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