An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
31 December, 2016
New Year’s Edition

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions.  Maybe because I know I’m not the sort of person to keep them.  Or maybe because, when I look at my life, I don’t see anything I wish to drastically change overnight.  Or maybe I’m just lazy.  Who knows?  That said, I do have some goals for the coming year, things I wish to accomplish.  So in the interest of accountability, I’m going to set them down here.  If I fail to achieve them, you’re welcome to come find me this time next year and say, “Good job, asshole.”

The first goal is one I mentioned many times before.  When the Jewish new year rolls around in September, I’d like to have my Hebrew up to a level where I can keep up with the weekly Torah readings.  I’d like to make it through all five books, on schedule.  The good news is, I’m ahead of schedule.  I’ve been hitting the books pretty hard of late, and I now see no reason why I shouldn’t finish my course book by March or April.

Of course, this won’t make me a Hebrew scholar by any means.  But it should give me all the necessary tools to work through the Torah well enough to know what’s going on.  And part of me imagines that this will become for me like Homer.1  Something that I read over and over for the rest of my life.

Which isn’t to say I’m finding “religion” (so to speak) in my Hebrew studies.  Far from it.  Indeed, all the things that turned me off to the religious side of Judaism when I was in Hebrew school still piss me off.  The blind devotion to a god.  The fact that that god generally seems to be lacking in self confidence and also kind of a dick.  The whole “chosen people” shtick.

On the other hand, it’s such a part of my heritage.  And it’s so much a part of western culture.  And the fact that the ambiguities of the text – and of the language itself – bear reading and re-reading.  In a very strange and unexpected way, I can see reading Torah as being a part of my life going forward.

In the meantime, however, I still need to finish my “first year Hebrew.”  And as I said, that should happen around springtime.  So what to do between that and Rosh HaShanah?  Well, to that end, my dear Aunt Cookie has promised to give me the chumash that Uncle Art once gave to her.  So I’m thinking I may take a crack at the Book of Esther to keep my skills up.  After all, the Purim story is a good yarn, no?

The next goal is to get back to Greek.  Before I left, my Homeric reading group had relaunched, albeit without the eminent Daitz.  It was the highlight of any given week.  But since I got here – and partly since I have nobody to read with – I’ve really done precious little.  And frankly, that’s unacceptable.

So in the new year, I’ve got to get back to Homer.  I’ve got to get back to reading a little bit each week.  But I’ve also got to make an effort to expand my Greek horizons.  Since I finished grad school, the only Greek I’ve really read has been Homer.  Which, one the one hand, I mean, if you can only read one thing, it should be The Blind Bard.  But on the other hand, who says I can only read one thing?

Last year I got back to Herodotus for a bit, and a few years ago I re-read Oedipus Tyrannus.  With respect to the latter, my original plan was to start with Oedipus (which I’d already read in grad school) and then proceed to the rest of the cycle – Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone.  But I got sidetracked “live tweeting” the first play and never got beyond it; though that was an admittedly fun project.

Oh, and there was the time me and my old friend Sam tried doing up a modern translation of Euripides’ Helen.  But Sam started a new life as a real-estate broker and the project subsequently died.  I never finished reading the play.  But being that one of the books I inherited from Daitz was his very own hand-annotated edition of the Helen, I will surely one day return to it.

But back to broadening my horizons.  One of the casualties of a virtually entirely Homer based reading diet is that my vocabulary has dwindled.  And my ability to read different styles has atrophied.  I didn’t spend all those years2 to become a Homer-only reading dilettante.  I did all that to become a Greek reading dilettante.  So in addition to getting back to The Poet, I also need to start back up with some prose and/or tragedy.  The obvious starting point is Herodotus; nearest in vocabulary to Homer and more or less straightforward in style.  I have goals beyond that, to be sure.  But that’s enough to start.

And then there’s a French translation project I’ve had on the back burner for a few years now.  During the back end of 2013 and the front end of 2104, I wrote something like a book.  Or rather, a series of loosely connected stories.  One of those stories takes place in France.  So I’d really like to try my hand translating that into French, in the style and language of Bedier’s rendition of Tristan et Iseult.  Whatever I come up with is sure to be chock-full of errors.  To that end, I’ve discussed (many times) with Charlotte enlisting her help with the project.  But I’d very much like to at least knock together a first draft on my own.

It will no doubt be a long and tedious project.  So long, in fact, that I don’t set for myself the goal of finishing it next year.  Simply getting started and making good progress will be enough.  But I really don’t know what I’m in for.  It may be over-ambitious.  My French is certainly good enough to read Jules Verne on the subway.  But writing in French, c’est une autre chose entièrement.  That said, I think there’s no better way to improve one’s skills at a language than to become proficient in the writing of it; short of teaching it anyway,3 which I’m clearly not qualified to do.

Finally – lest I set too many goals – is my Federalist project.  This is something that’s been kicking around in my brain for I don’t even know how long.  By way of preamble, the Federalist papers were a series of essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay (though mostly H&M) to the state of New York in an effort to persuade them to ratify the new constitution.  To this day, they remain some of the most in depth writings by our founders giving us an insight as to how they viewed the new document and what sort of country we would have.

Every student at least learns about the Federalist papers in social studies.  But few, if any, of us have ever read any of them in full, much less the whole body of work.  Every now and then, one of them comes up in the news.  Most recently, Federalist 68, which is about the electoral college.  But even then, we only get cherry picked passages that suit the purpose of whatever news organization we subscribe to.

Anyway,4 my idea for this “Federalist project” is to read through them, one by one.  And then to do a blog post on each of them.  Some kind of “in depth” reading and reaction; how I understand it in a historical as well as a modern context.  It’s not the sort of thing I expect many people to be interested in, to be sure.  But it’s still something I’d like to do.  And I’m not sure when I can start.  But if I can get it started sometime in 2017 I’ll be happy.  And even if I do one a month, or even one every two months, it will be worthwhile.  It will take years to complete, no doubt.  But what’s the rush.5  Anyway, add it to the list of sacred texts – Homer, Torah – that I would like to constantly be in the background of my life.

Right, so those are the goals I’m setting for the new year.  Read Hebrew.  Read Greek.  Write French.  Study the Federalist.  That should keep me plenty busy.  Oh, and while not a goal per se, I assume I’ll do another year of blogging about the Yankees.  At some point I’ll have to sit down and talk about this with Nate – my partner in crime when it comes to sports blogging – but we had such a good time of it last season, I see no reason not to do it again.

And then of course, there’s Berlin; and in a narrower sense, Köpenick.  I spoke about this in my last post, so need to dive deep here.  But obviously I intend to do a good bit of exploring this year; do a good bit of getting to know this place that is for now my home.  And with that, obviously, I include improving my German.  I don’t file these under goals, so much as necessities.  But I suppose they fit with the nature of this post.

So much for goals.  And the nature of this post.  There’s one other thing I want to talk about before I end, however, and it’s got nothing to do with goals for the New Year.  Rather, it’s about Hebrew.6

One of the things that I like about my course book is that the exercises in the accompanying workbook are passages taken directly from biblical texts.  In other words, they don’t make up lower level “fake” Hebrew; they give you the real thing.  Anyway, up til now, it’s all been stuff that has no special meaning to me.  A bunch of stuff from Genesis and Exodus, plus as many ways as you can think of to say “God’s kind of a big deal.”  But today, I came across something unexpected, something I didn’t just know, but knew what it sounded like; something I could sing the melody to.  It’s the prayer they sing when they take the Torah scrolls out of the ark:

כי מציונ תצא תורה ודבר–יחוח מירושלם

And now, I’ll transliterate it, because I think anybody who spent more than a few boring Saturday mornings in Schul will recognize it instantly.

Kee mitziyon taytzey torah, u-divar adonayh meerushilayim.

Apparently it’s from the the book of Isiah, 2:3.  Like you, I suspect, I had no idea where it came from, much less what it means.  But unlike most of the prayers we’re forced to recite during Shabbat services, at least this one has some context.  The sound of these words, and the melody that goes with them is synonymous with opening the ark.  As opposed to the other stuff, when you hear this, you know what’s about to happen.

And it sticks with me, not because of the words, but because of the melody.  It’s so solemn, so haunting.  The music sets it apart.  The music tells you, “Hey, wake up asshole,7 this is a big deal now.”  And don’t get me wrong.  I’m not a fan of the ceremony.  I never liked the part where you’re supposed to touch your siddur to the scroll and then kiss it.  That sort of reverence for anything of any kind strikes me as over the top.  But the music gets you.  Or it gets me, anyway.

But it also gets to the heart of one of my major problems with my Jewish education, and one I discussed many times with one of my colleagues during my time working for a Jewish school last year.8  Namely that they teach you to learn this shit by rote, but nobody ever bothers to tell you what the words mean.

So anyway, I come across these words in my workbook, and as part of a longer passage mind you.  And if it were9 anything else, I’d simply file it under the “God is kind of a big deal” heading.  But it’s not anything else.  It’s these words I’ve been hearing my whole life, this lingering melody that pulls the whole congregation together for the big moment.

I should pause for a second and explain what I mean by “pulls the congregation together.”  One of the things I admire about a Jewish service is the, well, democratic, nature of it.  I’ll see if I can get this into words.  You see, you’ve got the Rabbi, who leads the whole spiel.  But he mostly just lets you know what bit you’re up to.  Then it’s largely up to you to do the praying on your own.  So you look around, and you see people – let’s be honest, mostly the olds – swaying and rocking (davening) at their own pace, doing their own thing.  For the most part, it’s a rather private affair; just one that you have to do with other people.  There are only a handful of prayers/songs that we all do out loud and together.  But for the most part, if you’re serious – and I clearly was/am not – you hide out under your talis and do your own thing.  This is what I mean by democratic.

Anyway, this opening the ark, this is something that’s done together.  So it’s a kind of a big deal.  And at the risk of being repetitive, it has context.  Unlike Aleynu or Ashrei, for example, you know what this is about, even if you don’t understand the words.  But now, finally, I do.  And in a way, it’s a bit of a let down.  All it means is, “For the law (or Torah) shall go forth from [Mt.] Zion, and the word of God [shall go forth] from Jerusalem.”  Like I said, file it under “God is kind of a big deal.”  So in that sense, it’s kind of a disappointment.

And yet, it hit me pretty hard.  It was a kind of “holy shit” moment, no pun intended.  This thing I’d been hearing forever, this melody that I kinda love, I finally know what it means!  Ironically, then, the meaning itself doesn’t really matter so much.  It’s more that the veil has been lifted.  The secret has been discovered.  It was a powerful moment, to read those words, and to understand them.  Not religiously, maybe not even spiritually.  Or maybe spiritually, I don’t know.  All I can say is, I caught some feels from it.

There’s one other thing from Shul, one other prayer, that has context, even when you don’t know what the words mean.  Though in this case, it’s not because of the music, but rather the lack thereof.  I’m talking, of course, about the kaddish, the prayer for the dead.  And for this, I still don’t know what the words mean.  But it’s solemn, and you know what’s going on when it happens.  But in contrast to the last bit, which everybody is supposed to sing, the kaddish is said only by those grieving for someone they lost in the last 30 days/11 months and then again on the yearly anniversary.

In other words, it takes something that, in mind, is very private, and makes it very very public.  Which, if you want to be optimistic, is a rather beautiful thing.  It’s a way of saying the whole community is here for you in your time of suffering.  And indeed, the only word that the rest of the congregation will say is “amen.”10

Which is the reason I bring it up.  My uncle Michael, my dad’s brother, recently lost his seven year battle with cancer.11  Until now, I’ve avoided talking about this here.  I’ve wanted to keep it private.  But I know that anybody who reads this is here for me, so it’s in the spirit of the kaddish that I make it public.  Though I won’t go into much details now.  But I will say that it has been difficult for me to be away during that time.  My last memory of him is when the whole family Skyped in from Rosh HaShanah at my brother’s house.  I was in Saxony at the time, with Charlotte.  I got to have a little chat with everybody, but I’ll always remember it because it was the last time I spoke with Michael.  And he looked pretty good at the time; obviously he was doing well enough to travel out to the Island from BK.

I remember chatting with Charlotte that night about why I’ve always loved family gatherings with my dad’s side.  It’s always been an informal affair; even if it was more formal when I was kid.  But formality, for this clan, simply meant sitting at the same table and punning.  But there was no dressing up, nothing fancy.  People did what they wanted, hung out with who they wanted.12  One of my fondest memories is when the guitar-minded people would peel off to a different area and just play.  This was usually me, my brother, Michael and my other uncle Richard.  Maybe my dad would pop in, maybe a cousin or two.  For a few years, me and Richard were working on some duets.

But I loved this, because it was a very free and easygoing time.  You’d sit and listen to somebody play, then they’d pass the guitar to the next person.  Somebody would always compliment somebody else’s playing, but not because you were supposed to.  You’d only offer a compliment if you had actual admiration for a certain skill, or for a way they handled a certain piece.  But there’s certain music I’ll always associate with those gatherings.  The Canarios.  Sor’s variations.  Richard always plays in the traditional classical style, with one foot elevated.  But Michael didn’t do that.  He always played like a folk player, with the guitar just resting across his leg.  It’s funny.  I’d forgotten about that til just now.

There’s going to be a memorial service next weekend.  I won’t be there.  Which I hate.  But my mother has been on me to write something for the service.  And honestly, I don’t know where to start or what to say.  And I think that’s the reason I’ve written this last bit.  As a way to get some ideas down, to point me in a direction.  Because I want to say something.  Our family has had to deal with too many of these.  There aren’t enough of us left, and I need to find a way to be a part of this family.  It was important before.  It’s more important now.

But who the hell wants to end on a down note?  My boss at one of my language schools – my first boss, actually; the first guy to give me a shot in this town – gave me a €50 euro “Christmas” bonus.  He’s Jewish, actually.  I don’t know if he knows I’m Jewish though.  I’d like him to know that, but I don’t know how to bring that up in a not-awkward way.  But that’s beside the point.  He gave me a very nice bonus.  And so I decided to use it for what it was, a holiday gift.

So first, I bought myself a new pipe, which I’m very happy with.  And then today, I bought a “Heisenberg” hat.13  I tried on a black one in the store and posted it to Instagram asking for feedback.  I was worried it looked too…Hasidic.  Or alternatively, ex-clown-turned-depression-era-hobo.  Anyway, Dale – who can always be counted on for these sorts of things – suggested I go for “charcoal” instead of black.  I put “charcoal” in quotes, because that was his word, whereas I would have simply said “grey.”  But that’s why you can count on Dale for these sorts of things.  In the event, though, they only had black, so it was a moot point.

Anyway, I went back to the store today and not only did they suddenly14 have one in grey/charcoal, but they’d also marked it down.  So that’s what I bought.  And I love it.  It’s very me.  Or at least, that’s what Instagram had to say about the black one.15  But I do think it’s me.  And being grey/charcoal, it has the advantage of being rather less Hasidic; even if also a touch less Heisenberg-y.  Still though, I can rock it.  So if nothing else, I’ll enter 2017 looking rather distinguished.  I think.

זיי געסוט
Please.

  1. On more which later. []
  2. And all that money. []
  3. It’s amazing how much I’m learning about the nuts and bolts of English by teaching it. []
  4. My dear dear friend Ashley recently pointed out to me that I may overuse this word.  I’ll accept that, with the caveat that it’s part of my “style.” []
  5. He says, assuming our country will survive a Trump administration. []
  6. I know what you’re thinking.  “Oy vey.” []
  7. Because obviously you were nodding off. []
  8. These were always interesting discussions, and ones which I valued very much.  My colleague – friend even – grew up in an orthodox home; had a Hebrew name; wore a kippah.  He very clearly, and happily, identified as Jewish.  But for all his orthodoxness, his education mirrored mine, at least in this respect: He also couldn’t read Hebrew; he was also frustrated that this shit was forced on him in a rote fashion without sufficient explanation of the text.  And we griped often that this was not a way to make people love their faith. []
  9. Subjunctive, bitches!  Sorry, I just taught this. []
  10. Which is a Hebrew word, btw, for all you goyim who are always saying it. []
  11. #fuckcancer []
  12. At this last gathering, my brother sent me a picture of the whole family together in his living room.  For most families, this would mean a picture of everybody together, smiling.  And they are smiling.  But they’re also all flipping me the bird.  Which is the most Starr family thing ever.  It’s one of my favorite pictures that I have. []
  13. cf. Breaking Bad. []
  14. Or did I not notice it before? []
  15. Though I did receive the following comments: “Bonus points for looking like Rabbi Starr”; “You look like Krusty’s dad”; “Oy…where’s your peyos! Im gonna plotz.” []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
28 December, 2016
Holiday Edition

So, Christmas in Berlin.  I didn’t have a plan.  Or, if I did, my plan was to go see Star Wars and eat Chinese food.  In other words, try for a “Jewish Christmas.”  But then I got invited to a party on Friday night.  Cindy, Joschka’s girlfriend, was having a Christmas dinner party and was kind enough to ask me along.  Obviously, I wasn’t about to turn that down.

Getting there was easy enough.  Her apartment is also in the East, so I was actually able to just ride the tram there, which was quite nice.  I have very mixed feelings about the tram, the Straßenbahn.  On the one hand, I find it charming and romantic.  It’s delightfully oldschool.  It even makes me think of Brooklyn-that-was, though not any Brooklyn that I ever knew.  After all, the baseball team was originally called the Trolley Dodgers; only later shortened to Dodgers.1  Also, the Straßenbahn is primarily associated with East Berlin.  I don’t have the full history, but I gather it’s something along the lines of: The Soviets left antiquated infrastructure in place, while in the West, most of the tracks were torn up in the name of “progress.”  That’s my impression anyway.

On the other hand, however, the cars are very narrow and were clearly designed for a smaller population.  So if you try using it during the day, it can be pretty hellish.  And obviously, depending on the track situation,2 they can suffer the caprices of traffic; though not as bad as buses.  Though once, I did get stuck behind a parked garbage truck and we just sat for like 10 minutes.

Putting aside the philosophical pros & cons, though, it’s very often the best way to get around in this part of town.  While I do live fairly close to an S-Bahn station, everything out here sort of points towards “the city” so that there’s not a great subway network connecting the various ‘hoods in Köpenick.  In any case, I took the tram to the party.  And since it was late enough, it was a perfectly lovely ride.

The party itself was lovely.  Cindy has got a really nice apartment way up on the 19th floor with a lovely view of the surrounding area.  OK, there’s not much to see, but it’s still nice, all the way up there.  The flat itself is also just really nice – the furniture, the kitchen, the bookshelves, etc.  Great place to spend an evening, even if it wasn’t Christmas dinner.

But it was Christmas dinner, and of course, my first in Germany.  The meal, I’m told, was traditional German.  Roast duck, Rotkohl (red cabbage) and either Knödeln or Klöße.  The latter are a sort of boiled potato dumpling, though they’re not stuffed with anything; just a sort of solid – albeit soft and fluffy – potato.  Maybe like a Matzah ball made out of potato.  As for the name, I guess either is valid, though the first is easier for me to pronounce.  The point is, the food was fantastic.  And there was so much wine.

The group consisted of myself, Joschka and Cindy, plus two of her friends; a gay Italian fellow whose German was impressively good and lady who, if I had to guess, was probably 8-10 years older than me.  Both of them studied Medieval lit, so we hit it off right away.  Plenty to talk about, which besides just being nice, was also a relief.  You know, since the whole night was in German.    

As far as that goes, I did pretty well.  I was able to function, participate and even land a few jokes for the majority of the evening.  Only towards the very end, when things got drunkenly slurred and slangy was I forced to kind of check out.  But by that point, I’d already taken a little nap, so that if I was going to be judged for anything, it probably wasn’t going to be my language skills.  But more on that later.

I wish I could say that my (comparative) language success at the party was some kind of positive progress indicator of my overall functionality with the language.  And, I guess, on some level it is.  I don’t think I’d have fared so well a few months ago.  But it also doesn’t seem to translate to my wider life here.

What I mean is, everybody at the party was of the highly educated variety.  They all speak a rather clear and grammatically “correct” version of the language.  Which is not something you can say about most people, in any language.  It’s certainly not how I speak English, even though I’m perfectly capable of code-switching into that register.

The point is, being able to pull off a passing show at the party with that crowd didn’t stop me from having a misunderstanding at the grocery store cash register today.  It doesn’t make it any easier to understand one of my roommates, who, by the way is a truly lovely chap, but whose speech is often hard for me to discern.

But whatever, the party was a great time.  I landed a few jokes, which was great.  And by landed, I mean, got them off in time, and they were funny enough to make people laugh.  No small feat, as far as I’m concerned.  And I had my nap.

My friends at home know that it’s basically impossible for me to go to a party and not fall asleep somewhere at some point.  It’s just a fact of life.  Part of that has to do with people always starting their parties so damn early.  If they would just open the doors at 11:30, I’d have no problem.  I’d have napped at home.  But no, people always seem to want to start around six or seven.

This, by the way, is one of the things I love about Jared’s dad.  For years now, when there would be a party at their place, we’d eat well, drink better and invariably Paul would find some comfy chair, I’d find another, and we’d both be out.  The other side of this coin, btw, is that I wake up refreshed and full of energy so that I’m always the last to leave; probably staying later than my hosts would like.

And so it was at this party.  Last to leave, I mean.  I don’t think I overstayed.  In fact, I’m fairly confident that I made a good (enough) impression on my hostess.  Which, of course, matters to me on two levels.  One, I’m there as Joschka’s friend – even though she invited me3 – so I don’t want to reflect poorly on him.  But also, these are new people.  I don’t have all that many friends here.  You want to make a good impression.

In the end, nobody seemed bothered by my nap.  And I tried to explain that falling asleep was the best compliment I could give, because it meant I felt comfortable enough to do so.  And I did mean that.  I’ve been here just shy of six months, and it’s the first time I’ve fallen asleep in a social setting; the first time I’ve felt comfortable enough to do so.  That might be a strange thing for most people to say, but it’s about the most Dave thing that there is, party-wise.

The next day, I woke up with a mild hangover and a craving for noodle soup.  Though to be fair, I crave noodle soup most days.  Only problem, fucking everything in my neighborhood was closed.  So I wound up taking the tram (that tram again!) two neighborhoods over to Friedrichshagen.  I’d never been there before, and it was absolutely adorable.  Although I was at first annoyed that my regular spot was closed, in the end I was glad I got to see a new part of town.

Once there, the place which Yelp told me was open, was also closed.  Fortunately, there was a Japanese place next door that was still open.  So I had my lunch there.  They didn’t have noodle soup though, so I had to “settle” for miso soup and chicken teriyaki, which seemed to have a tempura like shell.  It was really good.  And the salad that came with it was also delicious.  I kinda loved this little spot and I had it all to myself.  I think I’ll have to go back there.

In the end, that wound up being my “Chinese” “Jewish Christmas” dinner.  I didn’t make it out of the house on Christmas day, but that’s OK.  I’m pretty happy with the way it all worked out.  And as a side note, this is one of the joys of finally having an unlimited metro card.  In the past, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere requiring a train ride, as it would have meant adding an extra fiver onto the cost of my meal.  But now?  Let’s go!

I had this whole plan for Monday, the 26th.  My roommates were all gone for the holidays.  So I was going to go shopping and pick up a bunch of stuff for the house.  Soap, sponges, laundry detergent, toilet paper.  You know, show I know how to be a decent roommate.  I also wanted to go food shopping.  For some reason4 I really wanted to braise up some big ol’ chicken legs.

Only problem, fucking everything – everything – was closed.  On Monday, the 26th.  Come on people, work with me here.  Yelp told me there was a supermarket open several tram stops away, so I figured I might as well go.  Of course they were closed.  But it wasn’t a wasted trip.

One of the benefits of all these incidental tram rides is that they’re letting me discover more of the area.  And this area is beautiful.  Apparently it’s known as the Green Lungs of Berlin; maybe I mentioned that before.  Anyway, there’s water and parks and old buildings and it’s all very very pretty.  I really can’t wait for the weather to turn so I can start enjoying all this part of the city has to offer.

The funny thing is, in many ways, it doesn’t really feel like Berlin out here.  Or, at least, not the things people think of when they think of Berlin.  It’s got a very outer-borough feel to it.  I’ve already begun referring to central Berlin as “the city.”  As in, “I’m going to go into the city this weekend,” or “I work in the city.”  Certainly it’s not the arrangement I had in mind when I decided to try my luck in this town.

And indeed, most people seem to find it a bit odd.  When I tell people where I live, their first reaction is, invariably, “Shit, that’s far!”  And their first question is, invariably, “Why?”  Followed by some sort of “How long do you plan on staying there?”  And they’re right, in a sense.  It is fucking far.  It basically takes an hour to get anywhere; though if transfers weren’t such a hassle, you could shave anywhere from 10-20 minutes, depending on where you’re headed.

As to the “why” question, well, the truth is, this is the first place – after months of searching – that actually offered to take me.  I simply didn’t want to wait any longer.  Though, if I’m honest, I didn’t quite realize how far it was at the time.

But the truth is, I really like it here.  I like my roommates.  I love my room.  And I can’t wait to live in this area when the Spring rolls around.  Really, though, it goes deeper than that.  My last few years in New York, I was getting very tired of the city, of the bullshit.  And yes, part of that was just the fucking cost of it; nobody can afford to live in New York.  That, at least, is not a problem here.

But I’d begun to tire of the whole “city” thing.  And yet, suburbs clearly are not for me.  I can’t live somewhere where you need to get in the car just to get a beer or a snack.  And all of a sudden, this seems like the best of both worlds.  It’s still a part of the “city,” but it’s also outside it.  Yet it’s not a suburb; there’s great mass transit.  Maybe one day I’ll want to end up in the country, in New England maybe.  Or maybe I’ll want to end up somewhere in Brooklyn, somewhere far enough from, but also close enough to, the city.  For now, at least, Köpenick fits the bill pretty well.  Strange as it may seem to my friends who live “in the city.”

I love my fucking enameled cast-iron braising pot.  I fucking love it.  Last week I cooked dinner for the roommates.  I did up a salad with a honey-mustard/cider vinegar dressing, which was alright, but probably too hard on the mustard.  The highlight, though, was a braised pork loin with apples and leeks (and of course my chicken stock!).  Made in my braising pan, obvi.  Came out great, and we had a very nice night, just chilling in the Wohnküche and drinking wine.

And today, I finally got around to making those braised chicken legs.  A few weeks ago, before I bought the pan, I had roasted some chicken legs.  And they tasted pretty darn good, if I do say so meself.  But the thing I’ve always hated about roasted chicken legs is that they’re simply too much work.  You’re always fighting to get the meat off the bones.  These braised ones though, man, they were great.  I did the classic mirepoix of course, and did the braise with a mix of my stock and white wine.  The flavor was a treat.  But more than that, the meat just slid off the bone.  And all I could think was, “Enameled cast-iron braising pan, I love you so much.”  It’s a deep dark blue.  It’s beautiful.  I love it.  Maybe Imma name it.

Oh, one last Christmas story.  Every year since 2010, I’ve spent Christmas with my dear friend Flare (aka Jen), whom I’ve known since high school, and her family.  Howsoever it started, it’s by now become an actual tradition.  And it was strange not to be there this year.  But thanks to the magic of Internet, she FaceTimed me in yesterday.  Man, it was great to see her.  I got to see her mom, with whom I got closer this past year as she had me over doing work around her house when I was unemployed.  I also got to see Hassel (aka Jess), who went to school with Flare and whom I’ve also known forever.  But even the rest of the family jumped on the FaceTime and were genuinely happy to see me and have a quick hello.  It was a really warm feeling.

It was also great just to catch up.  After the round of hellos and well-wishes, Flare and Hassel brought the phone into the kitchen, and we just chatted for a while.  I love those people; have loved them for more than half my life already.  It was so great to see them.  And it was nice to be a part of Christmas with them – to which I’ve actually become quite accustomed – even if only for a few minutes.  I dunno, it’s one things when your friends feel like family.  But when your friends’ families make you feel like family too, that’s pretty damn special.

Well, I’m sure there’s more to say.  I haven’t really spoken about my job at all.  And there was that bombing thing.  But I’m feeling pretty writer’s-blocked lately; the words are fighting me.  It’s easier just to work through my Hebrew course book and watch Deep Space Nine.5  So I think I’ll stop here and pick up again another time.  Til then…

זיי געסונט

  1. OK, originally called the Brooklyn Superbas or whatever, but whatever. []
  2. In some places, the tracks are separated from the street/traffic; in other places, they’re very much in the middle of it. []
  3. I don’t know, but my guess is she asked him to ask me along.  I don’t think he asked her if he could bring me, in other words. []
  4. OK, I needed more bones for stock. []
  5. #BestOfTheTreks []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
21 December, 2016

I have to admit, for the longest time, it’s felt like two steps forward, one step back over here.  Oh, you found a job?  Great, go a get a visa before you can work.  Oh, you got your visa?  Great, go get your Anmeldung before you can get a bank account.  Oh, you got your bank account?  Great, wait for you debit card to come in the mail before you can buy a yearly metro ticket.  Oh, you got your debit card?  Well, now you get to wait until your PIN comes in the mail before you can use it.  Wait, can’t I just go to the bank and ask for a new PIN?  Hahaha, fuck you, no.

Today, I’m happy to say it’s finally…fucking finally…coming together.  Today was a hugely productive day.  Maybe not so much in real terms, but certainly in terms of starting to feel like a regular joe who just lives in Berlin with no headaches beyond the usual.  Funnily enough, the day started somewhat inauspiciously.

I was scheduled to have a full day one-to-one lesson with an advanced level student.  It’s only fair to say, I quite like working with this guy.  He’s very chatty, very smart, very curious.  We work 1:1 from 9-2 – which is a long time to spend with one student – but honestly, it really flies by.  Anyway, last week, he mentioned that he would probably take Tuesday or Wednesday off to spend time with his family.1  I was secretly hoping he’d take Wednesday off, so I wouldn’t lose the day’s pay.  But obviously, I couldn’t say that to him; that’d be an unfair pressure to put on the guy.

Anyway, as I didn’t hear from him or the school, I naturally assumed he’d decided on Wednesday.  And then he never showed up.  So around 9:45, I called the school and asked what was up.  And the answer was glorious.  He’d actually cancelled today’s lesson, but since nobody told me, I would get the full day’s pay.  Cha-ching. Best of both worlds, honestly.

Which apparently is what we all – freelance English teachers, I mean – think.  So I popped into the office to drop off the attendance sheet, and there was K sitting at S’s desk.  Or, rather, sitting at K’s desk.  S is the guy that hired me, on the recommendation of my CELTA mates Paul and Alice.  Only, S’s last day was Friday.  Which I only learned on Thursday.  Quite a shock, considering S was my contact for literally everything at this job.  Which was great, because S is an absolutely lovely guy.  And also gay.  Which meant we could have slightly flirtatious but entirely non-threatening banter.  But now K is the new S.  And K is tall and British and super cute.  Which means we can’t have any kind of flirtatious banter because now that’s inappropes and also Trump has officially ruined innocuous, flirtatious office banter for everybody.

Oh, but the point was, I dropped off the attendance card, and K asked how I was doing.  So I told her about the cancellation and tried to sound professionally and appropriately disappointed about it.  To which she literally responded, “Cha-ching.”  To which I responded in the millennial, uptalk-high-pitch, ironic-whisper-voice, “yeeaah, I didn’t want to saaaaay that, buuuut…”  To which she responded, “We all think it.”  To which I responded…literally nothing.  Because Trump has ruined innocuous, flirtatious office banter for literally everybody.

Anyway, don’t get me wrong.  I like my job, and I like working with this student.  But if you give me the choice of a day off with full day’s pay or a full day’s work with a full day’s pay, well, which one do you think I’m going to choose?  And this, friends, was my gateway to a fully productive day.  Because, see, if I knew in advance of the cancellation, I’d have slept late and had a lazy day.

But here I was, up, awake and out.  Time to get shit done.  First thing I did was go to the train station and – finally – buy my yearly train ticket.  I guess in February I’m going to get some official ticket in the mail.  But on the spot, the gave me a paper ticket that’s good until the end of January.  But what a fucking win.  No more buying single ride tickets like a schnook tourist.  Now I can ride the metro as much as I damn well please without a second thought.  Berliner achievement unlocked.  I’m becoming more and more a jelly donut by the day.2

Next thing, I went to TK Max3 and bought an enameled cast-iron braising pan I’ve had my eye on.  €40.  Not exactly le crueset, but my my visa is only for two years.  I expect it will last that long.  When I go back to the states, my roommates can gladly have it.  So now, finally, I can braise things again.  Man, I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed braising things.

Speaking of things I’ve been desperately missing, cooking-wise, I also made chicken stock today.  First time I’ve made stock since I’ve been here.4  This whole time I’ve been here, I’ve been working in other people’s kitchens.  And granted, Anja and Mischa have a very nice and well stocked kitchen.  But it wasn’t my home.  I wasn’t keeping bags of bones and veggie scraps in the freezer, much less Tupperwares of stock in the fridge.

But now – finally – I have my own kitchen; where I can work, where I can do my thing.  And it just felt right to be in the kitchen, a pot of stock brewing on the stove.  It felt right walking in there and just smelling that chicken soup smell.  I don’t know if that counts as Berliner achievement unlocked, but it certainly counts as feel like your own fucking person again achievement unlocked.5

Speaking of things that just smell right, also my room.  Owing to the balcony/abundance of windows/cool roommates, I can once again smoke my pipe in my room.  This, of course, is a huge win.  As many of you know, I work much better when I have my pipe.  So whether it’s doing a lesson plan, or a blog post, or studying Hebrew, or whatever, I can do this now in the comfort of my own room; and I can have my pipe.  There aren’t words for what a difference this makes.

But beyond that, as I said, it’s also about the smell.  You know how any time you go to somebody’s house, their house has its own unique smell?  Well my room on Orchard Street had its own smell, and that smell was “pipe.”  The very last time Niki was over, she remarked that she was going to miss the smell of my room there.  And all the memories that went with it, good and bad.  It’s that Proustian thing, right?

Anyway, my room here now has that pipe smell to it.  And it’s so comforting.  When I open the door and step inside, it finally feels like I’m home.  It’s more than two years since I’ve had that.  I’ve missed it.  Let me tell you, it goes such a long way towards making me feel like I have a place here, like I belong, like my days of Airbnb’ing it, of being a guest, a visitor, are over.

Which isn’t to say that my room is finished.  It’s not.  I still need to buy some candle holders, so I can – finally – get back to working by candle light instead of overhead bulb.  I still need to get some art for my walls.  (I’m thinking a big NYC Subway map would be nice).  So it’s still a work in progress.  But I can report that it definitely – finally – does feel a bit like home.

But back to my productive day.  I had some old stale bits of baguette laying around, so while the stock was going, I chopped them up and made croutons.6  And of course I crushed up all the leftover “sawdust” and tiny bits and made breadcrumbs.  Yes, I’m making my mark on this kitchen, and I’m quite pleased about it.

At this point, I probably would have taken a nap.  But I didn’t want to go to sleep with the stock going, so I used the time to do some Hebrew work.  I haven’t touched it since I left A&M’s, back in the beginning of November; and honestly, I don’t think I did much, if any, the last month or so that I was there.  But in the last week or so, I’ve gotten back to work, which has been really nice.

Since I started working, and with all the moving around, most of my downtime has been spent in front of the Netflix.  But now that I’m starting to – finally – feel settled again, I’ve been hitting the books.  It’s refreshing.  Besides the fact that it simply feels good to be getting work done, it also just helps me feel like myself.  And it’s got me back on track for my goal of being able to keep up with the weekly Torah readings when the New Year starts in September.

That said, Hebrew is fucking weird.  I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but the Hellenist in me finds Hebrew to be frustratingly imprecise.  I mean, I was looking at sentence today that was just, I mean, I had no idea who the fucking subject was.  In English, it would have been easy.  It’s your standard, “Hear, O Israel, blah blah blah.”  But Hebrew doesn’t have a vocative case, word order can be iffy and there’s no punctuation.  In לושן קדש you have:

שמע ישראל אתה היום את הירדן

But when you break it down word for word, you’re stuck with something like: Hear(!7).Israel.you.is/are-crossing.the-day.the-Jordan.

So does it mean, “Listen, you (as subject), Israel, are crossing the Jordan today”?  Does it mean, “Listen, you (as object), Israel (as subject of indirect discourse) is crossing the Jordan today”?  Does it mean something else?  And this whole “the day” meaning “today” isn’t even that bad.  I recently came across something along the lines of, “the wife asked her husband everyday…”  But “every day” was simply יום יום – literally, “day day.”  So, “the wife asked her husband day day if he would…”  And OK, it doesn’t require a great deal of imagination to figure out that that means something like “everyday” or “from day to day” or even more metaphorically just “continually” or even almost “naggingly.”  But all you get is “day day.”  That’s an example of what I mean by imprecise.

Anyway, you do enough of it and you start to get a feel for it.  You start to get a feel for the way the language likes to express itself.  But it’s also a dead language, right?  I mean, modern native-speaking Israelis can’t naturally read this shit.8  So your “feel” can only go so far.

Here’s another example, from Deuteronomy, 29:4.9  I’ll spare you the Hebrew, but it’s usually translated something like, “And God did not give you you a mind to know, or eyes to see or ears to hear.”  Only that word “mind” is לב ,which your textbook glossary tells you means “heart.”  So does this mean the Israelites considered the heart to be the seat of knowledge (instead of the head)?  Can we handle this word the same way we handle θῦμοϲ in Greek?  And should we simply translate it as “heart”?  After all, we have no problem saying in English, albeit metaphorically, “I know this in my heart.”10  And anyway, if God is so smart, and if he invented human fucking beings already, shouldn’t he know that we know things with our brains and not our hearts?  Like, if he’s such a big deal, can we not reasonably expect to him to have even a rudimentary grasp of the functions of the nervous and cardio-vascular systems?  Or maybe Moses, when he was writing this shit down, had to filter it all through what he learned of human anatomy from the Egyptian priests and their mummification rituals and procedures.  Atheists have it easy, I tellya.

Anwyay, I guess that more or less covers my productive day.  Otherwise, things are going well here at home.  I’m getting on well with the roommates.  We mostly speak German, which I need.  Though one of the guys is quite good at English, so that’s a bit of a safety net.  Tonight we just hung out in the Wohnküche for a bit, chatting and drinking tea, which was just lovely.  Wohnküche, by the way, is a word we don’t have in English.  It literally means “livingkitchen.”  Like, when your kitchen is also your living room.  Our apartment is a three-bedroom plus a bathroom and kitchen.  But the kitchen, being a full-sized room, is also the living room.  A little couch, a small table and a comfy chair.  Yeah, Wohnküche.

I’ll do a full rundown of the roomies another time, but suffice it to say, they’re lovely folks and everybody gets on quite well.  I’m to cook dinner for everybody tomorrow.  No pressure.  But I’m kinda looking forward to it.

On Saturday I went to one of the Weihnachtsmarkts – Christmas markets – with Joschka and his girlfriend.  It was my first Weihnachtsmarkt, which I only mention because apparently that’s a big deal here.  They have one in just about every neighborhood.11  It was a very nice evening.  At the market, we drank a bunch of Glühwein, which is just mulled wine, but I guess it’s a special thing for Christmas here.  After that, we went to a cocktail bar, on more which later.

Joschka’s girlfriend – Cindy12 – is very nice.  She also speaks very little English, though she says she understands it well enough.  But this meant we spent the whole night speaking German.  Which was honestly great.  I almost feel like I passed some kind of (admittedly low-level) test.  Of course it helps that both Joschka and Cindy speak a very clear German; or at least they did with me.  But I got through it with very little hand-holding and I do feel I came across rather functionally; though by no means anywhere near fluently.  But it was certainly the most German I think I’ve ever spoken with Joschka, and the least dependent on him I’ve felt, language-wise.  So it was a good confidence booster.  To a point.  I’m still hopeless the minute people get slangy or start running their words together.  But it’s progress.

Anyway, it was a fun night.  The cocktail place was cool, though expensive, which always seems to happen with this guy.  But here’s a nice change.  I can – finally – afford to do this now.  Not every week, mind you.  But to have one pricey outing a month, let’s say, I can handle it.  A big reason is, I restructured my student loans.

For the longest, I’ve been paying a very high monthly rate, with the goal of paying them off as soon – and with as little interest – as possible.  But last month, I finally gave that up.  Freelance English teaching pays bupkis.  And also, it’s freelance, so it’s hard to plan more than a month or so in advance.  So I applied for an income-based repayment schedule.  I didn’t ask for a number, I just asked for income-based, and they gave me a number.  So instead of paying nearly $500 a month, I’m now paying less than $50.  And rent is so cheap here.  So for the first time since I quit the paralegal job, I finally have some walking-around money.  To put it another way, if I still have to watch every dollar, at least I don’t have to watch every penny.  That’s a huge amount of stress that’s just vanished into thin air.

Also at the cocktail bar, we met a very nice Norwegian couple, who I wound up drunkenly chatting with for rather a while.  Lovely people, but damn, those fucking Scandinavians and their perfect fucking English.  I don’t know how they do it.  Good times though.

I’m sure I have more to say, but I’m tired13 and I have to get up early for another all day 1:1 tomorrow.  How early?  6:50 I guess.  I do like this neighborhood, Köpenick.  And I’ll say more about it next time.  But for now, all I can say is, it takes fucking forever to get anywhere from here.  I mean, this is some serious outer-fucking-borough shit right here.  But that’s for another day.  Until then…

זיי געסונט

 

  1. I only have him on Tuesdays and Thursdays. []
  2. Ich bin ein Berliner.  #lookitup []
  3. It’s TJ Max.  But for some reason, in Germany, it’s TK Max. []
  4. Not counting the time I showed Joschka how to make stock over at his place.  But I’m not counting that, because a) it was his stock and b) I didn’t make it in my own kitchen. []
  5. Which is rather long for a hashtag, innit? []
  6. Not my best work, but I’m still getting the hang of these weird European electric, Celsius ovens. []
  7. This, at least, you can identify as a second person singular Qal imperative construct.  Or, at least, you can if your text has vowels, which my textbook does but the Torah does not.  So if you’re reading from The Book, it’s even more complicatd. []
  8. I’ve asked. []
  9. Though 29:3 in Hebrew; I don’t yet know why there’s this discrepancy in verse numbering. []
  10. Though this leaves you translating the first element of the tricolon metaphorically and the next two literally, which, I don’t mind telling you, I don’t like. []
  11. The one we went to was not the one which was attacked last night. []
  12. Hi, Mom! []
  13. Did I mention no nap today? []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
7 December, 2016

In my last post,1 I found myself writing rather a bit about my grandfather.  This prompted a somewhat unexpected response from my own father.  Without warning or preamble, he wrote what I might loosely call an “open letter” to me and my brother (Justin), in which he muses on his father, our grandfather.  It is a fine piece of writing on its own merits.  And if that was it all it was, I probably wouldn’t post it here.

But I think there is great value in it for all of us.  It goes some way to showing my grandfather as a more complete person than I was able to know him.  It paints a picture of Herb the man, not Herb the grandfather.  And yes, it is naturally colored by father’s own experiences.  Still, it answers questions I might never have thought to ask.  And so, my hope in posting this is that it might prompt some of you to talk to your own parents, to dig a little deeper, to try and get to know your own grandparents a little better, even if – or perhaps especially if – they’re already gone.

What follows, then, will be the letter that my dad wrote in its entirety.  Apart from some minor edits for spelling, the only additions will be a handful of footnotes explaining things that might not be obvious to the usual readers of this blog.  And so, without further ado…

Some Ramblings on Grandpa, my Dad
by Lawrence Starr

First it needs to be said that my memory is vague enough that in literary terms I could be considered an unreliable narrator. This is also a snapshot. There is so much more I could have gone into. I just wanted to give some insight into the man.

With that said, let’s begin.

My earliest impressions of your grandfather – and I call him grandfather because he was never Dad or Pop, Pa or Papa, just Father – was that of a distant and cool person who lived in the same house. I won’t say he wasn’t caring or loving, but if he was, he wasn’t very good at showing it. It may very well have been due to the fact that I was number five in the line of six children they would produce. Perhaps he was toast by the time I came around; had depleted his reserves on the first four. Or perhaps it was that the years of toiling to maintain a growing family had taken it’s toll. Whatever the reason, I felt very alone in a very crowded house. As the “baby,” I felt I was treated differently that the others. The four that came before me had all been born into a house on East 17th street in Sheepshead Bay,2 a much smaller house than the one I would come home to in Manhattan Beach.3 Perhaps they had formed a special bond in the cramped quarters of a house meant for much smaller families, but I merely speculate.

To understand our father, it helps to know a little of his family dynamics. He was the oldest of two children born to Meyer and Sylvia Starr. Meyer had emigrated from the Ukraine, Sylvia from Lithuania. I don’t know how old they were when they came to this country. Unlike my Grandmother on my mother’s side, as best as I can remember, they spoke English free of any accent. Dad (I will call him that form this point on because it’s easier to type than Father) was born in Chicago. What they were doing there is anybody’s guess. He was doted upon by Sylvia. Meyer was stern and unemotional, interestingly, the way I remember Dad. Dad was king of the household according to his sister, Millie. Millie seemed to have a normal enough childhood until she reached puberty and Meyer turned his back on her. From then on she was alone. She left home relatively early and led a somewhat Bohemian existence.  She was a wonderful woman who I wish you had gotten to know better. Watch the movie Auntie Mame someday. That will give you an idea.

As you know, Dad was all about the sciences and music. He went to Brooklyn Tech, which at the time was an all boys’ high school for the sciences. It was and still is a prestigious city public school, though it is now co-ed. It was not an easy school to gain admittance to. From there he went to City College and majored in chemistry. From there he went into the Army.

I don’t know the details of how Mom and Dad met. In their wedding pictures, dad is in uniform. Uncle Richard was a war baby.4

One of my greatest regrets is that I know almost nothing about Dad’s military service. In my seventeen years at the museum5 I have heard countless stories form wonderful people about their experiences during the war; wonderful, intense stories about events that shaped their lives and those of the people around them. And here I am left without clue as to what must have been the most crucial and formative time in my fathers eighty-one years. He never wanted to talk about it. I often wonder, had he lived another five or six years, got to see what course the fates had put me on, if he would have be proud or horrified. Would he have finally opened up and let the past free,6 or would he have said, “what the hell are you doing with all this war shit?”

Here is what little I know, or think I know. Dad was in the medical corps. Was he a non-combatant by choice? Don’t know. He may very well have been a pacifist but I never heard him say that. We do know that he spent a lot of time at sea making crossings on various ships, including the Queen Mary and at least one Liberty Ship. I just learned from Uncle Richard, that one of the trips on the Grey Ghost (the Queen Mary, as she was called during the war) took him to Australia. This I had never heard before.

Another Atlantic crossing on the GG was shortly after the Battle of the Bulge. That would have been in January of ’45. It was a westbound voyage bringing home many of the wounded.7 He never mentioned the fact that it would also have carried many German POWs. He spoke about never ending card games in the hold of these ships. GIs sitting around gambling only stopping long enough to puke into their helmets.

One thing I have seen for myself is that Dad NEVER got seasick. EVER. On a cruise during which virtually everyone was sick, Dad walked around like it was Christmas Eve or Chanukah or whatever the hell he would have celebrated (Lenin’s Birthday?). I also remember a story he told with amusement tinged with disgust. He had arrived in the Middle East on a freighter, probably the Liberty Ship. I know no other detail of that trip other than what he said he saw form the ship while in port. There were huge piles of grain on the docks. I would imagine they were awaiting shipment to various combat theaters. He watched as an Arab climbed one of the piles and committed what may well have been the first act of terrorism: he proceeded to defecate. He took a dump into the Allied food supply chain. I think it put Dad off of bread for a while.

Dad left the service as a Master Sargent, though here is where my memory is a little fuzzy. The memory I have of dad’s Ike jacket8 was that it had three rockers up and three down on the sleeves.  That would have made him a M. Sgt. I also seem to remember that there was a “T” between the chevrons so I always thought he was a Technincal Sergent. In doing research, I found that it was impossible to have three up and three down with a tech rating, so now I am confused. I am fairly certain that there were 3 up and 3 down. Anyway, here is a Wiki excerpt explaining the rank during WWII.9

Sergeant ranks were sometimes referred to by the number of chevrons (the upper angle) and rockers (the lower arc) on their stripes. Thus saying a man had “three up, two down” meant he was a technical sergeant. Before the war, NCOs could not transfer between regiments without having to start in the new unit as a private.

While officers lived and ate in separate facilities, the NCOs lived and ate with the enlisted men. Most senior NCOs had their own private or semi-private rooms in the barracks. Officers, it was said, commanded the Army; Sergeants however, ran the Army.  Officers would order a project be done, but it was the sergeants who told the men what to do and saw it was done properly. There was an unspoken rule in the Army that an NCO overseeing a group of men working was not to perform the work himself.

Two major changes in the Army affected enlisted men. In June 1942 an Army wide pay raise provided more money for the troops. Pay for higher ranking officers stayed the same. Then in December 1943, in an effort to boost the morale of the infantry, NCO ranks in infantry units were boosted so that assistant squad leaders became sergeants, and squad leaders became staff sergeants, and platoon sergeants Technical Sergeants. The number of authorized Pfc slots in infantry units was raised to half of all privates. The additional pay and rank was hoped to offset the rigors and dangers of being in an infantry unit.

With the increase of technical skills needed in the Army, a new category of NCO was created. Known as technicians, these were men who needed to be paid more for specific skills, but did not need the command authorization of a higher rank. They were first authorized in January 1942. In September 1942 the rank stripes had a letter “T” on them to indicate there were a Technician. Long after the war these would turn into the “Specialist” ratings still in use today.

Technician ratings are not to be confused with the rank of the more traditional rank of technical sergeant. For command purposes technicians ranked just below the equivalent of their strips. A technician 3rd grade (Tech/3) ranked just below a staff sergeant when it came to giving orders.

And that is about the sum total of my knowledge of dad’s military experience.10

As I said, Uncle Richard was a War Baby. I guess that makes him a Pre-Boomer. Aunt Carol followed just after the war and the rest of us came at roughly 2 year intervals except for Aunt Gail. She arrived nine years after me (I?), who came nine years after Richard. That is a baby making span of eighteen years. I’ll get to the significance of this later.

At this point I need to shift attention to Grandma’s story. We know more about her life and that of the Polakoffs than we do about the Starrs. Both Ella and Morris were from the Ukraine. Ella’s family escaped from the Czarist pogroms as Bubby used to say, by “stealing the border.” They snuck out of Russia in the earliest years of the 20th Century. (If you haven’t read or listened to the “Bubby Interviews” that Uncle Richard did in the years before her death, you should, if only for the Yiddish that she would lapse into).11 Fast forward to the late 1930s. Morris and Ella, now with three children, Nathan, Samuel and Ida, are operating a sweater mill. Nat is a teacher, I am not sure what Sam is doing, but he is probably in Baltimore with his new wife Lil running a photography store (not totally sure of the timeline here) and Ida, your grandmother, has graduated Lincoln High School and is working in New York City.

Hit the FF button again and stop at 1945. The war is over. Ida is pregnant with Aunt Carol. I am not sure what dad is doing after he comes home. What I do know is that days after Aunt Carol is born, Poppy Morris drops dead form a heart attack. Ida and Carol haven’t even come home form the hospital. Bubby Ella, in addition to being devastated by the death of her relatively young husband, is now burdened with a business she has to run on her own. I am going to oversimplify the facts.

  1. a)    Morris and Ella owned the house on 17th St and shared it with Herb, Ida and their son.
  2. b)   Ella needed help with the business and Dad agreed to step in and help. I don’t know if this was done reluctantly or not. It did put an end to any hope of a career in chemistry or a related field, if he had hoped for one.
  3. c)    At some point Sam returned from Baltimore with his family and joined the business. Nat continued teaching but received a portion of the earnings as long as the business existed, though I never remember him ever setting foot in the place.

The apartment on 17th St became more crowded as soon as Ida came home home from the hospital with Carol. By 1950, there were three adults and four children in a house that was about the same size as the house we lived in on Pembroke St.12 There was a living room, kitchen, a master bedroom and a smaller bedroom. There was a separate apartment downstairs where Bubby lived. It was clear that the family had out grown 17th St.

Sam and Lil had purchased a nice three-bedroom house in the Long Island suburb of Elmont. Their family now included two girls, Ellen and Marion.13 Mom and Dad thought it would be a good idea to follow suit and move out to Long Island where they could stretch their legs. They had been sleeping on a sofa bed in the living room on 17th St as the two boys and two girls occupied each of the bedrooms. Ella pleaded with them not to leave her alone. She said find a house big enough for all of them in Brooklyn and she would buy it. Reluctantly they agreed. By 1951 they had moved into the house on Ocean Avenue in Manhattan Beach. I was born in November of that year.14

What is the point of all this? Why bring it up now?

David, you wonder what your grandfather would have done at your age. By the time he was 35, Dad was the father of five and running a business that, more often than not, was struggling to stay competitive and afloat. He did not have the choices that you have. He did see much of the world during the war, probably too much. He also saw enough of what mankind is capable of to alter whatever beliefs he held. I have no way of knowing what his politics were like before the war. I only know what I saw and heard after. He threw himself and his own money into a business that in reality wasn’t his, put a lot of his money into a house that wasn’t his (that’s a whole other story). Most of the time I remember him coming home late from work exhausted. One thing I can tell you is, you have his work ethic. I don’t think he was great with small children. I may be wrong. I don’t now how he was with the four that came before me. I don’t think I ever really felt loved, though I am sure if they heard that they would be shocked.

Their philosophy of childrearing was very different form what you would expect. They told us later in our lives that they had read the best thing for the children is not to make them dependent on each other. As a result, we were never all that close as a family. This they regretted. I don’t have warm and fuzzy recollections about many things. In a way it makes me feel damaged. Your mother had different experiences that were more traumatic and she turned out to be a more loving and warmer person than I (me?).

Mom and Dad believed their children were incapable of lying or doing the wrong thing. They believed just about anything we told them. Great when you’re a kid, lousy for your development. We received no guidance at all when it came to school, at least I didn’t. Your mother said from the day you guys were born that you were going to college, and that it would be away from home. I never took an SAT because I had no intention of going to college.

Because some of their friends were horrified that I wasn’t planning on continuing my education, my parents came to me in the second half of my senior year and told me they would by me any car I wanted if I went to college. I declined. I wanted to work in the movie business and I was going to do it on my terms. As Jim Vocell15 would say, “So how’d that work out for ya?”

Actually not terrible. I worked in the business until I ran afoul of the union. I wasn’t a member, could not join, and had to leave a great job. Let’s skip to the next chapter because this really isn’t bout me.

We are at the point where Tyrol Sportswear, the sweater company that our family owned and operated out of a five story 19th century brick building in Williamsburg,16 was struggling . Dad needed help. Uncle Michael had worked for him until he decided that dentistry was a better prospect. Richard was living and teaching in Vermont. It fell upon me to pitch in. After all, I was out of work.

Ever since I was old enough to reach the machines, Dad would bring me in some Saturdays to help repair damage that was done during the night shift. So by the time I was recruited in my twenties, I had some working knowledge of the equipment. This was about 1972.

I’m going to backtrack here for a moment. Something happened in July of 1961 that was a game changer for all of us. Aunt Gail was born. And it seemed she was born to different parents than the rest of us. I was nine years old. Richard was already out of the house and living in an apartment near Brooklyn College, which he was attending. Carol and Michael were in high school and Judy was in what was then Junior High, which was 7th and 8th grades. Business was improving. Dad bought his first brand new car. Okay, so it was a POS Rambler station wagon. Still it was the first car in our family that wasn’t a hand-me-down.

Dad was more relaxed and seemed to actually enjoy having a baby in the house. Even though I was glad to have the “baby” of the family spotlight off me, I was pissed that she was receiving attention that I felt I never got. The fact the she was severely asthmatic didn’t help. They coddled her and she was able to get away with things that none of us ever dreamed of. It affected our relationship for years. But this isn’t about me or Gail. What she did do was soften dad. This was not the same father that raised me or the other four.

And they began to travel. Carol was married in 1964. Right after the wedding we all piled into a brand spanking new Buick and drove to Florida. They took their first airplane ride down there, flying to the west coast to look at some property.17 You know those kind of deals. I remember being terrified until they returned. It was my first experience with air travel and I didn’t even get on the plane. Shortly after that, they started their world travels. The plant would close for the first two weeks of July and they were off to different exotic places. Then the cruising began. The first was a family cruise (including Bubby) to St Thomas that had to be in 1964. I know that they lied about my age to save some money on my fare. (So much for honesty, eh? See next paragraph).

After that, it was just the two of them or sometimes with Gail. They always offered to take me, but in my stupidity, I’d decline, thinking it was better to stay home and party. When the cats are away…

Hit the FF button and go back to 1972. I am now working for Dad in the sweater biz full time. This had advantages and disadvantages. I will focus on the advantages. For the first time, I truly got to know my father. I got to see him the way others saw him. And this is what I saw. I saw a man of irreproachable honesty, integrity and fairness.  A man respected by his employees and customers. Whether he was a good business man is open for debate, but as I said earlier, his work ethic was super-human. Unfortunately, he expected the same from me. Not that I don’t have a work ethic, it’s just that it wasn’t for this business. He expected me to work twice as hard as anyone else in the plant, for half the pay.18 I had no illusions about taking over the business. Not what I wanted. What I gained, though, was a skill that would someday allow me to support my own family.

But the greatest gain was the time spent with the man. The long forgotten discussions we would have, the respect for each other’s abilities. He recognized quickly that I was a far better mechanic than he was and took advantage of that fact. Not in a bad way. He capitalized on it and I was flattered. The bottom line is that I didn’t get to really know the man until I was in my twenties. I don’t think that that is all that unusual in father-son relationships. The child has to grow out of his stupidity to realize that his father really does know more than he. The only argument we ever had was over the business. I wanted to go back to school. He needed me, as the business was failing. I remember storming out of the house, getting into the Jag19 and driving off, leaving a trail of smoking rubber. Ultimately he won out. Sort of. I worked during the day and went to Brooklyn College at night. It didn’t help. The plant shut down in 1975. Within months of the closing, Mom, Dad and Gail were off to the Philippines to start a new chapter in the Starr family saga that would last three years.

Dad, Grandpa by then, had become the man you knew.  A man that enjoyed his family. By then he had grandchildren from Carol. He became a doting parent AND grandparent. They – the grandkids – even visited in the Philippines.

While they were away, I met your mom. We married when they came home. Literally, I think it was days after they returned. You pretty much know the rest.

Mom and Dad had a very close knit (no pun intended) social group. One of my childhood memories is of Book Club meetings that they would have periodically. Each month they were held at a different couple’s house. They probably had two a year at Ocean Avenue. I was either too young to know what was discussed or we were not allowed near the meeting. I well remember the morning after, finding the dining room table laded with drinking glasses and full ashtrays. There were occasional left over sweet treats. When I was older the cigarette buts had some value.

They were certainly an intellectual bunch. Among their friends was a chess grand master and some lesser players. Dad counted himself among the lesser players.20 I remember one summer when we were staying at the bungalow colony, watching – or rather listening to – and trying to follow a chess game played without a board. Not my game, for sure.

They were most assuredly well to the left of center. Maybe even a little left of left. One or more of the people in their circle fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. They fought alongside the Communists. What ultimately gave them away, at least to me, were the books I found in the attic of the house on Ocean Avenue when I had to empty it. I can’t recall any of the titles. I just remember the “Oh Shit” moment when I looked at them. I guess there is always a chance they were there when they moved in, you honor. When you take into account all of the other clues it lessens the doubt.

I do know that Dad was as unreligious a man as you will find. That came from his father. It is in stark contrast to Bubby, who lived upstairs in the same house and kept a Kosher home. That’s another point to ponder. The man spent a good portion of his adult life living and working with his mother-in-law. Think about that one. Maybe when she moved to Florida is when he really started to relax. Anyway back to religion. Except for Bubby upstairs, it didn’t exist in our house. That was on his terms, not Grandma’s. She went along with whatever he wanted. And gladly. Remember how I said dad was the king in his house when he was growing up? Grandma kept him on the thrown. I don’t mean this in a bad way. Their relationship was one for the record books. As loving a couple as you will ever find. Even with all those damned kids running around. And you wonder why they traveled? So it was an amazing thing for me to see you grandfather climb the steps of the altar during your Bar Mitzvah at the Toro,21 and take the scrolls. He was so proud to do it. Simply Amazing.

During the First Gulf War, I hung an American Flag on the front of the house near the mailbox on Pickwick Drive.22 Mom and Dad came to visit. When he saw the flag, he seemed disturbed. What’s this about? I’m supporting our country and troops, I said. He felt that nationalist zeal led to more wars. He had seen enough and was not interested in war, nationalism or religion. When I was a child, I remember answering a question saying, “Yes’m.”23 I got my head handed to me. For them, it was the equivalent of the “N” word and they would have none of it. And this was in the 1950’s, before Martin Luther King and civil rights. So add racism to that list of things he had no patience for.

The bottom line here is your grandfather was a complex man. He was a brilliant man. He was a talented man. He was warm, loving and compassionate even when he wasn’t showing it. And I didn’t even touch on his sense of humor24 or that he was a voracious reader who loved science fiction.

You and your brother should never have to wonder what he would have thought about you. I know that he would have been as proud a grandparent as ever lived. You guys have accomplished things that he only dreamed of. He loved music, but he was Salieri to your Mozart. (As am I).25 He would have been in heaven (leave it!) had he been able to see you guys play your music, be it classical or metal or whatever. It would have been his biggest thrill.

David. Your love of language and the way you are pursuing your dreams, the way you revel in the glories of the ancient and modern worlds would have given the two of you much to talk about. Your sadness is understandable. With him, with Daitz, you have lost two great authorities and conversationalists. Truly worth mourning.  I know he would relish reading your blogs.

Justin. Along with your music, your forays into the world of science would have thrilled him. He was as in love with the heavens as you are. Some of my fondest childhood memories, as you know, involve frequent trips the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium along with building a telescope. We used to have long philosophical talks about science that you would have enjoyed. He loved problem solving.

You have both done his legacy justice. More than I ever could. Be as proud of yourselves as I am of you. He most certainly would have been.

  1. Which, if you didn’t read it, I dunno, fuck you, I guess? []
  2. Brooklyn. []
  3. Also Brooklyn. []
  4. Richard was the first of the six children, born in 1945 before the end of the war. []
  5. My dad is the operations manager at the American Airpower Museum, Farmingdale New York. []
  6. Here my dad speaks to an interesting, and somewhat common phenomenon.  Many WWII vets never spoke about their experiences with their families.  Only in their last years have many of them opened up, and then only to historians or other third parties. []
  7. My own speculation here, but this is something to think about.  The Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last major offensive, was a bloody shitshow that took place mostly in the Ardennes forest.  You read all kinds of horror stories about people being ripped to shreds not just from ammunition but from the splintered timbers of exploding trees.  As a medic, what nightmares must he have encountered on such a crossing? []
  8. The “Ike jacket” was a waist length jacket worn by US soldiers during WWII; so called because it was popularized by General Eisenhower, who was often pictured wearing it. []
  9. What follows is a bit long and technical, and while of great interest to someone like me (or Dale!), the casual reader can probably get by on skimming it. []
  10. I recently asked my dad why we knew so little about my grandfather’s time in the Army.  Surely service records are public records.  Why didn’t we just consult those?  It turns out that sometime after the war, the warehouse where many of these records were stored burned down, depriving us – and many other families – of their loved ones’ wartime experiences. []
  11. Richard is the de facto family historian.  He recorded a series of video interviews with Bubby which we still have, but which I’ve yet to watch.  (The comment about the Yiddish is directed towards me, given my interest in the language). []
  12. Also Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. []
  13. That would make them my dad’s first cousins.  If I ever met them, I have no memory of it. []
  14. This is also the house I was born into. []
  15. My dad’s colleague at the museum. []
  16. Not too long ago, my dad actually drove me by the place where the factory used to be.  It had either burned down or been torn down years ago, and all that was left was an empty lot.  Can you imagine an empty lot in Williamsburg?  I’m sure it will be luxury housing soon enough.  Side note: My dad worked in Williamsburg before it was cool.  Take that, hipsters! []
  17. During my lifetime, my grandparents were “snowbirds,” spending half the year in Toronto and half the year in Florida.  Later on, they moved to Florida full time.  This made their visits special fucking occasions, but I was always jealous of my friends whose grandparents lived nearby. []
  18. This deserves an explanation, which my dad doesn’t elaborate on here as I’ve heard this story a million times.  But it goes to the heart of my grandfather’s unwillingness to give even the appearance of impropriety.  He would have abhorred the idea of my dad getting special treatment simply because he was the boss’ son; hence the “twice the work for half the pay” dictum.  Donald Trump, clearly, never got this memo. []
  19. He’s not kidding.  My dad is a magician with machines and cars.  The Jag in question was one of several gorgeous E-Types he owned back in the day. []
  20. It’s hard to get context on what is meant by “lesser player” here.  What I do know, is that my grandfather loved playing chess with me.  I never beat him, never even came close.  But he loved it; we both did.  But I’m sure he valued it because it was an “intellectual” thing.  I suspect he’d rather watch me lose to him in chess than win a hockey game. []
  21. While the rest of my friends had their Bar & Bat Mitzvah’s at their local synagogues on Long Island, I had mine at the Toro Synagogue in Rhode Island, which is the oldest synagogue in America.  #historynerd []
  22. Soysset, Long Island. []
  23. This is something you, thankfully, just don’t hear anymore.  In fact, I nearly missed it on my first read-through.  But “yes’m” and “yessuh” used to be how a black “boy” was expected to answer his white “superiors.” []
  24. For any of you who ever rolled your eyes (or worse) at one of my terrible puns, well, Grandpa was the progenitor of all that.  When I was a kid, at Thanksgiving dinner, people would go around the table, just punning.  The goal was to make a pun off the pun the previous person had just made.  My mother, who was not born into this family, has become quite expert at it. []
  25. Cleary, this is directed towards my brother, the music comp major. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
The Overdue Edition

Disclaimer: I’m somewhat ambivalent about posting this piece.  My family is dealing with some things right now, and it’s brought me to some emotions that are a bit raw.  I struggle with the question of making them public.  I can only hope that the people I love will find something, well, not comforting, but at least worthwhile.

Shit.  How long has it been?  November was an interesting month.  Which, I suppose, is something the whole world can fucking say.  Hashtag Trump.1  But for me personally, November was an interesting month, to say the least.  Much has happened since my last post, which apparently was published on October 20th.

On October 20th, I was still living at the Airbnb in Neukölln.  Maybe that’s where I ought to start this post.  I probably should put a bow on that whole experience.  Well of course I’ve never had anything but good to say about my time with Anja and Mischa.  I stayed with them for two months last year.  And this year I stayed with them for something like three and a half months.  And they’re hands down the best hosts you could ever ask for.

But if I’m being honest, it was starting to feel a little tired by the end.  Or maybe the better way to say it is, I was feeling a little tired at the end.  What I mean is, that’s not a reflection on them in any way.  It’s just that after so long a stay, I was getting tired of feeling like a guest.  And that’s what I was there.  A guest.  And my life changed quite a bit over that time, right?  When I re-arrived in mid July, I was still on vacation.  I wasn’t working.  Not as an inhabitant of Berlin, anyway, though I was still collecting the last of my paychecks from New York.

But by the end, I had already started teaching my first class as English teacher in Berlin.  It was time to get my own place.  It was time to make my own way.  Time not to be a guest anymore.  So I thank them with all my heart for every kindness they showed me.  And I love them, I really do.  I hope they will be a part of my life in Berlin going forward.  But I’m glad now to be out of there.  Glad to finally be making it on my own.

The only thing is, there was a whole month between leaving them and getting set up here, in my own place.  I’ll come to this latter point soon enough.  But I need to say something about the last month, how it all played out.

Towards the end of October, I interviewed for a room in an apartment in Köpenick, which is in the east of Berlin.  The interview went well.  They liked me and I liked them.  The only hang up – well, there were two hang ups – but the big hang up was that the room wouldn’t be available until December 1st.  This meant I’d need to find a place for the intervening month.  And the truth is, I would have stayed on with A&M were that an option.  But in fact, they’d already booked the room to someone else.

Fortunately, Joschka was going to the States for most of November.  So I wound up crashing at his place for something like 2.5 weeks.  Before that, though, I had book a few nights at an Airbnb.  Whereupon did I find a very nice room in Moabit, north Berlin.

Everything about this place was great, except for there was no Wifi.  In 2016.  Who does that?  But the apartment was lovely anyway, and I had it to myself.  And I’ll always remember this place, if for no other reason than this is where I was living when I finally got my visa.

Oh yeah, I finally got my visa.  That was a nerve-wracking experience.  I was fairly certain that I’d got all my papers in order.  But I was fairly certain of this the first time as well, and we all know how that worked out.  But in theory, all I had to do was show up with the new documents they’d requested and I’d be alright.  Emphasis on “all I had to do was show up.”

What I mean is, I got the address for the visa office wrong.  My plan was to show up a solid half-hour early, just to be safe.  The apartment was walking distance to the address I’d found, and so I planned my walk accordingly.  Only thing was, when I got there, it wasn’t there.  Fuck me.  OK, I thought, OK, let’s look at the map.  Good, it wasn’t all that far.  Or, it wouldn’t have been, if I’d had more time.  It was maybe a 35 minute walk.  Problem was, I only had 30 minutes.

Welp, I thought, much as I hate to do it, I guess I’ll have to call an Uber.2  Which would have been easy if I hadn’t run out of data.  But since the apartment didn’t have Wifi – did I mention that? – I’d burned through all my data.  So I had to rush in to a supermarket and buy some credit.  Great.  Then I had to wait for the credit to be activated.  Also great.  In the end, the data kicked in, I ordered the Uber and I got to the visa office in time.  Not with the half hour cushion I was hoping for, but I wasn’t late.

The appointment itself passed without incident.  But only just.  She – the lady who would decide whether or not I would get the visa – asked for my proof of residency.3  I didn’t have this.  It wasn’t even on the list of documents I was told to bring.  They only told me to bring my sublease.  Fortunately, I at least had the email showing I’d booked an appointment to register my address.  It was good enough, thank the gods.4

Then she asked for my health insurance.  Only the insurance I had wasn’t good enough either.  But thanks to the lady who was helping me with my papers, I had a letter from the state insurance agency saying they would insure me on the condition of my getting a visa.  This also turned out to be good enough, thank the gods again.5  And thanks to Anke, the woman who was helping me.6  For without this letter, I might have been screwed.

I guess I must have appeared a bit overeager.  Every time the visa lady asked me for a document, I half got out of my chair and pushed a piece of paper in front of her, using my finger to underline a relevant passage.  At one point she told me to relax.  And I was like, “How can I relax, this is so stressful.”  To which she replied, “It shouldn’t be.  Everything is fine.”7  Which I took to mean she’d already decided to give me the visa, so long as there weren’t any truly serious problems.

In the end, that’s exactly what happened.  She gave me the visa, good for two years.8  The only conditions attached were that I registered with the state insurance and that I was only allowed to work as an English teacher.  Whatever.  I got my visa.  Huge fucking relief.  Berlin achievement unlocked.

But that was just the beginning.  I had the visa, but I still didn’t have my proof of residency.  And here’s the thing about Germany.  You can’t do a godsdamned thing without this Anmeldung, this proof of address.  Most critically, you can’t get a bank account without it.  And the thing about a proof address is, you need to have an actual address.  Your buddy’s floor, or an Airbnb doesn’t cut it.  You need an actual landlord – or at least, the person on the lease – to sign it.  So I had to wait.

Somewhere around November 20th, I got Lucie – my new roommate/the person on the lease – to give me the appropriate papers.  In other words, it was only last week that I was finally able to open a bank account.  In other other words, it was only on Friday that I was finally able to collect my pay.

So I got my visa on the 2nd.  I opened my bank account on the 22nd.  In between, there were some doings back home.  #Trump.9  And just as I’ll always remember where I was when I got my visa, I’ll always remember where I was for election night 2016; namely, Joschka’s flat.  That was a Tuesday night.  The next day I was scheduled to teach my first class for a new language school.

So I was already nervous about this.  I would have had trouble sleeping anyway.  But this was election night.  The best I could do was to sleep for an hour or two, wake up, check the results.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  How was this happening?

Finally, my alarm went off.  The day was a blur.  The only thing I could think was, I can’t wait to get home and just get drunk.  Which I did.  But it was grosser even than that.  Now look, I’m not normally the kind of person that eats when depressed.   I’ll drink, sure.  But I won’t sit down with a tub of Ben and Jerry’s just cos I’m said.10  But these were extenuating circumstances.

So I went to the supermarket and bought a bottle of whiskey.  I also bought a box of chicken nuggets.  And a box of frozen pizza.  And a bag of chips.  And I ate and drank all of it.  And I felt gross.  But also, I felt gross anyway.  It seemed like the thing to do.

So that was that.  I’ll save the politics for a different post, cos I’ve got a lot to say about that.  I finished up my stay at chez Joschka and moved on to an Airbnb/hostel for the last 10 days of the month.  The place was nice, and the lady who ran it was a doll.  She even moved me to a bigger room, free of charge, after my second night.  So it was OK.  But I was still living out of a suitcase.

I tried to take the point of view that it was all part of the adventure.  And I do feel that way.  In one moth, I got to experience three very different neighborhoods in Berlin.  But I was ready to move into my own room.

Which I finally did, on a rainy Thursday night.  I schlepped my suitcase and a few smaller bags in shit weather over half the city to get where I was going.  I waited 45 minutes for a tram that never showed.  I arrived an hour and a half later than I expected.  But I got there.  And here I am.  But I’ll come back to this later.

In the in-between time, I hung out with my girl Ziba and her husband, Jan.  Zibs I’ve mentioned a few times before.  But her husband is great, and the more I get to know him, the more I like him.  Similar tastes in music, also a guitar player.  Not just interested, but actually active, in politics.  We’ve had now several in depth and very interesting discussions.  I fancy them as my “intellectual” friends.

It’s a strange thing.  My grandpa died in 1999.  I still think about him all the damn time.  By now – in our mid 30’s – most of us have lost our grandparents.  But for me, not having my grandfather around, it only grows more and more poignant.  The reason, or part of the reason, is, my grandpa wasn’t made to be a child’s grandparent.  Don’t get me wrong, he was amazing with me.  As a child, I adored him.

But he wasn’t the take-you-to-the-park, bounce-you-on-his-knee, made-for-TV grandfather.  He was an intellectual.  He was the patriarch of my father’s side of the family, and he set the tone which exists to this day.  Namely that we value smarts, we value wordplay, we value science.  He would take you to the park because you were an idiot child, but he’d rather play chess with you.  When you’re seven, it’s maybe not so easy to appreciate this.  When you’re 35, you wish you had the man around to bounce ideas off of.

But he was also a world traveler.  And this I can only experience second hand, through other people’s stories.  We all know he moved his family to the Philippines for work.  But I’m also told that they – him and my grandma – would go on cruises and meet people from other countries and stay friends with these people forever.

Well what the fuck am I doing?  I moved my ass to Berlin, I’m making it here – or trying to – as an English teacher.  And it’s never far from my mind that maybe I’m walking in his footsteps. Ask me who I want to talk about my experiences with, and I’m gonna tell you it’s him.  And I’m never not sad that I don’t get to do that.

If this seems a bit self-indulgent and tangential, well, it might be.  But bear with me.  I’m going somewhere with this.  One of the stories that my dad has told about grandpa is that in his younger days he was probably a bit “pinker” than we might have guessed.  That he had some communist leanings.  I’m fuzzy on this.  I expect my dad is fuzzy on this.  I think his understanding is somewhat ex post facto.  In other words, I think it’s more to do with things he learned after the fact rather than things he remembered from childhood.

And certainly from my point of view, from my memories, he didn’t strike me as a political person.  He always struck me as a science guy.  But ever since hearing such stories, I’ve not been able to shake this image of my grandfather as a young(er) man, holding quasi-clandestine meetings with like-minded lefties; debating issues of importance with an idealism that I can only match with cynicism bordering on nihilism.

Anyway.  So there I am, sitting in a living room in Berlin talking politics with a left-leaning German.  But I’ve always talked politics with my friends.  What’s different is, this guy is a registered member of his party.  He goes to meetings.  And he’s idealistic.  He wants to make a difference.  He sees the world – and to some extent his country – going to shit, and he wants to do something about it.

And I listen to him talk, and it’s infectious.  I’m cynical, bordering on nihilistic at this point, as I’ve said.  I’m ready to throw my hands up and just accept that we’re all fucked.  But not Jan.  He thinks we can change things if we just get off our asses.  And I want to go along for this ride.  I even asked him to bring me to his next meeting.  I’m starting to feel like, even if all I do is observe, I want to come back to America – whenever I come back – with something to offer, with something learned, with something experienced.

And this is where I’m going with this.  As we’re sitting there in this living room in Berlin, not just talking about politics, but talking about how we can change shit, I can only think of my grandfather.  Where was he when he was my age?  What would he think of all this?  Would he be proud of me?  I mean, that last question is a funny one.

Ever since he died, all through college, and in everything I’ve ever done afterwards, I’ve always asked that question.  At his funeral, my grandmother – unsolicited – told me he was only ever proud of me.  But it’s not the same thing.  From your parents you get unconditional love and pride.  I could live under a bridge and my parents would find a way to be proud of me.  They’d worry about me, but they’d be proud.

With my grandfather, though, that’s not quite enough.  He was – and still is somehow – the intellectual giant of the family.  It’s not enough to know he’d be proud of me because I’m his grandson.  I want him to be proud of me on the merits.

So when I sit in a foreign country and debate politics and try to find a way in, I want to believe that I’m doing something he might have done.  I so want to believe that this thing Dave is doing in 2016 isn’t just something Herb would have approved of, but that it’s something Herb himself might have done.

OK, I guess I’m taking this in a different direction than I’d originally anticipated.  My goal was to just sort of capture the highlights of the last month, on which I’d till now written nothing.  But this has come to a different place.  Before I close, I want to talk about voice; a person’s voice and how it sticks in our memory.

All this talk about my grandpa, so much of it has to do with the stories we tell, the things we choose to remember, and how we choose to interpret those memories.  But there’s one thing that sticks, one thing that is not so subjective.  And that’s the person’s voice, how they sounded.

You can say a lot of things about the Starr family.  We don’t do a good job of holding on to our hair.  We have a propensity for toilet humor, possibly related to weak stomachs and an abundance of time reading in the bathroom.  We value rationality over – even at the expense of – emotion, making us not the most demonstrative of folk.  But one thing that stands out, one thing that sticks not just in the memory, but in the ears, is the voice.  Big fucking voices.

Carol, who was as sweet and loving and caring a person as I ever knew, had this booming voice.  The walls would ring with her smile when she greeted you.  Gail, who I mostly knew as I child, had it also.  Herb, my grandfather, was the father of these resounding hellos, and his rang deeper than all of them.  And it’s not a question of volume.  I don’t mean that they were loud people.  Just that it rang through you like the tolling of a bell.  And there was a melody to it.  It would start high and cascade down over you like a waterfall.

Ida, my grandmother, was softer.  But not less.  And now Michael.  I’m doing everything I can to hear his voice, to never forget the sound of it.  I might never hear it again.  But all of this is an emotional response.  The actual sound – and I say this as a person with an overriding interest in language – is just as important.

There’s a nasal quality to it.  It’s very a much a Brooklyn honk, though not the caricatured variety you find in movies.  And the accent.  Ida had this wonderful way of glottal-stopping, the likes of which you don’t hear so much anymore.  Of course, the New York accent still has a strong glottal stop, right?  I mean, nobody lives in ManhaTTan.  We live in Manhattan.11  But if she needed her teeth checked, she wouldn’t talk about going to the dentist, nor even the dennist – as I might say – but rather the de’ist.

This way of speaking, it’s harder and harder to find.  And nearly all the people I knew who spoke this way are gone or leaving.  It makes the memories of those who spoke like that all the more precious.  I don’t just remember my grandmother, I remember how she sounded.  It’s as important as any other memory I have.

It makes me pay special attention to my dad when he speaks.  He’s carrying something special that won’t be around much longer.  I mean, people who live in Brooklyn now, they don’t sound like they’re from Brooklyn.  Mostly because they’re not.  I could easily name you ten people I know who live in Kings county; twenty even.  None of them are from Brooklyn.

And maybe that’s what’s sticking with me the most right now.  We can pass on stories and we can pass on photos.  We can even pass on videos.  But none of that captures the way a person sounded, the way their voice made you feel.  If I ever have kids, I can tell them about grandpa.  I can’t give them the sound of his voice.

I wrote earlier that I wish I could I talk to him and tell him about my experiences.  I said I wished I could know what he thought of my life, to know if he was proud of me.  But it may be that, most of all, I just wish I could hear him…

ז׳׳ געסונט

 

  1. Does it work, writing “hashtag”?  Or should I write “#hashtag”?  What’s the Dave Guide to Style have to say about this? []
  2. There was no direct route by mass transit. []
  3. In Germany, any time you move anywhere, you need to register your new address with the Bürgeramt – the “citizen’s office” for lack of a better translation. []
  4. I say “gods” plural, but in this case, it’s most surely Ζεύϲ Ξενία. []
  5. In this case, probably Ἀπόλλων and/or Ὑγίεια. []
  6. A quick note on Anke, whom I can’t thank enough.  She was recommended to me by Lisa, my roommate from last year.  Her charge was €50 for our first meeting.  More than I wanted to pay, but money well spent, considering I didn’t know a thing about health insurance in this country.  After our first meeting, however, she was always happy to answer an email or talk on the phone, and she’s since helped me apply for the state insurance.  She was even on standby during my visa appointment in case anything was to go wrong.  In all that time, she’s never asked me for another dime.  I can’t thank her enough. []
  7. All of this was conducted in German, btw, which only added to the stress. []
  8. I applied for three, and she just as easily could have given me one year or all three.  Or, you know, none. []
  9. This time I opted for the actual hashtag.  I’m still not sure which I think functions better in “formal” written text. []
  10. I won’t sit down with a tub of ice cream period, because lactose intolerance.  But you get the point. []
  11. Though the people that speak this way would hardly ever bother with the name of the island, referring instead to the city, or rather the ci’y. []