An American in Berlin
30 October, 2017
Well, now. There’s much to cover since my last writing. So let’s get right down to it. I’ve been reading quite a lot. Working rather a lot. Throw in the odd bit of travel and a new language project and I’ve well got my hands full. To say nothing of the writing project I’ve lately finished; or finished for now, anyway.
Reading first. I’ve just lately read U.S. Grant’s memoirs. I’ve long read that his writings are held in very high esteem, being championed from the outset by none other than Mark Twain himself. He’s even been called – with respect to his writing, we should be clear – the American Caesar. So I figured it was time I take a look for myself. I was not disappointed.
In terms of style, the Caesar comparison is more than apt. Grant’s writing is clear and direct. It is eloquent without ostentation. And it is distinctly American. The same is often said of Caesar, though obviously, to the last point, distinctly Roman. There is one important difference to be noted, however. And that is that Caesar’s war journals were very much self-aggrandizing propaganda.
Grant, on the other hand, had no real desire to compose his memoirs at all. This he did at the end of his life, when he was sick with throat cancer and had no money. And even then, it was done not for himself, but in the hopes that the proceeds therefrom would be enough to support his wife after his death. This lends a nobility of motive to Grant’s writing that is necessarily wanting in Caesar’s.
I will say here that Grant’s memoirs are not for everybody. The bulk of it is out-and-out military history. I would say that, for myself, I have more than a passing interest in the Civil War and its various battles. And that even for me, it was trying at times. I can read about only so many troop movements and tactical decisions before my eyes start to cross. It is interesting, but borders on tedious.
The real merit of the work, as I read it, is Grant’s observations on American society, politics and war itself. To the latter point, I mean war both as an institution, and the Civil War in particular. What blew my mind was Grant’s keen insights, and his ability to state truths – as he saw them – without pulling punches and yet without animosity.
I will paraphrase a few of his observations, that I might give some indication of what I mean. He viewed the Mexican war as inherently unjust and as a land grab by the slave states; and so as a prelude to the Civil War. He saw the poor whites of the south – he even uses the term “white trash” at times, though rather with pity than scorn – as being as much under the heel of the landed aristocracy as the slaves. Not to say that he equated their actual condition. But that he saw the poor whites as being held down politically and economically and as being brainwashed with respect to politics in general and racial attitudes in particular.
He even argues that the South had more to gain by losing the war than the North had to gain in winning it. By this he means that if there were to be a permanent division of the States, the North would be fine in the end. But that the South would remain a backwards place for many more years to come and in all respects. And that the poor whites, who were doing the fighting, would be kept in a condition of “white trash”-ness, while the scourge of slavery would persist to the detriment not only of those held in bondage, but for all.
The above is just a hint of what Grant gets at, and the language with which he gets at it is essentially perfect. I’m not sure I would recommend this book to most people; indeed I’m not sure I’d recommend it to more than one or two. But it was a fascinating insight into the man and that part of our history.
I should note that Ron Chernow is coming out with a book on Grant (or perhaps it is already out). That would be Chernow of Hamilton fame. So, first, I imagine Grant’s reputation is about to get a major and well deserved boost. But also, having read the Hamilton book and based on Grant’s own work, I would strongly urge anybody with even a passing interest to pick up his new work on Number 18. I know I am looking forward to it.
So much for Grant. I’ve just started in on Les Trois Mousquetaires – The Three Musketeers. Look, it’s fucking great. Like, there’s a reason it’s a classic, right? It’s not necessarily easy, however. I’m getting back in the groove; it’s getting easier. But I often need to read a paragraph two or three times before I get it. Moreso at the outset, but still now to a greater or lesser degree.
But the point is, this book kicks serious ass. Like, when D’Artagnan joins the group for their first fight together. It looked like it was going to be five against three. And then D is like, “Count me in, bitches.” And they’re like, “Uh, what’d you say your name was again.” And he’s like, “D’Artagnan.” And then:
“Eh bien, Athos, Porthos, Aramis et D’Artagnan, en avant!”
And on the train, out loud, I was like, “Fuck, yeah!” Finger pistols and everything. I’m not kidding. This book kicks serious ass. But also the language is gorgeous. This is the second book of Dumas that I’ve read; the first being Le Comte de Monte Cristo, which was wonderful and epic and really maybe like the best book ever. But I forgot how great his prose is. Like, it was worth learning French just to read that one book. And now this one. And I guess Dumas in general really.
I recently lent Anne the last Jules Verne book I read, L’Île à Hélice. Which was great, btw. I find I prefer JV’s later stuff – I say by way of aside – as it tends to be rather a bit darker. Anyway, Anne had read a lot of JV as a teenager, but not much (or any?) since. And she told me nice it was to read him again. She described reading his style as putting on a pair of old comfortable shoes. Which I thought was a great and apt analogy, not for nothing. Because Dumas and JV have very different styles. JV is fun and playful and adventurous and (for me) quite easy to read. Dumas, on the other hand, is dark and serious and purposeful. And while he writes about adventures, his language doesn’t feel adventurous.
So anyway, Anne says that reading JV feels like putting on a pair of old comfortable shoes. Well, reading Dumas feels like putting on my Sunday best. You sit up a little straighter when you read this shit. It pumps a bit of air into your lungs. You walk around feeling rather a bit of the “How do you like me now, bitches.” If that makes any sense. Anyway, it’s fucking fantastic is the point.
–Interpolation: I’ve taken to referring to Jules Verne as “JV,” which seems right. Like, that’s the kind of nickname you’d give a buddy. And JV feels like your buddy when you read him. Like, he’s cool and you know you’re gonna have a good time. But it also feels weird to call him “JV,” and it has nothing to do with Monsieur Verne.
OK, so I had this friend in college; and for many years after college. In fact, I’m pretty sure we’re still friends. It’s just we haven’t spoke in a few years. In fact, this reminds me I need to send him an email. Anyway. There’s this friend, Dennis. And Dennis is the biggest most passionate Red Sox fan I ever met. And, like, that should have been insufferable. Actually, it was, at times. But he was so passionate and knowledgeable and respectful of the Yankees (whom he obviously loathed) that I’ve only ever had no choice but to hold a grudging respect for him in this regard. (In other regards, the respect need not be grudging; wonderful and brilliant guy, that Dennis).
Anyway, Dennis’ absolute no-question-about-it favorite player was one Jason Varitek. I mean, he had the official jersey with that (stupid) “C” on it and everything. Like, he loved Jason Varitek. Which I hated. Because, you know, Varitek was one of the few players on those Boston teams that I had a grudging respect for. What I mean is, I was already prepared to be like, “Yeah, man, Varitek is a good player. Gotta respect Varitek.” But he loved him so much, it kinda made me want to hate Varitek just to spite Dennis; whom I love, you know?
All this to say, Dennis obviously had a nickname for that Boston catcher. And if you haven’t picked up on it by now, that nickname was obviously “JV.” And to this day, I can still hear Dennis talking about “JV” in conversation. Fuck, I can still hear him yelling “Jay-Vee!!!” from across the hall anytime that bastard did anything remotely praiseworthy.
And so, to bring this back around, I love Jules Verne. But, you know, you either have to say his name in English, by which I mean with a hard “j” and pronouncing the “s.” Or you can try to pronounce it frenchly, and butcher it. I care for neither of these options. So apart from the above stated reasons for nicknaming him JV, there is this practical one as well.
And yet, every single time I refer to my (first or second, I’m not sure) favorite French author by this cool and practicable nickname, all I hear is Dennis. And all I see is Jason Varitek with that stupid “C” on his jersey and that stupid goatee, and the ’04 comeback and the breaking of The Curse and then again in ’07, and on and on. And I’m just like, “Ugh! Will I never be free of this?”
So to wrap up, I love JV but I can’t stand “JV.” And I love and miss Dennis, but man do I hate the Sawx. And I guess that’s just all one more cross to bear. End Interpolation. —
We move now from French to Hebrew. Operation “Read the Whole Fucking Torah in a Year” has officially commenced. And, umm, I may have bit off more than I can chew here. It’s not that it’s particularly hard. It’s not. In fact, it’s pretty straightforward. It’s just that there’s a lot of it. And so, it’s not that I spend a lot of time poring over each sentence trying to understand it. Rather, it’s that I spend a lot of time in the dictionary.
So one of two things will happen. Either the vocabulary will become repetitive and I’ll be able to move at a faster pace. Or it won’t and I won’t. Time will tell, I guess. But whether or not I meet my goal of reading the whole thing in a year, I’m doing honest work and that’s enough. I read everyday when I come home from work for an hour or two. So that’s good.
But right from the get, the text itself is surprising. What I mean is, I’m surprised by how sparse it is, how little it actually says. See, whole stories that get major treatment in Hebrew School turn out to be like, at most, a paragraph long. One example will suffice. I give you Cain and Abel. And I paraphrase, obviously.
“So Abel made his sacrifice, and God thought it was fine. And Cain made his sacrifice and God thought it was less then fine. So God says, ‘Bruh, you can do better.’ At which point Cain goes out into the field, rises up and kills Abel.”
And that’s literally it. Like, that’s the whole story. The fuck?
Oh, and speaking of “The fuck?”, there’s the whole Sodom and Gomorrah routine. We all know the story. God, in his infinite patience, decides he’s had enough of their bullshit.1 Make ready the fire and brimstone, ya know? Oh, but wait, Lot2 is living there, with his wife and two daughters. Well, we can’t have that.
So God sends down a couple of angels. And the angels go to Lot and are all, “Dude, you gotta go. Like, now. The Old Man is about to burn this mother down.” Meanwhile, the Sodomites get wind of there being angels among them. So they go knocking on Lot’s door. “We want to meet the Angels.”
But Lot, you know, he’s a good host. So he says, “Go away. These are my guests. I won’t have them disturbed.” Which, I mean, that’s respectable. But the Sodomites aren’t having it. Like, they’re ready to break the door down.
Now, I don’t know how you would handle this situation. But I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t do what Lot did. See, Lot opens the door and says: “Listen up, bitches. I said, these are my guests and I won’t have them disturbed. But just to prove I can be reasonable, allow me to offer you my two virgin daughters here. You can have them, if you promise to leave my guests alone.”
Yeah, you read that right. When I read that, I was sitting alone at my desk and literally said out loud, like fifty times, “Wait, what the actual fuck?” “No.” “No, that can’t be right.” “Wait, what the fuck?” “What the actual fuck?” Well, you get the idea. And I re-read the passage another four times, just to be sure. I checked every word in the dictionary. No question about it. That’s what he said. And I’m just like, I don’t even know what the fuck to do with this.
But wait, there’s more. Right, so we all know the part where Lot and his fam leave the city, and the angels are all, “Whatever you do, don’t look back. No time to explain, just don’t look back.” But, having apparently not seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mrs. Lot looks back. And turns into a pillar of salt. OK, fine, nbd. Listen to God when he warns you, &c., &c. Which would be fine if that’s how the story ended.3
But that’s not how it ends. So Lot and his two (apparently unravaged?) daughters eventually settle somewhere safe. Fine. But there’s only one problem. Well, I wouldn’t call it a problem. I’d call it, “Wow, thank God (?) I got out of there in one piece and at least I still have my daughters, whom are important(-ish ?) to me.” But from the daughter’s POV, there’s only one problem. Lot never had any sons and his wife is dead. So the line ends here.
Which, first of all, does it? Because, I mean, fucking find a new wife. How is that not the obvious solution to this problem? But I think they settled in a mountain or something, so I guess a) there’re no women around and b) they’re not allowed to move to another city? I seriously can’t.
But OK, the daughters don’t want the family line to end. So the older sister has a bright idea. She says to the younger sister, “Hey, I know. Let’s get dad nice and drunk and then…wait for it…let’s fuck him. No, seriously, I’m suggesting to you that we fornicate with our father and bear his children. To keep the line going. Don’t roll your eyes at me, this is a good plan.”4
So they do! They fucking do that! First night it’s the older sister and next night the younger. They both take a ride on the L Train and they both get all pregged up with daddy’s seed. And of course Lot has an out, b/c he was so drunk he had no idea. So, the moral of the story is, women are evil? Or, women are smart and heroic and problem-solvers? Like, seriously, what is the takeaway from all this? And also, how is the pillar of salt thing the highlight here? Talk about burying the leed.
So yeah, this whole Torah thing is an adventure. And also, how are we Jews not popular and beloved by all? #askingforafriend
So that’s where the Hebrew is at. Oh, I wonder what crazy adventures I’ll read about next. And then of course, there’s the Greek. Most nights, I’m doing 50 or so lines of Homer before bed. Which is great. Because Homer is just the best, you know? And it’s so long. I mean, there’s just so much of it. So there’s no rush, you know? Just read a little bit every day. Great way to wrap up the night.
The Oedipus at Colonus is on a break though. Partly because I just don’t have the time, and partly because – like I said last time – it’s sadly kinda boring. Oh, I’m sure I’ll get back to it at some point. I mean, I’m not gonna not finish it. Just taking a little break for now.
But yeah, that’s my reading schedule at the moment. French on the train, Hebrew when I get home and Greek before bed. It’s good. I’m happy about it. Keeps the ol’ brain engaged. Well, so much for that then.
I was in Italy two weeks ago. Man, was that fantastic. For the past several years, Jared’s family does this thing where they rent out their house on Long Island and then turn around and rent a villa in France or Italy. And then they invite all the friends and family along for the ride.
Well, this year they didn’t do that. This year it was just the parents and the kids. Carol and Paul, Jared and Amanda, and of course Josh. And no fancy villa this time, just a hotel.5 And they didn’t invite any extras this time around. Really, it was just for the family, for Amanda’s big 4-0.
But one of the nice things about living in Europe is, well, living in Europe. What I mean is, without making a big deal out of anything, I can just hop on a cheap flight and pop down to say hello for 2.5 days. Which is great, of course, for the obvious reasons. But also, it’s kinda my only chance to see these people. So to the extent that they made an exception in allowing me to show my face, it seems a touch more justified in this latter regard.
Anyway, Florence. Fucking Florence. What a beautiful little city. The last – and only – time I was there was on my very first travel alone abroad trip, back in 2003, while I was studying in London. My first stop on that trip was Rome, but I was there with some friends. We split up after Rome and only met up again in Venice for the flight back. So Florence was my first solo stop.
Stepping off the train was a mind-fuck. I mean, it was like stepping into a time machine. Returning to this place I’d only ever been once before, and that 14 years ago. And all the amazing memories that go along with it. And I arrived the same way, in the same train station. The first time, I had taken the train up from Rome, obviously.
This time, I’d flown into Bologna and then taken the train again. Because somehow it was both cheaper and faster than flying into Venice. Go fig. Anyway, just stepping into the train station was crazy. And wonderful.
Well, what can I say? We did the museums. We ate great food. We drank great wine. Also, I drank some Talisker, which I don’t do very often and which is my favorite scotch. And yeah, seeing my friends was nice too. So, you know, it was OK, I guess.
And look, I love Italy in general and I love Florence in particular. But really, this was about seeing my friends. Jared had done his semester abroad in Florence. So it was a real joy to walk around his city with him, to see where he lived, where he used to hang out, and just pick his brain for memories.
It was great to visit the museums with him and Josh, who between the two of them have so much knowledge and appreciation of all the art and history. It was great to catch up with Amanda and shoot the shit with Carol. It was great being together with everybody for meals.6 Just to tell stories and crack jokes and enjoy each other’s company. If there’s a downside to living overseas, it’s that you so rarely get to see your friends. So that, when you do, it makes it all the more special. And then to do it in Florence. Well, like I said, it was OK, I guess.
But as is so often the case, the best times came at the end of the day. The first night, the boys hung out in the hotel bar, just having guy time. Paul and I drank wine, cocktails for Jared and Josh. The next two nights, we were sans Paul. And then, Jared went to bed first, which left me and Josh to keep on drinking and chatting.
I have to say here that this was a real highlight for me. I’ve said before how much I love Josh. But my one-on-one time with him has always been somewhat limited. Part of that is down to his just being a mensch. What I mean is, whenever I’d visit them after moving out of the city, he’d always go out of his way to make sure Jared and I could have our Jared and Dave Time.7 To which Jared and I would always respond, “Ugh, I lived with this bastard for ten years. Please stay.”
Which is part of the point, I think. What I mean is, Jared and I lived together for ten years. We’ve known each other for well more than half our lives already. He’s still my best friend, and probably always will be, the bastard. Whereas Josh is, from my point of view, still relatively new. And most of the time he’s been around, I’ve not been living in the city. I could go on, but the point is this: I really enjoy hanging out with the lad, and more to the point, talking with him. Because he’s super smart and well-learnéd and we have many of the same points of interest.
Also this. He’s got a big religious background. He’s not religious now, but he’s steeped in the stuff. So talking to him about what I’m reading is super illuminating. I mean, look, at the moment, I’m just reading the text as-is. So all I have is what’s on the page. But he’s got all the theory and theology and whatnot. So he’s kinda like my little goyish rabbi, which I realize is a strange thing to say.
Anyway, all this to say, wrapping up the night having a few drinks with Josh, just talking about life, politics, Torah, whatever. Just a little extra something special tacked on to what was already a special couple of days.
One other thing to come of this Italy trip. Italian was the first foreign language that ever moved me. I did Spanish in high school, and tbh, I hated it. But when I went to Italy for the first time, back in ’03, I just loved the language and wanted to learn it. It was the first time I ever felt that. I mean, by that time, I’d probably already had it in my head that I wanted to learn Greek. But that was in a very abstract way. I knew I wanted to read Homer and Thucydides and Aurelius in the original, but I had no idea what it meant to learn another language. Hell, I didn’t even know the Greek alphabet yet.
So Italian was the first language I ever had actual contact with where I was like, “Omg, I want to learn this!” And then I didn’t. I learned Greek. I studied Latin. I taught myself French and later German and now Hebrew. But in all of this, Italian always managed to elude me.
And now, when I was there, I found that I was angry at myself that I couldn’t order food in Italian, that I couldn’t ask basic questions, that I couldn’t even pretend to bullshit with some or other native. And so I decided that, fuck it, it’s time. So as soon as I got back home, I ordered up a textbook and a graded reader. In fact, I ordered the counterparts of the same books I used to teach myself French.
Because I figure, I did actually teach myself French, you know? And now I have French friends, and I read Dumas and Verne and shit. And anyway, Italian is basically French and they’re both basically Latin. Just wearing different clothes, so to speak. So in my mind, how hard can it be? I mean, we’re basically just talking about morphology and maybe some idiomatic shit.
So I’ve just started. But I’m pretty excited about it. Fourteen years after I first fell for that language, and five foreign languages later (two living, three dead), I’m finally taking a crack at it. So we’ll see where it takes me. But as I say, I’m pretty excited about it.
Of course, time is the problem. When do I find time for it? I have, so far. And I’m sure I will. There’s no rush. But my Federalist Project has been suffering for want of time. I’ve taken a break from the OC. And this is my first blog post in a month. Time, always time. Never enough.
Oh, and I’m supposed to have a social life. So every time I’m out with friends is time I’m not studying or writing. Which, I mean, you can’t complain about. You’ve got to have a life. And I’m glad I do. In fact, I’m sure I’d go crazy if I didn’t. Just, could the days be longer, I guess is what I’m asking. Or maybe we could have a nine-day week, but like, no Mondays? Just a thought.
Ugh, this is already long. That’s the problem when you don’t post for a month. So much to cover. But I’ve finished that writing project; for now, anyway. So that should free up some time. I was out with Zibs and Jan last night, and they’re just the best. I think we’re going to do a Thanksgiving this year. Classic good times continue to be had with Joschka. There’s talk of going to his hometown for their Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market). I guess all (or most) of the festival people will be there, so that should be a good time.
And work is very good at the moment. I’m loving the people in my classes. In terms of just being fun people to work with, they might be the best classes I’ve had yet. But it’s always the same. Old people go, new people come. So we’ll see how long this particular group lasts. But it’s good times, which is the point. I mean, there are days when I just stop and think for a second, “Wow, this is my job. I’m getting paid to do this.” But you know, then I get my paycheck and I realize I’ve used the term “getting paid” somewhat liberally. But such is teaching, I guess.
Well, there’s a million more things to say. Yet this post is already longer than usual. So I think it best if I end here. But before I do, I’d like to close with my new favorite joke. Anne told it to me, though I don’t remember if she told it in French or German. I’ve added the second punchline myself.
A guy with two left legs walks into a shoe store. He asks if they sell…”flip-flips.”
Unfortunately, they only had “flop-flops.”
Thank you, good night!
- It’s worth noting, the “bullshit” goes unspecified. There is literally – and I mean “literally” literally – there is literally, I say, nothing in the text that even gives the slightest indication that this is about homosexuality; or anything else for that matter. All it says is: וחטאתמ כי כבדה מוד. “And because their sins were very great.” That’s it. So, also here, I ask: The fuck? [↩]
- Lot, whom, so far as I can tell, we only give a shit about because he’s Abraham’s brother. [↩]
- Also, it wouldn’t be fine. I mean, the ostensible hero of this story literally offered his virgin daughters to an angry mob. But…whatever? [↩]
- Again, I paraphrase. [↩]
- “Just a hotel,” he says. It was a five-star Westin. [↩]
- Did I mention the food was insane good? [↩]
- OK, let’s be honest. Dii-Time. [↩]