An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
25 July, 2016

So last time, I called it quits on account of fatigue.  This time I’ll try to finish what I started.  Last time, I touched on Brussels and Rock Harz.  That brings us to…

Italy:
So first of all, let me just say, I fucking love Italy.  Every time I go there, I’m smacked in the face with this feeling of, “Oh, yeah, I could totally fucking live here.”  This time was no different.  I stepped off the plane in Rome, looked around, saw mountains and olive trees, and yup, I could totes fucking live there.  But Rome was just the airport.  That’s not where we were staying.  And I say “we” because this was a group adventure.

The Reader’s Digest version goes like this.  My buddy’s parents rented a magisterial villa in the mountains above Sorrento for a week.  In their infinite generosity, I and several other friends of the children were invited to tag along, there being plenty of space for everybody.  Having all grown up together, it made for a sort of extended-family vacation, so to speak.

To be perfectly honest, at first I was a little iffy as to whether or not I ought to go.  There was a part of me that felt like I had already fucked off to Brussels and the metal festival and as a result was already missing the point of why I’d come here in the first place; namely to hunt down a job and get myself here on a more permanent footing.

However, when I brought this to some close friends in order to take their counsel on the matter, they uniformly looked upon as me though I’d had either several head or perhaps just one truly ugly one.1  “Are you mad?” they asked, independent one of one another?  “You have the chance to go to Italy and stay in a house.  With your friends.  For free.  And all you need to do is buy an airplane ticket?  If you don’t go, you’re a bigger asshole than I thought.”2  I quickly put aside my hesitations and booked the flight.  And this was undoubtedly the right move because…

This place was, and I don’t mean to be crude, but this place was the tits.  There was a Jacuzzi.  There was a pool on the roof.  The view looked out onto the Bay of Naples.  Medieval kings might have had bigger palaces, but we had electricity.  And a sweet kitchen.  And, you know, running water.

Anyway, as you might have already guessed, this was a lovely couple of days.  Wine was drunk by the barrel.3  Casablanca was watched.4  The Jacuzzi was floated in.  Glorious meals were cooked.  Friends were outbehanged with.  All the finer things in life.

And there was an added bonus this time.  Last year, we did the same thing, but in Biarritz (Southwest coast of France).  But last year, I was simply a guest, living off the largesse of my friends’ wonderfully generous parents.  This year, however, I was able to make a meaningful contribution.  They needed to rent a van, in order to accommodate my friends’ mom’s wheelchair.  And this being Europe, the van was naturally of the manual transmission variety.  And so, the only people who could drive it were myself and the father.  Whereupon did I volunteer to offer my services as chauffeur.

And so it was that I found myself shepherding this big old van up and down the narrow mountain roads above Sorrento and through the tight city streets of that city (as well as Naples).  It was harrowing and challenging, but also, in a masochistic sort of way, fun.  Which is not to say I “enjoyed” it.  But it was a pretty cool experience, taken together with the fact that I successfully avoided any kind of collision and kept my embarrassing stalls to a minimum, and largely in places where an experienced driver might nod and say, “yeah, that’s a tough one.”

The point is, when you go to such a luxurious place as somebody’s guest, and partake of the best wine and the best food and are asked for nothing in return, it’s easy to feel like a bit of a deadbeat or hanger-on.  The fact that, this time around at least, I was able to make a contribution, which qualitatively made my hosts’ lives a touch easier, was rather gratifying.  Well, so much for Italy.

Berlin I:
Oh right, the reason I’m here.  When I got back from Italy, I finally settled into my old Airbnb from last year.  I’ll come back to this presently.  But first, two things from the preceding weeks I’d like to touch on.  First, we finally found our metal bar!

Anyone who knows me knows that back home, our go-to metal bar is Duffs, in Brooklyn.  Also known as one of my very favorite place on planet earth.  For years now, I’ve been going there with Vinny and Joschka.5  It’s our metal home.  It’s where we’ve spent so many drunken nights, only to walk over the Williamsburg Bridge to have “breakfast” at Wo Hop.6

So for a long time, Joshcka and I have talked of trying to find “our” metal bar in Berlin.  Well, we finally found it.  I mean, I found it.  But we went together to check it out.  It’s everything we’ve been looking for.  And I found it by accident too.  It happened to be on the way from the Airbnb in P-Berg to Joschka’s house.  When I walked past it, I knew this would be it.  And it was.

When we walked inside, it was dark and Immortal was playing on the PA.  There was a Lemmy signed Rickenbacker on the wall and life-sized Uruk-Hai statues standing ominously in the shadows.  The tall, hot, skinny, red-headed bartender spoke something like 6 languages.  They had good scotch.  It was Duffs’ German doppelgänger.  Praise be to the Blackland Metal Rock Pub!  #Amen

The other thing I wanted to mention was that I found a Jewish bookstore.

*Flashback* Several months ago, I read a book called “Yiddish, a Nation of Words.”  Yiddish has always been in the background of my life.  Truthfully, I didn’t even realize how much so until I started learning German.  Then, all of a sudden, things I’d been hearing my whole life started to make sense.  Anyway, something happened when I read this book.  It woke in me an interest and curiosity about the language of my ancestors.  A language, which btw, was largely dumped when people started coming to America.7

And so, being a ‘language guy,’ all of a sudden, Yiddish jumped up my list of languages I needed to learn.  But there was something more than that.  And I hesitate to write this, because I suspect it’s going to sound…I don’t know what the word I’m looking for is.  There’s probably a Yiddish word.  I think I’m going to sound like an asshole here.  But I’m gonna write it anyway.

I feel a certain sense of responsibility.  See, Yiddish was for a long time the lingua franca of the Ashkenazi Jews.  Although it is essentially a dialect of German with a bunch of Hebrew sprinkled in,8 it was spoken all over Europe and eastwards throughout Russia.  I say “was,” because The War changed all that.  Not to put to fine a point on it, but the Yiddish speaking population of Europe was exterminated, or at best, expulsed.  With the foundation of Israel, Yiddish was consciously pushed aside – a relic of a humiliating past – in favor of the strong, muscular, ancient and sacred Hebrew.

Which brings me back to my overdeveloped – and probably obnoxious – sense of ‘responsibility.’  In the same way that we want to see Buffalo roaming freely once more over the plains of America, I want to see Yiddish cling to life, grow stronger, take its place, in its ancestral home.  I was beginning to have fanciful ideas of sprinkling Yiddishims into my German.  Afterall, Yiddish is basically German, and even if it was going to sound “wrong” to German ears, I knew people would understand it.  So I was going to be a Jew in Germany.  And I wanted to do my part to bring back מאמע לאשן, mama loshen.

*End Flashback* So I found a Jewish bookstore in Berlin, and the website said they had at least a few Yiddish books.  I had to check this out.  And so I did.  What I found was perhaps a little – but not entirely – disappointing.  I was, maybe, hoping to find some Sholem Aleichem.  And indeed they had some.  Translated into German.  Damn.

But I did pick up a book of children’s stories, written in the 20’s and/or 30’s in proper Yiddish and yet also with a German translation in the back/front.9  So this is another of my new ongoing projects.  First of all, obviously, I need to simply get good at reading the language phonetically.  That will come with practice and exposure.  But I’m hoping that between my knowledge of German and my ongoing Hebrew studies, I’ll be able to read it well enough to get the gist and learn something along the way.  Of course, at some point I’ll require some actual instruction, be it from meetups, classes or books.  But being able to tap into this on any level right now, connecting with my roots, it’s exciting.  And if I can in any way do something, anything, to reclaim what was violently stolen from me, from my people, so much the better.  Yeah, like I said, I probably sound like an asshole.  So much for Yiddish.

Berlin II:
So here I am, back in Berlin, back in the same Airbnb where I spent two wonderful months last summer.  And I’m positively delighted to be back here.  I don’t know what else to say, other than that it simply feels like home.  My hosts/roommates are fantastic.  To wit:

On my first night back, they made me a welcome dinner.10  And the pretty girl from upstairs was there too.  The food was great.  The company was great.  I was able to keep my head above water, German-wise.  Yadda Yadda.  I’m not doing a good job of capturing the sentiment here.

I hadn’t seen these guys in about a year.  And yet, they were clearly happy to have me back.  How do you express how that makes you feel?  They made a special meal, they poured me endless wine.  We all sat around the table hanging out, eating, drinking, smoking.  I brought them a bottle of limoncello from Sorrento, and so we naturally had a schnapps together.  They didn’t have to do any of this.  They wanted to.  And I was so glad of it.  I’m only here until the end of August.  But I know, for as long as I’m here, I’m in the right place.

And the location is great.  Since I’ve been here, I’ve spent afternoons in my old ‘secret garden’ (Körner Park) reading with a beer.  I went exploring to the South, where there are trees and parks and cute, pretty little houses.  I’ve eaten impossibly cheap yet impossibly good Turkish food.  While it’s true that there are whole swaths of Berlin that I haven’t yet seen, nevertheless, Neukölln is my ‘hood.  I feel about this part of town the way I felt about Chinatown.  There are things about it that are kinda gross.  But man, I f’ing love living here.

Berlin III:
One last thing, and I’ll try to keep this short.  Saturday was Pride Day here in Berlin.  Only they don’t call it Pride Day.  They call it Christopher Street Day.  Which is awesome.  Not only for the obvious reasons, but just as a New Yorker.  Like, yeah, we kinda are the center of the universe, ain’t we?  All these people celebrating CSD.  That’s my Heimatstadt, bitches!

Anja did herself up as Amy Winehouse for the festivities.  But both her and Mischa also donned Bavarian-style dress, in solidarity with Munich after Friday’s bullshit.  I thought that was pretty fucking solid.  Anyway, they went on together, to make a day of it.  I went a bit later by myself, simply to check it out.

What a sight.  Here’s my overriding impression.  I came out the train out the train at Brandenburger Tor.  And all you see is happy fucking people.  People celebrating, dancing, drinking, having a good time, loving life.  Straight, gay, queer, trans – people from every point on the spectrum.  And all they’re doing is being happy together.  You look at Trump and all the garbage that floats in his wake.  All the hate.  And how?  Why?  How ruined a person do you have to be to look at something like this and feel hate?

By way of a coda, there was a lady giving out rainbow Israeli flags.  I don’t know the politics behind it, I don’t know the “cause” or the reason.  But man, lemme tell you.  If there are gay Jews openly celebrating in the heart of Berlin, well, that is some kind of win.  Baruch HaShem.

  1. Quiet down, you! []
  2. Knowing well the extent to which mine own dear friends consider me an ‘asshole,’ this was really saying something. []
  3. Or would have been, had we been able to secure whole barrels of wine. []
  4. I’d never seen it before.  (IKR?) []
  5. At some point, Niki too became part of the Duffs family, despite not being any kind of fan of metal. []
  6. Where I would proceed to drink tea by the potful. []
  7. I once asked my Great Uncle Art if his parents spoke Yiddish.  His answer: “My father didn’t speak Yiddish.  He always said, ‘If somebody spoke to me in Yiddish, I would answer in Yiddish.  But I’m an American.  I speak English.’”  Noble, perhaps.  But that’s how you lose a language, people. []
  8. And also a greater or lesser degree of Slavic derived lexemes depending on where it was being spoken. []
  9. When a book is in both Yiddish and German, which is the front and which is the back? []
  10. The main course was lasagna.  Now, anybody who knows me knows I’m lactose intolerant.  Well, these people know me.  Mischa told me he went out of his way to find lactose-free whatever he need.  I mean, wow.  All the feels. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
21 July, 2016

Although I left New York on June 28, it’s really only now that I finally feel like I’m properly back in Berlin.  Until yesterday, in fact, I felt like I’d been everywhere but Berlin.  I was two nights in Brussels, four nights at a metal festival in the middle of nowhere and three nights in Italy.  Sandwiched between those adventures, I was two nights at Joschka’s place, three nights at an Easy[jet] Hotel down the block from Joschka and five nights at an Airbnb in Prenzlauerberg.  To put it another way, it’s only today that I’ve finally unpacked my suitcase.

My foregoing adventures may well each deserve a journal entry of their own.  Unfortunately, my laptop did not accompany me on any of them, nor did I seek out the time to journal through them by hand.  When I was accustomed to travelling alone, I always made time each day to put down my thoughts and impressions in a little notebook.  That, along with my pipe and a beer/wine, was always a nice way to end the day.

These days, though, my adventures seem always to be undertaken in the company of others.  In this case, it was Brussels with Charlotte; Rock Harz (the metal festival) with a gang of twenty or so; Italy with the Morgensterns and entourage.  Thus does it seem rather a bit futile to try and recapture those experiences in any meaningful kind of way.  And yet I find that some measure of record is called for.  The records shall be brief and episodic.

Brussels:
This was a birthday gift from Charlotte, believe it or not.  She bought me a round-trip flight from Berlin and took care of the Airbnb to boot.  As birthday presents go, this was a winner.  I found the city itself to be small but charming.  Our accommodations were lovely, however.  We stayed in a rustic old apartment, smack in the middle of the city.  We saw some sights, chief among which was the Atomium, a giant model of an atom left over from an old World’s Fair.  This consists of a series of aluminum spheres connected by metal shafts.  From the topmost sphere one has a panoramic view of the entire city and its surroundings.  The other spheres housed historical or artistic exhibits.  The connecting shafts had escalators running through their dark interiors with colored beams of light for illumination.  I felt a bit like Scotty, climbing through a Jeffry’s Tube or a warp nacelle.  It was, I think, the sort of thing that passed for “space age” back in the day.  A bit gimmicky, yes, but cool all the same.

Two other structures stood out, in terms of architecture.  One, of course, was that staple of any major European city, the gothic cathedral.  Like all gothic cathedrals, it gave the double effect of “seen one, seen ‘em all,” and yet feeling entirely unique.  When we walked in, we were greeted by some pretty impressive organ music.  This meant, of course, that there was a service going on.  As a result, we weren’t able to fully explore the cathedral, but it was still pretty cool.

The other building of note was the palais de justice.  This structure was absolutely enormous.  In fact, it seems to be one of the biggest structures built anywhere in the world during the 19th century.  Despite large portions of it being covered in scaffolding, it was nevertheless quite awe inspiring.  Sitting, as it does, atop an almost sort of cliff face, it has a way of towering over the rest of the city.

As lovely as Brussels was, however, the highlight was simply getting to spend time with Charlotte, whom I had not seen since she left New York in December.  We spent our evenings drinking Belgian beer, singing songs with the guitar and playing dice games.  The days were spent wandering the city, eating fries (and other Belgian food) and of course drinking Belgian beer.  And as for that beer, while I can see its attraction, it is probably not my favorite.  The flavors are deep and rich, of course.  But they are so heavy, that each one is like a meal.  And in the summer heat, I find they offer little refreshment.

All in all, it was a wonderful weekend.  I was delighted to see my dear friend again, and to see that we still travel together with all the ease and comfort in the world.  It is hard to imagine a better companion for the road.  On the way to the airport, we started a list of other places we would like to visit.  Time will tell how many of them we shall have the good fortune of getting to.

Rock Harz:
What can you say about camping out for four days with twenty crazy Germans?  It is, quite possibly, the most fun one can have in a year.  Certainly many of our party feel it is the annual highlight.  It is, however, also the most exhausting four days of the year.  And here, perhaps more than anywhere else, I am confronted with the limits imposed by my aging body.  I simply cannot drink as hard as I used to.

Vinny was able to make the trip again this year, and it is a great comfort to have a like-minded English speaker along.  We went to the field to check out some bands and made some happy discoveries along the way.  Back at the camp it was a lot of partying and napping; though for me, napping probably outweighed partying; at least during the day.

At night, I would break out the guitar.  For me, this is simply a bit of catharsis and relaxation.  But the gang do see to love it.  Mostly I play Irish folk songs for them, while sprinkling in as many German songs as I can muster.  This year, the highlight was absolutely Zehn Kleine Jägermester by Die Toten Hosen.  I knew this was a big hit back in the late 90’s, but I didn’t know if it would fly with this crowd.  Die Toten Hosen are a punk band, and we are a metal people.  But as soon as I started playing, every last one of them was singing along.  I’d never had that happen before and it was so much fun!

Well, the next thing should be Italy, to say nothing of Berlin.  But I find I’m quite exhausted now, and so I think I will end here.  Time permitting, I will pick this up again tomorrow.  Until then…