An American in Berlin
19 October, 2016
Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time cooped up inside. Lots of reasons for this, I suppose. Not wanting to spend money. Busy with work. Weather turning to shit. Boredom. Some reasons are better than others. But today, I got off my ass and went for a five hour walk. My main goal was to visit the Schwerbelastungskörper, on more which later. My secondary goal was to get a currywurst from a particular stand on Tempelhoferdamm. I achieved my goals. I also achieved getting soaked by the rain, which was not my goal.
There are two types of walks that I undertake here in Berlin. One is a blind wandering. There’s no goal in mind. I simply pick a direction and go. These are great, because you never know what you’ll find. The drawback is, you might find nothing interesting at all. But at least you get some fresh air and exercise. And obviously the Fußpils, the walking-around-beer. The other type of walk is the one where you pick a point of interest beforehand and map out a rough route. That was today.
My first stop was the currywurst stand on Tempelhoferdamm. I’d been there once before and considered it to be one of the better currywursts that I’ve had in this town. Certainly I don’t go for the friendliness of the staff. I’m not kidding. It’s run by these two old ladies. Two old ladies who seem to have sticks or small dead animals up their asses.
OK, that requires some explanation. The first time I went, I merely stumbled upon it. I was wandering around the area, I was hungry and their prices seemed fair. So I ordered the obligatory Currywurst mit Pommes – currywurst with fries. I gave my order to the old blonde lady, but it was the old brunette who served me. Somewhere in that handoff, she lost the fact that I had ordered my food to go. So when I saw her putting it on an actual plate, I politely interrupted her. Entschuldigung, kann ich’s zu mitnehmen haben? Excuse me, can I have that to go please? And wow, did she give me the dirtiest look ever. I mean, it was all out of proportion. Like, OK. This is a minor inconvenience. I get it. But did I just ruin your whole godsdamned day? Because you look like I just ruined your whole godsdamned day. I wanted to apologize. I probably did apologize, in fact. But I did some serious eye-rolling.
Still though, it was as a good a currywurst as I’ve had.1 And the fries were solid, which is key. Nothing’s worse than going for a currywurst and getting shit fries. Contrary-wise, when you get a subpar currywurst but it comes with nice, thick steak fries, all is well. All this to say, despite the customer service hiccup, I was looking forward to grabbing lunch from the old dames today.
And they didn’t disappoint, on either front. This time, I went out of my way to make clear I wanted my food for the road. So far, so good. The brunette wrapped it up for me. Which, I mean, is weird. Like in New York, when you get a slice or two to go and the put the plate inside a paper bag. On the one hand, thanks, I guess. On the other, more realistic hand, do you not realize I’m going to start eating this the minute I’m out your door? Why did you put that in a bag? But that’s what they did, and I wasn’t going to ask them not too, lest I get the evil-eye again.
One thing you need to know is, you don’t eat currywurst with a fork, nor do you eat it with your hands. You eat it with, what I call, a Nathan’s fork. New Yorkers will know what I’m talking about. When you get fries from Nathan’s, you eat them with this little red plastic trident. It’s part of the charm, no? Well, it’s the same for currywurst, although here it comes in all colors.
Anyway, here, they usually hide the spear under the paper plate when they wrap it up. So you get that awkward fast food moment. You know the one. Where you don’t really know if they put a fork and napkins into your bag, so you just grab extras on your way out, just in case. Well, that’s just what happened here. Kind of.
They hand me my bag – and again, I’m going to eat this starting in three seconds, why did you put it in a fucking bag, no really, do you think I’m going to take it all the way home and proceed to eat it lukewarm? – they hand me the bag, I’m saying, and I think, lemme grab a fork/trident/spear. Just in case. After all, if you think I’m taking this “home,” you also probably think I have utensils where I’m going, yeah?
So I stretch my paw towards the pile of plastic tridents. And get this. The blonde lady literally slaps my hand. Like I’m a fucking child that doesn’t know any better. Slaps. My fucking. Hand. And the brunette – who last time looked at me like I was the world’s biggest asshole for asking for my food to go after she’d put it on a real plate – looked at me like I was out of my mind. “Alles ist drinnen” she said, or something like it. Everything is inside. Jeez, OK, fine. Thanks, I guess.
So I took my package of junk food and found a bench by the river. I opened the bag. And yeah, I found my little spear hiding out under the paper plate. But you know what I didn’t find? Napkins. So alles wasn’t fucking drinnen, was it? And napkins would have been helpful, given that the whole Mischung was drowning in ketchup. But whatever.
So I’m sitting there trying to enjoy my lunch. But now I’m annoyed that, at 35 years old, I’d just had my hand slapped. Like I was a fucking idiot child. And I’m trying to figure out if this is normal on a cultural level and I just need to accept it, or if these two broads are just raging bitches. Certainly Germans have a reputation for being direct – even severe – in ways that Americans might consider rude. And sure, when you encounter this, it’s your job to recognize that you’re in their country and you can’t take it personally. But this seemed a bit beyond that. In the coming days, I’ll run this by some German friends and see what they think. But at the moment, I’m thinking I can get my currywurst elsewhere. Or, you know, eat something healthier.
Anyway, after lunch, I headed up to the Schwerbelastungskörper. Beer in hand, obvi. On the one hand, it was great to be out walking. On the other hand, what a shitty day for a walk. It was cold and grey and rainy. Not freezing, not black, not pouring. Good enough to manage, but still fairly shite.
So I made my way up Tempelhoferdamm, past the Ring-Bahn, until I picked up Baron-von-Richtofen Strße. Baron von Richtofen, you will remember, was the Red Baron. See, in the area around Tempelhof aiport, they’ve named the streets after famous aviators. This particular street leads you through a rather posh neighborhood. Well, it’s posh now, anyway. When THF was an active airport, it was a different story. Jetliners flying over your house at tree-top level aren’t great for property values. But once they turned the airport into a park, this little ‘hood gentrified in a hurry.
Anyway, you walk through this little neighborhood a piece – and you have to know where you’re going – until you turn a corner and there it is. The Schwerbelastungskörper. This huge concrete cylinder, 14m high and 21m in diameter, just sort of sits there, in this little residential area. An ominous reminder of what Berlin – Germania – might have looked like, if Hitler and Speer had got their way.
The structure itself was nothing more than a test. It was never meant to be the foundation of anything. Its sole purpose was to see just how much weight the marshy soil of Berlin could bear. But it would provide critical information. With this test completed, the Nazis could build their Welthauptstadt – world capital – with all the scary, imposing, monumental architecture their sick minds could devise. Of course, they never got that far.
–Interpolation: I started this piece on October 13th. It is now the 19th. In the intervening days, I’ve been suffering from a real bitch of a cold. In fact, I still am. But I took a break from writing, as my usual habits seemed to me to be counterproductive as regards convalescence. In other words, I though it unwise to stay up late, smoking my pipe and drinking wine in throes of this wretched cold. I probably shouldn’t be writing tonight either, but I’m getting antsy. So instead of wine, I’m drinking hot toddies, which I deem medicinal. End Interpolation–
Anyway, the Schwerbelastungskörper was interesting and scary and awesome in the more literal sense of the word. Interesting, obviously, as a piece of history. And you can go inside it. It’s almost like a bunker in there. And while you don’t have access, you can see how far down underground it goes. Scary because, you know, Nazis. Awesome, however, is more complicated.
I have a weird relationship with Nazi architecture. On the one hand, it is all “intimidation” architecture. Like Versailles, it is meant to make the viewer feel small and insignificant. But there’s no confusing Louis XIV with Hitler. So there’s a creepy, evil feeling about it as well. Walk by the old Air Ministry (the current Finance Ministry) and you will feel it. Charlotte, who is not exactly a student of history, certainly felt it.
On the other hand, I have to admit a feeling of admiration for monumental architecture. Especially when it’s influenced by classical architecture.2 Take for example the US Capitol Building, the Supreme Court Building, the Municipal Building in New York, and on and on. And here you have this government that wanted to build things on a bigger and grander scale than anything that had ever been built before. You imagine what these buildings might have looked like, and it is literally awesome.
Then you remember who these people were. You remember that everything they built was built by slave labor or near-slave labor. And it churns your stomach. The further in time we get from these things, the easier it is to view them with a detached eye. But it’s still difficult to balance your subjective feelings about the architecture with your objective knowledge of the bastards who built it.
Anyway, in the week since I started this post, I’ve had the opportunity to ask more than a few Germans about the “hand-slapping incident.” To be honest, I was kind of expecting at least one or two people to admit, with a bit of embarrassment, that yeah, even if this wasn’t exactly normal, it wasn’t entirely unheard of either. I encountered no such response. To a one, I was met with looks of abject horror. Each responded in turn with something along the lines of, oh my god, that’s fucking horrific and please don’t judge Germans by this.
So at least I know I don’t have to feel bad about reaching for the Nathan’s Fork anymore. And I know I won’t be going back there again either. It does mean, however, that I need to find a new currywurst spot. Last year, there was a place in my ‘hood that was pretty great, and which served up some beautiful fucking steak fries. But they seem to have gone out of business in my absence.
In other news, I started watching Deadwood. Normally, I don’t much care for westerns. But I knew the show was done by HBO, was quite popular in its time, and starred Ian McShane, whom I loved from his work on the short-lived (but totally fucking awesome) Kings. So when I saw it on Netflix, I decided to give it a whirl.
And friends, it is basically Shakespeare transposed onto a western. You don’t notice it at first, what with the costumes and scenery, the waterfall of cursing3 and the Old West dialect. This to say nothing of trying to keep up with the plots and characters. But once you get accustomed to these things, you start to notice the Shakespeare in it.
First, some of the characters are right out of Old Bill. You’ve got your Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. You’ve go your Falstaff and your Macbeth. And if I was more versed in Shakespeare, I could probably pick out a few more.
But more than this, there’s the language. When the main characters embark upon long dialogues or soliloquies (and yes, there are soliloquies), the language is totally Shakespearean; if not in dialect, then certainly in syntax and meter. In fact, I would love to do a metrical analysis on some of these speeches vis-à-vis Mr. Stratford-upon Avon. I’m dead certain they would match.
As for syntax, the sentence construction doesn’t hold with the way we speak, but is definitely in accord with what you find in the Bard’s work. To be fair, I’m not an expert on 19th century speech patterns in the American West. But it’s hard for me to imagine that people spoke this way in their everyday lives, even if surviving letters support this to an extent.
And now here, I’m going to get into the weeds a bit. I’ll do my best to keep this succinct. In modern English, we have the “-ing” form of the verb. When I teach, this functions in one of two ways. The first is as a gerund, or a verbal noun. For example, “I like running.” Running is gerund. It’s based off the verb to run, but it functions as a noun in the sentence. The second, is as a participle, which is an adjective. For example, “We have running water.” Running is still based off the verb to run, but here, it’s an adjective, describing the water. What we don’t really do anymore, is use the “-ing” form as a present active participle in the classical sense.
And here, it’s helpful to remember that our ideas of style – even today – derive from Greek and Roman ideas of style. And in Greek and Latin literature, a sentence usually only has one main verb. Of course, you can have subordinate clauses which can stretch a sentence for nearly a page. But the main clause, the meat of the sentence, will have one verb. For the Greeks and Romans, joining multiple verbs with “and” was suboptimal. Of course they did it, but they didn’t love it. What they preferred, was to have one verb and then use present active participles in parallel with it, when more verbal action was required. OK, OK, shut the fuck up, Dave. I know.
So let me try to give an example of what I mean. Today, we would probably say something like “I went to the store and bought some bread.” That’s one sentence with two verbs joined by “and.” The Greeks and Romans, however, would prefer something like this: “Going to the store, I bought some bread.” Still one sentence, but now only one verb. The second verbal idea is expressed with a present active participle. We simply don’t speak like this anymore. We hardly even write like this anymore.
But Shakespeare certainly wrote like this. And so does Deadwood. They both also enjoy anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase. So, putting the two together, you might get something like this: “Bullock, being an honest (fucking)4 Sherriff, can be counted on to act justly. And acting justly, can be counted on to bring about a favorable (fucking) outcome.”
I realize this is an imperfect analysis. But this is how I watch the show now. I’m watching as much with an eye to the language and the style as I am for the story and the entertainment. I’m constantly trying to put my finger on why this sounds and feels so Shakespearean. This is what I’ve been able to come up with so far.
If you’re still with me – and I can hardly blame you if you’re not – I’ll begin my wrap-up here. The only other thing worth mentioning is the ongoing apartment hunt, which is a living hell and hangs over me like a cloud. I feel very unsettled, not having a place of my own. Added to this is the fact that I know I won’t be able to extend my stay where I am, as my hosts have booked the room to someone else for next month. So if I don’t find a place for next month, I don’t quite know what I’ll do. I can hope to find a different AirBnB, if it comes to that. And I have at least one friend offering a couch, which, while lovely, I don’t relish the idea of such an imposition. So there’s nothing to do but wait. Wait and see if I get any more responses to my room requests; wait and see if any of the people I’ve interviewed with deign to choose me.
Of course this will pass. And even if I don’t find a permanent place starting next month, I know I will find one eventually. But until I do, it’s a most unwelcome stress.
That said, I hate to end a down-note. So I’ll offer this as a coda. A few weeks ago, I interviewed at a language school where a couple of my CELTA classmates now work. I had, of my own accord, sent in my résumé prior. But I received no response. However, both of my friends got in the guy’s ear about me, whereupon I received an email to the following effect: “Dear Dave, I’ve now had two of my teachers singing your praises to me. Would you like to come in for an interview?” Obviously I would.
The gent turned out to be a Yank, and was lovely as could be. We had a very nice interview and he gave me a letter-of-intent on the spot. This letter, I should add, is something I very much need for my next visa appointment. So if nothing else, the meeting was already a win.
Anyway, in the course of the interview, it became clear that regardless of how our meeting went, he was going to write me the letter for two reasons. The first, being American himself, he knew well the hardship of trying to get situated in this country and simply wanted to be helpful. The second, he was doing a favor to his friends, who were also my friends. And on some level, I think he wasn’t sure if I was truly looking for work or if I simply wanted said letter. So at the end, I made clear that once I had my visa, I would very much like to work for him. Whereupon did he make clear that he would be very happy to have me work for him. And so, while I can’t work for him until I get my visa, it’s nice to know that I’ve got this prospect waiting for me.
And when I next saw one of my friends, he told me – unsolicited – that the guy had contacted him to report that he was quite pleased with me. And this is no small matter to me. Knowing, after all, that I only got the interview because of my friends’ intervention, it was very important to me to represent them well. Hearing, then, that I had done so was a relief.
So that’s where I’m at. Things continue to be tough at the moment. But once my visa is sorted, once I have my own room, things are going to start turning in my favor. The ass-end of 2016 is likely to be a struggle. But the dawn of 2017 is full of promise. It can’t come soon enough.
- Which, I mean, isn’t saying all that much. Currywurst, like the Philly Cheese-Steak, is the local indigenous food. And like the Philly Cheese-Steak, it’s second rate. That doesn’t mean there’s not good ones and bad ones. And it doesn’t mean the good ones aren’t quite enjoyable. It just means, get over yourself. Nah mean? [↩]
- Speer had this concept of Ruinenwert – ruin value. It’ll be easier just to quote Wikipedia (gods forgive me): “Ruin value (German: Ruinenwert) is the concept that a building be designed such that if it eventually collapsed, it would leave behind aesthetically pleasing ruins that would last far longer without any maintenance at all.” In other words, after the thousand years of the Thousand Year Reich, there would be glorious ruins for thousands of years more; just like the Athenian acropolis or the Roman Forum. Remove the Nazi aspect from the equation, and I can’t help but love this idea. Especially when contrasted with the ruin we now call Penn Station, to give but one example. [↩]
- I’ve never seen a show or movie make such use of the words ‘cunt’ and ‘pussy’ before. [↩]
- I earlier referred to the ‘waterfall of curses.’ Let this also serve as an example of that. And these words, being so bold, draw your attention away from the poetry that is being spun around them. Which is why I only began to notice all this in the second season. [↩]