An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
31 May, 2015

This post is proving somewhat harder to construct than its forebears. I’ve now deleted the first paragraph at least three times. Wherefore do I throw up my hands and forego any sort of introspective introduction. Moving right along then, the last few days have not been uneventful.

This past weekend, there was the Karneval der Kulturen.1  From a New Yorker point of view, it’s sort of half street-fair/half music festival. In any case, on Saturday I met my Australian mate Kelvin2 for a couple of beers, and from there we proceeded to check out the festival.   We had a good time of it. We even found a little Australian tent, where he introduced me to one of his local beers, 4X Gold.3

After we had left the festival, we wandered the streets a bit, trying to find what we would have called “a proper pub.” However, we didn’t have any luck. “Proper pubs” don’t seem to be a thing in Berlin. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe it’s because it’s so easy to just drink your beer in the street. In any case, I think we were just both a bit homesick for the little things. But it was a nice bonding moment, all the same. Strangers in a strange land and all that.

At the end of it, though, he told me he was having some classmates over the next day and that I was more than welcome to join. So of course I did. And I would have been on time, too. Except that I had a helluva time finding a bottle of wine to bring. You see, I’d forgotten that damn near everything in this town is closed on Sundays.4

But in the end, I found some wine and got there not unfashionably late. It was a nice little group. Aside from Kelvin, there was a dude from Venezuela, two Italians and two Americans. The Italians didn’t stay long, but they were great. We actually talked a bit about Caesar and how badass his Latin is, which was really cool. You see, normally when I go off on a Caesar tangent, people just sort of nod in a that’s-nice-Dave-but-you-know-nobody-cares sort of way. But these guys were really into it. “Yeah, Caesar talking about himself in the third person is so badass!” “Yeah, Caesar uses asyndeton5 like a boss!”6 That was a lot of fun for me.

Anyway, once the wine and arepas – which Luis, the Venezuelan had made – were gone, we made off for the festival. It was fun for a while. But eventually we found ourselves at the Latin music stage. And I have to be honest, Latin music just doesn’t speak to me. If I had to say why, the best I can come up with is this. It shuffles, it grooves, it pops…but it doesn’t swing. And for me, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. So eventually I left and went off on my own. And that’s how I got locked in a cemetery.

I left the main Karneval grounds and started to wend my way home. But as I went,7 I found that the Karneval stretched far into the surrounding streets. There was music, food stands, empty beer bottles, drunken louts and all the rest of it stretching far and wide. So naturally I got off the main road. And when I did, I found a nice inviting Friedhof8 – which, as I mentioned in an earlier post, function just like parks here – and decided to seek refuge therein.

It was lovely. Beautiful. Peaceful. Which is as should be, for the word Friede literally means ‘peace.’ So I wandered its tree lined paths and found solace within its quiet walls. If there was anything to hear at all, it was the song of birds. It was the perfect respite from the Sturm und Drang of the Karneval. But after a while, I noticed that the sun was beginning to set. And so I decided that it was probably time to make my exit. Only, the exits had all been shut and locked.9

Well now. Cemeteries are lovely and all, but I don’t think I’m up to spending a night in one. Not yet, anyway. Sure, I mean, Everlasting and Eternal Night, when the time comes. But not Sunday, thank you very much. That’s when I ran into Marco.

“Jolly good,” I thought.10 “Not alone.” I approached him, though I didn’t know who ‘he’ was. “Hallo!” I called. “Ich denke, dass die Türe ausgemacht sind,” which was meant to mean ‘I think the doors are locked,’ but which might actually have meant ‘the doors are shut off.’ “Ach so,” he probably responded – ‘I see…”

So we walked for a bit in silence, trying the various entrances, and finding each of them locked in their turn. Eventually, we gave up and made a go of hopping the sharp, pointed11 fence. Success! Ok, so it wasn’t exactly Steve McQueen breaking out of Stalag Luft III, but it was still a Pretty Good Escape.

Well, once we’d gotten free and the tension had been relieved, we spoke more freely. Marco was from Italy, I learned. But he’d been in Berlin at least since the beginning of the year, and so we spoke *rather* easily in German. This, I must say, I greatly appreciated. By which I mean, I was thrilled that he didn’t immediately switch over to English upon learning that I was from New York. In fact, we spoke no English at all, which was just delightful.

And as we walked down the Hasenheide, he asked me the question that many before have asked: Warum sprichst du so gut deutsch? – How is that you speak such good German? It was at this point that I began to realize that this must be a somewhat formulaic question. My German is, after all, pretty shit.

There is a Sprichwort in German, a saying: Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache – German language, hard language. In other words, Germans (and by extension, German speakers) are aware that their language is not an easy one.12 In any case, I get the impression that Germans (& German speakers) are generally impressed with even the least effort to function in their language. All to say, the question shouldn’t be taken quite literally. It would better be rendered as something like: “Whoa, you’re American and you’re not a complete idiot? Well done! Don’t let it go to your head.”

In any case, we turned off of Hasenheide and made our way through Hasenheide Park for a bit. We had a nice chat, and exchanged numbers at the end of it, ostensibly to grab a beer at some indeterminate point in the future. Whether or not that actually happens is beside the point. The point is: Look at me functioning as a social creature! Who knew?

Monday I went to Tempelhofer Feld a) to read some Tolkien and b) because Tempelhofer Feld is awesome. But on the way, I stopped for a falafel sandwich. “Ein Falafel, bitte. Aber, ohne Weißsoße – One falafel, please, but hold the white-sauce. Falafel Man answered something which I didn’t quite get. When I asked him to repeat, he pointed to a sign that read “100% vegan.” “Ach, ich bin nicht vegan…aber, ich kann’s nicht essen” – Ah, no, I’m not a vegan…I just can’t eat (read: digest) it. This brought the inevitable, “Wo kommst du her?” – Where are you from? In other words, ‘your German is sufficiently shit, I must ask you where you’re from, since obviously not here.’13 When I told him I was from New York, he told me that he was from Egypt. Whereupon he proceeded to tell me that he didn’t like Obama and that the U.S. had made a fine mess of the Middle East. “Irak ist kaputt.; Libyen ist kaputt; Syrien ist kaputt.”14 Well, yeah. Sorry. See, it’s always weird when you get stuck talking about your own country’s politics with foreigners. I might very well agree with you. But now I feel like I need to walk a fine line between agreeing with you and defending my country. It’s just awkward. And the last thing I wanted to do was get into my thoughts on Egypt, which in my opinion is doing a fine job making a mess of itself with or without our help.15

Fortunately, there was a guy hanging out at the falafel stand – who, I take it, was a friend of the guy behind the counter – and he did a lovely job of breaking the tension. Saying things like, “I had a cousin who visited New York, I hear it’s great.” Or, “Yeah, but Egyptians are all assholes too,” with a wink. Well, despite Falafel Man’s obvious displeasure with American politics, he seemed to like me just fine. In fact, he made me a cup of tea while I was waiting for my sandwich, which is something I’ve never seen before. So in the end, it all worked out. And I’m sure I’ll be back there for lunch before long.

Tuesday night I attended a free German class that my new roommate teaches. It was actually quite well done. The lesson was predominantly about grammar, so I latched right onto it. I have to say, my new roommate is pretty impressive. I look forward to going again next week. And of course, I immediately fell into class-clown mode, jumping on terrible puns whenever possible. It’s very endearing, don’t you know.

While I was waiting for the class to start, I grabbed a beer from the bar16 and struck up a chat with the only other person who was clearly there for the class. We chatted in German for a bit, running the usual where-are-you-from, what-are-you-doing here business. Giulia was Italian, but when we switched to English I discovered that she spoke with a bit of an Irish lilt. And sure enough, she grew up and learned English in Ireland. “Whereabouts?” I asked. “Limerick,” quoth she. “Ah, Stab City,” quoth I. And her face lit up. “How did you know that?!” she asked. What could I say? “I’m a man of the world.”

We sat together in the class and partnered on anything required a partner. She was a pleasure to work with. Hopefully I’ll get stuck with her again next time. And look, I know we should be speaking German with each other as much as possible, but did I mention she has an Irish accent? It’s all I want to hear. Irish accents are so beautiful. I could listen to her read the train schedule. And anyway, it’s bloody Berlin. Plenty of other people to speak German with, right?

Wednesday night was a little dinner party at Joschka’s. His girlfriend, Lusine, was in visiting. So of course it was lovely to see her, especially as she’s officially become part of the Duff’s Crew.17 The other member of our dinner party was a childhood friend of Joschka’s, now also living in Berlin, a girl by the name of Verena. Verena is a professional flute player, a real sweetheart, cute as hell and straight-up hawt by any metric. In any case, we had a lovely time of it, and I managed to get off a couple of jokes in German, proving once and for all that I am funny in at least two languages.18

Verena also has a motorbike, on which she graciously offered me a ride at some indeterminate point in the future. “Will I have to sit behind you and wrap my arms tight around you?” I asked because I don’t know how to interact with girls my own age. “Of course,” she replied unphasedly, because we’d already met two or three times. “Great! When do we leave?” Poor Joschka. He can’t take me anywhere.

A point I demonstrated yet again, when him, Lus and I went out on Friday night. We were at this “California-style”19 cocktail bar. At one point, a nice couple came and sat down at our table, albeit huddling themselves at the other end thereof. Later on, the fellow popped off to the loo, and so I decided to try my German on the lass, who was [probably] bored, waiting for her beau. Here is the conversation, which I will give in both languages:

Dave: Hallo, liebe Nachbarin!Girl: Umm, hallo.D: Ich bin Dave. Und wie heißt du?G: [Name]D: Freut mich. Und kommst du aus Berlin?

G: Fast.

D: Fast?

G: Seit 10 Jahre.

D: Ach so. Aber, Ursprünglich?

G: Frankfurt. Und du?

D: New York. Also, du bist eine Frankfurterin?

G: Ja.

D: Weißt du, in New York, wir essen Frankfurtern.

G: …

D: Naja, aber, du bist sicher. Ich esse dich nicht.

G: …

D: …

G: …

D: Also…schönen Abend!

G: Dir auch…

Dave: Hello, dear neighbor!Girl: Umm, hello.D: I’m Dave. And what’s your name?G: [Name]20D: Nice to meet you.   And are you from Berlin?21

G: Basically.

D: Basically?

G: Well, for the last ten years.

D: Ah, ok. But originally?

G: Frankfurt. And you?

D: New York. Ok, so you’re a Frankfurter?

G: Yeah.

D: You know, in New York, we eat fraknfurters.

G: …

D: Yeah, but, you’re safe.   I won’t eat you.

G: …

D: …

G: …

D: Right…good evening!

G: You too…

Poor Joschka. He can’t take me anywhere. But on the bright side, there’s more proof that I’m a regular riot in at least two languages.22 And on still another bright side, when I asked Joschka how my German was during the course of that ridiculosity, he said that it was basically spot on and that, indeed, he was fairly impressed. On the less bright side, he then pointed out that talking to strangers like that – even if they are sharing your table – just isn’t a thing here. Well, alright. Bit of a social faux pas there. But at least I nailed the German.

There are, of course, lesser events to report. More time spent at lovely Tempelhofer Feld. Getting drunk with Mischa and Blondey. Letting Lus have a go at giving me a bit of haircut and beard trim.23 Buying some new vanilla flavored pipe tobacco, which is nice, but maybe just a touch too sweet. Meeting up with my Bavarian conversation partner, who is just an all around lovely guy.   Totally loving the fact the Rangers are finally out of the playoffs. And so on. But this post is become overlong, to say nothing of overdue.   Thus findeth it its end here.

Next Post: June 3, 2015
Previous Post: May 23, 2015

  1. Culture Carnival, for lack of a better translation. []
  2. Whom I’d met at a group conversation exchange two weeks ago. []
  3. In my opinion, it almost had a bit of a honey taste to it. []
  4. One more thing to get used to. []
  5. “Asyndeton (from the Greek: ἀσύνδετον, “unconnected”, sometimes called asyndetism) is a figure of speech in which one or several conjunctions are omitted from a series of related clauses.” Wikipedia []
  6. For example: “Caesar sacked the village, killed the men, sold the women into slavery. Caesar doesn’t have time for the word ‘and.’” #toobusyconqueringGual” []
  7. “Went,” best known as the past tense form of the verb “to go” – go/went/gone – is originally derived from the Old English verb “wenden.” Not a lot of people know that. Incidentally, we still use “wend” today, just as I did in the last sentence. []
  8. Friedhof – cemetery []
  9. Ruh-roh. []
  10. Anglophile though I am, I’m sure the words “jolly good” never entered my mind. Something more profane, no doubt. []
  11. And dare I say – only slightly hyperbolically – death defying. []
  12. Or is it? I mean, compared to Finnish or Chinese, German is a walk in the park (or Friedhof as it were). And it’s Indo-European, so on some level, it’s no different than French, or Latin, or Greek. It’s just wearing unfamiliar – and more complex – clothing. []
  13. Although I’m almost certain that his actual words were: “Wo kommst du aus.” In which case, he himself would have got the preposition wrong. []
  14. This needs no translation. []
  15. This isn’t the place for this, but to be brief: Ok, so Morsi sucked. Fine. Then vote him out. Don’t have a military coup about it. You’re going to talk to me about Obama? What about Sisi then? I’ll stop here. []
  16. Did I mention the class takes place in the back room of a bar? How can you not love this country? []
  17. The official Duff’s Crew, I’d say, is made up of Joschka, Lus, Vinny, Niki & me. Also the Finns, when they’re in town. Also, for anybody reading this who somehow knows me and not Duff’s, it’s only the greatest metal bar in all of Brooklyn, NYC and the whole world already. []
  18. #amirite []
  19. Whatever the fuck that means. []
  20. I’ve totally forgotten it. []
  21. Berlin, I should mention has this in common with Brooklyn: Nobody seems to be actually from here. []
  22. #amirite []
  23. They’re both still long, but I look rather a bit less homeless now. []

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