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…
- 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. [↩]
- Probably to the chagrin of those around me. [↩]
- I was doing a braised pork loin with mad veggies. [↩]
- Also, Lucie is like the sweetest person ever and not even remotely demanding. [↩]
- Homemade horseradish, obvi. [↩]
- Maybe it was Isaac? [↩]
- In German, Gerken is the same word for both cucumber and pickle. Which is insane, I don’t mind telling you. [↩]