An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
27 May, 2017

I must confess to feeling a bit burned out these last few days.  Two roadtrips in two weekends will do that to you.  The first trip was up north to the Ostsee, the Baltic sea.  Last weekend was down south to Bavaria.  Two totally different experiences that were, in fact, not all that different in the end.

The trip to the Ostsee, that was with Jan and Zibs and Zibs’ friend Marianne, from Norway.  I was the driver on this trip, as we rented the car under my credit card.  It was, in all likelihood, my last time renting a car in this country.  Apparently, after living in Germany for six months, one is required to get an actual German license; you can no longer legally drive on a foreign one.  I learned this fact accidentally, when I made the mistake1 of updating my address information with the rental agency.  Fortunately, I came in just under the wire, as I was a week short of the six-month mark according to my Anmeldung.2

So we pile into the car, the four of us, and off we go.  Me, two close friends and a complete stranger who was about to get thrown head-first into my awful jokes, my worse advances, and just general Dave-ness.  The poor thing.  Or so I thought.  But we’ll come back to that later.

The drive was more or less uneventful, if pleasant.  It’s always nice to take roadtrips, to just hit the open road and go.  Plus, I mean, Germany.  Autobahn.  No speed limit.  Which isn’t to say that I drove recklessly; I didn’t.  But you can definitely go.  The countryside was pretty, albeit mostly flat and covered in fields of rapeseed, which has its own unique smell.  Ah, rapeseed.  There’s a name for you.  We’ll come back to that too.

Anyway, we finally got to our little cottage, quite literally in the middle of nowhere.  In fact, it hardly seemed as if anybody actually lived in the area.  It seemed to be entirely composed of rental vacation homes.  My old dad sometimes talks about how they used to go to a “bungalow colony” when he was a kid.  To this day, I have no idea what the actual fuck a “bungalow colony” is,3 but I imagine it must not be too far off from this.

The house itself was adorbs, being all wood everything on the inside.  The first night, we went shopping for the essentials.  You know, beer & wine.  But also food.  I cooked us a late-evening meal of beef stew, in which, for lack of mushrooms, I added an eggplant.  Never did that before, but it added a really nice flavor, I thought.  Anyway, everybody seemed quite happy with it, as there were no leftovers.

After that, the drinks started flowing.  Jan and I both brought our guitars, so we had a nice little jam sesh.  Beyond that, it was just the usual good-times hanging out stuff.  I quickly became a fan of the new girl.  She was very quiet in the car, so I really didn’t get to know her until this point.  Turns out she’s got a razor-sharp wit and gives as good as she gets.  “Impressed” wouldn’t be too strong a word.  In fact, she even succeeded in leaving me speechless with some of her well-timed, whip-smart comebacks.

I don’t know how to describe her exactly.  She’s Norwegian, yes, but also Nordic, if that means anything.  In other words, she doesn’t say much.  But when she does speak, it’s always very soft, as few words as possible.  But she can make those words cut like a knife.  And funny as hell.  So she was a good fit, for sure.  I’m glad she was there.

I’m also glad she was there because without her, I would have been a third wheel.  I hang out with J&Z all the time, and they never make me feel third-wheely.  But for a whole weekend?  That could have been different.  In any case, that potential problem was neatly avoided by the addition of their diminutive Norse friend.

The second day, we took a trip to the nearby vacation/resort town of Boltenhagen.4  Absolutely gorgeous and right on the water.  It was a lovely place to walk around.  I even made up a little fairy tale there, just based on the random things we were seeing.  It started at the end of a long pier.  Over the railing, was a shorter wooden post sticking out of the water, with a copper plate on top.  On that plate were two dozen or so pennies that people had thrown.  That was the starting point for the story.  I’ll give a short version here, because why not?

There once was a king in these parts, and he had a daughter of surpassing beauty.  Every man in the kingdom wanted to marry her.  So the king offered a challenge.  Any man who could toss a penny from the end of the pier and land it on the copper plate could marry his daughter.  Only, as evidenced by all the pennies, the challenge wasn’t nearly hard enough.

Whereupon did he contract the local witch to add some danger to it all.  Now, anybody who failed to land a penny on the copper plate would be turned to stone.  Proof of this, all the stone statues scattered throughout the area.  But if they did manage to land the penny, they would first be turned into a swan.  Proof of this, all the swans in the area.  In the end, only a man with true love in his heart, who also managed to land the penny, would be able to marry the princess. 

So every day, the princess would go down to the pier and await her true love.  But many years passed and she grew tired of waiting.  Still, she did not wish to forsake hope.  Yet neither did she wish to grow old in her waiting.  So at last, she asked the witch to turn her to stone until her true love should appear.  Proof of this, the stone statue of a young woman at the foot of the pier.  And so, she waits to this day.

Maybe one day I’ll sit down and write that out into a proper story.  But for an on-the-fly story, made up on the spot, I thought it was pretty nice.  The others thought it was alright, I guess.  But it made me think for a moment of Charlotte, who always loves this sort of silliness.

After this, we sat down for lunch.  We got Fischbrötchen, fish rolls, which is apparently the thing to do at the German seaside.  It’s basically a piece of whitefish, breaded and fried, inside a roll, with some kind of tartar sauce I guess.  It was pretty perfect, to be honest.  So after we’d all enjoyed our lunches, I collected the empty plates to throw them out.  Marianne said something along the lines of, “Oh, that’s very nice of you.”  To which I replied, “Honestly, it’s just an honor for me to touch anything where your mouth has been.”5  To which she then replied in perfect Nordic deadpan, “Wow.  That’s like 30% creepy…but 70% charming.”  Which may well be the nicest thing any girl has ever said to me.

On the way back, we hit the supermarket again, as our plan for the evening was to make a little BBQ.  The house had a grill, after all.  And this being Germany, we were obliged to buy at least two different kinds of sausages as well as potatoes and probably something green.  No wait, definitely something green.  We bought asparagus, which we proceeded to wrap in bacon.  And also salad.  Jan worked the grill, while I did some variant of my oven roasted potatoes.  The girls took care of the salad.  Oh, and we also bought a bottle of whiskey, because Jan wanted whiskey sours.  To which I wondered, why spoil perfectly good whiskey?6

So dinner was fantastic.  Apart from the obligatory bratwurst, we also had Krakauer sausage, which basically tasted like the American version of kielbasa.  It was a gorgeous feast.  Jan was a master on the grill.  Everything was delicious.  Not least, for me, because I insisted on the spiciest mustard we could find.  It was funny to watch all their faces go red as they tried it, while I put it away effortlessly.

Upon which, I shared with them the story of my family’s Passovers vis-à-vis horseradish.  Because, as you know – or should know – mustard isn’t spicy like peppers.  It doesn’t burn in your mouth.  It goes straight up to your sinuses with a bomb strapped to its chest.  So I told them how Uncle Art and Uncle Don usually make their own horseradish; how I usually bring a jar from The Pickle Guys; how all the men pass it around the table, testing themselves in the most macho way Jewish men are able, namely to just eat straight horseradish and try to handle it with as much dignity as you can mustard muster.  In other words, it was a very long way of saying, “Y’all are pussies for not being able to handle your mustard.”  I think they appreciated the story, if not the sentiment.  But after the first bite, they steered pretty clear of that yellow fire, while I devoured it.

After dinner, we moved to the living room for drinks and music.  First, we jammed out for a bit, which was obvi a good time.  But then they wanted to watch Eurovision.  This, apparently, is Europe’s version of American Idol.  Which is an incredibly arrogant and Americo-centric way of describing it, since, apparently, it’s been around forever.  But I didn’t know that, and I’m guessing you didn’t either.  It reminded me of back in the day, back when Amanda was still hosting Wednesday Night Dinners, and we’d retire to the living room to watch American Idol.  Yeah, I didn’t love it then, either.

Two short remembrances from this Eurovision experience.  First.  Each country had a representative video in to deliver their countries votes.  And invariably, each representative would say a word or two in Ukrainian, as that’s where the show was being held.  But it was always something generic, like, “Greetings!”  Then the Israeli guy gets on, and speaks like a paragraph of flawless Ukrainian.  And you just know that, somewhere, his mother was kvelling.

Second.  It was fascinating to see English function, in real-time, as a lingua franca.  What I mean is, everything was conducted in English.  And yet, outside of Australia, England and maybe Ireland, English was the native language of none of these countries.  Nevertheless, that was the standard.  And at first, it was super interesting to watch.  To observe the type of English they used, to see how they used it.  Because it was full of “mistakes.”  None of which mattered, of course, to the people speaking it or hearing it.

By this time, I was hitting the whiskey pretty hard.  And at some point, this went from fascinating to frustrating.  Because they were saying things where I felt, “Wait, was that a passive-aggressive insult, or is that just a function of your un-nuanced use of the language?”  I suppose I could have just let it go.  But it’s hard for me to turn my brain off with this stuff.  I can’t hear it passively.  I’m constantly analyzing it.  And it became exhausting.  So eventually I went outside to have a pipe and just sit in the grass and look at the dark night sky.  Which was very serene and just what I needed.

I want to clarify my remarks on English for a moment, because I’m not sure how they read.  Under no circumstances do I take a parochial view of my language.  I don’t think it “belongs” to native speakers.  Nor am I a prescriptivist.  I take a dim view of the words “right” and “wrong” with respect to English.  In fact, I love the myriad ways non-native speakers use the language, and how that usage reflects their own language and culture.

My point is simply this.  It’s so completely fascinating that I often can’t hear the forest for the trees, so to speak.  I get so focused on the little things, that I lose sight of the actual content.  Every odd turn of phrase, every “misplaced” adverb, raises a question.  Add to that a fair helping of scotch, and it becomes exhausting.  That’s all I meant.

If Sunday taught me anything, it’s that I handle my spicy mustard better than I handle my whiskey these days.  I woke up around three, and I was not feeling well.  The plan was to return to Boltenhagen for dinner.  Technically, only I was allowed to drive, as the car was under my name, and we didn’t sign up for a second driver.  But Jan was sufficiently worried to the point that he offered to drive.

But I was fine.  Or would be.  I just needed to puke, and I’d be better.  I knew that from experience.  Γνῶθι ϲεάυτον – know thyself.  I’ve done this enough times by now to know.  So I went and had a very lovely throw-up and I was good to go.  I hope that doesn’t read as a brag.  It’s rather a bit embarrassing, actually.  But, you know, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

So we went to a nice Italian joint in Boltenhagen.  It was great.  My state solved the problem of being the designated driver.  The day before, it had struck me as an awful proposition.  But in the moment, I was happy to do it.  So I had an Apfelschörler – apple juice with seltzer – with my meal, and it was perfect.  After dinner, we went back out to the pier for sunset, which was lovely.  And then back to the house.

There we had more music and more drinks; I had, by this point, returned to myself.  But we all took it pretty easy, as Monday was a travel day.  On the way back home, we stopped into the city of Schwerin.  It was gorgeous.  Had a castle and everything.  In fact, the local government conducts all its business in the castle.  It’s functionally their city hall.  You have to admit, that’s pretty cool.  So we spent a few hours wandering the castle gardens before having lunch.  And then it was back to Berlin.

Funny thing.  The reason we rented the car on my credit card, was because my card provides free auto-rental insurance.  But when it came time to making the reservation, I could tell that Jan was a bit nervous about not taking the actual insurance offered by the rental agency.  So I said, fuck it, let’s just do it.  Because, the way I see, if you’re going to be worrying about something, then you’re not actually on vacation.

Well, this proved a wise choice.  Because about 15 minutes from Berlin, a little stone got kicked up by a truck in front of us and smacked into our windshield, leaving a nice little crater.  Now, maybe my cc insurance would have covered this anyway.  But it would have been a process.  Now, we were simply covered.  No worries.  So that worked out just fine.

And so, yeah, 15 minutes later, we were back at the airport, dropping off our car.  And that was the end of our trip.  Personally, I thought it was a success.  I had a blast.  It’s always hard to know, though, right?  And maybe this is just me being self-conscious.  But you never know how other people see it.  I mean, I’m a very “sleep-til-whenever, we don’t need a plan” kind of guy.  And not everybody is that way.  So maybe they walked away thinking, “Geez, let’s not travel with a guy who doesn’t have his shit together again.”  I dunno.  But for me, I had a great time.  And there was some talk of making a trip to visit M in Norway.  Which, I would fucking love to do.  I mean, FJORDS, you guys.  Fucking fjords.  So we’ll see.

OK, so that went longer than I thought.  I’m not about to now start in the whole Bavaria trip.  That will have to be another post.  Instead, I want to take a few minutes to ruminate about German.  More specifically, my German.

What does it mean to make a language your own?  What does it mean to speak a language your way?  Certainly I have my own way of speaking English.  I definitely have my English.  As does every native speaker.  But German is not my native language.  And so, yeah, of course I have my German, my own way of speaking the language.  And obviously, some of that is just down to the routine mistakes that I make.  But that’s not what I’m talking about.

You can learn the “textbook” version of a language.  And this is good for writing.  But nobody speaks this way.  Everybody has their own idiosyncrasies.  Some of that is down to word choice and phrasing.  Some of it is down to dialect and regionalisms.  But what does that mean for me as a non-native speaker?  What is “affectation” and what is “real”?  What do I choose and what happens naturally?

The question of “what do I choose” is what interests me.  Because I’m reaching the stage now where I find that I’m making choices.  By which I mean, I’m consciously suppressing things I naturally do/say in favor of things I choose to do/say.  At the moment, this manifests itself in two ways.

The first is what I call “Berlinese.”  There is, in fact, a Berlin dialect and a Berlin accent.  In terms of dialect, there are slangy things that Berliners say that don’t show up in textbook Hochdeutsch, never mind the rest of the country.  I’ll give one example, out of many.  In German, when something is far away, you can simply say that it is weit weg: literally, “far away.”  But in Berlin – and apparently only Berlin (& Brandenburg) – you can say that something is JWD (pronounced: Yod-Weh-Deh), an acronym which stands for Janz Weit Draußen.  I try to use this whenever possible.

But already this gets complicated.  Because, much like New York, most of the people that live here aren’t actually from here.  So it’s entirely possible that when you say JWD to somebody, be they German but from somewhere else or simply from another country, they won’t understand you.  And the point, after all, is to be understood, isn’t it?  So on a practical level, it may not serve me that well.  It’d be like, if you were from, I dunno, Pakistan, and showing up in New York you asked for directions to “toity toid ‘n’ toid.”  Yeah, you can find people that speak this way.  But most people don’t.  And your cab driver from Gana might have no idea what you mean.  It’s an affectation.  An attempt to be “authentic,” whatever that means.

So that’s on the level of idiom.  But it also operates on the level of accent, or dialect.  Born Berliners tend to pronounce their “g”s as “j”s (or “y”s to our ears).  Take the above example.  JWD.  As I said, the acronym stands for Janz Weit Draußen.  “Janz” is how Berliners pronounce “ganz.”  So they take their pronunciation, and create an acronym not from the actual words but from how they say those words.  Which I love, by the way.

Anyway, I find myself making an effort to change all the “g”s I learned into “j”s.  I find myself making an effort to say “schlaff jut” instead of “shlaff gut” – sleep well.  Or “jut jemacht” instead of “gut gemacht” – well done.  And I know it’s an affectation.  But my question is, is not the totality of my German an affectation?  Aren’t I always trying to mimic something?  If the answer is yes, then why not try to mimic the speech patterns of the place that I live, as opposed to the speech patters of some generic “neutral” German?  For me, I think, it’s all a part of trying to make this place my home, of trying to be a part of this place.  Maybe it’s bullshit.  But at the moment, I tend to think it’s no less bullshit than anything else.

I said there were two ways I was making choices.  The first is the adoption of at least some elements of Berinese, as just discussed.  But the second, and more complicated, is the conscious effort to sprinkle in Yiddishisms.  And the reason it’s complicated, is because while the vast majority of the Yiddish lexicon is German, the words don’t always have the same meaning.

Let’s take the word verbissene, for example; which we might spell farbissine in Yinglish.  Having learned this word from my mother, it seems the perfect way to describe the sour, grumpy old lady who lives downstairs, who knocks on the door when my music is too loud.  But in German, verbissene, simply means somebody who is super-dedicated and hardworking.  The root is the verb bissen, which means “to bite.”  In German, this goes in one direction: somebody who bites down hard and gets to work, and doesn’t “unbite,” so to speak, until they finish the task at hand.  In Yiddish, it goes in another direction.  It’s somebody who maybe is always biting their lower lip out of frustration or annoyance.  I mean, you can picture it.

So, in German, I often want to refer to “Die verbissene drunter” – the sour, grumpy old lady who lives downstairs.  And yet, if I say that, people raise an eyebrow.  “Wait, what?”  And I need to explain.  Same goes for the word “menschlich.”  In Yiddish, this means basically, ‘decent,’ ‘kind,’ ‘good.’  For example, you bring your sick friend a bowl of chicken soup.  The response is, “Thank you, that’s very menschlich.”  But in modern German, it simply seems to denote something of human – as opposed to animal – quality.  So when I say, “Danke schön, das war sehr menschlich” – Thank you, that was extraordinarily decent of you,” well, the heartfeltness of it tends to get lost.

One more example, one that is more day-to-day.  German has two words for “remember.”  There’s gedenken and there’s erinnern.  Now, it’s been my observation – and it’s always important to remember that I don’t speak  the language, I just know words and phrases – it’s been my observation, I say, that Yiddish uses gedenken exclusively.  Whereas in German, there’s a distinction.  Erinnern is your everyday “remember,” but gedenken is reserved for serious matters, as in “Let us remember those who have fallen in the war,” as opposed to “I don’t remember where I left my keys.”

So on a very basic level, I can use these Yiddishisms.  They will, if only after a question or two, be understood.  But they will sound off, there’s no two ways about it.  So does it make sense to use them?  Does it make sense to choose to use them?  Some words, like verbissene or menschlich I would use even in English.  But others, like gedenken, only function – for me – as “German” words.

So the question, again, is, does it make sense to use them?  Does it make sense to go out of my way to use them, to make a conscious decision to choose the Yiddish word over the German word?  I don’t know.  Clearly, in some way, it’s a manifestation of my trying to assert my own identity over the language.  Fair enough.  We all assert our own identities over whatever language we speak.  I just wonder, if it’s more conscious and less organic, is that OK?  Is that less “authentic,” for lack of a better word?  And is it practical?  Just some of the things that have been on my mind as I continue my journey – and hopefully progress – with the German language.

Right, so that’s enough for tonight.  Next time, Bavaria.

זיי געסונט


  1. I say “mistake,” because I wonder, had I just let them run with my New York address, could I keep renting indefinitely? []
  2. Remember that thing?  It just keeps coming back. []
  3. Let alone a bungalow; apart from it’s being a silly looking and sounding word. []
  4. The “town” where we were staying, Zierow, had literally nothing in it.  Even my German spell-checker has never heard of it. []
  5. #davestheworst []
  6. It was not perfectly good whiskey.  It was cheap scotch.  But I stand by my question. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
7 May, 2017

A busy week, indeed.  I must admit, I’m not entirely sure that I want to sit down and start writing now, at 2am.  But the longer I put it off, the more I will have to jam into the next post, and I’m not really keen to do that either.  So I’ll at least make an effort to begin this evening morning.

A busy week, indeed.  A week ago, that is, last Saturday, I was over Joschka’s for dinner.  We ate comparatively early; in other words, before midnight.  I’ll come to the dinner later.  The big news is, he went out and bought this Virtual Reality system, Oculus.  Let me tell you, friends, I was absolutely blown away.  Maybe because I went in with pretty low expectations.  Maybe because the damn thing really was so incredibly impressive.  Maybe a little bit of both.

But I honestly felt like I was in a different world.  It was like being in the holodeck on Star Trek.  I really felt like I was in a huge space.  Everything seemed so real.  In one of the demonstrations – where you can just look around, but not actually do anything – they have you on top of a skyscraper, right on the edge.  And you can look down.  And when I looked down, I actually got a pit in my stomach.  I really felt like I was in danger of falling.  My body couldn’t tell the fucking difference.  That’s how real it was.  I was floored.  Still am, to be perfectly honest.

A bit later, Cindy came over.  She approached it with the same “yeah, yeah, I’m sure it’s great” attitude that I’d had.  And she came away equally impressed.  For dinner, we knocked something together just with whatever was in the house.  I tried something with sautéed eggplant, sprinkled with cinnamon.  It didn’t really work out.  Nonetheless, dinner was perfectly fine and we all had a good time of it.

Later in the week, I tried again with the eggplant and cinnamon.  But this time, I did it a bit different.  I chopped up some bratwurst, and cooked that up first.  Then I added onions, string beans and eggplant.  Once they cooked down a bit, I did up a bit of a sauce with white wine, pork stock and tomato paste.  Only once the sauce started to take shape did I finally add the cinnamon, and also caraway seeds.  At the end, I mixed in some rice.  And this came out really quite nice.  In fact, I think I’ll do it again.

On Wednesday night, Annett invited me to go see a band.  Anne was there too.  Anyway, the band was English; she was friends with them from her time living in that country.  It wasn’t really my kind of music.  It was kind of just a wall of very loud sound, very little melody, lots of screaming and a bit of electronic stuff mixed in.  Well, she loved it, which is what matters.  And it was fun to get out and see some live music.  Plus it was just nice to see Annett again; I don’t think I’d seen her since January or so, as she’d been out of town on an internship.

The highlight of it all, though, was when she got on stage with them for the last song (or two; it all kind of blended together).  She rocked out and “sang;” more screaming, really.  But it was very cool to see, and you could tell she was loving the shit out of it, which was the most important thing.  The guys in the band were very nice as well.  We chatted and had a few beers before the show.  Funny thing though, I often enjoy talking to other native English speakers, because I can speak my own English as opposed to the moderated English I usually have to speak here.  But they, being from Manchester, well, their English was sufficiently different that I didn’t actually enjoy it all that much.  I mean, it was nice chatting with them.  But from a language perspective…meh.

It was also pretty great to see Anne again, as it was only the second time I’d seen here since before I went to the States.  Since this wasn’t a language-exchange meetup, we only spoke German.  Our German is pretty funny though.  We both make plenty of mistakes, and when we don’t know a word, we usually ask for it in English or French.  But the point is, we always seem to understand each other.

What I don’t think either of us was quite prepared for, however, was how screwed up our version of the language sounds to actual Germans.  Because it wasn’t just the two of us, Annett was chatting with us as well; Annett who is a native German.  And she was basically like, “OMG you guys, what the hell are you even talking about?  That’s not even German!”  To which we replied something along the lines of, “Well, we know what we’re talking about.  And if it’s not properly German, it’s our German.”  To which Annett, “Tja, pidgin German.”

Of course, it wasn’t that bad.  And it was all in good fun.  I mean, the three of us could obviously talk together with no problem.  But it did get me thinking a little bit.  Because lately Joschka has been giving me shit about my German.  I don’t know if it’s actually gotten worse, if he simply expects more of me at this point, or if it’s just good-natured ribbing.  Anyway, it did get me wondering if Anne and I are developing, and then reinforcing, bad habits.  Maybe.  But if so, it just means I need to spend more time talking with native speakers.  Which brings me to Thursday night.

Cindy invited me to a little dinner shindig.  In fact, it was the same crew as was at her Christmas party.  First of all, she invited me directly, which was super nice.  Somewhere along the line, we had exchanged phone numbers for logistical purposes; we don’t normally talk to each other otherwise.  But she just as easily could have invited me through Joschka.  So the fact that she invited me directly, well, I thought that was really sweet.

The dinner was a lot of fun.  And here was a night speaking German with three native speakers, as well as an Italian dude who is way above my level.  I was able to keep up; even crack some well-received jokes.  And Joschka didn’t give me any shit.1  Though perhaps that was more not to embarrass me in front of the others rather than any kind of reflection on my ability.  Still, I’m going to count going to a dinner party and not using English as some kind of success.

The dinner itself was centered around white asparagus, which apparently is a very big deal here and has just lately come into season.  The whole meal was really quite good.  Also good were the cocktails.  It was a lovely evening, although one which I had to cut a bit short, as apparently I was the only one who had to get up for work in the morning.

Work on Friday was pretty cool.  For the first time, I had planned my Thursday-Friday lessons as a pair, building the latter off of the former.  The central idea was to spend some time focusing on style.  Thursday, we spent a lot of time on relative clauses.  But Friday, I led this to a larger discussion of parataxis and hypotaxis, how those work, what kind of feeling you can get from them, the merits and disadvantages of each, and so on.  But the ultimate point was to wind up comparing a bit of JFK’s Inaugural with Trump’s Inaugural.  I think it was pretty fun.  And the students seemed to enjoy it.  Or, at least, they seemed to enjoy the end of it, when I read off a bit from each speech.  My terrible JFK accent was good for a laugh or two as well.

Technically, we’re supposed to pay more than a little attention to “business” English.  And my boss is a grammar nut, so he prefers a focus on that as well.  And obviously I love that.  But sometimes, it’s nice to look at the more artistic side of the language.  Style, poetry, literature, whatever.  It’s a big ask for the students.  Even if they are interested – and most of them are, though not all – it’s pushing them to their limits in a lot of ways.

But I do think it’s good for them.  And it’s not like they can’t use this stuff with respect to German; a fact I’m sure to remind them of.  After all, the languages function in much the same way.  So when they read a book in German, or listen to politician’s speech, I think – or hope, at least – that I’m giving them some new tools with which to interact with their own language.

You can’t do this stuff every week, of course.  And maybe it’s a little bit selfish on my part.  On some level, it’s about me finding a way to teach the sort of class I want to teach.  On some level it’s about the part of me that would rather be teaching a university class than an ESL class.  That doesn’t make it a bad thing, either.  I don’t think it does, at least.  Like I said, I try to find ways to make it useful to them in English and in German.  The key, I think, is not going overboard; which is very easy for me to do.

So it’s a process.  But I think it’s a process that’s headed in the right direction.  And also, I like to think that when we do these kinds of things, I’m giving them something they (likely) won’t get anywhere else.  I mean, I doubt the Unemployment Office is paying the freight on these English classes so they can read Shakespeare.  But I’m prepared to argue that the world would be a better place if more people would spend some time with The Bard every once in a while.

Friday evening, I met Anne for an actual language exchange.  I was a little nervous about this, insofar as I hadn’t spoken a word of French since the beginning of March or maybe even the end of February.  Well, apart from a bit of nothing at that Theatre evening a few weeks ago.  And I haven’t been reading as much French either, lately.  I mean, I’ve been reading Rousseau, but that’s dense as hell, and probably doesn’t help very much in the way of conversational French.  And I’ll come back to JJR a bit later, because I’m having some thoughts on that mofo.

Anyway, it was fine.  The French, I mean.  We did our usual routine.  One beer in English, one beer in French.  All subsequent drinks in German; and these were manifold.  All to say, it came back pretty quickly.  I didn’t have too much trouble expressing myself.  Harder was understanding, as I hadn’t actually listened to any French at length since our last exchange, several months ago.  And while I certainly missed more than a few things, I was never really lost.  So I was quite pleased about that.  And yeah, after that, several more beers topped off with a couple of shots of Berliner Luft, which is a kind of peppermint schnapps.  Just good times, you know?

Tonight, Saturday night, was family dinner with the roommates.  Lucie cooked a pork goulash with potatoes and red cabbage.  Delicious.  As always, we eat, we sit around, we drink, we chat.  They’re really great.  I mean, everybody always gives me shit about living all the way out here in the sticks, but the truth is, it’s hard not to feel like I really got lucky with these two.

Once nice thing is, we’re all interested in each other’s languages.  So there’s a lot of “how do you say this in German” and “wie sagt man das auf englisch”?  Also, they now both need English for school.  So whereas before, these nights would be almost entirely in German, it’s now more of a 70/30 or even 60/40 split.  Which, on the one hand, is maybe not the very best for my development.  But on the other hand, it gives my brain a bit of a break, and makes the whole affair less stressful.

Nicer though than simply being interested in each other’s languages, they both have a clear interest in word play, in puns.  So I’m always trying out puns in German.  Sometimes they work, sometimes not.  But often when they don’t work, Marco suggests a correction.  And from there, he’ll offer up a variation or two as well.  I was thinking tonight, it reminds me a bit of Thanksgivings back in the day, when the Starr family would just go around the table, each person punning off the last person’s pun.  I feel pretty at home with it.  I think I’ll try to put down an example.

So the German word for toy is Spielzeug.  And the word for train is Zug.  And the word for to show is zeigen.  So I tried something like, “So a toy train is a Spielzeug Zug.  And when a boy shows you his toy train, er zeigt dir seinen Spielzeug Zug.”  Which was OK.  But Marco improved upon it with, “Better, when he wants to show you his toy train, Er will dir seinen Spielzeug Zug Zeigen.”  He then went yet a step further by pointing out that a toy airplane would be a Spielzeug Luftzug, which has a lovely trochaic bounce to it.

I don’t know how well any of that comes across in written English, especially to people who don’t speak German.  But the point is, it was very funny to us, and a whole lot of fun.  I nailed some puns at Cindy’s dinner party as well, some of them even bilingual ones, though I don’t remember them now.  This rather impressed the other guests; even Joschka, who is often not easily impressed.

Funny thing was, the two guests who I’d only ever met that one time at Christmas were sufficiently impressed as to tell me that my German must be really quite good if I can pull off puns like that.  I tried to explain that this was hardly true.  I mean, I see their point that being able to pun would seemingly require a certain degree of mastery of the language.  But for me, having grown up with puns, it’s all second nature.  You have two words that sound similar and you jam them into a sentence.  It’s childsplay simply because I’ve been doing it since I was a child.  The fact that the words happen not be English is almost irrelevant.  So to me, this doesn’t require any mastery of the language at all; not that they were buying this argument.  But I mean, ask me to explain in German what I did at work that day, and forget it.  I can’t do it.

I’ve talked about this whole pun thing with Charlotte in the past.  I mean, I can do (admittedly bad) puns in French as well, even bilingual Franglish puns.  So at some point, she asked me about the how, about the process.  And I think it’s like a muscle.  When you exercise it, as I do – to the chagrin of my friends – it doesn’t take much effort.  I think my ear is always listening to words, what they sound like, what they mean, making connections with other words.

Remember my Yankee fan Greek professor?  We hardly talk at all during the offseason.  But come Spring, we’re always going back and forth about the Bombers.  And mixed in with these baseball emails are a never ending series of puns.  It’s like playing verbal catch, if that makes any sense.

Anyway, he’s in Abu Dhabi.  So a few weeks ago, he sends me an email.  The email was a sort of transcription from a dinner party he attended in which they spent the whole night making bilingual puns in Arabic/English.  It was super fucking impressive, if we’re being perfectly honest.  But what was extra nice was, he wrote in the email, “we could have used you.”  It’s one thing when you can impress your friends.  But when your NYU Ancient Greek professor friend respects your punning ability, that’s something else.

Anyway, that’s enough of that nonsense.  If I don’t stop tooting my own horn, I’ll wake the neighbors.  I said I wanted to say something about the Rousseau I’ve been reading, namely On the Social Contract, du Contrat Social.  I’m not sure I’m ready to say anything about the content itself yet, though at some point I think I’ll want to.

What I do want to talk about is the language.  This shit is not easy.  I mean, it is easy, in a sense.  The vocabulary is no problem.  And the grammar, the syntax, the style – all of it is fine.  The difficulty arises in trying to understand what he’s saying.  I find that I have to read each paragraph twice at a minimum, sometimes five or six times before I get it through my head.  I mentioned this to Anne, and she said, “It’s the same for French people, don’t worry about it.”2

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I’m reading it.  It is most certainly fascinating.  But it’s also most certainly a challenge.  But Aristotle is a challenge.  And Hebrew is a challenge.  And when I finally finish with this, I’m going to want to read – and honestly just enjoy for the sheer pleasure of it – some Jules Verne.

Staying in the vain of political literature, this whole Federalist Project is proving to be more intense than I’d anticipated.  I sort of thought I’d just read an essay and than write a page or two in response to it.  Instead, I find I’m taking copious notes, copying down quotes and passages, adding bits of commentary all over the place.  And all this for Federalist No. 1, mind you.  It’s very slow going.  When I outlined this project a couple of posts ago, I said my goal was to try and knock out one or two a month.  And that was based simply on the fact that I’m so busy with other projects.  But in fact, at the moment, it seems like I’ll be able to do one a month, yes, but only with a great deal of effort

And maybe that will change.  Maybe I’ll find a better method of approaching this.  But at the moment, the only way I can see of doing it is the way I’m currently doing it.  Eight-five Federalist essays.  At one a month, this will take me seven years.  And look, if it takes seven years, then that’s what it takes.  But wow, that’s a big fucking project then.

Which isn’t to say I’m not enjoying it.  Because let me tell you this.  Alexander Hamilton is a gorgeous writer.  I haven’t seen the play, let alone heard the soundtrack.  I don’t know how his words are presented there.  And in a sense, I don’t care.  I’m not trying to be snide.  I think the play has great artistic merit in its own rights.  And if it brings more people to American history, if it revives Hamilton’s image, then that’s all for the best.

But I suspect there’s a great difference between Hamilton the Musical and Hamilton the writer.  And holy cow can this guy write!  I want to talk about this here for a bit, because I don’t want to clutter up my eventual Federalist post on issues of style; that should be about substance.

So his writing is gorgeous, as I’ve said.  That doesn’t mean it’s easy.  At least, not in a modern sense.  It’s dense af.  The man is capable of packing a tremendous amount of information into a single sentence.  And those sentences aren’t short either; it’s very hypotactic, returning to an earlier theme of this post.  Nevertheless, it’s clear, it’s direct, it’s to the point.  And for the length of his sentences, he’s nevertheless concise.  He’s plain, in the sense that he doesn’t waste words, but he’s ornate, in that the words he chooses are precise and elevated.  He’s also plain in the sense that in the whole of Federalist No.1, I think there’s but one extended metaphor.  He’s writing to be understood.3  He’s writing artfully, but he’s not writing art, if that makes any sense.

And yet, it is a sort of art.  I think that the way I’m describing his writing is the way Latinists4 tend to describe Caesar.  Which is twice ironic.  Because on the one hand, there was a bit of Caesar in ol’ Alex.  But on the other hand, The Founders reviled Caesar as the murderer of The Great Roman Republic.  To tie all this together, I’m going to give here a passage from Federalist No.1 in which he attacks demagogues.  And let us try to bear in mind that he is quite implicitly attacking Caesar himself while very much writing in a style really quite similar to Caesar’s own…

…A dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people, than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics the greatest number have begun their career, by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing Demagogues and ending Tyrants.

They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but this guy wields the English language as if it were a fucking sword.  One the one hand, he turns a beautiful phrase: “the specious mask of zeal,” “paying obsequious court to the people.”  On the other hand, there’s no ambiguity, he’s perfectly clear, when he talks of “the introduction of despotism,” “men who have overturned the liberties of republics,” and “commencing Demagogues and ending Tyrants.”  To put it another way, he uses fancy words when they serve to illustrate his point, but he never lets his point get bogged down in loquacious blather.

My point is, he’s a pure joy to read.  Not for the content, which is integral to the very understanding of our constitution and which stands firmly on its own two legs already.  But for the style.  For the elegance of it, for the clarity of it, for the so-well-orderedness of it.  It wasn’t my intention to set out on a project that could take me half a dozen years to complete.  But if it means reading Alexander Hamilton closely for seven years, well, there’s worse things.

Right, well, I think that’s enough for tonight.  It’s 4:15 and I still need to proofread and publish.  And I want to go to bed.  So until the next time.

זיי געסונט


  1. A side-thought for the one French person who reads this.  I had originally written, “And Joschka didn’t give me shit about my German.”  But then I replaced “about my German,” which was already understood, with “any.”  And, I think, this is how French uses “en.”  Compare (and I hope this is right): Il n’a moqué de moi pour mon Allemande with Il n’en a moqué de moi.  So I’m wondering if there’s a relationship between the way English uses “any” in this situation compared with the way French uses “en,” which, by the way, don’t sound entirely indifferent.  Anyway, I’m sure the French reader will have something to say about this. []
  2. Also, apparently, she’s not a big fan of Rousseau.  Apparently he was a very “Do as I say, not as I do” kind of guy.  So I can get that.  But he’s a pretty big figure in the Enlightenment and certainly had an impact on the American Revolution.  So the fact that he might personally have been a cunt doesn’t interest me so much. []
  3. And this is in stark contrast, it seems to me, with Rousseau, I must say. []
  4. And even Cicero, for that matter. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
2 May, 2017

Who are we?  That’s an easy one, right?  Let me narrow that down.  How do we define ourselves?  As individuals, I mean.  What makes you you?  What makes me me?  In our own eyes, I mean.  It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately.  And I think – I hope – I’ve been drawing nearer to an answer; for myself at least.  On more which shortly.

I was listening to an interview on NPR a while back, with an author – the name escapes me – who was talking about what he thought the economies of the future would be like.  Specifically, what would happen when, due to ever-increasing mechanization, there simply won’t be enough jobs for everybody.  In fact, I think we’re already entering that world.  But it’s not yet reached a scale where we can’t overlook it; as many, nay most, governments still seem content to do.  Ultimately, this led the author to the inevitable conclusion of Universal Basic Incomes.

In his mind, this would be a wonderful development as it would allow people to pursue their passions without the hindrance of being forced to work a job one dislikes, simply to pay the rent and put food on the table.  But then a caller asked, what about those of us who have jobs we love?  To which the author replied with something along the lines of, identifying yourself by your job is an outmoded way of thinking.  In a future of UBIs, he argued, people will no longer say, “I am a sanitation worker,” or “I am an office clerk,” or whatever.

The caller, however, found this unsatisfactory.  After all, some of us, she argued, do we what we do because that’s how we identify ourselves.  Doctors, teachers, artists, were some of the examples she gave; or if not the specific examples, at least the sort of examples.  Anyway, this got me thinking.  Am I “a teacher”?  Surely that’s my job.  It may well be my career.  But is it who I am?  Certainly other people have said that about me.  “Dave, you’re a natural teacher.”  Meaning, there’s something in my nature that makes me “a teacher,” as opposed to simply that being the job I happen to have.  And perhaps that’s true.  I’ll come back to it.

I have a friend who keeps a really quite wonderful Instagram feed.  The pictures are of course lovely, to be sure.  But when I say “wonderful,” I mean more the comments she attaches to the pictures.  For, there seems to be a tension – and I don’t mean the word negatively, but I can’t think of a better one – between two concurrently existing identities.  One is that of an independent person who also happens to be an artist.  The other is that of a mother and wife.

And what I read in the comments, is that she struggles to find time to be both.  I also think she succeeds wildly at both.  But it seems not to be easy, as I read it.  One picture will be of her kids playing outside, and the caption will express the sheer joy of raising these children, at seeing them grow, and all the rest of it.  And she seems to be saying, “This is who I am, I am a mother.”

And then she’ll post something as simple as a cup of coffee.  And the caption will be something along the lines of, “It’s so nice to have a few quiet moments to myself, to be free to be me.”  I paraphrase, of course.  But my point is, in all of that, she seeks her own identity.  A proud mother, who nevertheless must be a strong and independent individual.  I hasten to add; this is how I interpret her Instagram.  I’ve not yet had the chance to have this conversation with her; and gods know when I’ll next get home to do so.  And so, obviously, I imprint my own experiences onto my reading of her timeline.  Nevertheless, even if I may be wrong in some of the particulars, it helps me in my quest to answer this question for myself.

So then, who am I?  Am I simply a teacher?  I don’t seek to deny it.  Yet neither do I think that this is a complete answer.  What gets me a little bit closer to my answer is an examination of how I choose to spend my free time.

Until this month, all of my free (productive) time had been bound up in my efforts to complete my Hebrew course book.  Now that I have, I find I have the freedom to apply myself to a broader range of interests.  I continue, of course, with my Hebrew studies.  But to this, I have added a (long-overdue) return to Greek.  At the moment, I’ve undertaken to read Aristotle’s Περὶ Ποιητικἢϲ (Poetics).  And I’m already thinking I’d like to move on to Sophocles when I finish this, to read Oedipus at Colonus and then Antigone; I’ve already read Oedipus Tyrannus twice.

If that’s not enough, I’ve finally got to work on my Federalist Project, which I explained in my last post.  And I’ve started reading Rousseau’s Du Contrat Social (On the Social Contract).  All that to say nothing of keeping this blogue a going concern while trying to find the time to write creatively, i.e. the odd bit of silly fiction.

And so, most days look something like this.  Go to work and read French on the subway.  Teach.  Come home and nap.  Ease back into life with a bit of Netflix before cooking something for dinner.  But after dinner, it’s down to work.  An hour or two of Hebrew followed by an hour or two of Greek.  Lesson planning, if necessary.  Do up a blogue post of there’s time.  Some days I’ll switch out the Greek or the Hebrew to work on the Federalist.  Oh, and squeeze in some time for the guitar if nobody’s home.

But lately, when I climb into bed at the end of it all, I’ve been feeling rather good about myself.  Something along the lines of, “Yes, I’m (finally) doing the things I want to do.  This feels right.”  Or, at least, most of the things I want to do.  Because I’m still not finding any time to actively improve my German.  Though lately, I’m thinking, if I can find the time for all these other things, I ought to be able to schedule in 20-30 minutes a day to do the hard work of reading some German.

And it is hard work, I say by way of a slight detour.  The problem with German, for me, is not one of difficulty, per se, nor is it one of grammar.  It is, quite simply, a question of vocabulary.  There are just…so…many…fucking…words.  The French lexicon is a fraction of the size, which is why I actually can simply read it on the subway.  But with German, I find I must constantly be looking up words.  And I know that if I would simply do a little bit every day, my Wortschatz would grow of its own accord.  But to try and read something and have to look up every third word is, not to put too fine a point on it, frustrating as all hell.  But if I’m ever going to get beyond my present level, I shall simply have to do the hard work.

And yet, I’m working hard already, I say by way of brining it back around.  I make the time every day to study Hebrew and/or Greek and/or to write.  Surely I can make the time – a mere 20-30 minutes – to grind through a bit of German; until it stops being a grind at all.

So who am I? I ask again.  And I find that “teacher” is too narrow, even if it fits seamlessly into all of the other things I’ve just touched on.  “Academic” sounds nice to my ear, but I don’t have a PhD, much less a University position, much less do I publish academic articles.  So that’s out.  “Intellectual” sounds pretty good to my ear too.  But I think calling oneself an “intellectual” sounds a touch arrogant; though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t facny the idea of other people seeing me that way.  But two steps down from “academic” and one down from “intellectual” we find “dilettante.”  Which, let’s face it, sounds a bit foppish.

Nevertheless, defines dilettante this way: “1) a person who takes up an art, activity, or subject merely for amusement, especially in a desultory or superficial way; dabbler.  2) a lover of an art or science, especially of fine art.”  Foppish though it may sound, that does seem to fit the bill.

It also seems to match up pretty well with who my friends are here.  And we must add, that however much time I spend on these pursuits when I’m alone, I am also a social creature.  Or, at least, as social a creature as a misanthropic sonofabitch like myself can reasonably be expected to be. But as I say, look at my friends here.

There’s Zibs & Jan, who all along I’ve been referring to as my “intellectual” friends.  And Annett and Jan, my “artist” friends.  Also an artist, my friend/conversation partner/stranger-in-a-strange-land comrade, Anne.  And Joschka – who, along with Dale, is one of the most effortlessly brilliant people I know – is a computer programmer by trade (which is both an art and a science), but also a music lover.  And I don’t know how you classify the person you can drunkenly talk politics with over a game of chess at 3:30 in the morning, but “intellectual” has to come pretty close.

Now, admittedly, who my friends are here in Berlin owes as much to accident as anything.  And yet, you’re always going to be friends with the sort of people you’re going to be friends with.  Which, I grant you, is tautological.  But I have to admit, I’ve really lucked out in that department.  My friends match up really quite well with the person I think I am, the person I’m trying to be.

So, finally, to answer the question, “Who am I?”, well, I guess “dilettante” is the best I’m going to do for now.  Maybe one day I will have the good fortune to be able to add “father” to that.  But that’s a question for Κλωθώ, Λάχεϲιϲ καὶ ¨Ατροποϲ, who are the Fates, for you lay-people.

So much for that bit of self-indulgent solipsism.  I’ve been wanting to put down some thoughts about living in “the East” for a while now.  So let me hit on that for a bit.

The thing that strikes you about East Berlin in 2017 – or that strikes me, anyway – is that there’s a certain degree of romanticization with the whole thing.  In fact, German even has a word for it.  Because of course it does.  The word is Ostalgie, which is a portmanteau of Ost and Nostalgie – ‘East’ & ‘nostalgia.’  It’s not a just a vibe, it’s something that’s actively marketed.  As a transplant who’s only been here a scant ten months, I surely can’t cover the full semantic range of this word.  But it seems to be a fondness for a bygone time, a bygone way of life, when (and obviously where) things were simpler.

For example, we still have the tram here; which was torn up in West Berlin after the war.  And trams/trollies/street cars are romanticized everywhere: Brooklyn, Roger Rabbit, etc.  They’re seen – I think – as symbols of a time from before Big Auto remade our cities for the worse.  But anyway, my first impression of the tram was a positive one.  I like having the tram around.  And the fact that it’s only in the East, well, that’s kinda cool.  And while it would be silly for me to self-identify as an East-Berliner – whatever that even means in 2017 – it’s nevertheless where I live.  And so I want to find things I can like about living here, things I can be proud of, even.  The tram, generally, is one of those things.

Hell, even the pickles have been made into…well, if not a big deal, then, at least, kind of a big deal…or, at the very least, a deal.  If you go to the right shops, you can find Spreewaldgurken, which – to my understanding – are held to be a holdover product, one of the few consumer goods that was born in, and subsequently survived, the DDR.  Like, “Whoa, actual communist German pickles!  That’s so oldschool!”

Ugh, fucking hipsters ruin everything.  But that’s what it is, though.  It’s the hipsters that have created this cool “vibe” around The East.  Because here’s a thing I’ve learned.  (Or, at least, an observation I’ve made in my limited and self-selecting experiences).  There’s three kinds of people, when it comes to The East.1

First, there’s the hipsters, just mentioned.  Either transplants like myself,2 or else just people who, even if they were born before the wall fell, are nevertheless too young to have any meaningful memories of what life was like in the DDR.  These people can cherry-pick all the nice things and dither around in rose-colored nostalgia.

Then there’s the people who actually lived in the DDR, and hated it.  Hated the oppression, the spying, the economic stagnation and lack of opportunity.3  With them, go the people from The West.  Though obviously they don’t have the same emotional investment going on.  I’ll give the example of two former students: one grew up in the East, one in the West.

The one who grew up in the East, man did she hate it.  Any time I’d ask her about it, she’d make a face and say it was terrible and immediately try and change the subject.  In fact, I was able to learn very little of substance from her on the topic, so unwilling was she to speak of it, so bitter (apparently) were her memories.  But that’s not nothing.  Her visceral, emotional reaction to the subject of “East Germany” spoke for itself.

My student from the West comes at it from a totally different perspective.  I’ve written about her before.  This is the one who gave me a map of the city and a list of things to check out in West Berlin; the one who gave me a book before I left for New York.  Apparently she had family in the DDR.  She told me stories of how difficult it was to travel between West & East, how you’d have to change your money at bend-you-over-a-barrel rates.  And she told me that when her relatives would visit, they would give them oranges as gifts.  This struck me.

It struck me, but apparently I gleaned the wrong impression from it.  I understood this as, “Shit, how bad must life be in The East when something as simple as a fucking orange becomes a meaningful gift?”  However, when I mentioned this to Joschka, he told me that I’d had it all wrong.  It wasn’t a question of life being bad, he said.  It was simply that you couldn’t get oranges in The East; it was a novelty.  No different than a uniquely Chinese food product that you can’t find in America.  It doesn’t mean life is bad in America.  It just means you don’t have access to that particular product.4

I mention this thing about the oranges to illustrate the point that my impressions are, per se, superficial.  I don’t have – I can’t have – the full picture.  When I report my impressions here, that’s all they are: impressions.  It doesn’t mean they’re invalid.  But we – I the writer, and you the reader – should always be aware that there may be more to the picture than I can see.

Anyway, I asked her once – my West German student – if, growing up, she thought of the DDR as a different country, the same way she might think of France, or Italy or China; or if she conceived of one Germany that had had a division forced upon it from the outside.  After all, as an American, born in 1981; as a metic living in Berlin but not a proper Berliner (and certainly not a German); after all of this, I say, I’ve only ever thought of Germany.

Germany as an idea, as a country, was always, for me, a simple fact.  America was a country.  France was a country.  China was a country.  And Germany was a country.  It was just that, after the war, we split them up for a while, as a precaution.  A unified Germany always seemed to me to be a fait accompli.  Nevermind the fact that I actually remember my father sitting me down in front of the TV and making me watch the wall come down, because it was “important.”

All to say, that’s what I was bringing to the table when I asked my student how she saw things.  And her answer surprised me.  For she told me that, to her, the DDR was a foreign country, just as surely as China was a foreign country.  Yes, she happened to have family there.  Yes, they also spoke German.  But they speak German in Switzerland and Austria too.  Fine.  The point is, you had Germans in the DDR who hated it.  And you had Germans in The West who thought it was sufficiently different as to be a genuinely different country.

Then there’s the third group.  These are the people who genuinely liked the DDR.  Some of them even want it back.  And that’s a whole different sort of Ostalgie.  To them, life was better.  You were guaranteed a job, even if it wasn’t something you wanted to do.  You were guaranteed a home, even if it was a boilerplate Plattenbau.  You were guaranteed a car, even if it was a shitty Trabi5– which you might have to wait years for, not for nothing.

I’ve never met any of these people.  But I’ve read about them.  I’ve written previously about a former student who was studying “memory and the DDR.”  We read many articles together about people who miss the “good old days,” as improbable as that may seem.  Most of them missed the DDR for the reasons given above.  But we also read about people who were part of the system.  People who were either outright Stasi informants; others who would simply benefit from an anonymous tip at their neighbor’s expense.  Look, I won’t split hairs.  To my mind, it was a twisted system, and good riddance to it.

But there were people who profited by it.  Well, there’s people who profit by any system.  More troubling to me, there were people who did perfectly alright by it.  And many of these people are not doing alright by the current system.  At the risk of injecting my own politics into this – which as I rule, I try to avoid – we’re all getting screwed by the current system.  But to me, that means, fix the current system in accordance with the ideals of free speech and economic mobility.  I’m troubled by people who recognize that they’re getting screwed but who then think that the answer is totalitarian government enforcing a minimum baseline of survivability hand-in-hand with a secret police that promotes neighbor-on-neighbor, even family-on-family, surveillance.

So no, I don’t personally know any people like that.  But I know they’re out there.  And more to the point, they’re out here.  In East Berlin, where I live.  In Köpenick, where I live.  Hell, apparently the NPD – the current day Nazi party – has their headquarters in Köpenick.  And no, I’ve never seen it.  I’ve never seen any public displays of rightwing activity here.  But it is here, all the same.  And in a broader sense, the right-wing nationalist stuff tends to be concentrated in the East.  AfD, for example, is big in Dresden.

And so, fairly or not, I do walk around my neighborhood with a bit of a skeptical eye.  Especially when I look at older folk.  I do wonder, “Have you lived here your whole life?  Do you miss the DDR?  How do you see the world?”

I also wonder, why is it that nationalism takes deeper root in the East.  I mean, sometimes I wonder, “What does 60 years of Gestapo and Stasi do to a people?”  And I know it’s not fair to paint with that kind of broad brush, to look at old people on the street and just start wondering.  But sometimes it’s hard not too.  It’s got to warp people, doesn’t it?

But then I look at people my age.  I have students, my age or younger, who’ve lived their whole lives in Berlin.  Some were born in East Berlin before the wall came down.  And they seem to be entirely unaffected by it.  For them, Germany is Germany and they don’t know anything about the DDR; don’t care to, even.  So even if it has somehow warped the older generations, young people seem to be remarkably free from it all.  And that, I think, is a great cause for optimism.

I surely have more to say on the subject.  But what’s the rush.  I’ll no doubt return to this in a later post.  This, at least, gets down some of the impressions I’ve formed of the whole East/West divide, to the extent that it exists at all; which, as I hope I’ve shown, is no sure thing.  But politics is a shitty note to end on.

So I’ll close with this.  Of the six tomato seeds I’ve planted, five of them have sprouted.  Not much, so far.  Just tiny little sprigs of green with two tiny little leaves at the ends.  And I know that for people who normally do this shit, it’s totes nbd.  But to me, it’s amazing.  You see them stretching towards the window during the day, leaves wide open.  But at night, those little tiny wings fold up and their stalks straighten out.  Nature is incredible.  They’re actually growing, right before my very eyes.  They’re alive!!!6

I showed them to Marco and he was quite pleased.  But also cautious.  It’s a good start, he was saying.  But it’s far too soon to tell if we’ll actually get tomatoes from them.  So I guess we’ll have to wait and see.  Nevertheless, it’s 10,000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean a good start.

It’s still a bit chilly here.  Spring hasn’t quite sprung yet.  But maybe my tomatoes have.  So here’s to finding out what you’re going to grow up to be.  Here’s to growth.

זיי געסונט


  1. Three kinds of people?  That’s a nice break from the usual, “There’s two kinds of people” duality that we construct around every blessed issue. []
  2. Though, “No hipster am I,” I say defiantly behind my overgrown beard and stupid hat, disproving myself in the very act. []
  3. As they see it. []
  4. This, btw, is why I loved living in Chinatown. []
  5. The Trabant, as I understand it, was basically communism in car-form.  Ugly and underpowered, yet practical and utilitarian.  There was only one model.  Everybody got the same damned car.  I once passingly insulted the Trabi to another student of mine (roughly my age), and she chastised me for it.  If I understood her correctly – and I’m not at all sure that I did – what I derided as nothing more than a jalopy was, for generations of Germans, something to aspire to. []
  6. Where’s Colin Clive when you need him? []