An American in Berlin
23 May, 2015
The beginning of this week seems like a lot more than a week ago. And with that poorly crafted sentence begins the fourth installment of this series.1 In our last episode, I was looking for a place to live in June, planning on a bit of exploring and getting ready to cook dinner for the roommates and possibly Blondey. And what have I done? Well, I cleaned my pipe.
No, seriously, that thing was getting gross and I’d forgotten to bring pipe cleaners with me. So obviously, I had to buy some. But first, I had to find out what they were called. Apparently, the word is ‘Pfeifenreinigern,’ which I have to say was somewhat disappointing, as I was hoping for at least three more syllables. On the other hand, ‘rein’ means ‘pure.’ At least ‘Pipe-purifier’ sounds a bit erudite, doesn’t it? But that’s all a bit of nothing, innit.
Moving on. Most important(ly),2 the room-sitch for June seems to have sorted itself out.3 Actually, before my last posting – on Sunday – I went to go see a place. But I didn’t say anything about it, because I actually quite liked it and didn’t want to jinx it.4 So here’s how it went down. After sending what I’m pretty sure was literally a million emails and requests to wg-gesucht5 and Airbnb, and after getting maybe six responses – four of which telling me the rooms weren’t actually available – I got one which intrigued me. Paraphrasing into English, the Reader’s Digest version was something along the lines of: “Well, I’m really looking for somebody for two months, and I really don’t want to go through this process again…buuuuttt…you sound nice. Can you come by at 5:30?” It was 3:00. Yes, of course, see you then!
So I roll up, and there’s this girl standing in the doorway. And she looks…well, she looks totally fucking normal. She shows me around the apartment. And it’s big. With one room set up as a workspace room and then a proper living room on top of that. The kitchen was big and fully stocked. The bathroom was spotless. Then she asks me if I’d like a glass of water. Actually, yes I would.
So we sit down in the living room and start to chat. The tour (and the email correspondence) was all in German. But now we switch to English. We talked about all manner of things. Our approach to living in a shared space,6 music, studies, Paris, French, Bourgeois hipsters whose parents pay for their apartments, German (she’s a German teacher!). We’re really getting on well. The chat lasted for over half an hour. Finally, I say, “Well, look, I know you want somebody for two months, so I know this isn’t necessarily ideal. But for me, this place is perfect. And I think we get along pretty well. So for my part, I’d be happy to stay here in June.” Her: “Ok, well, it’s basically down to three people. I still have to meet one more person tomorrow. So I’ll let you know.” Well, I never expected her to offer it to me on the spot. Now she thinks for a second. “You’re not like a vegan or a vegetarian, are you?” Uh-oh. A test? “Noooo? Are you? I mean, if you are – I don’t have to use your pans – .” “No, I’m not at all.” Thank god. Ok, so I look forward to hearing from you, and thanks for your time.
And I basically just assumed it was too good to be true. I mean, the place was great and we got on so well, there was no way this could work. That night, I write my previous post and say nothing of this because, as I said, I don’t want to jinx it. But the very next morning, I find an email in my inbox. I see it’s from her. And the previewed first line reads, “It was very nice meeting you yesterday…” Oh God. Denial. Rejection. If she was going to accept me, she would have texted. Back to square one. Why gods? I’d burn my fatted calf for you, if only I had one. And the two calves I do have always been pretty lean anyway…
Wait, read the email, Davey. “…nice meeting you yesterday. I think we got along very well. So if you’re still interested, I’d like to offer you the room…” Yes, yes! A thousand times yes! “Also, would you like to sing in our choir?” What? Yes? No? I mean, no. I can’t sing choral music. I’m a rock’n’roll guy. But if I say ‘no,’ do I submarine the whole…oh gods, why? Anyway, I politely declined, and I think all is still well.
In truth, part of me is still waiting for the email that says, “Yeah, so actually, I thought it over, and sorry to do this to you, but really, I do actually need somebody for the two months and good luck to you.” But failing such an epic disaster, I do seem to be set for June, and that’s a load off my mind. And actually, I’m quite looking forward to it. It really does seem like it would be a very nice living-sitch.
What’s more, it’s the perfect distance to my school. So, in accordance with my plan of doing more exploring, I decided I’d make the walk from her place to my school on Monday, in order to time it out. And it’s almost exactly the distance from my LES apartment to my old job. Perfect!
I actually popped into the school, just to see the place and introduce myself. The people there were lovely and they gave me a bit of a tour. It was good to get my bearings, and to remind myself what I’m doing here in the first place.
But back to exploring. It turns out the school is quite literally around the corner from Checkpoint Charlie. So I had a look at that. And from there, I passed through the Brandenburg Gate and onto the Tiergarten, which is more or less Berlin’s answer to Central Park. It was lovely and empty and peaceful and quiet, but for all the birds singing. Now, I know nothing about birdcalls, and frankly, I don’t care to learn either. But it was quite relaxing to walk along and listen to all the different songs.
Leaving the Tiergarten, I embarked upon a long and indeterminate route home, which took me through several neighborhoods I’d not yet seen. Wilmersdorf is quite nice, albeit rather a bit posh. So posh, in fact, that I had trouble finding a späti.7 I mention this because I’d been walking for probably three hours at that point, and I was damned thirsty. And this being Germany, I was determined to get my hands on a beer for the next bit of my trek. Because Freiheit.8
Soon enough, however, I passed from Wilmersdorf into Schöneberg, which was much more my speed. It wasn’t long before I found my holy grail, a bottle of Augustiener, which I’m pretty sure was glowing with a divine halo in the fridge of that little späti. But just then, I remembered that Timo – a friend of Joschka’s whom I’d met at the festivals and who had since become my friend – was supposed to be visiting that day. So I texted Joschka, worried that I’d missed the bloke. But in fact, he was only due to arrive in fifteen minutes. So I walked until my beer was gone and hopped on the S-Bahn up to Joschi’s.
Upon arriving, it was made clear to me that we would only be speaking German, unless absolutely necessary. Fear! But, no. This is what I was here for. And my goal was to be able to actually understand people at this summer’s festival. Time to get to work! And actually, we managed!
First things first. After greeting each other warmly and agreeing that we were all hungry and in need of beer, I noticed Timo’s AC/DC shirt. “Schönes T-Shirt!” I say enthusiastically, possibly getting the gender of T-Shirt wrong. This leads to a discussion of where and when they are playing in Germany, which leads to Joschka buying three tickets to see them in Berlin in June! That’s right, bitches! I’m seeing AC/DC in Berlin!
The rest of the night was about what you’d expect. Dinner. Drinks. Hanging out. Me trying to keep up with the German. Succeeding at some points, failing miserably at others, and zoning out entirely at still others. But what was really cool was, I think this was the first time that Joschka ever took me seriously as a German speaker. That is to say, rather than switching to English to talk to me or translating everything that Timo said, he really tried to keep me going in German. He spoke to me in German and encouraged my speaking to him/them in German. It felt like a huge accomplishment, as limited as it clearly was.
A brief digression, if I may, to illustrate what this means to me. Via text message, Joschka has always been extremely patient and helpful as a German teacher. I’ve learned a great deal from him. But we never really speak in German when we’re together. This is, I think, because we’re very good friends and my German is so limited. For him, it would be like talking to a child. I’m just not good enough with the language yet. So to have a night when the three of us could hang out and speak their language instead of mine – which we did, btw, when Timo visited New York this year – was really gratifying. Even if I was in the dark for more of it than I cared to be.
The next night was the dinner experiment. I was cooking for the roommates. And Blondey. I decided upon a sort of German-Italic-American fusion. I did sausage, peppers & onions over pasta with a white wine sauce. But instead of Italian sausage, I used bratwurst. And I made a garlic bread.9 Well, it seemed to be hit. Everybody went for seconds, and the garlic bread didn’t survive the night. I’m prepared to call that a success.
The night itself was also a success. Many bottles of wine were drunk.10 Conversations were made. Fun was had. All in all, it was a lovely night. And the next day, Blondey dropped off a couple of books for me.11 One was about an Englishman living in Berlin and was in English. I read it yesterday afternoon in the park, with my obligatory beer.
The other is called “Der Die Was?”12 and is obviously in German. It’s about an American and his adventures learning the German language. I started it today and it’s quite challenging. Even Anja, my roommate, said she found it a difficult read. But it’s quite fun (and funny). And it very much speaks to my experiences. So for all the effort required, I’m definitely enjoying it. I hope I can finish it before I leave!
[Author’s note: I am now out of wine. Schade! That’s the problem with cooking with wine, as I did tonight. There’s less of it to drink!]
A delightfully awkward experience at the Turkish grocery today. I grabbed some stuff to make lunch sandwiches, amongst which were numbered three small cucumbers. When I got to the register, the girl asked me something about them that I didn’t quite understand. She asked again, and this time, I perceived that her question had something to do with the weight of the produce. Knowing only American supermarkets, I assumed she was asking the price-per-pound.13 “Zwei und fünfzig par kilo,” I stammered. She replied something else in German. Apparently that was not the answer she was looking for. And seeing that I was clearly stupid, she asked her co-worker if she could speak English.14
But while she was asking, my slow-working brain put together her original question, which was, “how much do they weigh?” You see, apparently, it was on me to weigh them myself before I ever got to the register and to report that weight to her. So I waved off her associate. “Ich verstehe,” I said. ‘I understand.” Though I said it not with the pride of actually understanding, but with the shame of being the guy holding up the line because I don’t know how your supermarket works. In my broken German, I asked if I could just forget the cucumbers and leave them at the register. Fortunately, she was not nearly as annoyed as she could have been. In any case, lesson learned. Next time, I shall weigh my own damned produce. But there would be no cucumbers on today’s sandwich.15
I suppose those are the week’s events that bear reporting. Of course I keep up with my Herdotos reading most nights. That’s endlessly rewarding. And there’s something about German and Greek that just, I don’t know. It makes sense that so many of the best Greek scholars were/are German. The languages work in much the same way. It’s a neat symbiosis. Greek actually helps my German and German helps my Greek. You just don’t get that from French. Though in fairness, what you do get from French are fun novels that you can actually read on the subway. But then, Germans read books in German on the subway. So I keep working…
- Feel free to bail at any time now. [↩]
- Pedants have a problem with the adverb here. But from one pedant to another, go screw. Descriptivism trumps prescriptivism every time. [↩]
- #knockwood [↩]
- Because I’m a goalie and we’re superstitious. [↩]
- The German equivalent of craigslist but specifically for rooms. [↩]
- Obvi. [↩]
- Späti, or Spätkauf (literally: late-buy) is the German version of the Bodega. It’s where you go to buy a single beer (or other “essentials”). [↩]
- Freedom. [↩]
- I was initially worried that garlic bread with pasta would be to “carby.” But my dear friend Niki, who is superlatively Italian, assured me that garlic bread was a must, pasta or otherwise. [↩]
- Drank? Drunken? We drank many bottles of wine, is the point. #imgoingtoteachenglish [↩]
- Apparently, she lives in the building. This may well have been explained to me much earlier, but I’ve only understood this fact since Wednesday. [↩]
- Der, Die, Das are the German pronouns ‘he, she, it.’ Was means ‘what.’ So the title means, “He, She, What?” (Or, as I like to say it, “He, She, Whaaaaaaaa???”) It’s quite clever. But since it’s impossible to explain a joke without also killing it, I shall stop here. [↩]
- Well, price-per-kilo, actually. [↩]
- #facepalm #davefail [↩]
- Which, come to think of it, is itself pretty German. I mean, we don’t put cucumbers on cold-cut sandwiches, do we? [↩]