An American in Berlin
19 August, 2016
I’m just going to pick up where I left off yesterday, since this is basically Part II anyway. You can read Part I here. So where was I? Right, Charlotte and I bounced on outta Villefranche and headed to the picturesque mountainside village of Eus for dinner. Not so much because we had heard great things about their restaurants,1 but because this would be our only chance to visit, and we wanted to get there while the sun was still up.
This place was beautiful from afar. It’s set into the side of a mountain, rising to its peak. The church is at the top, so the spire rises higher than anything else. OK, so I’ve made the decision not include pictures in my blogues. It’s poor form, I know. But I think we’re all old enough to read longform text without photos, right? That said, I don’t have the requisite thousand words to spare for each bit of scenery. Yet some of this stuff is really worth seeing. So I’m going to cheat a bit and link you to my Instagram account. There you can find shots of at least the highlights.
So we drove up the winding mountain road into the village. We found parking towards the bottom, but considered walking all the way up to be sheer folly. Whereupon did we drive higher and higher. Until we turned down a road that became so narrow, I wasn’t entirely sure we could pass. Neither was it clear that a) the road even led anywhere nor b) that we could safely back up.
It was at this point that a middle-aged gentleman approached our car. We rolled down the window and he began speaking in some kind of oddly accented French. We guessed, from the accent, but also from his leisurely style of dress, that he had to be English. He soon suspected that “we” were American. So he switched to English, and yes, he was a Brit. In any case, he told us we could definitely fit; he’d done it many times with a larger car and that, anyway, trying to back out would be daft.
This established, he guided us through the narrowest bit of the passage whereupon did he disappear into his home. I don’t think I could have done it without his help. Indeed, I was ready to try my luck backing out. But thanks to him, it all worked out. “God bless the English,” I said to Charlotte. And cheers to you, anonymous Englishman, I say now. This done, we easily found a parking spot and began our quest for dinner.
We’d asked Tommy2 if there was anywhere good to eat. He told us that the main restaurant was out of the question on account of they were holding a jazz concert that evening. But he assured as that there was a very nice café where we could get “a salad or something.” So we started to climb the rising village streets in search of said café.
Look, I don’t know how to describe this village, right? What I mean is, for Charlotte, this was nothing new. Sure, the village itself was something new. But in its abstract, the small French village was something she’d grown up with. Because she’s French. They have these things. We, however, do not. All I can say is, it feels like you’re in a fairy tale, in the middle ages. The streets are narrow and winding. Everything is built of stone. It’s hard to shake the feeling that this wasn’t real, that real people actually really lived there. And while Villefranche had a certain touristy vibe to it, Eus did not. They say the past is a foreign country that you can never visit. This, I think, is about as close as you can get.
But enough of this. We soon found the café. It was set into a little square, one side of which looked out over the valley and mountains. We decided that it was probably the most beautiful place we’d yet eaten at. But then the menu. Every last thing had something in it I couldn’t eat, usually some kind of cheese. The only exception was a charcuterie plate. But I’d been eating charcuterie since I’d got to France, and I didn’t want it again. I was starting to feel a bit annoyed. Especially since we’d passed up so many fine looking restaurants in Villefranche.
I want to say something here in my defense, because as you’ll see in a moment, this led to a short bit of tension between Charlotte and I. I’m well aware of my dietary restrictions. No dairy and no shellfish. But I normally take pride in not burdening my companions with this. After all, this is my problem, not theirs. I’m always very quick to tell people to order whatever they want and not to worry about me. I can always find something. And however inconvenient it may be for me, I never complain. It’s just the way it is, and there’s no use crying about it.
But this time, I was finding literally nothing that I wanted. I still didn’t complain, but there was no way to hide my chagrin. I didn’t want to put this on Charlotte, but I couldn’t hide it from her either. This in turn, annoyed her. Here we were in this beautiful place, and from where she was sitting, I was being a total drag, harshing her mellow, whatever you want to say. So now she was annoyed. And not generally annoyed, as I was, but specifically annoyed. With me. This, then, annoyed me. After all, she could eat any thing she damned well pleased. What did she have to be annoyed about?
She voiced her displeasure. At first, I denied my irritation. But she pressed, so I admitted that, yeah, I was a bit peeved. She expounded upon her displeasure. In my head, I made the same defense of myself which I’ve just written above. But in typical male fashion, I had no desire for an argument, so I just “OK’d” her.3 Making matters worse, in her opinion, was the fact that I wasn’t ordering any alcohol. Normally, I would never do this. But I knew I would have to maneuver our car back out through that same narrow passage, only this time in the dark. I knew I’d have to drive us back up to the cabin, up the winding, unlit, mountain roads, again in the dark. I’d drink all the wine in the world once we got home, but until then, I didn’t want anything to do with alcohol. In typical female fashion, she was dismissive of this logic4 and maintained her annoyance at my momentary sobriety.
So we sat in a bit of rather tense silence until her wine and my Perrier came. With the waiter (or possibly waitress; I’ve now forgotten) departed, I raised my glass to her, in toast. And on my face was what I can only assume was a “shit-eating” grin. We both broke out laughing at the stupidity of this little “argument” and clinked glasses. Whereupon we each said something along the lines of “Fuck you” to each other with a laugh and a smile.
Look, Charlotte and I do quite a bit of travelling together.5 And it’s very often the sort of travelling that has us together in close quarters for long periods of time. 99% of the time we go along in perfect harmony. But every now and then, we’ll run into something like this. I suppose it’s only natural. At the time, it’s frustrating. But it always passes pretty quickly, and is often laughably stupid anyway. Well, that was our headbutt for this trip. And once it was over, it was over.
I always write in the kitchen when I’m staying here. Because that’s the room where I’m allowed to smoke my pipe. Anyway, as I’m sitting here writing, Mischa comes in and pulls a bottle out of the fridge. “Willst du einen Schnaps?” he asks. “Do you want a drink?”6 “Natürlich!” I answered. “Of course!” He explained that this drink, called Kümmel, is ganz deutsch. It’s very German. So we clinked glasses and shared a drink. I’d never heard of this before, but he explained that this particular version was made in Berlin by a many-hundreds-year-old distiller. I don’t know how to describe the flavor other than to say that I found it quite “herbal.”7 It was very nice, in any case.
This is one of the perks/beauties of staying here. Anja and Mischa are very free with sharing their Schnaps. And Mischa, who is a wonderful cook, more often than not makes enough for me, even if I’m not eating with them. It’s not at all uncommon, as he did tonight, for him to stick a portion in the fridge for me for later. This is not the sort of thing you can ever hope to expect from an Airbnb, and yet they treat it as totally normal. I don’t know if they do this for everybody; we have built a nice relationship, after all. But they do this for me, and it’s simply wonderful. Hell, they were in Riga (Latvia) the last four days, and they brought me back some lovely caramels. As luck would have it, I found a book about cats that made me think of them8 at an antique shop. So we both had gifts to exchange. It was pretty perfect. The point is, I really lucked out, being able to stay with here for four months these last two visits.
So in the end, I ordered a salad and asked them to prepare it sans fromage. And when I say “I,” I mean Charlotte. She did the ordering. It was just lettuce, tomato, cucumber, olives and prosciutto with some kind of sesame dressing. But it was slammin’. It all worked out in the end. And as I said before, what a gorgeous fucking place to have a meal.9
After dinner, we went exploring for a bit. It was, by then, dark, so that the village took on an entirely different feel. We made our way up to the church, which was fantastic. We meandered the winding streets, with no particular destination in mind. We went down a few dark alleyways. And as we walked, Charlotte wondered aloud whether she could ever live in a place like this. She was leaning towards the negative, as this was nowhere near the water and there really wasn’t much going on. There also wasn’t much in the way of greenery. Then we passed by a stone house, with a stone wall around the property. The gate in the wall was open, and as we looked inside, we saw an older gentleman sitting at a picnic table in his courtyard, reading something and smoking a cigarette. It was the picture of the easy life. “Yeah, OK,” she admitted, “I could live here.” It wasn’t hard for me either, to imagine myself smoking my pipe in the courtyard, studying Greek or Hebrew in such a setting. Yeah, ça marcherait.
Eventually, we found our way back to the car. I felt a bit of anxiety while trying to pilot the old girl back through that narrow passage – mere inches to spare on either side – but I got through it without a scratch. And soon we were back at the cabin. Gaëlle and Jerome were waiting for us, and we hung out for quite a while, just chatting and drinking. By which I mean, they chatted and drank and I just drank.
But at one point, both Jerome and I went outside to smoke while the girls remained inside. We sat down with our drinks, he with his cigarette and me with my pipe. And we chatted for a while. In French! He was able to modify his speech just enough for me to be able to follow. And feeling freed from the constraints of swift-moving group conversation, I was able to finally express myself dans la langue française, albeit haltingly. Anyway, we had a very nice chat. He told me how he’d built the cabin himself, in three months. We talked about travelling and other things besides. It was the first time on this trip that I felt I was able to pull my own weight French-wise, and it was both a relief and a joy.
As the hours passed, it became apparent that it was now too late for G&J to go back down to Los Masos with the baby. So they elected to stay there, and of course, had first dibs on the cabin. This meant that Charlotte and I would spend the night in another camper, also located on their grounds. This they referred to as le camion de Clem, which translate as “Clem’s Truck.” Only, when French people speak, the de gets attached to the preceding word, and the e isn’t even vocalized. So it sounds more like le camion’d Clem. Except my ear simply isn’t tuned well enough to French yet, so that all I heard was le camion Clem. Which had me thinking the camper’s name was Clem. So at one point, I said to Charlotte, “So, we’re staying in The Clem tonight?” And she started laughing. “What’s so funny?” I asked. And she explained to me the foregoing. See, the camper belonged to their friend Clémence. Only she wasn’t around, so we were able to use it for the night.
It was cozy, it was comfortable, the bed was big. It was great. I didn’t sleep as well as the night before, but probably because I wasn’t as exhausted as the night before. But that didn’t matter. We had to be up earlier anyway, as we had another long day ahead of us. J knocked on our door around 9ish, I want to say. Not long after, we were all back at the cabin having breakfast. Or, they were having breakfast, anyway.10
The day’s plan was to head up a different mountain to where C&G’s friend ran a little restaurant, a refuge, was the French word. There was only one hiccup. They were bringing the baby. And so here’s a thing I didn’t know. Apparently, when you’re bringing a baby up to such elevations, you need to make periodic stops to allow the child’s ears to adjust to the new levels of air pressure. It seems like a minor point, I know. But it’s relevant only because of what happened next.
What happened next was, somebody – I don’t’ remember if it was C or G – asked me if I wanted to hold the baby. Well, of course I fucking did! But I daren’t ask. See, my feeling was, I was there only by their grace and as Charlotte’s guest. I was neither friend nor family. I was grateful that they had welcomed me into their home. The idea of asking to hold the two-week-old proto-human struck me as presumptuous bordering on impudent. But when it was offered? God yes, give me the child.
Next thing I know, I’m holding this tiny, squirming, arm-waving, cooing pre-person in my arms. I’ve never held such a young thing before. It’s incredible. I mean, it’s incredible for me. For the baby, Nino, well, what does he fucking know? No, seriously. What does he fucking know? Surely he knows who his mother is, maybe his father. But beyond that, does it make a godsdamned bit of difference to him? This is a serious question. What goes through a baby’s mind when a total fucking stranger has it in it’s grasp?11 Does it think, “who is this motherfucker who’s got me now?” Or is it just thinking, “I’m hungry, feed me bitches.”
So I’m holding this child, this infant. And I’m faced with the same wracking dilemma I get at strip clubs, during a lap dance. Yeah, I know, totes inapropes. But bear with me. I don’t really care for strip clubs. And I definitely don’t enjoy paying for lap dances. But I’ve been to a couple of bachelor parties. And I’ve had friends buy me lap dances, because, well, I don’t know why, but they did. Honestly. And now I’ve got some strange, albeit hot, girl dancing on me in just her underwear. And I don’t know what to say or do. “So, are you in college?” “Do you have kids?” “Did you wash out of Julliard Dance?” Look, I’m not saying I’m popular among strippers. I’m saying, you’re now in an intimate setting with a total stranger and what the hell do you say?
Right, so I realize normally people don’t have “conversations” with the girl who is giving them a lap dance. I’ve also noticed that people don’t generally have conversations with the newborn infants they happen to be holding. But I’m awkward. I’m awkward with strippers and I’m awkward with babies. So I had to do me. And doing me meant chatting up little Nino. It went something like this:
Dave: Hey, tate-sheyna,12 how’s your day going? Good? Good. So listen, today we’re going to go up into the mountains. Hmm, mountains. OK, to understand mountains, you need to understand a bit about plate tectonics and/or volcanism. On the other hand, you also need to know what a rock is. Actually, you know what? Forget it. The point is, we’re going to go ‘up.’ And you’re going to have to stop periodically, so your ears can adjust to the changes in air pressure. Know what I mean?
D: Right. OK, so air. This is what you breathe, you know when you…well, breathe. And you can’t see it or feel it, so you probably don’t even know it’s a thing yet. But it is. It’s pretty important actually. Anyway, the point is, air has weight. Obviously you can’t feel it now, because our bodies are designed to operate at this level of air pressure. So you don’t even notice it. But the higher you go, the less air there is on top of you, which means it’s pressing down on you less. Stop me if you have any questions, OK?
D: So the thing is, your ears, believe it or not, have some very delicate machinery in there. (And I gently caressed his ear). They’re very sensitive to air pressure. I mean, this is what allows you to stand up straight. It’s what allows you to walk without falling over. Wait, what am I saying? You don’t stand or walk yet. But surely you see the gronwups doing this. Nevermind. What I’m trying to tell you is, as we go up the mountain – the big giant rock – the air pressure will change on you and it won’t feel good. So mommy and daddy are going to have to stop periodically, so your ear-machines can adjust.
N: Wah. (Not, “waaaaaagh,” mind you. Just, “wah”).
D: Oh, no, no, no, tatela. It’s nothing to worry about. You’re gonna be fine. And we’re gonna have a very nice time when we get where we’re going. You’re gonna love it. Honest.
Meanwhile, this whole time, unbeknownst to me, G was taping this whole exchange. She does speak a decent bit of English, but I’m fairly certain she couldn’t follow this nonsense. Yet she was taping it all the same. And in fact, my sense was, this was the best way I could connect with her. I mean, we could only communicate directly on a very limited level; in bad French or bad English. But here I was, being affectionate13 with her baby. And I got the sense that she really appreciated this. Like, “I don’t know this asshole, and I have no idea what the fuck he’s talking about, but he’s being (some weird kind of) sweet with my child, and that’s A-OK in my book.” That was my read anyway. And I hope I’m right on that. I mean, they were so gracious in letting me stay with them, I wanted to be able to give something back. And I couldn’t give anything by way of conversation. And I couldn’t give anything by way of music, because we didn’t have a guitar. So this was all I had to give, mad as it was.
Anyway, little Nino was starting to get his cry on, so G soon took him back. And out came the tit, because apparently this kid is just hungry all damned the time. Or, alternatively, all babies are hungry all the damned time. But this is the only baby I have any experience with, so I don’t want to generalize. The point is, he calmed right down for lunch. Well, we all get hangry,14 don’t we.
Soon thereafter, we departed for the refuge. The drive took us through some more lovely scenery as we wound our way up the mountains. I had no idea where we were going, we were simply following G&J. At one point, they pulled over. It was the first pause they needed to take for Nino. We realized then that it made no sense for C & I to make these pauses as well, and so we agreed to meet up for a coffee at the (yet again) walled village of Mont Louis. So C & I proceeded apace, arriving in advance of our travelling companions. We had enough time to explore the village a bit before G&J arrived. Not much to say here, after Villefranche and Eus. More of the same basically, which is to say, it was lovely.
Eventually, the young family joined us and we sat down in a little diner.15 This time everybody else ordered some kind of coffee, while I went for a pastis. It was a nice little break and Jerome generously picked up the tab. Then it was back on the road.
Finally, we reached the parking area of the mountain(s) where was located the refuge, which was run by C&G’s friend. From where we parked, we had about an hour’s hike ahead of us. The scenery was, again, stunning. We were really up in the Pyrenees now. The view in every direction was spectacular. Along the way, we passed a herd of cattle, which made their own sort of symphony from the bells around their necks.
At some point along the way, G&J needed to take a break. Apparently, carrying a fucking baby up a godsdamned mountain is not all that easy. Well, OK. So C & I, went ahead until we reached the refuge. I keep saying refuge, because that’s what it’s called in French. But really the English word ‘refuge’ has nothing to do with it. It was, essentially, a little stone cottage way up the mountain. As a practical matter, it was a restaurant. Most of the cottage was a dining room, with a small kitchen off to the side. And of course, there was outdoor seating out in front. Needless to say, the view was, again, spectacular.
As I said, the place was run by Charlotte’s friend Claire, who was the chef, along with her boyfriend. Just the two of them. C&C had a happy reunion and soon the four of us were sitting around drinking beer while we waited for GJ&N to show up. When they did, it was lunch time. I mean, it was past lunch time. It was a late lunch, is what I’m saying.
Well, another menu covered in cheese. But with Clarie being the chef, she was able to knock something together for me that I could eat. And it was amazing. Seriously. Just a chapati sandwhich thing, but it was one of the tastiest things I had the whole trip. Thanks, Claire! So yeah, it was a great time. Just hanging out up in the mountains, beautiful view, great food, beer. I should also mention that Jerome once again picked up the tab, without consulting us. Whereupon did C & I resolve to take them out to dinner, whatever that would be.
Look, this whole Berlin experiment may well end up being a failure, in terms of finding a job and being able to stay here. I honestly don’t know. But simply in terms of the adventures I’ve had, simply in terms of the things I’ve been able to see, the experiences I’ve been able to share, well, what a fucking win.
Our lunch being a late one, by the time we finished, it was time to close up shop. So Claire’s bf drove the new family down to the parking lot in their van, while C,C & I hiked our way back. Claire took us on a shortcut, which was barely a path through the wilderness. I felt a bit like we were taking the One Ring to Mordor. Not in the bad sense, mind you. Not the post-Moria shitshow. No, this was the happy bit, on the way to Rivendell.16 I mean, there was mud and flies, but it was still beautiful.
Right, so at the end of it, our party was separated, yet we were all thinking about dinner. Stop. When I say “our party,” I mean, me and Charlotte and la p’tite famille; we said our goodbyes to Claire and her bf in the mountains. Anyway, we considered trying to meet up in Villefranche, but decided this was impractical. We opted to meet in Los Masos instead. Only there were less options there.
OK, we need to stop here for a second. As a New Yorker, the idea that shit closes, like, ever, is just…I mean, what the fuck? What do you mean, “shit closes?” “This is France, Dave. Things close.” Well, that’s f’ing bullshit. No? No, of course not. I’m being provincial. Nevertheless, the idea that you can’t find a place to eat because, what?, it’s late? What is that? Well, it’s Europe, is what it is, I guess.
I say this because there we were in Los Masos, ordering drinks, and we have the waiter telling us the kitchen is closed. Double-you. Tee. Eff. But we had locals on our side, so something would work out. And indeed it did. Somebody – possibly Jerome? – found a hotel that was still serving dinner. So we made for it. Only when we got there, the waiter told us there was no menu now. The only choice was a plate of a fish with vegetables. I scoped out the table to the right of us and saw plates dancing with shellfish. Uh-oh. But no, that was something else. We would get some kind of whitefish. Relief.
Did we want drinks, the waiter asked. Would I have to move the car, I asked. No, I was told. Then bring wine. Bring a carafe. A big one. They did. I was happy. Then the fish came. I was happier. I forget now the type of fish it was, but it was some kind of whitefish. The whole thing. Head to tail. Scales, eyes, the whole nine. Jerome, bless him, showed us how to attack it. How to peel back the scales, how to get the meat off the bones without getting a mouthful of bones. Bless him. It was, oh my god you guys, it was fucking delicious. Quite possibly the best meal I had the whole trip. The fish was slammin’, the veggies were a delight and the wine was spot on.
I made a mess of my plate, tearing that fish apart. When I was done, it looked like a hurricane had torn through it. Then I looked over to Gálou’s plate. Man, she did a number on that. In one corner was piled the head and tial, and that was it! The rest of the plate was spotless. I don’t know how she did it, but it was damned impressive. So we went from not knowing where we’d eat to having a first class fucking meal. This time, according to plan, C & I picked up the bill. The very least we could do.
By this time, it was too late to head back up to the cabin, so we all crashed at the flat in Los Masos. And that, I think, is where I have to leave it. I didn’t expect this post to go this long, and there are still two days left to my trip. If you’ve stuck with this to the end, I thank you. So I guess I’ll pick up from here next time I sit down to write. Until then…
- In fact, we’d heard exactly no things. [↩]
- Students of history will know that Tommy is a generic demonym for the English, just as Yankee is (or, at least, used to be) a generic demonym for Americans. [↩]
- #menbeingmen [↩]
- #braodsbeingbroads [↩]
- There was the Great Western Roadtrip (Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah); Montréal; Maine; Brussels; my last trip to France. And more to come, surely. [↩]
- But a Schnaps is always a shot of something. In other words, a glass of wine or a beer is not a Schnapps. [↩]
- My dictionary tells me it is
distilled frominfused with (Thanks, Dale!) caraway. [↩]
- They have two cats, as I’m sure I wrote about last year. [↩]
- “What a gorgeous fucking place to have a meal.” It’s hard to be poetic with a New York accent. I remember talking to Charlotte about this when we were out West, amidst natural beauties such as I’d never seen. The English, with their silly accents, get to sound poetic all the damned time. Read this with an English accent: “My, but these mountains are stunning. See how the sun glistens upon the peaks. Such beauty I have never yet beheld.” Now try reading that again with a New York accent. Sound idiotic, right? So I find myself stuck replacing fancy words with expletives. “Holy shit, would you look that? That’s some fucking shit, huh? I mean, fucking wow. Fucking mountains, man. Fuck.” [↩]
- I often tend to avoid breakfast when I’m travelling, because I never really know what it’s going to do to my stomach. Though I didn’t used to. I’m only saying this because I was thinking about it the other day. Back in 2007 when I was traipsing around England and Ireland, I stayed at a couple of BnB’s. Full English/Irish breakfasts included. Fried Eggs, fried tomatoes, bacon, sausage, and then depending on which country, sautéed mushrooms, white & black pudding, and toast. And of course tea. The point is, I was thinking how back then, I loved every bite of it. But now, I’d be too scared to eat that and then hit the road. [↩]
- I say “it” and not “him.” A bit of linguistic exegesis here. Greek has a word for child, παῖϲ, stem: παίδ- (pais, paid-); whence all the child related words – pediatrician, pedophile, pedagogy, etc. Anyway, as with any Indo-European language, Greek nouns have gender. And παῖϲ is neutral. The Greeks used it for kids up to age 5. In other words, up to age five, a child was an “it.” Only after five was it a “he” (υἰόϲ (huios) for a son) or a “she” (θυγάτηρ (thugater) for a daughter. Whence my use of “it” to describe the child above. [↩]
- In accordance with my project of doing my part to keep some kind of ancestral Yiddish – particularly the Yiddish I grew up with – alive, I now make an effort to address boy-children as “tatela” or “tata-sheyna.” [↩]
- Well, for me, anyway. [↩]
- Hangry – a portmanteau of hungry and angry. [↩]
- “Diners” aren’t really a thing in France, but given the setup of the joint, “diner” is the best word for it. [↩]
- Point of interest: How the fuck does the MS Word spellchecker know the word “Rivendell,” yet underlines “Mordor” as being misspelled? And yes, I know it’s an imperfect analogy. Even on the way to Rivendell, the hobbits were beset by Black Riders. But still. [↩]