An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
10 June, 2018

Right, so I’ll just carry on writing about dead people then, shall I?  I mean, Anthony Bourdain, man.  Look, I’d be lying if I said I was a huge fan of this guy or that I’m taking his death pretty hard.  I mean, he’s not Dio.  When Dio died, I wore the same black Dio shirt every day for a week.  This is not on that level.  And yet.

And yet, the guy certainly had an impact on my life.  What I mean is, cooking is very central to my life; to who I am, I think.  And he changed the way I think about cooking.  Maybe not so much to the point that I’d say he’s a major influence on me.  But I think I’d say he was part of a constellation.

Let’s take a ride in the Way-Back Machine.  Obviously I’ve been cooking for myself ever since I moved out of my parents’ house.  But I didn’t really start to think about cooking until Jared and I moved into our apartment on Orchard Street.  That’s when I started experimenting.  That’s when I started picking Jared’s brain.  That’s when I started taking recipes from my mom and discussing ideas with my dad.  That’s when I started listening to chefs and food writers on NPR.  And that’s when I read Kitchen Confidential.

In the immediate wake of Bourdain’s death, the big takeaway from his breakthrough book seems to be his writing style and the way he opened people’s eyes to the theretofore hidden world of professional kitchens; the culture, the way of life, the language, the filth, the sounds, the fun, the work, and yeah, the food.

But that wasn’t my big takeaway.  It wasn’t Jared’s either.  For Jared, it was the idea of montre au beurre.  Basically, the idea that it’s physical impossible to use too much butter.  To which I say, Amen.  But for me, the big takeaway was this: you can do a lot with a little.

He has this part in the book where he goes to work at an Italian restaurant.  And he talks about how he was educated in the French style, where everything is a big deal, everything is a process, everything has a bunch of ingredients.  And then he gets to this Italian joint, and they’re making dishes with like three ingredients and they’re incredible.  But the key is, everything has got to be good.  It’s gotta be fresh, high quality.

But this idea that you can make the most amazing pasta pomodoro with just spaghetti, tomatoes and basil – that was new.  And this was before I met Vinny, before I ever tasted his mom’s red sauce.  But it’s something me and Vin talk about all the time.  It was the guiding principle last time I was in, when he took me to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.

We bought some sausage from a butcher.  We bought some nice bread from the bakery.  We looked at the produce in the market.  And then we – well, he, really – made a very excellent and very simple dinner.  And it was just, I mean, you guys, you don’t know what you’re missing.  The kid is naturally gifted in the kitchen, in a way that I am most certainly not.

But we have the same philosophy.  The key ingredient is love.  And that’s something that Bourdain was selling too.  That when people put their heart into their food, it’s only ever always good.

Something else stood out from that chapter about the Italian restaurant.  It was that you can always learn new things.  Like I said, the guy had been classically (i.e. French) trained.  And for a long time, that was the way; everything else was second rate.  But he went into that gig willing to put that attitude aside, ready to soak up what new information they had to offer.

Which is also something I do.  I do that in all walks of life; or I try to.  I’ve written about that before.  Trying to learn everything I can from Murphy about not just his job, but the whole engineering business he works in.  Trying to learn all I could about economics from that guy Christian who lived here for a few months.  About psychology and the practice of social work from Josh and Jared.  Learn anything you can from whomever you can.

And that’s true in the kitchen too.  I love watching other people cook, love asking them questions.  Joschka and I do that now.  We’re always sharing techniques, recipes, new information.  And it never gets old.1

So maybe I didn’t learn any dishes from Bourdain.  I have only one of his recipes in my little app.  It’s for a beouf bourgignon.  And I’ve never actually made it.  But my approach, my philosophy; a lot of that comes from him.  Not all of it, but a lot of it.

Something else hit me too, when I learned of his death.  And this had nothing to do with cooking.  No, what hit me was, it took me back to that apartment on Orchard Street.  One day, Jared’s copy of Kitchen Confidential showed up in the bathroom.  At first, I’d just read a chapter here and a chapter there.  But I quickly realized, holy shit, this guy is a fun writer!   And before long, I’d read the whole book.

All of it.  In that bathroom.  And it took me back to that time, to that place.  And maybe it’s a funny thing to say, but you know what?  I kinda fucking loved that bathroom.  That was my favorite bathroom I’ve ever had.  Is that even a thing?  Am I the only person who has a favorite bathroom?

Like, there’s two kinds of people.  People who read in the bathroom and people who don’t.  And you know immediately who’s who when you go over someone’s house for the first time.  Because that’s when you see if they have books and magazines in there or they don’t.

And to all you people who don’t: What’s up with that?  No, really.  What is actually up with that?2

Anyway, we always had books and magazines on the windowsill across from the terlit.  And that’s where Kitchen Confidential showed up in my life.  On that windowsill.  Like, I can still see it, you know?  It was almost as if whoever designed that building, intentionally made that windowsill just big enough for books and magazines.  I say ‘almost as if’ because it was a tenement building, and I wonder now if it was even originally built with bathrooms in every apartment.

And speaking of windowsills, I remember also how when we first moved in, the other window – the one at the far end of the bathroom – would leak when it rained.  I mean, sheets of water coming through, you guys.  Which, yeah, classic Chinatown.  But also, can we get that fixed?  I feel they took their sweet time fixing that.  Because classic Chinatown.

And the shower was spacious, which was nice at the time, and nicer now when my current shower/tub doesn’t even have a curtain.  OK, sidenote.  This is like a thing in Germany.  Some people just don’t have shower curtains.  Which means you need to sit down in the tub and “shower” by holding the showerhead the whole damn time.  Honestly, it takes all the joy out of it.  It’s like work now.  Anyway.

But it was a funny bathroom.  Like the kitchen in that apartment, it was very long and very narrow.  I believe the technical term is ‘railroad kitchen.’  Well, I guess it was a ‘railroad bathroom’ too.  But the point is, it was a great room to spend time in.  It was a great room to read in.

I loved that kitchen too.  We had a chopping block set up opposite the counter.  And the place was so narrow, that you could just pivot on your heels and work both spaces at the same time.  Everything was at your finger tips.  And you could just create.  With a glass of wine and some music.  It was a kitchen, a studio and a lounge, all in one.  I miss that kitchen.

And that apartment.  That apartment where, one year, after Jared’s birthday, he was so drunk that Rob had to literally carry him up the stairs.  That apartment where, every year on Rob’s birthday, he would come over and the three of us would drink a bottle of scotch.  That apartment where Jared and I watched four seasons of Dr. Who and grumbled the whole time about how David Tennant was no Christopher Eccleston.  That apartment where we had a big wooden bookshelf in the living room, overflowing with tomes.  Where Jared and I would drunkenly watch old WCW matches on VHS and marvel at how Dean Malenko could carry any nobody you like to the greatest match you’ve ever seen; where we’d watch Bret Hart fight Ricky Steamboat again and again; where we’d sit on the couch with a glass of scotch and just talk.

That apartment where within three days of meeting her, Charlotte was sleeping on my couch; and that was just the beginning of a story that’s still running.  Where Niki and me would cook English food, get drunk and watch Sherlock.  That apartment where I spent all of Hurricane Sandy alone with a bottle of Tullamore Dew.  Where I wrote my thesis.  And where, not for nothing, I had a weeklong fling with a 20-year-old French smokeshow.

That apartment from where all the best Chinese food was just around the corner.  And on the way to where, after a morning of reading Homer with Daitz, I’d stop by Prosperity Dumpling and grab five pork-&-chives for a buck.  (Talk about things I miss!)  That apartment where I spent the last years of my twenties and the first of my thirties.  Where I once tried baking a brioche without a mixer, so Jared, Rob and I just passed the bowl around for hours, taking turns mixing with a wooden spoon until we couldn’t feel our arms anymore.

That apartment I’d walk home to every day after work, all the way from 31st between 6th and 7th, watching the city change from Midtown to Downtown to Chinatown.  Where you could always catch the D, on-time, in all its express, 35 minutes to One-Six-One and Yankee Stadium glory.  Getting out at Grand Street – never missing my stop, thank you very much – after falling asleep on the way home from one of Amber’s backyard bashes.

Walking the ten minutes from that apartment to Katz’ Deli for a Matzah-ball soup when I was sick.  Walking over the Williamsburg bridge for a night out at Duffs or for a bit of day-drinking with Niki.  That apartment where I taught myself French, where I would spend countless evenings laying in bed, in the dark, listening to Montréal Canadiens games on the radio, “studying” la langue française.

That apartment where, one Sunday afternoon, I sat down in the black leather easy-chair I had in my room, and started watching The Walking Dead; I never did get out out of that chair that day.  That apartment where, after a rough breakup, I watched Fawlty Towers and every single episode of all nine seasons the X-Files; in like three months.  Where after passing my Greek reading comps, I watched every single episode of all of the Star Treks.3  And where, while studying for my Greek reading comps, I listened to John Sterling call Derek Jeter’s 3000th hit on the radio.4

That apartment where, really for the first time, I started to write my own music.  Where Justin would come over and write music with Jared.  That apartment where I would come home drunk from something, where Jared would come home drunk from something else, and we would just drunkenly listen to Dio.  And really, is there anything better?

That apartment we shared with Chutzpah the Mouse.  That apartment from where Jared and I would go around the corner to Lolita, where our bartender friend Ally would pour us a shit-ton of whiskey and then round the bill off to $20.

The last time & place I lived with my best friend, and my last apartment in New York fucking City.  That apartment.

All this and more came flooding back to me, when I read about Anthony Bourdain’s death, when I remembered reading Kitchen Confidential in that bathroom…

So, changing gears, can I just say, Fuck Nazis?  And also fuck cancer.  Because always fuck cancer.  But also, I think it’s important to say, from time to time, fuck Nazis.  So say it with me now.  Ready?  1, 2, 3, FUCK NAZIS!  Good job, you guys.

So the reason I mention all this is, two weeks ago I went to my first ever protest-march-whatsit.  Here, the word is Demo; short for Demonstration, obviously.  Which I guess now is a German word.  But anyway, I did that.  Which, also, very late shoutout to my boss-ass bitch5 of a mom who went all the way down to DC for the Women’s March, back whenever that was.  Respect.  Well, now, finally, I’ve gotten in on the fun.

First some backstory.  Here in Germany, the nationalist, right wing, generally racist party is the AfD (Alternativ für Deutschland).  And those cunts – I use the word in solidarity with Sam Bee – won 13% of the vote in the last election and now have seats in the Bundestag, the Parliament.  Gross.6

Anyway, the AfD had planned a big rally in Berlin two Sundays ago.  Not of actual Berliners, mind you.  You couldn’t find enough AfDers in this town to have a proper rally.  Because we’re7 awesome.  But they planned a rally.  And they actually paid to bus and train people in from all over Germany for it.  And they were all, “We’re gonna have ten thousand people!”  Well, they managed five thousand.  So, haha, fuck you, cunts.

Well so, Berlin was like, “Not in our backyard, bitches.”  And there were all sorts of counter-rallies planned.  And in glorious typical Berlin fashion, the biggest counter-rally was just a rave.  Yes, a rave.  An electro-dance party in the Tiergarten.  And they were like, “Yeah, we’re just gonna dance you down and drown you out with our loud bass.”

Obviously that’s not the counter-rally I went to.  No, so Zibs sent me a message that her and Jan and Felix were going to a counter-protest and did I want to come.  Uh, yeah, obvi.  So we met up in front of the Reichstag and listened to some speeches to start off with.  And then it was off to the actual protest.

The AfD clowns were staging their main rally at the Brandenburg Gate.  So what we did was to basically surround them on three sides and just yell at them.  And I’ll get to that bit shortly.  But first I gotta fill in a little more background.

So earlier, I described the AfD as a nationalist, right wing, generally racist party.  Which they absolutely are.  We don’t have anything like it in the states.  But there’s a wing of the Republican party that matches up pretty well.  The Trump wing, not to put too fine a point on it.  Anyway, it’s one thing to be right wing, nationalist and generally racist.  It’s still another thing to be actual Nazis.

Side note, except, or is it?  Because see, the actual Nazi party is illegal here.  So is displaying a swastika flag.  Which, not for nothing, to my American eyes is an uncomfortable repression of freedom of political speech.  But also, we didn’t have Hitler.  So, Germany’s gonna do what Germany’s gonna do.  Anyway, all this to say, if you were an actual Nazi, the AfD is probably where you’re gonna hang out.

Nevertheless, when I woke up last Sunday, I was not really comfortable casually throwing around N-word8 to describe any and everybody who might be associated with AfD.  But when I showed up, the first thing Jan said to me was, “So, Dave, are you ready to shout at some Nazis?”

So I asked him.  Is that where we’re at?  The AfD are straight up Nazis?  And he said yes.  And Zibs said yes.  Well, OK, they’re the Germans.  They’re politically active.  I trust them.  If they say – at the very least – that for today’s purposes, for the purpose of this rally and counter-rally, that the AfD are Nazis, well, fuck it.  They’re Nazis, the bastards.  So I said, yes, let’s give those Nazi bastards hell.

Which we proceeded to do.  We re-gathered at the entrance to the Tiergarten, directly across from the Brandenburg Gate, where we could see those cunts and where they could absolutely hear us.  And we spent the next few hours shouting them down.

Chants included, “Hau Ab!” (Go Away!) and “Nazis Raus!” (Nazis Out!).  And also, Ganz Berlin Hasst die AfD!”  (All Berlin Hates the AfD!).  Although there was apparently a second version of this chant from the ravers: “Ganz Berlin Basst die AfD!”  (All Berlin Basses the AfD, in reference to the loud bass they were using to drown them out.  Cool).

There were horns and whistles and all kinds of flags.  Communist flags.  Political party flags.  Rainbow flags.  One flag was just a giant hand, middle finger extended.  Also, there were a lot of middle fingers extended.  It was cool.

And It also made me just the slightest bit uncomfortable.  Because here’s the thing.  I don’t like mobs.  I think they’re ugly and dangerous.  Mobs take on a life of their own.  Emotion trumps reason.  Which is why you need effective police, btw.  To keep the people separated.  To prevent violence.

This, to my mind, was the big failing of Germany in the late 20’s and early 30’s.  The police didn’t do their job.  So Nazis brawled with communists.  Nazis intimidated would-be voters.  When the police do their job, this doesn’t happen.

At one point, somebody yelled – and I forget the German, but basically – “The police protect fascists!”  Well, yeah.  That’s their job.  And they should protect fascists.  They should also protect communists, and greens, and everybody else.  It’s literally their job.  If you’re suppressing the right of fascists to freely (and peacefully, which is key) express their political views, then what kind of democracy are you running?

But that’s my point.  Somebody yells, “Police protect fascists.”  Somebody else yells Ganz Berlin hasst die AfD!”  And yeah, OK, we hate Nazis.  But also, hate?  I looked over at one point, and watched the woman next to me.  And her face was contorted in this violent expression of, well let’s call a spade a spade, hatred.  And a part of me was like: Wait a second, isn’t this what we’re against?

But it’s complicated, innit?  Because like I said, Fuck Nazis.  But, I dunno.  Can we not be dispassionate about this?  Can we not just outnumber them 10:1 and just say “Boo!”  Or better yet, outnumber them 10:1 and just be a silent, impenetrable wall?  Can that not be enough?  Do we actually have to hate them?  Do we have to label every last one of them a Nazi?  Or is my head in the clouds, munching on a pie in the sky?

But it’s complicated.  I had a very uncomfortable exchange with an acquaintance recently.  She was complaining about how in certain parts of Berlin, any shop you go into, the staff are speaking English.  To the point where they only speak English.  And look, I get it.  I myself have complained that “I didn’t come to Germany to speak English with a bunch of ex-pats.”

But there was something in the way she was saying it.  “My mom is old.  What about the old people?  Shouldn’t they be able to go into a shop in their own country and speak their own language?”  Which, I mean, on some level, I’m not unsympathetic to that.  But also, English is a world language.  No, it’s the world language.  It would kill you to learn enough to order your food or drink item, to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’?

I grant you, yeah, it’s annoying.  But is it worth kvetching about?  OK, kvetching, maybe.  But elevating it to one of the real problems facing Germany?  Come on.  So I said – and maybe I shouldn’t have – but I said, “Well, if that’s how you feel about it, you can always vote AfD.”

And she looked at me with more than a little distress, and she said, “Dave, come on, I’m not a Nazi.”  But.  She didn’t say ‘but.’  But it was there.  Almost like, “I’m not a Nazi…but…maybe the AfD isn’t wrong about everything.”  Now to be clear, she definitely didn’t say that.  All she said was, “Dave, come on, I’m not a Nazi.”  But me – and yes, this is highly subjective – I felt like that ‘but’ was very much there.

So I said – and again, maybe I shouldn’t have – but I said, “But…Deutschland für die Deutschen.”  (Germany for the Germans).  This was followed by an uncomfortable silence, and then we moved on.

And look, I want to be clear.  This girl is in no way a Nazi.  She’s young, she’s open minded.  Hell, she knows I’m Jewish.  And we’ve spent more than a little time talking about all the Yiddish/Hebrew words that have found their way into German; and she thinks that’s all very cool.  She’s a good kid.  And just so there’s not even a shadow of a doubt, not a Nazi.

But that’s my point.  Not everybody associated with the AfD is a Nazi.  And by the way, I can’t imagine that she would ever vote AfD.  But she has this concern.  And it’s a concern that those AfD cunts make real political hay out of.

But do you see the reason I’m telling this story?  I don’t like painting everybody who votes AfD as a Nazi.  I don’t like going to a rally and ‘hating’ these people.  Which isn’t to say that some of them are not in fact Nazis.  Surely some – even many…fuck, even most – of them are; or at least might be.  And there’s no room for Nazis in our political discourse.

But just because Fuck Nazis – and let’s be clear, Fuck Nazis – but just because Fuck Nazis, are we supposed to hate our fellow man?  Are we supposed to use the law to curtail their freedom to express their political views, no matter how heinous?  Personally, I don’t think so.

What we are supposed to do, I think, is outnumber the shit out of them.  To show them, through peaceable numbers, that there are far more of us than there are of them.  Which we did, btw, and I’ll come to that shortly.

But to come back to that lady standing beside me, who wore so much hate on her face as she shouted down those Nazi cunts, maybe dial it back a little.  Maybe.  When the police are doing their job, you can afford to take the emotional high road, is what I would argue.

But also, I’ll never be a German.  I don’t own this country’s history the way a German does.  And the attitude here seems to be, don’t give those Nazi cunts so much as in inch.  Because not only will they take a mile, they’ve already taken it once.  And that, I think, is the divide.  I don’t know if I can ever personally bridge it.

Fine.  So I said, to me, the thing to do is, outnumber them 10:1.  Show them there’s more of us than of you, and there always will be.  Well, we did that.  Five thousand of them.  Twenty-five thousand of us.  And that was just in the immediate vicinity.  Apparently, there were counter-rallies all over Berlin, in places where the AfD would never see the faces or hear the voices.  And when you add it all up, according to what I’ve read, the counter-protesters numbered as much as 75,000.  That’s 15:1.

You wanna express the idea of “Nazis Raus!”?  Wunderbar.  Show me, don’t tell me.  Well, we showed ‘em.  We showed those Nazi cunts.

But the battle continues.  Because they will continue to fight.  They will continue to hate refugees and Muslims and Jews and gays and whoever else they blame for their plight.  So we have to keep on fighting too.  But I hope we can keep our heads about us.  I hope we can remember that hate is ugly, even when our opponents are Nazis.  I hope we can be better than them.

So.  Will I go to the next anti-AfD rally?  You bet your bottom dollar.  But not with hate in my heart.  Pity, maybe, if I can muster it, for these poor bastards who can’t see beyond their own backyard, beyond their own town square.  Disgust, if I can’t manage pity.  But not hate.

Because there’s more of us than there are of them.  And if we can just remember that, and act accordingly, then those Nazi cunts don’t stand a chance.

זײַ געסונט

  1. Just today, we had a whole conversation about stews and braises.  Basically, he asked me why I do so many of them.  And my answer was basically, economics.  With a stew or a braise, you get a lot from a little and it goes a long way.  Plus it keeps your stock supply moving. []
  2. My roommates here – and you know I love these cats – they have zero reading material in the bathroom.  They are not bathroom readers.  And just like, why? []
  3. I still maintain that DS9 is far-and-away the best of the Treks. []
  4. I had a ticket to that game.  And I had to pass it up, because I was studying.  So instead of remembering being there for Jete’s 3K, I remember sitting at my desk, in that apartment. []
  5. Hi, Ma.  Just so you know, “boss-ass bitch” is a good thing.  It refers to strong women who kick ass.  You can confirm that with any millennial. []
  6. Not for nothing, in light of all this, I can’t not remember my (now late) Uncle Art asking me if there was anti-Semitism in Germany.  I always told him I’d never experienced any.  And on a personal level, I haven’t.  But yeah, there is.  And here it is.  I’d like to think he’d be pleased to know I showed up to stand against it. []
  7. Apparently I can include myself amongst Berliners now.  I was told recently that by bitching about Deutsche Bahn (the rail service) and by reading a book and drinking a beer on the train I’m basically a real Berliner. []
  8. Funny that Germany also has an N-word and it’s not the same as our N-word. []

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