An American in Berlin
So in my last post, I mostly just talked about horseradish and the travelling shit-show of a circus that is Dave & Charlotte Roadtripping. But I really didn’t say much about the places we visited. So I should probably do that. You know, before I forget all about it. Prague first, then Saxony/Poland.
Right, Prague. The stories are legion. “Go to Prague,” they say. “You’ll get beer for like 35 cents,” they say. Well, maybe 10-15 years ago. But not now. I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s still cheap. Cheap compared to New York or Paris. But maybe not so cheap compared to Berlin. In fact, in most ways, I’d say the pricing is pretty comparable to Berlin. So yeah, it’s cheap. But it’s not like you go there and spend 35 dollars for a weekend.
Whatever. It’s a beautiful city. It’s beautiful in terms of its architecture. You find neo-classical butting up against baroque butting up against art deco. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. It’s just all there. And it’s gorgeous, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense. But here I’m talking about the larger city, in general terms.
The “city center,” the “old city,” was less than impressive. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there’s some fantastic architecture and a lot of history. But it all feels very Disneyfied. Kind of like Times Square, actually, but with older buildings. Herds of tourists shuffling from one attraction to the next. Street vendors selling useless garbage and subpar food at gougey prices. Not to put to fine a point on it, but it’s a fucking rip-off.
C signed us up for a free walking tour. This, in fact, was pretty great. But I’ll come to it later. Because, before the tour, we decided to grab a quick lunch in the city center, the old town. Now look, we’re fairly experienced travelers. We know that if we we’re going to eat lunch here, we’re going to overpay. Cost of doing business and all that. But there’s over-paying and then there’s getting ripped off. And they ripped us off. Or, rather, they tried to.
So enamored were we with the sausages and horseradish(!) from the night before, that we decided to grab a kielbasa (though I think it was spelled ‘klobasa’) and some kind of potato salad for lunch. The posted prices were high, but not unreasonable. Based on the signs, we calculated something 4-6€. So we were fairly shocked when the guy at the register asked for roughly twice that amount.
Well, what can you do? We paid it. I mean, we were in a line, in a rush. And maybe we did the conversion wrong, who knows? But we weren’t happy about it. Still, that’s the travelling life. So we took our food and found a bench. Only, when we started eating, we were hugely disappointed. The sausage was greasy and not very flavorful. The potato salad was also kinda gross and there was way too much of it. So we broke out the receipt and tried to figure out what the hell had happened. And here’s what the hell happened.
On the sign, they quote you a price per gram or kilogram. Then they give you way more g/kg than you could possibly want. Then they insist that this is the standard amount. In other words, they rip you right the fuck off. So now, the food wasn’t good and we’d been screwed. We were not happy campers. It was at this point that C resolved to raise hell.
She picked up the bowl of shitty potato salad and marched back to the food stand. Five minutes later she returned sans potatoes and with a crisp 200 Crona note, good for about 4€. I mean, basically she made a scene until they paid her to go away. Bless her.
But here, this is one of the mysteries of life, as far as I’m concerned. I mean, in almost all contexts, it’s the men who are aggressive, confrontational, warlike. It’s the men who conduct business. But screw up the bill at a restaurant? Well, hell hath no fury, nah mean? So in the end, it worked out. I mean, it worked out as well as overpaying for a shitty lunch can work out. But at least we (read, she) made them pay for trying to fuck us over. The point is, don’t fuck with a New Yorker.
After lunch, we had our free walking tour. Our guide was a Polish guy named Michal. He described himself as an aspiring actor. No surprise then, that his opening schtick was a bit heavy-handed. But in fact, he turned out to be a great guide. And when you got him to the side, when you were able to talk to him one-on-one, he turned out to be a great guy as well.
Anyway, we got some good history on Prague. Apparently, the thing to do, when you’re unhappy with a public official, is to defenestrate them; to throw them out a window. I’m no position to judge the efficacy of such a method. All I’m saying is, if I was a corrupt big-shot in Prague, I might put my office in the basement.
So lots of old Prague then. But for me personally, the highlight of the tour was the Jewish Quarter. Now, we went on Saturday, so of course everything was closed. But we saw the Jewish cemetery and a couple of synagogues. Worth noting, we saw the synagogue that is home to the mythic Golum, who even now, it is said, sleeps in the attic. So that was very cool.
The next day, we walked around the palace grounds. Which was definitely cool and very pretty. Great views of the city too, as it is up a mountain and across the river from the Old Town. But you know, seen one, seen ‘em all, kinda thing. Much cooler was the classical concert we went to that evening.
It actually took place in a small, baroque concert hall (or maybe ‘salon’ is a better word?), where, it seems, some of Amadeus was shot. This was a lot of fun. The core group was a quintet. But they had a guest singer as well as two guest cellists. The set included Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the first movement of Beethoven 5, Spring & Summer from the Four Seasons, the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem and some other big ‘hits’ as well. It was pretty interesting, as a lot of the material had to be (re)arranged for the small ensemble. But they did a fine job it. And I loved it. I mean, I don’t even know what the last classical concert I’ve been to was. I just know it’s been a while.
Which is kind of weird, really. When I was in London, I’d go to two a week. And even in the City, in my first few years, I’d go quite often. But somewhere along the line, I just kinda stopped. I don’t even know why. So I’m not even sure I really knew how much I missed it. But when they opened with EKN, and that rich beautiful sound filled the hall, I was in heaven. OK, that probably overstates it. But, I was in a wonderful and familiar place that I’d been gone from for way too long.
C, on the other hand, had never been to a classical concert before. This gave me some mixed feels. On the one hand, I was delighted to be the one to bring her to her first show. I was delighted to share this experience with her. And, as I so often used to go solo to these things, I was happy to have somebody to share it with this time. On the other hand, I felt a bit of pressure. I mean, she was 100% on board with going. But it was really my idea. I was the one pushing for it. So if it sucked, or if she didn’t enjoy it, I’d have felt like it was my fault.
I needn’t have worried. After the Beethoven, she turned to me and was just like, ‘wow.’ And yeah, wow. Which is impressive, given that it was played by a fucking quintet. No brass. No timpani. But they still rocked the hell out of it. I mean, it’s Beethoven. So it’s going to kick ass. That’s what Beethoven does, right? Bach is perfect. Mozart is beautiful. And Beethoven is the fucking destroyer of worlds. In addition to being perfect and beautiful. The point is, C loved the shit out of this show. Big success.
So yeah, we might be disorganized and totally à l’arrache, but we get horseradish and Beethoven. What do you get? Nice hotels? Pass.
We went back to ‘our’ restaurant for dinner. We had to. I got some huge pig’s knee, which was gross and fatty and delicious and came with pickled peppers and pickled onions and also just pickles. C, I think, got what the English version of the menu called “gnocchi” but which was just another version of their awesome boiled potato dumplings. Given that we loved this place so much, I feel compelled to mention that the night before, I got deer neck, which came with red cabbage, potato dumplings and an ungodly delicious sauce. I mean, this joint was just brilliant. Obviously we had lunch there on Monday as well, before we left the city.
Those, I guess, are the highlights from Prague. Worth mentioning, but not going into detail about, were the TV Tower, the smaller Jewish cemetery in our neighborhood, the Charles Bridge and Borčak, which is a sweet, young wine that kind of tastes a bit like pineapple juice. You could drink it all day, and never think twice about it.
Now for Saxony. I say Saxony because we were kind of all over the place. The original plan called for a visit to Dresden. But the AirBnBs there seemed rather overpriced, and we had begun to think we’d seen enough of cities. I mean, at some point, cities are all the same. So let’s see something new, we figured.
Whereupon did we visit a place called Kromlauer Park. No great reason behind this, other than that we saw a picture of a beautiful stone-arch bridge. So beautiful were the pictures, we figured why the hell not? And our hosts confirmed the Merkwürdigkeit of it, which was nice. It did not disappoint.
The bridge is set over a small stream/lake/whatever in the midst of beautiful woodlands. The bridge itself is shaped like a rainbow. And the waters beneath it are so still that the reflection forms a perfect circle. It’s gorgeous from any angle. And we saw all the angles. The rest of the park was lovely, to be sure. But the bridge alone made the trip here worthwhile. And being a bit off the beaten trail, it was not at all crowded; neither did it have the feel of being a tourist attraction. Kromlauer Park ftw.
But wait, there’s more. The place even had a bit of a fairy tale feel to it. This owed in part to the scenery, but also to two young girls, seemingly about 8-10 years of age. More than once, they seemed to appear out of thin air and to disappear back into it. They also had a strange, almost enchanted look about them.
One was dark haired and seemed to ignore us. The other was blonde and either smiled and waved to us, or sort of just stared at us. We fancied that the dark haired one was an angel and the other a demon. Adding to this feeling were two stone benches set into semi-circular stone “caves,” little concave huts, for lack of a better word. On the map, they were called Himmel und Hölle – Heaven and Hell; one was of white stone, the other of black. They must be the thrones of the two girls, we reasoned.
Before leaving the park, we made a little picnic, using an old tree stump as a table. We feasted upon bread and meat and cheese and fresh tomatoes, washing it all down with a couple of radlers while listening to Abbey Road. As fine a picnic as you could want, I tellya.
After lunch we drove down to Gölitz, a small city on the border of Poland, which lies to the South of both the park and also our AirBnB. As I mentioned in my last post, this was my plan from the night before; but our hosts had confirmed to us that it was the nicest of the towns we had under consideration.
And indeed, it was quite pretty. Our initial walk through the town was a bit odd, however. The buildings seemed to alternate between grand old structures of great beauty and boarded up works in a dilapidated state. Indeed, it had the feeling of a once vibrant city dying a slow death at the hands of a stagnant economy.
Soon enough, however, we came to the river, on the other side of which was Poland. Now, technically, I’m not supposed to leave Germany at the moment. My 90 days have expired; these are the 90 days you get as a tourist on an American passport. I’ve been granted an extension to stay in Germany until my working papers are sorted, but my extension isn’t actually valid as a travel document.
However, Poland is part of the EU and there were no border controls at the bridge. So obviously we had to cross over. In fact, one of our original plans had us going to Krakow. C had worked there in the past, and she very much wanted to see it again. I’d never been to Poland at all, so I was happy to visit Krakow as well. In the end, though, we decided not go there, as we would have had to fly or take a bus, and this definitely could have put me in front of the border police.
So we crossed over the bridge to the Polish version of Görlitz. Not quite Krakow, but at least we got to Poland. And the first thing you notice when you cross over is that every third shop seems to be a cigarette depot. In this respect, Poland seems to be Germany’s Indian reservation. By which I mean, tobacco is super cheap there, and apparently they do a brisk business selling cancer sticks to Jerry.
After dinner – which I’m sure I dealt with in my last post – we walked back over the bridge. This time, we walked through the city center of Görlitz on our way back to the car. This stood in stark contrast to our earlier walk. Now everything seemed beautiful and posh and quite medieval. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say it was even prettier than Prague. But, as I say, it also felt rather posh. So, nice though it was, we felt we’d made the right call dining across the border.
As we walked, C and I had an interesting conversation. By way of introduction, I’ll say that sometimes it’s funny how two people can see the same thing and draw two totally different conclusions. What do I mean? Well, I’m talking about the role I played on this particular trip as ‘the German speaker.’
Here’s the short version of what I said to Charlotte. Basically, I said that it was a nice feeling for me to be able to handle the language for a change. See, every time we’ve gone somewhere French speaking – this year’s trips to France and Brussels, my previous trip to France, Montréal – I’ve always been dependent on her for the language. I mean, yeah, if I’m on my own in a French speaking place, I can manage the basics. But she’s the native speaker. So she always just takes care of it all. And in the States – or even Berlin, for that matter – well, she speaks English perfectly well; so she doesn’t need me. But here, in this part of Germany, it was the first time we’d gone somewhere where I “spoke” the language and she didn’t. So it was all on me, for a change. Restaurants, AirBnBs, even just reading signs.
So I told her that this was a nice feeling for me. It felt good to be useful for a change, instead of dependent. The only thing was, she didn’t share my interpretation of the situation(s). I think, first of all, that on some level, she could probably have managed with English if I wasn’t there. Maybe I have that wrong, and if I do, I’m sure she’ll tell me as soon she reads this. But the real surprise came when she told me how much she counted on me for English in the States.
For me, English in the States never came into this equation. I mean, her English is really quite good. And sure, maybe if me and Vinny are speaking at New York speeds in New York accents it can be hard to keep up. But overall, I never really gave much thought to how hard living in English might have been for her. As I say, she’s good at the language. But New York is a funny place for English, I guess. I mean, you’ve got people from all over the world. So every day, you’re dealing with a panoply of accents, all kinds of broken syntax and odd idioms. As a native speaker, you hardly notice this. But when it’s your second language, it’s got to be a slog.
I know this just from living in Berlin. There’s “proper” German, and that’s fine. As I say, restaurants and AirBnB hosts are no problem for me. But then I try to talk to the girl upstairs, with her speed-speak, Berlin accent and cornucopia of idioms, and…fuggedaboutit. This is the long way of saying, I told her it was nice to feel useful – language-wise – for a change; and I had no idea how much she had been relying on me all along. As I say, it never ceases to amaze me how two people can look at the same data-set and arrive at two totally different conclusions.
So much for Görlitz. Back at the AirBnB, it was wine and music, Yatzee and Mikado. And then up early the next morning and back to Berlin. We drove straight to the airport, as homegirl was flying back to France on a 1:30 flight. Oh, actually, wait. I left out one thing.
Saturday night, my family was celebrating Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish new year. The whole family was together; or at least, most of the whole family. By which I mean, my dad’s side of the family. This was tough for me on two levels. First, it was hard knowing everybody was together and I couldn’t be there. Also, my mom made brisket, and it was hard knowing I couldn’t have any. I won’t say which of these was the greater hardship.
Anyway, I Skyped in and got a chance to say “hello” to everybody. This was actually a lot of fun. I tried explaining to C the difference between my mom’s family and my dad’s family. Before I go any further, I want to be clear that I love them both very much. It’s just that they present very different experiences. With my mom’s family, it’s all quite formal. There’s fancy china, assigned seats, shirts with buttons on them. With my dad’s family, it’s (often-as-not) paper plates, buffet style, eat on the couch. And so, as the phone got passed around, as I chatted briefly with cousins and aunts and uncles, there always seemed to be somebody in the background – my brother, a cousin – flipping me off. In sign language, “I love you” is expressed with a hand gesture that looks like ‘throwing the horns’ but with the thumb extended as well. In other words, a fist but with a index finger, pinkie and thumb pointing outwards. But in Starr-family sign language, you say “I love you” by making a fist and extending your middle finger.
One of my favorite pictures in the whole freakin’ world now, is the one my brother sent me that night. It’s the whole family – 17 people – giving me the bird. It’s pretty perfect. I showed it to Charlotte. “This,” I said, “is my family.” And that, she appreciated.
Anyway, we got to the airport with plenty of time. It was weird to say goodbye. See, C is going to Australia in November; length of trip: unknown. Also unknown, when we’ll see each other again. So it was a bit emotional. More for me, I think. Which is odd, maybe. On a day-to-day level, she’s far more emotional than I am. At least, that’s my take. But when it comes to big goodbyes, I can go a bit weak in the knees, so to speak.
My opinion is that she’s pretty good at compartmentalizing this stuff. In other words, she’s pretty good at either not dealing with it, or else convincing herself that the goodbye ain’t for as long as it seems. Or maybe she just doesn’t care enough. Or maybe this kind of thing just doesn’t hit her as hard. I’m sure I’ll get her two-cents on the matter when she reads this. Point is, it was not an unemotional parting on my end.
But part we did. And now her adventure continues in Australia while mine continues in Berlin. Ah, Berlin. Saturday night I was over at Joschka’s for dinner and drinks. Sometime in the past year or two he’s become quite the mixologist. I give but one example. This weekend, he made one drink that included fresh rosemary, crushed ice and fire. Yes, you read that right. Fire was an ingredient. You literally set the alcohol in the glass on fire. It was delicious.
It was a very nice evening. In addition to learning a great deal about cocktails and mixology, the lad has also taken a keen interest in cooking. And while I have nothing to offer in the cocktail department, I do at least know my way around the kitchen. So he made one crazy drink after another, and I cooked. We had a very nice dinner, in fact. Something with pork and Brussels sprouts and red onions in a white wine sauce. And so many delicious cocktails.
If only I’d had a nice lunch. I never considered that I was drinking too much on a too-empty stomach. So we had a great time, sure. And indeed, we hadn’t hung out in a while, so it was nice to catch up and just hang. But wow, Sunday was a hot-mess. I don’t think I ever got out of bed, unless it was to throw up.
In fairness to myself, these soul-crushing, body-destroying, day-wasting hangovers are not at all frequent. But each one his harder than the last, at this age. It’s a delicate dance, this whole aging thing. I can drink a liter of wine on any given night and be alright. But I can no longer hit the hard-stuff hard. Not on an empty stomach, anyway. The trick now, is to know that before it’s too late. I don’t repent. I don’t wish to change my ways. But I do need to adapt. “Adaptation is the key to survival.” Who said that, anyway? Pretty sure it was Evolution.
There is one last thing I want to touch on, before I close this post. As I mentioned previously, it was recently the Jewish new year. The exact date escapes me, owing both to the lunar calendar and the ad hoc nature of the celebrations. But last year, I met an Israeli girl at a party. And just before I left, we hosted a Shabbat dinner for our gentile friends.
So now, this year, she decided to host a Rosh Hashanah dinner. Sadly, it was vegetarian. Which, I mean, is fine per se. Just that it didn’t give me an opportunity to win back the brisket I lost by missing my own family’s dinner. Nonetheless, it was still great. It was a pot-luck affair, this one. But Dafna – the only Jew I’ve yet to meet here – decreed a main ingredient for each person’s dish. And before we got into each dish, she said a brucha and told us the significance of the main ingredient to the holiday.
It wasn’t formal and it wasn’t “traditional.” But it was pretty great, all the same. I’m not a religious person. If I was home, you can be sure I wouldn’t be going to Schul for the High Holidays. But at home, I’m not an anomaly. At home, there’s Jews everywhere. Here, it’s just me. So no, I don’t particularly care about the ‘religiosity” of it. And I’m sure as shit not going to ‘repent’ for Yom Kippur. But it’s nice to have that connection. It’s nice to feel a part of something. It was nice, is the point. And I’m thankful that my friend put it all together.
So that’s that. Prague. Saxony. Happy New Year, and wash it down with a fancy cocktail. In between, I’m teaching and looking for an apartment. Which is hell, I don’t mind telling you. The apartment hunt, I mean. But all that’s for another day. Now though, I just want to go to bed. Until next time…