An American in Berlin
11 April, 2017
Well, here I am, back in Berlin. After an all-too-short two weeks Stateside, it’s back to work. I’m officially on my new schedule at the so called “Friday School.” Only that moniker no longer fits, as they’ve got me working Tuesdays and Thursdays now as well. Which is quite a nice situation to be in, tbh. First of all, I just straight-up enjoy working there. The people are cool – my colleagues as well as the students; and the atmosphere is very relaxed. Also, it guarantees my rent/insurance/metrocard money. So it’s nice to not have to worry about that, month-to-monthly.
At the time of writing, I’ve just got home from drinks and dinner with Jan & Zibs. We were ostensibly meeting to discuss plans for a roadtrip next month.1 We met around 7pm at this Persian joint on the other end of town,2 near Hohenzollernplatz. If I’ve learned one thing about these two, it’s this: When your stated plan is to meet for “dinner and a few drinks,” you’d do well to just leave the rest of your night open.
Yes, we met at 7. And yes, we ate dinner and had a few drinks. We also shared two shisha pipes and drank a few pots of tea. And all of a sudden – well, six hours later, anyway – they’re kicking us out of the restaurant. Something about the staff wanting to go home.3 And yes, we did rough out a plan for the roadtrip. We also hatched a scheme to buy a vineyard in one of those southern European countries with a shitty economy; possibly Portugal.
I mean, come on. That would be the life, wouldn’t it? Owning a vineyard in Portugal? Sure, we’d have to come up with the money. “And that’s just for the land,” protested Jan. “What about business expenses?” To which I replied, quite logically, I think, “Business expenses, shmizness expenses.” At that point, we agreed to defer further planning until after the roadtrip.
So on Monday, I had my last lesson with my up-til-Monday one-to-one student at the other school. Although I had prepared some materials for the lesson, she herself had come prepared with a practice TOEIC exam which she wanted to do. The funny thing was, she didn’t want me in the room when she took the test; she just wanted me to go over the answers with her after. The test, mind you, takes something like 90 minutes.
All this to say, I left her alone for like an hour and a half. Which is highly irregular, btw. But that’s what she wanted, and the customer is always right, right? And well, also no. Because she made plenty of mistakes on the test. So in that sense, the customer was clearly not always right. But you give the customer what they want, is the point. So I split.
I brought soup for lunch that day. Which may seem irrelevant, but I’m going somewhere with this. In the cupboard that morning, I found an appropriate Tupperware-thingy for the soup; roughly the shape of a large takeout wanton soup container, but a touch smaller; an inane detail which will also be eventually relevant. Anyway, I throw my bag over my shoulder, grab the soup container (along with my chopsticks, because noodle soup) and head to school. And I’m carrying the soup awkwardly in my hand, because I’m afraid it might open up in my bag. Just so you have the picture.
After all, I wasn’t planning on getting kicked out of my classroom. I wasn’t planning on carrying this soup container around central Berlin. But kicked out I was. Which is how I found myself carrying around this awkwardly sized-&-shaped Tupperware to a park bench near the Mohrenstraße U-Bahn station. It was there that I had my lunch, happily eating noodle soup with chopsticks like a fucking civilized human being already.4
So now I’ve eaten lunch, but I’ve still got an hour to kill. And this awkward empty Tupperware5 to carry around. What to do? Well, given my location, I decided to go for a bit of historical sight-seeing. My plan was to walk around to the site of the old (new) Reichskanzlei (Reich’s Chancellery); then from there, around back to the parking lot where the Führerbunker used to be and then finally to the Holocaust memorial, which stands across the street and one block up.
First of all, I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t win with this shit. What I mean is, as a student of history, I do think it’s a bit of a shame that the Chancellery and the bunker were completely demolished with nary a sign that they ever even existed. On the other hand, good fucking riddance. But on yet another hand, I’m also completely creeped out by the Nazi buildings that still exist, all the more so given that they’re actually in use. Göring’s Air Ministry building is now the Finance Ministry. How the hell does one actually go to their ho-fucking-hum job in a place like that? Last year, I saw AC/DC at the Olympiastadion, which was really cool until you remember the damn thing was built for the express purpose of showcasing Aryan superiority. So it’s a loss when the buildings are destroyed, and it’s disturbing when they still stand. That’s what I mean by you can’t win with this shit.
Anyway, on the site of the Chancellery, they’ve built an apartment complex. Oh, and also a little elementary school.6 I mean, that’s just creepy. It’s creepy, right? Like, how do you live on that ground, knowing what was there? The parking lot around back is where the exit for the bunker was. And all that’s there about it is one little sign. And even that was only put up sometime in the early 2000’s.
Still, I felt it was important to at least visit the site. And since I was in the neighborhood with an hour to kill, it seemed like as good a time as any. Only, like I said, I’m carrying this annoying and awkward Tupperware under my arm. Well, as I’m walking from the parking lot/bunker site to the Holocaust memorial, I decide to try and jam it into my coat pocket. It didn’t really fit well, but it seemed good enough.
Right, so I get to the memorial and promptly sit myself down on one of the stones. Whereupon did I dig out my phone and open up the Wikipedia pages for the Neureichskanzlei and the Führerbunker. And I read for a bit, until I decide it’s time to head back. But as I stand up, I notice the lack of a large, awkward bulge in my coat pocket. Fuck. My Tupperware – my roommate’s Tupperware, to be precise – must have fallen out as I was walking. So I prepare myself to go and retrace my steps to find it.
It was then that I saw the bright yellow plastic cap lying in the street; in the street just between the Holocaust memorial and the bunker parking lot. I approach it with quick steps, hoping to recover the goods before it was too late. But it was too late. A car had run over it, shattering it to pieces and launching the yellow cap to its landing spot about five feet away. And if I’d had any hope of at least recovering the chopsticks, I was disabused of it by the black tire tracks across them. Fuck again.
And look, yeah, it was dumb to try and jamb the thing into my coat pocket when it clearly didn’t fit. But it also easily could have fallen out on the sidewalk where I simply could have just picked it up again. It even could have fallen out in the street and rolled to the curb. But no. Having a mind like The One Ring, it jumped out of my jacket smack in the middle of the road, where it waited to be found by a Gollum-car. Only the Gollum-car didn’t save the precious, it destroyed it. What were the odds of this? There was only conclusion to draw: Even after all these years, this place was haunted.
But there was something else in this episode, too. Something uglier. See, I stood over the remains of this Tupperware, there in the middle of the road. And I looked at it. Only I knew what it was. Only I knew who it belonged to. And I wondered if I should try to clean it up, try to pick up the pieces. Or should I just keep walking and pretend I didn’t know anything about it? I mean, that would be easier. And in the end, that’s exactly what I did. I just walked away from it, acted like it had nothing to do with me. I have to tell you, to have that thought process, in that place, even over something so small, so insignificant, it gave me a chill. I hurried the hell away from that place. It’s a bad place.
It’s a bad place. You’d think I could find a better word. But what are words to a place like that? And people fucking live there. I couldn’t.
Changing gears, thankfully, I finally finished my Hebrew course book last week. I started in November of 2015. So that’s 17 months of hard work and study. But I did it. I do feel like it’s rather a bit of an accomplishment. That said, I’ve still got the last chapter of the accompanying workbook to polish off. This consists of parsing 160-odd verbs7 and an extended passage from Genesis about Joseph’s dreams.8 But that’s just putting a bow on things. The point is, I’ve successfully taught myself to read biblical Hebrew.
Which is not the same thing as saying I’m good at it, mind you. That will come with time and further study. But I have the tools now. I know what I’m looking at. Which is crazy, when you think about it. I went to Hebrew school. I was Bar Mitzvahed.9 And in all that, they never teach how you to read the language. Oh sure, they teach you how to phonetically read the words on the page. But to read the language? Nah. So I did it myself. Twenty-three years later, but I did it myself.
So I take a moment to pat myself on the back a little bit. Because ten years ago, I decided I wanted to learn how to read Greek. And you better believe I needed to go to school for that. Ain’t no way I was teaching myself Greek; which even now is the hardest of all the languages I’ve yet dealt with. But in the course of going down that road, I taught myself French and German and now Hebrew. And I don’t mind saying I feel pretty good about that.
The funny thing is, I don’t actually think I’m particularly good with languages. I mean, I know I’m not. And the reason I know I’m not is because I’ve met people who actually are. In grad school, I met people who would sight-read Plato and translate it into not just serviceable but actually very good English, on the fly. I’ve never been able to do that; still can’t.
But once you learn a second language, it gets easier. You start to see how things work. So for me, I think, it’s more about experience. And genuine interest. The latter is probably more important. What I mean is, this shit never gets boring for me. I enjoy spending my nights working on Hebrew, reading Homer. I love reading Jules Verne on the subway. I love chatting – well, trying to chat – in German with my friends here. My point is, I have to work hard at it. It doesn’t come easy to me. But I enjoy the work.
Sometimes I think about the funny turns my life has taken. Because it seems to me that so many of the important things in my life right now have hinged upon chance and random events. Let’s look at just two examples. The first is the simple fact that I’m teaching English in Berlin. The other is this whole Hebrew thing.
So let’s dial up the Way-Back Machine to winter, 2012. The only reason I decided to learn French was because I needed to pass a reading comp in a modern language for my Master’s. I could have done Italian (I still want to learn Italian) or German (too hard) or French. And I chose French, for literally no other reason than it looks most like Latin on the page. I figured it would be the easiest.
Remember before when I said you have to enjoy the work? Well, very quickly, I found a way into French. And that was hockey. Once I had the basics down, I just started devouring French Canadian hockey coverage. It gave me a reason to want to work on French every day. But I digress. The point is, I passed my reading comp. And by that time, I was now firmly interested in the language itself; which I was not when I started.
Sometime after the test, I said something about wanting to continue with it to Jared and he suggested finding a conversation partner. So I googled it up and found this website, conversationexchange.com. This is the beginning of 2013 now. But I needed to put this off for a few weeks, because I had jury duty. So it wasn’t until February of that year that I finally reached out to try and find a French conversation partner.
That’s how I met Charlotte, who was in New York at the time on a three-month study-vacation; to learn English. Obviously we hit it off. And as I’ve written before, she’s the one who gave me the confidence – and the kick in the ass – I needed to move home for a year, to save money, to finally do my CELTA and ultimately go teach English abroad.
But think about that. I started my Greek pre-req’s in 2007; started my Master’s in 2009. But I only finished my degree in 2013. That’s four years; longer than normal. But I was working at the same time, which is why it took as long as it did. If I finished in 2012, let’s say, I would have found a different conversation partner. If I didn’t have jury duty, if I reached out for a partner in January instead of February, maybe we never meet.
I’m not trying to take anything away from myself here. I’m the one who did the hard work of the CELTA. I’m the one who came here on a one-way ticket, with no job offers, and made it work. But of all those things, maybe the hardest was making the decision to go live on Long Island with my parents for year, to save money for this adventure. That’s not an idea I would have countenanced on my own. But she showed me by her own example that it was OK to do this, that I should do this. And if the timing had been just a little bit different, maybe none of that happens. Maybe I’m still lost in New York, trying to figure out what to do with myself.
So much for Charlotte. But why Germany specifically? Now that’s down to Joschka. Another random and chance encounter. Vinny met Joschka first, at a concert. And the reason he met him was because Joschka was wearing a Wacken T-shirt. Wacken, of course, is the Mecca of metal festivals; something that all American metal fans know about and dream of one day going to.
So Vinny sees this kid wearing a Wacken T-shirt and does the only thing Vinny can do in that situation. He yells out, “WACKEN!!!” They get to talking, and in the end, they agree to go together to another metal show, a few weeks later. At that time, I had no idea about Joschka. I just knew I was meeting Vinny at the concert. So I get there, and there’s Vinny, hanging out with this baby German kid. Seriously, I think he was like 22 at the time; this is 2012.
Anyway, we all have a great time at the show, which was on Long Island. Vinny was driving back upstate, so that left me and Joschka to take the train together back to the city. We chatted the whole way, hitting it off instantly. And in the course of this, I said, “Hey, you should teach me German.” Which was a weird thing for me to say, as up to that point, I’d had literally interest in learning German. Mostly because all the PhD students had scared me off it, with horror stories about how hard it was.
But I like languages, and here’s this new friend who speaks one I don’t know. “Hey, you should teach me German,” I said. To which he replied, “Sure, OK.” Wait, seriously? “Yeah, why not?” I went out and bought a book the next day. And lo-&-behold, I loved it. I mean, I instantly saw why all the best Greek scholars were Germans. The languages work fundamentally the same way, though German is a far sight less complicated. But this language had everything I loved about Greek in a way that French, a child of Latin – which I hate – certainly didn’t.
It also had the added bonus of feeling good in my mouth. Look, I love French, I really do. There’s loads of literature in French that I adore. The language sounds beautiful. It looks good on the page. I find it to be elegant in the way it organizes itself and expresses its thoughts; not something I’d say about German, btw.10 But I also find it very difficult to speak. Or more accurately, very difficult to pronounce. When I try to speak French, my tongue feels like its wearing its shoe on the wrong foot, if that makes any sense.
Not so with German. I don’t mean that it’s easy, per se. And I obviously have an accent; nobody’s going to confuse me for a native speaker. And there are certainly words that give me a hard time.11 But by and large, German feels pretty comfortable with regard to pronunciation. I’ve often wondered if this owes in any part to the bits and pieces of Yiddish that were in the background of my childhood. Indeed, I was surprised to learn how many German words I already knew, just because they’re the same in mama loshen.
I’m going off track here. The point is, at some point, it came time to make a decision as to where I wanted to go abroad and teach English. The only thing I knew was, I wanted to go somewhere where I was interested in learning the language and indeed had already started learning the language. And that meant either France or Germany. With that, I also knew I wanted to be in a big city. So that meant either Paris or Berlin. Then I looked at what it cost to live in Paris and what it cost to live in Berlin.12 In the end, there really wasn’t a choice at all.
But think about that. If Joschka wears any other shirt to that concert, Vinny probably doesn’t meet him. If Vinny doesn’t meet him, I don’t meet him. If I don’t meet him, I’m probably still walking around with no interest in German. And If I’m walking around with no interest in German, I certainly don’t move to Berlin to teach English. So maybe I’m trying to hack it in Paris, or even Rome. And I’m sure my life would great in either case. But it wouldn’t be this life.
And what about Hebrew? A few years ago, I had about as much interest in learning Hebrew as I did in learning German. But I came back from Germany, after doing my CELTA, in August of 2015, and I needed a job. And there’s Keith, telling me about an open position at the school where he’s the principal. Believe me when I tell you that working as a paraprofessional at a special needs school was never ever on my radar. This was not a job I ever would have applied for on my own.
But there’s Keith, whom I’ve known since High School, telling me I should go for it. Well, I needed a job, so I went for it. And they hired me. And it was a Jewish school, this little school for special needs kids. At that time, the extent of my connection with Judaism was going to the family Seder once a year and maybe lighting the candles at Chanukah. And I was plenty fine with that.
Anyway, there I am at this Jewish school, and there’s Hebrew being thrown around left and right and I’m starting to feel like it’s kind of ridiculous that I’m so ignorant of this language. So I start thinking that if there was ever a time for me to tackle loshen koidesh, the holy tongue, it was now, when I’m around it all day, and not for nothing, surrounded by a bunch of learned rabbis. So again, I went out and bought a book. Seventeen months later, here I am.
But think about that. If I had a job waiting for me, I don’t go to that school. If Keith isn’t the principal there, I don’t end up there. And he’s not the principal there anymore, I should add. He left to go back to public school. So that was a pretty small window, actually. The point is, that job kind of fell in my lap. I wasn’t looking for it. And without it, I never go down this road of learning Hebrew.
Anyway, I think about all this sometimes. Because I didn’t plan any of it. It all just sort of happened to me. And in between, how many trips have Charlotte and I taken together? How many German metal festivals have I gone to with Joschka? So here I am. Here I am teaching English abroad, in Berlin, and studying Hebrew in my spare time. And why? Because I took my sweet time finishing my Master’s? Because of a T-shirt? Because I was friends with the principal? It’s funny how things work out.
- More on that in a future post, when the plans are more solid. [↩]
- Also known as their end of town. [↩]
- #lame [↩]
- One tries not to be a snob. But then one sees Berliners eating Chinese food with forks and all one’s good intentions go for naught. [↩]
- Autocorrect keeps capitalizing “Tupperware.” But it wasn’t a Tupperware brand container. I’m using the name as a generic adjective. Which makes me feel like it shouldn’t be capitalized. And also I have this problem where I can’t turn off being an English teacher. [↩]
- Or possibly a kindergarten. A school for small children, is the fucking point already. [↩]
- Look, if God is such a big deal, you’d think he could have devised a slightly less horrifically opaque morphology for his chosen people’s verbal system. #justsaying [↩]
- Update: I drafted this post on Saturday (well, like Sunday morning, after I got home from dinner w/ Z&J). Anyway, I gutted out this last bit of the workbook Sunday afternoon/night, finishing up around 3am. So I’m officially finished! #yay [↩]
- Zibs asked me if I had a Bar Mitzvah. No, I told her. But I was Bar Mitzvahed. Yeah, we’re an odd folk. [↩]
- Efficient. Precise. Clever, even. But not elegant. [↩]
- For whatever reason, I seem to trip over Brötchen – a little roll of bread. Fortunately, in Berlin, you can say Schrippe instead. [↩]
- More accurately, I looked at what it cost to do the CELTA in Paris and in Berlin. But this, of course, was a reflection on the cost of living. [↩]