An American in Berlin
19 January, 2017
So I was talking to Charlotte yesterday, and she was all, “What’s up with your blog? How come you haven’t written in a while? Well, you know what? She’s right. I haven’t written in a while. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to, it’s just that I’ve been allocating my energies elsewhere. It’s been full steam ahead on Project Hebrew, leaving little time for other ventures. Not that I’m complaining. In fact, I’m feeling pretty good about it. That’s just the way things have been lately.
That, and writing takes a long time and requires rather a bit more alcohol than the ol’ language studies. And since I, you know, work now, I’m not exactly keen to stumble into bed half-drunk at 3:30 in the morning. Which is how this blogging thing often works, if you must know.
But yeah, anyway, I figured – after a bit of a reminder – that I probably should knock something out, even if it’s short. That said, this will be a bit of a hodgepodge; trying to catch up on the last few weeks in one go while also trying to achieve Bed at a reasonable (for me) hour.
So a while back, I mentioned to Jared that I was feeling a bit “tight” lately, a bit stressed. This may have been in the midst of the whole visa-Anmeldung-bank-health insurance saga.1 Anyway, he says to me, and I paraphrase, “Dude, why don’t you read some fucking Aurelius?”2 This was a mighty fine suggestion. After all, the down-to-earth thoughts of the down-to-earth Philosopher King have often helped to calm me down in the past, and to keep things in perspective.
I first encountered Aurelius in a survey of Western lit3 during my senior year of college. Indeed, so taken was I with this text that it became one of the three great motivating factors behind my desire to learn Greek, coming in third behind Homer and the great Thucydides. The one brought me to Daitz and remains at the center of everything Dave. On the other, I wrote my Master’s thesis.
But to this day, Aurelius – in Greek4 – has eluded me. Which isn’t to say that Aurelius has eluded me. Years and years ago I had an English copy of the text, which I shared with Jared. He too was taken with it. And, I think, this is how he knows it in the first place. Anyway, he was right to suggest it. The only thing was, I was determined that the next time I read this thing, it would be in Greek.
And there’s the rub. I never took any classes on Stoicism, and as a result, I’m not familiar with the vocabulary. To give but one example: In Greek, the word δύναμιϲ (dynamis) means first ability (as in, the ability to do something), and then, by extension, power. From this we get all sorts of cool English words, like “dynamo,” “dynamic,” and “dynasty.” But it seems that in a Stoic context, it takes on a new meaning of something like “arts” and/or “faculties (mental or otherwise).” What I mean to say is, the hard part is not so much the words you’ve never seen before, but rather the words you already know but which now mean something totally new. Δύναμιϲ is one example, but others abound.
So there’s that. And then there’s the fact that MA draws heavily on the slave5 -philosopher Epictetus. Owing, then, to these two factors, I decided that as much as I might want to read Aurelius, really the place to start was with Epictetus. Fortunately, I already had the text, albeit in the cheater’s Loeb edition. By which I mean, all the left-side pages are the original Greek, but all the right-side pages are an English translation; hence “cheater’s” edition.
Normally, I’m not a fan of using Loeb’s. In fact, I had a professor once who wouldn’t allow them in his classroom.6 But in this case, the Loeb is what I had, and so that’s what I decided to use. But returning to the question of vocabulary, having the English crutch has been quite helpful insofar as it’s a fast and accurate way to understand how Epictetus is repurposing older words.
But alright, let me be honest. After three years of reading basically nothing but Homer, my skill-set as pertains to reading philosophy-prose is somewhat atrophied. Yes, I could fight my way through it. But having the English (and my iPhone Great Scott app) allows me to work through the text on the subway; which has really cut into my French reading-time; but that’s a whole ‘nother story.7
Right, the point was, so I’ve started reading Epictetus. And you know what, Jared? It’s really helping. In more ways than you anticipated. Obviously the philosophy is generally helping me to calm my shit down. Which was the point. But the funny thing is, just reading Greek puts me in a very calm state. Even though it’s hard. Even though it’s slow going at times. But when I’m reading Greek, I enter this very chill and happy place. Even in the midst of a crowded subway car where – and I cannot for the life of me understand this – people don’t know to take their backpacks off! I mean, what the actual fuck people?! How did you not get this memo?? In a crowded subway car, take off your big-ass backpack and put it between your feet. Also, move all the way into the car! Do I need to teach you everything?? So you see, I can benefit from a bit of calming down. And as I say, when I’m reading Greek, I don’t even notice this bullshit.
In this way, and others, it’s served to remind me how much I fucking love Greek. It really is my fucking favorite. As beautiful as French is, as fascinating as German is, as illuminating as Hebrew is, Greek is just the best. It’s so precise. So perfect. And yet, so free.
So much for Epictetus; though surely more to come in future posts. I mentioned French, and how I’m reading less of it. As I indicated, I normally read French on the subway. Sure, in the summer, I might take my boy Jules Verne to the park. But in this arschkalt weather, it’s subway or bust. And so, if I’m reading Greek, I’m not reading French. Which is kind of not OK. Because I do kinda love French, even if not as much as the Hellenic tongue.
Fortunately, just as I’m finding less time for la langue française in book form, I seem to have found a new conversation partner. I may have, in the past, mentioned my friends Annett and Jan, who are just fantastic and who have done so much to help me get settled here. In fact, it’s probably not an exaggeration to say I likely wouldn’t have been able to score my visa without their help.
They are also my “artist” friends. In the past, I’ve spoken of my friends Zibs and Jan and how they are my “political” friends. But Annett and (her) Jan are my artist friends. Annett does (or did? And will do again?) open mics with me. Their friends are artists too. So when we all hang out, it’s very much an artist crowd, which is very cool.
Now, Annett and Jan are German, as are most of their friends. But when I met them, my German wasn’t at a great level. So I know them as English speakers, and when it’s just the three of us, we mostly speak English. But one thing I love about them, is when there’s a party, they don’t do the whole “Dave’s here, I guess we need to speak English” thing. It’s sink or swim. And lately I’ve been swimming. Like, I actually go to parties where people only speak German and I speak (admittedly quite flawed) German with them. It’s fantastic.
Anyway, they’ve got this friend, who is French, and obviously an artist. Anyway, she is the first person I’ve met here for whom German is her second language but also doesn’t really speak a lot of English. In other words, she’s the only person I know here where we only talk to each other in our second language. Because normally, I’m either talking to native English speakers or native German speakers, right?
Well, we were drunkenly chatting at Annett’s birthday party and we hit upon the idea that we should meet up for a French-English conversation exchange. Especially since her English and my French seem to be in roughly the same ballpark. So that’s what we did on Monday afternoon. And it was kinda funny. We meet up at Potzdamer Platz for convenience, but not knowing where to actually go. Whereupon we proceeded to decide on a café in German, because I can’t walk and talk French at the same time and likewise her with English. Quickly – because it was so cold – we settled on the nearest bar/restaurant/café thingy.
I have to admit, I was a bit nervous. I hadn’t done a proper French conversation exchange since I first met Charlotte, which was February of 2013. And she’s not shy about telling me that I was pretty useless back then. My only other experiences, then, with spoken French had been when visiting Charlotte in France and my two courses at the Alliance Française in New York. I didn’t want to embarrass myself. It’s not that I cared about making mistakes; that would be unavoidable. But I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to hold a conversation or understand what was being said to me. I mean, as well as I can read French – and I can read it pretty well, I think – I have a very hard time hearing the language.
Well, I’m please to report that I did quite well, actually. I had no problem holding a conversation, and I was able to understand her quite well. Not to say I didn’t make a ton of mistakes, or make long pauses while I searched for a word. Not to say I didn’t have to ask her to repeat things from time to time or occasionally ask what a word meant. But the fact is, we chatted together in French for a solid 45+ minutes. I ain’t gonna lie, I was pretty pleased with myself.
Then we switched to English and did that for another 45+ minutes. And you know what? Her English was also full of mistakes. But she expressed herself just fine. So I don’t actually think it’s a stretch to say we’re more or less at the same level with each other’s language. Which is really nice. Because I know what it feels like when your partner is great at English and you suck at German or French. But when you’re at the same place, it takes away a lot of the pressure.
Two other funny things from this I want to mention. With German speakers, when I need a word, I’m very used to asking for the English. For example, “Wie sagt man rude” – how do you say “rude?” But here, when either of us needed a word, we’d turn to the German. “Comment on dit einladen?” for example; How do you say “invite.” Of course, the French word for “invite” is “inviter.” And she did the same. But the funny thing was, if I didn’t know a French word, or she didn’t know an English one, and we’d ask in German how to say it, and it always turned out to be the same word in English or French, like invite/inviter.
The other funny thing was – OK, I don’t know if it’s funny, ὠϲ ἔποϲ εἱπεῖν. But when we were speaking French, she was totally at ease, totally herself, confident, in command. And the moment we switched to English, her entire demeanor changed. She became a bit shy, and her body language was much less confident. She got better as we went along. But there was this instantaneous change, where she almost became a different person. It was fascinating to watch. But it also made me think, what must I have looked like? Who was I when I was struggling along in French? Who did I become when we switched to English? And who were we both when we were speaking German? “Fascinating,” he said, raising a Spokean eyebrow. All told, the plan is to meet up again next Monday. Which I’m quite happy about. It’s nice to have some actual French in my life.
So much for that. But speaking of Potsdamer Platz, the Sunday before last, I went to go see Rogue One with my old CELTA mate Paul and his partner Lars, of whom I’d heard much but never actually met. Rogue One. Star Wars. Gah! So much to say! Look, Star Wars was my absolute favorite movie growing up. I still adore it. But the prequels took a lot of the wind out of my sails. And Episode VII was so disappointing that I’d resolved to just be done with the new movies and hereafter only ever watch the original three.
But Paul asked me if I wanted to go see Rogue One in IMAX 3D, and well, did I really have a good reason not to? And oh my gawd you guys, I fucking loved it! Star Wars is back, bitches! I mean, I loved everything about it. The characters, the story, the darkness. And I know not everybody feels this way, but holy shit did I love the CG Peter Cushing Grand Moff Tarkin! I mean, out of all of Star Wars, he is hands down one of the best characters they ever had. And I loved seeing him again. And, for me, he was spot-fucking-on. Also, after watching three seasons of Hannibal,8 I now officially adore Mads Mikkelson.9 And he killed it!
And look, it’s not like everything was perfect. For instance, why does Vader live in Mordor? By which I mean, a) why did they poach the Mordor aesthetic but also b) why would a guy whose physical deformities result from being dropped into a volcano wish to live in a volcanic hellscape? And it also left me feeling like, “Hang on, what exactly is Vader’s job anyway?” Like, how do they justify this guy’s salary in the Imperial ledger? And even if he doesn’t take a salary per se, what’s the line item on his Tower of Mordor or his Bacta tank? And where does he fit in the Imperial org-chart? Also, for that matter, what’s a Moff, much less a Grand Moff? And are there other Grand Moffs? And what’s Tarkin’s backstory anyway? I’m sure it’s hella interesting. I’d much rather watch that movie than The Han Solo Story: The Great Disney Moneygrab, tbh.
But all that is secondary. The movie was so much FUN. Which episodes I-III, VII definitely were not. It captured the feel of the original SW. Even if there was no Screen Crawl. Even if the music wasn’t John Williams. It felt right. And oh my god, you guys, who came up with the idea of the Force Monks? That was fucking brilliant. They were fucking brilliant.
And they got the aesthetics right. Everything looked like it should have. Everything sounded like it should have. And yet – apart from the Force homeworld of “Jeddah” – all the easter-eggy references where there, but never too on the nose. None of this JJ Abrams fanboy shit. This movie really brought me back to my childhood and my deep-down love for Star Wars.
One last thing about the movie I want to mention, and it’s another thing I know not everybody agrees with me on. But I have to say, that scene where Vader just demolished everybody in his path was…do we even have words for how badass-amazing this was? I could have untied my shoelaces with my bottom teeth, so wide open was my jaw during this scene.
I spoke to my brother about this, and he wasn’t feeling it. He was all, “I dunno, man, it seemed kinda out of character for him. We never saw Vader move like that. And he shouldn’t need to. It was almost like the stupid shit they did with Yoda in the prequels (which I agree was travestic, btw).” And look, those aren’t unfair points. And maybe I just wanted to justify it because I loved it so much. But my attitude was this.
Vader needed to get those plans back, by any means necessary. If that meant busting out every last one of his Force powers and going balls-out, so be it. The reason we never saw it before is because Vader never needed to move like that before. This was the most extenuating of circumstances. “But in Ep.IV,” he said, “he had the stormtroopers board the ship first and do the dirty work. He had the stormtroopers search for the plans.” True, but at that point, they had the ship in their hold. It wasn’t going anywhere.10 Whereas here, he had to get those plans before the Corellian Corvette could escape. And we could go on. But my point is, I thought that scene was incredible, and watching Darth Vader go medieval was breathtaking.
One thing I do regret, in hindsight, is that we didn’t get any Vader/Tarkin interactions in this movie. I didn’t notice it at the time. But of course I had to talk to Dale about the movie after the fact, because Dale is the biggest Star Wars fan I know. And he pointed out that one thing which worked so well in the original film was the way in which Tarkin and Vader humanized each other with their banter. And he’s right. I can’t help but feel like that was a missed opportunity in Rogue One. But that’s as may be. When all is said and done, I adored this movie. It made me love Star Wars again.
I honestly don’t know if I’ll bother with the other movies that are to come. I really don’t hold out much hope for Episodes VIII & IX. And the Han Solo movie does feel like little more than a moneygrab. But I do know this. I will watch Rogue One over and over. And I’ll watch it together with the originals. Where it belongs.
Welp, that’s all for now.
- Oh yeah, I have health insurance now. And if they gut Obama care, I may be forced to stay here. Forever. [↩]
- That’d be the Roman Emperor/Philosopher King Marcus Aurelius, who wrote a journal that we call “Meditations” but which he simply called “τῶν εἰϲ ἑαυτόν” or “To Himself.” Anyway, it’s essentially a tract of Stoic philosophy, which among other things, has been known to lie at the bedsides of some of our best presidents. [↩]
- In the course of an Ancient History class, actually. And credit where credit is due, Professor Hunt probably did more than anybody else to point me on my current path, not that he’d know. In fact, I don’t think he’d remember me, even if I won a Nobel prize. But he was certainly one of the most influential teachers I’ve ever had. [↩]
- Despite being a Roman emperor, he wrote this work in Greek, which for the Romans was the language of learning, philosophy and scholarship. As it well fucking ought to be. And probably would be, if not for a) The Catholic Church and b) the fact that it’s a far sight harder than Latin. [↩]
- There was this phenomenon in Rome where it was very common to have Greek slaves. But the Greek slaves could well be more educated than their masters. And in the case of Epictetus, they could be full-on philosophers. [↩]
- Jacob Stern, rockin’ it old school! [↩]
- Two semicola in the same sentence? That can’t be good form. And yet… [↩]
- Have you watched it? No? Go watch it! Now! [↩]
- Forget Anthony Hopkins, this man is fucking Hannibal. (Clearly “fucking” is adverbial, modifying Hannibal and not joined with “is” which would be a very strange present progressive. Hashtag sorry I’m an English teacher now. [↩]
- Though obviously he never considered the escape pods, which I mean, yeah, that’s a yuuuge oversight from a guy who just moments ago said “tear this ship apart.” But I’m sure the officer who decided not to fire on the escape pod got a nice choking for his non-efforts. Anyway. [↩]