An American in Berlin
7th March, 2017
So my roommates got married today. Which caps off an interesting week. Which itself caps off an interesting couple of weeks. So many interesting things. Do I start from now and go backwards? Or do I start in the past and go forwards to today? And what is “time” anyway, when you get right down to it? Fine, let’s start from the beginning. By which I mean roughly more or less where my last post ended.
Week before last I came down with a nasty case of bronchitis. Which led me to my first experience with the German health care system. And you guys, I gotta tell ya, it’s brilliant. So there I was, sick as a dog. Fever, cough, the whole nine. I gave it a weekend, to see if it would take care of itself. And when it didn’t, I had to give in and see a doctor.
I found one via a sort of medical Yelp which Joschka had recommended to me. Whereupon did I show up to this guy’s office, no appointment. They take my health insurance card1 and less than an hour later, I’m in with the doc. He checks me out, tells me I have bronchitis and prescribes some antibiotics as well a bit of cough syrup. And while I’m there, I ask him if he wouldn’t mind writing me a scrip for a new inhaler. He was only too happy to oblige.
Anyway, the visit itself cost me zilch. No copay, no nothing. And then, three prescriptions totaled all of 15€. I mean, how fucking fantastic is that? When that’s my experience, it makes me wonder why I should ever go back to the States. Hell, I almost feel like I should throw myself in front of a bus. Just cos I can!
Well, I’m all better now. Which is the point. Well, the second point, anyway. The first point is, I’m still not over how easy and cheap it was to get medical care here. I mean, this is how it’s supposed to work. And btw, my monthly cost is directly related to my income. It’s progressive. You pay what they determine you can afford. It’s a beautiful thing. Honestly.
So much for that. Work has been good. I’ve been busy enough. And I continue to enjoy what I do. Last Friday, my boss asked me if I’d be interested in taking on another two days a week. I told him I absolutely would. Because this is the place, remember, where the job isn’t based on a set number of hours per course, but rather just goes on indefinitely. If I had three guaranteed days a week at this place, all my expenses would be covered. And I’d have some walking around money. And then, if I could just add one more day from the other school, I’d be on easy street.
But I don’t want to count those chickens before they hatch. His idea was for this to start when I get back from the States, meaning April. Meaning, in other words, a month from now. And a lot of things can change in a month. So we’ll see. But I’m hopeful. Oh, and also, if it works out, the days I’d be working would be Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. And I’ve still got my Wednesday class until some time in May. So I’d be looking at three-day weekends too. How sick would that be?!
Well, we’ll see. But as I say, work continues to be cool. I recently did a lesson on poetry; meter and rhyme. That was a lot of fun. And we read some Mark Twain, which was also really cool. Well, for me, anyway. Comedy is hard in a second language. So I’m not sure to what extent they got it. But it’s good for them to read a bit of actual literature here and there, I think.
The last two weekends I met up with Zibs and Jan, the political friends. I love them. Each time, we met for dinner and then wound up drinking for like six hours. They’re honestly fantastic. We hit on this idea of a group writing project. The idea is, that we would start writing about our experiences here in Berlin, but specifically with an eye to the times we live in; the political shitshow that is engulfing us all. We feel like it’s important to put down some kind of record of what it’s like to live in these times on a sort of day-to-day basis. Not so much big picture stuff, but just what life is like, what we see happening around us.
I’m not sure how exactly we’re going to go about this. Jan thinks a blog is the way to go. Zibs thinks it would make for a cool book. I think both have merit. Maybe start it as a blog so that at least one of us always writing. And then we can try to organize it into a book later. I dunno. Meanwhile, we haven’t started yet. So for the moment, it’s only an idea. But I think it’s an interesting one. I think it has legs, as Jared used to say. So again, we’ll see.
So at the turn of the month, Christian, my drinking buddy/roommate/philosophical-intellectual conversation partner moved out. That was sad. But he’s staying in Berlin, at least for the next three months. So we’ll still see each other. And in fact, he came over Saturday for dinner, which was great. You know, especially since he cooked.
And then, after he moved out, Marco (Lucie’s boyfriend; Lucie being my other roommate) moved in. Which was “fun.” Saturday he showed up with a big ol’ van full of furniture and all his stuff. So we spent maybe two hours moving him in, and now my arms and shoulders are sore. Because apparently I’m old and a giant pussy now. But he and Lucie provided chili and beer for lunch afterwards, so I’ll count that as a solid fucking win.
Oh, and as of today, it’s no longer appropriate to call him Lucie’s boyfriend. See, they got married this afternoon. It was a very small affair. I think it was just a handful of the closest friends and parents at City Hall.2 I wasn’t there. But when I came home, L&M and the bridesmaid and best man were chilling in the kitchen.
Tbh, I was pretty tired and was planning on a nap. But when Lucie asked me if I wanted a glass of Sekt (sparkling wine), I had no choice but to accept. After all, it would be rude not to. Wouldn’t it? Then, at some point, it became clear that everybody was hungry, as nobody had eaten since lunch. And Marco sort of half-jokingly (I think) asked me if I wanted to cook something.3 I asked if he was serious, and he basically said, “Sure, why not?”
Well, I was happy to do it. I mean, I hadn’t got them a wedding gift or anything. So I scoured around the kitchen for a few minutes and threw something together with whatever was at hand. And you know what? It actually turned into quite a nice meal.
The main dish was chicken and bratwurst sautéed with carrots, tomatoes and onions in a white wine sauce. For sides I did my standard seasoned roasted potatoes and string beans sautéed in butter with salt and lemon juice. The latter I usually prefer to do with bacon grease, but not having any at hand, butter was a decent enough substitute. The sides were perfectly fine. But to be perfectly honest, I was really pleased with how the main came together. I feel like I really nailed the sauce. And everybody was clearly very happy with it.
Which, tbh, meant a lot to me. Because the truth is, I was really happy to be able to contribute something nice to their wedding. I mean, we don’t know each other that long4 or that well. So I can’t really say that we’re close. But we are roommates. And we do get on quite well together. And in the end, I think it’s nicer to give a nice meal than a bottle of wine or some equally generic gift. And I even allowed myself to think, you know, it’d be pretty nice if, years from now when we’ve all lost touch, if they remember back to their wedding night and say, “Hey, remember when our roommate cooked us a lovely dinner for our wedding?” Yeah, it’s a bit solipsistic, I know. But every once in a while, I think it’s OK to feel pretty good about yourself, or at least, something you’ve done for somebody else.
But enough of that. The weather was stunning on Saturday. Over 60 degrees, I think. So while I was waiting for Marco to show up with the van, I sat out on the balcony and enjoyed some tea and toast in the sunshine. This I followed up with a pipe and some Washington Irving, who omg you guys, is brilliant and hilarious and wonderful and entirely underrated. And I’m already thinking how great it’s going to be to spend the summer here.
But the summer is still months away. Of much more immediate interest is the fact that I’m going home in ten days. And I’m really looking forward to seeing my friends and family. Indeed, my calendar is already filling up. But more than that…no, that’s wrong. Not more than that. But as much as anything, I think I can say, I’m every day thinking about what I’m going to eat when I get home. Man, I’ve got a list.
Pizza. Bagels. Soup dumplings from Joe’s Shanghai. Wo Hop. Hong Kong Beef Stew from my old corner spot on Hester and Allen. Some actual proper fucking Pho – and I’m talking with tripe and tendon – from Pho Grand. A pastrami on rye with a lip-puckering sour pickle on the side. A burger from the diner. Wings from the Inn Between. And my mom’s spaghetti and meatballs. Oh, and if we can throw some skirt steaks on the grill, then so much the better. There’s not an hour that goes by that I’m not thinking about this.
Friday night we did our monthly Stammtisch (happy hour, for lack of a better word) with some people from my Friday school. Me and another teacher as well as some past and present students. As I say, we do this once a month and it’s always a good time. It’s nice to hang out with these people in a social setting, and it’s a good opportunity to learn some cool German slang as well. So yeah, I quite enjoyed that.
But afterwards, one of the girls suggested we stop by a “really great” pizza spot in the area. But, you know, it was Berlin “pizza.” And, I mean, I’m sure it was great. And I had every intention of getting some for myself. But when I looked at it, all I could think was, “Come on, this isn’t pizza. I’ll be home in less than two weeks. I can wait.” So I passed on the pizza. Which was fine.
Because when I got home, I had some leftover shepherd’s pie. Well, cottage pie, anyway. Apparently it’s impossible to find ground lamb in this neighborhood.5 Anyway, I made this cottage pie for the flat on Thursday. M&L had been working really hard preparing the room, so I thought it would be nice to cook dinner for them. It must’ve been OK, as everybody had seconds. Fortunately, there was still a little left for me when I came home tipsy from the Stammtisch.
I said they’d been working hard preparing the room, and they had. They spent a few days last week stripping the shitty finish off the actual proper wood floor. And I do mean stripping it. They had an industrial sander in there. The funny thing was, they were worried that the noise would disturb me. And make no mistake, that shit was loud.
But I gotta tell ya. It was music to me. I came home from work ready for a nap. And they were sanding away in there, on the other side of the wall. And I passed right the fuck out. Not only that, I had the absolute best nap I’ve had in months. I tried to explain this to them the next day. In absolutely terrible German, I said something to the effect of, “You guys had that sander going and I slept like a fucking baby. For the first time since I got here, I felt like I was back home in New York.”
And it’s true. It’s so fucking quiet here. It’s disturbing. It was like that scene in My Cousin Vinny. You know, where he can’t fall asleep in the cabin in the woods. And the owl hoots and he runs outside with a fucking shotgun. And then finally, he spends a night in prison. And with a fucking riot going on around him, he sleeps like a fucking baby. That’s exactly what it was. And they laughed at me, like, what the fuck is wrong with this guy. But it was absolutely beautiful, I swear.
Another side effect of this moving sitch was, I inherited an actual proper bookshelf. On the one hand, it’s not that nice. On the other hand, it’s wood, it’s stained, and it’s a proper fucking bookshelf. It’s perfect for this room, and it’s perfect for me. The only problem is, now I need more books!
But I think it’s also going to double as a liquor cabinet. Because if this job thing works out, and I find myself with some actual disposable income, I fully intend to build up a little bar for myself. I’m talking, at a minimum, cocktail shaker, gin, rye, sweet & dry vermouth, bitters, maybe a nice bottle of rum. And of course, some actual, honest to god, single malt scotch. I mean, yeah, I’ll still drink my dollar wine on a day-to-day basis. But wouldn’t it be nice to class this joint up a bit too?
Getting sick put a dent in my studies. For the week I was sick, I scarcely got out of bed. But in addition to that, I was pretty well exhausted for a fortnight or so before I fell ill. Endeffekt, I didn’t get much Hebrew done for a solid three weeks. If my original goal was to finish my course book by Spring, then I’m still on target. But for a while there, I thought I might even finish before I went home. That’s now out of the question. Still, I’m not in bad shape there; even if I’m not in as good shape as I’d hoped.
On the other hand, I’ve started trying to get my classical guitar skills back in order. I mean, I’ve really slipped in that department. Once I got comfortable singing and playing at the same time, that became my focus. Irish folk, rock and roll, the odd French or German tune, plus my own stuff. That’s really been my focus for literally years now. And somewhere along the line, I kinda stopped bothering with classical. Which is a shame.
So I’ve started trying to get that back. I’m now pretty solid again with the Bach Lute Prelude, BWV 999. The Canarios is in good shape too. What’s not in good shape, though, is my ability to read sheet music. I really want to get my hands back around the Bach prelude to the first Cello Suite.6 Only the sheet music is killing me. The bass notes are like 37 ledger lines below the staff and I’m just like, “Uh, hello?” So that’s gonna need like just dedicating a fucking Sunday to re-teaching myself how to read music.
But yeah, it feels good to be playing classical music again. It feels good to be using those skills too; the finger picking, the unusual chords shapes. And also, I mean, come on…Bach! I fucking love this guy. He’s like the Homer of music. Every time you come back to it, you find something new. And it admits of such wide and varied interpretation. There’s a hundred different ways to play Bach “right.” Just as there are a hundred different ways to read Homer “right.”7
He’s not like those Romantic fucks, Bach, who tell you at exactly what tempo and volume the music must be played. He’s just like, “Look, bitches, all my notes are perfect. Do what you want. You can’t fuck this shit up. It’s perfect. It exists outside of your reality. Fast, slow, loud, soft, IDGAF. I got you.”
And in this way, he’s also like the fucking Thucydides of music. See, imo, Thucydides is the best prose that’s ever been written in any language. You read him, and you just feel like every single word has a purpose. Every single word is carefully chosen and carefully placed exactly as it should be. And it’s not always easy to understand. But if you can’t understand it, that’s on you. Because he knew what he was doing. And I think Bach is also like that. There’s not a note out of place. There’s not one note that’s casually placed just because a note is needed. Each and every single one has a purpose, each and every single one serves the greater whole.
Bach. Homer. Thucydides. Perfection. Only, now I feel a bit guilty because I’ve said nothing about Beethoven. But Beethoven has no parallel, no equal. I mean, there’s a bit of Homer in Beethoven, and a bit of Bach too. And maybe there’s something to be said along the lines of Mozart is like Virgil (perfect in every way and totally capable of kicking ass, and yet also, often kind of boring) while Beethoven is like Homer (more organic, more emotional, and giving zero fucks for your “rules”).
But this digression is now becoming silly. I shall end it by pointing out, not for the last time, that we should also never forget that AC/DC is the ultimate Platonic perfection of the “form” of Rock and Roll. Limited by its very nature, perhaps. But perhaps nothing is more perfect in the narrowest sense of its own existence than AC/DC. And here too there is a parallel with Beethoven.
By which I mean, after Beethoven, they had to throw out the book and start over. He had literally perfected everything that everyone had been doing to that point. The piano sonatas, the symphonies, the string quartets.8 He dropped the mic on “classical.” So everybody threw up their hands and said, “Fuck it. I guess we’ll just do ‘romantic’ now, whatever the fuck that means.” And you know what? Romantic was shit. Things didn’t get interesting again until Gershwin showed up and was like, “Shit needs to swing, bitches.”9
Same for AC/DC. In 1977 the released Let There Be Rock and followed up the next year with Powerage. And lo, the form was perfected. Nothing left to say. After that, rock could be fun. But it couldn’t be new. And it sure as shit couldn’t be better. Like, they made Back in Black. And, you know, it’s fine. Well, Beethoven nearly wrote a tenth symphony. And I’m sure that would have been fine too.
Meanwhile, somewhere my brother and father are saying, “But Brahms! But Chopin!” And all I’m saying is, of course I listen to Back in Black. Doesn’t mean everything worth saying hasn’t already been said. And somewhere my brother is saying, “You’re a real asshole, you know that?” Yes. Yes, I do.
Oh fuck. I’ve been having so many thoughts lately about “the East” here, in Berlin and in Germany. So many thoughts about the DDR and even the Nazi times, and how they’ve shaped this city and this country; especially in the East.
Last post I mentioned that I was working with a student who was doing research on memory and the DDR. And we read many articles together on the subject. I learned so much. And it’s really re-shaped my thinking on this city, on this neighborhood, on the people here, on everything really.
And now I’m working with a student, a woman in her mid-50s who grew up in the DDR. And man, she hates it. She’s got so many negative feelings and emotions about East Germany. It’s fascinating. But I don’t want to get started in on that subject now. This post is long enough. So maybe I’ll tackle that next time. Because it really is fascinating. I mean, this city is so fascinating. It’s history. It’s present. It’s future. And how that history affects the present and the future. I just look out the window when I’m riding the train or the tram, and my mind starts spinning in a hundred different directions.
But as I say, I’ll tackle that another day. Until then…
- I’m paying something like 177€/month. [↩]
- Berlin doesn’t have one “City Hall.” You know how, in New York, the five boroughs used to be five independent cities? Well, it’s kind of the same in Berlin. Except that, instead of a mere five cities, “greater” Berlin is made up of dozens of smaller towns and cities that were all incorporated as one sometime around the 20’s. And each one of these has it’s own Rathaus or City Hall. So they did their wedding at the Köpenick Rathaus, in the Altstadt, the Old City. [↩]
- At the risk of tooting my own horn, everybody knows by now that I quite like to cook and also that I’m pretty decent at it. [↩]
- I only moved in in December, remember. [↩]
- #nomuslimshere [↩]
- I forget the BWV. But you know it when you hear it. [↩]
- Here, I always think of the totally completely different ways Daitz and I would read Hera. He always read her as a sort of clucking cuckold bitch of a wife. And I would read her as a strong, proud, independent woman. And the best part is, Daitz completely accepted that. “Well, Dave,” he’d say. “That’s not how I read it. But you bring your own interpretation to it, and that’s what reading Homer is all about.” I fucking miss that guy so much. [↩]
- OK, he fell down in the Opera department. But honestly, fuck opera anyway, emirate? [↩]
- Not a direct quote. [↩]