird moment to myself in all of this.  At one point, I’m looking around the table, looking at all these people who are as much family as they are friends.  And I’m thinking, I dunno how to put it.  I’m thinking, on the one hand, I’ve made some pretty amazing friends in Berlin.  Zibs and Jan, with whom I’m planning a roadtrip.  Annett and Jan, who’ve done so much to help me get settled here.  Anne, my stranger-in-a-strange-land tandem partner.  Joschka, who with Vinny, we’re like the three metal musketeers.  So I’m doing pretty good in Berlin.  Better than pretty good, in fact.  I mean, if my friends here were my only friends, I’d be pretty damn lucky.

Anyway, I’m looking around the room at these people, these mutherfuckers I’ve grown up with, these bastards for whom I’ve been not just at, but in, their weddings.  Their kids, who call me “Uncle Dave.”  And I’m thinking, what the fuck is wrong with me that I would ever leave these people?  How unsatisfying was I finding my life that I could just turn around and say, “peace out, bitches”?

And then it passed.  Because the truth is, I was finding my life unsatisfying.  And you don’t live your life for your friends, even if they are fucking family.  You live it for yourself.  Certainly they all do.  Which isn’t to say they’ve all found what they’re looking for.  But I think, by and large, they’ve at least all found what they need.  And that’s something I don’t have back home.  Not yet, anyway.  That’s why I left.  But it’s not easy to leave those fuckers.  I love them.  Even when I don’t like them – which happens; even when I don’t like them, I still love them.  The bastards.

Sunday night, my parents took us – me, Justin & Jo – out for a fancy steak dinner at Bryant & Cooper’s; Long Island’s answer to Peter Luger’s.8  And once again, here’s people going out of their way to do something special for me while I’m in.  And yeah, this is special.  Because it ain’t cheap.  And gods, do I love steak.

I’ve really changed my diet in the last 4-5 years.  Much less meat, a lot more veg.  By and large, I eat healthier.  Which is fine, whatever.  It also means that when you do go for a proper steak, it’s that much more special.  And man, this is proper steak.  There’s really nothing better.  Essentially, it’s more or less the same as Luger’s.  Incredible beef.  Lots of butter.  Hash browns, creamed spinach, tomatoes & onions.  This is how kings eat, I’m sure of it.  I want to say we had a lovely time.  I want to say it was great to be with the family.  And it was.  Obviously.  But this was about the steak.  And it was glorious.

Monday was dinner at Vinny’s.  More great food.  We’re talking meatballs, his mom’s dried tomatoes, pasta with his mom’s sauce.  We’re talking sausage from Arthur Ave in the Bronx and excellent cheese.  We’re talking wine and good beer.  Look, the man is a natural cook.  So when he invites you to dinner, you go.  Joschka and Cindy were there too; the only time I got to see them in the city.

Back in Berlin, there was big talk of taking them to Joe’s Shanghai and Duffs and WoHop.  It didn’t work out.  I had a choice.  Meet them in the city or meet them at Vinny’s.  But that’s no choice at all.  If Vinny is cooking, you go to Vinny’s.  It was cool to see them in New York though; and good to have Vinny, Joschka and me together in the same room.  Classic City, population: 3.

Cindy has enough English to get by in this setting, but she’s not fluent.  So one-on-one, we were speaking German.  Which was great, until she says to me, “Dave, what’s happened to your German?”  I dunno, two weeks in New York has set me back.  But you can still understand me, at least, right?  To which she replies, “Eh.”  Ouch.  Still though, that was a good night.

Tuesday was family day, this time for my mom’s side.  We met my great uncle for lunch.  He’s 90, I wanna say.  And he’s slowing down, there’s no denying it.  But he’s still got his sense of humor.  And he’s still full of great stories.  I mean, they’re the same stories.  Me and my dad were making bets in the car as to which ones he’d tell.  We were both right.

One of my favorites involves a rich oil-man relative.  I’m going to give an abridged “telephone” version here.  By which I mean, I’m sure I’m screwing up details in the re-telling.  But the essential core is roughly intact.  And the punchline is accurate.  Anyway, it goes something like this.

“My father’s brother was a bit of a trouble maker.9  One day, he gets in a fight with an Irishman.10  And he killed him.  So he ran away.11  Anyway, he goes down to South Carolina.12  And he gets into business selling goods13 to people moving West.  Well, eventually he moves out to Oklahoma14 and somebody gives him some business advice.  [Making a long story short], they cheat some Indians out of their land.15  And that land turns out to have oil under it.  And [making a long story short again] he gets crazy rich off this.”

That’s incredible.  Literally, it strains credulity.  But also, what an amazing story.  So I ask, knowing full well the answer, “Wait, Uncle Art, are you saying we have a millionaire in our family?!  Why don’t we talk to these people?!”  To which he replies, “My mother16 said we don’t need anything to do with him.”  Here it comes.  “Because he doesn’t keep kosher.”

Whaaat?!  Right, so I have no idea how much of that story is true.  But even leaving room for embellishment, there’s enough there that just, wow.  Also, in trying write that down, I realize I simply need to record him telling it.  Because I’m too fuzzy on too many of the details.  But still.  A fight with an Irishman?  Cheating Indians out of their land?  Oil Money?  And we don’t talk to them…because they don’t keep kosher?!

But he’s full of great stories.  “The atomic bomb saved my life,” is a classic.  He was earmarked for the invasion of Japan, before the bomb.  “I should have married this one girl, but she was fat.”  That’s another classic.  And the best insult in his book is describing someone as being “of the shtetl.”  Which you either get or you don’t, but I ain’t gonna explain it here.

What’s hard to wrap your mind around, though, is that you’re getting a distorted version of these stories many many years after the fact.  What’s objectively true, is that this was a 5’4” Jewish kid from the Bronx who joined the army during WWII and carried the BAR, the biggest, heaviest gun they had.  This is a guy who built and maintained a successful business.  A guy who took care of his developmentally disabled sister.  A guy who regularly goes to Shul…and then calls himself a “fraud” because he’s “not really that religious”…and then reads Hebrew out of the Hagaddah at Passover like a boss.  Whatever else he may be, he’s a fucking treasure.

Right, so this has gone rather a bit longer than I’d anticipated.  So Imma stop here for tonight and I guess I’ll wrap it all up in the next post.  Until then…

זיי געסונט

 

Post Scriptum: I always close my posts with that little bit of Yiddish: זיי געסונט – ‘be well’, or ‘be healthy.’  Anyway, I once asked Uncle Art if they spoke Yiddish in his house growing up.  After all, his family came out of Eastern Europe, where they would absolutely have spoken mama loshen.  His answer was very interesting.

“My father could speak Yiddish,” he said.  I can hear his voice.  In my last post, I wrote about that Marky Ramone “Queens” accent.  Art has an oldschool New York accent.  I guess it’s Bronx; though not anything that would be called a Bronx accent in my generation.  It’s a wonderful accent though.  Nobody sounds like that anymore.  It’s a time machine.

Anyway: “My father could speak Yiddish.  And if he went into a store or something, and somebody spoke Yiddish to him, he would answer in Yiddish.  But my father really only spoke English.  And the reason was, ‘I’m an American,’ he would say.  ‘I speak English.’”

I catch all kinds of feels from that.  On the one hand, I’m proud of that.  You come to America with goal of making a better life for yourself and your family.  And Step One of getting ahead is simply to speak English.  That’s the Jewish-American ethos, right there.  First Generation: Work hard & speak English.  Second Generation: College.  Third Generation: “Oy, my son the doctuh!”

Look, clearly there’s a lot that went into making me who I am.  And I don’t want to put too much on the back of a man I never met.  But it was the same in my father’s family too.  Bubby spoke Yiddish.  But ask her where her accent came from and the answer was “Florida.”  Press her harder, and the most you’d get was “Brooklyn.”  Anyway, by the time I came along, there as never any question as to whether I was going to college.  And I think that goes back to that generation.  We speak English, our children get better jobs than we have, and our grandkids go to college.

On the other hand, there’s always this background noise of, “we left for a reason.”  Right?  The Old World was not a nice place for Jews.  And Yiddish is the Old World.  So how much of it is assimilation, and how much of it is rejecting the past?  So I get the whole, “I’m an American, I speak English thing.”  But four generations later, I’ve been deprived of something.

It occurs to me that Vinny can go back to Calabria and speak his family’s ancient dialect with distant cousins.  But for us, there’s nowhere to go back to.  The people that stayed were destroyed.  And the people that left, weather by assimilation or rejection or neglect, well, they let the language die.  The culture lingers.  Mel Brooks, as a Native American, speaks Yiddish in Blazing Saddles.  The sense of humor is shot through our culture.  But the language is mostly gone.  And there’s no “old country” to go back to.

But who the hell wants to end on a downer like that.  Here’s a fascinating thing.  Bits and pieces of Yiddish have made their way into modern German.  My Berlin friends use words and idioms that come straight of Yiddish.  And that’s pretty fucking cool.  But I’ll save that for another post.  Until then, I say again:

זיי געסונט

 

  1. I literally just had a conversation with one of my colleagues about whether the past participle of “get” is “got” or “gotten.”  Technically, both are valid.  We think.  Anyway, I insisted I was pretty sure I only ever use “got.”  And now here I am writing “gotten.”  So much for that. []
  2. Btw, I have not able to find actual raw horseradish root in this city.  Which is frustrating.  Because like literally everything is better with horseradish.  Dad knows what I’m talking about. []
  3. “Half-in-the-bag” definitely doesn’t get used nearly enough. []
  4. Did that work? []
  5. He won’t spell it right; even if he’s only speaking it. []
  6. Because “lovely” is an adjective; so I guess “lovelily” would be the adverb? []
  7. So-called because he’s actually from the Netherlands.  Lovely guy, that Eddie. []
  8. Well, technically LI’s answer to Luger’s is Luger’s…in Great Neck.  So better to say, maybe, the authentic Long Island answer to Luger’s. []
  9. My great uncle, like I said, is around 90.  So if we’re talking his uncle, this is early 1900’s. []
  10. I swear, he used the word “Irishman” in at least one telling of this story; though not this particular time. []
  11. I don’t know if he actually killed the guy.  But he definitely ran away.  So it seems plausible. []
  12. Or some other southern state. []
  13. Clothes, maybe. []
  14. Or some other flyover state. []
  15. I mean, seriously? []
  16. Or whoever. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
12 April, 2017
A Berliner in New York

The subtitle is a bit misleading.  To paraphrase JFK, Ich bin kein Berliner.  I’m not a Berliner.  That is not a statement of protest.  It’s not a complaint.  Nor is it a wistful regret.  It’s just a fact.  I’m not a Berliner.  And that’s fine.  It doesn’t mean, by the way, that I don’t love it here.  It doesn’t mean I regret coming here or that I wish I’d chosen somewhere else.  It simply means what it means.  I’m not a Berliner.  Thing is, I had to go home to learn this.

I’m a New Yorker.  Bottom line.  That’s not a knock on Berlin, or anywhere else for that matter.  It’s not a brag either.  It’s just a statement of fact.  My name is Dave.  I’m about 5’6”.  I’m a New Yorker.  None of those declarations is any more or less true than another.  Just the facts, ma’am.  But like I said, I needed to go home to (re)learn it.

I recently spent last two weeks on Long Island and in the City, visiting family and friends.1  Now, to be clear, Long Island can go screw.  Sure, my family is there, and some of my best friends too; to say nothing of many memories.  But that place is the pits.

Now the City, that’s where I belong.  Not now, no.  I needed to get out of there, and I’m glad as hell I did.  When I left, I was often saying that the City didn’t speak to me anymore.  Well, having been back, what can I say?  It’s not singing to me.  But we’re back on speaking terms.

Before I left, I could think of little more than food.  Chinese food.  Pizza.  Mexican food.  Jewish food.  And not in generalities either.  Chinese food meant Wo Hop, but it also meant Joe’s Shanghai (Soup Dumplings!) and my old corner spot.  Jewish food meant pastrami on rye, but also pickles and matzah ball soup; um, and bagels.  Yeah, OK, Mexican meant tacos and pizza is, well, pizza.  But the point is, from my Berlin hideaway, New York meant food.

Then I got back.  And all I had to do was stand in the passport line at our glorious shithole of an airport, JFK.  And all of a sudden, New York meant “attitude.”  It meant diversity – beautiful, gorgeous, annoying, frustrating, wonderful diversity.

Lemme tackle diversity first.  See, I always have a hard time explaining this to Berliners.  They feel – and rightly so, to a certain extent – that their city is very “mulit-culti,” multicultural, and that’s the word they use in German.  They see their city as a major European capital filled with people from all over the world.  And as I said, that’s true, to an extent.

But when people say this to me, I always have an answer for them.  But I think it’s not a very good answer, because when I give it, they always look at me kinda funny.  See, what I say is – though I never know quite how to express it, in English or German is – I say, “Guys, you don’t even know.  This city is so fucking white.”

And again, I don’t mean that to be insulting.  I’m not trying to take the place down a peg, or anything like that.  It’s just that, well, everybody kinda looks the same here.  And yes, I’m generalizing.  There’s a sizable Turkish population, after all.  But this is Northern Europe.  And so, even when people are coming from Poland and Russia, for example, everybody kinda sorta looks alike.

Anyway, I’ve yet to find the person in this town who doesn’t look at me funny when I say my spiel about Berlin being “white.”  So I was sorta wondering what kind of reaction that would get at home.  How would it play in the Big Apple?  Well, as it turned out, people understood me instantly.  I was met with knowing nods, and comments along the lines of, “Well, yeah, man, no place else really looks like here.”

My buddy Shuman put it in more logical terms though.  He said, and I paraphrase here, “Look man, I was in Italy.  And at first, I had the same reaction you did.  And then I realized, Oh yeah, it’s Italy.  Everybody is just Italian here.”  Oh yeah, it’s Germany.  Everybody is just German here.  It was only then that I realized to what extent I’ve taken this whole “melting pot” thing for granted my whole life.  I guess I’d just assumed all big cities look like New York.  And so, while I never meant anything böse (mean) with my line about Berlin being white, I’m realizing now that it’s a bit of prejudice I’m going to have to unlearn.

And yet, one can have a preference without being prejudiced, right?  I can prefer the complex plurality of New York to the comparative homogeneity of Berlin without being judgey or superior about it, can’t I?  I certainly hope so, anyway.

Oh, but I was talking about the diversity at JFK.  So I get into the Citizen/Resident passport line at Immigration, and it was a sight for sore eyes.  In that one line was every color imaginable, a dozen languages, religious garb of every stripe and what I can only assume was the full spectrum of sexuality.  It was beautiful.  I also think I saw more diversity standing in that one line for 45 minutes than I’ve seen in nine months over here.  That.  That is my city.

I also mentioned the attitude.  So there I am, standing at the tail end of this long-ass Immigration line.  And this dude walks up to me.  “Hey man, is this the line for US citizens?” he asks.  “Yes,” I tell him, “I’m afraid so.”  To which he replies, “Fuuuuck.”  Ah yes, I thought.  I am indeed home.

This trip home for me was basically about three things.  Seeing my family.  Seeing my friends.  And eating.  Well, also drinking.  But, I mean, that’s a constant.  So what about all that, anyway?  Family first, right?

Apart from two nights crashing in the city with Jared and Josh and then Codog & Arlene, I stayed with my parents on the Island.  I can’t say I was particularly happy to be in the ‘burbs.  And I can’t say it was convenient, when most of the people I wanted to see were in the city.  But there’s no denying it was great to be back with the fam.  And it was nice to be back in the closest thing I have to my own home Stateside.  I mean, when you add it all up, I probably lived there for about 18 months, maybe a bit more.

Naturally, one of the highlights of being at my ‘rents house was that I got to cook dinner for them a couple of times.  Look, when you’re in your mid-thirties, you just don’t want to be living with your folks.  No matter how much you love them, no matter how good a relationship you have with them, it’s just not where you’re supposed to be in your life.  And I do love my parents.  We do have a good relationship.  Not that we don’t break on each other sometimes.

Anyway, when I was living there, one of my favorite things was cooking family dinner.  I mean, everything about it comes up Dave.  They usually foot the shopping bill.  They do the dishes.  And they generally like what I cook.  Plus I drink a goodly amount, which has the effect of putting me in a good and talkative mood.2  So that’s the time I most enjoy hanging out with the parental units.  And this trip home was no exception.

Also, one night I made a Guiness-braised corned-beef brisket.  Personally, I think I overdid it on the spices; especially the cloves.  And I maybe thought it was too salty.  But the meat was tender as all get-out.  And my old dad insists it’s the best thing I’ve ever made.  I don’t think I agree, but it’s nice when your dish goes over well all the same.

The one downside was, I didn’t get to see my brother nearly enough.  And that was just a function of shitty timing.  Being a music teacher, he was working late almost every night with concerts and rehearsals.  But it was classic good times when we did get some time together.  And I kicked his ass at NHL94, which was mission critical.  I mean, if I’d lost, it could have rendered the entire trip home a failure.  That’s a lot of pressure.  But I came through.3

Right.  So your family is your family.  You basically know what to expect.  And you’ve only got one family.  Well, one blood-family, anyway.  What I mean is, it’s not a thing you’re going to replicate or recreate abroad.  Your family is your family.  But your friends, that’s where things get interesting.

What’s amazing to me, is just how much friend-love I’ve got back home.  So many people went out of their way to see me, to make time for me, to do something special for me.  It was incredible.  I’ve done a pretty damn fine job, I have to admit, of filling my life up with some pretty wonderful peeps.  And these people genuinely love me; as I love them.  But it’s the kind of thing you can take for granted when they’re (or you’re) just around all the time.

And you know what?  Maybe I shouldn’t be making too much of a distinction between friends and family here.  It’s more like there’s the blood-family and the choice-family.  So many of these clowns have been around for well over half my life already.  What do you call that, if not family?

At this point, I’m going to try and do a brief run-down of my schedule over those two weeks; without hopefully getting too bogged down in the details.  And if that seems a bit self-indulgent, well it might be.  But as much as anything, it’s so I can have some kind of record of those times; before I forget.  And also, it’s my blogue.  So deal.  No, but seriously, this actually goes on like a (very) long diary entry, so do feel free to just skip it…

Right, so I came in on a Thursday.  I went for dinner with my parents to the diner, which is about as classic as it gets.  Natch, I got a burger deluxe and a Corona.  Comfort food, comfort company.  It was exactly what I wanted.

Friday night was dinner at Amanda’s.  The whole gang was there, though not all the wives.  Keith was already in the city for work, so the only people coming from the Island were me and Murph; Murph, who was good enough to drive me since we all knew I’d be hittin’ the sauce.  Let me tell you, I enjoyed the shit out of that car ride.

Murphy is an interesting cat.  In a group setting, he’s exceedingly quiet.  I mean, he’s good for about one absolutely brilliant one-liner/zinger per night.  But generally speaking, he’s a man of few words.  In a group setting.  One-on-one, it’s a different story.  And I love chatting with Murph, one-to-one.  See, he’s a mechanical engineer.  So to me, his work is fascinating.  I’ll never be my dad when it comes to cars, or mechanical things in general.  But I certainly learned a lot from the old man, not least of which is a simple appreciation for the mechanical and scientific world.

So when I get together with Murph, we talk about cars, we talk about engineering, we talk about science.  To put it simply, we talk about man things.  I love it.  We talk, but mostly he teaches me.  Remember when, in a previous post, I spoke about the conversations I’d have with my former roommate Christian, about economics?  The idea was – and is – if I’m lucky enough to be able to chat with someone who has expertise in a field, I want to learn everything I can from them.  It’s the same with the Murph.  He’s so fucking knowledgeable.  So I just ask questions and let him go.  And I appreciate the hell out of it.

And I think – I hope – he appreciates it too.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think any of the rest of the gang have much interest in this direction.  None of the other guys are into cars, or machines, or airplanes or whatever.  And so, while I’m clearly no engineer, I can at least keep up.  I think, or I like to think, he enjoys talking with me about this stuff too.  Anyway, that was the car ride to Amanda’s, and it was a joy.

Then there was the dinner itself.  Amanda made ribs, which were uh-mazing.  And then all the guys were there.  Jared, Rob, Keith, Lermo, Murph.  The Original Six.  You know – and I’m just thinking about this now for the first time – in the past, it was always hard to get all six together.  There was always somebody who had something.  Yet, this trip home, we got the whole gang together not once, but twice.  That’s pretty special.  Josh and Monica were there too, and man do I love those two.  Josh, of course, is Jared’s boyfriend.  And MoMo is Amanda’s bestie.4  Of the wives, though, only Kira was there; and she’s fantastic.  But the Carroll girls were absent, as was Rob’s wife Meg, who I’d yet to meet.  Needless to say it was a great time.

Me and Murph were the last to leave.  I’m sure he didn’t want to stay as late as we did, but bless him, he let me have all the time I could have with my friends before we finally called it a night.  We had another long chat on the way home, this time about him trying to decide if he should go back to school.  It was either a really good conversation, or it was me drunkenly rambling and him politely “Yes, Dave”-ing me the whole time.  I suppose I’ll never know.

Saturday night we went to visit my dad’s family at what used to be Mike and Mag’s place in BK, but which, sadly, is now just Mag’s place.  It was the first time I’d seen everybody since Mike died.  It was bittersweet.  But, tbh, it was mostly just sweet.  There’s so much love there.

I spent most of the night chatting with my cousin Jay.  Another interesting cat.  It’s weird.  I can’t say that we’re close.  We never get together outside of family gatherings, even though there’s really no good reason for this.  But we have the same damned sense of humor.  We see each other maybe three or four times a year.  But when we do, we’re finishing each other’s jokes, and it’s just effortless.  I laugh as hard with him as I do with my best friends.

My plan was to drink only wine, and not to get too wasted.  But towards the end of the evening, Mag – Jay’s stepmom, for the record – plunked a bottle of “vodka”5 and two shot glasses down between me and Jay.  And then the wheels came off.  By which I mean, we went down the Jew-joke rabbit hole.6  Which, let’s be honest, is pretty par for the course with us.  We mixed in plenty of Russian and Yiddish accents, which are always fun.  But sometime around the fourth shot of “vodka,”7 we got into the German accents and the Holocaust jokes.  And, regrettably, I think I went a bit overboard.

It was only then, though, that I realized how much I’ve been suppressing this stuff over here.  I mean, yeah, I do Jew jokes.  But there’s a limit to how far I’m willing to push those in this country.  And so, stuff was coming out of me that even I was like, “duuude.”  But I’d had nine months of pent-up Holocaust jokes that needed to get out.  Not my finest showing, to be sure.  But if you can’t fuck up in front of your own family, where can you?

Sunday, Vinny drove down from Mt. Vernon to spend the afternoon.  I met Vin sometime around 2009, just because we kept bumping into each other at metal shows.  At first, we traded numbers only to say “Hey, bro, you going to the so-&-so show?”  It was probably another year or so before we started actually hanging out.  So compared to the lads from high school, he’s relatively new in my life.  And yet, that mutherfucker is like a godsdamned brother to me.  Anyway, Sunday, he came down to the Island.

I drove him up to Huntington so we could have lunch at Little Vincent’s, my favorite fucking pizza place on God’s green earth already.  It’s important to remember here that Vinny is not only Italian, but first generation American.  I mean, his mom makes her own tomato sauce from scratch.  And by “from scratch,” I mean she picks the godsdamned tomatoes herself.  So when I say the dude has high standards when it comes to Italian fare, I’m not exaggerating.

All this to say, he gave his seal of approval to LV’s.  Which fucking matters, alright?  Because if had said to me, “You know what, paisan?  It’s fine.  But honestly, it’s not really any different than the shit you can get anywhere.”  If he had said that, I would have felt shame.  But what he actually said was, “You know what, paisan?  This is actually pretty fucking good.  Honestly, the best part is the crust.  It’s nice and thin, and it has great texture.”  Which is true, btw.  But it matters to me that he thought so.  He didn’t say anything about the sauce though.  He didn’t have to.  We’ve both had his mom’s sauce.

That night, after he left, I knocked together a stir fry for my parents.  That was the first family dinner we had that I cooked.  We were all pretty happy with it.  Also happy with, was I, was the bottle of Dewar’s that was somehow in the house.  Not the white label shit, that’s fit for naught but scotch-&-soda.  This was the next level up.  I wasn’t expecting much, but it was actually pretty solid.  So I drank a bunch of scotch and hung out with the ‘rents, and although I don’t remember what we talked about, it was a good time.

Monday was a recovery day.  Tuesday’s plan called for me to have dinner at Jared & Josh’s and then to crash there.  But first, I had a Taco-Tuesday lunch date with my dad in Levittown.  This was a habit we’d got into while I was living at home, since, as a museum manager, he works weekends but not Tuesdays.  So he actually texted me before I flew back, asking if I wanted to do Taco Tuesday when I got in.  Which was funny, because I was about to text him the same thing.

It was pretty classic.  By which I mean, we ate tacos and bitched about politics, which is what we always used to do.  Also, amongst the tacos I ordered, one was lengua, tongue.  At which point, he tells the story (again) about how he can’t eat tongue.  Because when he was a kid, Bubbi (or possibly his mother?) had a pot on the stove, and when he opened it up, all he saw this giant cow’s tongue just boiling away.  And while my taco just looked like chunks of beef, there in that pot, he saw a complete actual tongue.  And that sufficiently grossed him out to the point that he had no interest in a lengua taco.8

Anyway, we ate delicious tacos and bitched about politics.  Which is a thing, apparently, that they just do now.  Bitching about politics, I mean.  And by “they,” I mean my parents.  I swear to God, every morning I woke up to the sound of them yelling at each other.  Not fighting.  Not even disagreeing.  Just yelling.  About Trump.  It would go something like this.  Mom: “Can you believe what this asshole is saying now?!”  Dad: “Can you not?!  He’s a fucking asshole!”  Whereupon would I roll over and cover my head with my pillow all the while wondering what kind of masochist you have to be to watch the news in the morning anymore.

So much for lunch.  I asked Jared what I should bring to dinner.  He said bourbon.  I brought rye.  Because #davestheworst.  Whatever.  It was great.  First of all, better than anyone I know, Jared knows how to roast a fucking chicken.  It was moist and it was tender and it was delicious.  “How much butter did you use,” I asked.  “A lot,” he said.  I suppose the expected question is something along the lines of “What’s your secret?”  But when you live with someone for ten years, you know the secret is fucking butter.  So the question is simply, “How much?”

So look, I’ve talked about this before.  I lived with Jared for ten years.  That sonofabitch is my best friend on planet earth.  But now he’s with Josh.  And I just adore that fucker.  I mean, he really is one of my favorite people of all the people.  And they’re great together.  If it was anybody else, I’m sure I’d be feeling all, “Can we get some classic Dave-&-Jared time?”  And indeed, Josh will sometimes be all, “I’m gonna go to bed and let you guys catch up.”  But I’m like, “Uh-uh, honey, you ain’t goin’ nowhere.”  There’s a reason they’re one of only two people I crashed with while I was in.

Added bonus, they also invited Hot Michelle to dinner.  Hot Michelle is a lot of things.  She’s Italian.  She’s smart.  She has yuuuge tracks of land.  But more than any of that, she not only puts up with my bullshit, but indeed seems to find my peculiar brand of flirtation (?) amusing.  She sees through the shtick.  And she plays along.  So I adore Hot Michelle.  She’s a colleague of Josh’s, btw, which is how she fits into the schema.  Anyway, a night with Jared and Josh and Hot Michelle (and rye) is a good godsdamned night.

Added bonus, they are all social workers.  So, inevitably, at some point they get down to talking shop.  Some of it is gossip, and for this, I kind of tune out.  But some of it is the actual science of social work and psychology.  And, just as with Murph and Christian, my brain gets turned on.  I listen, and I ask questions, and I listen some more.  And I learn what I can.  What I’ve learned is, you’re never too drunk to learn.  Now, remembering what you’ve learned the next day, that’s something else…

Wednesday was a hard day’s drinking.  But first, noodle soup.  I met my buddy Shuman at Pho Grand for the bowl I’d been dreaming of for months.  Eye of round, brisket, tendon, tripe.  God, I missed this stuff.  Say what you will about Chinatown.  It’s gross.  It’s smells bad in the summer.  People spit on the sidewalk.  But man, I love eating there.

So I meet Shuman at Pho Grand.  Shuman.  One of the few good things to come out of my St. Lawrence experience.  The only guy I’ve ever met who can credibly claim to be a bigger AC/DC fan than me.  In fact, that’s how I met him.  He’s this giant of a man, over 6’ tall; football player.  And he walks up to me one day, in college, out of nowhere.  I’d never seen him before.  And he’s towering over me.  “Hey, you like AC/DC, right?”  Not as random as it seems.  I stood out in college, with my long hair and denim jacket with a giant accadacca patch on the back.  “Hey, you like AC/DC, right?” he says.  And I look up at this man-monster.  “Umm, yes, sir, an’ it please you.”

See, he’d bought an original Back in Black tour shirt on eBay.  Only it was a size Small.  Poor guy couldn’t even try it on, let alone actually wear it.  So he wanted to sell it to me.  Obviously I bought it.  I still have it.  So that’s how we met.  We’re never not emailing each other about our favorite band.  But we’re also both huge Yankee fans.  And students of history.  And Jews with a sense of humor.  We get on well, is the point.

So after that glorious noodle soup, we head around the corner to 169, one of the last true LES dive bars.  Beer & a shot for three bucks.  And we spend a few hours drinking cans of Genny and shots of well whiskey, all the while cracking jokes, talking about AC/DC, and trading off Yiddish and German accents, making fun of everything that rightfully (or wrongfully) deserves to have the piss taken out of it.

Talking about accents, here’s a funny thing.  We’re both New Yorkers.  He was born – and grew up – in, I want to say, Washington Heights.  I’m from BK, grew up on the Island.  German accents, Yiddish accents, Russian accents, no problem.  Then we get to talking about Marky Ramone and how he as the quintessential Queens accent, and how it doesn’t really exist anymore.  And we try it, but neither of us can nail it.

But that’s one of things I love about Shuman.  He’s got this bone-deep appreciation and affection for old New York, for the city as it was when we were kids, but in which we didn’t quite grow up either.  I mean, we’re talking about the three shifts of alcoholics9 at Rudy’s (free hot dogs!) and dive bars that don’t exist anymore and a Queens accent that’s on its last legs.

And, not for nothing, a Queens mutherfucking accent.  Not Brooklyn.  Not Manhattan.  Not Staten Island or the Bronx.  Queens.  I’m over here in Berlin talking in broad generalities to my students about some kind of “New Yawk” accent, whatever that means.10  Because when you’re in exile, you paint in broad strokes, and everything is rose-colored.

But when you’re back in it, it’s different.  All the Hollywood shit falls away.  I remember reading once that Mel Blanc described his Bugs Bunny voice as being a cross between a Brooklyn accent and a Bronx accent.  Think about that.  To him, these were two completely different and unique ways of speaking that he chose to blend together for a cartoon wiseass of a fucking rabbit.  So yes, debating the finer points of Marky Ramone’s diction absolutely counts as a highlight of my trip home.

Anyway, somewhere around 5pm, we reached peak tipsiness.  You know, when you tiptoe right up to the line of being actually drunk, look over the abyss, take a step back and realize there’s only one thing to do.  Now, that one thing can be lots of things.  It just depends on where you are.  If you’re in Texas, maybe that one thing is to go and eat BBQ.  If you’re in Philly (gods help you), the one thing, I guess, is to go for a cheesesteak.11  But when you’re on East Broadway, where it meets Canal, and it’s 5pm on a weekday, you have one choice.

And that, my friends, is why we stumbled into Kossar’s, there to eat bialys.  And so we ordered two bialys.  And we ate the bialys.  And they were good.  Man, they were good.  I really did love living in that neighborhood.  But that’s where me and Shuman parted ways.

And yet, my day had only just begun.  But seeing as how it’s only Wednesday in this story, and there’s so much more to tell, I think I’ll stop here and finish the tale in my next posting.  Until then…

זיי געסונט

 

  1. Chiasmatically – the family is on the Island, the friends are in the City. []
  2. Whereas, at home at least, I am normally hardly talkative and often grumpy. []
  3. #BRIANMULLEN []
  4. Or do we spell it “best”? []
  5. “Vodker” is the sort of thing I’d maybe have looked down on in the past.  But after nine months of German accented English, this brand of Brooklynese was like an oasis in the desert.  I mean, when my cousin Melissa addressed my cousin Cedar as, “Hey yo, Ceduh!”, it was music. []
  6. Incidentally, I just taught my advanced class the “down the rabbit hole” idiom.  Because we were going down all sorts of grammatical and linguistic rabbit holes.  Then, one of my students thought I said rabbit hall (#accents).  To which I explained, the rabbit hall was simply the rabbit’s home at the end of the rabbit hole. []
  7. And this on the heels of an entire bottle of wine, mind you. []
  8. Interesting follow up.  Back in Berlin, I was in the supermarket the other day, where I was perusing the butcher’s section.  And there, in the back of the showcase, was a whole, complete, giant cow’s tongue.  And it looked like a fucking tongue.  And you know what?  Yeah, that’s gross. []
  9. Go to Rudy’s at 8am and you find three kinds: 1) Actual nothing-to-live-for alcoholics; 2) Tourists; 3) People coming off the night shift. []
  10. Cawfee?  Wawtuh?  Manha’’an? []
  11. Gross. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
11 April, 2017

Well, here I am, back in Berlin.  After an all-too-short two weeks Stateside, it’s back to work.  I’m officially on my new schedule at the so called “Friday School.”  Only that moniker no longer fits, as they’ve got me working Tuesdays and Thursdays now as well.  Which is quite a nice situation to be in, tbh.  First of all, I just straight-up enjoy working there.  The people are cool – my colleagues as well as the students; and the atmosphere is very relaxed.  Also, it guarantees my rent/insurance/metrocard money.  So it’s nice to not have to worry about that, month-to-monthly.

At the time of writing, I’ve just got home from drinks and dinner with Jan & Zibs.  We were ostensibly meeting to discuss plans for a roadtrip next month.1  We met around 7pm at this Persian joint on the other end of town,2 near Hohenzollernplatz.  If I’ve learned one thing about these two, it’s this: When your stated plan is to meet for “dinner and a few drinks,” you’d do well to just leave the rest of your night open.

Yes, we met at 7.  And yes, we ate dinner and had a few drinks.  We also shared two shisha pipes and drank a few pots of tea.  And all of a sudden – well, six hours later, anyway – they’re kicking us out of the restaurant.  Something about the staff wanting to go home.3  And yes, we did rough out a plan for the roadtrip.  We also hatched a scheme to buy a vineyard in one of those southern European countries with a shitty economy; possibly Portugal.

I mean, come on.  That would be the life, wouldn’t it?  Owning a vineyard in Portugal?  Sure, we’d have to come up with the money.  “And that’s just for the land,” protested Jan.  “What about business expenses?”  To which I replied, quite logically, I think, “Business expenses, shmizness expenses.”  At that point, we agreed to defer further planning until after the roadtrip.

So on Monday, I had my last lesson with my up-til-Monday one-to-one student at the other school.  Although I had prepared some materials for the lesson, she herself had come prepared with a practice TOEIC exam which she wanted to do.  The funny thing was, she didn’t want me in the room when she took the test; she just wanted me to go over the answers with her after.  The test, mind you, takes something like 90 minutes.

All this to say, I left her alone for like an hour and a half.  Which is highly irregular, btw.  But that’s what she wanted, and the customer is always right, right?  And well, also no.  Because she made plenty of mistakes on the test.  So in that sense, the customer was clearly not always right.  But you give the customer what they want, is the point.  So I split.

I brought soup for lunch that day.  Which may seem irrelevant, but I’m going somewhere with this.  In the cupboard that morning, I found an appropriate Tupperware-thingy for the soup; roughly the shape of a large takeout wanton soup container, but a touch smaller; an inane detail which will also be eventually relevant.  Anyway, I throw my bag over my shoulder, grab the soup container (along with my chopsticks, because noodle soup) and head to school.  And I’m carrying the soup awkwardly in my hand, because I’m afraid it might open up in my bag.  Just so you have the picture.

After all, I wasn’t planning on getting kicked out of my classroom.  I wasn’t planning on carrying this soup container around central Berlin.  But kicked out I was.  Which is how I found myself carrying around this awkwardly sized-&-shaped Tupperware to a park bench near the Mohrenstraße U-Bahn station.  It was there that I had my lunch, happily eating noodle soup with chopsticks like a fucking civilized human being already.4

So now I’ve eaten lunch, but I’ve still got an hour to kill.  And this awkward empty Tupperware5 to carry around.  What to do?  Well, given my location, I decided to go for a bit of historical sight-seeing.  My plan was to walk around to the site of the old (new) Reichskanzlei (Reich’s Chancellery); then from there, around back to the parking lot where the Führerbunker used to be and then finally to the Holocaust memorial, which stands across the street and one block up.

First of all, I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t win with this shit.  What I mean is, as a student of history, I do think it’s a bit of a shame that the Chancellery and the bunker were completely demolished with nary a sign that they ever even existed.  On the other hand, good fucking riddance.  But on yet another hand, I’m also completely creeped out by the Nazi buildings that still exist, all the more so given that they’re actually in use.  Göring’s Air Ministry building is now the Finance Ministry.  How the hell does one actually go to their ho-fucking-hum job in a place like that?  Last year, I saw AC/DC at the Olympiastadion, which was really cool until you remember the damn thing was built for the express purpose of showcasing Aryan superiority.  So it’s a loss when the buildings are destroyed, and it’s disturbing when they still stand.  That’s what I mean by you can’t win with this shit.

Anyway, on the site of the Chancellery, they’ve built an apartment complex.  Oh, and also a little elementary school.6  I mean, that’s just creepy.  It’s creepy, right?  Like, how do you live on that ground, knowing what was there?  The parking lot around back is where the exit for the bunker was.  And all that’s there about it is one little sign.  And even that was only put up sometime in the early 2000’s.

Still, I felt it was important to at least visit the site.  And since I was in the neighborhood with an hour to kill, it seemed like as good a time as any.  Only, like I said, I’m carrying this annoying and awkward Tupperware under my arm.  Well, as I’m walking from the parking lot/bunker site to the Holocaust memorial, I decide to try and jam it into my coat pocket.  It didn’t really fit well, but it seemed good enough.

Right, so I get to the memorial and promptly sit myself down on one of the stones.  Whereupon did I dig out my phone and open up the Wikipedia pages for the Neureichskanzlei and the Führerbunker.  And I read for a bit, until I decide it’s time to head back.  But as I stand up, I notice the lack of a large, awkward bulge in my coat pocket.  Fuck.  My Tupperware – my roommate’s Tupperware, to be precise – must have fallen out as I was walking.  So I prepare myself to go and retrace my steps to find it.

It was then that I saw the bright yellow plastic cap lying in the street; in the street just between the Holocaust memorial and the bunker parking lot.  I approach it with quick steps, hoping to recover the goods before it was too late.  But it was too late.  A car had run over it, shattering it to pieces and launching the yellow cap to its landing spot about five feet away.  And if I’d had any hope of at least recovering the chopsticks, I was disabused of it by the black tire tracks across them.  Fuck again.

And look, yeah, it was dumb to try and jamb the thing into my coat pocket when it clearly didn’t fit.  But it also easily could have fallen out on the sidewalk where I simply could have just picked it up again.  It even could have fallen out in the street and rolled to the curb.  But no.  Having a mind like The One Ring, it jumped out of my jacket smack in the middle of the road, where it waited to be found by a Gollum-car.  Only the Gollum-car didn’t save the precious, it destroyed it.  What were the odds of this?  There was only conclusion to draw: Even after all these years, this place was haunted.

But there was something else in this episode, too.  Something uglier.  See, I stood over the remains of this Tupperware, there in the middle of the road.  And I looked at it.  Only I knew what it was.  Only I knew who it belonged to.  And I wondered if I should try to clean it up, try to pick up the pieces.  Or should I just keep walking and pretend I didn’t know anything about it?  I mean, that would be easier.  And in the end, that’s exactly what I did.  I just walked away from it, acted like it had nothing to do with me.  I have to tell you, to have that thought process, in that place, even over something so small, so insignificant, it gave me a chill.  I hurried the hell away from that place.  It’s a bad place.

It’s a bad place.  You’d think I could find a better word.  But what are words to a place like that?  And people fucking live there.  I couldn’t.

Changing gears, thankfully, I finally finished my Hebrew course book last week.  I started in November of 2015.  So that’s 17 months of hard work and study.  But I did it.  I do feel like it’s rather a bit of an accomplishment.  That said, I’ve still got the last chapter of the accompanying workbook to polish off.  This consists of parsing 160-odd verbs7 and an extended passage from Genesis about Joseph’s dreams.8  But that’s just putting a bow on things.  The point is, I’ve successfully taught myself to read biblical Hebrew.

Which is not the same thing as saying I’m good at it, mind you.  That will come with time and further study.  But I have the tools now.  I know what I’m looking at.  Which is crazy, when you think about it.  I went to Hebrew school.  I was Bar Mitzvahed.9  And in all that, they never teach how you to read the language.  Oh sure, they teach you how to phonetically read the words on the page.  But to read the language?  Nah.  So I did it myself.  Twenty-three years later, but I did it myself.

So I take a moment to pat myself on the back a little bit.  Because ten years ago, I decided I wanted to learn how to read Greek.  And you better believe I needed to go to school for that.  Ain’t no way I was teaching myself Greek; which even now is the hardest of all the languages I’ve yet dealt with.  But in the course of going down that road, I taught myself French and German and now Hebrew.  And I don’t mind saying I feel pretty good about that.

The funny thing is, I don’t actually think I’m particularly good with languages.  I mean, I know I’m not.  And the reason I know I’m not is because I’ve met people who actually are.  In grad school, I met people who would sight-read Plato and translate it into not just serviceable but actually very good English, on the fly.  I’ve never been able to do that; still can’t.

But once you learn a second language, it gets easier.  You start to see how things work.  So for me, I think, it’s more about experience.  And genuine interest.  The latter is probably more important.  What I mean is, this shit never gets boring for me.  I enjoy spending my nights working on Hebrew, reading Homer.  I love reading Jules Verne on the subway.  I love chatting – well, trying to chat – in German with my friends here.  My point is, I have to work hard at it.  It doesn’t come easy to me.  But I enjoy the work.

Sometimes I think about the funny turns my life has taken.  Because it seems to me that so many of the important things in my life right now have hinged upon chance and random events.  Let’s look at just two examples.  The first is the simple fact that I’m teaching English in Berlin.  The other is this whole Hebrew thing.

So let’s dial up the Way-Back Machine to winter, 2012.  The only reason I decided to learn French was because I needed to pass a reading comp in a modern language for my Master’s.  I could have done Italian (I still want to learn Italian) or German (too hard) or French.  And I chose French, for literally no other reason than it looks most like Latin on the page.  I figured it would be the easiest.

Remember before when I said you have to enjoy the work?  Well, very quickly, I found a way into French.  And that was hockey.  Once I had the basics down, I just started devouring French Canadian hockey coverage.  It gave me a reason to want to work on French every day.  But I digress.  The point is, I passed my reading comp.  And by that time, I was now firmly interested in the language itself; which I was not when I started.

Sometime after the test, I said something about wanting to continue with it to Jared and he suggested finding a conversation partner.  So I googled it up and found this website, conversationexchange.com.  This is the beginning of 2013 now.  But I needed to put this off for a few weeks, because I had jury duty.  So it wasn’t until February of that year that I finally reached out to try and find a French conversation partner.

That’s how I met Charlotte, who was in New York at the time on a three-month study-vacation; to learn English.  Obviously we hit it off.  And as I’ve written before, she’s the one who gave me the confidence – and the kick in the ass – I needed to move home for a year, to save money, to finally do my CELTA and ultimately go teach English abroad.

But think about that.  I started my Greek pre-req’s in 2007; started my Master’s in 2009.  But I only finished my degree in 2013.  That’s four years; longer than normal.  But I was working at the same time, which is why it took as long as it did.  If I finished in 2012, let’s say, I would have found a different conversation partner.  If I didn’t have jury duty, if I reached out for a partner in January instead of February, maybe we never meet.

I’m not trying to take anything away from myself here.  I’m the one who did the hard work of the CELTA.  I’m the one who came here on a one-way ticket, with no job offers, and made it work.  But of all those things, maybe the hardest was making the decision to go live on Long Island with my parents for year, to save money for this adventure.  That’s not an idea I would have countenanced on my own.  But she showed me by her own example that it was OK to do this, that I should do this.  And if the timing had been just a little bit different, maybe none of that happens.  Maybe I’m still lost in New York, trying to figure out what to do with myself.

So much for Charlotte.  But why Germany specifically?  Now that’s down to Joschka.  Another random and chance encounter.  Vinny met Joschka first, at a concert.  And the reason he met him was because Joschka was wearing a Wacken T-shirt.  Wacken, of course, is the Mecca of metal festivals; something that all American metal fans know about and dream of one day going to.

So Vinny sees this kid wearing a Wacken T-shirt and does the only thing Vinny can do in that situation.  He yells out, “WACKEN!!!”  They get to talking, and in the end, they agree to go together to another metal show, a few weeks later.  At that time, I had no idea about Joschka.  I just knew I was meeting Vinny at the concert.  So I get there, and there’s Vinny, hanging out with this baby German kid.  Seriously, I think he was like 22 at the time; this is 2012.

Anyway, we all have a great time at the show, which was on Long Island.  Vinny was driving back upstate, so that left me and Joschka to take the train together back to the city.  We chatted the whole way, hitting it off instantly.  And in the course of this, I said, “Hey, you should teach me German.”  Which was a weird thing for me to say, as up to that point, I’d had literally interest in learning German.  Mostly because all the PhD students had scared me off it, with horror stories about how hard it was.

But I like languages, and here’s this new friend who speaks one I don’t know.  “Hey, you should teach me German,” I said.  To which he replied, “Sure, OK.”  Wait, seriously?  “Yeah, why not?”  I went out and bought a book the next day.  And lo-&-behold, I loved it.  I mean, I instantly saw why all the best Greek scholars were Germans.  The languages work fundamentally the same way, though German is a far sight less complicated.  But this language had everything I loved about Greek in a way that French, a child of Latin – which I hate – certainly didn’t.

It also had the added bonus of feeling good in my mouth.  Look, I love French, I really do.  There’s loads of literature in French that I adore.  The language sounds beautiful.  It looks good on the page.  I find it to be elegant in the way it organizes itself and expresses its thoughts; not something I’d say about German, btw.10  But I also find it very difficult to speak.  Or more accurately, very difficult to pronounce.  When I try to speak French, my tongue feels like its wearing its shoe on the wrong foot, if that makes any sense.

Not so with German.  I don’t mean that it’s easy, per se.  And I obviously have an accent; nobody’s going to confuse me for a native speaker.  And there are certainly words that give me a hard time.11  But by and large, German feels pretty comfortable with regard to pronunciation.  I’ve often wondered if this owes in any part to the bits and pieces of Yiddish that were in the background of my childhood.  Indeed, I was surprised to learn how many German words I already knew, just because they’re the same in mama loshen.

I’m going off track here.  The point is, at some point, it came time to make a decision as to where I wanted to go abroad and teach English.  The only thing I knew was, I wanted to go somewhere where I was interested in learning the language and indeed had already started learning the language.  And that meant either France or Germany.  With that, I also knew I wanted to be in a big city.  So that meant either Paris or Berlin.  Then I looked at what it cost to live in Paris and what it cost to live in Berlin.12  In the end, there really wasn’t a choice at all.

But think about that.  If Joschka wears any other shirt to that concert, Vinny probably doesn’t meet him.  If Vinny doesn’t meet him, I don’t meet him.  If I don’t meet him, I’m probably still walking around with no interest in German.  And If I’m walking around with no interest in German, I certainly don’t move to Berlin to teach English.  So maybe I’m trying to hack it in Paris, or even Rome.  And I’m sure my life would great in either case.  But it wouldn’t be this life.

And what about Hebrew?  A few years ago, I had about as much interest in learning Hebrew as I did in learning German.  But I came back from Germany, after doing my CELTA, in August of 2015, and I needed a job.  And there’s Keith, telling me about an open position at the school where he’s the principal.  Believe me when I tell you that working as a paraprofessional at a special needs school was never ever on my radar.  This was not a job I ever would have applied for on my own.

But there’s Keith, whom I’ve known since High School, telling me I should go for it.  Well, I needed a job, so I went for it.  And they hired me.  And it was a Jewish school, this little school for special needs kids.  At that time, the extent of my connection with Judaism was going to the family Seder once a year and maybe lighting the candles at Chanukah.  And I was plenty fine with that.

Anyway, there I am at this Jewish school, and there’s Hebrew being thrown around left and right and I’m starting to feel like it’s kind of ridiculous that I’m so ignorant of this language.  So I start thinking that if there was ever a time for me to tackle loshen koidesh, the holy tongue, it was now, when I’m around it all day, and not for nothing, surrounded by a bunch of learned rabbis.  So again, I went out and bought a book.  Seventeen months later, here I am.

But think about that.  If I had a job waiting for me, I don’t go to that school.  If Keith isn’t the principal there, I don’t end up there.  And he’s not the principal there anymore, I should add.  He left to go back to public school.  So that was a pretty small window, actually.  The point is, that job kind of fell in my lap.  I wasn’t looking for it.  And without it, I never go down this road of learning Hebrew.

Anyway, I think about all this sometimes.  Because I didn’t plan any of it.  It all just sort of happened to me.  And in between, how many trips have Charlotte and I taken together?  How many German metal festivals have I gone to with Joschka?  So here I am.  Here I am teaching English abroad, in Berlin, and studying Hebrew in my spare time.  And why?  Because I took my sweet time finishing my Master’s?  Because of a T-shirt?  Because I was friends with the principal?  It’s funny how things work out.

זיי געסונט

  1. More on that in a future post, when the plans are more solid. []
  2. Also known as their end of town. []
  3. #lame []
  4. One tries not to be a snob.  But then one sees Berliners eating Chinese food with forks and all one’s good intentions go for naught. []
  5. Autocorrect keeps capitalizing “Tupperware.”  But it wasn’t a Tupperware brand container.  I’m using the name as a generic adjective.  Which makes me feel like it shouldn’t be capitalized.  And also I have this problem where I can’t turn off being an English teacher. []
  6. Or possibly a kindergarten.  A school for small children, is the fucking point already. []
  7. Look, if God is such a big deal, you’d think he could have devised a slightly less horrifically opaque morphology for his chosen people’s verbal system.  #justsaying []
  8. Update: I drafted this post on Saturday (well, like Sunday morning, after I got home from dinner w/ Z&J).  Anyway, I gutted out this last bit of the workbook Sunday afternoon/night, finishing up around 3am.  So I’m officially finished! #yay []
  9. Zibs asked me if I had a Bar Mitzvah.  No, I told her.  But I was Bar Mitzvahed.  Yeah, we’re an odd folk. []
  10. Efficient.  Precise.  Clever, even.  But not elegant. []
  11. For whatever reason, I seem to trip over Brötchen – a little roll of bread.  Fortunately, in Berlin, you can say Schrippe instead. []
  12. More accurately, I looked at what it cost to do the CELTA in Paris and in Berlin.  But this, of course, was a reflection on the cost of living. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
Birthday Edition

Right, so either Berlin hasn’t yet figured out that #davestheworst or else friends, colleagues and students are trolling me.  How else to explain all the nice things that have befallen me here with regards to my 36th at-this-age-it-doesn’t-matter-anymore birthday?  And that’s with a number of people being out of town.

OK, so my actual birthday was Friday the 10th, and tbh, that was kinda depressing.  The original plan called for Zibs and Jan to come over for dinner and drinks.  Only Zibs texted me the day before asking if we could move it to Saturday, since they’d both be tired after working all day.  Of course, I obliged.  I mean, it’s a fair point.  Or, well, it’s a fair point for people who don’t go home, nap til 8, eat Chinese food at 9 and then show up at 11:30 for a party that started at 7.

And so while I did get a lovely (albeit tipsy) birthday phone call from Charlotte on Thursday afternoon, for whom in Australia it was already my birthday, my actual German birthday was a bit of a drag.  I bought myself a bottle of whiskey and drank rather a lot of it.  I did some Hebrew, watched some Netflix and started writing another silly fairy tale, which I may or may not finish at some point.

No one else was around.  Joschka was in the Caribbean with Cindy; Annett is out of town on an internship; the roommates were on their honeymoon; Christian the ex-roommate was hosting a friend from out of town; Anne the French language partner was in Paris; and I already mentioned Zibs and Jan.  But at least I wasn’t drinking Absinthe at 3am on a weeknight, like I was when I turned 30.  I suspect Jared remembers more about that night than I ever will.

Be that as it may,1 Saturday turned out to be pretty great.  Z&J met me out here in K-nick, where we went for dinner at a cute little Italian joint in the Altstadt.  We had a grand old time of it.  I ordered what was basically a (very tasty) filet mignon and we all shared a bottle of wine.  All of which set me back a whole 25€.2

After that, we stopped by the supermarket for beer and then headed back to the apartment for more drinking.  When we got there, Z&J presented me with a birthday present.  This turned out to be a bottle of Glenfiddich 12.  Which, I mean, is just glorious.  And it was no coincidence, either.  Jan and I often talk about whiskey, as he’s quite interested in it, but doesn’t have a whole lot of experience in that department.  Somewhere along the line, I said something about the Glenfiddich 12 being quite nice and not bank-breakingly expensive either.

So when I expressed my heartfelt gratitude and added that I happen to love this particular scotch, they were like, “Yeah, dude, we know.”  I mean, that’s pretty fucking great.  As was the rest of the night.  Jan and I put a nice dent in the bottle.  Zibs tried to learn how to smoke a pipe.  She needs more practice, but it was fun.  And with all that, just the usual good conversation, good laughs and general good times that always ensues with those two.  And when they left at the end of the night, I had two thoughts.  The first was, “You know, I’ve got some pretty good friends here.  I’m very lucky.”  The other was, “Fuck, I’m pretty drunk.  I hope my bed will stop spinning long enough for my ass to climb into it.”  It did and I did.  Happy birthday, Davey, and good night.

Now as I said, the roommates were away on their honeymoon.  But they returned Monday afternoon.  Which was surprising, as I was expecting them on Tuesday.  Look, I’m just happy I was wearing pants when they came home.  Anyway, I was already planning on cooking dinner, and I had plenty of food, so I asked them if they wanted to join.  They were happy too.

I made not the best braised chicken I’ve ever made, but it was good enough.  Nevertheless, we had a very nice evening, and it was good to catch up.  They’re really both very sweet.  And the more time I spend with them, the better my German gets, which is an added bonus.  Not just that, but they’re also very patient; always happy to explain things; and very much appreciate good (and bad) puns.  It’s a nice situation, is what I’m trying to say.

After dinner, I asked if they wanted a bit of nice scotch.  Lucie didn’t, but Marco was happy to dive in.  Whereupon did we proceed to put another serious dent in the bottle.  It’s funny.  Had I bought the bottle myself, I probably wouldn’t have broken it out.  But since it was a gift, I account it as not being properly mine anyway, and as something that’s meant to be shared.  So on the one hand, it’s not going to last nearly as long as I thought it might.  But on the other hand, it’s already brought me many hours of good times.  Really, there aren’t many things better than good scotch.

Anyway, as we were drinking, I mentioned that it was a birthday gift.  And they were both like, “Wtf dude, you didn’t tell us it was your birthday!  When was it?”  I told them it was Friday and since they were out of town, it hardly seemed worth mentioning.  They seemed to accept this in that way that you accept things you can’t change from simple-minded idiots.  That is to say, with a smile and a shake of the head.  Little did I know, they were plotting.

For yesterday afternoon, I got a text from Marco saying that Lucie would be cooking that night, so they hoped I didn’t have plans.  I still didn’t put together that this was a birthday thing though.  But of course it was.  And it was delish.  Lucie made a pork shoulder in a tasty sauce with mushrooms and broccoli.  Obviously there was wine.  But the best part was the brownies.

Which is a weird thing for me to say.  Not that I don’t like brownies, I surely do.  But I don’t have much of a sweet tooth.  So desert usually ranks third, after the main dish and whatever there is to drink.  And taste wise, the dinner was definitely better.  But here’s the thing.  I tasted the brownie, and I was like, “Does this have like an orange flavor to it?”  And she was like, “Yup.”  And I was like, “Dude, I fucking love chocolate with orange flavor!”  And she was like, “Yeah, I know.”  What?  How?

Apparently, she remembered that around Christmas – three fucking months ago already – I had bought some orange flavored dark chocolate.  I mean, come on, that’s pretty impressive.  Anyway, I was pretty impressed.  Well done, Lucie.  My hat is off to you.

Meanwhile, I had a private lesson at my “Friday school” yesterday.  Anyway, I walk into the office, there to print some worksheets for the lesson.  And my boss and the two ladies who work in the office are standing there, and my boss is holding a little wrapped package.  “Happy Birthday, Dave!”  And again, I’m expressing heartfelt gratitude.  But I also said it was hardly necessary.

And, come on, it’s not at all necessary.  I’ve only been working there since September.  And technically I only work one day a week.  Here and there I cover a class when they need me and I do the private lessons sometimes.  But when I said it wasn’t necessary, my boss says, “No, it wasn’t.  But it was our pleasure to.”  And I’m just like, you people are fucking fantastic.

Then I go in for the lesson.  I work with this lady who is in her early 50’s.  But she’s mad cool.  You can tell she was a good time when she was younger.  And her husband sounds like an awesome and fascinating dude.  And her kid sounds really cool too.  Anyway, she’s mostly there to improve her conversation skills.  Sometimes we do little grammar lessons.  But often as not, we just chat for 90 minutes and I correct her grammar/vocab as we go.

She’s got lots of great stories, and a wealth of knowledge about Berlin.  So half the time that I’m teaching her, she’s actually teaching me about Germany, the culture, the language, the history, and Berlin.  Good sense of humor too, so on top of all that, we have plenty of good laughs.  Anyway, she comes in today, and says, “I hope you don’t mind, but I prepared something for today’s lesson.”  Mind?  Why would I mind?  If you’re doing the prep work, this job just got even easier!  So I’m thinking she has some emails or maybe some other writing she wants to go over or work on.  Or maybe she’s got some kind of conversation scenario she wants to play out.  Wrong.

“So I was thinking,” she said, “it sounds like you don’t really get to West Berlin very much.”  Which is true.  I’ve never really been west of Tiergarten, and even then, I rarely make it west of Tempelhofer Feld.  “So I made a list of things you should check out in the West.  Some walking routes, some sights and some restaurants.”  Omg, for real?  That’s fantastic!  “Also, I have a map, so maybe we can go over it all together?”  Umm, yes please!

So she unfolds this big old ADAC map.  Now the ADAC is the German version of AAA, so it’s really a road map of Berlin.  But this means it’s highly detailed and has every street in the blessed city.  So we start going over the list, and she’s marking up the map.  “Wait, hang on, I want to get a picture of this little area.”  To which she explains, I don’t have to, the map is for me.  It’s mine now.  This was her first map when she first moved to Berlin, and she’s giving it to me.  How sweet is that?  And keep in mind, we’ve only been meeting since December!

So we spent the rest of the lesson going over her list and the map and just talking about Berlin.  And they fucking pay me for this!  Then, at the end of the lesson, she says, “Wait, I have something else for you.”  Whereupon she pulls out a little wrapped package from her bag.  “Something for your flight.”  Wow.  I’m so touched.  More heartfelt gratitude.  But I told her I’d open it on the plane, so I still don’t know what it is.  I mean, it’s clearly a book.  But I don’t know what it is.

As for the present from the school, that was also a book.  This I opened when I got home.  It’s called “Hitler’s Berlin: Abused City.”  OK guys, that’s pretty fucking perfect.  A history book about Nazi Times and specifically about Berlin?  Come on.  How can they possibly know me that well?  So I’m pretty excited to get going on that.

And that about does it for my first birthday in Berlin.  Pretty f’ing fantastic.  But like I said when I started this post, these people either haven’t yet figured out that #davestheworst, or else their trolling me.  Because there’s no way I deserve this.  Is there?

So much for the birthday.  But there’s3 one or two other vignettes I want to put down before I end this post.  You know how in New York, on the subway, you get these mariachi guys or other assorted musicians that come into your car and interrupt your sweet self-in-a-bubble time with their busking?  Well, they’ve got that here too.  And the other day, this full on four or five-piece band gets on, with fucking brass horns.  And I’m just like, “Holy shit, fuck me, why?”

But then the strangest thing happened.  The band is to my left.  So naturally I look to my right.  And what do I see, but a whole kindergarten class, filling up all the seats in the middle of the car.  They had to be something like 4-5 years old.  Point is, the band starts playing, and rather loudly.  And again, I’m thinking, “Fuck you, god(s), why?”

Only when I turn to look at the kids again, they’re all looking on wide-eyed with big ol’ smiles on their faces.  And some of them are even up out of their seats and bopping around in the aisle.  Which made me smile.  I mean, it was fucking adorable and the like the sweetest thing I’ve seen in weeks.

What a strange mix of emotions, you know?  Every time I looked left, I hated everything.  But every time I looked right, I was just, “How can you not love this shit?  This is what life’s all about, amirite?”  So yeah, Berlin.

I thought I had another little story to tell, but it escapes me now, so I’ll just leave it be.  And tomorrow (well, today, technically), I fly home.  Really looking forward to it.  But it’s also quite surreal.  I was walking home from work today, just like I always do, and somehow I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that I wouldn’t be doing this tomorrow; that tomorrow I’d be back in the States.  It doesn’t seem real.  And it was a reminder that my life, at least now, is very much here.  Shit has a way of sneaking up on you sometimes.

One minor disappointment.  Back around New Year’s, I’d very much hoped that I’d be able to finish my Hebrew course book before my flight.  But then I got sick, and that set me back a bit.  So that’s not going to happen.  But I’m close.  Tonight I finished the chapter I was working on.  And now there’s only three left.  It might take another two or three weeks, but the finish line is very much in sight.  Hard not to be happy about that.

Well, that’s enough for this post.  I mean, I still need to pack.4  Although I’m very seriously considering putting that off until morning.  I figure, if I make a mental checklist tonight, that should be sufficient.  Right?  Sure.  Welp.  See you on the other side!

זיי געסונט

  1. Election is Friday, right Dad & Justin? []
  2. Sometimes I love this city.  Imagine that in Gotham! []
  3. Heard this really interesting observation from Ben Zimmer, WSJ language columnist (inter alia), about “There’s.”  So clearly “There is” is for singulars and “There are” is for plurals.  For example, “There is a dog.”  Or, “There are three slices of pizza left.”  But we naturally contract these to “There’s” and “There’re.”  Only, “There’re” is awkward to pronounce.  So it seems people have just started using “There’s” for singular and plural.  And the more I thought about it, the more I realized I think I must do this also, without even noticing.  I mean, it’s perfectly logical.  After all, one is much easier to say than the other.  Anyway, I thought that was fascinating. []
  4. #fml []