An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
27 June, 2015

More than ten days since my last post, apparently. The time between seems like a fog. School became pretty life consuming pretty fast. Not in a bad way, necessarily. I’ve been enjoying it quite a bit, actually. But it hasn’t left much room for anything else. So I guess this post is mostly going to be about that. And the AC/DC concert I went to on Thursday!

Last post I talked about the high of having a good class and the low of having a not so good one. At the time, I’d had two of each. Well, I’m happy to report that since then, I’ve been on fire. I’ve scored ‘above standard’ on my last two lessons, making it three-in-a-row and four of six overall. So I’m quite pleased obviously.

But more than the high marks, the classes have been a lot of fun. At the halfway mark, we switched to a high-level group of students. It’s been so much fun. I mean, first of all, they’re just a great bunch. But this level, it’s really in my wheelhouse. I can talk faster, I can use more idioms.1

And what’s more, they’re genuinely interested in the language. I can do Greek and Latin etymologies, I can do German-English historical linguistics, and they really get into it. Part of the reason I can get away with this, according to my teacher, is that it’s obvious that I’m passionate about it. So rather than being a dry lecture, it seems I can teach this stuff with a sort of contagious energy. And I fucking love it.

After three good lessons in a row, it’s becoming clear that I’m not only gaining the confidence of my students, but also of my teacher. For the first time, I’m really starting to feel like I may actually be doing what I’m “supposed” to be doing with my life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still glad as hell I did my MA in Classics. And I still hold out hope that one day I’ll actually be able to teach Greek. But I’m starting to believe that I can be a really good fucking teacher.

And I definitely have my own style. I’ve talked about this a little in past posts. But it’s coming together more and more with each lesson.2 And it’s interesting to compare my work with that of my classmates, all of whom, I hasten to add, are quite good in their own ways. And they unquestionably have strengths that I don’t. But in my own humble opinion, I do think that my classes are the most fun. And that’s something I’m definitely proud of.

I want to be careful here not to take too much credit, however. My class – by which I mean my students – are really great. They have a real passion for learning English and they approach everything with a wonderful energy. They also, collectively, have a great sense of humor. And in addition to all this, they work extremely well together. You can pair anybody with anybody and, not only do they get along, but they produce good work. In my self-evaluation3 for my last lesson – for which I received an “above standard” score – I noted that I had little more to do than to “wind them up and let them go,” and that the students themselves “did most of the heavy lifting.” To which my teacher answered, “yes, but your real work was done in your highly detailed lesson plan.” So it’s a bit symbiotic. But the point is, they’re a fantastic group, and they make my job easy for me. Bless them.4

I had an interesting chat with French Charlotte the other day. To give credit where credit is due, she has encouraged me in this endeavor from the get. She believed in me when I didn’t necessarily believe in myself. That’s not to say that there weren’t others who believed in me. In point of fact, I have a wonderful network of friends and family that have stood firmly behind me, every step of the way. But she’s a French teacher. And she’s taught French in France, in Poland and in the States. So there’s a certain experience in, and first-hand knowledge of, the task itself that underlies her confidence in me, which has been unique and invaluable.

Anyway. We had a chat the other day. And you could just hear how proud she was when I told her how well I’ve been doing lately. But what really struck me was this. She said, “You’re a teacher now, Dave. And you’re going to be a teacher. You’re never going to have to apologize for your job again. From now on, you’re going to be proud of what you do.”5 And that really struck me.

For years, at my last job6 – and as a paralegal before that, and as a temp before that – I was never proud of what I did. If I was talking to a girl at a bar, I’d avoid talking about my job. And if I had to talk about it, it would always be in some self-deprecating way. “Yeah, well, it pays the rent,” or “Eh, I push papers and fuck with spreadsheets.” Something like that.7

The point is, it really hit me when French Charlotte said those days were over. That was news to me, in a way. I can’t think that far ahead yet. But she’s right. And wow, that’s really something. And when I think about, I’ve always been a bit envious of teachers, when I’d meet them at bars. They’re always so damn proud of what they do. As well they should be. Well, shit. I’m 34. I want to be proud of what I do already. And soon – real fucking soon – I can be.8 Anyway, thanks, French Charlotte.

Since this post is going to be mostly about the whole school/teaching sitch, Imma switch horses midstream for a sec.9 Dear Reader, how was your Thursday? Did you do anything interesting? Yeah? That’s nice. Well, I saw AC/DC. So…I win.

Gods, I love that band. An AC/DC concert is a funny thing. At least – at least! – half the set is made up of the songs you expect to hear. And I don’t mean that in the sense of, “well, of course they’re going to play their greatest hits.” No, they’re not necessarily ‘hits,’ per se. They’re the songs that – in concert – throw you up against a wall and kick you in the fucking balls and make you beg for more. I’m talking, Let There be Rock, Dirty Deeds, For Those About to Rock, Shoot to Thrill.

So on some level, you know what you’re gonna get. And yet, fucking give it to me! Look, anybody who knows me knows they’re my favorite band. They’re the apotheosis, the perfection, the platonic Form, of Rock and Roll. And godsdamn, do they ever deliver. Just fucking brilliant. Even without Phil. Even without Mal, who is in a home, suffering from dementia.10 They’re just the fucking best. No ifs ands or buts. Do not pass Go. Do not collect two hundred dollars.

And yet, bittersweet. Mal has dementia.  Phil is, apparently, a felon. And the rest? Angus? Brian? Cliff? They’re in their 60’s. This has to be the end, doesn’t it? I mean, they still kill it. It was a brilliant show. I went with Joschka, who’d never seen them before. And he was well impressed.11 So they can still do it. But Rock and Roll – I mean, real Rock and Roll – it needs to be young, doesn’t it?

One of my favorite summertime albums is Dirty Deeds. It’s so full of life. It’s so…youthful. It so doesn’t give a fuck. It just rocks. And it’s not even their best album. Their best album would have been Let There Be Rock. Except that they beat it with Powerage, the follow-up. Those two records. That’s where Rock and Roll found its most perfect expression. They can never be beat.

Like Beethoven, right? That fucker wrote 32 piano sonatas and 9 symphonies. And at the end of it, you walk away feeling like – or at least I do12 – feeling like, “Well, that’s it. The form has been perfected. Why bother anymore?” But I’m being serious. After Beethoven Nine, how do you write a symphony? After those sonatas, what’s the point? The mold has been broken. Learn your Bach and be on be on your way.

Interpolation: This is the beauty of Gershwin, by the way. Gershwin left well enough alone. Gershwin had the wisdom to look at the Old Masters and say, “Yeah, I can take from that. But, you guys? Jazz! And holy shit, The Blues!” And so you get Rhapsody in Blue. You get Porgy and Bess. And you get the Concerto in F, with it’s gorgeous, sweet, beautiful and oh-so-perfect Adagio. What you don’t get is Romantic bullshit. What you don’t get is Appetite for Destruction, and the conceit that there’s still anything left to say in Rock and Roll after the from has already found its complete and utter perfection. OK, I’ll shut up now.

So yeah, AC/DC were fucking brilliant, despite their advanced years. And I’m glad I got see them one last time.13 And it was cool to see them in Berlin. Add that to a very short list. Cheap Trick in London. Rammstein at Wacken. AC/DC in Berlin.

At the Olympiastadion. It’s a funny thing to be there with a German – Joschka, as it were – and to have that German look around the arena for the first time in his life and say, “Yeah, you can just tell the Nazis built this.” Well, you can. It’s creepy, I ain’t gonna lie. It’s in the same mold as Tempelhof and the Air Ministry building on Wilhelmstraße. “Intimidation Architecture,” as I mentioned in a previous post. But you look around, and you know the thing was built for the ’36 Olympics. You know it was built so Hitler could show the world the superiority of the Aryan race.14 It’s an impressive structure, no question. But it’s fucking weird. I’ll leave it at that.

Kelvin of Oz came down to my neck of the woods last weekend, and we popped into a bar around the corner, on Weserstraße. The door was open. But when we went in, the bartendrix said, “We’re not open yet. But…you can have a beer if you’d like.” We looked at each other. We decided to have a beer. The bartendrix was a doll.

The reason the door was open was, she was making flower-headbands with a couple of friends for Midsummer Night; the Summer Solstice. The point is, she didn’t have to serve us. But she did. And not only did she serve us, she offered us fresh strawberries and cream! It was gorgeous. So we had our beers. And some fresh strawberries. And then some Dahlwinnie. And then more beer. Lovely day, that was.

One of the bartendrix’ friends was from Hong Kong. “So,” says I, “you speak Cantonese?” She was suitably impressed by that. Well, I did live in Chinatown for four years. So we all got on well. And of course it was good to chill with my mate Kelvin, before he goes back Down Under.

So today, in class, first thing in the morning, our other teacher15 walks in and just starts talking to us in Polish. And for forty minutes, we do nothing but Polish. Formal and informal greetings; I like/do you like; what’s your name/my name is – that sort of thing. The idea is this: It’s quite conceivable that you will at some point teach a class to people who don’t know a single word of English. So this is what they experience. It’s a pretty cool concept, actually, and something that is intentionally built into the course.

Anyway, he starts talking to us in Polish. And through hand gestures, through facial expressions, through demonstrations with physical objects and pictures, he’s showing us just how much information you can convey – even when your students don’t know a single word of the target language.

And man, Polish! They make sounds in that language that we just don’t have. I mean, it sounds totally fucking alien. But that’s the point, right? As it happens, this teacher could also have done the lesson in Spanish. But he chose Polish because we were less likely to know anything about it, and because it sounds so completely foreign.

But here’s the thing. I was operating on another level. Yes, of course, I had a rough time of pronouncing the words. Yes, I was just as much in the dark as everybody else. Well, I was in the dark insofar as being able to actually use the language. But right from the get, I started taking notes. I started looking for things that were familiar, started looking for commonalties with the other Indo-European languages that I know. And all of a sudden, it wasn’t so alien after all. This was really cool!

So our teacher breaks us into groups of threes, and asks us to discuss how we felt about the experience. And the other two in my group say the sorts of things you’d expect them to say after such an experience. Then they turn to me. And I turn to my notes. (And I apologize in advance for the technical language I’m about to use). And I say:

“You guys, this is fascinating! There’s so much here that we already know! Check this out (and I begin to list things from notes): So already we see: They mark the accusative case with a nasal; second person singular has an ‘-s-’, but second person plural seems to have an ‘-st-‘; the “go” verb starts with a strong ‘i,’ like Latin ire or Greek ἴεναι; the verb for “stand” starts with ‘st-,’ like Latin stare, Greek ἵστεναι, German standen; third person singular “to be” has an ‘-est,’ like Latin est, Greek ἔστιν, German ist. I mean, there’s so much here that we already know!”

And they just sort of look at me. And the girl to my right, Alice, actually announces to the class, “Dave has a really interesting way of looking at this. No really, I’m not taking the piss.”16

That in and of itself was pretty cool. I sit next to Alice, you see, and she’s in my teaching group. So we get paired up a lot. And in the beginning, I think I rather annoyed her. But somewhere along the line, I think she decided that I’m not so much a pretentious ass17 as a genuinely enthusiastic nerd. And now we get along quite well, and she’s become one of my favo(u)rites.

And in the beginning, I didn’t know quite to make of her either. She can be a bit snarky and impatient. But she’s studied linguistics and she’s got a real enthusiasm for our mother tongue(s).18 But I find I’ve grown quite fond of her. She’s a real sweetheart, when you get down to it. And you really see this when she teaches. She’s got this kindness, as a teacher. There’s a real sweetness to her. And a sort of joie de vivre. For a while, I thought I’d tire of her – I thought we’d tire of each other – getting paired together so often. But now I find I quite look forward to working with her. There seems to be a sort of mutual respect that I don’t think either of us would have anticipated.

Also, she’s got really pretty eyes. But I’m not going down that rabbit-hole with her. I’m just glad she’s in my group. Just as I’m glad the other four are in my group. I mean, we’re a great fucking team. We look out for each other. We help each other. And we support each other when one of us has a bad day. Also we go for drinks together sometimes. However much Berlin has been a bust in terms of meeting girls, I keep lucking out in my other relationships. Roommates, colleagues, friends. I couldn’t ask for better. I really couldn’t.

I want to hang on to that point about colleagues for a moment longer. It seems that each of us has had the experience of talking to other people who have taken this course before us. And these predecessors seem invariably to mention a competitiveness that existed between classmates; a desire to “be the best” or to get the highest marks. And we just don’t have that in our group. We don’t talk about our marks. We just support each other. And it’s fucking beautiful. Wherefore do these lovely fuckers deserve to be mentioned by name: Katja from Berlin; Paul from Australia, Alice from England; Ziba from Iran; and Katie from North Carolina. You’re all fucking gorgeous, every one of you.

Interpolation: Berlin is much farther north than it seems. From the weather, you could believe you were in New York. But at 10pm, it’s still light out. And by 4am, Helios is already dragging the sun across the heavens. It’s a nice town in which to make a summer.

Well. There’s surely more to say. But it’s four-thirty in the morning and, frankly, I’d like to get some sleep. Bis später, Leute…

Next Post: July 17, 2015
Previous Post: June 18, 2015

  1. I’d never noticed how much I speak in idioms until I had to teach to intermediate level students who couldn’t understand half of what I said. []
  2. Gods, I hope I didn’t just jinx it! []
  3. A required piece of homework after every lesson. []
  4. Also, they’re hilarious. We laugh so much. I fucking love it. []
  5. That’s a rough paraphrase, anyway. []
  6. I need to be fair to my last job. They gave me work when I was in grad school. And when I was in school, they allowed me to adapt my hours to my schedule. They always treated me fairly and compensated me well; at least within the structure of the company. I loved – and still love – my boss. I’ll always be thankful. But it was never going to be a career. The work itself was not gratifying; no matter how much I learned about Excel; and I can make a spreadsheet like a boss… []
  7. Girls, apparently, are not turned on by your ennui with your job. #GoFig []
  8. Ain’t that some shit? []
  9. Cos that’s always a good idea. []
  10. Can a blog be a Living Will? If I ever get dementia (or Alzheimer’s), please put me to sleep. Please don’t let me live like that. Please. []
  11. As he should have been. []
  12. My brother, Justin, the brilliant musician, no doubt disagrees. []
  13. Or what’s left of them, anyway. []
  14. #JesseOwens #USA []
  15. We have two teachers. There’s the one who has been ovbserving my classes and giving me feedback the last two weeks. Then there’s the other, who observed the first week, and will again next week. []
  16. She’s English. []
  17. Which I am, let’s be honest. []
  18. I leave it to you to decide if British English and American English are the same language. []

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