An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
24 April, 2017

April, April, der macht was er will.  This is a little saying that they have here in Berlin.  It means, basically, April does whatever the fuck it wants.  The beginning of the month was lovely and warm and all Spring-like.  But the last couple of weeks have been cold and windy and generally rubbishy.  The sun sets much later, and during the day, if you manage to find a spot of direct light, it’s actually quite nice.  But cross the street, or step into a shadow, and you start to shiver.  Well, friends, I’ve had enough.  I’m ready for Spring.  So come on already!

Anyway, I’m settling back into life here.  Things with the roommates are good.  We’ve had two “family dinners” since I’ve been back.  And it’s a good vibe here, when we see each other.  Although during the week, we don’t see each other all that much.  I’m out at work during the day and napping when I get home.  They’re usually in their room by the time I’m ready for dinner.  So, for me at least, it’s a very nice blend of time together and time to myself.

For years, he wrote, changing gears, I’ve dreamed of having my own little herb garden.  What could be better than picking my own fresh basil or dill or whatever?  So last weekend, I went to Hellweg, which is the German version of Home Depot1 and I bought a bunch of seed packs, two window boxes and some dirt.  Only thing was, I don’t know the first thing about gardening.

Fortunately, Lucie and Marco are big fans, and I guess Marco has sort of grown up around this stuff.  So they helped me get started, teaching me how to plant the seeds and so on.  They even gave me some soil, as apparently I’d bought soil for flowers, which I guess you shouldn’t grow things you want to eat in; I’ll have to get more.  They also gave me some extra flower pots to get started with.

I don’t know how well this is going to work out, if at all.  On the one hand, my balcony is South-facing, so it gets plenty of light.  On the other hand, there’s no shade, so maybe it gets too much light?  We’ll see.  But I’ve got cherry tomatoes, basil, parsley, dill, coriander, peppermint and rosemary.  I dream about coming home in the summer, walking out to the balcony, plucking a fresh tomato and wrapping a fresh basil leaf around it.  Or cucumbers with fresh dill.  Or cooking with fresh parsley.  Or making fresh mint tea.  Or getting some fresh coriander into my beef stock for homemade Pho.  All that, and also just looking out the window and seeing green; living things that I planted.  So either that, or it’ll all burn to death in the sun.  Like I said, we’ll see.

Zibs, Jan and I finally booked our little roadtrip.  We’re going for a three-day weekend, along with some Norwegian friend of theirs from college, up to a little vacation house on the Ostsee, which in English is the Baltic.  This will be the second weekend in May.  Hopefully it will have warmed up by then.  Anyway, the house – which we booked through Airbnb – seems to be right on the water.  So I’m thinking it will be quite nice.

Then, the next weekend, Joschka and I are planning to drive down to Bavaria to visit our friends from the metal festivals.  Another festival mate, from Joschka’s hometown, will be meeting us there too apparently.  I’m definitely looking forward to this.  I’ve never been to Bavaria, and I’ve never seen this crew outside of the festival.  The kids – and they are kids; they’re all in their early 20’s – are just all around good people, to say nothing of fun.

But in addition to the kids, I’m also looking forward to seeing the dad of one of the girls.  He also comes to all the festivals.  I guess he’s probably around 50 or so.  But at the last festival, we bonded over our love of old school classic rock and metal, which the young’uns don’t seem to be into so much.  He’s probably the only guy I know who’s into Gary Moore, for example.

So that will be two trips in two weekends.  And after that, I think I’ll just stay home for a bit and not spend money.

I’m settling into my new work schedule too.  Now it’s three days a week at the heretofore “Friday school,” which I guess I’ll just call my “main school” going forward.  At the moment, I’ve got beginners on Tuesdays and the advanced on Thursday/Friday.  The beginners are absolutely sweet and motivated and hardworking.  But two or three of them barely speak any English at all, so in that sense it’s quite challenging.  And then there’s another guy in the class who, while not quite ready to move up to the intermediate group, is nevertheless well ahead of the others.  The upshot being that you’ve got to find different work for him.  Meaning, basically, that you’re teaching two classes at once.  I enjoy working with them, but it ain’t easy.

Having the advanced group two days in a row, though, is pretty great.  It means I get to connect my lessons; use Friday to build on what we did Thursday.  I think – or at least I hope – I’ll be able to get a lot more out of them this way.  And of course, the material is just more interesting.  This week, for example, I did Shakespeare Sonnet 116 with them.2  The language is tough, but I walk them through it.  The real point, though, is to get some conversation going.

Basically, the poem is about “true love.”  But from there, everybody has their own ideas and opinions and they’re usually pretty good about expressing them.  Some people think it’s beautiful, others find it naïve.  Some think it’s a worthy goal, others find it constraining.  But they talk, is the point.  And there are some pretty smart people in that room, which makes it a lot of fun.

Not to say there aren’t smart people in the beginner group.  There certainly are.  But they don’t have the tools to handle that kind of discussion yet.  It will be cool, though, to do this with them, when, several months from now, they find their way into the advanced class.

Anne, my French tandem partner/stranger-in-a-strange land friend, is back in Berlin.  So Friday, she invited me to this little theatre piece she was working.  It’s a French company, in Berlin.  So the show was in French with German supertitles.  The show itself was very cool.  It was a one-woman spiel, in which she played the characters of several social workers3 who work with refugees.  The actress was very good indeed, and the text itself was both touching and terribly relevant.  Though in the case of the text, I couldn’t feel the full force of it.

Despite the fact that the actress spoke her lines quite clearly, I was really up against the limits of my French.  And so, while I could follow the story and generally knew what was going on, I wasn’t getting the nuance.  The supertitles weren’t much help either.  See, to watch something in German or French with English subtitles is one thing; that’s no problem.  But to try and grab the German supertitles at the same time as the French sound, well, 1) I’m too slow and 2) it’s an extra step, because I’m filtering it through English either coming or going.  Going direct between two foreign languages – both of which I’m functional in, but neither of which I’m fluent in – that’s hard work.

So hard was it, in fact, that I found myself either listening to the French or reading the German.  Not, as I’d hoped, filling in the French gaps with German when I needed it.  Because once I switched my attention to the second language, the first had moved on sufficiently that I could no longer catch up.  So I needed to wait for a pause before I could switch back.  But even with all this, it was a pretty cool experience; and not anything I’d ever tried before.  And I was fairly pleased with myself to have been able to keep up as well as I did.  It just wasn’t easy.

After the show, Anne asked me if I cried; I guess a number of people did.  But I didn’t.  It was all I could do to simply understand.  Interacting with the show on an emotional level was beyond me.  Which is instructive too.  It’s something to keep in mind when I put 16th century English poetry in front of my students.  Granted, we have the freedom to stop and discuss and explain.  But on some level, there’s going to be a wall there.  In that sense, I’m all the more impressed with what they’re able to give me.

So I mostly hung out with Anne after the show, and we mostly spoke German.  Ostensibly, we were also hanging out with her colleagues – the writer, admin people from the theatre, etc.  But since they’re all French, and were speaking French, I couldn’t really participate.  Listening to one actress in a quiet theatre is one thing.  Keeping up with a conversation in a noisy bar, that’s a horse of a different color.

Anne’s boyfriend was also there.  He’s a lovely chap; a sound engineer by trade, and often not in Berlin.  I’d only met him once before.  He hardly speaks any English and his German is pretty rudimentary.  So one-on-one, we were mostly doing French, with a smattering of the other two.  But he’s sweet as can be, and – thank the gods – speaks quite slowly.  So with him, I could manage.  In the end though, it was just great to catch up with Anne.  I probably hadn’t seen her in at least six weeks.

Around midnight, everybody started going their separate ways.  My way led me to Joschka’s, as the theatre was literally a three-minute walk from his apartment.  I hadn’t seen him in at least six weeks either, but for the one time at Vinny’s while I was home.  I’d say it was classic times, but we didn’t really drink much.  We had a couple of very nice beers, but no cocktails or scotch.  On the other hand, we made dinner (or breakfast) around two or three in the morning, and that’s not not classic.  I think I must have got home around six.

Saturday night, we – Joschka and I – went to go see this Austrian metal band, Harakiri for the Sky.  He’s a big fan.  I thought they were alright.  They’re very “soundscape-y.”  What I mean, I think, is that their music, while melodic, kind of drones on.  It’s very nice and atmospheric when you’re listening at home, but I think it’s not so great for a live show.  They weren’t bad, mind you.  Just not very exciting, to my mind.  Also, I found the bass player kind of disappointing.  He was clearly extremely talented, wielding a six-string axe.  But there was a lot of open space in the music where he really could have added something special; and he never seemed to.

Taken altogether, though, I went to the theatre on Friday and a metal show on Saturday.  I spent time with two of my Berlin besties whom I hadn’t seen in quite a while.  It was a pretty good weekend, any way you cut it.

The difficulty now is finding time to work on all my “projects.”  I’ve put off getting back to Greek long enough.  For a while, I’ve been debating with myself what text I should read.  Thucydides is wonderfully relevant – to say nothing of being the best prose in any language ever – but also quite difficult.  Herodotus is a wonderful story teller, and quite readable, but also quite long.  So I’ve decided I’m going to do Aristotle’s Poetics.  It’s not that long, and his style is pretty clean.  I think that’ll be a good way back in.  I’m off Mondays, so I’ll start that tomorrow.

Then there’s my “Federalist project.”  I wrote about this in my New Year’s Resolution post, but in short, the plan is to read each Federalist essay and write a short post reacting to it.  I’ll give a full explanation as an opening post.  The difficulty lies in the fact that this becomes my third on-going writing project.  The first, obviously, is this blogue.  The second is another silly fairy tale I’m working on.  So when I sit down in front of the computer, which do I write for?  I do want to get that under way though.  Hopefully this week or next.

And of course, there’s the Hebrew.  After I finished the course book, I bought a new workbook by the same authors.  If the course book is designed as a first-year Hebrew course, then this new workbook is designed as a second year text.  It’s got about thirty or so biblical passages of varying length.  But they’re all unabridged, real-deal readings.  So I’m working on that as well.

And, frustratingly, it’s giving me second thoughts about my original goal of keeping up with the weekly parsha readings starting with the new year in September.  I don’t mean that the language is so difficult that it’s beyond me.  It’s not.  But it is difficult, and it’s slow going.  So on the one hand, I’ve no doubt that I have the skills to read The Five Books.  On the other hand, I’m far less certain that I have the skills to read so much so fast.  It’s a question of pace.  But that’s still four-plus months away.  I’ll reassess again when I finish this workbook.  I’m still going to try, but I may have to modify my goal a bit.  We’ll see.

Last weekend, I tried my hand at an Eisbein, which is a sort of German ham hock.  It’s a part of the pig’s leg, with a giant bone in the middle of some rather tough meat.  Traditionally, it’s roasted and served with Rotkohl (red cabbage) and kraut and maybe potatoes.  However, I did it as a braise with leeks and pears.  The meat itself was pretty fucking fantastic, if I do say so myself.  The difficulty, for me, lies in the skin.  We don’t usually buy pork products with the skin attached.  After all, pork skin is quite think and quite chewy.  If you roast it right, you can get it to crisp up pretty nice; which, I guess, is why they do it that way.  But I chose the braise, because it seemed to me that this would be the best way to get the meat tender.

But what to do about the skin?  The first problem is, we have an electric oven.  In other words, no broiler, no direct flame.  If I had a gas oven, I’d have just finished it underneath broiler and that should have crisped up the skin just fine.  So I experimented.  After about four hours, I removed half the skin.  Removing the cover, I put the rest of it back in under high heat for 15-20 minutes.  That didn’t do much of anything, and that part of the skin remained rather chewy and flavorless.

But for the skin I removed, I cut it into little squares and fried it up in olive oil.  First of all, man did that shit pop and dance around in the pan!  That’s what aprons are for, my friends.  Also, I don’t have an apron.  However, the end product was pretty fantastic.  It was crispy and crunchy and full of flavor.  I guess it’s a take on pork rinds?4  I dunno.  I was inspired to try it from something I saw in Anthony Borudain’s No Reservations.  I don’t think that’s exactly what he did, but it gave me the idea, anyway.  In the end, I was damned pleased with that, and it’s just what I’m going to do the next time.

The only other thing, then, that still requires some experimentation is the braise itself.  The idea behind the leeks and pears is that pork has an inherent sweetness, and I thought they would pear pair well together.  And they still might.  But I found them to be somewhat bitter.  So maybe I need to put them in closer to the end?  Or maybe just do it with something else entirely?  I dunno.  Like I said, I still need to experiment there.

But that’s enough of that.  To the extent that anybody actually reads this thing, I don’t think people are coming here for my rambling thoughts on cooking.  In fact, I think that’s enough for this post in general.  I keep wanting to put down my thoughts about this whole East Berlin/East Germany thing.  But it’s a lot to go into now.  And also, it’s not that late, so I’m thinking I may take another crack at that silly fairy tale or even get started on this whole “Federalist Project.”  So until next time…

זיי געסונט

  1. Or, “Home Shithole,” as my old electrician-boss Gerry used to call it. []
  2. …Love is not love / which alters when it alteration finds… []
  3. Or possibly just one social worker. []
  4. But not the gross shit they sell in plastic bags at the supermarket as junk food. []

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