An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
19 July, 2015

So, sometimes life gets in the way. Thankfully, not in the I-knocked-that-girl-up-and-now-I’m-a-dad kind of way. But more in the my-house-is-on-fire-while-I-try-to-finish-this-course-afterwhich-I’m-immediately-off-to-France-afterwhich-I’m-immediately-off-to-a-5-day-metal-festival sort of way. Which is enough, let me tell you. Will you let me tell you? Ok, I’ll tell you.

If I had to choose, I’d almost certainly say that Flick of the Switch is the most underrated AC/DC album of the Brian Johnson era. I bring this up a) because, holy shit, go listen to that album and b) because the second track is called “This House is on Fire.” Which is relevant because, you know, my house was on fire.

No, seriously. Ok, so I’m sitting in the kitchen working on either some bullshit paper or a lesson plan; both of which were due the next day. It’s around ten at night. I’m smoking my pipe, drinking some wine.1 And I smell something burning. Umm, ok. I start looking around. Did some ash somehow fall from my pipe onto something (in)flammable?2 Had perhaps some electrical device overheated? In the end, I couldn’t find anything in the kitchen. In fact, I determined that the smell must be coming from outside. Naturally, I assumed people were barbecuing in the Hinterhof.3

Maybe an hour or so later, I hear people shouting outside. I hear this through my headphones, so I’m not particularly paying attention. In fact, I’m thinking, “Fools, shut the F up, I’m trying to work here.”4 But then, a funny thing happened.5 One word seems to be busting its way through my headphones. “Feuer!” Umm, was? So I look outside, and I see there are a bunch of people gathered in the Hinterhof. Yeah…I’m not feeling this.

So I go around to the living room window, which looks out on the courtyard from the other direction. And I see something I’ve never really seen before. One of the brick walls lining the courtyard is colored bright orange. And the reason it’s colored bright orange is because it’s reflecting the light from a giant-ass fire that’s sprung up on the other side of the Hinterhof.

Now, I don’t know how many of you have had the experience of hearing people yell “Fire!” and then looking out the window to find an actual-as-fuck fire. But let me tell you, it is very surreal.

So I go down to the Hinterhof, where I find a bunch of neighbors gathered. And they’re all sort of just standing and watching. Here’s what we see. Up on the opposite left corner of the courtyard, there is this huge fire dancing on the roof. It’s definitely not supposed to be there. But, it’s also far enough away that it doesn’t appear to be an immediate threat. And in fact, we can see water coming over the top. So we know the Feuerwehr – the fire department – are already on the job. So we sort of just stand and watch.

Little by little, the fire dies down. It was more surreal than scary, I have to say. I also have to say, it was weird not to be able to talk to the neighbors about it. I mean, my German is definitely functional at this point. But I don’t have the vocabulary to chat with strangers about our building being on fire. And Lisa’s not even home. So I’m just sorta standing there no better than deaf-and-dumb.

Finally, the fire dies down. I mean, maybe – probably even – it’s still going on inside. But the smoke has gone, the flames have gone and even the sparks have gone. And then – only then! – the fire department comes and tells us we have to go. Like, for hours. Technically, they evacuated us until like two-thirty in the morning.

I say ‘technically’ because I had a paper to write, and so I hid out in the apartment – in the dark, away from the windows – working on my bullshit paper. I mean, my reasoning was, the fire is clearly out, so why do I need to leave? I’d learn later that the reason was, they were afraid that the fire might have weakened some of the walls, making the building unsafe. Bah.

Anyway, to keep this short, everything was fine in the end.6 The fire was on the other end of the building. And the walls were sound in any case. But I didn’t get to bed until after four-thirty, and even then, I didn’t sleep well. That was Tuesday of the last week of my course. Things went downhill from there, school-wise, but more on that later.

I also found out later that the actual fire was not technically in our residential building, but in the adjacent Old People’s Home. And those poor old fuckers had to be evacuated in their wheelchairs to the sidewalk in the middle of the night. You’d think that would be a real trial for them. Except, this. They were all generally old enough to be able to say, “Ah, hey. We remember the war. This is nothing.”

When Lisa told me that, I made some snide comment along the lines of, “Nothing like old people talking about Nazi Times to make you feel a whole lot less bad for them.” Lisa didn’t appreciate that. And fair enough. I mean, you can’t go making blanket judgments about people simply based on their age; no matter how annoying old people are, what with their doddering gates, failing memories, and weird mouth noises, to say nothing of constantly reminding us of our own mortality. Still though, you can’t just assume every old person you see was a Nazi.7

Oh, and for anybody interested in casualties, one person died. Apparently it was the guy who started the fire. Apparently by falling asleep with a lit cigarette. He was 90. A little late to be Darwining yourself out of the game, but OK.

So that was The Fire.

As for school, remember that post where I was all “I’m so good at this, I hope I didn’t just jinx it by saying that”? Welp, I jinxed it. The short version is, I sucked the last week.

I had a higher grade in my hands and I threw it away. I just never got it together. Yeah, the fire didn’t help. But that’s no excuse. On some level, I think I tried to do too much. I could have played it safe and gotten my grade. But instead, I tried to do things I knew I needed to work on. Well, I still need to work on them.

Basically, I run a good classroom. My classes are fun. My students get to where they need to be by the end. But, ironically, I somehow don’t teach grammar very well yet. Ironic, because I’m a grammar nerd. Ugh, I really don’t want to spend a lot of time on this. The point is, I’m not pleased with myself. I had set a goal for myself of achieving a certain grade in this course, and I failed. Yeah, I passed the course; and easily. But I could have done better. And I was on the cusp of doing better. And I frittered it away. Nice one, Davey.

If I want to find a positive to take away, it’s this. I know my students liked my classes. I know I can get them engaged. I know I can hold their interest. I think, at the risk of giving myself too much credit, I think these are things you can’t teach. It’s the things that can be taught where I still need work.

And, I got to play the part of Linguistic Master in my last class. In the last few minutes I showed them how seven different languages are actually related. I showed them how the verb “to stand” has a common stem in English, German, Latin, Greek, Polish, Russian and Farsi.8

And man, you should have seen their eyes go wide! That was so fucking cool.9

But in the short term, #davefail. So, moving on.

Class ended Friday, July 3rd. So of course we went out for dinner and drinks after. But I also had to leave mad early the next morning for France. And I also had to pack up my room because the new girl was moving in the next day. So I got about two hours of drunken sleep before popping off to Biarritz to visit chez Morgenstern.

Biarritz was a blast. But as I covered that in my last post, I’ll keep it short here. Just like the trip itself, which was too short. All to say, before I knew it, it was time to leave. Which was rough. Yeah, it was rough to say goodbye and to get back to reality. But also, it was physically rough. You see, I drank rather a lot of pastis the night before. So I wasn’t exactly in the greatest shape to travel.10 And it seemed like every one of my flights was delayed. So I didn’t get back to Berlin ‘til around ten.

At that point, I had to swing by Lisa’s and pick up my computer. Everything else I’d grab the next day. Then it was back to Anja and Mischa. I got there around eleven. At which point they let me know they had a(n American) guest who also needed to practice her German. Turns out it was Anja’s niece from Colorado; roughly my age. Her German was much better than mine. But we all had fun.

There was lots of wine and pastis.11 So, exhausted as I was, that turned into a late night. But, I have to say, it was really nice to be back here. A&M welcomed me back very warmly. And even though I’d only lived here a month – and a month ago, at that – it somehow felt very much like home. Also, Anja’s niece was really cool. So it was a good night. And at the end of it, I passed right the fuck out.

But something about ‘no rest for the weary’ because the next day was ‘shopping day.’ I had to meet Joschka and Vinny to buy what we needed for the festival. That was a pain in the ass, partly because Vinny apparently sent me a bunch of messages via Whatsapp that I never received. So I’m sitting their thinking, “Odd that I haven’t heard from those guys.” Meanwhile, they’re thinking, “Why isn’t Dave answering? What an asshole!”

Eventually, we got it sorted and performed the ritual Pre-Festival-Shopping. In other words, we stocked up on booze, sausages, chips, juice, ramen and canned ravioli. Oh, and this year, also boxed wine.12

The festival I also covered in my last post, so I’ll say no more about it here.13

I also mentioned the concert/festival at Lisa’s place. What I didn’t mention is how odd it was to be back there now that I don’t live there. Like, it feels like home and I know where everything is, and yet, I need to respect the place as a visitor. Just odd. Still great though. And great to see Lisa and Oz.

It’s also fascinating to me how much of a relationship Lisa and I managed to build in just a month. I remember the first day I moved in, she found out that her neighbor had just died. And as we sat there in the kitchen, her telling me about it all, she started to cry. Mind you, this was our first day living together. And I don’t know how to handle this at all. So I’m like, “Do you…want a…hug?” And she’s like, “Nope.” And then we had a long conversation about death and started bonding from day one.

In contrast, when I said goodbye at the end of the night of the party, she just gave me a big old hug. It’s funny how things go, sometimes. In the end, it was really great living with her. We definitely don’t see eye-to-eye on more than a few things. And yet we just got on so easily. And as I’ve said countless times by now, we drank a lot. Not everything about my time here has worked out, but that month of living there, that definitely worked out fantastically.

Last night, my plan was to stay in and read some Homer. I haven’t had a chance to read Homer since the end of the second week of school, which is a crying shame. And yet, I was also feeling a bit down. I mean, Lisa was out of town with the Oz-man. Joschka was in Portugal with Lus for her birthday. Kelvin has moved back to Australia. So I was kinda feeling like I have no fucking friends here.

And then Ziba14 messages me. “Wanna get a drink tonight?” Well, hell yeah, Zibs! It’s gonna be me, her, Elf-Princess15 and Zibs’ husband. And yet, I’m thinking, OK, I can go for a few beers, and still be home before midnight; plenty of time to read some Homer before bed. Not an unreasonable plan, or so I thought. And yet, next thing I know, I’m throwing the wrapper from my Dönner in the trash and stumbling up the stairs to my apartment to find that it had somehow become 3am. Needless to say, it was a fun night.

First of all, I got on quite well with Jan, Zibs’ husband. We talked metal and politics. So that’s a win right there. As a group, we also discussed making a round trip to Köln (Cologne). Whether or not we can get it together before I might have to leave is another story. But it sure sounds like fun, if we can pull it off. We also batted around the idea of getting our shit together and starting our very own language school right here in Berlin. Well, it’s surprisingly plausible actually. But I’m not holding my breath. Still though, how cool would that be?

Today I went for a long walk. My goal was to go East-ish, and see some things I’d never seen before. Mission accomplished. I was out for about 4.5 hours, so it was a healthy little promenade.   One of the highlights was the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park. What a weird place. I mean, it’s absolutely lovely. Tree lined and peaceful and monumental af.

But it’s also kinda creepy. You see, it’s not just a memorial, but actually a cemetery. There are about 5,000 Red Army soldiers interred there. And all the language is about liberating Berlin. Which, I mean, is true. They did liberate Berlin. But by the end of the battle,16 there wasn’t a whole lot left standing. And the aftermath left the east side of the city – and East Germay – under Soviet control. I mean, that’s sort of out of the fire, but right back into the frying pan, right?

I don’t know. I need to talk to some actual Berliners about this. I’m really curious as to how they feel about it. I mean, on the victory arch which marks the entrance is the following inscription, carved in Russian and German, given here in English: “Everlasting glory for the heroes, who have fallen for Freedom and Independence of The Socialist Homeland.”17 Umm, yeah. And then there are all the inscriptions inside the actual memorial park. The inscriptions are all direct quotes from Stalin, again in Russian and German. So, my initial conclusion is this: It’s an absolutely beautiful and wonderfully peaceful place to visit. Just don’t look too closely. But again, I’m dying to get a Berliner’s take on all this.

Tomorrow is open-mic night. I have to go. I say this for personal accountability reasons. If it’s on record, then I can’t back out. It’ll be the first one I’ll have been able to attend since the last one I did, right before school started. Once school had begun, it was out of the question. And the next two Sundays, I was in France and then the festival. So I need to get back on it. Personal development and all that. Also, I need to play some rock’n’roll.

To this last point, I just taught myself “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Ain’t That a Shame.” Ok, ‘taught myself’ is a bit extreme. It’s all 12-bar blues. But I still needed to figure out how I would play them, solo on the guitar.   Work out what I would do for guitar leads and so on. Anyway, point is, fun as hell. And now, finally, I’ve got all the major players covered: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino.18 Slowly but surely, I’m building up my rock’n’roll repertoire; even if I still can’t play a single Beatles song.

Next thing I need to work on is French. I can do a fair rendition of one Edith Piaf song, but that’s not nearly enough. There’s at least four Jaques Brel songs I need to work up, and other stuff besides. But that’s ok. It’s good to have projects. And I’ve got two new songs in the works as well. One just needs lyrics; always my least favorite part. The other needs a lot more, but, “it’s got legs,” as Jared likes to say.

I also need to learn more German songs. I’ve got a good five or six now, but more are in order. Not least of which is “Lili Marlene.” But one thing that caught me off guard during my little session at Rock Harz was when Marcus asked me if I knew anything from Die Toten Hosen or Die Ärzte. Now, these are two bedrock German punk bands that Anja had put me on to during my first month here. So I excitedly responded to his query with, “Oh! Do you know Hier Kommt Alex?!”19 Of course he did, and he started to sing the first line. To which I had to lamely respond that I didn’t actually know it. So that’s a project for next year.

So that’s more or less where things stand as I get ready for what may well be my last full week in Berlin. There are, actually, quite a few job leads. But the red tape is copious. And frankly, I don’t know if I will have enough time to get everything sorted before my three months are up.20 And if I have to leave, it won’t be the end of the world. I can always come back. Or go somewhere else entirely. My focus now is, simply to get the most out of Berlin in the time remaining. And as to that, you’ll be reading about it soon enough…

Next Post: July 23, 2015
Previous Post: July 17, 2015

  1. And possibly munching on some chips, which I felt much less bad about buying when I discovered that it was really easy for Lisa and I to sit down and eat chips together. []
  2. “Inflammable means flammable? What a country!” – Dr. Nick, The Simpsons. []
  3. Hinterhof = Courtyard. []
  4. Or, in New Yorkese: “Hey! I’m woikin’ ‘ere!” []
  5. And by “funny,” I mean, “not at all funny.” []
  6. Well, fine for me and Lisa and our flat and our immediate neighbors anyway. []
  7. All that said, If I’m honest, I have to admit the following: I often have to fight the impulse to go all Second Coming of Atticus Finch vis-à-vis old Germans. The devil on my shoulder is all, “Come on, aren’t you curious as to just what they were doing during The War?” Whereas the Angel on my other shoulder, “Nothing gained by this kind of thinking, David. Let it go.” []
  8. The common stem is sta-

    English German Latin Greek Polish Russian Farsi
    To Stand Standen Starē ἱϲτάναι(histanai) Stać(Statch) Стоять(Stoyat’) Istadan


  9. In fact, I was having drinks with a couple of classmates last night. One of them was quite close with two of our most advanced students. And they both told her that they loved my linguistics stuff; they found it really fascinating. And one of them isn’t even normally interested in that kind of stuff. Very gratifying to hear that, honestly. []
  10. By which I mean I threw up in two different airports. But not any planes! []
  11. Yay! []
  12. This was utilitarian, to be sure. It was not, however, “good.” []
  13. What an odd sentence structure (“The festival I also covered…”). More inflected languages like German or Greek have no problem sticking the object out front. But it just feels weird in English, doesn’t it? []
  14. Ziba, you will remember, is the Iranian girl from school. []
  15. Another girl from school. Her name is actually Maria. But she’s like thirty feet tall, slim, super long hair and for the first few days of school she’d wear these long flowy dresses. So I nicknamed her Elf-Princess. []
  16. And all the Allied bombing raids, to be sure. []
  18. OK, I still need to learn at least one Elvis song. But these guys are the most important, surely. []
  19. A song by Die Toten Hosen that I’m quite fond of. []
  20. As a U.S. citizen, you can come for three months without a visa. After that, you need to leave for three months, before you can come back for another three. []

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