An American in Berlin
7 January, 2019
Well, well, well. Happy fucking new year. Another year in Germany, another year of speaking German. And you know what? It’s getting better. Like, it’s still a hot mess, but like, I can kinda do it for real now.1
Finally. Finally I’ve got German friends who are just speaking to me in German now. And that’s really gratifying, you know? Cos like, in a way, I feel like I’m finally being taken seriously as a German speaker by actual Germans. Well, some Germans anyway.
J-Dawg, for instance. Y’all remember J-Dawg – Julia – former student, now friend. Well, we went to an ice hockey game together towards the end of last year. And while we were there, I told her I really want to next-level my shit. So I would appreciate it if we could just speak German, no English.
Which, tbh, is not a small ask, I don’t think. After all, she likes English. She reads in English. She speaks well. And as a teacher in general, and her teacher specifically, I’m sure she would like to take advantage of that to practice some English. But in fact, when I told her I wanted to German, she was all in.
To the point where, when I ask a question about a word or how to express a certain idea, she just explains in German. No English translations. Which is just so fucking great, you know. Because first of all, that’s really the best way to learn. But also, like I said, it makes me feel like I’m being taken more seriously.
We went to a second game, this time with her boyfriend. And her boyfriend is a professional chef. He’s been to America more than a few times. He’s certainly capable of speaking good English. In fact, in the past, we have spoken English.
But this time, it was all German. We had a whole conversation about muscle cars. It was great. And I never felt like he was dumbing things down for me. And same thing, if I had a question about a word or whatever, the answer always came back in German. I dunno, maybe he was just thinking, Dude, we’re in Germany, why the fuck would I speak English with you? But whatever the reason, no English. Fuck yeah, bitches.
And all this is coming at the right time. Because my job is warping my feelings towards English in certain ways. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love my language. And my job has given me a new and deeper appreciation for things I’d never even thought about before. I love the elegant practicality of our verbal system. I love the freedom with which our language nouns adjectives and verbs nouns. I love how user friendly it is; how somebody who is “bad” at the language can nevertheless make themselves understood and carry on a perfectly interesting conversation. I love the manifold varieties of the language: American, British, Australian, New York-ese, Southern, what linguist John McWhorter calls “black English,” and by extension Spanish-English and any other type of “non-standard” English. I love it all.
But. But but but. There’s one thing that has become a bit strenuous for me. And that, friends, is the particular brand of English as manifested by native German speakers. The word orders, word choices, idiomatic renderings, etc. utilized by the people of this country. And to be clear, I’m not judging it. I’m in no way saying it’s less valid, or somehow worse, than other varieties of English. Because of course it’s not.
What I’m saying is, when I hear it, it feels like “work.” And not work like, “oh this is difficult.” Hardly. No, what I mean is, it makes me feel like I’m “at work.” Because this is what I hear all day, every day. At work.
And I know it’s not rational. I’m no prescrptivist. I in no way judge a person based on how they use the language. People who say “ain’t” or “aks” instead of “ask” aren’t stupid. Likewise, a German who says, “Oh, that’s quite interestingly” isn’t stupid. They’re just a person who hasn’t yet mastered the difference between adjectives and adverbs. Nbd.
But here’s the thing. I want to leave my work at the office, just like anybody else. And it’s just that it’s hard to do that when you hear your job all around you. The result being that, when I speak English with Germans now outside of school, I’m often hit with a feeling of, “Come on man, I’m off the clock, why I gotta listen to this shit?”
Which, I know, is totally unfair to the speaker. And obviously I don’t ever say that to a person. That’s my mishigas. All’s I’m saying is, increasingly, I find myself feeling an almost desperate desire to speak German outside of school. Partly just to improve my German, yes. But mostly just so I can, please gods, turn off my English-teacher brain for a few hours.
That’s how I was feeling last month when I had plans to meet two former students for coffee. And yes, actually coffee. See, these two ladies are teetotalers. Which, to each his own, right? But I found myself nearly praying that this little get-together would be conducted in German. To the point where I was actually mentally rehearsing asking them if we could just speak German and here’s why.
Well, turns out I needn’t have worried. Without any prodding from me, the entire meetup was in German, start to finish. What a relief, you guys. Oh, and also, it was a grand old time. These two ladies are great. We had a great time just catching up and shooting the shit. Fantastic.
Also fantastic, Christmas, of which I had 2.5 this year. The first was by Margit. How great is this? Knowing a) I’m Jewish and b) I have no family here, she invited me to spend Christmas Eve with her family. How can you not love that?
And what made it kind of extra special was, I was the only person there who wasn’t family. So it wasn’t like some big Xmas party, you know? It was her, her husband, the kids, her mom, her brother and his wife, and her husband’s sister.
Anyway, it was a great time. And obviously I’m really thankful that I’ve got friends like that here in Berlin who think enough of me to bring me into their home and share their family Xmas with me. That’s pretty great on it’s face.
And this too was all German. And not just German. But I was exposed to some pretty hardcore Berlinese at this shindig. Mag’s mom, for example, speaks with a pretty serious Berlin accent. Now, I’ve met her a couple of times before. And in the past, I always had a pretty hard time of understanding her. But this time, somehow, I understood her no problem. Level-up!
Also, we played Taboo. In German. And it was kinda funny. Because, first, they were like, “Uh, Dave, you can just do your cards in English.” And I was like, “Bitches please, I can German.” So then, they were like, “Well, OK, but you can use the ‘taboo’ words, we don’t mind.” And I was like, “Bitches please, I can German.” And guess what? I fucking nailed it. I wasn’t the best player at the table, but I’ll tell you this. I wasn’t the worst either. Level-up!
Alright, so I’m making progress with some people, German-wise. But this is coming largely with former students. Much harder is making the switch with people with whom I’ve already built a strong relationship exclusively in English.
Which brings me to Second Xmas, which was with Jan and Zibs. You’ll remember I did my teacher training with Zibs, so her English is pretty perfect. And Jan’s English is also nearly prefect. And so, based on where my German was when I got here, it never made any sense for us to speak that language.
Side-story: Those two met while at Uni in Norway. So their first common language was English. Only after years of being married did they finally move their relationship into German. And they’ve got this other friend here, Felix. Who I’ve got a total man-crush on, I’m not embarrassed to say. Now Felix is German, but his bae is Swedish, so their common language is…wait for it…English. And so naturally Felix, and Sophia his boo, also speak nearly perfect English. So that, when the five of us get together2 we always speak English.
Sub-story to the side-story: Zibs and Jan had been hearing about Anne for like literally years. But somehow, they’d never met. Anyway, finally, last month, we went out to dinner. Anne and me, J&Z, Felix and one of Zib’s friends. And before we got to the restaurant, I warned Anne that we might be speaking English the whole night. Since that’s been our modus operandi.
So naturally, as soon as we sit down at the table, the first thing Jan asks Anne is, is it easier for you if we speak German or English. To which Anne says, German, duh. Well, alright. This should be interesting. Will they speak German with her and English with me? Or will they actually finally speak German with me?
Right, so the way we were sitting, it was me, Anne and Jan on one side and Felix, Zibs and her friend on the other. Anne is between me and Jan. Felix is across from me. And wouldn’t you know, it’s just German going on all around. Anyway, at one point, Jan hears me carrying on with Felix. And I guess he was sufficiently impressed, for lack of a better word. Because he says to me across the table, Jan does, “Hey, Dave, wir sollten mehr deutsch reden.” Hey, Dave, we should speak more German. And I’m like, “Mutherfucker, yes, I’ve been asking you to do this for like forever!”
So much for the side and sub stories. Anyway, I was at J&Z for Second Xmas. Which was great, btw. We cooked a bœuf bourguignontogether, which was delish. Drank a bunch, which was fun. And just had the usual good times. The first part of the evening was in English. But after dinner, I asked if we could do a bit of German. Which, finally, they were only to happy to do. So that was a first. Just the three of us, Germaning. I don’t know if that’s quite a level-up, but it’s certainly progress.
That leaves Joschka. The final frontier. He’s the last friend where I just haven’t been able to break down that barrier. One-on-one, I mean. Because as I’ve written, when we’re together with Cindy or in Bavaria, we all speak German together and it’s fine. More than fine, even. But mano-a-mano, we’re not there yet.
Part of the reason is, we’re such good friends. I mean, I know him twice as long as anybody else here, bc we met in New York in 2012. So we’ve been mad tight for, shit, six years already. That’s a lot of inertia. That’s a big ship to turn around. And look, no matter how good my German has gotten, I can’t pretend like I can just carry on in this language as well as I can in my mother tongue.
But the other thing is, that mutherfucker demands perfection. Like, sometimes I’ll ask if we can switch to German for a bit. And he’ll sorta shrug and say something like, “Yeah, we should because you need to get better.” But at the first mistake, he’s correcting me. Which, on its face, fine. I mean, sure, fix my German. Please. But corrections derail a conversation, you know? So after about five minutes, it’s back to English.
And look, I get it. It’s work for him. Same as speaking English with Germans is work for me. For whatever reason, he can’t just let my mistakes ride. I mean, he can in a group. But one-on-one, he can’t. And I don’t mean that as a negative. He genuinely wants to help me improve. But that’s work, for him. So like, I somehow need to up my game far above it’s current level before we can German together at length. So…not level-up. But maybe that can be a goal for this year.
In any case, the Bavarians are visiting later this month. So they’ll be plenty of German with Joschka and our “country cousins” when they get here. And, like, they kinda are our “country cousins.” Like, we’re thinking of things to do with them when they’re here, to show them “the big city.” Which is funny and adorable in its own right. But, and I mean this only with love, most of them are really “country” people. As in, they don’t care for big city life. Not that they aren’t looking forward to visiting. But we’re from different worlds in that way. Same as when we go down to visit them, right? I love to get away for a weekend. But I couldn’t imagine living down there. Anyway, I’m really looking forward to having them here. It should be a fucking blast.
I mentioned 2.5 Christmases. The first was with Mag and fam. The second was with J&Z. The half-Xmas was by skype, with Flare and her fam. You’ll remember that for every year from 2010 until I moved here, I spent every Xmas with those peeps. To the point where, my first year here, it felt weird for all of us that I wasn’t there with them.
Anyway, Flare skyped me up and I got to see her and the whole mishpucha, which was great. And her uncle was wearing a shirt that said, “Dave’s not here, man.” Which, come on, how fucking cool is that? And I got to see her baby. And I met the baby last time I was in, but he was still pretty fucking new-born at that point. Now the little dude is all walking around and shit. And that is one cute kid, lemme tell y’all.
One last thing on the whole German deal. So I cooked dinner for my roommates tonight.3 And we’re chatting, and at one point, I said something incorrectly. So Marco corrected me. But then he made a comment about my German. He said I’m thinking about it less. Which, coming on the heels of an error, I wasn’t sure how to take.
But what he meant was this. In the beginning, he said, it was clear that I was carefully considering the grammar and whatnot as I spoke. Which resulted in a very slow, disjointed sort of conversational style. Whereas now, I was very clearly “just talking.” It was much faster, much more fluid. But also, with less attention to detail. So that, despite the speed and fluidity, my English was showing through much more.
Now this was very interesting. And before going on, I should say that he meant this as a compliment. Or at least, that’s how I understood him. What he was was saying, I think, was I’m now much easier to chat with, it’s a much more natural experience. Just that there’s a bit of a tradeoff. That all this comes at the expense of “correctness,” if I can say that.
Which, for me personally, is to be preferred. I mean, given the choice of being “correct” or being interesting, I’ll take interesting every time. Which is also how I feel when speaking English with non-native speakers, my previous comments notwithstanding. Because in my job, I get both. And I’d much rather talk to someone who can carry on a conversation at speed, even if half the shit is “wrong,” than with somebody who is “perfect” but takes all day to get to their point.
To borrow from a rather old example from this blogue. Imagine talking with two people at a bar. And at some point, each person hears the call of nature. Here’s how this goes down, by me.
Person 1: “I must to going after the toilets to bring a piss.”
Me: “Sure, I’ll be here.”
Person 2: “Please…excuse me…I…have…have to going…no, have to…go, yes go…to the restroom. I will be back, no…I will…I’ll, yes, I’ll…be back, be rightback. Yes, I’ll be right back.”
Me: “Yeah, and while you’re doing that, I’ll just hang myself with my scarf. Tell my parents I love them.”
So I’d much rather be the “bring the piss guy” than “Mr. Takes Three Hours to Craft the Perfect Sentence but I Get there in the End.” Which, apparently I am. Or, at least, that’s what Marco was trying to tell me. I think.
Of course, in theory, you should be able to have both. That should be the goal. I remember I was talking with a student about (linguistic) gender in German. And she was saying how a lot of Turkish people here, who speak a kind of “broken” German,4 just omit the gendered article altogether. In English, this would be like saying, “I missed bus,” instead of “I missed thebus.” So I asked her, in view of my problem of getting the gender right, which was worse. Is it worse to use the wrong gender, or no gender at all?5
To which she gave the most German answer ever. “Of course, the best thing is to just get it right.” Yeah, great. Thanks.
So much for German. But what about Greek, my one and only? Also, it’s not my one and only. In fact, on an emotional level, Yiddish is beginning to rival the Hellenic tongue. But it sounded nice to say “my one and only.” I mean, how often do you get to use that? Whatever, the point is, I love Greek. And I always will.
Anyway, now that I need less time for Hebrew, I’ve decided to spend some of the surplus study time on Greek. And as a text, I chose Herodotus, the so-called “father of history.” Although I prefer to think of him as the “drunk uncle of history.” Because he spins a good yarn, but he also wanders off on tangents like a mofo.
Tangentially – and indeed this is a very Herodotian tangent – you may remember that I’m still in touch with my second year Greek prof, who is also a huge Yankee fan. All summer, every summer, we email each other about the doings of the Bronx Bombers, mixing in a healthy helping of puns. Sub-tangentially – which is also a rather Herodotian device – when I was in his class, we read…you guessed it…Herodotus.
So in my reading, I came across a bit of text about which I had a question. Well, who else could I ask? So I sent him an email. And of course he answered my query. But he added at the end of the email something along the lines of, Herodotus is great and I’m kinda jealous that you’re reading him.
Eh? OK, I said. Well, we could read it together if you want. Which he thought was a great idea. So now, we Skype on Mondays and read Herodotus together. And what a fucking joy, you guys. I mean, I finished grad school in 2013. So since then, everything I’ve done (Daitz aside), I’ve done alone. I haven’t had access to “The Academy.”
And look, it works, right? I mean, I have an MA in Classics. I can Greek. I read Dumas on the subway. I taught myself Hebrew well enough to read the fucking Torah already. So I can work alone. And I get by. But that’s what it is. It’s getting by. I don’t benefit from the wisdom of others.
And now, all of a sudden, I’m reading Greek with an NYU prof, a proper fucking expert. So on a technical level, it’s a huge benefit. Already, he’s corrected mistakes I’ve been making, reminded me of things I’ve forgotten, taught me things I never knew and would never have discovered on my own.
But more than that, it’s just fun. I mean, we really get down into it. In 90 minutes, maybe we get through two pages of text. Maybe. But that’s because we go back and forth debating about a word here, a phrase there, this verb tense or how this usually means something in Homer so what might it mean here? And also we crack wise and make puns.
We’ve taken a break for the holidays, but the plan is to get back to it in the coming weeks. And I can’t wait. It’s 90 minutes, maybe 2 hours. But it’s become a highlight of my week. I mean, I’d be enjoying it anyway, if I was just doing it on my own. But this ups the fun-factor by an order of magnitude.
And let me tie this back to the German thing. I said that when people speak only German with me, it makes me feel like they take me seriously as a German speaker. Well, when we do Herodotus together, I feel like he takes me seriously as a classicist.
Which is not to say he takes me seriously like a peer or an equal. He’s been doing this longer than I’ve been alive. So he’s very much the prof and I’m very much the student. But he definitely treats me as somebody who knows their shit and with whom he can do this in a way that it’s fun and not work; another recurring theme in this post, apparently.
All to say, this Herodotus reading group (can two people be a “reading group”?) happened by accident. But it’s kinda fucking gorgeous. It’s all of the things I love. Good people. Greek. Puns. Intellectual engagement. What’s not to love?
So I’ll leave it here. It’s 2019. Hopefully this is the year where German overtakes English as the primary language in most of my relationships. This is the year I read the Torah for a second time; this time trying to understand what the fuck it’s actually talking about rather than just muddling through the Hebrew. This is the year I finish my Yiddish grammar book and get that language to a level where I can actually read shit. And who knows what else? But it’s 2019. This is the year…
- Sometimes. [↩]
- When I’m not rockin’ the third wheel, I’m rockin’ the fifth. [↩]
- I wrote this post a week ago and am only proofing it now… [↩]
- I don’t care for this term, but it serves the purpose here. [↩]
- In German, “bus” is masculine: “Der Bus.” So the correct sentence is, “Ich hab denBus verpasst.” I would almost certainly make “bus” feminine: “Ich hab dieBus verpasst.” Whereas Turkish “street” German would omit the gendered article altogether, giving “Ich hab [_] Bus verpasst.” [↩]