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.
- Jargon shout out to MZ! [↩]
- 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.” [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- We always call each other paisan. [↩]
- Red Gold, as I call it. [↩]
- He’s British. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- OK, I think I made that word up. #logodaedalism [↩]
- Or if they have, they hide it extremely well. [↩]
- OK, that’s generally true – of people and of dogs. [↩]
- I made that mistake but one single time, and yes, my eye swelled shut like Fort Knox. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- She’s in Australia. [↩]
- Yeah, that’s a thing now. [↩]