An American in Berlin
20, August 2016
Welp, I guess this is Part III.1 This marks the third time in three nights that I’ve sat down to blogue,2 and all this about one particular road trip. I think I mentioned in an earlier post that I used to be in the habit, back in the days when I travelled solo, of journaling by hand at the end of each day. It’s not something I’ve been able to do these last few years, for various reasons. So in a way, I’m treating these three posts as my journal for the trip, in a way that I don’t normally use my blogue. In reading over the first two parts of this saga, I’ve found I’ve given myself to more detail and more storytelling than has been customary for my American in Berlin series. I can do nothing but beg your indulgence on the matter, and hope that you have derived some enjoyment in the reading of it. And so, without further ado…
I did not have the best night’s sleep in Los Masos. Sure, I passed out promptly, exhausted from the day’s adventures. But after about four hours, I woke up scarcely able to breathe through my nose. Whether this owed to the environmental conditions of the apartment, the locality in general, or something else entirely, I cannot say. All I know is, I woke up in great discomfort and had a hell of a time getting back to sleep. Several hours – and many podcasts later – I finally passed out again, with the aid of a nasal spray and the rearrangement of some pillows. In the end, I guess, I slept “enough.” But it was a rough night.
This is Monday now, and the plan was for Charlotte and I to take our leave of Gaëlle and Jerome3 and thereafter to drive to the city of Montpellier. There’s nothing particularly stand-out-ish about this city per se, but it’s where Charlotte went to school. She’d spent a few years there and so, for her, it was imbued with a certain significance. This was enough for me, on two levels. One, I’m always up for seeing new places, simple as that. Two, for as along as I’ve known the girl, she’s been talking about this place. So I was, in fact, rather excited to see this town, to walk the streets that she’d walked, to see the sights that she’d seen, to share in her past and her experiences.
I mention this because it was entirely out of my way. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it was in the complete opposite direction of where I needed to end up, i.e. Barcelona. But so what? You’ve got to seize these opportunities, and if it builds a bit of inconvenience into your travel plans, you just deal. The gain is worth the hassle. Though in the end, there was no inconvenience or hassle, because the carshare I took from Montpellier to Barcelona turned out to be a huge fucking win. But more on that later.
To say that we had “half a day” in Montpellier, stretches the semantic value of “half a day.” We got there around 115pm and Charlotte’s carshare was due to leave around 5. So we had enough time for her to show me where(s)4 she used to live and to have a drink. And I’m glad we did this.
Look, I’m not gonna lie. Montpellier is not the greatest place I’ve ever been to. It’s not the greatest French place I’ve ever been to. It’s not even the greatest South-of-France place I’ve ever been to. It has much to recommend it, to be sure. But if you don’ have an actual reason to go, don’t rush to put it in your Top-Five is what I’m saying. But all this is beside the point.
The point is, when you care about somebody, you want to share in their life. And not just their life where it is today. You want to share in the whole thing. You want to know where they came from, you want to feel, as much as possible, what they felt. And so, for me, this was the real gold. Seeing Montpellier brought me closer to my friend. If you ask me what the best part of going there was, it was probably this.
That said, I don’t mean to give the impression that this is a second rate town with nothing to offer. Far from it. The cathedral is stunning, and entirely unique, with two stone towers rising before the main doors, joined by an arching bridge of stone. The old town is marked by narrow winding streets and old stone structures. In this way it’s like Eus or Villefranche, only it feels more like a city than a village, though don’t ask me to put into words what that means.
There is also this odd, weird, beautiful, modernist, Greek influenced area. I don’t even know how to explain this shit. It’s like people in the sixties used modern technology to build Greek-ish type shit. I think the area was called Antigone. And there are streets named after Zeus and (probably) Apollo. There are statues, which are copies of ancient statues. And there are columns, which are modernist interpretations of the classical orders. Fuck me. I don’t have the training or the vocabulary to describe this accurately. But, hey, there’s Google, right? Point is, it was impressive.
I visited this part, though, after Charlotte had left, but while I still had a few hours to kill. After I’d seen it, and was on my way back to the old town, some old dame stopped me and asked, in French, if shit was still open, if there was anything going on. I tried to answer her in French, but she wasn’t having it and switched to English. #davefail. Not my finest moment.
When I got back to the old town, I found I still had about two hours to kill before meeting my carshare. So I stopped into the café where Charlotte and I had earlier shared a drink. It just so happened that C’s first apartment in Montpellier bordered on this square. This imbued it with an extra sense of specialness.
I suppose I could have done anything there, as I sipped my pastis. I could have read my book (Jules Verne’s Robur le Conquérant), or read the paper on my phone. But I opted to break out the Yiddish book, which I’d bought in Berlin back when I’d first arrived. Up til now, I’d engaged the book on a pretty casual level. What I mean is, I’d tried to read it as if it were a German book written in a different alphabet, without really diving into the particulars.
But now I had time. And a dedicated notebook. So I got to work, I and my pipe and my pastis. So in the back of my notebook, I began jotting down quite basic vocabulary items. On one side of the page I’d give the Yiddish word, and on the other, the corresponding German word. But in the front of the book, I began to confront questions of grammar and syntax. In other words, I was making an active effort to understand how Yiddish works, as opposed to simply trying to read it passively as a sort of odd German. It was a beautiful way to pass the time.
Straight up, I’m pretty drunk right now. And yeah, I’m always a bit tipsy when I write these posts, as there is always a bottle of wine at hand. But this is something else. I went out around 730 to go read in the park. After that, I hit the supermarket to pick up a bottle of wine and a bar of dark chocolate with orange. When I came home, sometime after nine, I found A&M and the pretty girl from upstairs sitting around the kitchen table.
I joined them. Whereupon Mischa did his Mischa thing, which was to start pouring me wine and never letting my glass go empty. But of course simply doing that fails to meet his baseline level of graciousness. So he he offered me a Schnaps, in this case Johnny Red. And, of course, this glass wasn’t allowed to go empty either.
The funny thing is, he doesn’t even like scotch; has no need for it in the house. But he’s like, “Well, Dave’s coming, he’ll drink it.” And so he just keeps my glass full. Both glasses. The wine glass and the whiskey glass. Mind you, I didn’t ask for any of this. It’s just what he does. But, I mean, I’m not gonna say no, am I? Which is how I got to where I am.
—END INTERULDE I–
Around 750ish, I met my carshare people. OK, so I’ve been putting this off. I now need to explain carsharing. Basically, it’s like Airbnb, but with cars. The idea is this. Somebody has a car and is driving a long distance. They want to defray the cost. So they agree to take on complete strangers as passengers, for a fee. On the flip side, as a wayfarer, you have the opportunity of traveling long distances for a fraction of the cost of a bus or train.
And although Charlotte had vouched for this system, having done it many times herself, I was still a bit skeptical. Anyway, I met my ride at a nearby tram station. It was a Spanish couple. The other two passengers were a quiet French bloke and a leggy blonde girl. Both were taller than me, which meant I was getting stuck in the middle seat. Well, fuck. Still though, it was far cheaper and faster than the bus.
We all politely introduced ourselves in the beginning, but on the first leg of the trip, nobody really spoke to anybody. I mean, the couple spoke to each other. But they didn’t speak to us. And we didn’t speak to each other. It was only when we made a pit stop for some food that things got interesting.
As we got out of the car, our hosts starting asking us where we were from. Jacque McSilenttype said he was from France. Suzy McLeggsfordays said she was from Germany. That was enough for me. Straight away I started talking to her in German. And what a fucking relief, you guys. After four days of struggling to keep up in French, of fighting for every word that came out of my mouth, I was suddenly freed. All of a sudden I was talking in German and the words just flowed. I was unchained.
And look, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. This sort of shit is easy now. The “where are you from” or “what do you do” and so on. That’s the easy stuff. When you move into real conversation, the wheels come off pretty fast. But this, this was easy. And it wasn’t easy in French. Just introducing myself in French feels like a boxing match. But in German? A walk in the park. It was like a vacation inside a vacation.
But enough of this bullshit. There’s a bigger picture. And the bigger picture was that we soon realized that everybody in the car was, at least on some level, some kind of bilingual, if not more. English and German and even a bit of French for me. German and English for Legs. French and English for Jacques.5 Spanish and Catalan and English for our driving couple, named Maria and Angel, btw.
And so all of a sudden, we had some kind of weird bond. Next thing I know, I’m talking to Angel about Catalan history and language and culture. And he’s all, “I can’t believe you, an American, knows anything about any of this!” And I’m all, “people from New York know shit, son.” Though in truth, I was impressing him with Catalan history I’d only just learned in Villefranche and Fort Libéria.
Still though, what should have been a 30m rest stop turned into over an hour of just hanging out and chatting. It was a genuinely great time. The only thing was, I was due in at an Airbnb, and the later we hung out, the later I would get there. Which, if I already had keys, would be no problem. But this would be first night, so Oscar (my host) would have to be up to let me in. And at this rate, I was due in well past midnight. Also, Oscar barely spoke a word of English.
Here, Maria (the carshare host(ess)) stepped up and offered to communicate in Spanish with Oscar on my behalf. What a doll. In the end, I got there past 1230, but it was no problem thanks to Maria’s help. The room was a tiny little thing with no windows. But it was clean, and there as a fan, and I slept great. It was also smack dab in the middle of town. So for one night, it was perfect.
Next day, Tuesday, was the last day of my trip. I didn’t really do any research on Barcelona, so I just sort of wandered around, schlepping my backpack. I figured I could do this until it was time to head to the airport. But in the end, I didn’t have to.
See, we had all gotten on so well in the carshare that Maria texted me asked if I’d like to meet her and Angel for a coffee. Not only that, but they had to pass by the airport on their way home, so would I like a ride? What? Of course!
I mean, this is where you just get lucky. You sign up for a carshare, and basically just hope you can tolerate each other while you get from A to B. But instead, I actually made friends. People who the day before were ready to charge me money for a ride, were now offering to meet up for a coffee and drive me to the airport, no charge!
But I want to be clear, these guys were awesome. Angel has an interest in history and very much likes to chat. Maria is just a doll, one of the sweetest people you could ever meet. Together, they’re adorable. At first though, I was all like, fuck these people. I mean, the whole drive, he’s holding her hand, kissing her hand, touching her knee, all the lovey-dovey shit. And in my middle seat, I have an unobstructed view of all this. And I’m thinking the same thing I always think when I see PDA’s: “Happy cunts, I hate you all.”
In the end though, they were really quite sweet. And as we sat having our coffees (OK, tea for me), I got to know them more as people and as a couple. And they’re the sort of couple where the guy does all the talking and the girl rolls her eyes a lot, but you can just tell that they adore each other, and that’s, well, it’s adorable; hatred of happy cunts notwithstanding.
So at one point I said to them, “You know what I like about talking to you guys? I get to hear what you think,” I said, looking at Angel. “But I get to see what you think,” I said nodding to Maria. And that’s just how they are. And they’re lovely. Most likely, I’ll never see them again. Yet if they ever come to Berlin (or New York) I would be absolutely delighted to spend more time with those fuckers. A-plus fucking people, those two.
Cleary the thing that bonded us was language. Maria is a student of language, while Angel is a student of history. But they both, I think, see themselves more as Catalan than Spanish. So there’s a crossroads there, where everything sort of comes together. And I found myself talking to Angel about Catalan history while asking Maria about Catalan grammar.
And I was going to write a whole thing about Catalan grammar. In fact, I did write it. Then I read it. And that’s when I realized, there’s a reason I have no friends. So I’ll forgoe my observations on Catalan grammar, except to say that it’s mostly pretty easy but for they use auxiliary verbs in the past tense in a way that would strike the rest of us as totally backwards. And when I brought this to Maria, she 100% agreed, noting that this odd reversal gave her more than a bit of trouble when she studied French.
If there’s a larger point here – and I’m not sure there is – it’s that my two favorite subjects (language and history) allowed me to make new friends where I least expected it. I say “friends,” though I really don’t know if I’ll ever see them again. But I sure as shit hope I will.
—END INTERLUDE II–
Barcelona was cool. I mean, I mostly just wandered around, which was great. You know they have Columbus Circle there? No, seriously. They have a roundabout, at the center of which stands a giant column with Columbus at the top. In New York, Columbus Circle makes sense. After all, motherfucker “discovered” the New World. But why should Spain give a flying one?6
I stopped at a café for lunch. I ordered patatas braves, which Maria had recommended to me. It’s meant to be fried potatoes with some kind of hot sauce; sometimes tomato based, sometimes mayo based. I was hoping for the former, but got the latter. It wasn’t nearly as spicy as I’d hoped, but it was still nice. I closed with a glass of red vermouth, served over ice with a slice of orange. Apparently, it’s quite Spanish? It was tasty, anyway.
The truth is, I don’t have much to say about Barcelona. It mostly felt like any other European city. Except for Gaudi. This guy is obviously a big deal, as most people well know. And I know I’m supposed to go on about how amazing his work is. But in truth, I wasn’t feeling it. My take was, here was a guy who dropped a shit-ton of acid and then set himself to designing a bunch of gingerbread houses. That was my feeling for the Sagrada Familia as well as Park Guëll. I mean, I’m glad I saw it. Life experience, and all that. But if you want to look backwards, give me Rome. And if you want to look forward, give me New York. Only if you want to get high and listen to Pink Floyd and jerk off to architecture, well, only then, give me Gaudi. If that makes me a Philistine, so be it. Still though, glad I saw it.
So I had a lovely time meeting up with M&A for coffee. And it made my life so much easier that they drove me to the airport. But that was the end of Barcelona. Soon enough, I was on the plane. Which is not to be confused with, “soon enough, I was on my way.” Because I wasn’t. There was a one-hour-plus delay. After we were on the plane.
I had an aisle seat, and the across from me, on the other aisle seat, was some German broad who wasted no time asking about compensation for our delay. Ugh. Can’t we just sit here in silence? Apparently not.
I’m listening to the Black Sabbath album Heaven and Hell as I write this. What a magical album. And it’s magic no matter how or when you listen to it. But I think we have a tendency to listen to this album diachronically. In other words, we listen to this album as we hear it today. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, Dio, Iommi, Geezer. And produced by Martin Birch. It’s magic.
But what I love, is tying to hear it synchronically, in its own time. Listen to the last two Ozzy Sabbath albums; Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die. They’re slow and stodgy and not very good. And then, out of nowhere, Dio comes along breathes new life into the band. And it’s like, it’s like you’ve had weeks of rain and all of a sudden the sun comes out. Like, you resigned yourself to living in a grey, dreary world, and then, why would you do that? Life is free and fun and beautiful. It’s spring, after the worst winter you’ve ever lived through. Fresh air in your lungs. A smile on your lips. How could you ever be sad when there’s such joy in the world? That’s Heaven and Hell.
And it makes me so happy to listen to this record. And it makes me so sad too. I don’t get attached to rock stars, I don’t idolize them. I don’t have any interest in meeting my heroes. But there’s something about Dio. He was different somehow. He meant something, and when I listen to his music I feel shit in my heart. And he’s gone now, and it makes me sad. And there’s lots of dead rock stars that I adore. Bon Scott, Freddie Mercury, Phil Lynott. I connect with their music, and I can’t imagine my life without it. But it’s still an abstraction, it’s far away, it doesn’t really touch my day-to-day life.
With Dio, I don’t know. It’s different. It’s personal. Sometimes I listen to Rainbow and I just get sad, sad that he’s gone. Even now, as I’m listening to Heaven and Hell, I have tears in my eyes. And I shouldn’t, because I have such joy in my heart. But I miss you, Dio. And I don’t generally miss dead people. There’s three, and three only that I miss. I miss my grandpa, and I miss Daitz, and I miss Dio. And everyone else can fuck off, is how I’m going to end this interlude, because I’m tired now of dealing with my emotions.
—END INTERULDE III–
Well, we finally got back to Berlin, well past midnight. To get home, I needed to catch a bus to a train, and at this hour, they were probably the last bus/trains that were running that night. Anyway, who do I find when I get to the airport bus stop, but that girl from the flight, who wanted to know how we’d be compensated for our delay.
At first, my reaction was, oh no, now I have to talk to Type-A German girl? I just wanted to get home. But in fact, she turned out to be quite nice. And we had the same route; her U-Bahn stop was two after mine. So we wound up chatting while we waited for the bus, and then on the bus, and then on the train. It was quite nice, actually. If nothing else, it passed the time.
On the train, we traded fb info so that we might later meet up again. Whether we do or not, I have no idea. But the truth is, I don’t know that many people here. So if she winds up being somebody I can grab a drink with here and there, so much the better. And if not, well, it made my ride home much easier than it otherwise would have been.
Right, well, I guess that’s the end of this particular adventure. I never meant for my accounting of it to go on this long, but what can you do? Of course I have much more to talk about, whether it be my Hebrew studies, my job hunt, or just life in Berlin. But all that can wait for another post. This story, at least, has reached its end. Until the next time…
- Parts I and II can be found here & here. [↩]
- As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in the past, I’ve invented – or at least adopted – the spelling “blogue” (as opposed to the usual “blog’), as it seems kind of Frenchish, and therefore more sophisticated. [↩]
- And, of course, little Nino. But how do you say goodbye to a two-week old proto-human? Well, I did it something like this: “Goodbye, tatela. Now, stay out of trouble, OK? Listen to your mom. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, and don’t bring girls home after 11.” I’m not saying I win father of the year. But G seemed to appreciate the effort, and that ain’t nuthin’. [↩]
- Yeah, that’s me trying to pluralize a preposition. Because she lived in more than one place. So she didn’t show me “the where” she lived, but rather, “the wheres.” This one of the things I love about English. Breaking rules. Come at me, bitches. No, but seriously, in a way, it reminds me of the Music Theory class I took in high school. Our teacher, Mr. Dolgan, would talk to us about Bach. Bach, who you must already know, was boss, fire, dank, and any other contemporary baller epithet you can think of, broke all the rules. But, we were taught, you need to know the rules before you can break them. So when I pluralize a preposition – which is definitely not a thing – I do it knowing the rules. Which is not to say I’m so bold as to consider myself the Bach of English, but, well, that’s the idea. Also, I’m considering now just deleting this whole footnote. But Imma leave it; as témoignage to how my brain works. #sorrynotsorry [↩]
- Who’s actual name was Hugo. [↩]
- I’m kidding, of course. [↩]