An American in Berlin

An America in Berlin
2 August, 2016

Not a whole lot happened last week.  I had dinner over at Joshcka’s place on Monday, where I did the cooking, as he had a lot of work to get done.  He’s become very interested in cooking lately (as well as baking his own bread), so I did a chicken braise and taught him a bit about the process and theory.  It was all very nice and the food came out quite well, if I do say so myself.  After dinner, we stayed up all night listening to metal, drinking and playing chess.1  I think I got home around 7am.  Good times indeed.  Wednesday, he left for the States, so I’ve been down a Berlin-based friend since.

Thursday evening I went to go see my old roommate Lisa perform with her amateur choir at a bar across the street.  They’re not perfect, pitch-wise, but they’re a good time and you can see they’re having fun which is really all that matters.  Anyway, it was nice to see some live music and even nicer to catch up with Lisa for a bit.

Later that night, I was finally able to get back to work on my Hebrew, as my lovely parents were kind enough to ship me my books.  The first half-hour or so was slow going as I hadn’t looked at it in about a month.  But it wasn’t long before I felt I’d got back to where I left off.  In the end, I stayed up until 4am working.  It felt good to be back at it.  My goal was – and still is – by September 2017 to be good enough to start reading the Torah at Rosh HaShanah (the Jewish New Year) and be able to keep pace with the weekly readings.  No reason I shouldn’t be able to do that.

I have mixed feelings about Hebrew, the לאשן קו׳דש,2 the sacred tongue.  On the one hand, I find it, on a phonetic level, to be rather displeasing.  And on a grammatical level, I find it, speaking as an avowed Hellenist, to be frustratingly imprecise.  On the other hand, it is the language of my people, my cultural birthright, if that’s not too obnoxious a term.  Furthermore, so much of Western culture is rooted in the bible, that I simply wish to be able to read it in the original.  Taken all together, however, it’s a fun process, getting to know it.  And at the end of the day, I’m a “language guy,” so if nothing else, it’s a never ending source of fascination on that level.  So much for Hebrew.

This weekend, I went to France, to visit Charlotte and to take a little roadtrip.  I flew into Nice, where she and her dad picked me up at the airport.  He dropped us at her mom’s house, where we spent Friday night.  We hung out for a bit with her mom and her younger sister, the latter of whom I was meeting for the first time.  Her mom I’d met on my last visit, back in 2013.  I don’t know her mom well, but she’s always very sweet with me.  She speaks no English, so it’s a bit of being thrown into the fire, in that I have to do my best in French off the bat.  Her mom seems to appreciate the effort, however bad I may be.

Though in fairness to myself, Charlotte told me she was rather impressed with my French, such as it is.  Apparently my accent is more than passable and I do the little things right as far as elisions and what not, which give me the appearance of not being a total stranger to the language.  For example, textbook French would say “je ne pense pas…” for “I don’t think…”  But a real French person would simply say, “j’pense pas….  I know enough to speak in this manner, at least, which, I guess, is endearing.

Which is not to say that I was fluent, or that I even had an easy time of mustering the little bit of French that I could.  A big part of the problem for me was simply that I’ve spent the better part of the last month in Germany, trying to speak German.  The upshot being that it took me forever to locate the right French word, as I always seemed to have the German equivalent on the tip of my tongue.  And even then, when I finally did find a French word, it often seemed to be an overly formal one.  Example: When I wanted to say that a French language school found me on the internet, I couldn’t for the life of me remember the word for “find.”  So I used “discover” instead.  Judging from people’s reactions, I guess it read as “cute.”  In any case, I was able to participate in conversation and to express myself well enough to get by.  In other words, it was fun.

The original plan called for Charlotte and I to rent a car and take a little roadtrip somewhere.  This was soon thrown into disarray.  First, there was concern as to whether I’d be able to rent a car without an international driver’s license, despite having just driven all over the south of Italy.  Second, Charlotte’s friend was supposed to give birth the week before.  However, the baby was late, and so her only chance to visit was the weekend of my visit.  So we now had to build our roadtrip around a stop just outside of Aix-en-Provence.

The first problem was solved by dragooning her dad into joining us and also being our driver.  At which point we invited her sister along for good measure.  The second problem was solved by choosing a vacation-location on the way to Aix and then getting an Airbnb outside the city.  Of course everything worked out.  After all, we live dans le meilleur des mondes possibles, the best of all possible worlds, as Pangloss would say.

The vacay-locay we chose was Les Calanques de Cassis, a sort of inlet on the Mediterranean just outside the little town of Cassis.  How to describe it?  It was sort of a tiny tiny fjord, I guess.  Turquoise blue water.  We had to hike a bit to get there.  For Les Niçoises in our party, it was perhaps not worth the trouble, as they said it wasn’t too different from what they could get at home.  But I thought it was beautiful, and the swimming was fantastic.  Yes, maybe the hike was a bit much for the payoff.  But my attitude is, I don’t mind spending a little extra – be it effort or money – to see something I’ve never seen before; especially if it’s something I’d never know to go look for on my own.  It was also there that the legend of the “water-peanut” was born.  But that is a story for another day.

After les calanques, we went to go meet her friend in the hospital.  This was a beautiful experience, but also a touch awkward for me.  First of all, this was, I think, the newest I’d ever seen a baby in my life.  If I’ve ever seen a newborn mere days after its birth, still in the hospital, I have no memory of it.  The parents were absolutely lovely as well.  They were nothing short of gracious with me, who, let’s face it, really had no business being there other than circumstance.

Anyway, when I say it was a touch awkward, I don’t mean that I felt out of place or that I wasn’t welcome or anything like that.  Far from it.  Everybody was so welcoming.  In fact, the mother, clearly tired though she was, took the time to chat with me a bit in English.  No, the awkwardness was simply one of language.  Not only was everybody speaking French, but they were speaking in hushed tones and whispers so that it was even harder to follow than usual.  You can imagine trying to speak with somebody in English in such a setting, and how hard that would be when you actually know the language.  Well, that gives you some idea.

And then, there was this other thing, which made such an impression on me that I feel I must put it down.  Two or three times while we were there, the mother decided she needed to breast feed the baby.  Which of course is totally appropriate.  It’s just that I’d never been around the process before.  In America, even amongst your friends, it’s treated with a certain degree of privacy.  And of course, there’s the controversy around doing it in public, which personally I’m fine with, but which I mention only for the purpose of observing that enough people aren’t fine with it that there is a controversy.

In any case, this is France, where bear breasts are readily seen in advertisements and on the covers of magazines.  So why should I have been surprised?  Still, seeing a stranger reach into her shirt and pulling out her breast to feed her baby, well, it’s not something I’m used to.  And I’m thinking, do I look away because she deserves privacy?  So I looked around the room and saw that everybody was watching.  Clearly this was just a part of visiting a new mother and her child.  So you have to put your inhibitions or your own cultural norms aside and just go with it.  When in Rome, so to speak.  But you get used to it fast, and pretty soon you’re too busy being amazed with the wonder and beauty of childbirth (or rather, safely-clean post-childbirth) to worry about anything else.  Hey, just cos I’m 35 doesn’t mean I can’t grow as a person, amirite?

So that was that, and a very nice visit it was.  True, it wasn’t what I’d signed up for when I booked my ticket.  But when you travel, you have to open yourself to whatever adventure presents itself.  There’s a whole world out there, and if your eyes are closed, you’re ain’t gonna see a thing.

After we left the hospital, we went food shopping, as our plan was to cook dinner when we got back to the Airbnb.  On some level, I had grand designs of doing up some kind of French-style braise with which to impress my traveling companions.  But it quickly became clear that ain’t nobody had time for that.  So I did up a pasta with mushrooms and a store-bought red sauce.  Given what I had to work with, I was pretty pleased.  The French gang took care of the apéro: wine, cheese, sausage.  What can you say but, Vive la France!

Charlotte’s dad brought a guitar, so we spent most of the night playing music and drinking, which was just wonderful.  I ran through many of the songs that Charlotte and I normally do together.  I also broke out Ray Charles’ What’d I say.  This was particularly awesome because when I got to the call and response bit, they three sang along without any prompting whatsoever.  That was proper good fun.  We had also intended to play some cards or Yatzee, but by the time we’d finished with the music, it was already midnight and we were out of wine.  Wisely, I think, we decided to call it a night.

The next morning, Charlotte got a call from her friend – the new mother – that she needed to see her, in private.  So we went back to the hospital.  While Charlotte was inside, I hung out with her dad and sister.  We chatted in (mostly) French about music, and soon her dad and I were talking about Trust and AC/DC.  It was very cool.  We were fighting through the language barrier and just having a good time chilling.  Charlotte’s uncle – her dad’s brother – plays in a number of bands, one of which is a Judas Priest tribute band and another of which is a straight up thrash metal act.  So he showed me some videos on the Youtube while we were waiting.  And I have to say, both band were really good.  The Priest band was properly on point, and I told him sincerely that if they were ever playing when I’m in Nice, I’d love to go.  And the other band was properly good thrash metal.

Once we’d finished at the hospital,3 we didn’t have time for anything but to head back to Nice, as I had to catch my flight.  Contrary to my usual habits, I was able to stay awake during the car ride, and this was well worth it, as the scenery was gorgeous.  The south of France is not so dissimilar from Italy in terms of landscape, but it’s not entirely the same either.  In any case, there are worse things you could look at out of a car window.

On the way back, we plugged my phone in to the stereo.  After a bit of Cranberries, I put on Trust’s Antisocial for me and Charlotte’s dad.  This, not to put to fine a point on it, was kind of a dream come true.  I was in France, blasting Trust through a car stereo, rocking out to Antisocial with an actual French Trust fan.  Cross that one off the bucket list.  After that I switched to some AC/DC.  Of course her dad actually knew the songs; added bonus.

Sometimes, the best part of roundtrips is the music you listen to.  This was true of the roadtrip Charlotte and I took out west, as well as when we went up to Maine.  In fact, we built ourselves a playlist of our favorite songs from those trips – some which we play with the guitar, some which are just so f*cking good you have to have them.4   In fact, we listened to this very playlist on the way to les calanques.  This is also true of when Joschka, Vinny and I make our yearly pilgrimage to Rock Harz.  And it was true again now.

I should add that I found Charlotte’s sister to be very cool.  And although I’d never met her before, I was glad she came along.  She really doesn’t speak more than a few words of English, so communication wasn’t always easy.  But we still found a way to make it work, and she gave me a little playlist of music to check out as well.

So I’ve spoken about Charlotte’s dad and Charlotte’s sister.  But what of the girl herself?  Of course it was great to see her.  This is the nice thing about Europe.  You can be in different countries but it’s still easy to see your friends.  We had a great time.  We never don’t.  And there’s always something new.  This time it was the “water peanut.”  Since I’ve known her, I’ve always invented little stories, little histories for her.  Sometimes they’re just fairy-tales, made up on the fly.  Sometimes they’re faux histories, passed off as “definitely true,” though unknown but to me.

This time it was the “water peanut.”  At les calanques, I found a little pockmarked green rock,5 roughly the shape and size of a peanut.  So I put it into her hand and told her it was a very special “water peanut.”  I told her they’re very rare, and only found inside of crabs, the way pearls are found inside of oysters.  The story goes, I said, that in the old days, whalers would give them to their wives, to keep upon the mantelpiece.  When the sun would strike them at the right time of day, they would light up the room.  The sunlight would reflect out of the pockmarks like light off a disco ball.  In this way, the mariners’ wives would know their husbands were safe at sea.

The most famous water peanut, the story goes, was given by a whaling captain to his wife.  For many years, the water peanut went disco ball all over the sitting room, and she knew he was safe.  But one day, it stopped.  And it never went disco ball again.  And she knew he had died at sea.  “Well that’s depressing,” said Charlotte.  “Yeah, I said, but you need to hear the end of the story.”  This I was able to manufacture an hour or so later.

About a month after the water peanut stopped going disco ball, it started to crack.  And it kept cracking until one day, the outer shell fell away revealing the inner water peanut.  And this inner water peanut glowed brighter and shone farther than it ever had before.  And on the same day that the new water peanut was born, the mariner’s wife learned that she was pregnant, with her dead husband’s baby.  “And do you know who that baby grew up to be?” I asked.  “Who?” she demanded.  “George Washington,” I said.  “Seriously?!” she cried.  “Yeah, well I mean, not that George Washington.  But, yeah, the baby’s name was George Washington.  That was just his name.  Still though, how about that, eh?”  She had a good laugh at that.

See, the thing is, I can only do this with her.  I can always tell just from looking at her how the story should go.  A smile, a laugh, a roll of the eyes, even a look of boredom.  I can tell what’s working and what’s not.  I can tell what I’m supposed to invent next.  Her face is like a roadmap for my stories.  I amuse her, I think, but in the end, she’s the Muse.

Well, now it’s on to the next adventure…

  1. I lost both games 🙁 []
  2. That’s the/a Yiddish spelling, anyway. []
  3. Of course whatever passed between Charlotte and the mother is private, but for anybody who is worried, both baby and mama are healthy. []
  4. I’m thinking of Queen’s Don’t Stop me Now. []
  5. I think it was a rock?  Or some kind of mineral deposit? []

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