An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
7 December, 2016

In my last post,1 I found myself writing rather a bit about my grandfather.  This prompted a somewhat unexpected response from my own father.  Without warning or preamble, he wrote what I might loosely call an “open letter” to me and my brother (Justin), in which he muses on his father, our grandfather.  It is a fine piece of writing on its own merits.  And if that was it all it was, I probably wouldn’t post it here.

But I think there is great value in it for all of us.  It goes some way to showing my grandfather as a more complete person than I was able to know him.  It paints a picture of Herb the man, not Herb the grandfather.  And yes, it is naturally colored by father’s own experiences.  Still, it answers questions I might never have thought to ask.  And so, my hope in posting this is that it might prompt some of you to talk to your own parents, to dig a little deeper, to try and get to know your own grandparents a little better, even if – or perhaps especially if – they’re already gone.

What follows, then, will be the letter that my dad wrote in its entirety.  Apart from some minor edits for spelling, the only additions will be a handful of footnotes explaining things that might not be obvious to the usual readers of this blog.  And so, without further ado…

Some Ramblings on Grandpa, my Dad
by Lawrence Starr

First it needs to be said that my memory is vague enough that in literary terms I could be considered an unreliable narrator. This is also a snapshot. There is so much more I could have gone into. I just wanted to give some insight into the man.

With that said, let’s begin.

My earliest impressions of your grandfather – and I call him grandfather because he was never Dad or Pop, Pa or Papa, just Father – was that of a distant and cool person who lived in the same house. I won’t say he wasn’t caring or loving, but if he was, he wasn’t very good at showing it. It may very well have been due to the fact that I was number five in the line of six children they would produce. Perhaps he was toast by the time I came around; had depleted his reserves on the first four. Or perhaps it was that the years of toiling to maintain a growing family had taken it’s toll. Whatever the reason, I felt very alone in a very crowded house. As the “baby,” I felt I was treated differently that the others. The four that came before me had all been born into a house on East 17th street in Sheepshead Bay,2 a much smaller house than the one I would come home to in Manhattan Beach.3 Perhaps they had formed a special bond in the cramped quarters of a house meant for much smaller families, but I merely speculate.

To understand our father, it helps to know a little of his family dynamics. He was the oldest of two children born to Meyer and Sylvia Starr. Meyer had emigrated from the Ukraine, Sylvia from Lithuania. I don’t know how old they were when they came to this country. Unlike my Grandmother on my mother’s side, as best as I can remember, they spoke English free of any accent. Dad (I will call him that form this point on because it’s easier to type than Father) was born in Chicago. What they were doing there is anybody’s guess. He was doted upon by Sylvia. Meyer was stern and unemotional, interestingly, the way I remember Dad. Dad was king of the household according to his sister, Millie. Millie seemed to have a normal enough childhood until she reached puberty and Meyer turned his back on her. From then on she was alone. She left home relatively early and led a somewhat Bohemian existence.  She was a wonderful woman who I wish you had gotten to know better. Watch the movie Auntie Mame someday. That will give you an idea.

As you know, Dad was all about the sciences and music. He went to Brooklyn Tech, which at the time was an all boys’ high school for the sciences. It was and still is a prestigious city public school, though it is now co-ed. It was not an easy school to gain admittance to. From there he went to City College and majored in chemistry. From there he went into the Army.

I don’t know the details of how Mom and Dad met. In their wedding pictures, dad is in uniform. Uncle Richard was a war baby.4

One of my greatest regrets is that I know almost nothing about Dad’s military service. In my seventeen years at the museum5 I have heard countless stories form wonderful people about their experiences during the war; wonderful, intense stories about events that shaped their lives and those of the people around them. And here I am left without clue as to what must have been the most crucial and formative time in my fathers eighty-one years. He never wanted to talk about it. I often wonder, had he lived another five or six years, got to see what course the fates had put me on, if he would have be proud or horrified. Would he have finally opened up and let the past free,6 or would he have said, “what the hell are you doing with all this war shit?”

Here is what little I know, or think I know. Dad was in the medical corps. Was he a non-combatant by choice? Don’t know. He may very well have been a pacifist but I never heard him say that. We do know that he spent a lot of time at sea making crossings on various ships, including the Queen Mary and at least one Liberty Ship. I just learned from Uncle Richard, that one of the trips on the Grey Ghost (the Queen Mary, as she was called during the war) took him to Australia. This I had never heard before.

Another Atlantic crossing on the GG was shortly after the Battle of the Bulge. That would have been in January of ’45. It was a westbound voyage bringing home many of the wounded.7 He never mentioned the fact that it would also have carried many German POWs. He spoke about never ending card games in the hold of these ships. GIs sitting around gambling only stopping long enough to puke into their helmets.

One thing I have seen for myself is that Dad NEVER got seasick. EVER. On a cruise during which virtually everyone was sick, Dad walked around like it was Christmas Eve or Chanukah or whatever the hell he would have celebrated (Lenin’s Birthday?). I also remember a story he told with amusement tinged with disgust. He had arrived in the Middle East on a freighter, probably the Liberty Ship. I know no other detail of that trip other than what he said he saw form the ship while in port. There were huge piles of grain on the docks. I would imagine they were awaiting shipment to various combat theaters. He watched as an Arab climbed one of the piles and committed what may well have been the first act of terrorism: he proceeded to defecate. He took a dump into the Allied food supply chain. I think it put Dad off of bread for a while.

Dad left the service as a Master Sargent, though here is where my memory is a little fuzzy. The memory I have of dad’s Ike jacket8 was that it had three rockers up and three down on the sleeves.  That would have made him a M. Sgt. I also seem to remember that there was a “T” between the chevrons so I always thought he was a Technincal Sergent. In doing research, I found that it was impossible to have three up and three down with a tech rating, so now I am confused. I am fairly certain that there were 3 up and 3 down. Anyway, here is a Wiki excerpt explaining the rank during WWII.9

Sergeant ranks were sometimes referred to by the number of chevrons (the upper angle) and rockers (the lower arc) on their stripes. Thus saying a man had “three up, two down” meant he was a technical sergeant. Before the war, NCOs could not transfer between regiments without having to start in the new unit as a private.

While officers lived and ate in separate facilities, the NCOs lived and ate with the enlisted men. Most senior NCOs had their own private or semi-private rooms in the barracks. Officers, it was said, commanded the Army; Sergeants however, ran the Army.  Officers would order a project be done, but it was the sergeants who told the men what to do and saw it was done properly. There was an unspoken rule in the Army that an NCO overseeing a group of men working was not to perform the work himself.

Two major changes in the Army affected enlisted men. In June 1942 an Army wide pay raise provided more money for the troops. Pay for higher ranking officers stayed the same. Then in December 1943, in an effort to boost the morale of the infantry, NCO ranks in infantry units were boosted so that assistant squad leaders became sergeants, and squad leaders became staff sergeants, and platoon sergeants Technical Sergeants. The number of authorized Pfc slots in infantry units was raised to half of all privates. The additional pay and rank was hoped to offset the rigors and dangers of being in an infantry unit.

With the increase of technical skills needed in the Army, a new category of NCO was created. Known as technicians, these were men who needed to be paid more for specific skills, but did not need the command authorization of a higher rank. They were first authorized in January 1942. In September 1942 the rank stripes had a letter “T” on them to indicate there were a Technician. Long after the war these would turn into the “Specialist” ratings still in use today.

Technician ratings are not to be confused with the rank of the more traditional rank of technical sergeant. For command purposes technicians ranked just below the equivalent of their strips. A technician 3rd grade (Tech/3) ranked just below a staff sergeant when it came to giving orders.

And that is about the sum total of my knowledge of dad’s military experience.10

As I said, Uncle Richard was a War Baby. I guess that makes him a Pre-Boomer. Aunt Carol followed just after the war and the rest of us came at roughly 2 year intervals except for Aunt Gail. She arrived nine years after me (I?), who came nine years after Richard. That is a baby making span of eighteen years. I’ll get to the significance of this later.

At this point I need to shift attention to Grandma’s story. We know more about her life and that of the Polakoffs than we do about the Starrs. Both Ella and Morris were from the Ukraine. Ella’s family escaped from the Czarist pogroms as Bubby used to say, by “stealing the border.” They snuck out of Russia in the earliest years of the 20th Century. (If you haven’t read or listened to the “Bubby Interviews” that Uncle Richard did in the years before her death, you should, if only for the Yiddish that she would lapse into).11 Fast forward to the late 1930s. Morris and Ella, now with three children, Nathan, Samuel and Ida, are operating a sweater mill. Nat is a teacher, I am not sure what Sam is doing, but he is probably in Baltimore with his new wife Lil running a photography store (not totally sure of the timeline here) and Ida, your grandmother, has graduated Lincoln High School and is working in New York City.

Hit the FF button again and stop at 1945. The war is over. Ida is pregnant with Aunt Carol. I am not sure what dad is doing after he comes home. What I do know is that days after Aunt Carol is born, Poppy Morris drops dead form a heart attack. Ida and Carol haven’t even come home form the hospital. Bubby Ella, in addition to being devastated by the death of her relatively young husband, is now burdened with a business she has to run on her own. I am going to oversimplify the facts.

  1. a)    Morris and Ella owned the house on 17th St and shared it with Herb, Ida and their son.
  2. b)   Ella needed help with the business and Dad agreed to step in and help. I don’t know if this was done reluctantly or not. It did put an end to any hope of a career in chemistry or a related field, if he had hoped for one.
  3. c)    At some point Sam returned from Baltimore with his family and joined the business. Nat continued teaching but received a portion of the earnings as long as the business existed, though I never remember him ever setting foot in the place.

The apartment on 17th St became more crowded as soon as Ida came home home from the hospital with Carol. By 1950, there were three adults and four children in a house that was about the same size as the house we lived in on Pembroke St.12 There was a living room, kitchen, a master bedroom and a smaller bedroom. There was a separate apartment downstairs where Bubby lived. It was clear that the family had out grown 17th St.

Sam and Lil had purchased a nice three-bedroom house in the Long Island suburb of Elmont. Their family now included two girls, Ellen and Marion.13 Mom and Dad thought it would be a good idea to follow suit and move out to Long Island where they could stretch their legs. They had been sleeping on a sofa bed in the living room on 17th St as the two boys and two girls occupied each of the bedrooms. Ella pleaded with them not to leave her alone. She said find a house big enough for all of them in Brooklyn and she would buy it. Reluctantly they agreed. By 1951 they had moved into the house on Ocean Avenue in Manhattan Beach. I was born in November of that year.14

What is the point of all this? Why bring it up now?

David, you wonder what your grandfather would have done at your age. By the time he was 35, Dad was the father of five and running a business that, more often than not, was struggling to stay competitive and afloat. He did not have the choices that you have. He did see much of the world during the war, probably too much. He also saw enough of what mankind is capable of to alter whatever beliefs he held. I have no way of knowing what his politics were like before the war. I only know what I saw and heard after. He threw himself and his own money into a business that in reality wasn’t his, put a lot of his money into a house that wasn’t his (that’s a whole other story). Most of the time I remember him coming home late from work exhausted. One thing I can tell you is, you have his work ethic. I don’t think he was great with small children. I may be wrong. I don’t now how he was with the four that came before me. I don’t think I ever really felt loved, though I am sure if they heard that they would be shocked.

Their philosophy of childrearing was very different form what you would expect. They told us later in our lives that they had read the best thing for the children is not to make them dependent on each other. As a result, we were never all that close as a family. This they regretted. I don’t have warm and fuzzy recollections about many things. In a way it makes me feel damaged. Your mother had different experiences that were more traumatic and she turned out to be a more loving and warmer person than I (me?).

Mom and Dad believed their children were incapable of lying or doing the wrong thing. They believed just about anything we told them. Great when you’re a kid, lousy for your development. We received no guidance at all when it came to school, at least I didn’t. Your mother said from the day you guys were born that you were going to college, and that it would be away from home. I never took an SAT because I had no intention of going to college.

Because some of their friends were horrified that I wasn’t planning on continuing my education, my parents came to me in the second half of my senior year and told me they would by me any car I wanted if I went to college. I declined. I wanted to work in the movie business and I was going to do it on my terms. As Jim Vocell15 would say, “So how’d that work out for ya?”

Actually not terrible. I worked in the business until I ran afoul of the union. I wasn’t a member, could not join, and had to leave a great job. Let’s skip to the next chapter because this really isn’t bout me.

We are at the point where Tyrol Sportswear, the sweater company that our family owned and operated out of a five story 19th century brick building in Williamsburg,16 was struggling . Dad needed help. Uncle Michael had worked for him until he decided that dentistry was a better prospect. Richard was living and teaching in Vermont. It fell upon me to pitch in. After all, I was out of work.

Ever since I was old enough to reach the machines, Dad would bring me in some Saturdays to help repair damage that was done during the night shift. So by the time I was recruited in my twenties, I had some working knowledge of the equipment. This was about 1972.

I’m going to backtrack here for a moment. Something happened in July of 1961 that was a game changer for all of us. Aunt Gail was born. And it seemed she was born to different parents than the rest of us. I was nine years old. Richard was already out of the house and living in an apartment near Brooklyn College, which he was attending. Carol and Michael were in high school and Judy was in what was then Junior High, which was 7th and 8th grades. Business was improving. Dad bought his first brand new car. Okay, so it was a POS Rambler station wagon. Still it was the first car in our family that wasn’t a hand-me-down.

Dad was more relaxed and seemed to actually enjoy having a baby in the house. Even though I was glad to have the “baby” of the family spotlight off me, I was pissed that she was receiving attention that I felt I never got. The fact the she was severely asthmatic didn’t help. They coddled her and she was able to get away with things that none of us ever dreamed of. It affected our relationship for years. But this isn’t about me or Gail. What she did do was soften dad. This was not the same father that raised me or the other four.

And they began to travel. Carol was married in 1964. Right after the wedding we all piled into a brand spanking new Buick and drove to Florida. They took their first airplane ride down there, flying to the west coast to look at some property.17 You know those kind of deals. I remember being terrified until they returned. It was my first experience with air travel and I didn’t even get on the plane. Shortly after that, they started their world travels. The plant would close for the first two weeks of July and they were off to different exotic places. Then the cruising began. The first was a family cruise (including Bubby) to St Thomas that had to be in 1964. I know that they lied about my age to save some money on my fare. (So much for honesty, eh? See next paragraph).

After that, it was just the two of them or sometimes with Gail. They always offered to take me, but in my stupidity, I’d decline, thinking it was better to stay home and party. When the cats are away…

Hit the FF button and go back to 1972. I am now working for Dad in the sweater biz full time. This had advantages and disadvantages. I will focus on the advantages. For the first time, I truly got to know my father. I got to see him the way others saw him. And this is what I saw. I saw a man of irreproachable honesty, integrity and fairness.  A man respected by his employees and customers. Whether he was a good business man is open for debate, but as I said earlier, his work ethic was super-human. Unfortunately, he expected the same from me. Not that I don’t have a work ethic, it’s just that it wasn’t for this business. He expected me to work twice as hard as anyone else in the plant, for half the pay.18 I had no illusions about taking over the business. Not what I wanted. What I gained, though, was a skill that would someday allow me to support my own family.

But the greatest gain was the time spent with the man. The long forgotten discussions we would have, the respect for each other’s abilities. He recognized quickly that I was a far better mechanic than he was and took advantage of that fact. Not in a bad way. He capitalized on it and I was flattered. The bottom line is that I didn’t get to really know the man until I was in my twenties. I don’t think that that is all that unusual in father-son relationships. The child has to grow out of his stupidity to realize that his father really does know more than he. The only argument we ever had was over the business. I wanted to go back to school. He needed me, as the business was failing. I remember storming out of the house, getting into the Jag19 and driving off, leaving a trail of smoking rubber. Ultimately he won out. Sort of. I worked during the day and went to Brooklyn College at night. It didn’t help. The plant shut down in 1975. Within months of the closing, Mom, Dad and Gail were off to the Philippines to start a new chapter in the Starr family saga that would last three years.

Dad, Grandpa by then, had become the man you knew.  A man that enjoyed his family. By then he had grandchildren from Carol. He became a doting parent AND grandparent. They – the grandkids – even visited in the Philippines.

While they were away, I met your mom. We married when they came home. Literally, I think it was days after they returned. You pretty much know the rest.

Mom and Dad had a very close knit (no pun intended) social group. One of my childhood memories is of Book Club meetings that they would have periodically. Each month they were held at a different couple’s house. They probably had two a year at Ocean Avenue. I was either too young to know what was discussed or we were not allowed near the meeting. I well remember the morning after, finding the dining room table laded with drinking glasses and full ashtrays. There were occasional left over sweet treats. When I was older the cigarette buts had some value.

They were certainly an intellectual bunch. Among their friends was a chess grand master and some lesser players. Dad counted himself among the lesser players.20 I remember one summer when we were staying at the bungalow colony, watching – or rather listening to – and trying to follow a chess game played without a board. Not my game, for sure.

They were most assuredly well to the left of center. Maybe even a little left of left. One or more of the people in their circle fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. They fought alongside the Communists. What ultimately gave them away, at least to me, were the books I found in the attic of the house on Ocean Avenue when I had to empty it. I can’t recall any of the titles. I just remember the “Oh Shit” moment when I looked at them. I guess there is always a chance they were there when they moved in, you honor. When you take into account all of the other clues it lessens the doubt.

I do know that Dad was as unreligious a man as you will find. That came from his father. It is in stark contrast to Bubby, who lived upstairs in the same house and kept a Kosher home. That’s another point to ponder. The man spent a good portion of his adult life living and working with his mother-in-law. Think about that one. Maybe when she moved to Florida is when he really started to relax. Anyway back to religion. Except for Bubby upstairs, it didn’t exist in our house. That was on his terms, not Grandma’s. She went along with whatever he wanted. And gladly. Remember how I said dad was the king in his house when he was growing up? Grandma kept him on the thrown. I don’t mean this in a bad way. Their relationship was one for the record books. As loving a couple as you will ever find. Even with all those damned kids running around. And you wonder why they traveled? So it was an amazing thing for me to see you grandfather climb the steps of the altar during your Bar Mitzvah at the Toro,21 and take the scrolls. He was so proud to do it. Simply Amazing.

During the First Gulf War, I hung an American Flag on the front of the house near the mailbox on Pickwick Drive.22 Mom and Dad came to visit. When he saw the flag, he seemed disturbed. What’s this about? I’m supporting our country and troops, I said. He felt that nationalist zeal led to more wars. He had seen enough and was not interested in war, nationalism or religion. When I was a child, I remember answering a question saying, “Yes’m.”23 I got my head handed to me. For them, it was the equivalent of the “N” word and they would have none of it. And this was in the 1950’s, before Martin Luther King and civil rights. So add racism to that list of things he had no patience for.

The bottom line here is your grandfather was a complex man. He was a brilliant man. He was a talented man. He was warm, loving and compassionate even when he wasn’t showing it. And I didn’t even touch on his sense of humor24 or that he was a voracious reader who loved science fiction.

You and your brother should never have to wonder what he would have thought about you. I know that he would have been as proud a grandparent as ever lived. You guys have accomplished things that he only dreamed of. He loved music, but he was Salieri to your Mozart. (As am I).25 He would have been in heaven (leave it!) had he been able to see you guys play your music, be it classical or metal or whatever. It would have been his biggest thrill.

David. Your love of language and the way you are pursuing your dreams, the way you revel in the glories of the ancient and modern worlds would have given the two of you much to talk about. Your sadness is understandable. With him, with Daitz, you have lost two great authorities and conversationalists. Truly worth mourning.  I know he would relish reading your blogs.

Justin. Along with your music, your forays into the world of science would have thrilled him. He was as in love with the heavens as you are. Some of my fondest childhood memories, as you know, involve frequent trips the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium along with building a telescope. We used to have long philosophical talks about science that you would have enjoyed. He loved problem solving.

You have both done his legacy justice. More than I ever could. Be as proud of yourselves as I am of you. He most certainly would have been.

  1. Which, if you didn’t read it, I dunno, fuck you, I guess? []
  2. Brooklyn. []
  3. Also Brooklyn. []
  4. Richard was the first of the six children, born in 1945 before the end of the war. []
  5. My dad is the operations manager at the American Airpower Museum, Farmingdale New York. []
  6. Here my dad speaks to an interesting, and somewhat common phenomenon.  Many WWII vets never spoke about their experiences with their families.  Only in their last years have many of them opened up, and then only to historians or other third parties. []
  7. My own speculation here, but this is something to think about.  The Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last major offensive, was a bloody shitshow that took place mostly in the Ardennes forest.  You read all kinds of horror stories about people being ripped to shreds not just from ammunition but from the splintered timbers of exploding trees.  As a medic, what nightmares must he have encountered on such a crossing? []
  8. The “Ike jacket” was a waist length jacket worn by US soldiers during WWII; so called because it was popularized by General Eisenhower, who was often pictured wearing it. []
  9. What follows is a bit long and technical, and while of great interest to someone like me (or Dale!), the casual reader can probably get by on skimming it. []
  10. I recently asked my dad why we knew so little about my grandfather’s time in the Army.  Surely service records are public records.  Why didn’t we just consult those?  It turns out that sometime after the war, the warehouse where many of these records were stored burned down, depriving us – and many other families – of their loved ones’ wartime experiences. []
  11. Richard is the de facto family historian.  He recorded a series of video interviews with Bubby which we still have, but which I’ve yet to watch.  (The comment about the Yiddish is directed towards me, given my interest in the language). []
  12. Also Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. []
  13. That would make them my dad’s first cousins.  If I ever met them, I have no memory of it. []
  14. This is also the house I was born into. []
  15. My dad’s colleague at the museum. []
  16. Not too long ago, my dad actually drove me by the place where the factory used to be.  It had either burned down or been torn down years ago, and all that was left was an empty lot.  Can you imagine an empty lot in Williamsburg?  I’m sure it will be luxury housing soon enough.  Side note: My dad worked in Williamsburg before it was cool.  Take that, hipsters! []
  17. During my lifetime, my grandparents were “snowbirds,” spending half the year in Toronto and half the year in Florida.  Later on, they moved to Florida full time.  This made their visits special fucking occasions, but I was always jealous of my friends whose grandparents lived nearby. []
  18. This deserves an explanation, which my dad doesn’t elaborate on here as I’ve heard this story a million times.  But it goes to the heart of my grandfather’s unwillingness to give even the appearance of impropriety.  He would have abhorred the idea of my dad getting special treatment simply because he was the boss’ son; hence the “twice the work for half the pay” dictum.  Donald Trump, clearly, never got this memo. []
  19. He’s not kidding.  My dad is a magician with machines and cars.  The Jag in question was one of several gorgeous E-Types he owned back in the day. []
  20. It’s hard to get context on what is meant by “lesser player” here.  What I do know, is that my grandfather loved playing chess with me.  I never beat him, never even came close.  But he loved it; we both did.  But I’m sure he valued it because it was an “intellectual” thing.  I suspect he’d rather watch me lose to him in chess than win a hockey game. []
  21. While the rest of my friends had their Bar & Bat Mitzvah’s at their local synagogues on Long Island, I had mine at the Toro Synagogue in Rhode Island, which is the oldest synagogue in America.  #historynerd []
  22. Soysset, Long Island. []
  23. This is something you, thankfully, just don’t hear anymore.  In fact, I nearly missed it on my first read-through.  But “yes’m” and “yessuh” used to be how a black “boy” was expected to answer his white “superiors.” []
  24. For any of you who ever rolled your eyes (or worse) at one of my terrible puns, well, Grandpa was the progenitor of all that.  When I was a kid, at Thanksgiving dinner, people would go around the table, just punning.  The goal was to make a pun off the pun the previous person had just made.  My mother, who was not born into this family, has become quite expert at it. []
  25. Cleary, this is directed towards my brother, the music comp major. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
The Overdue Edition

Disclaimer: I’m somewhat ambivalent about posting this piece.  My family is dealing with some things right now, and it’s brought me to some emotions that are a bit raw.  I struggle with the question of making them public.  I can only hope that the people I love will find something, well, not comforting, but at least worthwhile.

Shit.  How long has it been?  November was an interesting month.  Which, I suppose, is something the whole world can fucking say.  Hashtag Trump.1  But for me personally, November was an interesting month, to say the least.  Much has happened since my last post, which apparently was published on October 20th.

On October 20th, I was still living at the Airbnb in Neukölln.  Maybe that’s where I ought to start this post.  I probably should put a bow on that whole experience.  Well of course I’ve never had anything but good to say about my time with Anja and Mischa.  I stayed with them for two months last year.  And this year I stayed with them for something like three and a half months.  And they’re hands down the best hosts you could ever ask for.

But if I’m being honest, it was starting to feel a little tired by the end.  Or maybe the better way to say it is, I was feeling a little tired at the end.  What I mean is, that’s not a reflection on them in any way.  It’s just that after so long a stay, I was getting tired of feeling like a guest.  And that’s what I was there.  A guest.  And my life changed quite a bit over that time, right?  When I re-arrived in mid July, I was still on vacation.  I wasn’t working.  Not as an inhabitant of Berlin, anyway, though I was still collecting the last of my paychecks from New York.

But by the end, I had already started teaching my first class as English teacher in Berlin.  It was time to get my own place.  It was time to make my own way.  Time not to be a guest anymore.  So I thank them with all my heart for every kindness they showed me.  And I love them, I really do.  I hope they will be a part of my life in Berlin going forward.  But I’m glad now to be out of there.  Glad to finally be making it on my own.

The only thing is, there was a whole month between leaving them and getting set up here, in my own place.  I’ll come to this latter point soon enough.  But I need to say something about the last month, how it all played out.

Towards the end of October, I interviewed for a room in an apartment in Köpenick, which is in the east of Berlin.  The interview went well.  They liked me and I liked them.  The only hang up – well, there were two hang ups – but the big hang up was that the room wouldn’t be available until December 1st.  This meant I’d need to find a place for the intervening month.  And the truth is, I would have stayed on with A&M were that an option.  But in fact, they’d already booked the room to someone else.

Fortunately, Joschka was going to the States for most of November.  So I wound up crashing at his place for something like 2.5 weeks.  Before that, though, I had book a few nights at an Airbnb.  Whereupon did I find a very nice room in Moabit, north Berlin.

Everything about this place was great, except for there was no Wifi.  In 2016.  Who does that?  But the apartment was lovely anyway, and I had it to myself.  And I’ll always remember this place, if for no other reason than this is where I was living when I finally got my visa.

Oh yeah, I finally got my visa.  That was a nerve-wracking experience.  I was fairly certain that I’d got all my papers in order.  But I was fairly certain of this the first time as well, and we all know how that worked out.  But in theory, all I had to do was show up with the new documents they’d requested and I’d be alright.  Emphasis on “all I had to do was show up.”

What I mean is, I got the address for the visa office wrong.  My plan was to show up a solid half-hour early, just to be safe.  The apartment was walking distance to the address I’d found, and so I planned my walk accordingly.  Only thing was, when I got there, it wasn’t there.  Fuck me.  OK, I thought, OK, let’s look at the map.  Good, it wasn’t all that far.  Or, it wouldn’t have been, if I’d had more time.  It was maybe a 35 minute walk.  Problem was, I only had 30 minutes.

Welp, I thought, much as I hate to do it, I guess I’ll have to call an Uber.2  Which would have been easy if I hadn’t run out of data.  But since the apartment didn’t have Wifi – did I mention that? – I’d burned through all my data.  So I had to rush in to a supermarket and buy some credit.  Great.  Then I had to wait for the credit to be activated.  Also great.  In the end, the data kicked in, I ordered the Uber and I got to the visa office in time.  Not with the half hour cushion I was hoping for, but I wasn’t late.

The appointment itself passed without incident.  But only just.  She – the lady who would decide whether or not I would get the visa – asked for my proof of residency.3  I didn’t have this.  It wasn’t even on the list of documents I was told to bring.  They only told me to bring my sublease.  Fortunately, I at least had the email showing I’d booked an appointment to register my address.  It was good enough, thank the gods.4

Then she asked for my health insurance.  Only the insurance I had wasn’t good enough either.  But thanks to the lady who was helping me with my papers, I had a letter from the state insurance agency saying they would insure me on the condition of my getting a visa.  This also turned out to be good enough, thank the gods again.5  And thanks to Anke, the woman who was helping me.6  For without this letter, I might have been screwed.

I guess I must have appeared a bit overeager.  Every time the visa lady asked me for a document, I half got out of my chair and pushed a piece of paper in front of her, using my finger to underline a relevant passage.  At one point she told me to relax.  And I was like, “How can I relax, this is so stressful.”  To which she replied, “It shouldn’t be.  Everything is fine.”7  Which I took to mean she’d already decided to give me the visa, so long as there weren’t any truly serious problems.

In the end, that’s exactly what happened.  She gave me the visa, good for two years.8  The only conditions attached were that I registered with the state insurance and that I was only allowed to work as an English teacher.  Whatever.  I got my visa.  Huge fucking relief.  Berlin achievement unlocked.

But that was just the beginning.  I had the visa, but I still didn’t have my proof of residency.  And here’s the thing about Germany.  You can’t do a godsdamned thing without this Anmeldung, this proof of address.  Most critically, you can’t get a bank account without it.  And the thing about a proof address is, you need to have an actual address.  Your buddy’s floor, or an Airbnb doesn’t cut it.  You need an actual landlord – or at least, the person on the lease – to sign it.  So I had to wait.

Somewhere around November 20th, I got Lucie – my new roommate/the person on the lease – to give me the appropriate papers.  In other words, it was only last week that I was finally able to open a bank account.  In other other words, it was only on Friday that I was finally able to collect my pay.

So I got my visa on the 2nd.  I opened my bank account on the 22nd.  In between, there were some doings back home.  #Trump.9  And just as I’ll always remember where I was when I got my visa, I’ll always remember where I was for election night 2016; namely, Joschka’s flat.  That was a Tuesday night.  The next day I was scheduled to teach my first class for a new language school.

So I was already nervous about this.  I would have had trouble sleeping anyway.  But this was election night.  The best I could do was to sleep for an hour or two, wake up, check the results.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  How was this happening?

Finally, my alarm went off.  The day was a blur.  The only thing I could think was, I can’t wait to get home and just get drunk.  Which I did.  But it was grosser even than that.  Now look, I’m not normally the kind of person that eats when depressed.   I’ll drink, sure.  But I won’t sit down with a tub of Ben and Jerry’s just cos I’m said.10  But these were extenuating circumstances.

So I went to the supermarket and bought a bottle of whiskey.  I also bought a box of chicken nuggets.  And a box of frozen pizza.  And a bag of chips.  And I ate and drank all of it.  And I felt gross.  But also, I felt gross anyway.  It seemed like the thing to do.

So that was that.  I’ll save the politics for a different post, cos I’ve got a lot to say about that.  I finished up my stay at chez Joschka and moved on to an Airbnb/hostel for the last 10 days of the month.  The place was nice, and the lady who ran it was a doll.  She even moved me to a bigger room, free of charge, after my second night.  So it was OK.  But I was still living out of a suitcase.

I tried to take the point of view that it was all part of the adventure.  And I do feel that way.  In one moth, I got to experience three very different neighborhoods in Berlin.  But I was ready to move into my own room.

Which I finally did, on a rainy Thursday night.  I schlepped my suitcase and a few smaller bags in shit weather over half the city to get where I was going.  I waited 45 minutes for a tram that never showed.  I arrived an hour and a half later than I expected.  But I got there.  And here I am.  But I’ll come back to this later.

In the in-between time, I hung out with my girl Ziba and her husband, Jan.  Zibs I’ve mentioned a few times before.  But her husband is great, and the more I get to know him, the more I like him.  Similar tastes in music, also a guitar player.  Not just interested, but actually active, in politics.  We’ve had now several in depth and very interesting discussions.  I fancy them as my “intellectual” friends.

It’s a strange thing.  My grandpa died in 1999.  I still think about him all the damn time.  By now – in our mid 30’s – most of us have lost our grandparents.  But for me, not having my grandfather around, it only grows more and more poignant.  The reason, or part of the reason, is, my grandpa wasn’t made to be a child’s grandparent.  Don’t get me wrong, he was amazing with me.  As a child, I adored him.

But he wasn’t the take-you-to-the-park, bounce-you-on-his-knee, made-for-TV grandfather.  He was an intellectual.  He was the patriarch of my father’s side of the family, and he set the tone which exists to this day.  Namely that we value smarts, we value wordplay, we value science.  He would take you to the park because you were an idiot child, but he’d rather play chess with you.  When you’re seven, it’s maybe not so easy to appreciate this.  When you’re 35, you wish you had the man around to bounce ideas off of.

But he was also a world traveler.  And this I can only experience second hand, through other people’s stories.  We all know he moved his family to the Philippines for work.  But I’m also told that they – him and my grandma – would go on cruises and meet people from other countries and stay friends with these people forever.

Well what the fuck am I doing?  I moved my ass to Berlin, I’m making it here – or trying to – as an English teacher.  And it’s never far from my mind that maybe I’m walking in his footsteps. Ask me who I want to talk about my experiences with, and I’m gonna tell you it’s him.  And I’m never not sad that I don’t get to do that.

If this seems a bit self-indulgent and tangential, well, it might be.  But bear with me.  I’m going somewhere with this.  One of the stories that my dad has told about grandpa is that in his younger days he was probably a bit “pinker” than we might have guessed.  That he had some communist leanings.  I’m fuzzy on this.  I expect my dad is fuzzy on this.  I think his understanding is somewhat ex post facto.  In other words, I think it’s more to do with things he learned after the fact rather than things he remembered from childhood.

And certainly from my point of view, from my memories, he didn’t strike me as a political person.  He always struck me as a science guy.  But ever since hearing such stories, I’ve not been able to shake this image of my grandfather as a young(er) man, holding quasi-clandestine meetings with like-minded lefties; debating issues of importance with an idealism that I can only match with cynicism bordering on nihilism.

Anyway.  So there I am, sitting in a living room in Berlin talking politics with a left-leaning German.  But I’ve always talked politics with my friends.  What’s different is, this guy is a registered member of his party.  He goes to meetings.  And he’s idealistic.  He wants to make a difference.  He sees the world – and to some extent his country – going to shit, and he wants to do something about it.

And I listen to him talk, and it’s infectious.  I’m cynical, bordering on nihilistic at this point, as I’ve said.  I’m ready to throw my hands up and just accept that we’re all fucked.  But not Jan.  He thinks we can change things if we just get off our asses.  And I want to go along for this ride.  I even asked him to bring me to his next meeting.  I’m starting to feel like, even if all I do is observe, I want to come back to America – whenever I come back – with something to offer, with something learned, with something experienced.

And this is where I’m going with this.  As we’re sitting there in this living room in Berlin, not just talking about politics, but talking about how we can change shit, I can only think of my grandfather.  Where was he when he was my age?  What would he think of all this?  Would he be proud of me?  I mean, that last question is a funny one.

Ever since he died, all through college, and in everything I’ve ever done afterwards, I’ve always asked that question.  At his funeral, my grandmother – unsolicited – told me he was only ever proud of me.  But it’s not the same thing.  From your parents you get unconditional love and pride.  I could live under a bridge and my parents would find a way to be proud of me.  They’d worry about me, but they’d be proud.

With my grandfather, though, that’s not quite enough.  He was – and still is somehow – the intellectual giant of the family.  It’s not enough to know he’d be proud of me because I’m his grandson.  I want him to be proud of me on the merits.

So when I sit in a foreign country and debate politics and try to find a way in, I want to believe that I’m doing something he might have done.  I so want to believe that this thing Dave is doing in 2016 isn’t just something Herb would have approved of, but that it’s something Herb himself might have done.

OK, I guess I’m taking this in a different direction than I’d originally anticipated.  My goal was to just sort of capture the highlights of the last month, on which I’d till now written nothing.  But this has come to a different place.  Before I close, I want to talk about voice; a person’s voice and how it sticks in our memory.

All this talk about my grandpa, so much of it has to do with the stories we tell, the things we choose to remember, and how we choose to interpret those memories.  But there’s one thing that sticks, one thing that is not so subjective.  And that’s the person’s voice, how they sounded.

You can say a lot of things about the Starr family.  We don’t do a good job of holding on to our hair.  We have a propensity for toilet humor, possibly related to weak stomachs and an abundance of time reading in the bathroom.  We value rationality over – even at the expense of – emotion, making us not the most demonstrative of folk.  But one thing that stands out, one thing that sticks not just in the memory, but in the ears, is the voice.  Big fucking voices.

Carol, who was as sweet and loving and caring a person as I ever knew, had this booming voice.  The walls would ring with her smile when she greeted you.  Gail, who I mostly knew as I child, had it also.  Herb, my grandfather, was the father of these resounding hellos, and his rang deeper than all of them.  And it’s not a question of volume.  I don’t mean that they were loud people.  Just that it rang through you like the tolling of a bell.  And there was a melody to it.  It would start high and cascade down over you like a waterfall.

Ida, my grandmother, was softer.  But not less.  And now Michael.  I’m doing everything I can to hear his voice, to never forget the sound of it.  I might never hear it again.  But all of this is an emotional response.  The actual sound – and I say this as a person with an overriding interest in language – is just as important.

There’s a nasal quality to it.  It’s very a much a Brooklyn honk, though not the caricatured variety you find in movies.  And the accent.  Ida had this wonderful way of glottal-stopping, the likes of which you don’t hear so much anymore.  Of course, the New York accent still has a strong glottal stop, right?  I mean, nobody lives in ManhaTTan.  We live in Manhattan.11  But if she needed her teeth checked, she wouldn’t talk about going to the dentist, nor even the dennist – as I might say – but rather the de’ist.

This way of speaking, it’s harder and harder to find.  And nearly all the people I knew who spoke this way are gone or leaving.  It makes the memories of those who spoke like that all the more precious.  I don’t just remember my grandmother, I remember how she sounded.  It’s as important as any other memory I have.

It makes me pay special attention to my dad when he speaks.  He’s carrying something special that won’t be around much longer.  I mean, people who live in Brooklyn now, they don’t sound like they’re from Brooklyn.  Mostly because they’re not.  I could easily name you ten people I know who live in Kings county; twenty even.  None of them are from Brooklyn.

And maybe that’s what’s sticking with me the most right now.  We can pass on stories and we can pass on photos.  We can even pass on videos.  But none of that captures the way a person sounded, the way their voice made you feel.  If I ever have kids, I can tell them about grandpa.  I can’t give them the sound of his voice.

I wrote earlier that I wish I could I talk to him and tell him about my experiences.  I said I wished I could know what he thought of my life, to know if he was proud of me.  But it may be that, most of all, I just wish I could hear him…

ז׳׳ געסונט

 

  1. Does it work, writing “hashtag”?  Or should I write “#hashtag”?  What’s the Dave Guide to Style have to say about this? []
  2. There was no direct route by mass transit. []
  3. In Germany, any time you move anywhere, you need to register your new address with the Bürgeramt – the “citizen’s office” for lack of a better translation. []
  4. I say “gods” plural, but in this case, it’s most surely Ζεύϲ Ξενία. []
  5. In this case, probably Ἀπόλλων and/or Ὑγίεια. []
  6. A quick note on Anke, whom I can’t thank enough.  She was recommended to me by Lisa, my roommate from last year.  Her charge was €50 for our first meeting.  More than I wanted to pay, but money well spent, considering I didn’t know a thing about health insurance in this country.  After our first meeting, however, she was always happy to answer an email or talk on the phone, and she’s since helped me apply for the state insurance.  She was even on standby during my visa appointment in case anything was to go wrong.  In all that time, she’s never asked me for another dime.  I can’t thank her enough. []
  7. All of this was conducted in German, btw, which only added to the stress. []
  8. I applied for three, and she just as easily could have given me one year or all three.  Or, you know, none. []
  9. This time I opted for the actual hashtag.  I’m still not sure which I think functions better in “formal” written text. []
  10. I won’t sit down with a tub of ice cream period, because lactose intolerance.  But you get the point. []
  11. Though the people that speak this way would hardly ever bother with the name of the island, referring instead to the city, or rather the ci’y. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
New York Edition

September First marked a rather significant anniversary in the Life of Dave.  And also in the life of my best friend Jared.  As of 9/1/16 we’ve now lived longer outside of Maiden Lane than we did in it.  Talk about your mindfucks.  And I thought describing the currywurst bitches was hard.

Jared and I were roommates for ten – count ‘em: 10 – years.  Six years in Maiden Lane, and another four on Orchard Street.  Even now, we joke with our married friends that they haven’t made it until they beat our mark.1  Anyway, this sort of anniversary – if that’s even the right word – is hard to wrap your head around.

I mean, when we first moved in, the Fulton Fish Market was still a thing.  We’d walk outside in the summer and be hit with that smell.  Ground Zero was still Ground Zero and not the new Trade Center.  We could still pretend to afford the rent down there.  But all I’m saying here is that Manhattan changed.  The city changed.  That doesn’t even begin to touch on the heart of the matter.

When we moved in together – along with English Phil; it was a three-bedroom – we were, what, 23?  You think back to it, and you start to realize, this was an entirely different time of your life.  A different era.  What I’m going to say next is going to sound cheesy.  But, everything was still new.  You were discovering yourself at the same time as you were discovering the greatest city on earth.  You were properly free for the first time in your life.

Free, and yet poor.  My first year, I worked at Starbucks.  And Jared, I think, was still in acting school.  I’d come home from work with bags of expired scones and sandwiches and we considered it a bounty.  But we didn’t care.  Aye, we were ‘appy in those days, although we were poor.  Because we were poor!

But it’s strange to think back to those times.  Because it’s but two years ago that we were still roommates in Chinatown.  Yet even that was different somehow.  By that time, we were both in grad school, both looking more towards the future than towards today.  But Maiden Lane, those were the last days of youth, somehow.  The days when we were free from worry.

And of course that’s not true at all, is it?  It’s just, that’s how it feels now.  Not everybody gets to live their twenties in New York, but we did.  And we loved it.  And he’s still there, and I’m here.  And nobody knows what will come next.  But those days are gone.  The days of living with your best friend and facing the world together are gone.

As people get older, they move on.  Many people settle into relationships.  Others run away, as I have.  But in your twenties, it’s your friends who are the central figures in your lives.  Your friends are your family.  In your thirties?  It’s your boyfriend or your girlfriend, your husband or your wife.  And your friends fade into the background.  If you’re lucky, they become family.  And they have, for me.  My friends from home, Jared front-and-center, are my family.

But they’re family in the sense of a no-questions-asked-always-there-for-you kind of way.  Not in a central-figure-in-your-life kind of way.  I hesitate to speak out of turn regarding Jared, but I trust what I say here will not be taken amiss.  He lives now with his boyfriend Josh.  And I adore Josh.  That’s not hyperbole or polite blogque-speak.  I adore Josh.  And I am so words-can’t-express-it happy for Jared.  But his life now is with his partner and not his buddy-roommate.  And that’s as should be.  My life, for now, is here in Berlin.  We’ve chosen our paths.  And I don’t think either of us regret the paths we’ve chosen.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t look back upon the times-that-were and feel a twinge of nostalgia.  It doesn’t mean you don’t miss the times-gone-by that will never come again.  I texted Jared, on the first of September:

Dave: Congratulations, my man. We’ve now been outside of Maiden Lane longer than we were in it.

Jared: Something about that makes me sad.  Also I read that as I went into Starbucks so there was some synergy there.

Davie: Weird. Yeah man, little bit of melancholy. Little bit of nostalgia. Little bit of getting old sucks.

Jared: There it is.

There it is.  The Maiden Lane days were their own thing.  We would live tougher for another four years on the Lower Easy Side.  But that was its own other thing.  It wasn’t the same.  We were in our thirties.  We were going our own ways already.  By that point, I’d met Joschka and Vinny and Niki.  We were getting drunk in Williamsburg til 4am and finishing up with ‘breakfast’ at WoHop.  Meanwhile, Jared was doing his thang.  Even if we were still best friends in those years, we weren’t the team that we were in the Maiden days.

And now here we are.  Here I am.  An entire Maiden Lane Lifetime after Maiden Lane.  I’m trying to process it, but I can’t understand it.  But maybe that’s life.  You do your best to understand it when it’s happening, even though you know you can’t.  Then you try to understand it when it’s gone, and you can only grasp at the fringes of it.  You can try.  You should try, even.  But you can’t live in the past.  Enfin le temps perdu qu’on ne rattrape plus.

זיי געסונט

  1. Cheers to Keith and Heather, who only just recently beat us. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
19 October, 2016

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time cooped up inside.  Lots of reasons for this, I suppose.  Not wanting to spend money.  Busy with work.  Weather turning to shit.  Boredom.  Some reasons are better than others.  But today, I got off my ass and went for a five hour walk.  My main goal was to visit the Schwerbelastungskörper, on more which later.  My secondary goal was to get a currywurst from a particular stand on Tempelhoferdamm.  I achieved my goals.  I also achieved getting soaked by the rain, which was not my goal.

There are two types of walks that I undertake here in Berlin.  One is a blind wandering.  There’s no goal in mind.  I simply pick a direction and go.  These are great, because you never know what you’ll find.  The drawback is, you might find nothing interesting at all.  But at least you get some fresh air and exercise.  And obviously the Fußpils, the walking-around-beer.  The other type of walk is the one where you pick a point of interest beforehand and map out a rough route.  That was today.

My first stop was the currywurst stand on Tempelhoferdamm.  I’d been there once before and considered it to be one of the better currywursts that I’ve had in this town.  Certainly I don’t go for the friendliness of the staff.  I’m not kidding.  It’s run by these two old ladies.  Two old ladies who seem to have sticks or small dead animals up their asses.

OK, that requires some explanation.  The first time I went, I merely stumbled upon it.  I was wandering around the area, I was hungry and their prices seemed fair.  So I ordered the obligatory Currywurst mit Pommes – currywurst with fries.  I gave my order to the old blonde lady, but it was the old brunette who served me.  Somewhere in that handoff, she lost the fact that I had ordered my food to go.  So when I saw her putting it on an actual plate, I politely interrupted her.  Entschuldigung, kann ich’s zu mitnehmen haben?  Excuse me, can I have that to go please?  And wow, did she give me the dirtiest look ever.  I mean, it was all out of proportion.  Like, OK.  This is a minor inconvenience.  I get it.  But did I just ruin your whole godsdamned day?  Because you look like I just ruined your whole godsdamned day.  I wanted to apologize.  I probably did apologize, in fact.  But I did some serious eye-rolling.

Still though, it was as a good a currywurst as I’ve had.1  And the fries were solid, which is key.  Nothing’s worse than going for a currywurst and getting shit fries.  Contrary-wise, when you get a subpar currywurst but it comes with nice, thick steak fries, all is well.  All this to say, despite the customer service hiccup, I was looking forward to grabbing lunch from the old dames today.

And they didn’t disappoint, on either front.  This time, I went out of my way to make clear I wanted my food for the road.  So far, so good.  The brunette wrapped it up for me.  Which, I mean, is weird.  Like in New York, when you get a slice or two to go and the put the plate inside a paper bag.  On the one hand, thanks, I guess.  On the other, more realistic hand, do you not realize I’m going to start eating this the minute I’m out your door?  Why did you put that in a bag?  But that’s what they did, and I wasn’t going to ask them not too, lest I get the evil-eye again.

One thing you need to know is, you don’t eat currywurst with a fork, nor do you eat it with your hands.  You eat it with, what I call, a Nathan’s fork.  New Yorkers will know what I’m talking about.  When you get fries from Nathan’s, you eat them with this little red plastic trident.  It’s part of the charm, no?  Well, it’s the same for currywurst, although here it comes in all colors.

Anyway, here, they usually hide the spear under the paper plate when they wrap it up.  So you get that awkward fast food moment.  You know the one.  Where you don’t really know if they put a fork and napkins into your bag, so you just grab extras on your way out, just in case.  Well, that’s just what happened here.  Kind of.

They hand me my bag – and again, I’m going to eat this starting in three seconds, why did you put it in a fucking bag, no really, do you think I’m going to take it all the way home and proceed to eat it lukewarm? – they hand me the bag, I’m saying, and I think, lemme grab a fork/trident/spear.  Just in case.  After all, if you think I’m taking this “home,” you also probably think I have utensils where I’m going, yeah?

So I stretch my paw towards the pile of plastic tridents.  And get this.  The blonde lady literally slaps my hand.  Like I’m a fucking child that doesn’t know any better.  Slaps.  My fucking.  Hand.  And the brunette – who last time looked at me like I was the world’s biggest asshole for asking for my food to go after she’d put it on a real plate – looked at me like I was out of my mind.  “Alles ist drinnen” she said, or something like it.  Everything is inside.  Jeez, OK, fine.  Thanks, I guess.

So I took my package of junk food and found a bench by the river.  I opened the bag.  And yeah, I found my little spear hiding out under the paper plate.  But you know what I didn’t find?  Napkins.  So alles wasn’t fucking drinnen, was it?  And napkins would have been helpful, given that the whole Mischung was drowning in ketchup.  But whatever.

So I’m sitting there trying to enjoy my lunch.  But now I’m annoyed that, at 35 years old, I’d just had my hand slapped.  Like I was a fucking idiot child.  And I’m trying to figure out if this is normal on a cultural level and I just need to accept it, or if these two broads are just raging bitches.  Certainly Germans have a reputation for being direct – even severe – in ways that Americans might consider rude.  And sure, when you encounter this, it’s your job to recognize that you’re in their country and you can’t take it personally.  But this seemed a bit beyond that.  In the coming days, I’ll run this by some German friends and see what they think.  But at the moment, I’m thinking I can get my currywurst elsewhere.  Or, you know, eat something healthier.

Anyway, after lunch, I headed up to the Schwerbelastungskörper.  Beer in hand, obvi.  On the one hand, it was great to be out walking.  On the other hand, what a shitty day for a walk.  It was cold and grey and rainy.  Not freezing, not black, not pouring.  Good enough to manage, but still fairly shite.

So I made my way up Tempelhoferdamm, past the Ring-Bahn, until I picked up Baron-von-Richtofen Strße.  Baron von Richtofen, you will remember, was the Red Baron.  See, in the area around Tempelhof aiport, they’ve named the streets after famous aviators.  This particular street leads you through a rather posh neighborhood.  Well, it’s posh now, anyway.  When THF was an active airport, it was a different story.  Jetliners flying over your house at tree-top level aren’t great for property values.  But once they turned the airport into a park, this little ‘hood gentrified in a hurry.

Anyway, you walk through this little neighborhood a piece – and you have to know where you’re going – until you turn a corner and there it is.  The Schwerbelastungskörper.  This huge concrete cylinder, 14m high and 21m in diameter, just sort of sits there, in this little residential area.  An ominous reminder of what Berlin – Germania – might have looked like, if Hitler and Speer had got their way.

The structure itself was nothing more than a test.  It was never meant to be the foundation of anything.  Its sole purpose was to see just how much weight the marshy soil of Berlin could bear.  But it would provide critical information.  With this test completed, the Nazis could build their Welthauptstadt – world capital – with all the scary, imposing, monumental architecture their sick minds could devise.  Of course, they never got that far.

–Interpolation: I started this piece on October 13th.  It is now the 19th.  In the intervening days, I’ve been suffering from a real bitch of a cold.  In fact, I still am.  But I took a break from writing, as my usual habits seemed to me to be counterproductive as regards convalescence.  In other words, I though it unwise to stay up late, smoking my pipe and drinking wine in throes of this wretched cold.  I probably shouldn’t be writing tonight either, but I’m getting antsy.  So instead of wine, I’m drinking hot toddies, which I deem medicinal.  End Interpolation–

Anyway, the Schwerbelastungskörper was interesting and scary and awesome in the more literal sense of the word.  Interesting, obviously, as a piece of history.  And you can go inside it.  It’s almost like a bunker in there.  And while you don’t have access, you can see how far down underground it goes.  Scary because, you know, Nazis.  Awesome, however, is more complicated.

I have a weird relationship with Nazi architecture.  On the one hand, it is all “intimidation” architecture.  Like Versailles, it is meant to make the viewer feel small and insignificant.  But there’s no confusing Louis XIV with Hitler.  So there’s a creepy, evil feeling about it as well.  Walk by the old Air Ministry (the current Finance Ministry) and you will feel it.  Charlotte, who is not exactly a student of history, certainly felt it.

On the other hand, I have to admit a feeling of admiration for monumental architecture.  Especially when it’s influenced by classical architecture.2  Take for example the US Capitol Building, the Supreme Court Building, the Municipal Building in New York, and on and on.  And here you have this government that wanted to build things on a bigger and grander scale than anything that had ever been built before.  You imagine what these buildings might have looked like, and it is literally awesome.

Then you remember who these people were.  You remember that everything they built was built by slave labor or near-slave labor.  And it churns your stomach.  The further in time we get from these things, the easier it is to view them with a detached eye.  But it’s still difficult to balance your subjective feelings about the architecture with your objective knowledge of the bastards who built it.

Anyway, in the week since I started this post, I’ve had the opportunity to ask more than a few Germans about the “hand-slapping incident.”  To be honest, I was kind of expecting at least one or two people to admit, with a bit of embarrassment, that yeah, even if this wasn’t exactly normal, it wasn’t entirely unheard of either.  I encountered no such response.  To a one, I was met with looks of abject horror.  Each responded in turn with something along the lines of, oh my god, that’s fucking horrific and please don’t judge Germans by this.

So at least I know I don’t have to feel bad about reaching for the Nathan’s Fork anymore.  And I know I won’t be going back there again either.  It does mean, however, that I need to find a new currywurst spot.  Last year, there was a place in my ‘hood that was pretty great, and which served up some beautiful fucking steak fries.  But they seem to have gone out of business in my absence.

In other news, I started watching Deadwood.  Normally, I don’t much care for westerns.  But I knew the show was done by HBO, was quite popular in its time, and starred Ian McShane, whom I loved from his work on the short-lived (but totally fucking awesome) Kings.  So when I saw it on Netflix, I decided to give it a whirl.

And friends, it is basically Shakespeare transposed onto a western.  You don’t notice it at first, what with the costumes and scenery, the waterfall of cursing3 and the Old West dialect.  This to say nothing of trying to keep up with the plots and characters.  But once you get accustomed to these things, you start to notice the Shakespeare in it.

First, some of the characters are right out of Old Bill.  You’ve got your Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  You’ve go your Falstaff and your Macbeth.  And if I was more versed in Shakespeare, I could probably pick out a few more.

But more than this, there’s the language.  When the main characters embark upon long dialogues or soliloquies (and yes, there are soliloquies), the language is totally Shakespearean; if not in dialect, then certainly in syntax and meter.  In fact, I would love to do a metrical analysis on some of these speeches vis-à-vis Mr. Stratford-upon Avon.  I’m dead certain they would match.

As for syntax, the sentence construction doesn’t hold with the way we speak, but is definitely in accord with what you find in the Bard’s work.  To be fair, I’m not an expert on 19th century speech patterns in the American West.  But it’s hard for me to imagine that people spoke this way in their everyday lives, even if surviving letters support this to an extent.

And now here, I’m going to get into the weeds a bit.  I’ll do my best to keep this succinct.  In modern English, we have the “-ing” form of the verb.  When I teach, this functions in one of two ways.  The first is as a gerund, or a verbal noun.  For example, “I like running.”  Running is gerund.  It’s based off the verb to run, but it functions as a noun in the sentence.  The second, is as a participle, which is an adjective.  For example, “We have running water.”  Running is still based off the verb to run, but here, it’s an adjective, describing the water.  What we don’t really do anymore, is use the “-ing” form as a present active participle in the classical sense.

And here, it’s helpful to remember that our ideas of style – even today – derive from Greek and Roman ideas of style.  And in Greek and Latin literature, a sentence usually only has one main verb.  Of course, you can have subordinate clauses which can stretch a sentence for nearly a page.  But the main clause, the meat of the sentence, will have one verb.  For the Greeks and Romans, joining multiple verbs with “and” was suboptimal.  Of course they did it, but they didn’t love it.  What they preferred, was to have one verb and then use present active participles in parallel with it, when more verbal action was required.  OK, OK, shut the fuck up, Dave.  I know.

So let me try to give an example of what I mean.  Today, we would probably say something like “I went to the store and bought some bread.”  That’s one sentence with two verbs joined by “and.”  The Greeks and Romans, however, would prefer something like this: “Going to the store, I bought some bread.”  Still one sentence, but now only one verb.  The second verbal idea is expressed with a present active participle.  We simply don’t speak like this anymore.  We hardly even write like this anymore.

But Shakespeare certainly wrote like this.  And so does Deadwood.  They both also enjoy anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase.  So, putting the two together, you might get something like this: “Bullock, being an honest (fucking)4 Sherriff, can be counted on to act justly.  And acting justly, can be counted on to bring about a favorable (fucking) outcome.”

I realize this is an imperfect analysis.  But this is how I watch the show now.  I’m watching as much with an eye to the language and the style as I am for the story and the entertainment.  I’m constantly trying to put my finger on why this sounds and feels so Shakespearean.  This is what I’ve been able to come up with so far.

If you’re still with me – and I can hardly blame you if you’re not – I’ll begin my wrap-up here.  The only other thing worth mentioning is the ongoing apartment hunt, which is a living hell and hangs over me like a cloud.  I feel very unsettled, not having a place of my own.  Added to this is the fact that I know I won’t be able to extend my stay where I am, as my hosts have booked the room to someone else for next month.  So if I don’t find a place for next month, I don’t quite know what I’ll do.  I can hope to find a different AirBnB, if it comes to that.  And I have at least one friend offering a couch, which, while lovely, I don’t relish the idea of such an imposition.  So there’s nothing to do but wait.  Wait and see if I get any more responses to my room requests; wait and see if any of the people I’ve interviewed with deign to choose me.

Of course this will pass.  And even if I don’t find a permanent place starting next month, I know I will find one eventually.  But until I do, it’s a most unwelcome stress.

That said, I hate to end a down-note.  So I’ll offer this as a coda.  A few weeks ago, I interviewed at a language school where a couple of my CELTA classmates now work.  I had, of my own accord, sent in my résumé prior.  But I received no response.  However, both of my friends got in the guy’s ear about me, whereupon I received an email to the following effect: “Dear Dave, I’ve now had two of my teachers singing your praises to me.  Would you like to come in for an interview?”  Obviously I would.

The gent turned out to be a Yank, and was lovely as could be.  We had a very nice interview and he gave me a letter-of-intent on the spot.  This letter, I should add, is something I very much need for my next visa appointment.  So if nothing else, the meeting was already a win.

Anyway, in the course of the interview, it became clear that regardless of how our meeting went, he was going to write me the letter for two reasons.  The first, being American himself, he knew well the hardship of trying to get situated in this country and simply wanted to be helpful.  The second, he was doing a favor to his friends, who were also my friends.  And on some level, I think he wasn’t sure if I was truly looking for work or if I simply wanted said letter.  So at the end, I made clear that once I had my visa, I would very much like to work for him.  Whereupon did he make clear that he would be very happy to have me work for him.  And so, while I can’t work for him until I get my visa, it’s nice to know that I’ve got this prospect waiting for me.

And when I next saw one of my friends, he told me – unsolicited – that the guy had contacted him to report that he was quite pleased with me.  And this is no small matter to me.  Knowing, after all, that I only got the interview because of my friends’ intervention, it was very important to me to represent them well.  Hearing, then, that I had done so was a relief.

So that’s where I’m at.  Things continue to be tough at the moment.  But once my visa is sorted, once I have my own room, things are going to start turning in my favor.  The ass-end of 2016 is likely to be a struggle.  But the dawn of 2017 is full of promise.  It can’t come soon enough.

זיי געסונט

  1. Which, I mean, isn’t saying all that much.  Currywurst, like the Philly Cheese-Steak, is the local indigenous food.  And like the Philly Cheese-Steak, it’s second rate.  That doesn’t mean there’s not good ones and bad ones.  And it doesn’t mean the good ones aren’t quite enjoyable.  It just means, get over yourself.  Nah mean? []
  2. Speer had this concept of Ruinenwert – ruin value.  It’ll be easier just to quote Wikipedia (gods forgive me): “Ruin value (German: Ruinenwert) is the concept that a building be designed such that if it eventually collapsed, it would leave behind aesthetically pleasing ruins that would last far longer without any maintenance at all.”  In other words, after the thousand years of the Thousand Year Reich, there would be glorious ruins for thousands of years more; just like the Athenian acropolis or the Roman Forum.  Remove the Nazi aspect from the equation, and I can’t help but love this idea.  Especially when contrasted with the ruin we now call Penn Station, to give but one example. []
  3. I’ve never seen a show or movie make such use of the words ‘cunt’ and ‘pussy’ before. []
  4. I earlier referred to the ‘waterfall of curses.’  Let this also serve as an example of that.  And these words, being so bold, draw your attention away from the poetry that is being spun around them.  Which is why I only began to notice all this in the second season. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin

So in my last post, I mostly just talked about horseradish and the travelling shit-show of a circus that is Dave & Charlotte Roadtripping.  But I really didn’t say much about the places we visited.  So I should probably do that.  You know, before I forget all about it.  Prague first, then Saxony/Poland.

Right, Prague.  The stories are legion.  “Go to Prague,” they say.  “You’ll get beer for like 35 cents,” they say.  Well, maybe 10-15 years ago.  But not now.  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  It’s still cheap.  Cheap compared to New York or Paris.  But maybe not so cheap compared to Berlin.  In fact, in most ways, I’d say the pricing is pretty comparable to Berlin.  So yeah, it’s cheap.  But it’s not like you go there and spend 35 dollars for a weekend.

Whatever.  It’s a beautiful city.  It’s beautiful in terms of its architecture.  You find neo-classical butting up against baroque butting up against art deco.  There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it.  It’s just all there.  And it’s gorgeous, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense.  But here I’m talking about the larger city, in general terms.

The “city center,” the “old city,” was less than impressive.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, there’s some fantastic architecture and a lot of history.  But it all feels very Disneyfied.  Kind of like Times Square, actually, but with older buildings.  Herds of tourists shuffling from one attraction to the next.  Street vendors selling useless garbage and subpar food at gougey prices.  Not to put to fine a point on it, but it’s a fucking rip-off.

C signed us up for a free walking tour.  This, in fact, was pretty great.  But I’ll come to it later.  Because, before the tour, we decided to grab a quick lunch in the city center, the old town.  Now look, we’re fairly experienced travelers.  We know that if we we’re going to eat lunch here, we’re going to overpay.  Cost of doing business and all that.  But there’s over-paying and then there’s getting ripped off.  And they ripped us off.  Or, rather, they tried to.

So enamored were we with the sausages and horseradish(!)1 from the night before, that we decided to grab a kielbasa (though I think it was spelled ‘klobasa’) and some kind of potato salad for lunch.  The posted prices were high, but not unreasonable.  Based on the signs, we calculated something 4-6€.2  So we were fairly shocked when the guy at the register asked for roughly twice that amount.

Well, what can you do?  We paid it.  I mean, we were in a line, in a rush.  And maybe we did the conversion wrong, who knows?  But we weren’t happy about it.  Still, that’s the travelling life.  So we took our food and found a bench.  Only, when we started eating, we were hugely disappointed.  The sausage was greasy and not very flavorful.  The potato salad was also kinda gross and there was way too much of it.  So we broke out the receipt and tried to figure out what the hell had happened.  And here’s what the hell happened.

On the sign, they quote you a price per gram or kilogram.  Then they give you way more g/kg than you could possibly want.  Then they insist that this is the standard amount.  In other words, they rip you right the fuck off.  So now, the food wasn’t good and we’d been screwed.  We were not happy campers.  It was at this point that C resolved to raise hell.

She picked up the bowl of shitty potato salad and marched back to the food stand.  Five minutes later she returned sans potatoes and with a crisp 200 Crona note, good for about 4€.  I mean, basically she made a scene until they paid her to go away.  Bless her.

But here, this is one of the mysteries of life, as far as I’m concerned.  I mean, in almost all contexts, it’s the men who are aggressive, confrontational, warlike.  It’s the men who conduct business.  But screw up the bill at a restaurant?  Well, hell hath no fury, nah mean?  So in the end, it worked out.  I mean, it worked out as well as overpaying for a shitty lunch can work out.  But at least we (read, she) made them pay for trying to fuck us over.  The point is, don’t fuck with a New Yorker.3

After lunch, we had our free walking tour.  Our guide was a Polish guy named Michal.  He described himself as an aspiring actor.  No surprise then, that his opening schtick was a bit heavy-handed.  But in fact, he turned out to be a great guide.  And when you got him to the side, when you were able to talk to him one-on-one, he turned out to be a great guy as well.

Anyway, we got some good history on Prague.  Apparently, the thing to do, when you’re unhappy with a public official, is to defenestrate them; to throw them out a window.  I’m no position to judge the efficacy of such a method.  All I’m saying is, if I was a corrupt big-shot in Prague, I might put my office in the basement.

So lots of old Prague then.  But for me personally, the highlight of the tour was the Jewish Quarter.  Now, we went on Saturday, so of course everything was closed.4  But we saw the Jewish cemetery and a couple of synagogues.  Worth noting, we saw the synagogue that is home to the mythic Golum, who even now, it is said, sleeps in the attic.  So that was very cool.

The next day, we walked around the palace grounds.  Which was definitely cool and very pretty.  Great views of the city too, as it is up a mountain and across the river from the Old Town.  But you know, seen one, seen ‘em all, kinda thing.  Much cooler was the classical concert we went to that evening.

It actually took place in a small, baroque concert hall (or maybe ‘salon’ is a better word?), where, it seems, some of Amadeus was shot.  This was a lot of fun.  The core group was a quintet.  But they had a guest singer as well as two guest cellists.  The set included Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the first movement of Beethoven 5, Spring & Summer from the Four Seasons, the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem and some other big ‘hits’ as well.  It was pretty interesting, as a lot of the material had to be (re)arranged for the small ensemble.  But they did a fine job it.  And I loved it.  I mean, I don’t even know what the last classical concert I’ve been to was.  I just know it’s been a while.

Which is kind of weird, really.  When I was in London, I’d go to two a week.  And even in the City, in my first few years, I’d go quite often.  But somewhere along the line, I just kinda stopped.  I don’t even know why.  So I’m not even sure I really knew how much I missed it.  But when they opened with EKN, and that rich beautiful sound filled the hall, I was in heaven.  OK, that probably overstates it.  But, I was in a wonderful and familiar place that I’d been gone from for way too long.

C, on the other hand, had never been to a classical concert before.  This gave me some mixed feels.  On the one hand, I was delighted to be the one to bring her to her first show.  I was delighted to share this experience with her.  And, as I so often used to go solo to these things, I was happy to have somebody to share it with this time.  On the other hand, I felt a bit of pressure.  I mean, she was 100% on board with going.  But it was really my idea.  I was the one pushing for it.  So if it sucked, or if she didn’t enjoy it, I’d have felt like it was my fault.

I needn’t have worried.  After the Beethoven, she turned to me and was just like, ‘wow.’  And yeah, wow.  Which is impressive, given that it was played by a fucking quintet.  No brass.  No timpani.  But they still rocked the hell out of it.  I mean, it’s Beethoven.  So it’s going to kick ass.  That’s what Beethoven does, right?  Bach is perfect.  Mozart is beautiful.  And Beethoven is the fucking destroyer of worlds.  In addition to being perfect and beautiful.  The point is, C loved the shit out of this show.  Big success.

So yeah, we might be disorganized and totally à l’arrache, but we get horseradish and Beethoven.  What do you get?  Nice hotels?  Pass.

We went back to ‘our’ restaurant for dinner.  We had to.  I got some huge pig’s knee, which was gross and fatty and delicious and came with pickled peppers and pickled onions and also just pickles.  C, I think, got what the English version of the menu called “gnocchi” but which was just another version of their awesome boiled potato dumplings.  Given that we loved this place so much, I feel compelled to mention that the night before, I got deer neck, which came with red cabbage, potato dumplings and an ungodly delicious sauce.  I mean, this joint was just brilliant.  Obviously we had lunch there on Monday as well, before we left the city.

Those, I guess, are the highlights from Prague.  Worth mentioning, but not going into detail about, were the TV Tower, the smaller Jewish cemetery in our neighborhood, the Charles Bridge and Borčak, which is a sweet, young wine that kind of tastes a bit like pineapple juice.  You could drink it all day, and never think twice about it.

Now for Saxony.  I say Saxony because we were kind of all over the place.  The original plan called for a visit to Dresden.  But the AirBnBs there seemed rather overpriced, and we had begun to think we’d seen enough of cities.  I mean, at some point, cities are all the same.  So let’s see something new, we figured.

Whereupon did we visit a place called Kromlauer Park.  No great reason behind this, other than that we saw a picture of a beautiful stone-arch bridge.  So beautiful were the pictures, we figured why the hell not?  And our hosts confirmed the Merkwürdigkeit5 of it, which was nice.  It did not disappoint.

The bridge is set over a small stream/lake/whatever in the midst of beautiful woodlands.  The bridge itself is shaped like a rainbow.  And the waters beneath it are so still that the reflection forms a perfect circle.  It’s gorgeous from any angle.  And we saw all the angles.  The rest of the park was lovely, to be sure.  But the bridge alone made the trip here worthwhile.  And being a bit off the beaten trail, it was not at all crowded; neither did it have the feel of being a tourist attraction.  Kromlauer Park ftw.

But wait, there’s more.  The place even had a bit of a fairy tale feel to it.  This owed in part to the scenery, but also to two young girls, seemingly about 8-10 years of age.  More than once, they seemed to appear out of thin air and to disappear back into it.  They also had a strange, almost enchanted look about them.

One was dark haired and seemed to ignore us.  The other was blonde and either smiled and waved to us, or sort of just stared at us.  We fancied that the dark haired one was an angel and the other a demon.  Adding to this feeling were two stone benches set into semi-circular stone “caves,” little concave huts, for lack of a better word.  On the map, they were called Himmel und Hölle – Heaven and Hell; one was of white stone, the other of black.  They must be the thrones of the two girls, we reasoned.

Before leaving the park, we made a little picnic, using an old tree stump as a table.  We feasted upon bread and meat and cheese and fresh tomatoes, washing it all down with a couple of radlers while listening to Abbey Road.  As fine a picnic as you could want, I tellya.

After lunch we drove down to Gölitz, a small city on the border of Poland, which lies to the South of both the park and also our AirBnB.  As I mentioned in my last post, this was my plan from the night before; but our hosts had confirmed to us that it was the nicest of the towns we had under consideration.

And indeed, it was quite pretty.  Our initial walk through the town was a bit odd, however.  The buildings seemed to alternate between grand old structures of great beauty and boarded up works in a dilapidated state.  Indeed, it had the feeling of a once vibrant city dying a slow death at the hands of a stagnant economy.

Soon enough, however, we came to the river, on the other side of which was Poland.  Now, technically, I’m not supposed to leave Germany at the moment.  My 90 days have expired; these are the 90 days you get as a tourist on an American passport.  I’ve been granted an extension to stay in Germany until my working papers are sorted, but my extension isn’t actually valid as a travel document.

However, Poland is part of the EU and there were no border controls at the bridge.  So obviously we had to cross over.  In fact, one of our original plans had us going to Krakow.  C had worked there in the past, and she very much wanted to see it again.  I’d never been to Poland at all, so I was happy to visit Krakow as well.  In the end, though, we decided not go there, as we would have had to fly or take a bus, and this definitely could have put me in front of the border police.

So we crossed over the bridge to the Polish version of Görlitz.6  Not quite Krakow, but at least we got to Poland.  And the first thing you notice when you cross over is that every third shop seems to be a cigarette depot.  In this respect, Poland seems to be Germany’s Indian reservation.7  By which I mean, tobacco is super cheap there, and apparently they do a brisk business selling cancer sticks to Jerry.

After dinner – which I’m sure I dealt with in my last post – we walked back over the bridge.  This time, we walked through the city center of Görlitz on our way back to the car.  This stood in stark contrast to our earlier walk.  Now everything seemed beautiful and posh and quite medieval.  Indeed, I’d go so far as to say it was even prettier than Prague.  But, as I say, it also felt rather posh.  So, nice though it was, we felt we’d made the right call dining across the border.

As we walked, C and I had an interesting conversation.  By way of introduction, I’ll say that sometimes it’s funny how two people can see the same thing and draw two totally different conclusions.  What do I mean?  Well, I’m talking about the role I played on this particular trip as ‘the German speaker.’

Here’s the short version of what I said to Charlotte.  Basically, I said that it was a nice feeling for me to be able to handle the language for a change.  See, every time we’ve gone somewhere French speaking – this year’s trips to France and Brussels, my previous trip to France, Montréal – I’ve always been dependent on her for the language.  I mean, yeah, if I’m on my own in a French speaking place, I can manage the basics.  But she’s the native speaker.  So she always just takes care of it all.  And in the States – or even Berlin, for that matter – well, she speaks English perfectly well; so she doesn’t need me.  But here, in this part of Germany, it was the first time we’d gone somewhere where I “spoke” the language and she didn’t.  So it was all on me, for a change.  Restaurants, AirBnBs, even just reading signs.

So I told her that this was a nice feeling for me.  It felt good to be useful for a change, instead of dependent.  The only thing was, she didn’t share my interpretation of the situation(s).  I think, first of all, that on some level, she could probably have managed with English if I wasn’t there.  Maybe I have that wrong, and if I do, I’m sure she’ll tell me as soon she reads this.  But the real surprise came when she told me how much she counted on me for English in the States.

For me, English in the States never came into this equation.  I mean, her English is really quite good.  And sure, maybe if me and Vinny are speaking at New York speeds in New York accents it can be hard to keep up.  But overall, I never really gave much thought to how hard living in English might have been for her.  As I say, she’s good at the language.  But New York is a funny place for English, I guess.  I mean, you’ve got people from all over the world.  So every day, you’re dealing with a panoply of accents, all kinds of broken syntax and odd idioms.  As a native speaker, you hardly notice this.  But when it’s your second language, it’s got to be a slog.

I know this just from living in Berlin.  There’s “proper” German, and that’s fine.  As I say, restaurants and AirBnB hosts are no problem for me.  But then I try to talk to the girl upstairs, with her speed-speak, Berlin accent and cornucopia of idioms, and…fuggedaboutit.  This is the long way of saying, I told her it was nice to feel useful – language-wise – for a change; and I had no idea how much she had been relying on me all along.  As I say, it never ceases to amaze me how two people can look at the same data-set and arrive at two totally different conclusions.

So much for Görlitz.  Back at the AirBnB, it was wine and music, Yatzee and Mikado.  And then up early the next morning and back to Berlin.  We drove straight to the airport, as homegirl was flying back to France on a 1:30 flight.  Oh, actually, wait.  I left out one thing.

Saturday night, my family was celebrating Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish new year.  The whole family was together; or at least, most of the whole family.  By which I mean, my dad’s side of the family.  This was tough for me on two levels.  First, it was hard knowing everybody was together and I couldn’t be there.  Also, my mom made brisket, and it was hard knowing I couldn’t have any.  I won’t say which of these was the greater hardship.

Anyway, I Skyped in and got a chance to say “hello” to everybody.  This was actually a lot of fun.  I tried explaining to C the difference between my mom’s family and my dad’s family.  Before I go any further, I want to be clear that I love them both very much.  It’s just that they present very different experiences.  With my mom’s family, it’s all quite formal.  There’s fancy china, assigned seats, shirts with buttons on them.  With my dad’s family, it’s (often-as-not) paper plates, buffet style, eat on the couch.  And so, as the phone got passed around, as I chatted briefly with cousins and aunts and uncles, there always seemed to be somebody in the background – my brother, a cousin – flipping me off.  In sign language, “I love you” is expressed with a hand gesture that looks like ‘throwing the horns’ but with the thumb extended as well.  In other words, a fist but with a index finger, pinkie and thumb pointing outwards.  But in Starr-family sign language, you say “I love you” by making a fist and extending your middle finger.

One of my favorite pictures in the whole freakin’ world now, is the one my brother sent me that night.  It’s the whole family – 17 people – giving me the bird.  It’s pretty perfect.  I showed it to Charlotte.  “This,” I said, “is my family.”  And that, she appreciated.

Anyway, we got to the airport with plenty of time.  It was weird to say goodbye.  See, C is going to Australia in November; length of trip: unknown.  Also unknown, when we’ll see each other again.  So it was a bit emotional.  More for me, I think.  Which is odd, maybe.  On a day-to-day level, she’s far more emotional than I am.  At least, that’s my take.8  But when it comes to big goodbyes, I can go a bit weak in the knees, so to speak.

My opinion is that she’s pretty good at compartmentalizing this stuff.  In other words, she’s pretty good at either not dealing with it, or else convincing herself that the goodbye ain’t for as long as it seems.  Or maybe she just doesn’t care enough.  Or maybe this kind of thing just doesn’t hit her as hard.  I’m sure I’ll get her two-cents on the matter when she reads this.  Point is, it was not an unemotional parting on my end.

But part we did.  And now her adventure continues in Australia while mine continues in Berlin.  Ah, Berlin.  Saturday night I was over at Joschka’s for dinner and drinks.  Sometime in the past year or two he’s become quite the mixologist.  I give but one example.  This weekend, he made one drink that included fresh rosemary, crushed ice and fire.  Yes, you read that right.  Fire was an ingredient.  You literally set the alcohol in the glass on fire.  It was delicious.

It was a very nice evening.  In addition to learning a great deal about cocktails and mixology, the lad has also taken a keen interest in cooking.  And while I have nothing to offer in the cocktail department, I do at least know my way around the kitchen.  So he made one crazy drink after another, and I cooked.  We had a very nice dinner, in fact.  Something with pork and Brussels sprouts and red onions in a white wine sauce.  And so many delicious cocktails.

If only I’d had a nice lunch.  I never considered that I was drinking too much on a too-empty stomach.  So we had a great time, sure.  And indeed, we hadn’t hung out in a while, so it was nice to catch up and just hang.  But wow, Sunday was a hot-mess.  I don’t think I ever got out of bed, unless it was to throw up.

In fairness to myself, these soul-crushing, body-destroying, day-wasting hangovers are not at all frequent.  But each one his harder than the last, at this age.  It’s a delicate dance, this whole aging thing.  I can drink a liter of wine on any given night and be alright.  But I can no longer hit the hard-stuff hard.  Not on an empty stomach, anyway.  The trick now, is to know that before it’s too late.  I don’t repent.  I don’t wish to change my ways.  But I do need to adapt.  “Adaptation is the key to survival.”  Who said that, anyway?  Pretty sure it was Evolution.

There is one last thing I want to touch on, before I close this post.  As I mentioned previously, it was recently the Jewish new year.  The exact date escapes me, owing both to the lunar calendar and the ad hoc nature of the celebrations.  But last year, I met an Israeli girl at a party.  And just before I left, we hosted a Shabbat dinner for our gentile friends.9

So now, this year, she decided to host a Rosh Hashanah dinner.  Sadly, it was vegetarian.  Which, I mean, is fine per se.  Just that it didn’t give me an opportunity to win back the brisket I lost by missing my own family’s dinner.  Nonetheless, it was still great.  It was a pot-luck affair, this one.  But Dafna – the only Jew I’ve yet to meet here – decreed a main ingredient for each person’s dish.10  And before we got into each dish, she said a brucha and told us the significance of the main ingredient to the holiday.

It wasn’t formal and it wasn’t “traditional.”  But it was pretty great, all the same.  I’m not a religious person.  If I was home, you can be sure I wouldn’t be going to Schul for the High Holidays.  But at home, I’m not an anomaly.  At home, there’s Jews everywhere.  Here, it’s just me.  So no, I don’t particularly care about the ‘religiosity” of it.  And I’m sure as shit not going to ‘repent’ for Yom Kippur.11  But it’s nice to have that connection.  It’s nice to feel a part of something.  It was nice, is the point.  And I’m thankful that my friend put it all together.

So that’s that.  Prague.  Saxony.  Happy New Year, and wash it down with a fancy cocktail.  In between, I’m teaching and looking for an apartment.  Which is hell, I don’t mind telling you.  The apartment hunt, I mean.  But all that’s for another day.  Now though, I just want to go to bed.  Until next time…

זיי געסונט

  1. “Horseradish makes everything brighter,” she said. []
  2. Despite the Czech Republic not being on the Euro, they do accept them at major tourist spots.  And although we were paying with Crona, we were always thinking in terms of Euros. []
  3. By which I mean, Charlotte, who lived in New York for two years. []
  4. Not today, boychick.  It’s fucking Shabbos! []
  5. Literally, the ‘worth-seeing-ness’ of it. []
  6. The sign on the Polish side of the bridge announced the city as Zgorzelec.  I didn’t have a chance to do the requisite research.  However, based upon the similarity of the names, I surmise that at some point, this was all once city.  Only with the redrawing of maps, I assume, was it divided between the two countries.  And indeed, everybody on the Polish side seemed to speak German.  How much Polish was spoken on the German side, I do not know. []
  7. Upon further reflection, this seems a particularly cruel analogy, given the whole Lebensraum thing. []
  8. Cf, same data set, different interpretations. []
  9. Well, her gentile friends, really.  The ones I invited couldn’t come. []
  10. For me, it was beets.  So I made a beet/cabbage soup.  Quite tasty, if I do say so myself. []
  11. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are together taken as the ‘High Holidays.’  The first is the Jewish new year.  The second is the ‘Day of Atonement.’  Yom Kippur is the day you’re meant to repent your sins of the past year.  Whereupon the big G either writes you into the ‘good’ ledger or the ‘bad.’  Personally, I don’t go out for this.  My feeling is – and has been, for a very long time – that there’s a tremendous amount of cruelty and suffering in the world.  And between me and God, only one of us is supposed to be omniscient/omnibenevolent/omnipotent.  In other words, only one of us has the power to end all these horrors.  And it ain’t me.  But I’m supposed to ask his ass for forgiveness?  Nah.  I pass.  Thanks, though. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
Horseradish Edition

It’s been a crazy last couple of weeks.  Originally, this post was supposed to be about my trip to Prague, which was the weekend before last.  I started writing it last week, shortly after my return, but I was hit with a bout of writer’s block and also general business.  Or is it ‘busyness’?  Odd thing, those two words.  Hashtag spelling.  Hashtag who cares?

Anyway, I was in Prague two weekends ago.  But this past weekend I was in Saxony.  And obviously Berlin in between.  So I’m no longer sure of the best way to structure this post.  I guess we’ll see what happens…

Ever since we were all in college and doing the whole travel-abroad thing, I’ve had friends telling me I had to visit Prague.  Well, this weekend, I finally got my chance.  And about bloody time, too.  I made the trip with – who else? – Charlotte.

Here’s the thing you need to know about Dave & Charlotte trips.  We are awesome at travelling.  We are also shit at planning travelling.  Case in point.  We left Berlin on Friday.  I don’t think we booked transportation or a room until Wednesday or Thursday.  We went by way of carshare1 and were dropped off at the central train station.  And it was only upon entering said train station that we discovered: Wait, so they don’t use Euros here, do they?  Madame et Monsieur à l’Arrache strike again.

But look, you’re either flexible or you’re not.  And we’re pretty flexible.  Which is why we’re boss travelers.  And yet, we’re not very good tourists either.  What do I mean?  Well, we’re flexible, like I said.  We can roll with anything.  We can sleep just about anywhere; back seat of a car if we need to.  We can hit the main tourist sites or just wander around.  It’s all good.

But the thing is, when you’re a tourist, you’re supposed to get up early and fill your day seeing the sites.  This, we’re not so good at.  Reason being, at the end of the day, we get back to wherever we’re staying and proceed to have our own brand of fun.  This usually entails several bottles of wine, dice and a guitar.  We have a tendency to stay up til 3am playing Yatzee and music, drinking all the while. This means we’re not even getting up until 11 or so the next day.  The tourist attractions are not on our clock, is what I’m saying.  But it works for us.

All this was doubly true, then, for our trip to Saxony this past weekend.  When we picked up our rental car on Friday afternoon, we still had no idea where we’d be spending the night, never mind what our actual travel plans would be.  Also, we fucked up the car rental.

A word to the wise: Don’t book your rental car when you’re drunk.  It was Monday or Tuesday night that Charlotte came over for dinner and to plan our trip for the weekend.  I cooked.  We ate.  She brought wine.  I bought wine.  We drank a lot of wine.  Then we did the rental research.  Indeed, we were quite pleased with ourselves when we secured a car for the weekend for around 50 Euros.  Or so we thought.

It was only when we showed up at the rental desk that we discovered that we’d actually only booked the car for one day and not two.  Well, that explained the price.  It also served as a fine illustration of the hot-mess-ness that is Dave & Charlotte “planning” a road trip.

But you can’t cry over spilled milk, as they say.  Unless they say “spilt” milk, which I suspect is more “correct.”  But we – by which I mean, English speakers – like to regularize verbs when we can, so I’m going with “spilled.”  Anyway, we forked over another 56€ and got on our way.  Whichever way that was.

The next part of the story is either romantic or stressful, depending on your point of view.  And I don’t mean chocolates-&-flowers romantic.  I mean, free to wander the face of the earth romantic.  Yeah, sure, the easy thing would have been to have already booked an AirBnB (or whatever).  But easy is for cowards.2

And so it was, with no real plan, that we pointed the car roughly towards Dresden and hit the road.  As I drove, C searched for accommodations, sending one AirBnB request after another.  As the night came down, and with it, hunger, we pulled into the town of Spremberg.  Not because we’d ever heard of it, or even because it seemed particularly nice.  I think we just stopped there because we were hopeful of finding a room and a place to eat.

There was a hotel with a restaurant.  I asked at the desk if they had any rooms.  They did, at the cost of 65€/night.  More than we wanted to spend, sure, but at least now we knew we wouldn’t have to sleep in the car.  But at this point, why rush a decision?  Whereupon did we resolve to eat first and wait to see if any of the AirBnB’s responded.

Dinner was nice, blah blah blah.  We had the fish, which was fine.  Nobody cares, I’m sure.  Anyway, we got a response from a couple in the village of Rietchen – maybe 45m away – who were renting out the second floor of their home.  It was cheaper – and looked nicer – than the hotel, so we decided to take it.  Though obviously we first had to stop at a supermarket to pick up a few bottles of wine.  I mean, at this point, the only way this night could end badly is if it ended sober.

So we got the wine and headed to the house.  We were met by the woman, who spoke no English but was sweet as could be.  The “room” was an apartment, as they’d converted the second floor of their home.  Style-wise, it wasn’t really our scene.  It was a bit hotel-ish.  By which I mean, it wasn’t a “lived-in” home.  But it had everything you could need, it was clean and it was comfortable.

Still though, we were in Rietchen, and where the fuck was that anyway?  And we had no plan for the next day.  So instead of playing Yatzee and music, we spent too much of the night googling places to visit.  No, it wasn’t ideal.  But we also had three liters of wine with us, so how bad could it be?

In the end, I drunkenly decreed a plan.  Or, at least, an outline of a plan.  We should go, I said, to Kromlauer Park in the afternoon.  After that, we should drive down to Görlitz, on the border of Poland.  They both looked pretty, and I didn’t want to spend any more time googling when we could be jamming.  C agreed.  Away went the computer and out came the guitar.  A few more glasses of wine, and then sweet sleep.

When I got out of the shower the next morning, I could hear the sounds of C talking to our hosts through the walls.  Knowing, however, that they didn’t really speak English, I thought it best to hurry downstairs, there to do my humble best as interpreter.  And so it was that I joined the parlay, soaking wet, in an unbuttoned shirt and boxer shorts.

I needn’t have rushed.  Homegirl was managing, as were our hosts.  But I jumped in and was able to expedite the process with my sorta-passable German.  The short version is, they were supportive of my/our plan.  Kromlauer Park was absolutely worth visiting, they assured us.  Likewise, Görlitz was older and prettier than Bautzen or Dresden, our other two choices.  So now we had a plan.  And I’ll just say now – since I’m about to change the subject – our plan came up aces.  But I’ll come back to all of that later.

If this trip was a shit-show from a planning perspective, Prague was less so.  But only slightly.  Our original plan called for us to spend Friday and Saturday nights in the Czech Republic, but to spend Sunday in Dresden.  However, we’d only booked the first two nights in Prague when we left Berlin on Friday afternoon.  Which, I mean, shit will work itself out, no?  It always does.

In the event, we found Prague so much to our liking that we decided to stay a third night, Dresden be damned.3  So once again4 we found ourselves wasting vacation time trying to plan the self-same vacation.  But this too worked out, as the place we found for Sunday was more or less perfect.  More, in the sense that it was in the area we wanted, was clean, comfy and cozy.  Less, in the sense that it also felt more like a hotel than a home.

Still though, we had a lovely stay in Prague, in both places.  Much of this had to do with the location.  However, when I say “location,” I don’t mean what this word normally means.  Usually, when travelers talk about location, they’re talking about proximity to the tourist attractions or nature or something.

In our case, “location” was all about proximity to a specific restaurant.  You see, we never met our host from the first place.  Her mom – an old lady with bright orange hair – checked us in.  Her English was a mess, but it was good enough for her to recommend to us a nice restaurant in the area.  And, umm, you guys, we fell in love with this place.

It was one of those places where you look at the menu and you just want to try every last thing on offer.  In the end, we did our level best to that end.  But more on that later.  The first night, we got a plate of sausages which came with nothing but mustard and horseradish.  Horseradish with apple, I should specify.  And it was uh-mazing!

It was funny too.  See, C had never had horseradish.  Or if she had, she hadn’t had it in any kind of meaningful way.  Meanwhile, I’d grown up with it as a staple of the Passover Seder.  As a kid, it was something that the grownups made.  Then, once I started living on the LES, I started bringing the stuff from The Pickle Guys.  Finally, this past year, I actually made my own.5  The point is, I fucking love horseradish.  And for me, it’s a very special thing, because you really only get to eat it once a year, at Passover.6

The point is, I came to the table with a love for the horseradish.  And I couldn’t hide it.  To the point where C was all, “dude, relax.”  Pff.  You relax, bitch.  So I’m sitting there giddy like a kid at Christmas Chanukah Passover, smiling like I won the lottery, and she has no idea why.  That is, until she tries it.  And it first, she’s making the “omg I can’t feel my face” face.  And I’m all like, “this is child’s play.”  But by the end of the meal, she was a convert.

And I had that feeling I got when my brother’s wife realized that rainbow cookies are the tits.  You know the one.  When half of you is all proud and superior feeling, being all “Right?  I told you this shit was amazing!”  But the other half of you begins to realize, “Oh fuck, Imma have to share this shit now, fuck.”

So I’m sitting there, watching her eat this horseradish, and I’m so conflicted.  Like, I wanna be all, “How dare you doubt me, woman?!”  And yet also feeling like, “Actually, it would be better for me if you didn’t care for this, so I could have it all to myself, mwahahaha!”  In the end though, you hope your humanity wins out.  You hope that you’ve found something beautiful you can share with somebody you care about.  You hope you’ve found a new memory and a new shared joy in the world.  I mean, you hope for this on a rational level.  On an animal level, you just want all the horseradish.

This, then, was in the background when we sat down to dinner in Poland on Saturday night.  We’d never even intended to go to Poland.  It’s just that it’s right there across the bridge from Görlitz.  And they’re not on the Euro either,7 so everything is cheaper.

I say “sat down to dinner,” but that’s not entirely accurate.  We’d had a late lunch in Kromlauer Park, where we used a tree stump as a picnic table.  (It was pretty awesome).  So when we sat down, we weren’t hungry.  We thought we were just sitting down for a drink or two.  We thought we’d have the drinks, walk around Görlitz a bit and then maybe come back for dinner.  Only we kept drinking.  Until we got hungry.  And then we saw there was something with horseradish and sausage on the menu, so we had to get it.  Oh, and also Pirogues.  Because Poland.

It was glorious.  Or it wasn’t.  But we enjoyed the hell out of it.  And if it wasn’t quite glorious, it was damned fine anyway.  Sausages, horseradish, cheese, pirogues, salad, beer, wine, coffee, and probably one or two other things besides.  The whole bill came to like 16€.  God bless eastern Europe and their depressed economy.8

So much for dinner.  And shitty planning.  We wandered through Görlitz – fucking gorgeous, btw – on our way back to the car.9  Then it was back to the AirBnB, where we’d booked a second night.  We played Yatzee, of course.  And also Mikado, which our hosts had for us.  I’d never heard of this, but I guess it’s basically Pickup Sticks.  Not that I knew this game either, but it was hella fun.  More music, more wine, and then bed.  And then back to Berlin.  Well, for me, anyway.  We returned the car at the airport.  From their, C caught her flight back to France.

In the end, it was a great weekend.  It was great, but not without stress.  Ditto for Prague.  This is the tradeoff when you do a shit job of planning your adventures.  On the one hand, it is actually more of an adventure in the true sense of the word.  On the other hand, you waste a lot of time that could be better spent having fun.

And so it becomes a matter of perspective.  It’s like when Luke says to Obi Wan, “Wait, what?  I thought you said Vader killed my father.  Not to be confused with Vader is my fucking father!”  And Obi Wan is all, “Uh, yeah, well, that depends on your point of view.”  And Luke is all, “Point of view?  What the shit kind of Jedi mumbo-jumbo is that?”  And Obi Wan is all, “Umm, Sand People ride in single file to hide their numbers?”  And Luke is all, “Stop changing the subject, Ben!”  And Obi Wan is all, “Actually, maybe it’s better if you just talk to Yoda.”  And meanwhile, Lando is all, “But we had a deal!”  And Han is all, “I have a baaad feeling about this.”  And Chewie is all, “Raaagghh!”  And I seem to have gone off on a tangent…

The point is, Charlotte and I either travel super fucking well together or incredibly poorly together.  And it’s subjective.  We talked about it, as we drove.  She seemed to lean more in the direction of, “We suck at this.”  In other words, she saw us as being disorganized and wasting precious time.  And of course that’s totally correct.

But I saw the same data and came to a different conclusion.  “We’re fucking awesome at this,” was my analysis.  For me, you can put us in the worst situation and we will find a way to come out on top.  Don’t know where you’re staying?  It’s fine, you’ll wind up somewhere great.  No idea where you’re going?  Nbd, we’ll have dinner in Poland.

For me, it’s all part of the adventure.  For me, it’s turning down a road and not knowing where it leads, but having the confidence that when you walk down the road together, you’ll wind up somewhere special.  And even if you don’t, you’ll come out the other end with a story worth telling.

Which I guess is an apt analogy for this whole Berlin adventure.  In the end, I don’t really have a plan.  I mean, I have a vague outline of a plan.  But I don’t really know what I’m doing or where I’m going.  It’s all part of the adventure.  As Bilbo Baggins said, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

  1. Which I described in my Barcelona post. []
  2. #amirite []
  3. “Dresden be damned” is perhaps an unfortunate turn of phrase for a city that was once fire-bombed to oblivion. []
  4. Well, not really “again,” since this came first.  A bit “hysteron-proteron,” as Daitz would say. []
  5. At the risk of tooting my own horn, that shit was epic.  I was pretty proud of it. []
  6. Which is essentially true.  However, during my time living at my parents’ house, I started to experiment with using it more.  I was using it on pork loin roasts and other things besides.  My dad was using it with steaks.  It was getting to the point where we were just, “Put horseradish on all the things!”  It was great. []
  7. Again, who knew? []
  8. #amirite []
  9. We sat for a few hours.  C drank wine the whole time.  I had one big beer and one small beer, with a coffee in between.  I mention this only to specify that I was watching my alcohol intake, knowing I’d have to drive. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
11 September, 20161

So the reason I haven’t written in a while is not because there isn’t much going on, but in fact because there’s actually quite a lot going on.  Specifically, there’s quite a lot going on with respect to my work status and ability to remain here in Germany.  And frankly, it’s all been quite stressful and so I’ve resisted writing about it.  But now, I think, it’s time to say a few words.

I suppose I should explain how this all works.  Basically, as an American, you can come to Germany without a visa for 90 days.  While you’re here, you can dig around for employment and make arrangements, but you’re not allowed to actually work.  For that, you need a kind of work permit/visa.  Believe it or not, this is not terribly difficult or complicated.  At least not when compared with what’s required in the States, for example.  Still, there’s a fair amount of red tape and bureaucratic hoops to jump through.2

Obviously, you need to have a job offer, and preferably more than one.  Even this is not so onerous.  Because really what you need, is for somebody to write you a letter saying they’d be interested in working with you, if you can legally work.  That is to say, there’s no binding obligation.  So it’s a lower bar.  You also need to show proof of health insurance (easy enough), proof of residence (not quite as easy, but still manageable), and then bank statements, letters of reference and qualifications.

In fact, the hardest part is just getting a fucking appointment with the Auslanderbehörde, the ‘Foreigners’ Office,’ for lack of a better translation.  Because of the refugee situation, they are completely overworked and overbooked.  So just getting in to see them is a nightmare.3  And so, for quite a while, I’ve been operating under the assumption that I need to get in to see them before my 90 days are up, otherwise I’ll have to leave, no matter how valid my case.  And yet, the earliest available appointment wasn’t until November.  Meanwhile, my 90 days are up at the end of this month.  So yeah, I was stressing, big time.  It seemed like the only option was to show up at, like, five in the morning, be the first in line, and hope to get a number.  But even if you’re the first in line, there’s no guarantee of getting a number or of being seen.  My head was spinning.  But we’ll come back to this in a sec.

Now, as I said, you need to show that you have health insurance.  But not just any health insurance.  It seems Germany is quite particular in terms of what your insurance must cover.  Show up to your appointment with the wrong insurance and they could send you away.  To this end, I met Wednesday with an insurance broker who was recommended to me by my last-year-roommate Lisa.  And this wonderful woman peeled the scales from my eyes.  “First things first,” she said, “we need to make you an appointment.  Without that, all the insurance in the world won’t help you.”  “Sure,” I said, “but how do we get something before the end of September?  That’s when my 90 days are up.”  And that’s when she told me.

“As long as you book your appointment while your visit is valid and legal, then your legally allowed to stay here until the date of your appointment.”  Wait, what?  You mean, I can add another two months to my visit, just because they’re booked up?  Apparently so!  So we booked the earliest available appointment…for November 21st.  W.T.F.

The upside of this is, it meant I was legally allowed to stay in Germany until 11/21.  The downside, I wouldn’t be allowed to work until 11/21.  That’s quite the constraint.  Then she told me that once you’re in the system, you have rights to reschedule.  What this mean is, you can now check for cancellations and if a spot opens up, you can take it.  So she suggested that I check the system daily, on the off chance something comes free.

And that’s just what I did.  I met with this woman, Anke, on Wednesday.  Thursday night, I decided to try my luck.  Lo and behold, there was an open spot at 9:30 AM, Tuesday September 13!  OMG, OMG, OMG!!!  I jammed the ‘Enter” key like a million times and secured the appointment.  Right, so now, instead of having literally months to get everything in order, I have, like, a few days.

So I’m stressing.  Rather a bit.  And yet, everybody tells me there’s nothing to worry about.  Anke told me, and others besides, that it’s basically like the DMV.  They’re so overworked, and so generally annoyed, that if you show up, are polite, have all your papers in order and just make their lives easy, they want nothing more than to stamp your papers and send you on your way.  Gods, I can only hope!

Oh, I mentioned a job offer.  A mate of mine from the CELTA rang me up last week and said they needed a teacher ASAP at one of the language schools he works at.  So I went in last week for an interview and the guy “hired” me on the spot.  Which is to say, he said, “As soon as you’re allowed to work, I have a class for you.”  And he was only too happy to write me a letter to that effect.  So I’ve got that going for me in my interview on Tuesday.

Well that’s the story there.  By next writing, I should be able to say that I’ve got my papers, or that they’ve sent me away for lack of…who knows?  Anyway, that’s taken up most of my brain-bandwidth lately, leaving little room for writing or anything else.

But of course there are other things else.  There was the night out with a group of French and German people where the common language was actually German and not English for a change.  There’s the MaidenLane-iversary.   There’s the NWOBHM kick I’ve been on.  There’s the Yankees being all-of-a-sudden exciting.  The craft beer bar in Wedding.4   The BBQ in Tempelhoferfeld.  The apartment hunt.  And also Charlotte is coming to Berlin for a couple of weeks, and the road trips we are planning: Krakow, Prague, Bavaria.  So there’s lots going on.

But lately, this whole visa thing has overridden it all.  And now it’s all coming to a head.  Tuesday will be a big day.  The biggest of days, in fact.  So I think it’s best if I say no more until I’ve had my appointment.  Until then.

זיי געדנט

  1. It goes without saying that 9/11 holds a significant meaning for any American, and especially New Yorkers.  But for me, today, I’m reminded that 9/11/15 was the date that Charlotte and I embarked up on the most epic of road trips, and one of the best experiences of my life already. []
  2. Needless to say, I’m speaking from the perspective of trying to work here as a freelance English teacher.  Other types of employment have other types of requirements. []
  3. And while this is inconvenient for me personally, it’s hard to find fault with this.  I mean, of all countries, Germany has done more than any other in terms of accepting refugees.  And I laud them for it. []
  4. Wedding is the name of a neighborhood in NW Berlin. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
29 August, 2016

Sometimes, shit just falls in your lap, you know?  Like last year, when I got back from Berlin and had no idea what I would do next.  Out of nowhere, my friend tells me her momz needs some help around the house, as she’s remodeling.  $100 a day to go hang out with my friend’s mom and move boxes around.  And I love my friend’s mom.  I mean, they’ve had me over as a guest for their family’s Christmas dinner every year since 2010.  Anyway, this work essentially paid for my Great Western Roadtrip which I otherwise would probably not have been able to afford.

Only, when I got back, I still had no idea what I was going to do.  Enter Keith, who was then principal at a Yeshiva for special needs kids in the Five Towns.  He said they had an opening and thought I’d be a good fit.  So he set up an interview with one of the APs and I landed the job on the spot.1  At the interview, I told the woman I’d probably be leaving around February to go back to Berlin.  She said that was fine.  Obviously, I finished out the year.  I mean, I got attached to my kids.  Added bonus to that, I keep on getting paid through the summer.  So now I’m in Berlin, and so far, I’ve still had a steady paycheck.

Only, what to do now that I’m here?  Back around the turn of the New Year, Charlotte encouraged me to sign up to this free website called Superprof.  Basically, you post a profile as a teacher and wait for potential students to contact you.  I had precisely zero requests until around the beginning of July.  Then, I get a message from a student in Paris.  She’s a very nice girl from Sicily and is currently studying in France.  But she’s going to do a semester (or a year?) in California, so she wants to improve her conversational skills.

The point is, I get paid 20€ an hour to Skype with her and basically just chat.  All I have to do is correct her grammar, occasionally explain some constructions and teach her a bit of slang.2  We get on quite well, meeting once or twice a week for an hour each time.  And just like that, I’ve got some walking around money.

Meanwhile, while I was in Italy, I was contacted by a French bloke on behalf of a language school dans l’Hexagone.  He was looking for an English teacher to do remote 1-to-1 one lessons, primarily focusing on “business English.”3  Anyway, we had a couple of Skype interviews, at the conclusion of which he basically offered me a job.  That was at the beginning of August.  However, I didn’t want to put any eggs in that basket yet, at least not until I had a formal contract in front of me.  He said this would happen probably around the end of August/beginning of September.  Nothing to do but wait.

Well, here we are at the end of August.  And this week, it’s all finally begun.  To start, he set me up with three students.  I had my first lesson with two of them this week and I’ll start with the other on Tuesday.  The engagement with each student is for ten hours, 20€/hour.4  To put it another way, that’s 600€ in a city where you can easily find rent for under 400€.  And that’s only three students.  Last we spoke, he said he’s got perhaps another ten lined up for me.  Again, I’ll count those chickens when the contracts hatch, but it’s encouraging anyway.

As for the work itself, well, it’s almost laughably easy.  At least so far.  I asked my first two students what their objectives were and they basically said it comes down to wanting to improve their conversation skills for work; to feel more confident on conference calls, giving and/or listening to presentations.  So basically, we just chat on the phone5 for 30-60 minutes and I correct their grammar, fix their idioms and pronunciation, teach them some new words.  All from the comfort of home.

To be fair, there’s a bit more work on the back-end.  I need to find study materials for them in between lessons, and I need to do some admin stuff vis-à-vis attendance and progress.  But this is hardly intensive labor.  And maybe I just got lucky with my first two students, but they’re both lovely guys, easy to talk to, and – at first impression, anyway – motivated and interested.  And really, this is the sort of job I can do from anywhere, so long as there’s a decent internet or phone connection.  In other words, I could theoretically fuck off to Prague for a week and not miss a day’s work.  Though obviously I’d want to be quite a bit more established with the company before I start doing that sort of thing.

So this gig has a lot of advantages.  But there is a slight tradeoff.  On the one hand, it’s very nice to work 1-to-1.  You can more easily build relationships, you can tailor each session to the particular student’s needs.  On the other hand, you lose the performance aspect of running a class.  And I know from experience, I can have a lot of fun running a class.  I mean, that’s where you get to do comedy, you know?  Still though, this is a pretty solid gig.

The only question is, is it enough to keep me here?  The company is, after all, based in France, not Germany.  Now, the original plan was to get a work permit that would allow me stay in Berlin indefinitely.  And that may still be possible, if any of the language schools I applied to decide to get back to me.  But there are, apparently, two other options.  The first is a one-off six-month permit that allows me to stay here and look for work.6  The other is, from what I can tell, a sort of residency permit that’s not based around having a German job.  If I understand aright – always a question with German bureaucracy – you simply need to have either enough money in the bank or enough money coming in.  I’m hoping that if I can show a dozen or so contracts, plus maybe a letter from the company saying they intend to give me more, that this will be enough for either the six-monther or a general residency thing.  My 90 days are up at the end of September so I’ll have to make an appointment with the relevant Amt in the next 7-10 days.  I’m trying to be optimistic without getting my hopes up.  But at least it’s feeling more attainable than at any point prior to now.  But enough of this.  I’m superstitious enough to worry about jinxing it all right here and now.

Not that I don’t love being here, but things have been a little off lately.  I mean, I’ve been a little off lately.  I was trying to remember earlier what they told us before we went away for our semester in London.  They warned us that a depression or a homesickness or something of the sort was likely to set in around…well, this is the part I can’t remember.  Was it two months?  Whatever it was, in London, it happened right on cue.  For all of us.  And then it passed.

But that’s kind of where I’m at now.  Not depressed.  Not homesick.  But something.  Some kind of malaise.  I’m not getting out of the house as much as I should.  I’m not making enough of an effort to see the few friends I have.  I stay up very late studying or writing, so that my day rarely ever gets going before noon.  My German, which for quite a while felt like it was improving, now seems to be stagnating.

Maybe it’s the two-month blues.  Maybe it’s because I have no real routine or anything to keep me properly busy.  Maybe that’s all about to change as I start getting busy with work.  To combat this, I try to walk wherever I need to go.  The other day, I finally bought new sneakers.  So rather than take a 15-minute train ride to Alexanderplatz – which people here apparently simply call ‘Alex’ but which I like to call ‘Aliplatz’ – I opted for the hour+ walk.  It’s good exercise and its good podcast time, if nothing else.  But more than anything, it gets me out of the house for a few hours.

Today I went for a four hour walk.  This time, the goal was Treptower park, which is just lovely.  This journey took me to some places I’d not yet seen, including a section of the Berlin Wall which is now a canvass for all sorts of public art/graffiti.  I wasn’t able to determine, however, if this was actually a bit of in situ Mauer, or if it had been reassembled there for the purposes of being an art exhibit.  I shall have to do some research on this.

Either way, this kind of stuff is what makes Berlin so great.  Along the way, I passed by or through several parks.  I came across at least three live music acts.  And everywhere, you just see people out enjoying life and the city.  It’s got a great spirit, this place.

Anja, too, has been helpful.  She’s always pointing me to events via facebook, telling me about historical sights I should see or just slipping the odd flyer under my door for something she thinks I’ll dig.  I just haven’t done a great job (yet) of following up on this stuff.  And Mischa, bless him, is always leaving food for me on my shelf in the fridge.

I should say that I’ll be here again until the end of the month.  My original intention was to find a new place for September.  I mean, if I’m to stay here beyond 90 days, I really need to get my own place.  I can’t just stay on as a Gast indefinitely.  But really, it’s quite expensive here.  Which is not to say it’s overpriced.  In fact, I think it’s a great value, given the quality of the apartment, the people, all the extra perks and so on.  It’s just not really in my price range.  It’s fine when I’m on vacation, but if I’m going to live here as an employed person, I shall have to live within my means.

Be that as it may, I wasn’t able to find anything satisfactory for September.  And they, originally, weren’t going to rent the room, as they are going to Turkey for part of the month.  But when I asked if the room was free, they thought about it and said I was welcome to stay, because they know me by now.  Which, I mean, is just so solid.  So here I am for another month, and perfectly happy about it.

Oh, remember when I said I wasn’t homesick?  I mean, that’s essentially true.  But lately I’ve found myself dying for some properly good Chinese food.  I’ve yet to find a real-deal hand-pulled noodle soup, never mind soup dumplings.  Mind you, I had the same problem on Long Island.  It’s all “white people Chinese food.”  I mean, where’s the tripe?  Where’s the tendon?  Where are the ducks hanging in the window?  Not to say it doesn’t exist here, just that I haven’t found It yet.  Does Berlin have an actual Chinatown?  If so, can somebody please tell me where it is?  And also pizza.  My kingdom for a New York slice.  So maybe I’m just a touch homesick.

Going to sleep has been a different kind of adventure.  For most of my life, I’d always fallen asleep with music on.  But a few years ago, after all the Star Treks had come onto Netflix, I started falling asleep to that.  It was basically a kind of music.  I mean, I’d seen them all so many times, I basically knew them by heart.  I wouldn’t even watch them.  I’d just listen, and usually I’d be asleep before the opening credits kicked in.

But when I got here, I discovered that Star Trek wasn’t on German Netflix.  So I need to find something else.  This usually took the form of some David Attenborough narrated nature documentary.  That worked well enough.  Or there was baseball.  Yankee games start at 1am here, which is fine if I’m in bed before four.  I can always fall asleep to baseball.

Even nicer, though, are the nights when I do stay up til four.  I mean, sure I miss the Yanks, but the West Coast games are just getting underway.  This means the Dodgers.  Which means Vin Scully.  And there may not be anything better on the radio than Vin Scully calling a Dodgers game.  So that’s a guaranteed win, if I’m up late enough.

And now, finally, Star Trek is here.  For now, it’s just the original series.  But I believe the rest will soon follow.  Reason being, it seems Netflix will carry the new Trek series over here, when it debuts next year.  So I guess they got their hands on the old stuff to drum up interest.  Whatever the case, I can finally put some Star Trek on at bedtime, and this makes me quite happy indeed.

Well, that’s it for now, I suppose.  The next couple of weeks should prove quite interesting, and quite determinative as well.  And that’s not even talking about whatever travels I’m able to make in the month of September.  Surely there will be a few.  But that’s for another day.  Until then.

זיי געסונט

——————–
A brief note on the ol’ sei gesund.  I finally asked a real German person if this is a thing that anybody says in German.  She said no, you’re more likely to hear bleib gesund.  Different verb, same essential meaning.  So although the Yiddish version would be instantly understandable to any German, it would nevertheless sound a bit off.  But obviously Imma keep saying it.  Incidentally, I mentioned my blog to this same person, and she said, “Oh, what’s it called, Ein Ami in Deutschland?”  Heh, close enough.

  1. I later asked him how much he had to do with my actual hiring.  Almost nothing, was the answer.  Obviously he had recommended me, but really it was up to the AP.  “I’m your friend, I can’t hire you.  Conflict of interest.”  So while he got me in the door, apparently I scored the gig on my own merits.  Which is what you want, obviously. []
  2. For example, “You’re going to California, so you need to learn the word hella.” []
  3. Business English, btw, was more or less the focus of my CELTA training, as that what’s the school where I took the class focuses on. []
  4. 20€/hour was the price I had listed on my Superprof page.  However, I’m stuck wondering if I could have got more, because he agreed to that rate quite readily. []
  5. Or Whatsapp or Skype or Viber or whatever. []
  6. Though not actually to work.  But presumably this is good enough to get a job offer, and once you do, I gather it’s no big deal to change over to the work permit. []

Silly Fairy Tale, Part the Second

Silly Fairy Tale
Part the Second

(Part the First can be read here)

 The Story Continued…

 

Needless to say, the sassy black lady wasn’t about to teach Sylvana how to read, no matter how much she pitied the poor child.  I mean, ain’t nobody got time for that!  And so the girl left the Royal Department of Human Resources, full of hope and full of despair.  Full of hope, because she now clutched in her hand a list of names and addresses for all the woodsmen in the king’s service.  Full of despair, because she didn’t know how to read it.  Not knowing what else to do, she went back to the castle, whereupon did she bound right up the spiral staircase, run into her room, slam the door and crawl into bed.  And she started to sob.

This being a castle, however, and she being a pre-princess, there was no such thing as privacy.  Indeed, her very favorite lady-in-waiting was already in her room.  Waiting, obviously.  And when she saw the girl in such a state, she approached her and asked what was wrong.  The girl then told her the whole story.  When she’d finished, the lady-in-waiting smiled sweetly at her and patted her cheek.

“Be of good cheer, child,” she said.  “Though the hour seemeth dark, there is yet hope.  For I am a woman of letters, old crone though I be.  And t’would be my honor to serve thee in thy quest for thy father.  Ye have but to put yon parchment in my grasp, and lo, I shall be thy guide.  I shall be as thine eyes.  Such is my love for thee.”

“Oh my god!” cried the girl, throwing herself face-down into her pillow.  “You know I don’t understand you when you talk like that.  God, speak English!”  Whereupon did the lady-in-waiting roll her eyes.  Twice.  Then she facepalmed herself.

“I said,” she said, “don’t get down, girlfriend.  I know shit be lookin’ bad right now, but it’s all’a work out.  I mean, I know how to read, hun.  Even though I’m old.  And I’m tryin’a say, I’d be happy to help you look for your pops.  All you gotta do is gimme that there list, and I’ll take care of the rest.  You dig?”

“I dig,” said the girl, drying her eyes.  Then she threw her arms around the lady-in-waiting’s neck.  “I love you Brangien (that was her name), you’re the best!”  And Brangien hugged her back.  “But wait,” said the girl.  “You really know how to read?  I mean, you’re…a woman.”

“Of course I do, sweety.  Back in my country, I have a – “

“Lemme guess.  A PhD, right?  Apparently that’s a thing now.”

Anyway, they soon got started.  Led by the noble Brangien, Sylvana visited one woodsman after another.  But none of them were her father.  Wouldn’t you know it, but they even visited her father’s flat.  Only he wasn’t home at the time.  Madison answered the door.  He was very surprised to see Brangien.  Sylvana was even more surprised when the two of them kissed each other passionately on the lips.

“You guys know each other?” asked the girl, clearly astonished.

“Oh yes,” said Madison.  “We were at school together back in the old country.  We even dated for a bit.”

“What happened?” asked the girl.

“The war,” they said together.

“We were both taken prisoners,” said Madison.  “And we never saw each other again after that.”  Then he looked at his old flame.  “I had no idea you were here,” he said softly.

“I had no idea you were still alive,” she whispered.

“Well, here we all are now, happy together again,” said the girl impatiently.  “But more important, I’m looking for my father.  Have you seen him?  He’s a woodsman in the king’s service.”

“I see,” said Madison.  “And what’s his name.”

“Oh my god, why do people keep asking me that?!”  The girl was clearly annoyed.  “I’ve only ever called him father.  I don’t know his name.”

“Well, what does he look like?”

“I don’t know.  He looks like a man.  With a beard.  He has big strong forearms, stout legs and a barrel chest.  He usually likes to wear plaid flannel and a knit cap.”

“So, you’re saying he looks like a woodsman.”

“I guess, yeah, I mean, like, I don’t know what other woodsmen look like.  I just know that’s what he looks like.”

“Right.”  Madison pondered this for a moment.  “Well, look.  My roommate is a woodsman, and he fits the description.  But he’s never said anything about having a daughter.  Not that we talk much.  Honestly, he’s kind of a xenophobe.  I mean, I don’t hold it against up.  He lived his whole life in the woods, probably.  Never met anybody from anywhere else.  I suppose it’s only natural.  Point is, we don’t talk much.  So maybe he has a daughter, but what do I know?”

“So there’s nothing to indicate that he has an important person in his life?” pressed Brangien.

“Now that you mention it, he keeps this little square wooden frame next to his bed.  I once asked him what the deal with that was.  He said it was a ‘picture frame,’ whatever that is.  But I think it’s meant to symbolize somebody that matters a great deal to him.”

“Like a daughter?” asked Brangien.

“Yeah, maybe.  Or a wife.  Or a mother.  Or a dog.  I’m not really a fan of hypotheticals.”

“Please mister,” whined Sylvana.  “This is important!  Like, très important.”  And somewhere, the sassy black lady was all, Oh, you know how to use très in a sentence, but you didn’t get my clou joke?  Shiiiit.

“Tell you what, child,” said Madison.  “Why don’t you come back tomorrow around supper-time and you can meet my roommate.  Maybe he’s your daddy, maybe not.  But there’s only one way to find out.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!” cried the girl.  And she gave him a big hug.  Then she turned to her lady-in-waiting.  “OK, Brangie, let’s go.”

“Actually,” she said slowly, “I think I’m gonna stay for a bit.  Madison and I have…a lot of catching up to do.”

“Oh, you mean like telling stories about all that’s happened in your lives since you were separated by the war?  Sure, sure.  I get it.”

“Umm, yeeeahhh, that,” said Brangien and Madison together.

Whereupon did Sylvana take her leave and headed back to the castle.  And she strolled the city streets, she wondered to herself, what kind of hipster name is Madison?

Anyway, to make a long story short – or rather, to cut out the bits that arent’ really relevant – the next night, Sylvana returned to chez Madison around supper time.  The woodsman wasn’t home yet, so she just sat on the couch and drank tea with upwardly mobile emancipated slave.  At last, the doorknob turned, the door opened, and there stood the woodsman.  He looked at the girl.  She looked at him.

“Hey, chief,” said Madison.  “Homegirl here thinks she might be – “

“My daughter!”  And they raced to each other and were soon locked in a warm embrace.  And when they had broken off their hug, the woodsman looked once more upon his daughter’s face.  “What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Looking for you, silly!”

“No, I mean, what are you doing in the city?  Do you live here now?”

“Oh my god, I didn’t even tell you!  I’m engaged to the prince!” she squeeed.

“What wonderful news!” exclaimed the woodsman.

“Say what?” blurted Madison.

“Yeah,” she started.  “He, like, just found me in the woods one day and wanted to marry me!  Can you imagine?  Marry a prince?  So obvi, I was all, ‘yes,’ and shit.  And here I am!”

“Ain’t that some shit,” muttered Madison to himself.  “Here I am, with a PhD in advanced mathematics, and I’m bustin’ my ass, just to get emancipated.  Ten years working in the Royal Office of Accounting, and all I got to show for it is this lousy flat and a xenophobic roommate.  Meanwhile, homegirl here get’s to marry into royalty, because why?  Because she’s pretty?  Homegirl can’t even read.  Ain’t that some shit.”  But the girl and the woodsman heard none of this.

“Daddy, I’m going to bring you to live with me in the castle.  It’s going to be uh-mazing!”

And that’s just what she did.  I suppose I could end the story here.  I suppose I could just say that she married the prince, her dad moved into the castle and they all lived happily ever after.  Which is basically – Spoiler Alert – what happened.  But why not tell the story the right way?

OK, so the woodsman moved into the castle.  And for two months, father and daughter were delighted to be together again.  I mean, it was a little awkward.  After all, there was indeed a rather high degree of class-bias at court.  Everybody sort of looked down on the woodsman, with his beard and his flannel.  And while there was plenty of talk behind his back, everybody saw how happy the soon-to-be princess was and so they basically just put up with him.

Well, after two months, it was time for the wedding.  There was, of course, a royal wedding planner.  She took care of renting the hall.  Or rather, reserving the hall.  The hall, of course, belonged to the king, so they didn’t have to rent it so much as just raise taxes for a few weeks to cover expenses.  Obviously not a big hit with the locals, but it’s not like they could vote the king out.  So what can you do?

Anyway, the royal wedding planner had hired (read: conscripted) a decorator for the event.  Only, nobody was really happy with him.  I mean, he was very good.  But his style was rather rococo.  A bit over the top.  It didn’t really fit with the hippy girl from the woods.  That’s when the woodsman had an idea.

“You know,” he said at a wedding planning meeting, to the prince, and his daughter and the wedding planner, “my old roommate is actually a great decorator.  He was always doing the loveliest things with flowers and drapes and…doilies?  Is doilies a word?  Why don’t we see if he can help us?  I’m sure he’d do a great job.”

“Hmm, yes” said the wedding planner, trying to be polite.  “But this is a royal wedding.  Isn’t your ex-roommate a…slave?”

“An emancipated slave,” said the woodsman proudly.  “And he has a PhD in advanced mathematics.”

“Typical,” said the wedding planner with disgust.  “All these immigrants with their advanced degrees.  How are we citizens supposed to compete for jobs anymore?  And anyway, advanced mathematics is not decorating.”

“I’m telling you he’s good,” insisted the woodsman.

“We want to give him a chance,” added Sylvana.  “Don’t we, honey?” she said, squeezing the prince’s hand.

“Anything for the little lady,” said the prince, displaying no trace of independent thought.  “Make it so.”

“As you wish,” said the wedding planner.

An hour later, the four of them were knocking on Madison’s door.  And they explained their proposition to him.  And when they’d said their piece, he looked confused.

“I mean, I appreciate you guys thinking of me, honestly,” he said.  “But, you know I’m not a decorator.  I’m just gay.”

“You mean…” said the woodsman.

“I like men, yes.”

“But what about Brangien?” asked Sylvana.  “You said you guys used to date.”

“Girl, it’s a spectrum,” answered Madison, waving her off.

“I don’t know about this,” said the royal wedding planner.  “A gay, decorating the royal wedding?”

“I don’t know about this,” echoed the woodsman.  “A gay, decorating my daughter’s wedding?”

“Oh, daddy,” said the girl, gripping her father’s epically massive forearm.  “Don’t be like that.  Madison is allowed to love whoever he wants.  Who are we to judge him?  And anyway, it’s not like he’s a Jew.”

“Jesus Christ,” said Madison, facepalming.

“See?!” exclaimed Sylvana.

“You will, of course, be paid quite handsomely,” said the royal wedding planner.

“Money, I got,” said Madison somewhat indignantly.  “If y’all want me to decorate this shindig, you’re gonna have to do better than just a big fat check.”

“A what?” asked the royal wedding planner.

“Gold coins, whatever.”

“What’s your price?” asked the prince.

“I want a transfer out of the Royal Office of Accounting.  I want a position at the Royal Institute of Mathematics.”

“You want a RIM job?!” asked the prince incredulously.  “You.  An ex-slave.”

“That’s right, and I won’t settle for anything less.

“Oh, let him have it, honey,” pleaded the girl.  “It’ll be so worth it.”

“Very well,” said the prince.  “I will personally see to your RIM job.  On the sole condition that my bride is satisfied with your services.”  Whereupon did Madison extend his hand to the prince.  Whereupon did the prince look skeptically upon the ex-slave-hand before him.  But, after a quick elbow to the ribs from his fiancée, they shook on it.

Well, needless to say, the wedding went off without a hitch.  The decorations were beyond fabulous.  Everybody had a great time.  And when it was all over, the prince took his literally criminally underage bride up to his royal quarters and there did what all medieval princes do with their more-often-than-not criminally underage brides.  It wasn’t long before she got preggers, and the whole kingdom was rejoicing at the news of it.

So now the girl-princess, the royal-by-marriage woodsman and the prince were all living together happily in the castle, enjoying life with their children/grandchildren and basically making a story-book existence of it all.

Not that there weren’t rough patches.  The princess opened up a little menagerie on the castle grounds, where she brought her bear and squirrel friends from the woods to live with her.  And for most of them, this was great.  There was a never ending supply of nuts in the castle, and fresh fish every day.

But one of the squirrels soon became a little too enamored with life at the royal court.  It wasn’t long before he started hanging out with the wrong crowd, spending way too much time with the idle, foppish dilettantes who clung to the king.  And being of the aristocracy, they were very free with spending their fathers’ money.  You know the type.  Anyway, this particular squirrel soon developed a nasty coke habit.  I mean, you think regular squirrels are fast.  You should’ve seen this guy go after a couple of lines.

It got to the point that the princess – to say nothing of the other squirrels – was really starting to worry about him.  But she figured it was his business, and she didn’t want to intrude.  But he made it personal when he stole one of her pearl necklaces and sold it for two ounces of coke and a bag of chestnuts.  The princess, bless her heart, wasn’t so much angry as hurt.

So she, and the other squirrels, staged a little intervention.  And they told him that if he didn’t “straighten up and fly right,” they’d kick him out of the castle and send him back to the woods.  It was hard, at first.  It always is.  But eventually, the squirrel got his shit together, and he’s been clean ever since.

And so that brings us to the end of our story.  The princess and the prince were a happy couple.  The woodsman and the girl were happy to be reunited.  The animals were living it up.  Even the courtiers had begun to accept the woodsman, as he was often carving little trinkets for them.  Oh, and Madison got his job at the Royal Institute of Mathematics.  Not only that, but he and Brangien got back together, only this time, it was in the form of a poly relationship that included the village blacksmith.  As for the sassy black lady, well, the princess never forgot how she’d helped her.  So she saw to it that a proper window was installed in the Royal Department of Human Resources.  To which, SBL said, “Oh, thank you, child.  You’re a sweet thing,” before adding under her breath, “Ex-slave gets a RIM job and all I get is a stupid-ass window.  Shiiit.”

And they all lived happily ever after.

Silly Fairy Tale, Part the First

Silly Fairy Tale
Part the First

Prologue:

            Not wanting to do another actual blog post, and having completed my Hebrew studies for the night, I find myself still wanting to write.  To write something.  And so I am remembered of a game Charlotte and I used to play.  The game goes like this.  Charlotte asks me to tell her a story.  Whereupon do I proceed to invent a fairy tale out of thin air.  What follows is the sort of story which I’d usually make for her.  In fact, I think it’s probably based on one I’ve already told.  But it’s also different.  I made this up, just now.  For fun.  I hope you have as much fun reading it as I did writing it…

The Story So Far…

Once upon a time, there was a woodsman, who lived in…well, he lived in the woods, obviously.  His job, basically, was to chop wood for the king.  You see, the king lived in a big old palace.  And in the winter, it would get very cold inside those drafty stone walls.  So the king always need firewood.  And so it was that he contracted with several of the local woodsmen to provide the royal kindling.

I say “contracted,” but this was really a feudal sort of arrangement.  Because fairy tales almost always take place in feudal times.  And this might sound romantic, because fairy tales are always romantic.  But it was not romantic.  It was a raw deal, not to put too fine a point on it.  See, the woodsman worked the king’s land, but most of his labor-product wound up in the castle.  He had very little left to himself at the end of the day.

And the woodsman was, perhaps, peripherally aware of all this.  But he was not an educated man.  Neither was he a revolutionary.  He was just a guy that chopped wood for a living.  And it wasn’t a very good living.  Still though, at least he had a little cabin in the woods.  So it was better than working in the salt mines.

Of course the salt mines were in Africa.  Salt was brought into the kingdom by Arab traders.  So really, the salt mines were an abstraction.  But there were rumors.  And the rumors made the salt mines sound pretty terrible.  All this to say, the woodsman was not entirely chagrined by his lot in life.

And anyway, he had a daughter.  Now, the woodsman loved his daughter very much.  She was the apple of his eye.  Or, at least, she would have been, if he’d ever seen an apple.  But all fresh fruit went directly to the castle.  So he probably had some other metaphor that he used to describe his daughter.  Something lumberjacky.  But if he did, it does not come down to us.

The point is, he loved his daughter very much.  There was nothing he wouldn’t do to make her happy.  You see, it was just the two of them.  I know what you’re thinking.  The mother died, right?  Maybe even in childbirth?  Because that’s how it goes in fairy tales.  Well, not this time.  This time, the girl’s mother was this weird hippy chick that lived in the woods.  She was really into prancing around the forest naked, but it was all PG because her hair was so long, you couldn’t see anything anyway.

Well, years back, the woodsman and the hippy girl shacked up for a bit.  Neither of them were really happy.  See, she was all “Why do you break your back for The Man, maaaan?”  And he was all, “Why can’t you settle down and get a job?”  So they didn’t really have a lot in common.  It was more just that they were the only two people within miles, and they did what people do in those situations.

It was only a matter of time before the hippy girl got preggers.  But of course, she was all “I refuse to be pigeon-holed by gender stereotypes.  Just because I’m a woman, how come I have to be the mother?”  And he was all, “Ugh, fine, but coat-hangers haven’t even been invented yet, so what do you want to do about it?”  And she was all, “What’s a coat-hanger?”  And he was all, “I literally have no idea.”

Anyway, what happened was, she carried the baby to term.  Somehow, in that age before medicine and real doctors, she even managed to survive childbirth.  But once that baby was out, so was she.  That very night she was splitsville, never to be seen again.  Although even now, there are rumors of a crazy hippy lady dancing naked in those very same woods.  The police even tried to find her a few years back, but all they came up with were a couple of teenagers smoking pot.  But never mind about that.

So she had the baby, and it was a little girl.  And the woodsman couldn’t be happier.  He’d always wanted a daughter, and now he’d got one.  He named her Sylvana because she was a child of the woods.  But she never liked this name, and so she took to calling herself Cinderella.  Unfortunately, she soon received an anachronistic cease-and-desist letter from the not yet incorporated Walt Disney Corporation, whereupon will she have had to let it go.  So she took to calling herself Winter, because she was sad in her heart.  Sad that she would’snt be allowed to go by Cinderella, and also sad because she never knew her mother.  Needless to say, the woodsman thought this was all ridiculous teenage melodrama and so continued to call her Sylvana.

But enough of this.  One day, a knight-errant, on a mission from the king, came to see the woodsman.  “Stout yeoman,” said the knight, “the king requires your services in the castle.  Wherefore must you pack your things and come with me.”

“But what about my daughter?” asked the woodsman.  “Surely I can bring her with me?”

“I’m afraid not,” said the knight.  “Tax revenues this year were pretty low, to be honest, and the king can’t afford to put up whole families.  You’ll have to come alone.”

“Well what am I supposed to do with her, then?” asked the woodsman.

“Not my problem,” said the knight.

And so the woodsman explained the situation to his daughter.  He was worried that she’d start crying, but she actually took it quite well.

“Why are you taking this so well?” he asked.

“Because while you’ve been out chopping wood, father, I’ve been studying.  The squirrels have taught me how to gather nuts.  The bears have taught me how to take apart a deer carcass and how to fish.  And the owls have taught me how to catch mice, though now that I say that last part out loud, it doesn’t sound so useful.”

“And what will you do for clothing?” he pressed.  “You know nothing of tanning leather or weaving wool.  Not there are any sheep in the woods, so I guess that’s a moot point.  Still, though.”

“Who needs clothes?” she guffawed.  “I’m going to be like my mother now.  I’ll dance naked in the woods under the starlight.”

“I never should have told you about that,” said the woodsman, rolling his eyes.

“Honestly, father, I’ll be fine.  Go serve the king.  Make me proud.”  And she smiled the sort of wild-eyed smile her hippy mother used to smile.  Whereupon did the woodsman kiss her tenderly upon the forehead before departing with the knight.

So.  Whose life do you want to hear about first?  The woodsman or the girl?  Let’s do the woodsman.  Right, so the king – or rather the Royal Department of Human Resources – set him up in a small flat.  It wasn’t in the best neighborhood, but at least it was within the city walls.  It was a tiny little two-bedroom, and he shared it with an upwardly mobile emancipated slave, who had been captured during the last war with the neighboring province.  His name was Madison.

“What kind of hipster name is that?” asked the woodsman when he moved in.

“It’s not a hipster name,” said the ex-slave.  “I’ll have you know, James Madison will be the father of the American constitution one day.  It’s a very noble name.”

“Father of the what?”  The woodsman was confused.

“The American constitution.  You know, as in America?  As in, the New World?”

“New World?” asked the woodsman.   “What are you talking about?  There’s just the world.”

“Yeah, here there’s just the world.  But what do you think is on the other side of Ocean?”

“I never thought about it,” said the woodsman slowly.  “I guess I just always assumed that when you get to the end of Ocean, you fall off the edge of the world.”

“You know, in my country, I have a PhD,” said the ex-slave, facepalming himself.

“Why do immigrants always have to say in my country?” retorted the woodsman.

So no, they weren’t off to the best start.  But they figured it out, after a while.  Anyway, the woodsman soon found that his new gig wasn’t so bad after all.  Instead of simply chopping firewood, as he’d done in the forest, he was now apprenticed to the master carpenter.  And soon, he was turning out work of expert craftsmanship.  Indeed, it is said that the king’s very favorite chair was made by the woodsman in those days.

Also, the pay was a little better.  He actually had spending money in his pocket.  He could buy his own bread and cheese and wine now, so he was feeling pretty good.  He could even afford a ticket to the yearly jousting tournament.  And the jousting tournament was the highlight of the year.  Not because of the sport.  No, the woodsman viewed that as barbaric.  But the tournament attracted food vendors from all over the world.  His favorite was the chinaman, who made these things called ‘dumplings.’  They were like pierogies, but more savory.  They were like knishes, but lighter, and also untainted by Jew-hands, polluted with the blood of Christian babies.  Yeah, I know how that sounds.  But fairy tales always take place in the middle ages, and you know what they were like back then.

Anyway, the woodsman was living a pretty good life, there in the city.  Except for one thing.  He missed his daughter.  Terribly.  Every day, he woke up thinking about her and every night, he went to sleep thinking about her.  And she was all he thought about as he toiled away in the carpenter’s shop.  Hell, he even kept an empty picture frame next to his bed.  “As soon as they invent photography,” he’d say to himself, “I’m going to put a picture of her in there.”

But what about the girl herself?  Well, in the beginning, she was pretty happy.  You know how teenage girls are when it comes to their independence.  She’d spend her days gathering nuts with the squirrels or fishing with the bears.  At night, owls would bring her dead mice, but that got old fast.  And in between her hunter-gatherer routine, she’d dance naked in the woods, like nobody was watching.

Only somebody was watching.  Not in a creepy, pervy way, mind you.  More in the, you can’t really ignore the naked girl dancing in the woods kind of way.  But it wasn’t just anybody who was watching her.  It was the king’s son.  The bloody prince, he was.  He was 22 and she was 16.  And by today’s standards, this gets all kinds of wrong in a hurry.  But back then, it was all kosher.  Though they didn’t use the word kosher, because anti-Semitism.  And anyway, she’d grown her hair out, just like her mom, so you couldn’t see anything anyway.

Well, one day, he rides up to her on his white shining horse.  And he gives her the whole fairy tale prince routine. You’ve heard it before.  “You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.  Come live with me in the castle.  Come be my bride.  Yadda yadda.”

And she thought about this offer.  As she saw it, this whole woodsy-hippy thing was getting old.  And winter was coming.  She didn’t know how to chop wood to make a fire.  She didn’t have any clothes.  She’d always supposed she’d just hibernate like her bear friends.  But really, she’d never thought it through.  Anyway, this was a better offer.  Of course, between the age difference and the royal-v-peasant dynamic, it wasn’t really a fair offer.  Not that the prince was some kind of medieval Roger Ailes, of course.  Far from it.  It’s just, well, they weren’t really on level ground.

But this is where she differed from her mother, whom she never knew, but about whom she’d heard an awful lot.  Her mom was the sort of feminist that would reject the proposed arrangement on the grounds that she didn’t need any man to make her happy.  The girl, on the other hand, viewed herself as being rather empowered, and had no qualms about marrying a freaking prince to advance her station in life.

Also, she really missed her father.  Every day, she woke up thinking about him and every night, she went to sleep thinking about him.  She would have kept an empty picture frame next to her bed, but she lacked the perspicacity to envision the invention of photography.  And anyway, she didn’t have the carpentry skills to make a picture frame.  So instead, she’d gotten into the habit of carving the word father into tree trunks.  Only, she didn’t know how to write, so it was always just an odd assemblage of random angular scratch marks.  But it said father to her, and that was all that mattered.

In any event, she agreed to go with the young (albeit older than her) prince, and to be his wife.  Also, she reasoned secretly with herself, if she moved to the castle, she might get to see her father again.  But she didn’t mention this part to the prince, whom she suspected was possessed of a certain degree of class-bias and might frown upon her familial relations.

So they moved into the castle.  And life was, well, it was boring.  It was a whole lot of sitting at court.  She had all these ladies-in-waiting, but all they ever wanted to to do was gossip and bathe her.  And having grown up in the woods, she was not a really a big fan of baths.  The prince, it should be noted, was a perfect gentleman.  He never once laid a hand on her, as they were not yet married.

If anything, he was kind of boring.  He’d read her love poetry or show off for her in archery.  Which sounds nice, except the Prince had this awful lisp, and so she had a helluva time trying not to laugh at his recitations.  And as for archery, well, he was pretty second rate.  What I’m trying to say is, nice guy though he was, the prince was not exactly a winning argument for hereditary monarchy.

Anyway, one day, the prince was out hunting.  By which I mean, the prince was out riding with professional hunters whose job it was to make the prince look like he knew how to hunt.  Never one to waste an opportunity, the girl decided to use this alone-time to try and find her father.  And so it was that she gave her ladies-in-waiting the slip, and made her way to the Royal Department of Human Resources.

“Can I help you?” asked the large, disinterested black lady behind the desk.

“Wait a second,” said the girl, with a hint of confusion.  “Aren’t you a bit early for this trope?”

“Girl, who you callin’ a trope?” said the large black lady sassily.

“I’m sorry,” said the girl hastily.  “I didn’t mean anything by that.”

“Mmmhmm,” hummed the black lady.  “Typical.  White girl walks in here like she own the place, throwin’ around fancy white people words like ‘trope.’  Meanwhile, I’m stuck behind this desk, butsin’ my ass for the man, sunrise to sunset.  Shiiiit.”

“Look, I said I was sorry,” pleaded the girl.  “But, I mean, I am engaged to the prince.”

“Uh-huh, and I’m Malcolm X.”

“Who?”

“Never mind, child.”  And the sassy black lady smiled a half-sweet, half-condescending smile.  “Now what can I do for her royal highness.”

“Well, I’m not a royal highness yet.  We’re only engaged.”  The sassy black lady shook her head.

“Girl, there’s a nail shop down the street.  Go buy a clou.”

“I’m sorry?”  The girl was totally lost.

“Honey, that’s a bilingual pun.  Didn’t they teach you French in fancy white people school?”

“I never went to school,” said the girl, blushing with shame.

“You know, I have a PhD back in my country,” mumbled the sassy black lady.  “Fine, what can I do for you today?”

“I’m looking for my father,” said the girl proudly.  “He’s a woodsman, in the king’s service.”

“Oh, well you’re in luck!  We only have one of those in the whole kingdom!  Why, that must be your father!”

“What a relief!” cried the girl.  “Where can I find him?”

“Honey,” said SBL, shaking her head, “were you born yesterday?”

“I’m sixteen, going on seventeen,” said the girl proudly.  SBL facepalmed.

“Look, child, there’s a great many woodsmen in the king’s service.  If you want me to find your father, you’re gonna have to give me some information.  For starters, what’s his name?”  The girl thought about this for a moment.

Father,” she said confidently.  “His name is father.”

“So lemme get this straight,” moaned SBL.  “You’re looking for a woodsman in the king’s service, by the name of father?”

“That’s right,” said the girl.  “Can you tell me where to find him?”

“Lemme ask you something, child.  You gotta name?”

“Sylvana,” said Sylvana.

“Right.  So, in other words, your name ain’t daughter.  What I’m sayin’ to you is, your father probably has his own name too.  And it probably ain’t father.  You feel me?”

“I haven’t even touched you,” said the girl, slightly horrified.

“It’s a figure of – oh, never mind.”  And the sassy black lady looked out the window.  Or rather, where the window would have been, if there had been a window.  The Royal Department of Human Resources was underfunded, so windows simply weren’t in the budget.

“Look, can you help me or not?” asked the girl, unable to hide her frustration.

“Oh, sure.  Tell you what, how about I just print out a list of all the woodsmen in the king’s service.  And you can just go down the list until you find your daddy.  How does that sound?”

“That would be amazing!” cried the girl.  “Thank you so much!”

“OK, so I’m just gonna ask you to have a seat and wait patiently until they invent moveable type.  I mean, it’s first come-first serve, so you’ll have to wait while we then knock out a couple thousand Gutenberg Bibles.  But you’re next in line after that.  You should have your list in time for the Reformation.”

“But I don’t care about the Reformation, whatever that is – “

“Whatever that will be, you mean – “

“Whatever whatever!” cried the girl.  I just want to find my father.  And as she said this, she slumped down into a chair and started to sob.  This, it seems, melted the sassiness of the token black lady’s heart.  Whereupon did she take pity on the girl.  And so it was that she wrote out, by hand, a list of all the woodsmen in the king’s service.  And when she’d finished, she handed it to the girl.

“Here you go, child,” she said sweetly.  “Now, will there be anything else?”

“Yeah, one thing, actually,” said the girl under a furrowed brow.

“And what’s that?” asked SBL.

“Can you teach me how to read?

“Oh, child.”

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End Part I.  Tune in next time for the conclusion of this very silly fairy tale.