An American in Berlin
28 December, 2016
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…
- OK, originally called the Brooklyn Superbas or whatever, but whatever. [↩]
- In some places, the tracks are separated from the street/traffic; in other places, they’re very much in the middle of it. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- OK, I needed more bones for stock. [↩]
- #BestOfTheTreks [↩]