An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
27 January, 2018

Umm, how, exactly, is January basically over already?  Didn’t we literally just start this thing?  I can’t, you guys.  I seriously can’t.  Like, my visa is up in 11 months.  It’s probably time I started thinking about whether I want to extend it.  Anyway, what’s new?  Same old, eh?

Speaking of “What’s new?”, Germans are a funny lot.  I always have to explain to my classes that when somebody says “How are you?” by way of a greeting in the morning, we don’t actually give a shit.  It’s just a pleasantry.  I have to explain this, you see, because when I say “How are you?”, I often get answers like: “Well, not too good actually.  My cat is sick.  Or my father is in the hospital.”  Excuse me?  Do you actually think I’m emotionally equipped to handle such a response?  What exactly am I supposed to say to that?  “But you asked!” they insist.

I mean, yeah, technically I asked.  I guess.  But no.  I was just saying hello.  Your job, in this situation, is to tell me you’re fine.  Lie, if you must.  And don’t overdo it either.  Don’t tell me you’re “great.”  Because then I get suspicious.  Like, who the fuck is “great” at 9am?  Needless to say, they find this very confusing in the beginning.  But they get the hang of it.  Eventually.

My advanced class generally has a pretty good handle on this.  When I ask “What’s up?” or “How ya doin’?” I now get answers like “Same shit, different day,” or “Yeah, whatever, fine.”  I kinda love my advanced class.  More on them later.

I’m happy if the beginners just give me a “Fine, thanks.  And you?”  To the intermediate group, I recently explained that we New Yorkers have devised a rather clever work-around for this situation.  We ask and answer our own questions in one breath; all the other person has to do is confirm.  For example: “Howyadoin’, a’right?”  “How’re the kids, good?”  “How’s work, same old?”  In this way, we tell the other person the answers we are prepared to hear.  It’s easier that way.  Nobody wants to hear about your sick father.  Not at 9am.

“But how then do you ask when you really want to know the answer?”  That’s always the next question.  Well, that’s a bit harder, isn’t it?  Part of it, I explain, is inflection; the tone of your voice.  Also, we will add more words to indicate sincerity.  For instance: “Hey, you look a little down/out of it/whatever.  Is everything OK?”  That last bit, “Is everything OK?”, still means we’d prefer to hear “Yes, everything’s fine.”  But we’re at least prepared to hear the truth.

And yet.  And yet, the Germans are a funny lot.  They have – what seems to me, anyway – an almost pathological need to say “Guten Appetit” to anybody who might be eating anything within 15 feet 3 meters of them.  Like, you could be having lunch in the kitchen, and somebody will walk by in the hallway.  In theory, you should both be minding your own business.  But they know there’s food in front of you, and so they absolutely must stick their head in the door and say Guten Appetit.  And it’s just like, “Umm, thanks?”  But after the 17th time, I just can’t anymore.

They have this with “Guten Morgen” also.  Like, I’ll be in the kitchen, eating a croissant with my coffee, headphones in – headphones in! – and there’s just this never-ending cascade of Guten Morgens.  And I’m just like, Jeez, not yet!  OK, fine.  I’m clearly an asshole in the morning.  Which people gradually learn to accept.  Apparently there’s even a word for this in German: Morgenmuffel.

Anyway, I was explaining all this to my advanced class.  Cause, I mean, they get it.  And in making reference to the lower levels, I said something like “those Dummkopfs in the other classes.”  I chose that word because I remember hearing my Aunt Cookie use it the last time I was in.  And to me, at least, it seemed to have a bit of a playful air.  Like, when you don’t want to say “idiot” or “asshole.”  Like, in English, I would probably just say “clowns.”  No actual ill intent behind it, kinda thing.  But they told me that in German, Dummkopf is actually really quite mean.  Apparently the word I was looking for was Quatschkopf.  Which I guess you could translate as something like “silly-head.”

Well, like I said, I love this advanced class.  They’re easily the most advanced group I’ve had all at one time.  Here and there I’ve had a couple of students at this level.  But always at the same time there were other people who probably didn’t belong in the advanced.  At the moment, though, there’s only five of them, and they’re all really fucking good.

And they’re fun too.  Like, we give each other a lot of shit.  Give and take, in both directions.  Like, sometimes, one of them will land a properly good jab, and I’m like, “I don’t know if I should feel wounded…or proud?”  For example, Friday, we were talking about euphemisms.  And one of my guys says: “So, I can say…Yeah, Dave, he’s a…special…teacher.”  To which I can only answer something like, “Fuck you, you brilliant asshole.  That’s exactly how euphemism works.  Well done.”  Which I obviously didn’t say.  In those words.

And they appreciate puns.  Not only are they getting a feel for English punning, but they’re even starting to figure out bi-lingual punning.  Puns, in other words, that require knowledge of both languages to function.  I mean, that’s some next level shit.

I love my two days with this group.  At some point, you can’t even really call it “work.”  It’s just a good time.  Somehow or another, on Thursday, we got onto the connections between Yiddish, Hebrew and German; just for the last few minutes of class.  Apparently, there’s a rather decent-sized cache of Hebrew/Yiddish words that have been borrowed into German.  So we were talking about that.

Anyway, class ends at 2:30.  And at like 2:32, I said, “You know you guys can go home now?”  And they were just like, “No, we’re good.”  Yeah?  Cool!  So we just hung out for an extra half hour talking about Jewish loan words in German.  We all learned some pretty interesting stuff.  I’ll give a few examples, which I think are worth repeating.

Mezuzah: OK, we all know what a mezuzah is.  Well, the Jews reading this do, at least.  Anyway, apparently in German, mezuzah is a slang word for ‘whore.’  Because…get this…everybody touches it.

Blau machen:  OK, so blau just means ‘blue.’  And machen is ‘make/do.’  So blau sein (literally ‘to be blue’) is a slang-ism for ‘to be drunk.’  But blau machen means ‘to do nothing.’  Which makes no sense.  Until you realize that in this idiom, blau is a corruption of the Hebrew בלא (b’lo), which means ‘nothing.’  So blau machen means ‘to do nothing.’

Dufte: Apparently this is an old-fashioned slang word for ‘good’ or ‘super’ in Berlinerdeutsch.  Which, OK, Berlin-German has lots of weird slang words that the rest of Germany doesn’t have.  And I just assumed this was one more.  But apparently it’s a corruption of טוב (tov).  So it’s literally the Hebrew word for ‘good,’ pronounced Yiddishly and then Germanized.

There were a bunch more.  Like the word for ‘throw up’ – necessary vocabulary for any good lush – is kotzen.  I learned that one very early on.  But only on Thursday did I learn that it’s a corruption of קוץ (qotz), which according to my dictionary means ‘to feel sick, feel revulsion.’  Although apparently on a moral level rather than physical.

And it goes beyond German, too.  One of my students is this Polish girl.  And I used the word ‘schmatte.”  You know, ‘rag.’  And she just starts laughing.  Like, how do I know Polish words?  Because apparently ‘schmatte’ is literally the Polish word and it means the exact same thing.

The point is, you gotta love a class that chooses to stay late just to chat about this kind of stuff.  And what’s also cool, is you can tell they genuinely enjoy teaching me stuff too.  They’re always throwing me new vocabulary, new idioms, new slang and so forth.  That’s something I very much appreciate.

There’s this one dude in my intermediate class.  Cool guy, interesting cat.  Anyway, he distills his own rum.  So a while back, he gave me two little bottles – maybe a shot or two each.  I shared it with Joschka.  It was properly nice, if a bit woody.  Anyway, I told him that we quite enjoyed it.  So Friday, he brought me to larger bottles.  Maybe a flask’s-worth each.

Anyway, my advanced class saw themn and were all “What’s that?”  So I explained.  And then I offered that if they didn’t have to rush out, we could all taste it together after class.  So three of them (plus one girl from the intermediate) hung around.  And we just hung out for another 15-20 and tasted the rums.  I mean, what a great job.

Also, one of my girls even made a pretty great (German) pun.  Another person had declined to join us because she had to drive.  Now in German, the preposition rum– means ‘around.’  And fahren means ‘drive.’  So rumfahren means something like ‘drive around.’  Anyway, this person declines because they have to drive home.  So my student says, “Ja, du solltest nicht Rumfahren!”  (Yeah, you shouldn’t rum-drive!).  And I was just like, “Yaassss!”

So yeah, working with this lot is super fun on a social-banter level.  But speaking strictly as a ‘teacher,’ it’s kind of a dream.  See, because they’re starting from a position of being already quite good with the language, we can spend much more time focusing on what I call ‘the good stuff.’  This week, we’ve been talking about style.  Like, OK, you can all write “correctly.”  Let’s next-level this shit.  Let’s talk about writing “well.”

Thursday we looked at subordinate clauses.  Friday we looked at rhetorical structures and literary devices.  Things like anaphora, antithesis, periphrasis, alliteration, metonymy and synecdoche, simile and metaphor, asyndeton and polysyndeton and hendiadys, litotes and paraleipsis.  You know, shit that’s properly in my wheel-house.  And the nice thing, for them, is that these things all exist in German (or Polish or Arabic or whatever their mother-tongue may be).  So it’s not just an English thing.  It’s a literature thing.  And that’s fucking cool.  That’s much more interesting to me than “When do we use the past progressive?”

So as a way of seeing these things in action, I brought them copies of JFK’s inaugural address and of Trump’s.  And of course, the first reaction, before we actually look at the text, is to assume that Trump’s speech will be drivel and that Kennedy’s will be high art.  And yeah, that’s certainly one valid interpretation.

But then we get to talking about how both of these guys won their elections by super-slim margins.  Which means that their respective rhetorical styles deeply touch about half the population while really turning off the other half.  And I ask them to put aside their politics and just read for style.  Look for the things we talked about.  And I tell them to take it home and read it on their own time and come back the next day with questions and opinions.

And what do you know?  As non-native speakers, they found the Trump speech much easier to understand, much more approachable.  Which it objectively is.  But is that good or bad?  Is that more ‘small-d’ democratic, or is just appealing to the lowest common denominator?  Well, you can have your own opinions about that.

We’re not done with it yet.  We’re going to continue on with it next week, and really get into the weeds a bit.  But the point is, for me, I love doing this kind of stuff.  Yeah, working with the beginners is nice.  Watching them start from nothing and seeing them get to a place where they can really use the language is gratifying.  But also, it’s booooooring.  This, though.  This is almost like teaching a college class.  And that, my friends, is pretty f’ing fantastic.

I went to a birthday party last weekend.  Well, two actually.  Friday night was for Annett.  So that was mostly just me and Anne drinking our faces off, comme habitude.  She – Anne, I mean – sent me a picture of two old ladies wearing sweatshirts with the words “New York Drinking Team” printed across the chest.  We need shirts like that, she said.  Because we are the “Berlin Drinking Team.”  I love that kid.

Last week we met up for our usual conversation exchange.  One drink in French, one drink in English, many subsequent drinks in German.  Comme habitude.  Well, all I’d eaten that day was a croissant for breakfast and a small salad for lunch.  But I stupidly didn’t eat anything before we went to the bar.  So after four or five grogs, I was three sheets to the wind (Ich war ziemlich blau, you could even say).  Anyway, at the birthday party she said something about us playing darts the other day.  I had no idea what she was talking about.  So she showed me a picture of me throwing a dart from our conversation exchange.  And if there wasn’t an actual picture, I would never have believed it.  That’s how much I didn’t remember it happening.  Nevertheless, good times.  Apparently.

Where was I?  Oh yeah.  I went to a birthday party last weekend.  Although I kinda didn’t want to.  See, it was for a former student of mine.  And she’s great.  We meet up once every month or two for drinks.  But that’s one-on-one.  That’s fine.  This would be a party where I didn’t know anybody and where everybody would be German.  Stress!

Well, I get there and everybody is in the kitchen.  Something like ten or more people sitting around a huge kitchen table.  And there’s no empty seats.  So she has to pull in a chair from the other room and I’m kinda on the outside.  Awkward!  And for the first hour or so, all I’m thinking is, what’s the minimum amount of time I can stay before I leave without it being rude?

But at some point, of course, I start chatting with somebody.  And then somebody else joins the conversation.  And I’m drinking gin.  And next thing I know, I’m actually having a good time.  And also, nobody is speaking English.  What’s more, it’s clear that these people I’m chatting with can speak English.  But they’re not.  There’s no need.  Like, here I am, at a party with strangers, and we’re all just speaking German.  Like, holy shit, I can do this without a safety-net!  The training wheels are off!

Or mostly off.  Because at some point, I apologize to the first guy I’m chatting with for the poor state of my German.  And of course he’s like, “What are you talking about?  You’re German is very good!”  Which was a nice thing to say.  But even as I’m pulling this off, I’m fully aware that I’m making all kinds of mistakes, and my vocabulary is limited.  So I tell him, you know, what helps is, you’re very easy to understand.  You speak a very clear German.

To which he replies, “Oh, this isn’t my real German.”   And it’s not that he was ‘dumbing it down’ for me, so to speak.  It’s just that he’s speaking proper textbook German.  Because apparently his ‘real’ German is hardcore Berliner-slang.  Well, OK, that’s the same English I use with Germans; proper textbook English, I mean.  If I spoke the kind of English with them that I normally speak with, let’s say Vinny, well, they’d be just as lost.

So the training wheels aren’t totally off.  But we’re getting there.  I mean, when I hang out with Joschka and Cindy, yes, we speak German.  But, first of all, I know that it’s their ‘real’ German.  Just in general, they speak more ‘properly,’ more ‘textbook.’  But also, Joschka is there.  That’s a safety-net.

This was different.  Yeah, Jules – my friend – speaks pretty good English.  But our friendship isn’t rooted in English the way it is for me and Joschel.  This was new.  This was – I think – my first experience being thrown into an entirely German setting.  And I hacked it.  #AchievementUnlocked

Strangely, this got me thinking about French.  French – that bitch – always feels just beyond my reach.  Like, it’s objectively easier than German.  I have a bigger vocabulary.  I read in French quite easily; which I definitely do not in German.  And yet, it’s elusive.  Always like I’m looking at it across a schmutzy window.  I can manage with Anne for an hour.  I can scrape by in France.  But if you dropped me into a French party the way I was dropped into this one, I’d be up the proverbial creek…sans proverbial paddle.

Anyway, it got me thinking.  What if I had been living in France all this time?  How good would my French be?  Would it be even better than my German?  And I can’t say that it didn’t cause me not a little regret.1  Because French was my first second language.2  It’s the language of hockey, nevermind Dumas and Verne.  And it’s the language of two of my best friends on planet earth: Charlotte & Anne.  Maybe I should go live in France after this.  Or not.  Who the fuck knows?

When I was in France, I did the obligatory gift-buying for friends.  I brought back chocolate for the roommates.3  I brought back a bottle of rosé for one of my colleagues.  And I brought back something for Anne.

On my last day in Nice, Charlotte and I visited the modern art museum.  Which is not my thing, but hey, who doesn’t like a bit of cultchuh?  Anyway, there’s this artist native to Nice, whose nom d’art (is that a thing?) is “Ben.”  His stuff is all over the city.  But mostly, it’s just him writing clever things in his own cursive handwriting.  Hashtag modern art.  And of course, he’s got a ton of stuff in the museum.

So in the gift shop, I grab this little pocket-sized notebook/writing block for Anne.  It’s not lined paper, it’s just blank pages.  And on the cover, in Ben’s “art” are the words “J’aime les pages blanches.”  Or “vides.”  I don’t remember exactly.  Whatever, it translates to something like “I love blank/empty pages.”  And Anne’s an artist, right?  So I figure, that’s perfect for her.

Anyway, I bring it back.  And I’ve got a little spiel prepared.  Not much; just enough so I can explain who the artist is, how he’s native to Nice, etc.  And I don’t know why I was surprised – she’s an artist, after all – she knew exactly who he was.  I didn’t have to explain anything.  She was just like, “Oh yeah, Ben, from Nice.  Cool!’

It was cool.  I generally suck at gift-buying.  Like, you know how there’s those people who just always know the exact right thoughtful gift?  Even if it costs a buck-fifty, it’s perfect.  Because they know you and they’re thoughtful people.  Fuck them, the bastards.  I can’t do that.  But this one, I think I got it right.  She seemed to really dig it.  So that was cool.

She also had a gift for me.4  Remember her and Annett had an exhibition back in December?  Well, I’d had it in my head that I would like to support her by buying something.  But when I asked about prices, she showed me the list, and, well, it was too rich for my blood.  Not that the prices were unfair.  Far from it.  But for me, it would have been a luxury I can’t quite afford.

Anyway, at the end of the night, she’s showing me all the little red-sticker dots next to so many of her works.  If you’ve ever been to an art gallery, you know that a little red sticker-dot means the piece has been sold.  And she was so proud of herself.  Like, “Can you believe I sold so many pieces?!”  Well, yeah, I could believe it.  She’s really good, you guys.  And I was well proud of her too.

But also if you’ve ever been to an art gallery exhibition, you know there’s booze.  So at this point, I was a bit…blau.  Anyway, I said something like…well, first I told her how proud of her I was.  Because I genuinely was.  But then I said something like, “But you know, these people are idiots, because they didn’t buy the best ones.”

So she asked me which ones were “the best ones.”  And I didn’t hesitate.  Because I’d looked at them all already.  I knew which ones I thought were the best.  For me, I love things where the background has just enough to excite your imagination, but not enough to give real detail.

This was true in Florence too, when Jared and Josh and I went to the art museums.  The actual subjects of the paintings are fine.  But I love the backgrounds.  There are whole worlds back there.  People living lives, going about their business, loving, living, doing business, fucking (presumably) and dying.  And your imagination is free to invent all kinds of stories.

–Interpolation: Tolkien knew this.  He did this consciously.  In the Silmarillion most of all, but also in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.  He knew that if you just gave a hint of a story, the reader would imagine the rest.  And that’s where the real magic is.  :End Interpolation–

So she asked me which was my favorite.  And I still didn’t hesitate.  Because there was one.  I just loved it.  Somewhere, in the back of my mind, it reminded me of the cover of this old sci-fi book, The Day of the Triffids.  I vaguely remember the story.  It’s not important.  But it reminded me of the cover, is the point.

And that right there is enough.  That’s full of all sorts of good memories.  My teenage years devouring all the old sci-fi I could get my hands on.  But also, that all of that stuff came from my dad.  Either directly, from his own old books.  Or indirectly, from the stuff I found on my own as I branched out from that.  The point is, wrapped up in all of that, is that nostalgic feeling that comes with the whole father-to-son passing-things-on shtick.5

So there’s that.  But also, I just loved this piece, this little ink drawing that Anne had made.  To my eye, it’s these mysterious – almost alien – plants, growing underwater, anchored to the seabed.  And the background is kind of smudgy and mysterious.  And who knows what’s going on back there?  You can – or, I can, anyway – just look at it and get lost in your own imagination.  That’s what I love about it.

Anyway, that’s my favorite, I tell her, with zero hesitation.  Because it was very much my favorite.  And do you know what she says?  “It’s yours.”  That’s it.

What?  No.  I can’t accept that.  That’d be taking money out of your pocket.  Absolutely not.  “Stop that,” she says.  “It’s mine, and I want to give it to you.”  I continued to protest.  In the end, I got her to agree that she would try to sell it as long as the exhibition ran.  And then, when it was time to close up shop, if nobody had bought it, then she could give it to me.  That seemed fair.

That’s how I remember it anyway.  We were both drunk at the point.  And because of that, I knew that I would never bring it up again.  Indeed, I decided to forget about it.  Which I did.  And then, right after the exhibition, she went back to France for a month.

So when we got back together for our conversation exchange, she’s like: “I have something for you.”  And I’m like: “Well, I have something for you too.”  And I just figured she’d brought me back a little Kleinigkeit from France; last time she brought me back tea.  Anyway, she slides this brown envelope onto the table.  And I honestly have no idea what’s in it.

I was genuinely surprised when I opened it.  I really had forgotten about it.  But she hadn’t.  And I was just like…wow.  You know, I was really touched.  No, really.  I’m talking tears in the eyes, the whole nine.  Because this is her work, this is her labor.  And she can sell this.  I felt before, I felt at the time, and I still feel, that in some way, I’m taking money out of her pocket.  It doesn’t seem right somehow.

And look, maybe I’m making too big a deal of it.  I mean, clearly, she doesn’t feel that way.  She chose to give it to me.  I never asked for it.  I could never.  But that’s the point.  She decided she wanted me to have it, because I’m her friend.  And that’s like…I don’t know.  Even now as I’m writing about it, I’m getting a bit emotional.

Because actions speak louder than words, right?  We’re each other’s best friends here.  She has her life-long friends in France; I have mine in the States.  And we both have other very good friends in Berlin.

Joschka is also my best friend here.  But it’s different.  He is of this place.  He’s German.  Anne and I, we’re both strangers here.  We’re both fish out of water.  But we have each other.  We understand each other.  And you can say that.  We say it all the time, in fact, when we’ve had enough to drink.  But you don’t always get to show it.  And when she gave me this thing – this truc, as she would say – she showed me something special.  She showed me what our friendship means to her.  I fucking love that kid.

Look, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.  I honestly don’t.  But Keith and Murph and Flare have kids, and all of a fucking sudden, I’m “Uncle Dave.”  I go to France and C’s Uncle Dan gifts me a home-made flask.  Gallou gives me a hand-painted guardian-stone.  My students hang out with me after class, and some of them continue to drink with me even after they leave the school.  My roommates remember my birthday.6  And Anne – The Notorious ABG7 – she just up and gives me a piece of her artwork.  I may not know what the fuck I’m doing, but I must be doing something right…

זײַ געסונט

  1. Litotes! []
  2. Well, my first second living language. []
  3. Because if there’s anything they love, it’s pizza.  But pizza won’t travel.  So if there’s anything else they love, it’s chocolate. []
  4. If I wrote about this before, I apologize.  But a little exposition never hurt anybody. []
  5. It occurs to me just now as I’m writing this – and this is totally tangential – but it seems to me that the old Yiddish “shtick” and the modern internet “meme” have quite a lot in common.  A sort of constant re-imagining of an archetype that requires a baseline cultural understanding for its basic functioning.  Just a thought… []
  6. I mentioned to Marco that I’d be going home towards the end of March, and he says, “Yeah, OK, but your birthday is on the tenth right?  So you’ll be here for that?” []
  7. I love this nickname, which I’m fairly certain she doesn’t fully appreciate.  So obviously there was the rapper, Notorious B.I.G.  But then, some law-wonks started a tribute blog to Ruth Bader Ginsburg and called it The Notorious RBG.  Which then caught fire.  Because how could it not?  So Anne, whose initials are A.B.G., how could I not call her the Notorious ABG? []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
13 January, 2018

Well, well, well, Happy fuckin New Y – oh, wait, I think I did that gag already.  So I flew back to Germany on New Year’s Eve.  My flight was due to land at 11:30 pm.  Which was not ideal, but did at least have the virtue of being over a hundred Euros cheaper.  That said, we touched down at 11; which had me wondering if I’d somehow managed to get myself on the wrong aeroplane.  I still don’t know how we managed to land so early.  Maybe there was no traffic?

Anyway, one cool thing about it, I got to see fireworks from above.  This was very cool.  Small and far away, yes.  But popping off bright against the blackness, it was surreal and gorgeous.  I imagine it’s a rare sight, and so all the more precious.

The plan was to go straight to Joschka’s from the airport.  The timing was such that I was above ground on the S-Bahn, travelling through the middle of Berlin at midnight.  A bit lonely perhaps, but it afforded me yet another great view of the fireworks.

This city is crazy with fireworks on New Year’s.  They’re legal here, though possibly only for the one day.  So people kinda go nuts with it.  Just, like, in the streets.  Setting off all kinds of crazy shit.  Best to have your windows closed though.  You see plenty of rockets landing on roofs and bouncing off the sides of buildings.  I’ve heard stories of rockets going through open windows and starting fires.  It’s all a bit mad, if I’m being perfectly honest.  And “safe” isn’t really a word that comes to mind; at least not without an accompanying negation.  But it’s impressive.  Also loud.

Charlotte and the gang called me shortly after midnight as I happened to be on the sidewalk on Joschka’s block.  The downside of leaving when I did was that I missed what I assume was a killer party.  Anyway, it was very sweet of them to call.  Gallou and Marion took a turn on the horn as well, but to be honest, it was so loud – the fireworks, I mean – I could scarcely hear a blesséd word they said.  Still, it was a nice coda to that whole trip.

Meanwhile, the plan, as I said, was to meet Joschka.  Only he wasn’t answering his phone; neither texts nor actual calls.  Fortunately, I have a key.  So I went up anyway, only to find the apartment empty.  Well, that was weird.  But at least I could put my bag down.  Upon which I went back outside and went for a walk to take in the last of the fireworks shit-show.  Finally, Joschka got back to me.  He was at Cindy’s restaurant.  So I met them there.

I was starving, but sadly, the kitchen had already closed.  However, Cindy, being the absolute doll that she is, went into the kitchen and scored me a baguette.  Which I promptly devoured; not having eaten since something like two in the afternoon.  That was “socca” with C and P.  Socca, I take it, is a bit of a Nice specialty.  It’s like a fried chick-pea bread.  Sorta like if Matzah-meal pancakes and hummus had a baby.  Anyway, I was hungry, is the point.  And the bread was a lifesaver.

Also at the restaurant were the Dinner Party Gang.  These are the people I first met at Cindy’s for Christmas last year and with whom we periodically get together for dinner.  Hence the tag.  That was a happy surprise, and it was nice to catch up with them for a bit.  Also there were two of J’s cousins.  We kinda had the restaurant to ourselves, as they had already shut down for the night, save for one table of old ladies.  So it was cool.

When it was time to go, the Dinner Party Gang went their own way while we – J, C, the cousins and me – headed back to J’s place.  One of the cousins peeled off along the way, so in the end we were down to four.  After an obligatory Döner stop, we went up to chez-Joschka.

The first order of business was the (also obligatory and now traditional) Dinner for One reenactment.  I may have written about this last year, but Dinner for One is a black-and-white comedy sketch from the 50’s or 60’s, about 15m long.  It’s basically mandatory watching on New Year’s in Germany.  And it’s in English, which is weird.

Anyway, the plot is, this rich old lady has a dinner party for herself and her four best friends.  Only they’re all dead.  But that doesn’t stop her from setting a place for all of them.  And her poor servant has to drink all their drinks.  Four rounds.  Times four.  So he’s pretty soused by the end of it.  It’s good slapstick.

Right, so our tradition – J and me – is to also go the four rounds; though only one drink each.  A white wine, champagne, sherry and port.  When the servant drinks, we drink.  It’s fun.  And cultural, so you know, highbrow…in a way.  Funnily, Joschka’s cousin is like 21, and didn’t care a whit for the sherry or port.  Kids, eh?

The rest of the night was spent playing Settlers of Catan.  Which is more and more fun every time we play.  Very good times indeed.  I think I got home around eight.

I think I had to leave Germany and then come back to realize how far I’ve come with the language.  And don’t get me wrong, I’m still a disaster.  Mistakes everywhere.  Gender, word order, general grammar.  It’s a mess.  But at the end of the day, I’m fairly functional.

You know, in France, it took me about three days to even begin to feel comfortable.  And as I said in my last post, I definitely managed.  But with French, I’m missing so much of the day-to-day stuff.  The little filler phrases, the quotidian shit.  On the last day there, I was asking C about all the little things I now take for granted in Germany.  For just one example, I was asking about the words for “change.”  As in, “Sorry, I don’t have any change.”  Or, how do you say “exact change”?  That kind of thing.  And as I said before, my listening skills are basically garbage.

So I was genuinely surprised to see how easily I fell back into things with German when I got back.  Like, I could just understand people.  Now, to be sure, my vocabulary still isn’t great.  I miss words.  Sometimes I miss whole ideas.  But by and large, I get it.  And it was just German the whole night.  Barely any English.1  And I could participate.  I felt like I could be myself again; like I got my tongue back.2  Honestly, it was a huge relief.  However great my week in Nice was – and it was absolutely great – language-wise, it was a real slog.  Now I was free again.

Staying with the language thing here for a minute, I had dinner with Lucie and Marco on Tuesday for Marco’s birthday.  It was a great example of how far my language skills have come and how far they still have to go.

To the former, we somehow got into a very funny philosophical discussion about the use of the Future Perfect tense.  And I realized, after 18 months in this country, this was the first philosophical discussion I’d ever had in German.  Not because the opportunity never presented itself, but because I simply wasn’t up to it.  So I mentioned this to them.  And Marco said something along the lines of, “Well, yeah, actually we were just saying the other day how in the beginning it was pretty clear that you were just not understanding many things.  But now you seem to be getting most things most of the time.”  Achievement unlocked, amirite?

So much for progress.  And yet, I clearly still have a ways to go.  See, I cooked dinner that night.  Because on Sunday, Lucie asked me if I would cook dinner on Tuesday for Marco’s birthday.  At the time, I thought this just a touch odd.  After all, we have dinner together once or twice a month.  But always its at the instigation of whoever is offering to cook.  No one has ever asked someone else to do the cooking.  But I rationalized it as, well, it’s a birthday thing, so they probably just want to enjoy the night and not have to worry about shit.  And also, that’s a nice compliment, right?  I mean, they must obviously enjoy my cooking enough to actually ask me to do it.

Right, so I get home from work and immediately get to it in the kitchen.  Which, I have to say, was kind of a mess.  And I’ll be honest, I was very very slightly annoyed.  Like, come on you guys, you asked me to cook.  The least you could do is not leave the kitchen a mess.  But whatever, not a big deal.

Anyway, I finally get Big Bertha – that’s my cast iron dutch oven, remember – into the oven.3  And about an hour later, Marco is knocking on my door.  “Hey, how much longer do you need the oven for?”  Probably another hour, I tell him.  “Well, umm, Lucie needs it also,” he tells me.  Which I thought was strange.  “Are we not all eating together at like seven?” I ask.  “Are you cooking for all of us?” he asks.  “Well, yeah, Lucie asked me to.  That’s tonight, isn’t it?”  And he starts laughing.

“Dude, did you honestly thing we would ask you to cook?”  Well, yeah, I did think that was a bit unusual.  So I gave my reasons, just as I’ve given them here.  To which he was all, “Yeah, OK, my wife is demanding, but she’s not that demanding.”4  But I thought…

So we go find Lucie and tell her what’s happened.  And she’s like, “You’re kidding right?  I would never ask you to do the cooking.  All I asked was, if you were free to have dinner with us tonight.”  And I’m like, “Well.  This is embarrassing.”

Anyway, it all worked out, obviously.  And in the end, Lucie cooked her dinner on Thursday.  So Marco got two birthday dinners.  But I was just like, jeez man, just when I think I’m getting good at this language, I screw up something so simple, you know?

Oh, the dinner was great, btw.  I crusted the pork loin with this mustard-horseradish sauce that I made.5  And I used all sweet veggies, plus my homemade stock.  Parsnips, carrots, celery, sweet potatoes and regular potatoes and onions.  So the pan sauce was fucking fantastic, if I do say so myself.

Then on Thursday, Lucie made some killer steaks with green-beans and fries.  Terrific.  Yeah, so two darn good dinners this week.  And good times with the roommies.  Which is important, not for nothing.  Because I’m not generally very social when I’m home.  I mean, if I’m home, it’s probably precisely because I don’t want to be social.  So I often find myself feeling annoyed that there’s other people in the house when I want to be alone.  Which is absurd, I know; though true to my general misanthropic nature.

The point is, it’s important for me to spend time with those clowns every once in a while, if only to remind myself that I do actually genuinely like them and to reset my annoyance meter back down to zero.  Yeah, I know.  I’m an asshole.  Everybody knows that.

So.  The Torah.  That continues to be interesting.  It’s calmed down a bit.  By which I mean, no crazy shit on the order of Lot and his “skanky daughters,” as Josh dubbed them.  But here’s a thing I’m noticing.  It’s a very spare text.  What I mean is, there’s hardly any adjectives.  Oh sure, they’ll name like seven different spices and nine kinds of trees.  But like, nobody is tall or short, skinny or fat.  Sometimes somebody is strong.  Somebody had red hair.6  And of course plenty of things are “good” or “evil.”

But at some point, you start to feel like maybe God was slacking off a bit.  I mean, I don’t imagine he gets tired.  And yet, first week on the job, he’s already taking a day off.  Like, you couldn’t crawl out of bed for five minutes on Sunday Saturday for a quick “Let there be adjectives” before going back to sleep?

But OK, at least it makes learning vocabulary easier.  Anyway, I’m in Exodus now.  Just got through the ninth plague.  And I have to be honest, I’m not entirely sure I grasp the premise of all this business.  What I mean is, at the end of each plague, you get this formulaic: “And God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he didn’t let them go.”

And OK, if Pharaoh is just naturally stubborn or a dick, fine.  But God is making him stubborn?  Does that not defeat the purpose?  As far as I can tell, it always comes back to what I read as God’s inferiority complex.  I mean, for an all-mighty, he seems rather insecure.  What do I mean?  Well, see, there’s another formulaic bit.  With every plague, Moses says to Pharaoh something along the lines of: “So God says ‘Let my people go, or you will suffer this plague, so that you will know that I am the Lord God.”

What?  Is the point to free the Hebrews or is the point for the Egyptians to respect you?  And it’s not just Pharaoh who has to suffer, but all of Egypt.  It’s very clear.  Lots of “All the land of Egypt”s and “Every house”s.  Are we not shooting a mosquito with an elephant-gun here?

So my current – and admittedly blasphemous – reading of all this is as follows.  God is like some mafia don.  And Pharaoh is not showing him enough respect.  So Pharaoh needs to be taught a lesson.  And not just Pharaoh, but his whole family; and by extension, all his subjects.

So God says, “What a nice country you have here.  It’d be a shame if anything should happen to it.  Let my people go.”  Then he preordains that the people are not let go.  So he sends a plague.  Then he preordains that this will have no effect.  Because he needs to show what a big deal he is.  Rinse, wash, repeat.

Meanwhile, the Hebrews are still toiling away in slavery.  And the Egyptian population – who have not elected this Pharaoh, it’s worth pointing out – has to suffer the consequences.  And, I mean, who knows?  Maybe if the question were submitted to a referendum, the Egyptian people would agree to release the Hebrews after the first plague; maybe even at just the threat of a plague.  Who knows?  If they had some kind of recall mechanism, maybe they’d eject the current Pharaoh and replace him with one who was more attentive to their interests.

But no.  Death to all the crops and livestock.  Because Pharaoh is a dick.  And it’s not even clear that he’s actually a dick by nature.  Because remember, it’s God who keeps “hardening his heart.”  It’s weird, is what I’m saying.

So much for Torah.  I went for a long walk on Wednesday.  It was a very foggy night.  I like foggy nights.  It makes everything more mysterious, somehow.  So I just walked in a direction for a few hours.  Wound up someplace I’d never been.  Which is always the goal.

I don’t really know what to say about it.  It was good me-time.  And it was eerily beautiful.  The way the fog hangs out under the street lamps; the way buildings across the water float in smudgy darkness.  Out here, in this part of town, it feels like another world.  It’s hard to believe I’m still in Berlin, some of these places I go.

I wonder what the people are like who live all the way out there, in the middle of nowhere.  What do they do?  Also, where do they shop?  Where do they get Chinese food?  There’s a part of me that thinks it must be very peaceful to live in some of these places, so far removed from the hustle and bustle, so much closer to nature.  It must feel like a kind of luxury to have a whole big house to yourself; or with your family.  But like, what do these people do when they want noodle soup?  Do they even know about noodle soup?

School is good.  Or work.  I don’t know if I’m supposed to call it school or work.  Whatever.  One of my students brought me pickles from Poland.  Before I go on, I need to say something about the pickles in Germany.  They’re all wrong.  Which, I have to admit, came as a surprise.  I mean, in my mind, pickles are a part of the culture here.  Spreewald pickles – local pickles from Berlin-Brandenburg – are kind of a big deal.  But they’re all wrong.  The put sugar in them.  They’re all sweet.  What the actual fuck is up with that?  So I’ve been trying to find proper sour pickles for months now; or proper new pickles.  But with zero success.  My student didn’t know this though.

Right, so I have salad for lunch every day.  It’s boring as hell, and I don’t actually like it.  But I feel like it’s important to get regular vitamins and whatnot.  So I make a point of eating salad for lunch. Anyway, a while back, this student asks me one day for a bit of cucumber.  I guess she loves cucumber.  Sure, OK.  Well, one thing led to another and soon I was just giving her a bit of cucumber every day; she didn’t need to ask anymore.

Fine.  So we get back from the break, and she says, “Dave, I have a Christmas present for you.  It’s just a Kleinigkeit (“a little nothing”).  A joke really.  Because you give me ‘gherkins’7 everyday…I brought you gherkins from Poland…”  And she gives me a little gift bag.  And in the bag is a jar of pickles.  Not just pickles.  Actual sour pickles.

Naturally, the first thing I do is turn the jar around to read the ingredients.  “Please no sugar, please no sugar,” I’m thinking to myself.  And lo and behold: No sugar!!!  And as she’s watching me inspect the label, she must be thinking – well, I don’t know what she’s thinking.  But she says, “It’s just a joke, you know?

And I’m like, “Girl, this is no joke.  This is dead-ass serious.”  And now I think she thinks I’m just weird.  Which, OK, fair enough.  I proceed to do the only logical thing one can do in this situation.  I jump up and give her a big hug.  Which I’m sure she thought was all out of proportion.

So I try to tell her.  “Girl, you have no idea how happy you’ve just made me.”  And it was clear that she literally had no idea.  But I was – and still am – pretty damned over-the-moon about it.  I mean, proper fucking sour pickles.  If I didn’t already know she was married with three kids, I probably would have asked her to marry me on the spot.  Because pickles.  In fact, I nearly asked her to leave her family and run away with me.  I mean, I didn’t.  But it crossed my mind.  Like, let’s just elope to Poland and eat pickles and pirogis and live happily ever after.  Look, we all have dreams.  I’m just saying.

My advanced class is a lot of fun at the moment.  Hands down the most advanced groups I’ve had.  Every one of them is at a super high level.  They were four, but five as of this week.  We verarsch each other a lot – we joke around and give each other shit.  It’s often hilarious.

For example, when we reconvened after the break, I was telling them about my experience in France.  Specifically about my experience with the language.  And at one point, I said something to the effect of, “Well, I felt pretty good about my French with one-year-old Nino.”  And one of the girls was just like, “Yeah, well, you probably speak at his level.”  And I was just, “Nice!  My hat is off to you, my lady.”

The other cool thing is, and I may have mentioned this, there’s an Italian broad in the German class.  She’s very cool and rather a bit goth.  In a number of ways, she reminds me of an older, goth, Italian Niki.  Anyway, she’s helping me with my Italian.  Remember when I came back from Italy and I was all, “I’m gonna learn Italian, bitches!”?  Yeah, well, I’ve been slacking off there.  Between French and Hebrew and Greek I’m just not finding the time.

But she reads with me on the breaks and it’s both fun and helpful.  She’s a ballbreaker when it comes to pronunciation.  But half the fun of Italian is just making the sounds, so it’s totes worth it.  One thing she really gets on me about is double “n.”  OK, in English, if a word is spelled with one ‘n’ or two, we don’t really change the pronunciation.  But in Italian, apparently, this is important.

So the word for ‘year’ is anno.  And if you want to say it right, you really have to linger on that ‘n.’  Because, as she continues to remind me, with one ‘n’ – ano – it means anus.  Which I appreciate, but can’t feel.  To her, it’s hilarious.

Right, so we’re reading this stupid super-beginner-level story about some guy and he’s however-many-years old.  And I read his age, and she’s like, “Annnni.  You said ani, and I think, ‘ah yes, now I’m interested!,’ but that’s not what it says.”  And of course she’s saying all this with her Italian accent, and it’s fucking hilarious.  We’re just cracking up.

Anyway, that’s that.  It’s a nice little side-highlight from my job.  I guess it’ll last as long as she’s in the school.  But it’s very cool.  I kinda love Italian.  It’s just fun for my mouth in a way that German and French aren’t.  And it sounds so cool.  Like, when she speaks, I go all Jamie Lee Curtis in A Fish Called Wanda.

Which I just re-watched recently.  What a great film.  Like when Kevin Kline yells “ass-hoooole!!!”  Classic.

Well now I’m just rambling.  Let’s call this the end, shall we?  Until next time…

זײַ געסונט

  1. With the one caveat that when it’s just me and Joschka, we still tend to slip into English.  Probably because that’s just how we know each other. []
  2. Probably to the chagrin of those around me. []
  3. I was doing a braised pork loin with mad veggies. []
  4. Also, Lucie is like the sweetest person ever and not even remotely demanding. []
  5. Homemade horseradish, obvi. []
  6. Maybe it was Isaac? []
  7. In German, Gerken is the same word for both cucumber and pickle.  Which is insane, I don’t mind telling you. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
7 January, 2018


Well, well, well.  Happy fucking New Year.  Let’s get the preliminaries out of the way first, shall we?  Resolutions.  Nothing new this year, as I’ve already got my hands plenty full.  However, my goals – if not resolutions – are to keep my hands full with the things I set in motion last year.  Primarily, that’s three tasks.  The first is to keep on keeping on with Operation Read the Whole Fucking Torah in a Year.  The second is to keep on keeping on reading Greek.  I’d love for this to expand beyond Homer.  But since just trying to read a bit of The Poet before bed most nights is all I’ve been able to manage of late, at the moment my goal is to simply keep that going.  The last is to keep on keeping on with my Federalist Project.  This is going slower than I’d anticipated, but it is still going.  So any progress there – as long as there is progress – will be enough.  That was always going to be a long-game anyway.

Right, enough of that.  So I was in France for the week between Christmas and New Year’s, for to visit Charlotte.  Lots to say about that.  Where to begin?  Well, Charlotte I guess.  I hadn’t seen her in over a year.  The last time I saw her was when she was in Berlin last September.  Thereafter, she went to Australia for about a year with a month or so in Japan at the end.  That’s quite a while not to see a dear friend.

But as is common with dear friends, we picked up right where we’d left off.  It was as if no time had passed.  Or at least it was to me.  No doubt she’ll counter that sentiment in a [snarky] comment if she found it otherwise.  The point is, after many months and miles of separation, it was wonderful – though not surprising – to find our friendship as strong as ever.  As with our Great Western Roadtrip and the many other journeys we have together undertaken, I find again that she is one of very few people with whom I can spend so much time in so close quarters and not grow weary of.  Though I do grow weary of saying nice things about her, and so I shall now proceed to an accounting of my visit.

She met me at the airport, which was not the plan.  I was supposed to take a bus and meet her somewhere else.  Since she knew my schedule, there was no real need of communicating my deplaning.  It was only by chance that I turned my phone on and sent a text that I was on the bus.  Upon which she called me and told me to get off the bus, for she was upstairs waiting for me.  Another minute, and it would have been too late; the bus hadn’t left yet.  So I scrambled off the bus just in time.  Though it would have been better comedy – howsoever less convenient – had I not.

Anyway, happy reunion at the airport and then it was off to her new apartment to drop off my bag.  Not long after that, it was Christmas time.  By which I mean, Christmas dinner at her friend’s mom’s house.  Already I was nervous about this.  I mean, I’d only met her friend once, and that briefly in 2103; I’d certainly never met her mom.  Then there would be an uncle of Charlotte’s whom I’d never met.  Then Charlotte’s mom, dad and sister.  These, at least, I knew, had spent time with and already liked.  And finally, of course, Charlotte herself.  Which was…fine.  I mean, she’s fine.

Right, so this would be anxiety-inducing enough in a situation where everybody spoke English; or, dare I say, even German.  But French?  And just off the plane, no time to adjust.  Straight into the frying pan, as it were.  Well, at first it was a bit stressful.  And certainly, I was not understanding very much at all.  But look, friends.  These are problems that are easily rectified by wine.  And of that, there was plenty.  So I settled into a comfort zone soon enough, even if I was in the dark as to the general dinner-table conversation.

Before going any further, let’s put some names to these people, since they’ll all come up again.  The friend is Rapha.  Her mom is, well, Rapha’s Mom.  Charlotte’s dad is Philippe.  Her mom is Carine.  Her sister is Marion.  And the Uncle is Dan.  Also, I may have spelled one or all of those names wrong.  Désolé.

Off the bat, Rapha’s Mom was terrifying.  Try to imagine an old, stone-faced, stereotypical French woman.  And remember, she speaks no English.  And my French is, at this juncture, shite.  And I’m in her home for Christmas.  Like I say: terrifying.  That is, until later in the night – the drunken part of the night – when she puts on a ridiculous hat and feather boa.  At which point I was like, OK, this dame’s alright.  I believe there’s a picture of the two of us like that.

Anyway, it was all great.  The food, the times, the people.  As is wont to happen with that great social lubricant, things loosened up as the night went on.  People tried to speak to me in broken English.  I tried speaking to them in broken French.  We managed.

As a side note, this is now the second family that’s taken me in on Christmas.  As I’ve written elsewhere, I spent every Christmas from 2010 to 2015 with Jen and her family; we skyped last year.  This year, she sent me a picture of her uncle wearing a shirt which read: “Dave’s not here, man.”  Which is amazing.  Anyway, the point is, it’s extremely touching.

I mean, as a Yid, obviously Christmas doesn’t mean all that much to me.  But for the Goyim, it’s quite the big deal.  So when your friends take you in, with their family, treat as you part of the family…well, it means a lot.  That’s a lot of love coming my way, and it’s humbling, not to put too fine a point on it.  But more on this later.

Apparently we crashed in Rapha’s room.  I say apparently, because I woke up around six with an awful allergic attack (owing to two dogs) and not knowing where I was.  Took me a few minutes to get my bearings.  Anyway, it was bad enough, we went back to Charlotte’s place at that ungodly hour, which fortunately was only about two blocks away.

So much for First Christmas.  Second Christmas was with her dad’s family.  Though I was thankful to be included, it wasn’t nearly as enjoyable.  Possibly Definitely this owed to the severe hangover I was suffering.  Not my best work, but I got through it.

Moving right along then.  The next few days are a bit of a blur, insofar as I don’t remember the exact chronology.  I cooked dinner one night, for just the two of us, which was lovely.  There was a night where Rapha came over to hang out.

Man, that was fun.  This was really my first Rapha experience, even though I’d been hearing stories about her for years.  Simply put, she’s a riot.  We played dice, broke out the guitar, drank a bunch and just generally hung out.  Complete shit-show.  And complete fun.

Rapha’s English is kind of a train wreck.  But she makes it work.  Also my French is kind of a train wreck.  But I make it work.  So we were all able to chat and make it work.  For Charlotte this was hilarious, just listening to the both of us mangle each other’s languages, both of which Charlotte is fluent in.

Here’s another thing about Rapha.  And this is the sort of thing I normally would not write.  But since, in the end, I said it to Charlotte and, eventually, to Rapha, I see no reason to withhold it.  So the girl shows up wearing a black dress and a beige sweater.  Then, rather a bit later on, she took off the beige sweater.  And the neckline on this dress, well, “plunging” doesn’t go far enough.  We’re talking Olympic level high-dive here.  I believe my exact words were, “Her tits are out of control.”  Which, though vulgar, does at least have the virtue of accuracy.

But remember, this is really only the second time I’d properly met the girl and the first where we could be said to be properly “hanging out.”  Way to soon to introduce Inappropriate Dave.  In other words, no leering, no rude remarks.  This necessitated a reallocation of mental resources in the form of constantly reminding myself not to stare and to maintain eye-contact.  Unfortunately, this made conversation rather a bit more difficult.  But I muddled through.  And for that night, at least, maintained the (fraudulent) appearance of the perfect gentleman.

It was also on this night that I first learned of the ridiculosity of my French.  By now, we all know that I read plenty of Jules Verne and Alexander Dumas.  In other words, 19th century stuff.  And it has, theretofore unbeknownst to me, shaped my vocabulary in ways I had not expected.

So Rapha is telling this story of a girlfriend of theirs.  And in this story, the girl apparently broke some guy’s nose at a bar and wound up in jail.  She’s telling me this in her unique brand of English.  So naturally I try to reply in French, repeating back elements of the story.  So I try to say something like, “Wait, so she broke his nose?”

And as I’m organizing this in my brain, I’m not thinking about vocabulary, but grammar.  Because in French, the construction is not “She broke his nose,” but rather “She broke him the nose.”  And I’m getting ready to be pretty proud of remembering that.  So I say, “Alors, elle l’a brisé le nez?”  And immediately, they both start laughing.  Cracking up even.

Oh no!  What did I say wrong?  Did I screw up the construction?  Did I get the vocabulary wrong?  Did I somehow manage to say “She poured him a cabbage” or something equally nonsensical?  “What?  Is it wrong?” I asked flusterdly.1

No, no it’s not wrong they tell me, through unabating laughter.  It’s just, nobody says briser.  It’s sooo 19th century.  Apparently I should have used “casser.”  It would be akin to saying something like, “Verily, hath she smitten him upon the nose?”  Such is the state of my French vocabulary, apparently.  And “mistakes” like this just kept happening; and were always followed by a good laugh.

The next night (I think), we had a bit of a party.  Rapha again.  Laura, whom I know from New York.  She’s great.  We banter.  Magalie – which may or may not be how she spells it – who I also met briefly in 2013.  And Uncle Dan.

This was proper fun.  Music, booze, games, jokes, food, the whole nine.  It would have been fun under any circumstances.  But something about this was extra cool.  These were Charlotte’s besties.  The girls she grew up with.  But I didn’t feel out of place, I didn’t feel awkward.  I felt like I got on with everybody and they all accepted me; not as some random friend of a friend, but almost as a part of the family.  It was really quite special in that way.  Also there was a drunken Queen sing along.  Probably Don’t Stop Me Now.  Which is always glorious.

French-wise it was also interesting.  I’ve spoken about Rapha already.  Laura has been living in New York for years and London before that, so she’s basically native-speaker fluent at this point.  We speak – and banter – in English; anything else would be absurd.  Mag’s English is pretty decent.  But where all the others speak French fast and slangy, she speaks slowly and, dare I say, “properly.”

In other words, when she spoke to me in French, I could totally understand her.  Like, we just chatted away in French and it was totally fine.  Kinda like with Anne.  Which, now that I think of it, is kind of interesting.  Because when Anne and I meet up for our conversation exchange, I feel pretty OK about my French.  I can go for 30-60 minutes with her.  And yes, she slows down to speak with me, but she doesn’t dumb down.

And so that was kind of a cold bucket of water in the face, going to France.  Because although everybody was very patient with me, precious few of them know how to talk to somebody who doesn’t properly speak the language.  As a result, I suddenly felt very stupid, and my confidence with the language dropped like a rock.

But Mag was talking to me in “perfect” French, almost as if she had stepped out of a textbook.  And all of a sudden, I felt like, “Yeah, I can do this!”  Like, “I know this language.”  Well, early on in our conversation, Charlotte comes over and says to Mag something along the lines of, “Umm, you know he doesn’t really speak French?  Take it easy.”  And Mag was all, “Oh, no, he’s doing fine.”  And I was like, “Yeah he’s doing fine.  Kindly fuck off.”  Which to her credit, she fucked off, and kindly.

Next day, though, I was curious.  So I asked Charlotte.  “Hey, so Mag kinda speaks like a textbook.  Very easy to understand.  But I’m curious.  How much was she dumbing things down for me?”  To which Charlotte, “She wasn’t.  That’s just how she speaks.”  In other words, an actual French person was speaking their own actual French to me and it was no problem at all.  Fuck yeah.  Finger pistols.  I’m the man.  Right?

The next night, we had Carine and Marion and Uncle Dan over for dinner.  The good times continued to roll.  And my French was improving, though not as successful.  What I mean is, I felt more confident and was able to accomplish more.  But at the same time, this group was faster and more slangy, so it wasn’t nearly so easy as with Mag.  But again, I managed.

Here’s a funny thing.  My last two visits to Nice, Charlotte was living with her mom.  So that’s obviously where I stayed.  And during those two visits, Carine spoke zero words of English to me.  And to be sure, this time she didn’t “speak” English with me.  But she did break out some vocabulary and some fairly impressive idioms.  And I was damned impressed.  It was very cool.

Marion, on the other hand, speaks like no English.  So with her, I absolutely need to find a way to say what I want to say in French, or I can’t say it at all.  Based on that, you’d think she’d be hard to chat with, hard to connect with.  And yet.  And yet, I kinda love that kid.  I can’t quite put words to it.  All I can say is, something about that girl makes me feel like, this broad is peoples.  The word “cool” is so overused as to have little real value at this point.  But that’s the word I keep coming back to.  She’s “cool.”  Like, she gets it.

Here’s a humorous vignette.  Charlotte has a cat.  I’m sleeping on the pull-out sofa.  The cat insists on sleeping with me.  Fine.  Anyway, Marion says something to the effect of, “So you have to sleep with the cat?”  Well, that calls for a joke.  And it’s the same joke in French as in English, so I’ll give both.  “Je dois me coucher avec le chat…quand j’aimerais bien de me coucher avec une chatte.”  (I have to sleep with the cat…when I’d much rather sleep with a pussy).  Right, OK, it’s a middling joke.  But it had the element of surprise, since nobody was expecting me to able to do that in French.

Needless to say, Marion and Carine were dying.  So I turn to Marion and say, “Il faut pratiquer le français.”  (One must practice their French).  But she puts her finger to her lips, which is the universal sign for “Shut up, Dave.”  So I turn to her mom.  And she says – and this is just fantastic – she says, “Il faut pratiquer la langue.”  Which means, “One must practice the language.”  Except, literally it means, “One must practice the tongue” – the word for tongue and language being the same.  In other words, Charlotte’s mom just made an oral sex joke to me.  And I was just like, I fucking love you people.

Well, Charlotte wasn’t there for any of that, because she’d gone with Dan to pick up Gallou and little Nino from the train station; on more which shortly.  But just to finish up here.  So C goes and runs out for a bit and leaves me alone with her mom and her sister, neither of whom speaks very much English.  And that could have been awkward, you know?  Or difficult.  Only it wasn’t.  It was fun.  I genuinely enjoyed it.  And again, I had that feeling of belonging.

You know what I mean?  Like, I had come to Nice to visit my friend.  And here I am hanging out with her mom and her sister, and I don’t really know them.  And I was just enjoying it, having a good time.  It was easy.  I liked – no, I like – these people.  And yeah, on some level, this is the family of one of my best friends.  It makes sense.  I love Jared’s family.  And Keith’s.  And Rob’s.  And Jen’s.  But I grew up in their homes.  These people are new for me.  There’s a language barrier.  And yet.  And yet, it’s the same thing.  It’s familiar.  And it’s good.

So Charlotte went to pick up Gallou and Nino from the train station.  You remember them from last summer?  Summer of ’16, I mean.  The first time I met them was in the hospital, just after Gallou had given birth.  It was me and C and Philippe and Marion.  And then later we visited them at their home up in the mountains.  Anyway, their visit here wasn’t part of the plan.  She – Gallou – called while I was there and asked if she could come stay for a few days.  Well, of course.

Let’s do Nino first.  Last time I saw him, he was what, two months old?  There’s a picture of me somewhere, holding the baby.  And at the time, it was all very sweet.  But now he’s a year and a half or so.  I didn’t know what to expect.  And look, to be honest, when it comes to children, I’m rather partial to girls.  They’re cuter, for one thing.  For another, they tend to bounce off the walls considerably less.

But there’s Nino.  And he’s walking around now.  And you know what?  What a fucking beautiful child.  And that’s neither platitude nor exaggeration.  In his face, he’s just beautiful.  Great big eyes and that smile.  Man, that smile.  Just so honest and joyful.  And incredibly well behaved on top of it all.  If you don’t instantly fall in love with this child, you are a special kind of asshole.

And Gallou.  What a total sweetheart.  Her particular brand of French is the devil’s own invention.  But she’s a doll, no two ways about it.  Also, she often addresses Nino as mon cœur – my heart.  Which, I don’t know how that sounds to French ears.  But to my ears, fuck, it’s just beautiful.  Anyway, the second night she was there, we were the last two awake.  So we stayed up and chatted a bit.

Before that though, it was her and me and Charlotte, playing dice.  And honestly, I understood precious little of what she had to say.  The way she speaks, I mean, I just can’t.  Not in a group, anyway.  But after C went to bed and it was just us, it got easier.  She’s got just barely enough English to fill in the blanks.  And when she’s speaking directly to me, I can either sort it out or else tell her I can’t sort it out and ask for a rephrase.  The point is, we had a nice conversation.

At one point, I said something about how nice it was to see them again.  Something about how much Nino had grown and what a great kid he was.  And she said something about how, when he was born, her family was far away.  And how much it meant to her that we visited her in the hospital – C and Philippe and Marion; and me.  A lovely thing to say.  And at the time, I thought she was just being polite.  You know, she grew up with the rest of them.  It was just an accident really that I was there.  My presence, I figured, couldn’t possibly have mattered all that much.

Well, I’ll come back to Gallou at the end.  But for now, let’s keep going.  The next night, Philippe invited us over for apero – drinks and snacks.  He also invited another friend of his, Jerome – which, again, may or may not be the right spelling.

I gotta say something about Philippe here.  I kinda love this guy.  I first met him in New York, in 2013, when he and Chloe (C’s other sister) visited Charlotte.  Then we all did that roadtrip together in the summer of ’16.  First of all, C adores him.  She’s a world traveler, right?  And everywhere she’s lived, he’s gone to visit her.  It’s very cool.

Also, he’s a big music fan.  Which is fine.  But more importantly, he’s an AC/DC fan.  His first concert was AC/DC in Nice in 1979, with Bon Scott singing.  Every time I see him, he tells me the story.  And it never gets old.  Seriously.  I feel like a little kid.  Like, “Tell me the story again!”  You know?  It’s great.

Also, there’s this.  He’s the only person who, when he speaks to me in English, I don’t feel like an asshole.  Like, whenever anybody else speaks to me in English, I feel one of two things.  It’s either, “Well, your French is shit, so I’ll just speak English.”  Or else they just want to practice.  But with him, I genuinely feel like when he speaks English with me, it’s because he just wants me to feel comfortable.  Like it’s coming from a place of genuine kindness.  And look, maybe I’m reading that wrong.  What do I know?  All I know is, I don’t feel bad when he does it.

Because also, he takes the time to speak French with me too.  And he takes the time to teach me shit.  Phrases, idioms, etc.  He’s also the person who introduced me to pastis.  The point is, I’m a big fan.

Right.  So anyway, he has us over for apero along with this Jerome character.  And I go into it thinking, “Ah fuck, another new French person who doesn’t speak English and I’m gonna be in the dark and social situations are hard and I’m awkward and gna-gna-gna (which is how one whines in French, apparently).

Except here’s the thing.  This isn’t random.  Jerome is also a guitar player.  That’s why Philippe wanted us all to get together.  Anyway, Jermoe’s thing is Spanish and Flamenco.  So he’s brought his guitar.  And we have Philippe’s too, which he’d lent us for my visit.  But where P’s is a steel string, J’s is nylon.  So I ask if I can try it out.  He obliges.  So I bust through a Bach prelude and then the Sor variations.  And J is properly impressed.

Which is kind, because I’m quite mediocre.  But good enough to at least demonstrate that I can handle the instrument.  And that’s enough.  I’ve earned this stranger’s respect.  Achievement unlocked.  Then he takes the guitar and tears through some flamenco shit.  And his right hand is doing shit I might one day pretend to dream about.  Mutual respect.  Next level achievement unlocked.

Now here’s where things get interesting.  He wants me to take the rhythm section of some Spanish piece while he takes the lead.  Well, OK, show me the changes.  He does.  I get it down.  And next thing you know, we’re rocking this thing.  Gods, that was good.

It’s been years since I’ve been in a band.  I don’t know when the last time I jammed with another person was.  And now, we’re tearing up this song.  And man did that feel good.  I don’t know if I’d realized how much I’d missed playing with other people before that.  With no disrespect to all the wonderful people I spent time with on that trip, that might well have been the highlight for me.  It was fucking good.

I don’t want to oversell myself here, to be clear.  All I did was comp some changes.  But we put it together, and it sounded like real fucking music.  And that was shit-hot.  I was very very happy.  Like, maybe I suck at French.  But, bitches, I can play.

Anyway, Jerome left.  So it was just me and C and P.  And Philippe, gods bless him, put on AC/DC’s live concert video from 1979 – Let There Be Rock.  And what was cool was, you knew that me and P were loving this.  His first concert, my favorite band.  Nobody’s pretending to be polite for the other.  I was a very happy human being, watching that AC/DC concert with Philippe and Charlotte.

When we got back to C’s place, we were both quite happily drunk.  So we hung out for a bit.  And she gave me some spiel about how I’m her best friend and how much it means to her that she can take me to her family and to her best friends and I kinda kick ass.  There may have been something along the lines of watching me succeed with her nearest and dearest made her feel proud to have brought “that guy,” proud of me, even.

Well, she was drunk when she said it, whatever she said.  So I’ll simply take it as an exaggerated version of, “Thanks for not embarrassing me.”  Which is a shame really.  I mean, embarrassing you, Charlotte – if you’re reading this – is all I ever really wanted.  Well, one can’t have everything, can one?

We made a bit of a hike, on Sunday, around the environs; up a mountain.  Nice is beautiful.  And the view from above ain’t nothin’ to sneeze at.  And that brings us to the end of this visit.  Chronologically, anyway.  But before I close, I’d like to return to two of our characters.

First, Uncle Dan.  A strange cat.  His French was exceptionally difficult for me to follow.  C told me it’s very visual, perhaps even poetic.  Full of metaphor.  Which, if your French, I imagine must be quite lovely.  Anyway, he did seem a bit a fish out of water.  But then, so was I.  And so, while I’m not really sure I understand the man, it was nevertheless quite nice to make his acquaintance.  And he gifted me a flask he’d made, shrouded in ray-skin apparently.  And if he was a strange cat, he was nothing but kind to me, and for that I am thankful.

And Gallou.  My first impression of her was of a woman who had just lately given birth and who was not shy about constantly breast-feeding in my presence.  But this time around I got to know her a bit better.  And I found her to be a kind and sweet and loving person.  Yet, because of the language barrier, how well could I really say I know her?

Recall, for a moment, that she told me how much it had meant to her that “we” were there, to visit her in the hospital, after she had given birth; how she included me in that we.  When I went to say goodbye to her, at the end of it all, I said that I hoped we would see each other again.  But she cut me off.  I forget her exact words, because she spoke to me in French then.  But what she said, when she cut me off, was, “Of course we will.  You’re a part of my family now.”

Those words hit me hard.  That humbled me.  And I remembered back to when she first arrived.  Because I had said something about Nino probably not remembering me.  And her response was simply, “Just talk to him.  […] the sound of your voice.”  And I hadn’t thought anything of it at the time.  But I realized now what she’d meant.  She was telling me that I was there for him when he was a baby, and that that mattered.  And what’s more, it still mattered.  I wasn’t some alien friend of a friend.  I was part of the family.  Her family.

What can you say in the face of that?

I live in a foreign country.  And even as a I make a life for myself here, even as I make wonderful friends, I’m never entirely sure that I belong.  I left New York because I couldn’t make a place for myself there either; was never really sure that I belonged.  And yet, I go to Jen’s for Christmas and her family accepts me as one of their own.  I visit Jared in Italy and his family accepts me as one of their own.  I visit Charlotte in France, and there too I am taken in, not a stranger, but a part of the family.

Perhaps I overstate things.  Perhaps I make more out of things than they really are.  I have my own family.  And I am blessed in that they love me, unconditionally.  Some poor bastards don’t even have that much.  I have that.  And then I step beyond my own, and I have a second family and a third and even a fourth.

It is not clear to me what I have done to deserve this.  Indeed, there are days when I think that I do not.  Deserve it.  And yet I have it.  And I am humbled.

I am loved and I am over-loved.  If there is anything that I wish for 2018, then, it is that you all should know such love as I have known.

ז׳׳ געסונט


  1. Spellcheck doesn’t care for “flusteredly.”  Personally, I think it’s a perfectly lovely adverb, and much more efficient than “all-a-fluster.” []