An American in Berlin
13 February, 2017
It’s been a while since my last posting. I’ve been busy. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been too busy. In fact, I’m feeling a bit exhausted lately. The last couple of weeks have seen more than their fare share of social activity and less than their fare share of sleep. And of course, there’s work too. Oh, and the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket.
Let’s talk about work first, because I’ve really been enjoying it of late, and I really haven’t written very much about it to this point. On Tuesdays, I work one-to-one with a woman who is doing research on memory and the DDR (East Germany). She’s a pretty cool cat. I don’t know her whole story, but here’s what I gather. She’s late 40’s/early 50’s. I don’t know what she was doing before, but it seems she’s gone back to school. Why? Because she’s passionate about the subject; she wants to research it and write about it. Mad respect.
So every week, I bring an article having something to do with the DDR. We work for three hours, mostly reading and discussing while also doing the odd bit of grammar. It’s fascinating. I’m learning a lot, and she is as well. One of the things we’re working on is critical reading skills. In other words, reading something in your second language and learning how to draw out the salient facts while not getting bogged down in words you don’t know. She’s making great progress and it’s quite rewarding to see.
She’s now the third one-to-one student I’ve had like this. I mean, yes, I’ve been doing one-to-one phone lessons with the French company since August. But that’s different. Those lessons are either 30 or 60 minutes and it’s either general conversation or just English grammar. And don’t get me wrong, I enjoy it. But it’s not what I’d call intellectually gratifying.
Then this school comes along and starts offering me 1:1 classes that last three or five hours. And on paper, that’s actually a bit terrifying. I mean, it’s just you and one student, stuck in a room for hours at a time. What do you do? What do you talk about? But in each case, I’ve been fortunate to get really smart and interesting people. The first guy was a video game designer. The second was a physicist who works in renewable energy. And now this dame.
But my absolute favorite, though, is my advanced class, which I teach on Fridays. It’s five hours with no course structure and no syllabus. The students come from the (un)employment office. What this means, on a practical level, is that people are always coming and going. The class just goes on forever with no start or end.1
This was also a bit terrifying in the beginning. I mean, how do you fill five hours when you have no syllabus, no course structure, to refer to? But the beauty of it is, I get to make of it what I want. And I’m getting more and more comfortable with this. I’m making it my own. I get to make it the intellectual playground I want it to be. And yes, of course we do plenty of “English class” kinda stuff. Lots of grammar, exercises, practice, etc. But I always get to work in something that goes to who I am as a person and as a teacher. I’ll give two examples from the last two weeks.
Last Friday, we were talking about the different ways English uses the word “get.”2 So I asked one student, “How do you get over a disappointment?” And he gave whatever answer he gave. Then another student says, “Well, you can repress it.” Laughs all around. But when I asked a follow up question about the word “repress,” her answer had something to do with Archimedes.
–Interpolation: The king asks Archimedes to determine if his crown is made of solid gold or just lead with gold plating. And Archimedes puzzles over this, unable to find an answer. Then, one day, he settles into his bathtub, and as he does so, he notices the water rise around him. “Eureka!” he shouts. He’s discovered displacement, and its relationship to mass/density. He now knows that a gold crown will displace a different amount of water than a lead one. Problem solved.
So, as we see, the English word for the principal of physics that Archimedes discovered is “displacement.” But apparently, in German, it’s something that can be translated as “repression.” Anyway, this leads to a brief discussion of the above story about Archimedes. And also Galileo, because apparently she learned that it was he who said “Eureka!” Which he might have, I don’t know. But if he did, he was referencing Archimedes. Anyway.
Anyway, what a great opportunity to talk about Greek! “What tense is eureka?” I ask. Confusion. “Well,” I explain, “eureka literally means ‘I have found it’. What tense is that?” Present perfect, comes the answer from my most excellent students. “That’s right!” I say. “The verb itself is εὑρίϲκειν (heuriskein) – to find. And the perfect, first person singular is εὕρηκα (heureka) – I have found.” And I’m so happy to be talking about Greek. But I need to bring this back to English. “But the point is, Eureka is not simply an exclamation we say at the moment of discovery, it actually means something. It literally means, I have found it!” I love my job.
Now I’m feeling good. This is interesting stuff, and my students seem genuinely interested. Let’s go on! “What did Caesar say when he crossed the Rubicon?” I ask. *Crickets* So I explain the backstory of Caesar at the Rubicon and the whole “die is cast” spiel. And one of my blessedly learned students blurts out in German, “Ach, Die Würfel sind Gefallen!“ Which is the German version of “the die is cast.” Good, so now they’ve got context.
So, again, bringing it back to English. “OK then, so in English, we say ‘the die is cast.’ But this really isn’t a good translation. Suetonius tells us that Caesar said, alea iacta est. And again, like eureka, this is perfect tense. ‘The die has been cast.’ Which is not unimportant. Because the perfect tense tells us that the action is complete, you can’t take it back. But it has an impact on the present. That’s much more powerful than simply saying ‘the die is cast.’ And they’re nodding in understanding. And they don’t look bored either! So let’s go a step further.
“Of course,” I continue, leaning back in my chair and wishing I had my pipe, “Plutarch tells us that Caesar said the words in Greek. According to Plutarch, he said ἀνερρίφθω κύβοϲ (anneriphtho kybos), which is a third person imperative, meaning, ‘let the die be cast.’ Which again is totally different again.” I pause to make sure everybody is still with me. They seem to be. “But then you have to remember that Suetonius is writing many years after the fact, and Plutarch is writing many years after that. So we have to ask, Did Caesar ever say anything like this at all? I don’t know.”
Then a student asks, “So the English again is?” “The die is cast,” I say as she writes it down in her notebook. “And it should be?” “The die has been cast, or Let the die be cast.” And she writes that down. And I’m just, fuck, I love my job.
So that was last week. Then today,3 half my class is out sick. I had a whole thing planned, but I didn’t really want to use it, because I didn’t want half the class to miss it. So I kinda winged it. But at the end of the day, I still had 40 minutes to kill. And I see that yesterday’s teacher4 had given them a short story to read. Well, they’ve already read it, so there’s not much I can do there. But then I notice that at the beginning of the story, there’s three lines of quoted poetry. The story is in parallel text, btw: German on one side of the page, English on the other. It’s originally German. The poetry quote is from Göthe. And it turns out, they had ignored this little quote. Her (the other teacher’s) lesson was about the story itself. Fantastic!
So I write the German and the English poems on the board. And then I mark out the scansion. And we break it down. The meter and the rhyming scheme match. So I engage them on the subject of translation theory. The meter and the rhyme match exactly. But at what cost? There’s a loss of precision, right? Words are missing, subjects are different, verbs are used differently. It’s not quite a “perfect” translation. Or is it? What’s more important – capturing the ‘feel’ or the ‘meaning’? And bless their little hearts, they batted it around and we talked about it and didn’t really come to a conclusion, because how can you? There’s no “right” or “wrong.” But again, I’m just like, holy shit, I love my job.5
Or do I? I talk about this with Charlotte sometimes. And when I tell here these types of stories, she says something along the lines of, “Sounds like you’d rather be teaching a university class.” Hmm. Wouldn’t I though? And yes, on some level. Like, it’s this shit where I get really jazzed about my job. This, and historical linguistics, and Greek and Latin and Shakespeare (did I mention we did a Shakespeare sonnet one week?) and so on. But I do love English, the grammar, the slang, the living language.
But this is where things get difficult for me too. I had to cover a beginner class this week. And you can’t do any of this stuff with beginners. They’re nowhere near ready for it, even if they would be interested. And, oh gods, it’s dull! For me, I mean. I’ve discussed this too with Charlotte, as well as my colleagues here. And they have lovely things to say about working with beginners.
They say things like, “They’re so interested! And you can see their progress every day! You can see them doing things they didn’t used to be able to do, and that’s because of you!” And I, like, I don’t care. It’s boring. I mean, they’re fun people, and we have a good time. But, come on! And then I start to have heretical thoughts.
Thoughts like, “You know what? I don’t really care if you say things the right way. What does that even mean? Can you express yourself? Can you make yourself understood? That’s what matters. I mean, you’re probably going to be talking to people for whom English also isn’t their native tongue. Do I honestly give a fuck if you use the past simple instead of the present perfect? I know I should, but like, it doesn’t matter.”
Because if you want to write an academic paper or study literature, sure, it’s important. But if you want to communicate? Let it ride. That’s what I say. And I think that makes me a terrible English teacher in many ways. So I don’t know. It’s confusing. There are days when I love my job and I think I’m bloody good at it and I wouldn’t want to do anything else. But those are the days I get to work with advanced students. Other days though…
Changing gears. Thursday before last, I stopped by the supermarket on my way home. Had my headphones in when somebody tapped me on the shoulder. It was one of my roommates. “Oh, hey!” And because, well, I don’t know why: “Do you have time for a drink when we get home?” So he bought a bottle of wine and I bought a bottle6 of wine and we walked home together and settled into the Wohnküche, ostensibly to drink one – maybe two – glasses of wine and just catch up.
Well, next thing I know, we’d each drank a whole bottle. So then we drunkenly cooked dinner, by which time our other roommate had come home, and so obviously we sat her down to eat with us. Plenty of food, after all. But of course, we couldn’t stop there. Not after discussing how neither of us had yet been to a local bar since we’d moved in.
So we went to local bar. Just the two of us, me and the bloke from the supermarket. Next thing I know, I’m chatting in German with total strangers. Next next thing I know, I’m belting out Whiskey in the Jar and Dirty Old Town with one of these strangers. Next next next thing I know, I’m hungover af at work on Friday. Incidentally, this was the Archimedes/Caesar Friday, so I guess I rallied.
Well, it made Friday a bitch. But honestly, it was great to hang out and drink and then go out with my roommate and have a bit of bonding. And getting a bit of local flavor didn’t hurt either. Nonetheless, I was, in the wake of this, looking forward to a quiet weekend. This, I’m afraid, was not in the cards.
Zibs and Jan – the political friends – asked me if I wanted to meet them at a market on Saturday afternoon. Well, of course I did. This started out as lunch and a couple of beers at the market. It then proceeded to dinner and more beers, followed by Sambuca, at a Persian restaurant in hip(ster) Kreuzberg. Only, I had to be home by 8ish, as my other roommate (i.e. not the one from the bar) was cooking dinner, and I’d agreed to bring wine.
So I get home just in time, and the four of us – that is, the two roommates plus the boyfriend of the other roommate proceed to eat (wonderful food, btw, and drink…three bottles of wine. Why I am doing this to myself?! I ask as I fetch the third bottle of wine from my room.7
But OK, I think to myself. I can still at least go to bed at a reasonable hour. Which was nearly true. The problem was, the other roommate…stop. I should give them names already. The one from the supermarket/bar, that’s Christian. The other is Lucie. And her boyfriend is Marco. So the problem was, Lucie and Marco had plans to go to a club, and now they wanted us to come with them. I protested. They insisted. We went.
And it was great. I mean, I think it was great. Many of the parts I remember were great. The place we went to had many floors and rooms, one of which was actually a metal room; so that was cool for me. At (at least) one point, Christian thought Jäger shots would be a good idea. Remember, this is in addition to the three bottles of wine, the afternoon beers and Sambuca, and also the beer on the train. But I’m a gentleman, and it would have been rude to refuse.
I do remember singing along rather loudly to the The Proclaimers ‘500 Miles’ at one point. And also being in a techno room, which I didn’t much care for. Eventually, it got to the point where I had to do my usual Dave thing. Which is, to find one person I know, and tell them I’m leaving because I’ve had enough. I do know that I left first. And I also know that I did ultimately get to the train station.
What I’m less clear on, is how Christian was already at the train station when I got there. So obviously we had to stop for döners. And somehow, by the time we got home, Marco and Lucie were already back. To this day, nobody seems entirely clear on how any of this was possible.
What I do know, is that Sunday became a wasted day. Which is a shame, because I had big plans for Sunday. I was going to do big things. Things like laundry, and taking out the garbage and maybe a bit of Hebrew. Instead, I just stayed in bed watching DS9 and this comedian Iliza Shlessinger whom I’d never heard of, but she seemed cute so why not? Actually, she turned out to be really smart and had some excellent word play, so that was rather a bit of a win. Also DS9, as I’ve said many times, is the best of all the Treks.
But I’m old now, and these days it takes a solid 24 hours to recover from a full night of drinking. Which is tough. Because, in media res, I can still party pretty good. I can still drink plenty and find my way home at 530am. Really the only thing missing is WoHop.8 But man, the next day? I feel like a succubus had visited me and drained me of all my life force. Only minus the presumably at least momentary fun of a sexual encounter with a she-demon in the moonlight.
No, but really. It’s weird. Because I didn’t have a headache and I didn’t feel sick. I was just…drained. Just getting up to refill my water bottle seemed an inhuman burden. And yet, I had this feeling. How cool is it that we had a roommates’ night out together? Nevermind that it was a roommates’ night out for roommates who are 25, not 35. But still. It’s a good feeling.
This Friday, I had no plans. I was looking forward to a quiet night in, doing a bit of overdue blogging. Only, around midnight, I heard Christian come out of his room. “Oh, Christian’s up!” thought I. So I texted him and asked if he wanted to have a quick drink in the Wohnküche. Of course he did. Whereupon did I enter the kitchen with a bottle of whiskey and he with a glass of wine. Whereupon did he, seeing me with my “heavy artillery” (his words), replace said wine with a bottle of vodka.
From there, we embarked on an intellectual conversation of sorts. He’s doing a PhD in social economics. I know almost nothing about this subject, but he’s super fucking bright and really good at explaining things. So I started asking him all sorts of questions about his work and the field in general. Because when I meet people who have expertise in subject matters of which I’m ignorant, I make it a point to learn from them as much as possible.
Anyway, we talked and drank. Drank and talked. And next thing I know, we’re back at the local bar, having a beer. And then possibly also Jameson. Well, as you can imagine, that wrecked my Saturday. Worth it though. Totally worth it. And at least today, Sunday, I was able to take it easy. I made stock. I cleaned the bathroom. I did laundry. Got a bit of Hebrew done, watched some DS9 and even had a video chat with Niki, which was bloody fantastic.
And I have to say, it’s pretty great to have this technology. It’s not always easy to be away from your friends and family. But in the last few weeks, I’ve had video chats with Niki, Amber and Vinny. Charlotte and I talk by internet phone once every week or two. It may not seem like much, but it goes a long way.
I had intended to say something about the whole political shitshow that’s going on at home; and here too, not for nothing. But this is long enough, and I don’t want to get into it now. So I’ll save it for next time. Oh, and I also wanted to talk about the Room Escape me and Joschka did a few weeks ago. That was great fun. It was us, his girlfriend, and one of her colleagues. This also turned into an all-night-and-next-day affair. It was exhausting, but it was absolutely a blast.
So yeah, things are good. Now if only I can find a few more hours for sleep…
- Which is gorgeous from a stability standpoint. It means I have this class in perpetuity. As opposed to my other classes which are all for a fixed number of hours and need to be replaced with new work when they’ve finished. [↩]
- The primary definition of “get” is “receive.” But what about: get over, get on, get off, get out, get in, get on with, &c. &c. &c. [↩]
- By which I mean Friday, when I originally started writing this. [↩]
- One guy teaches the class Mon-Wed. There’s a different teacher on Thursdays. And I have them on Fridays. [↩]
- So I’ve just re-read this proofreading purposes, and it comes to my attention that I may be an insufferably pretentious ass. To which I can only respond by pushing my glasses higher up on my nose and puffing my pipe here in the candlelight. #doubledown [↩]
- OK, a box. But only one liter! [↩]
- This bottle was a Xmas gift from the roommate and her bf. And I’d sat on it, hoping that we could all share it together at some point. That point turned out to be the Saturday in question. [↩]
- WoHop, I miss you so much. Wanton soup, Seschaun chicken, crispy noodles and ducksauce, and endless cups of tea at 5am. Truly one of the joys of life. [↩]