An American in Berlin
24 February, 2018
Busy, busy, busy. Which is a good thing. I’m trying to be busy. Because winter in this town sucks a big bag of donkey dicks. And also an idle mind is the devil’s playground yadda yadda. For me, I find that routine is the key. I like routine. I get locked in. It keeps me keeping on, so to speak.
At the moment, the routine is this. Do some Hebrew when I get home from work.1 Then it’s a little bit of TV before the inevitable nap. Usually I find some documentary on the YouTubes. But lately, I’ve been forcing myself to try and watch something in French. Because I’m at the point now where, yeah, I read pretty easily and pretty well. And yeah, when I have a one-on-one conversation, I do alright. But here’s the thing with French, you guys. The way French people speak to each other, it’s like a totally different fucking language. And I’ve got almost no handle on that.
So here’s what I’m finding. I actually do pretty alright with documentaries. Because the narrators use the sort of formal – and more importantly, clearly enunciated – French that I get from books and one-to-one conversations. I’m not saying I understand every word, mind you. But I get most of it. And with practice, it’s getting better. So that’s good. But I just found these 45 minute cartoons of some Jules Verne books. And theoretically, they’re for kids, right? But the characters speak in that less formal conversational French that continues to elude me.
Which, in itself, is a bit funny. Because, I mean, it’s still the language of JV. It’s still “formal” French; old fashioned. So it’s not the words themselves. It’s the way they’re spoken. The way they all seem to run together. The way any e without an accent gets dropped, the infamous e-caduc, that Charlotte taught me about. The way a million other letters and syllables get dropped. So these characters are talking in a way that’s very much meant for children to understand, and I’m just like, what the actual fuck, you guys?? Or, as I like to say, quoi le fuck? Which of course is not actually even French.
Anyway, so yeah, I’m working on that. “But shouldn’t you be making an effort with German?” you rightly ask. Well, yes, I should. To that end, I’m also trying to watch some cartoons in the Teutonic tongue. I recently discovered that German Amazon has the old Care Bears cartoons in German. I feel like that’s a good starting point.
The Care Bears, btw, are hilarious. And I’m borrowing from Dave Chappelle here, but the entire premise of the show is that these little bastards actually give a fuck. They care. Who does that anymore? In any case, that’s about all the effort I can make with German at the moment.
I keep telling myself I need to be reading. And I’m not. I keep telling myself this, though, because I’m finally beginning to see the effects that reading is having on my French. Right, I’ve written before how I read at least an hour of French every day on the train. So my vocabulary is growing, my syntax and grammar are improving, yadda yadda. Which is not to say that I’m good at it. I’ve only just said how the spoken language continues to elude me. But I do some work for a French company, and from time to time I have to write emails to them.
A year ago, every email was a struggle. But now I can more or less bang something out, and it’s usually pretty decent. Yes, of course there are mistakes. But on the whole, it’s decent French. And I’m knocking them out fairly quickly. I might stop to look up the gender of a word, or to double-check an idiom. But the point is, reading every day has made writing about a million times easier, and maybe ten times better.
Which brings on a bit of self-loathing when it comes to German. Because I’m just not making that effort. So on the one hand, I get angry with myself for being lazy. But I inevitably counter this by telling myself, “Hey, man, every day you’re reading French, Hebrew and Greek. And you fucking live in German. Relax.” Which, OK, fair point, Davey. But just like, how much better would I be if I actually tried?
Because I know my German is decent. Just decent though. At the last Stammtisch – our monthly school get-together – I was chatting with one of my advanced students in German. Which was weird for both of us, albeit in a good way. Because I never use any kind of sustained German with the advanced class; they don’t need it. Anyway, he tells me he’s both genuinely impressed with my German and that it’s a disaster.
Impressed because I can absolutely carry on a conversation, and also because I’ve picked up just enough idioms and slang to hoist myself safely above the ‘stupid American’ level. And a disaster – Germans like the word Katastrophe – because it’s just full of mistakes. He tried to give me an example in English. It’s as if, after correctly using a bit of slang, I were to say “OK, I must to go now onto the park to bring a piss.” Like, yeah, I know what you mean, but everything about that is just so wrong.
So I’d like to fix those things. And I feel like the best way to get on top of it is just to read. But I don’t. I don’t want to. And the reason I don’t want to? Not because there’s no time. I could make the time if I were properly motivated. The problem is, there’s just so…many…words. And I just can’t be arsed to be constantly nachschlagging2 shit, to be constantly looking shit up. That, more than anything, is what makes me feel like a lazy POS with this language.
— Interpolation: I just saved this file. And in so doing, I saw that my last post was dated January 27. So it’s been a month since my last post? How is that even possible? Where is the time going? Fuck, I’m almost 37. Fuuuuuuuuck. :End Interpolation —
I had family dinner with the roommates last weekend. We were celebrating Lucy’s new job. She’s just finishing up her degree in geophysics (!?) and has been looking for her first real academic job. And she just landed one, and not too far away either. Something about growing crystals, I guess. So we had to celebrate.
Funny thing about jobs in this country. You’re actually required to give at least two-weeks notice. And since that’s required, no job starts immediately either. The whole, “So, when can you start?” thing isn’t a thing here. They hire you and it’s like, “Great, see you in a month.” It’s a strange place.
Anyway. Normally when we have dinner, we’ll hang out for an hour or two afterwards, have a few drinks, chit-chat, that sort of thing. This time though, we hung out until midnight. Like, five hours, I think. A good deal of it was them showing me funny videos on the YouTubes. I don’t mean cat videos. I mean, old TV shows and the like. But all comedy, is the point. I got maybe 20% of it. I mean, comedy is the hardest thing to master. It’s usually the last thing people get a handle on in a second language. So the few things that I actually understood were quite funny, but most of it was over my head.
Well, at one point, they ask me, “So, Dave, what do you think is funny? What do you watch?” Monty Python obviously. Obviously. So I pull up the Cheese Shop Sketch. One of my absolute favs. And I’m loving it. But at the end, they were so lost. “So…he’s just naming like a million different cheeses?” Yes. “And the shop doesn’t actually have any cheese?” Yes. “Even though it’s a cheese shop?” Yes! Isn’t it genius??? “Well, now at least we know how you feel when we make you watch things.” Erm, yes.
But it did remind me of the first time my Dad made me watch Python. It was the Dead Parrot Sketch. Obviously. I must have been around 13 at the time, I’m guessing. “So, he wants to return a dead parrot?” Yes. “And he’s insisting that it’s not actually dead?” Yes. “Even though it’s very clearly dead?” Yes. “And just so I have this straight, he’s insisting it’s not dead so he can return it?” Yes! Isn’t it genius??? Erm, yes?
So then I made them watch some clips from Airplane. That was a little easier. Though still a lot of it was over there head. Like the Jive-Talkers. Good times. No really, it was good times.
Yeah, man, this Torah shit is boring me half to death at the moment. I’m at the back end of Exodus now. And there’s no story to it. Like, they got out of Egypt and now they’re chilling in the dessert. And now it’s just a lot of rules and instructions on how to build the ark of the covenant, and the altar and the menorah and all that jazz. And then I remembered that the word תורה – Torah – literally means “law.” Oh yeah, now it all makes sense. Do this. Do that. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. And also you shall not suffer a sorceress to live amongst you. Like, they just drop that in. No reason, no explanation. Just a one-liner. No witches. Uh, OK, God. I’ll try to remember that. You know, next time I see a witch.
Speaking of weird shit in the Torah. Remember a while back I was going off on the whole Sodom and Gomorrah shtick? And I was like, literally nothing in this is about homosexuality. So how the hell did people turn this into an anti-gay story? Well. So I was watching a documentary on the subject. And the narrator gets to the part where the Sodomites are banging on Lot’s door because they want to meet the angels he’s hosting.
Now remember, for me, the takeaway from this was, the motherfucker offered up his virgin daughters to the mob if they would only leave his guests alone.3 But the narrator has a different takeaway. He says, and I’m paraphrasing, “And the Sodomites said unto Lot, let us in that we may know your guests. And the Hebrew word for know here is a word that specifically means ‘have sexual intercourse with.’ And so the Sodomites were clearly depraved.” That was the gist of it.
But surely that can’t be right? I mean, I read this. If there was a sex word, I’m pretty sure I’d have noticed. So I go and look up the passage. And the verb is ידע – yādha’. And the primary definition for this word is simply “know.” As in, “to know a fact.” The vast majority of the time, that’s what this word means. Now, to be fair, it can mean “know someone sexually,”4 just like it can in English. But like, how often do we use that? Would you say that know is a special English word that connotes a sexual encounter? No. You would not. And usually, in Hebrew – at least as far as I’ve read – when it does mean this, the context is very clear. It’s almost always with some version of “lie with” or “go to bed with.” Like, “He lay with her and he knew her.” Yes, in such a context, I think we can all agree they fucked.
But come on. You have (male) angels visiting and a group of dudes shows up knocking on your door, saying they want to “know” your guests. You mean to tell me that the first conclusion you jump to is, “Well, clearly these gentlemen would like to run a train on my visitors”? Could it be possible, I mean, just maybe, that all they want is to meet some actual fucking angels?5 And look, if your other first reaction is to offer them your virgin daughters instead, well, OK, maybe that’s what you think is going on. But also, if that is actually what you think is going on, you have to be some special kind of asshole to offer up your virgin daughters – wait, who even cares that they’re virgins at this point? – to offer up, I say, your human daughters to a foaming at the mouth gangbang mob.
At which point, my question becomes this: Oh hi, God. I see that you’re going to destroy this city of depraved perverts. Fair enough. But, you know, you had that whole bargaining thing with Abraham. And you pretty much agreed to save anybody worth saving. And, if I’m not mistaken, you intend to save this Lot guy. The guy offering his daughters to what he apparently believes to be an unruly lot of train-running gangbangers. I guess what I’m asking is, this is the guy worth saving? Not that I’m questioning your omni-benevolence/all-knowing-ness/omni-potence. I mean, I would never do that. God forbid. Err, no pun intended. But seriously. This guy?
Or maybe “know” just means “know.” But what do I know?
I snapped at one of my students Friday. Not cool. The advanced group is a little different now. I’ve got three who are still here from before. Super high level. One new guy, also super high level. And two new dames, not at their level. And the two dudes in the room (it’s two dudes and five chicks), they just love to show off. Ask somebody a question, anybody, and after like five seconds, they just have to answer it. Either out loud, or in a whisper. And look, I get it. They’re not trying to show off, per se. They just want to demonstrate that they know what the teacher is asking. On some level, they want me to realize how good they are at English.
Except I’m the teacher. I already know. I see your work. I hear your answers when I ask you questions. I know how good you are. But what they don’t seem to get is, when I ask somebody a question, I’m asking that specific person for a reason. Bitches, I know the answer. What I’m trying to do, is get the answer out of this person. And look, most of the time, it’s not about the answer, it’s about the process.
What I mean is this. I’m very Socratic in my method. I’ll ask a series of questions in an effort to lead the student to the answer, so that in the end, they can answer it themselves. Usually, I think that’s much better than just giving them the right answer and then explaining it to them. So for example, there’s a multiple choice question where they need to choose the right verb. And the student has the wrong answer. OK, so let’s figure this out.
What’s the subject? Singular or plural? What’s the verb in the next sentence? What tense is it? OK, good. So what must the answer be? And then, usually, they get it. See, I’m trying to teach them how to read. How to analyze a sentence. How to break it down. How to bring to bear the knowledge they already to have to confidently arrive at the only right answer. It’s not the only way. But it’s my way.
Fine. So when I ask the student with the wrong answer what the subject of the sentence is, the last thing I need is some other mutherfucker whispering the answer. First, you already know the answer. So zip it. And second, you’re not helping your classmate. So zip it.
Anyway, Friday it was really getting on my nerves. Because it’s hard when not everybody is on the same level. And you see that the two who are a bit behind are already self-conscious. They’d be self-conscious anyway, and now they’re more so because they know they’re not where the rest of the class is. So now I’m not just trying to teach English, I’m trying to build their confidence. I’m trying to get them to understand – nay, believe – that they have the tools to be just as good as everybody else.
So like I said, that shit was getting on my nerves Friday. So finally I had to say something. So I did. And I was pretty firm about it. Not rude, but certainly firm in a way that I’ve never been with them before; never had to be with them before. And I could see that one of the dudes was a bit chastened, a bit embarrassed. And I felt bad about that, you know? I’m not trying to make anybody feel bad. But it had to be said. And after that, he didn’t do it no more.
But the other dude. Man. So later in the day, I direct a question to one of these fine ladies who happened to be struggling with a particular question. And this dude just says out the answer, full volume. And I just snapped. “I swear to God, ______, do that again and you’re out!” And he just turned to stone. Like I said, not cool on my part.
First of all, I just felt terrible about it. Notwithstanding that he absolutely deserved it – I’d already addressed the issue once that day – it was just unprofessional. So that’s bad. But also, did I just lose the room? Were they all like, who is this asshole? Thankfully, I hadn’t lost the room. I think they agreed with the sentiment, if not its delivery. But still.
Anyway, I caught up with this dude in the kitchen at the next break. And I tried to apologize. But at first, he wasn’t having it. He was like, “No, I don’t accept that from you.” At first, I thought he meant the apology, but he actually meant my little explosion. And he’s like, “I’m going to talk to your boss about this.” And I was like, well, fine, you should. I mean, he has that right, and I’m confident enough in my standing with my boss that it wouldn’t be a problem. But we kept talking and in the end, we sorted it out. He may still talk to jefe. Don’t know, don’t care. But I think we’re good now.
Still though, I’m not happy with myself. I get that it happens. I’ve seen it happen with my own teachers, teachers whom I love. So I’m not sitting here thinking I’m a shitty teacher or anything. But I made a mistake today, and it’s one that I very much regret.
Kismet. On the same day that his happened, two of my students who’d just finished the course got their exams scores back. Both of them got C1, which is effectively the highest score. One of them came in to the school, so it was nice to see her. But she thanked me, which was nicer. The other one didn’t come in. But he texted me. He texted me to tell me he got C1, and he thanked me for the “entertaining and helpful teaching.” I deflected with “Just doing my job.” To which he replied “But ur [sic] doing it good.” To which I thought, Well, if I was any good, you’d have said “well,” but whatever.6
And on top of that, another former student contacted the office to ask that I get in touch with her about helping with a presentation. She could have asked for another teacher, but she asked for me. So on the same day that I fucked up and went off on a student, two former students aced their exams, one of them going out of his way to thank me for my efforts; and a third reached out for help on a presentation. This on top of another former student who, a year after finishing his course, has sought me out for regular private lessons.
I guess what I’m saying is, I if had to fuck up like I did, Friday was a good to do it.
Oh, I started this post with my routine. So just to finish up on that. After dinner, I do a bit of Greek. At the moment, I’m working through Demosthenes’ First Philippic with a commentary that Justin bought me a few years back. I’m pretty interested in the art of oratory at the moment. Maybe because I recently did that lesson on style and rhetoric. Anyway, it’s super fascinating. And then I finish up with some work on my ever-ongoing Federalist Project. And I have to say, it’s nice to get back to that.
So much of what I’ve been focusing on lately has been straight up reading. Just reading French, for fun. Reading Hebrew, to get better at it, to learn the fucking language better. Both of those things with Homer. But there’s very little critical thinking involved. So that’s the real joy of reading the Demosthenes with the commentary, of working on the Federalist Papers. In the case of the former, reading academic commentary. Not just reading the text for understanding, but really getting into the weeds. And in the case of the latter, thinking. Engaging the brain. Writing my own quasi-academic commentary, as it were. It feels good. I’m a fucking nerd, what can I say?
Anyway, that’s about it. Joschka and Cindy are in South America. Anne is in France. Jan is buried under his thesis and Zibs has just started a new full-time teaching gig. Annett is busy with a new boyfriend. OKCupid has been a dead-end of late. So at the moment, it’s just me and my books.
But there’s shit on the horizon. The overseaers will come back and the others will come up for air. Also, I recently discovered that one of my favorite students was a singer in her past life. Apparently she has some classical training in addition to having sung in bands, one of which it seems was a singer-songwriter duo where they wrote at least some of their own shit. So we’ve been talking about getting together and jamming. Admittedly, we’ve been talking about it at my instigation, so we’ll see if it actually happens. But I would certainly welcome it open-armedly.
And that, I guess, is as good a place to stop as any.
- Holy shit, you guys. This shit got boring in a hurry. But more on that later. [↩]
- Nachschlagen means to “look up” a word in the dictionary. (Schlagen, incidentally means “beat,” or “strike.” Which is appropriate. Because the sheer volume of vocabulary involved in this language just beats the shit out of you). Anyway, one of the funner things about German is, that because English is Germanic in its structure, it’s super easy to transpose words back and forth. Like I did here with “nachschlagging.” You can only do it with people who already speak German. But you can literally do it whenever the fuck you want, and it never doesn’t work. [↩]
- Hashtag ξενία. [↩]
- In my dictionary (Halladay), this definition is number six. So, hardly the primary definition. Not even the secondary. Not even the tertiary. (The…sextiary? Ha!). [↩]
- Hashtag Occam’s Razor. [↩]
- This is the same guy from the Stammtisch, btw. The one who was simultaneously impressed/horrified by my German. Also the guy who was constantly giving me shit/bantering with me while he was in the class. He’s a good egg. Side story. At the end of that Stammtisch, I was pretty drunk. On top of all the beer, one former student decided we needed to do shots of rum. This before this guy decided we needed to do shots of Sambuca. So I was fairly half-in-the-bag by the end. Anyway, we walked to the train together. And he’s like, “Your train is over there, on that track.” To which I could have replied, “Thanks, but I know where my train is.” Or even just, “Thanks,” since all he was trying to do was be helpful. But instead, I replied with, “Typical. The German puts the Jew on the train.” Look, sometimes you just have to laugh at these things. He laughed. [↩]