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? []

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