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.
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.
- Election is Friday. Right, Dad/Justin? [↩]
- 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? [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Er, last Saturday, the 11th. This has been sitting un-proofread for a week. #soz [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Though this could fairly be said of Germany in general. 2.5 days in Italy reminded me of that; as if I needed reminding. [↩]
- The eponymous hero of Virgil’s Aeneid, and founding hero of Rome, Aeneas as was a refugee from Troy. [↩]
- Krass appears to be the German word for all things superlatively good or superlatively bad. Kind of like “sick” in English, maybe. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Still last Saturday. [↩]
- And yes, glorious blues rock solos. The best blues rock solos, in fact. [↩]