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.
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- And this is in stark contrast, it seems to me, with Rousseau, I must say. [↩]
- And even Cicero, for that matter. [↩]