An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
20 November, 2017

Well, shit.  Apparently, this is An American in Berlin #50.  That’s right.  If WordPress is to be believed, this post will the 50th in the series.  And as we so often do with arbitrary milestones which only exist as a function of our base-ten numbering system, it seems fitting to take a moment and reflect.

I first started this series way back in aught-fifteen, when I came over here to do my CELTA training.  At that time, I was alternately living in an Airbnb in Neukölln with Anja and Mischa or up Sonnenallee with Lisa.  That seems like a million years ago now.  I reconnected with A&M for a while when I first came back here in the summer of ’16.  Indeed, I wound up staying with them for another three months.  It was mostly great.  I think the world of them, and it’s a great apartment.  But by the end, I had got to feeling tired of being a “guest,” and from their end, I maybe sorta felt like I was beginning to wear out my welcome.

To be clear, they never said or did anything to make me feel like I was being pushed out.  They were only ever kind.  It was more, I think, that they were – in the end – hosts, and were perhaps tired of having the same person around for so long.  Nevertheless, they will always have a special place in my heart.  For one, theirs was the first place I ever lived in Berlin.  Also, they’re just great people.

Be that as it may,1 I haven’t seen them since I moved out.  Although Anja did just send me a message on the Facebook today wishing me a happy birthday.  Which, you know, my birthday is in March.  But when I first signed up, I didn’t want the Facebookers to know my real birthday.  So I chose Armistice Day instead.  It amused me at the time.  It’s less funny now that I live in Germany.  In any case, I’d like to see them again.  But it’s one of those things I keep putting off.

As for Lisa, that’s just weird.  We were very close when we lived together.  Not in any kind of romantic way.  Just, we hung out a lot and ate and drank lots of wine together.  But I’ve only seen her once since I came back, and that was kind of awkward.  No idea why.  I’d tried to get a hold of her a couple of times, but she always pleaded busy.  So I went to a concert of her a cappella group which she invited me to.  And as I say, it was strangely awk.  She was just like, “Yeah, I’m super busy.  But just keep messaging me; I’ll come around eventually.”  But it left me feeling like, hey, I’m busy too.  If you can’t be arsed, neither can I.  Which is maybe immature of me, I dunno.  That’s that, anyway.

The last connection from those times worth mentioning is The Blonde Girl from Downstairs.  You remember the one?  She lived downstairs from A&M.  After I moved out from their place, we would meet up for coffee every couple of weeks.  But then I went home for a few weeks in March and we never picked up again after that.  Not really sure why.  I keep meaning to reach out, but I’m always feeling too busy or too tired.  Poor excuse, I know.  I keep telling myself I’ll get round to it eventually.  So we’ll see.

Oh, and remember Dafna?  She’s the Israeli girl with whom I did that Shabas dinner the first time around, and then we did Rosh HaShanah last September; Sept ’16, I mean.  Well she’s since moved away.

All this to say, almost all of the connections I made my first time around, in 2015, seem to have been severed; though some of these breaks are perhaps only temporary.  The only ones which are still a going concern are my classmates from the CELTA.

Zibs I see quite often, along with Jan; though I only really became friends with the latter this time around.  In fact, I’m not even sure I had met him in ’15.  Paul, I work with at the school and he’s just lovely.  We each have the beginner class twice a week, so we’re working together now to map out a plan for them.  That’s been very nice.  And I see Alice for coffee every two months or so, and she’s just a treat.

Oh, and what am I saying?  Annett is one of the very first friends I made here, and we’re still close.  I just saw her Friday, in fact.  And she’s just a wonderful person, you know?  I really adore that kid.  “Kid.”  You know, she turned forty in January.  Fucking weird, man.

So here we are, fifty posts into this adventure.  Now I’m living in lovely Köpenick, with my lovely roommates.  I’ve get a steady four-day-a-week gig at a lovely school with lovely people.  Jan & Zibs.  Anne, Annett; the Killer A’s.  Joschel2 and Cindy.  Lovely friends.  Things are lovely, is what I’m trying to say.  Now, if I could only find me a lovely Mädel

Another nice thing is the (perhaps tenuous) connections I’ve made with some of my (now former)3 students.  I talked about the one dude in my last post.  Which, I’m just thinking, would be great if it continues, if for no other reason than that I have very few guy friends here.  There’s Joschel, obviously; but he antedates my arrival.  And Ziba’s Jan, of course.  But I’m kinda short on “mates,” of the variety with whom you go to the bar and drink and possibly hit on dames with.  So there’s him.  But also, I just met up for drinks with another former student.  I’m meeting yet another for coffee on Wednesday.  And there’s still another with whom I do private lessons sometimes.  So we can file all that too under ‘L’ for ‘Lovely.’

I went for another walk again today,4 he said, shifting gears.  I was really in the mood after last week’s sojourn.  So I headed East.  Crossing the river, I found myself someplace entirely new.  Which is always sort of the goal.  Came across some classic East German Plattenbauen, Soviet-era UU architecture.  “UU,” btw, is a term a I coined literally just now.  Stands for Utilitarian and Ugly.  Continuing on, I then found myself in the woods.  Which was kinda cool.  I mean, this is Berlin.  Major world city, capital of Germany, etc.  And yet, here I am, in the godsdamned forest.  And who knows how long I could have gone, just East-ing.  But it gets so dark early now, around 4:30.  So at some point, I turned North.5  Eventually, I got back to the river, and from there it was easy enough to find my way home.

On the way back, I popped into a gas station so’s I could buy a beer.  I’d been walking for two hours, and had had no beer to that point.  And just, fuck that, you know?  So that was a nice coda to the day’s adventure.

At the risk of being repetitive, living way out here in K-nick has its advantages and drawbacks.  The drawbacks are obvious.  It’s mad far.  ADW, as people say: am Arsch der Welt, at the ass[end] of the world.  It takes an hour to get anywhere.  The food options are, generally speaking, nothing to write home about out here.6  And so on.

But also, you know what?  I lived in Manhattan for ten years.  I did the big city thing.  And I did it in the best city in the world.  So like, on some level, yeah Berlin is great.  But also, whatever.  Get back to me when you have real pizza.  Or when I can get tripe in my noodle soup.  Or when your subway has express lines.  Or when the subway runs 24/7.  Well, you get the point.

On the other hand, living out here, I get things you just can’t get in Gotham; never mind Berlin-proper.  Walks through the forest, for example.  Or trams.  Or going into a shop and just knowing nobody speaks English.  But really it’s the nature.  That’s what justifies all the bullshit.

Because Neukölln was great.  It was the only place that felt even remotely like home.  Brown people.  Signs in foreign languages.  Turkish, I mean, and Arabic; not German.  Better food.  Hustle and bustle.  Graffiti.  Filth.  All the finer things in life.  But this place – Köpenick, I mean – is unique in my experience.  And that’s worth its weight in…well, probably not gold.  But something of value, anyway.

Also, the commute…well, actually the commute is a fucking shitshow.  But that’s because Deutsche Bahn is a fucking shitshow.  Nevertheless, it affords me good reading time.  I don’t do much reading at home.  No wait, I do a lot of “reading” at home.  But it’s of the Hebrew/Greek variety.  I don’t do much pleasure-reading at home.  So the commute is good for that.  I get a solid two hours of French most days; or Grant’s memoirs; or whatever.  So I hate the commute, but I love the reading.

Speaking of which, the Three Musketeers is awesome.  I mean, I said that last time.  But also, kinda all of the heroes are assholes.  D’Artagnan is really kind of a twat.  I mean, maybe he’ll step it up at some point.  But he reminds me a lot of Aeneas.7

Oh, pius Aeneas.  There was this dude at Latin boot-camp, one of the teachers.  His name was Akiva.  Weird guy, but super fascinating too.  Also, he had this weird way of sort of hanging off of the furniture while he listened to you try and translate shit.  Like, he was listening 100%, but also he was bored?  And he clearly liked his job, but this was not his favorite part.  And, really rather oddly, I’ve kind of adopted this.

It’s hard to explain; harder to paint the picture.  But sometimes a student will be reading something, and I’ll just sort of be hanging from a bookshelf.  What does that even mean?  Like, my hand is on the top shelf, and my head is half-in a lower one?  I dunno.  But it always makes me think of Akiva.  Also, he had this way of walking out of a room while he was in the middle of a sentence, and he’d just sort of trail off as he mumbled out the door.  Sometimes I wonder if he ever finished those sentences.  I imagine that he did, but like, only in his head.  Like, he gave up on vocalizing them as he crossed the threshold.  But he always saw it through to the end, mentally.  That’s what I imagine.

Anyway, Akiva was trying to describe Aeneas once, what sort of “hero” he was.  “He’s not a shmuck,” he said.  “Nor is he a putz.”  He paused, as if working it out for himself before speaking.  “He’s not really a schlemiel, either.”  He looked at us.  “He’s really kind of a shmendrick.”  And it was clear that he was more pleased with his own analysis and much less concerned with if anybody actually understood what he was talking about.

Staying with Akiva, for just a moment longer, he also had this great line.  But it unfortunately requires getting into the Latin weeds for a second.  To keep it short, Latin has five “cases.”  In other words, it changes the spelling of a word based on that word’s job in the sentence.  English does this with prepositions.  For example, the dative-case of pater (father) is patri (to/for the father).

Anyway, his line was in reference to the Latin words for “custom,” “Mars” and “death”: mos, Mars, mors.  His line was, the datives for these words sound like a gaggle of old Jewish men: Mori, Marti and Mori.  Maybe you had to be there.  Anyway, that was Akiva.

What the fuck was I talking about, anyway?  Oh, yeah.  So basically, D’Artagnan is a shmendrick.  And Porthos is a diva.  And Aramis kinda needs to chill the fuck out.  However, Athos is kinda da man.  Silent, stoic, ass-kicking, loyal.  Also, he has dark secrets and he drinks when he’s down.  Athos is aight.  Also, M. de Treville is a pretty stand-up dude.  This is the guy you want having your back.

Tell you who really kicks ass though, is the villain.  The Cardinal Richelieu.  He is one bad motherfucker.  Seriously.  Next time they make a 3M movie, Richelieu needs to be played by Samuel L. Jackson.  “There’s muthafuckin’ musketeers in the muthfuckin’ Louvre!”  Krass.8

Going back to Latin for a second.  But first, y’all know that German be using mad commas, right?  I mean, these people be like Jackson Pollack with that shit, nah mean?  Anyway, one of my students was clearly displeased by how infrequently (compared with German) English uses commas, and on top of that, how un-concrete the rules seem to be.  So I did a lesson on commas on Friday.  And to illustrate the point, I also brought in an article about how the 2nd Amendment is interpreted vis-à-vis commas; in this case with regard to DC v. Heller, the struck-down handgun ban.

But Latin.  So in examining the text of the Amendment, and in reading the article, it dawned on me.  The first two clauses: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, …”.  You guys, it’s an “ablative absolute.”  Remember now, all the Framers were super-well schooled in Latin.  And it’s on-its-fucking-face-obvious that these two clauses are an English version of the “ablative absolute.”  And there can be no question that this is exactly how they understood-slash-wrote it.

So what’s an “ablative absolute” then?  OK, remember the cases?  We looked at the dative case earlier.  The ablative is a different case, and it has its own syntactic functions.  And one of those functions is the “absolute” clause.  Bear with me, I know this is awful.  But basically, every sentence has a subject and verb.  Not basically, in fact.  Every sentence has a subject and a (main) verb.  Lacking these, it ain’t a sentence.  OK, fine.

But sometimes, you want to add information that is relevant, information that has a very important impact on the sentence.  Only this information has a different subject and a different verbal idea.  How do you do that?  Well, the Romans did it with this device called the “ablative absolute.”  They take this secondary subject with its secondary verbal idea, and they kick it all into the ablative case, making the verbal idea into a participle while they do it.9

Now here’s the thing with the “AbAb,” as I call it.  It can do a lot of things.  It can mean “because.”  It can mean “although.”  Or it can just mean “when.”  You need to sort that out for yourself from context.  I’ve probably lost you.  Sorry.  Lemme give an example of what this would look like in English.

“It being a rainy day, I decided to bring my umbrella.”  OK, so the subject of this sentence is clearly “I” and the verb is clearly “decided.”  That’s the meat of the sentence.  The bit about the rainy day is secondary.  But it’s not fluff.  And there’s a huge difference.  It’s secondary because it contains neither the subject nor the verb of the sentence.  But it’s not fluff, because it explains very clearly the reason why I decided to bring an umbrella.

“It being a rainy day, I decided to bring an umbrella.”  That’s a literal translation of what this sentence would look like in Latin.  And just as in Latin, the verb “to be” is in present participle form; the “-ing” form, if you will.  All that would be in the ablative case in Latin.  Fine.  But here’s the thing.  Nobody would ever – and I mean ever – translate it that way.  It would always be translated: “Because it was a rainy day, I decided to bring my umbrella.”

I know that.  Now you know that.  And the Framers sure-as-shit knew that.  So that when they wrote “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, …”, they all knew instinctively that there was a causal relationship between the well regulated militia and the right of the people to bear arms.  They didn’t need to write “because”; it was implicitly understood.

Now look, I’m not making a case for or against guns, gun control, or anything else.  There’s strong arguments on both sides for all of this garbage.  And there’s plenty of middle ground for people to meet half-way on, if people would just get their shit together.  Also I have no interest in wading into those arguments here, and even less interest in putting down my own opinions on the subject.

What I am saying, and emphatically so, is that if you’re trying to determine what the text says/means by way of the commas, then you absolutely need to know how Latin works.  And it’s pretty clear from both the oral arguments and the Justices’ opinions, that basically nobody involved had a proper understanding of Latin.  And yet, everybody saw fit to make a big deal out of the commas.  It would be like trying to understand cancer via the four humors.  It’s insanity.  No, it’s worse.  It’s ignorance.

Anyway, that’s my rant.  Also, sorry if that was insufficiently clear.  I’ve never tried explaining that in such detail before.  But I think I needed to get it down for my own peace of mind, if nothing else.  So I hope you’ll indulge me.

I bought an Italian stove-top espresso maker today.10  And also some cardamom pods.  Because I’ve been missing that.  I started in with the stove-top espresso makers towards the end of my thesis, when Vinny put me on to it.  And then adding a cardamom pod to it, that I picked up from Sermad, our Lebanese couchsurfing host when Charlotte and I visited Montréal.  So this post has mostly been powered by that.  Well, and also whiskey.  And my pipe.

Speaking of Charlotte, I just booked a flight to go visit her in Nice for Christmas.  That should be nice.  And I don’t mind telling you, I’m looking forward to getting out of Berlin in December and going someplace warm.  I fly back on New Year’s Eve, landing at 11:30pm.  It’s over a hundred euros cheaper doing it that way.  And there’s no ball-drop here, so who cares?  But I expect I’ll be making a B-line straight up to Joschka’s from the airport.  So there’s a couple of things to look forward to, to be sure.

Right, well that’s surely enough for this post.  Post number fifty.  Fucking crazy, right?  Well, you know what they say.  Time flies.  Or, if you prefer the Latin: tempus fugit.

Post Scriptum:
Sad news this week.  Malcolm Young died.  If you’re asking who Malcolm Young is, I probably don’t know you.  Or you don’t know me.  But I have to say something about that.

AC/DC is my favorite band of all time.  Anybody who has been around me long enough has heard me wax poetic.  I’ve probably even done it here in this blogue.  The greatest rock’n’roll band ever.  They perfected the form.  Every rock record made after 1978 is pointless because Let There Be Rock and Powerage are the apotheosis of the genre.

Mal was the key to all of that.  It was his band.  His vision.  Sure, we all think of Angus when we think of AC/DC.  The little man in the schoolboy outfit running around like a madman and just shredding.  Or we think of the more polished and more commercially successful stuff like Highway to Hell or Back in Black.

But the real backbone of the band was the rhythm guitar, it was Mal.  The easy swinging groove, the empty spaces, the muted beat-keeping pick scrapes.  That’s what drove this most perfect music.  That, and Phil’s drumming.

And we need to take a moment here to acknowledge Phil.  Because they were never the same without him.  Those two, together, were – and there can be no debate about this; reasonable people cannot reasonably disagree about this – they were the greatest rhythm section in all the history of music.

But, and no disrespect here, Phil was a hired gun.  He was the perfect piece.  In a way, so too was Angus.  He was family.  He was integral.  There’s no AC/DC without Angus.  But he was a piece.  The vision, the essence, that was Mal.

Angus was the perfect compliment to Mal.  But that’s the thing I’ve learned.  He was a compliment.  You can listen to an Accadacca track without Angus.  Of course something would be missing, it wouldn’t be the same.  It would suffer for it.  But you could do it.  Without Mal, though?  Nothing.  Try it.  Try listening to a track with only one ear.  With Angus, you’ll just have lots of open ringing chords and some fills.11  Now listen with only Mal.  It still works.

It took me a long time to learn that.  When I was a teenager, when I was learning to play the guitar, I was all about Angus.  And Bon.  But Angus.  My whole stage-shtick was modeled on his crazy antics (and Cliff Burton’s headbanging).  I didn’t really tap into the whole Mal/Phil thing until my early thirties.  Even though Shuman was trying to teach me about it from the day he showed up at SLU.

One of my favorite things to listen to these last few years, especially coming home drunk from a night out, is a live version of Rocker or Let There Be Rock.  Just the end of those songs.  The part where Angus goes up on Bon’s shoulders and out into the crowd.  Which is great theatre if you’re there, or watching a video.

But if you’re listening to the music, the real gold is just listening to Mal and Phil go after an A-chord for ten minutes.  It’s phrenetic.  It’s kinetic.  It’s a freight train.  It’s just…you can’t top it.

And then there’s this.  Sometimes people claim they don’t care for AC/DC.  And they’re always wrong.  Always.  And here’s how I know.  I’ll put some AC/DC on without telling them I’m doing so.  And do you know what happens?  Every single time?  They start tapping their foot.  Because you literally can’t not.  It’s nature.  Hear Accadacca, your foot taps.  You don’t like them?  Fuck you, yes you do.  See?

And this is the real genius of Malcolm Young.  He knew that this simplicity is what makes it all work.  The best compliment he could ever give a song, was to call it “a real toe-tapper.”  That’s it.  That’s the goal.

It’s a goal I’ve set for myself, for the handful of tunes I’ve written.  I don’t claim to write art or to be any kind of poet with lyrics.  I can handle the guitar, sure, but I’m no whiz.  And I’m nothing to write home about as a singer.  But when I used to do the open-mic nights, I would notice that one of my songs always had people tapping their feet.  A little touch of AC/DC.  A little touch of that magic groove.

Charlotte had this friend back in New York, this girl Line.  And Line is one of those special artist people.  You know, the ones who don’t really seem to live in the same world that you and I do.  They just see everything slightly differently.  Anyway, she’s great with music.  Has this really haunting voice.  And this almost Janis Joplin-like energy when she really gets cooking.  And she  could absolutely do some proper poetry with her lyrics.

It was a treat watching her.  And great fun to jam with her.  But she also made me feel very self-conscious about my own stuff.  No, let me correct that.  I made myself feel self-conscious on account of her superior talent.  I always got this feeling like, “Damn, Line makes proper art.  And here I am with my rinky-dink rock’n’roll.”  I felt very small sometimes.  But then I would notice people tapping their feet when I played my stuff.

And you know what?  That’s just fine.  I don’t need to be Queen or The Beatles.  But I think I get proper rock’n’roll.  And to the extent that I do get it, I learned everything I know from Malcolm Young.  If I’ve got “a real toe-tapper” or two in my arsenal, I know who to thank.

Rock in Peace, Mal.  And Ride On.

זיי געסונט

 

 

  1. Election is Friday.  Right, Dad/Justin? []
  2. Sometimes I call Joschka “Joschel” now, just to get some Yiddish flavor up in here.  Although, here’s a funny thing.  Every now and then, I’ll throw out of these little Yiddishisms and people are like, “Why are you talking Bavarian?”  Two examples.  There’s a Bavarian beer, called Büble, which sports a young lad on the label.  Büble, it seems, is a Bavarian diminutive for “young boy.”  Cognate with Bubbela.  And once, when somebody asked me a question, I answered with “a Bissel,” instead of “ein Bisschen” – a little bit.  (Literally, they both mean “a small bite”).  Anyway, my friend answered with some weirdly accented words I’d never heard before.  So I was all, “Wtf, mate?”  And he was like, “Oh, I thought we were talking Bavarian now.”  Neat, eh? []
  3. Always former.  I don’t think it’s approps to start hanging out outside of school while they’re still students.  Apart from the monthly Stammtisch, of course. []
  4. Er, last Saturday, the 11th.  This has been sitting un-proofread for a week.  #soz []
  5. Having a compass in your phone is fantastic.  Because the point here was just to wander and get sort of lost.  So I didn’t really want to know where I was, not on a map.  But I did want – need, even – to know which way I was heading. []
  6. Though this could fairly be said of Germany in general.  2.5 days in Italy reminded me of that; as if I needed reminding. []
  7. The eponymous hero of Virgil’s Aeneid, and founding hero of Rome, Aeneas as was a refugee from Troy. []
  8. Krass appears to be the German word for all things superlatively good or superlatively bad.  Kind of like “sick” in English, maybe. []
  9. They may have been copying the Greeks here – as they so often did – who did the same thing, but only with the genitive, because Greek had lost its ablative case.  Because Greek is better. []
  10. Still last Saturday. []
  11. And yes, glorious blues rock solos.  The best blues rock solos, in fact. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
4 November, 2017

So in the last post, I did a lot of catching up in terms of what I’m up to, what I’m reading, where I’ve been and the ol’ job sitch.  Now I’m thinking it might not be a bad idea to “circle back”1 and talk about Berlin again.  You know, since I live here and whatnot.

There are things I love about this city, and things I don’t love.  And then there are things that are nice, but which are probably not really specific to Berlin per se.  Let’s start with the things I don’t love.  That way, we get the nastiness out of the way and we’ll all get happier as we go, yeah?

So, first of all, fuck the S-Bahn.  I may have said nice things about the transit system here in the past.  But that was when I didn’t need to use it for two hours a day to get across town and back.  Now that I do, I take much of it back.  Look, the U-Bahn may be great.  I don’t know; I hardly use it.  And I still have a soft spot for the trams.  But man, the S-Bahn is just the fucking worst.  If I can quote Vince McMahon – and really, let’s be honest, nobody should ever quote Vince McMahon – but if, as I say, I were to quote Vince McMahon, I’d say that the S-Bahn is “the drizzling shits.”  Gross, I know.  But if the shoe fits.

Look, I think the “S” in S-Bahn stands for schnell – fast.  But really, it should stand for scheiße – no translation required.  I mean, there’s a fucking problem nearly every day.  Late trains, cancelled trains.  My commute requires that I take a tram to one S-Bahn and then that S-Bahn to a second.  And if I make my connections twice in one week, I account myself lucky.

Also, the layout of the cars is simply offensive.  All the seating is blocks of four seats, two facing two.  I ask you: Who was the mutherfucker who decided I need to sit knee-to-knee with a complete stranger?  If I ever get my hands on that SOB…

And it’s just the biggest waste of space.  You have 16 seats – eight a side – between the doors, with just a narrow path between them, taking up a huge amount of space.  So at rush hour, this layout is not just inefficient, it’s offensive in its inefficiency.  And this from the Germans!  So what results is all the people cram into the open square space between the blocks of seats, in front of the doors.  Hardly anybody moves down between the seats.  Because the fucking savages were raised by wolves, I guess.  I know this, because these savages also don’t know to take off their backpacks when they step into a crowded train.  Like, get your shit together already

And yeah, I guess I could just accept it and move on with my life.  But I feel like that’s letting them win.  Better just to be angry about it.  That’s the rational response, right?

A quick note on the metro operations in this town.2  So the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn (and the tram, for that matter) are, from a ticket perspective, one unified system.  In other words, your ticket entitles you to ride on all services.  And you can transfer from one system to the other at many stations; though this often requires going from underground to an el-platform and vice-versa.

However, the U-Bahn is operated by the BVG, which is the Berlin mass transit authority.  Whereas the S-Bahn is operated by Deutsche Bahn, the national rail authority.  Like, they use different track gauges (I think) and different power systems (I know).  Think of it this way.  Imagine if, in NY, all the number trains were operated by one company and all the letter trains were operated by a different company.  And the Number People were good at their job.  And the Letter People were very much not.  The Letter People are Deutsche Bahn.

But enough of that.  The other thing I wanted to rant about is the sandwich culture in this town.  Look, bitches, we need to talk about sandwiches for a minute.  Let’s start with: What’s a sandwich?  For me, broadly speaking, a sandwich is simply one something stuck between two other pieces of something.  That’s it.  And even within that, I’m pretty open minded.  Like, I’m willing to say, if you stuff a pita, it’s now a pita-sandwich.  Because you essentially have a top-pita and a bottom-pita.  Just, in the case of a pita, they happen to be connected.

But here, people give some variation of: A sandwich is two pieces of white bread with perhaps some cold cured meat and maybe some salad in between.  Change the bread, change the filling and it’s not a sandwich.  It’s something else.  Dafuq?  Example: if you slice a roll in half and put a chicken cutlet in it, that’s not a sandwich, that’s a “belegte Brötchen” – a stuffed roll, basically.  No.  No, it’s fucking not.  It’s a sandwich.  Come on!

Riddle me this: What’s the most important ingredient of any sandwich?  The filling?  The bread?  The quality of the ingredients?  No.  No, the most important ingredient of any sandwich is one little four-letter word.  Love.  That’s it.  You need to care, when you make a sandwich.  It’s the guy at the deli who picks up, and then rejects, the inferior slice of tomato.  It’s your mom who lines the chicken cutlet up just right so the maximum amount of chicken is covered by the maximum amount of bread.  It’s the extra three minutes you take to put your creation in the oven.  It’s love, OK?  It’s fucking love.

And nobody in this country loves the sandwiches they make.  You walk into a bakery and they have pre-made sandwiches just chilling in the showcase.  And not, like, for display.  Like, that’s your sandwich.  Take it or leave.  Well, I’ll leave it, thank you very much.

And you can’t even say that whoever made them, however many hours ago, put any love into them at the time.  They’re just slapped together.  Also they’re slathered with this awful herb-mayo confection.  It’s just gross.  Me and Vinny have spoken about this at length.  “The sandwich culture in this country is a fucking joke,” is what we both say, and often.

— Vignette: At the metal festival this year, me and Vinny leave camp in search of breakfast.  We find a little food truck.  We get “sandwiches.”  Now, just looking at them, we’re already expecting disappointment.3  But we get them anyway.  Because we’re hungry, and it’s a festival.  Well, Vin takes one bite and this look crosses his face.  It’s not exactly disgust.  I mean, it’s disgust, but not “this tastes awful.”  It was more of a “what even the fuck is this?” kind of disgust.  Like, “what savage put this together?”

So he opens it up and takes a look inside.  And upon viewing the susdit herb-mayo travesty, says simply, “I can’t eat this shit.”  Whereupon did he promptly drop it into the first available trash receptacle.  Where it belonged.  I, however, ate mine.  Because I guess I’ve been desensitized.  — End Vignette.

While Vinny was here, he was crashing at Joschka’s.  At one point, Joschka was out, but I was over to hang with the Big V.  And we needed to get lunch, but we didn’t want to spend a lot of money.  So we went to the supermarket and bought stuff to make sandwiches.  Real sandwiches.  I forget now what the main ingredient was, but I know we picked out some nice baguettes, cheese and salad-stuff.

And we did it right.  We took our time and we made those sandwiches with love.  Arranging the ingredients just so.  Using good olive oil.  Taking the time to toast them in the oven.  And you know what?  Delicious.  Just fantastic.  And we were so happy with ourselves.  Not just for the wonderful sandwiches we’d made.  But also, we felt like we’d righted some cosmic wrong, howbeit all too briefly.

And honestly, we just looked at each other afterwards and agreed that it was probably the best lunch we’d had the whole time he was in Germany.  We said to each other, “Paisan,4 best fucking lunch we’ve had since you/I-‘ve been here.”  Because it well and truly was.  Then we ranted some more about German sandwiches.  And we talked some more about how love is the most important ingredient.  And then we discussed what worked especially well with these particular sandwiches and what could be improved upon.

By way of a side-note, me and Vin love talking cooking.  Doesn’t matter when or where.  We could be at Duff’s at three in the morning or on the field at the festival.  Out of nowhere, we’re talking about his mom’s red-sauce5 or how it’s criminal to waste pasta-water, or any number of things.  Never gets old.

So now, my thing is, I’m always asking people here: What’s a sandwich?  And I’m invariably offended by the answer.  But it doesn’t matter.  New acquaintances, new students, whatever, I’m always asking.  It’s to the point where my colleagues at work, when I ask a new student, they’re like, “shit, this again?”  Well, yeah, this again.

I remember one time I was making a sandwich at work.  And one of my colleagues, watching me do this with all due care and love, asked, “Mate,6 are you gonna do food photography with that?”  “Huh?” I says.  “It looks like you’re making your masterpiece over there,” he says.  “Umm, this is how you making a fucking sandwich, mate,” I says.  And then I asked to the whole room, “What’s the most important ingredient of any sandwich?”  None of them knew, poor bastards.

Incidentally, when my parents were here, I asked them, “What’s a sandwich?”  And of course they knew exactly what a sandwich was.  I don’t think I’d ever been so happy to see them.  And then, yeah, we talked about sandwiches for like twenty minutes.  Which, btw, is not a long time at all, when you actually give a shit about sandwiches.  I mean, my mom is telling stories about the sandwiches she used to have as a kid.  My dad is telling me about his favorite sandwiches to make.  And I’m reminiscing about the sandwiches Mom used to pack me for lunch back when I was doing electrical work with Gerry.7

Alright, that’s enough about sandwiches.  We may now proceed to some of things I actually like about this town.  Let’s say, for the purposes of this discussion, it’s part the nature and part the spread-out-ness of the place.

I went for a long walk on Tuesday.  Like I used to do.  Just pick a direction and see what’s there.  And it’s getting dark earlier now.  Also the weather wasn’t great.  So most of the walk was in this sort of hazy, foggy, winter twilight.  You know the one I’m talking about.  Where the sky is that special shade of grey-pink that you only get in the winter.  And the fog isn’t thick enough to be totally obscursive,8 but just enough to soften all the lines and give everything a misty mysty vibe.

Anyway, it was great.  Two things I love about long walks in this town.  One is simply just seeing new places, walking somewhere I’ve never been before.  The mystery, the adventure.  The other thing I love is, it’s my long-form podcast time.

Tangentially, I’m always listening to WNYC podcasts.  Brian Lehrer and Leonard Lopate, specifically.  Which in itself is, well, not weird.  But it’s something.  What I mean is, it keeps me tethered to New York.  Which, on the one hand, I need.  Because on some level, I’m never not going to be a New Yorker.  In my time here, I’ve learned that.  Once you’re a New Yorker, I don’t think you can ever not be.  But on the other hand, I sometimes wonder if it keeps me too firmly rooted in a place I’m not living at the expense of getting closer to where I am actually living.

Because I could be making the effort to find some local Berlin podcast that would get my finger nearer the pulse of this place.  And I’m not doing that.  Does staying tied to NY prevent me from really adopting this place?  Or do I not get closer because I already feel like I’m just passing through.  It’s a chicken and egg thing, I guess.  But I do think, if I ever felt like I didn’t have a very clear picture of what was going on at home – because even if I never go back (not something I anticipate), it will always be home – if I didn’t have a very clear picture of it, I think I would feel very lost.  I need it, is what I think I’m saying.

Anyway, I listen to the WNYC podcasts when I’m cooking or cleaning.  Because segments are rarely longer than 30 minutes, which is perfect for that sort of thing.  But when I go for walks, that’s when I listen to the longer stuff.  The Dollop, More Perfect, Infinite Monkey Cage, those would be the big ones.

And it gives me these sort of Proustian memories.  In other words, I remember exactly where I was when I was listening to a certain podcast.  And if I ever return to that place, I can nearly hear it again.  For example, I remember, even now, listening to Infinite Monkey Cage while walking along the Spree by Obermauerbrücke, or More Perfect in Treptower Park and then again in the woods at the end of the 68 Tram Line.  Listening to The Dollop by the Müggelsee, and not for nothing, in my car with the top down on the way up to Maine.  Even an Islander podcast while walking the old runways at Tempelhoferfeld.

All to say, long walks exploring Berlin while listening to podcasts is one of my very favorite things about living in this town.  And when I look at the podcasts piling up in my phone, all I can think is, when can I go on my next walk?

And then there are the things that are quite nice here, but really, I suppose, could – and probably would – happen anywhere.  For instance, there’s the lady in the shop where I buy my tobacco.  One day, I went in and she just pulled by brand off the shelf without even asking me.  And I was so delighted.  And she’s always so sweet.  So now that I know she knows me, we chat a little bit every time I go.

Turns out she was in Venice while I was in Florence.  So the last couple of times we were just chatting about Italy.  On the one hand, it’s not a big deal, obviously.  But on the other hand, it’s really rather nice.  One thing I wonder about, she must know I’m not from here.  Like, I make plenty of mistakes with my German, and I go back and forth between addressing her with the formal Sie and informal du, depending on if I can remember the right form of the verb.  But she never ever switches over to English, which is what might happen more in the center of the city.

And I have no idea if that’s because she simply doesn’t speak English, or because this is Germany and I should be speaking German.  But she never ever makes me feel bad about it.  And when I don’t understand something she says, she never makes me feel like an idiot.  If anything, I think she gets a little embarrassed that she hasn’t put it in a way that my feeble brain can handle.

My point is, my tobacco lady knows me and she chats with me and it’s really nice.  Contrary to what I was saying about the WNYC podcasts and not making the effort to fully assimilate, she makes me feel like a part of the neighborhood.  I feel more a part of this place when I pop in there for two minutes than I do most other times.  It’s something I appreciate each and every time.

— Vignette: One other story about my tobacco lady; which is what I have to call her since I don’t know her name; though I think I’m in enough that I can soon ask.  Last time I was there, when I walked in, she was standing behind a customer zipping up his backpack.  That was the first thing I noticed.  The second thing I noticed was, dude as on crutches and his legs were all bent out of shape.  And she was just chatting with him while she zipped him up.  And I was like, what a mensch!  So yeah, she’s cool.  — End Vignette.

Another example.  I had this student who just finished up.  And we just got on really well.  He’s about my age.  In his thirties, but a bit younger.  Into metal, plays in bands.  Political, philosophical.  We agree on some things, disagree on others.  But very smart, and great to talk with.  He’s one of these (increasingly rare) people with whom you can debate and argue and disagree, but all the while respect.

Anyway, he just finished up, as I said.  So at the end, we traded phone numbers.  And Monday we met up for a few drinks.  And just, good times, you know?  Also, he’s very keen to help me with my German.  Very patient.  Very willing to just keep the conversation going in German, try and get me up to speed.  Which is great, which is what I need.

Now, it’s too soon to say.  But I think, maybe, I’ve made a new friend.  Which is always exciting.  But if we do wind up being friends, he could really be my first properly German friend.  What I mean is, all my other friends who are German, we met speaking English and English remains our primary means of communication.  Annett or Joschka, for example.

But if this continues, it’s pretty clear that the end-goal is to have German as the primary language.  And that’s something I only have with Anne, who, like me, is not a native speaker.  So again, returning to the subject of assimilating and feeling like I’m a part of this place, that would be a big step.  So we’ll see where it goes.

The last example, vis-à-vis nice things I have here, but which could really happen anywhere, is my roommates continue to be great.  I’ve been here with them eleven months.  And you could easily imagine that after that much time things could sour.  But they really haven’t.9  As has always been the case, we don’t go out together.  But we continue to have “family dinner” every couple of weeks.  And there are days when we don’t see each other at all.  But there are also days where we’ll just chat for a few minutes and catch up.  And they’re just the sweetest people.  The phrase that keeps coming to mind is, they just have really good hearts, you know?

Here’s a thing about them.  They both always wear only all black.  They’re not goth or anything.  Just, they only ever wear black.  It’s their thing.  Which is not at all important, other than it helps paint the picture, I guess.  But I bring it up because it will illuminate the next, and last, vignette of this piece.

But first, I need to come clean about something, and it’s probably not going to make my parents happy.  Ugh.  Don’t worry, you guys, we’re not in a poly love triangle.  No, it’s just that they have two dogs.  So yeah, this whole time I’ve been living here, I’ve also been living with two dogs.  And strangely, it hasn’t seemed to be terrible for my allergies.  Obviously they never come into my room.  OK, one of them might come in if the door is open.  But only if it’s a sunny day, and she wants to get out to the balcony.  And generally I don’t touch them or play with them.  Though I’ve been known to get a little affectionate if I have enough to drink.10  But I’m always quick to wash my hands and not touch my face.11  The point is, there are two dogs here, and they’re adorable, but we keep a respectful distance and my allergies are cooperating (knock wood).  Who knows?  Maybe I’m building a tolerance.  Let’s see how I do with Oscar next time I’m home.

Anyway.  The dogs are, generally speaking, extremely well behaved.  Here’s what amazes me though.  They’re very energetic at home.  And if a new person comes in the house, they can go kinda nuts.  And sometimes, they just like to bark for no reason.  Like, when Marco and Lucie are both out, they keep the dogs in their room with the door closed.  But if I come home, and the dogs are in a mood, they ask me to let them out.  “Die doofe Hünden bellen” is what Lucie might say by text – the stupid dogs are barking again.  So I let them out and then they relax.

OK, so that’s at home.  But what’s amazing is, outside, they’re totally silent.  I mean, they could be running and jumping on the sidewalk, but not a peep out of them.  That’s how well they’ve got them trained.  Not that I go for walks with them.  But every now and again, I’ll be getting home just as Luc is coming back from a walk.  And I’m always amazed by how silent they are.  Which brings me to my last…

— Vignette: So one day, not long ago, I was coming home from work.  And it was pretty chilly, you know?  And just as I’m getting to the house, I see Lucie at the corner, with Kessie and Emma,12 the dogs.  And Lucie, comme habitude, is dressed in all black, right down to the black scarf halfway up her face.  And the dogs are sort of running with her but also circling around her feet because she’s not fast enough for their liking.  But when she stops, they stop.  And she holds up a hand, and the go up on the hind legs.  And they’re full of energy and yet completely silent withal.

And I swear to god, you guys.  I could have believed she was an actual witch and that she had a spell over these creatures.  Because that’s what it looked like.  This pale skinned woman, wrapped all in black.  And these beasts, her minions, obeying her every command, as under some kind of witchcraft.  It was creepy and eerie and yet somehow also kind of sweet.  But also, there was a part of me that would have believed: These were my last roommates.  But they were bad.  They didn’t clean the bathroom when they were supposed to.  So I turned them into dogs.  And now they obey me. 

I’m not doing this justice.  I mean, you had to see it.  The way she walked so confidently, with these beasts swirling around at her feet.  And did I mention the all-black?  Honestly, she could have stepped out of a Grimm fairy tale.  But then, you know, we start talking and she’s just the sweetest person.  — End Vignette.

One last thing, has nothing to do with Berlin, and then I’m done.  I had a Skype with Niki the other day.  We don’t talk as often as we should, and most of our communication these days is through Instagram or random Whatsapp messages.  But every now and again, we’ll do a Skype.  And honestly, friends, I laugh so hard.

Just, right from the get, it’s jokes, it’s rants, it’s  comparing notes on living in a foreign country,13 it’s ranting about living in a foreign country.  But it’s also comedy.  And it’s hilarious.  To us, anyway.  But seriously, I can’t even remember the last time I laughed that much or that hard.  Just fantastic.

One example.  We ranted about how in both of our countries, what the fuck is up with the meat selection at the supermarkets?  Like, why the fuck is everything lean af?  Why can you not find meat that has bones in it?  Bones are where the fucking flavor is, people!  What the fuck is wrong with y’all?  And I don’t know what the difference is.  But when me and Vin rant about sandwiches, for instance, it’s very serious.  Gravely serious.  But when me and Niki rant, man, do we just laugh our asses off.

Though if I can depart from this for just a moment: I’m not kidding about the above.  I bought “American style” bacon a while back.  Seriously, they print that on the package, “American style.”  And the only reason I bought it was so I could render the fat.  So I could then later have bacon grease to cook with.  But this shit was so thin, so lean, it just stuck to the pan.  And I got nothing.  Zilch.  Zero.  Bupkis.  I mean, what the actual fuck?  And forget about finding beef that has an actual bone attached.  I seriously fucking can’t.

But what was I saying?  Oh yeah.  Niki.  Side splitting, physically painful laughter.  For two-and-a-half hours.  I miss that kid.  A lot.  Like, a lot a lot.  And then I remember, sometimes, the old days.  Of pregaming with Niki at her place before meeting Vin and Joschka at Duffs.  Those were the days, boy, I tellya.

But I’m making new those-were-the-days days here too.  Drinking with my new maybe-friend.  Long podcast-walks exploring the city.  Chilling with Zibs and Jan.  Doing the stranger-in-a-strange-land shtick with Anne.  Drinking cocktails and playing Settlers of Catan14  with Joschka.  Living with German roommates and hanging out in German.  Enjoying the shit outa my job.  So yeah, today was a good day.  Lots of a good days here.  And more to come.

זיי געסונט

  1. Jargon shout out to MZ! []
  2. And I say “town,” because until the mass transit here gets its shit together, it’s hard for me to take this place seriously as a “city.” []
  3. Semantic question: Can one expect disappointment?  Is disappointment not, by definition, the failing of something to meet expectations?  So, perhaps what I mean is, whatever we were expecting, we were prepared for it to be even worse. []
  4. We always call each other paisan. []
  5. Red Gold, as I call it. []
  6. He’s British. []
  7. Then my dad caught me upon Gerry, who is doing quite well, I was happy to hear.  Nothing but great memories of my time working with that guy.  I may have told this story before, but I’ll never forget how he explained to me the right way to wire up an outlet.  “You connect this bitch here.  You connect this bitch there.  Badda-fucking-bing!”  Italian Gerry was not being ironic, I hasten to add. []
  8. OK, I think I made that word up.  #logodaedalism []
  9. Or if they have, they hide it extremely well. []
  10. OK, that’s generally true – of people and of dogs. []
  11. I made that mistake but one single time, and yes, my eye swelled shut like Fort Knox. []
  12. Funny thing about the dogs.  Look, I hate – and I can’t stress this enough – I hate the anthropomorphization of dogs.  I’m sorry, Justin, but the dog is not your “baby.”  I’m sorry, Mom & Dad, but Oscar is not your “grand-dog.”  He’s just a dog.  And you can love him, that’s fine.  But dogs aren’t people.  And yet.  And yet, these dogs do have something like personalities.  And Emma is just, well, to me, she’s annoying.  She’s always all over you.  And anytime I go into the kitchen, she comes running.  Like, no, sweetie, I don’t have food for you.  But Kessie is like me.  When I come home, Kessie comes out and sorta says hello.  But that’s it.  Then she’s go back to her room.  And I get that.  We understand each other.  Yes, it’s genuinely nice to see you.  And now, let us leave each other alone.  I’d fist bump you, Kessie, if you could make a fist.  But you can’t.  Because you’re a dog.  Not a person.  Anyway. []
  13. She’s in Australia. []
  14. Yeah, that’s a thing now. []