An American in Berlin
23 July, 2015
Getting a bit of a late start on this one, so I’ll try to keep it short. By now I’ve basically resigned myself to the idea that I’ll be flying home next Tuesday. Lisa seems to think I can still make a mad dash and get it all sorted in time. Maybe she’s right. But at the moment, it feels more stressful than anything. And, honestly, part of me won’t mind going home – as long as it’s not for too long.
While I’ve been here, two of my friends have had babies. I’d like to meet them. It’ll be nice to see the family. And it will be nice to see some friends as well. And Berlin ain’t goin’ nowhere.
Berlin. I like this town very much. Do I love it? I don’t know. I certainly don’t feel like this is where I want to spend my life. But then again, I don’t really think I want to spend my life in any one place at this point. And maybe three months just isn’t long enough to get a feel for a city.
It’s a funny city, at least from a New York point of view. The population is about 3.5 million, I believe. Not even half the size of the Big Apple. And geographically, it’s quite spread out. So it has the advantage of never feeling very crowded, even at rush hour.
Taking the subway during rush hour is a piece of cake. You always have room to stand, and often you can even find a seat. But it’s a great metro system. It’s composed of two major parts – the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn. The U-Bahn is the subway; U for Untergrund. The S-Bahn goes aboveground; S for Straßen. Complementing these is a series of buses and trams. There are also a ton of bike lanes, many built into the sidewalk rather than the street. People really love their bikes here. Anja and Lisa are always telling me to just get a Fahrrad – a bicycle. But you know me, I walk everywhere.
Back to mass transit, there are a few key differences between here and New York. One is, there are no turnstiles. Instead, transit cops make periodic spot inspections of riders’ tickets. It seems to work. I’ve gotten inspected two or three times; my train, I mean. The last time, I was reading my book and I had my headphones on, so I didn’t notice what was happening. Then this guy waves his fingers between me and my book. And my first reaction was to be annoyed. And I thought, come on man, fuck off. And no, I don’t have any change. Because my experience in New York is, anybody who will so rudely interrupt you while reading with headphones on is probably panhandling. Needless to say, I was surprised to find Mr. Transit Cop when I looked up. I was, however, still annoyed.
Another difference here is, the doors don’t open automatically. You have to press a button on the door to open it. Obviously, the button only functions when the train has stopped moving. But this has bred an interesting difference in Subway habits, I think. Back home, I always wait for the train to stop moving and for the doors to open before I get up or relinquish my standing space. I have no interest in being knocked around as the train lurches to a halt. Many people take this approach, though obviously, in NYC somebody is always in a rush. But here, whoever is nearest the door always seems to be in a contest to see how fast they can get those doors open. Very often, somebody is jamming on the button when the train is still slowing down. And I don’t think these people are in any particular rush. They just seem always to want to hit that sweet spot of getting those doors open as soon as possible. For my part, I have not adopted this custom. I’ll get up and leave when I’m good and ready, thank you very much.
This week, I’ve been trying to do the things I love about this place. I’ve spent a couple of afternoons reading outside with a beer; once in my secret garden (which is apparently called Körner Park) and once by the canal. And I’ve gone on some long walks, trying to see parts of the city I haven’t seen before (also, obviously, with a beer). Today, I made sure my walk took me through Tempelhofer Feld, one of my favorite spots in the whole city. And tomorrow, I’ll be going to a picnic there.
I’m also trying to make sure I get to the food I love here; the falafels, the schwarmas, the döners. Today I stopped by the falafel stand where the Egyptian guy once accosted me about Obama. But this time there was some kid behind counter, and he didn’t make nearly as nice a sandwich. Still, it was pretty damn good.
Meanwhile, my friends are doing the old London Bus Routine. That is, they’re either not around at all, or else they all want to do stuff on the same day. Joschka and Lisa are both out of town and Zibs has been busy all week. And then, all of a sudden, the school gang wants to do something, but they want to do it when I’m supposed to go to the picnic at THF or when I’m supposed to have the Shabbat dinner with that beboyfriended Israeli girl. But I invited the school gang to the picnic and I invited Joschka and Lus to Shabbat. So we’ll see how that all shakes out.
On the other hand, nobody being around has afforded me some time to (finally!) sit down and read some Homer. I’ve been working through book XIV of the Iliad. What a joy. I once had a professor who insisted it was imperative that you read at least ten lines of Homer every day. Mind you, ten lines isn’t very much at all. But doing it everyday keeps it in your blood, as it were. And I think he was right about that.
Back when I was reading with Daitz, I’d set aside one night a week to do the reading. And then we’d have our meeting on Saturdays. So basically, I only read Homer twice a week. It’s not enough. But when you get to spend a couple of hours with The Master, it all sort of works out. But now I’m on my own. So I’ve got to stay on top of it. And man, it’s good to be back. During the whole month of school, I think I got to read Homer once, maybe twice. That was the hardest part, believe it or not.
But absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? Not having the time to read, it reminded me how much I love Greek. It also reminded me that however much I enjoy teaching English, my mother tongue – and I definitely do – the dream job is to one day teach Greek. I remember one day in school – it must have been the day after I actually got to read a bit – Alice asked if she could borrow my laptop. The last webpage I had up was about Greek participles. “Greek participles, eh?” she asked. And I was like, “Omg, Alice, you have no idea! Greek participles are bad-ass! They can do so many things! They can be temporal, concessive, causative…” I trailed off when I noticed she was looking at me funny.
The thing about Greek is, it’s just the fucking best. And nobody knows it. All the people that I’ve met who are fascinated by languages – they would love Greek! But it never gets taught. It’s rarely even offered. And what a shame. Honestly. I mean, in English class – I mean English Lit – what do you read from antiquity? Sophocles (Oedipus), Homer (Odyssey), Euripides (Medea). It’s the foundation of Western Lit. Nobody teaches Virgil or Seneca or Cicero in English class. Why? Because it’s second rate.1 And yet, we insist on teaching Latin. Let’s get it together, people!
Apart from Homer, I’ve got two books going at the moment. The first, Vingt Mille Lieues Sous Les Mers (20k Leagues Under the Sea), I think I’ve mentioned. It’s important to me that I keep my French up. And also, Jules Verne is just awesome. It’s sci-fi, it’s adventure, it’s really smart2 and best of all, it’s just fucking fun. The other is a book called Der, Die, Was?, which Blondey upstairs has lent to me. It’s a real challenge, but it’s funny, and it’s very very good. It’s about an American and his struggle to learn German. So, I can relate. But the vocabulary is a bitch. I can slog through it, but it’s real work. And I need the practice. My German isn’t going to improve itself.
That’s also one of the nice things about being back in this apartment. With Lisa, because we were proper friends, it was way too easy to speak English. But here, that just doesn’t fly. Anja and Mischa – who is out of town this week – they really help my German, just by everyday household chatter. It’s not always easy, and I still miss plenty of what is said. But I get so much more now than when I first got here three months ago. Well, that’s as should be.
Right, well, I said I’d keep this short, and I will. That’s enough for tonight. Tomorrow is the picnic. Friday is Shabbat dinner. Saturday I have a mind to check out the Love Parade, on Anja’s advice. And after that, Joschka invited me to some dinner where I think there will be a roasted boar. Then Sunday is open-mic again.
Oh right, open-mic. I went again last Sunday. Alone, this time. I don’t think it went as well. All in all, it was a positive experience, to be sure. Even if you go up there and suck, it helps build you up. But it could have been better. And it was harder to do it alone. Hopefully next time will be better. But even if it’s not, I will still have done it. And that’s not nothing…