An American in Berlin
4 February, 2019
Right, so obviously if I write a post going on about how much progress I’m making with my German, what’s the first thing that’s gonna happen? Yup, you guessed it. Reality check. All the way from Bavaria. But that’s as may be. First, the visit.
So last weekend, our friends Anna and Stefan visited Joschka and me in the big city. I’ve written about them before, but by way of a refresher, we know them from the metal festivals. Anna is in her early-mid twenties and Stefan is her father. And they’re both wonderful people. Stefan and I bond over our love of NWOBHM;1 I think we’re the only people we know who are really into that stuff.
Anyway, they came up for the weekend. Now, whenever we go down to visit them, they always take proper good care of us. They take us out to the local pubs, give us waves of high quality schnapps and Stefan always cooks up a top-notch meal. As a result, it was really important to Joschka and me to return the favor.
That meant a proper feast. Appetizers, main, sides, dessert and good quality drinks. For the apps, Joschka made a slamming hummus from scratch, part of which was also a homemade tahini base. He also made a pumpkin soup, again from scratch. To go with the hummus, I went to Neukölln, where all the best Arabic and Turkish bakeries are, and got some really nice bread.
For the main, oh boy, skirt steak. Now, I’ve been looking for skirt steak in this country since I got here, and I’d never been able to find it. Finally, I asked my students last month if they knew anything about this. And none of them did. But one at least knew somebody to ask. So she came back with the 411. She helped me special order it, which was the only way to get it. And from the date of ordering, I had to wait a week for it to arrive. And yet despite all this, it was pretty cheap. 10 Euros/kilo, which I guess is like 5 bucks a pound. Because they just consider it nothing more than “Suppenfleisch,” soup meat. I gather that’s why nobody bothers to carry it. Boy are they missing out.
Now, grilling is not an option here in January. But Joschel has this new sous-vide machine, which is not anything I’d ever heard of before. But basically, you vacuum seal the meat in a plastic bag and then in immerse it in a water bath which is maintained at a constant temperature. End result, the meat is cooked perfectly every time. All that’s left to do, when you take it out of the bath, is to give it a quick sear in the pan to get a little crispy crust on the outside. Anyway, the steak was a bit of teamwork. I prepped the meat with a soy sauce marinade and did the pan work at the end. J took care of the sous-vide process.
For the sides, I made “my” string beans. Normally, I sauté them in bacon fat and at the end, give them a squirt of lemon juice and sprinkle them with rock salt. Super simple, but super good, and a creation I’m not a little proud of. This time we didn’t have bacon fat, so I just sautéed them in the steak drippings, which worked pretty well. Alongside that, I seasoned up some potatoes and roasted ‘em in the oven.
I took care of dessert as well. Back to the Neukölln bakeries, I picked out two different kinds of baklava as well as some cookies with chocolate and pistachio and some kind of jelly squares with nuts inside and a pistachio crust. Joschka curated the wine and schnapps selections.
Well, it was a fucking hit, you guys. The hummus and pumpkin soup were killer, and the bread was a perfect match for the hummus. The steak came out fucking perfect, and everybody loved it. None of them had ever had skirt steak before, so they didn’t really know what to expect. But by the end, they were asking all kinds of questions: what’s it called, where did you get it, how do you get, etc. At the end, there was not one piece of meat, not one string bean, not one potato left, not one spoonful of soup left. The drinks were on point. Our guests couldn’t have been happier.
For that matter, neither could me or Joschka. Seriously, we spent the rest of that night and most of the next day high-fiving and patting ourselves on the back. The phrase, “Dude, we fucking nailed that” was uttered more than a few times. So that was a fucking win.
Which is more than I can say for my German. Now look, it wasn’t a total fucking failure. A total failure would have been them being, “OK, this is too much effort, so we’re just going to English at you.” That didn’t happen. We Germaned the whole time. And if I didn’t understand something or needed something repeated, explanations and repetitions came in German. The only exceptions were when Joschka and I were cooking, and when Joschka explained the rules of a board game to me; which, fine, I can live with that.
So in that sense, it was OK. But I very much ran up against my limitations with the language too. Because look, it’s one thing to chat and converse. And I mean, I’m even at the point where I’m fast enough to crack one liners and make puns with proper timing. Which is big for me.
But where I fall down is story telling. Because it’s one thing to relate the main points of a story in an accurate way. It’s another thing to make that story interesting and fun. I can handle the former. The latter, not so much.
Which is tough for me, because I like to think I can spin a pretty decent yarn in English. In fact, it’s part of my job. Maybe I always had some skill with this, but it’s definitely something I’ve honed in my 2.5 years of teaching.
Digression-wise, I’ve found story-telling to be a very effective teaching tool. It’s something I picked up from one of my CELTA instructors. There are a number of benefits, if you do it right. First of all, it humanizes you. It makes you more relatable to the students. And – again, if you do it right – it’s entertaining. You get laughs, you build rapport. You also give the students a welcome reprieve from the drudgery of “work.” Well, it works for me, anyway. And, I think, I can read a room. I can see when a story is working with an audience.
And I can see when it’s not. Which is what happened with the Bavarians. Once or twice, I tried to tell some story or other. And I could just see in their faces, it wasn’t going well. I could feel the vibe drop; the energy just go out of the room.
Nobody said anything, of course. They’re my friends, and, like I said, they’re lovely people. So they were courteous enough to listen attentively. But I could tell they were doing it out of kindness and not any sort of edge-of-the-seat what-happens-next-ness. Sort of like when a comedian bombs. Only without the heckling.
So one measure of success with a foreign language is the extent to which you can be “yourself” in that language. And I don’t totally fail here. Like I said, I can pun rather well in German. Hell, I can pun bilingually; puns, in other words, that only work if you know both languages. I can lob zingers and say inappropriate things in German. That far, at least, I can be some version of “myself.” But man, fucking storytelling eludes me.
Sometimes I feel like my German is a station car, the beat up piece of junk that you only drive to and from the train station. Like, it definitely gets me from A to B. But it doesn’t have AC or power windows, the heating doesn’t really work, and there’s a knock in the engine that you can’t get rid of. Yeah, it gets me where I need to go. But I’d be embarrassed to pick up a date in this bucket of bolts.
But it does get me where I need to go, and that ain’t nothing. So I think I mentioned last time how I’ve started jamming with this student of mine. It seems to be becoming a regular thing. And Friday we took it to the next level. She invited me to come and jam with her and her guitar teacher; and also her son, who is learning the cajón. The cajón is basically a wooden box that you sit on and drum with your fingers; it’s a percussion instrument. Maybe you knew that, but I didn’t.
Anyway, she invited me to come jam with her teacher and her son. So we get there, and her teacher couldn’t have been nicer. Super lovely guy. And at first, he’s like, “We can speak English.” But Bibiyana, my student, was like, “Dude, he can German.” And after that, it was all German. Which is great. Really. I love that I’m beginning to build relationships here where German is just the language. Makes me feel more a part of this place, you know?2
But the point is the music. Now, she told me he had a guitar I could use, so I wouldn’t have to schlep mine, which was nice. So he hands me this flamenco guitar. And thank gods for that, bc I hate playing steel-strings. But also, I figured that moment was kind of my best chance to set a good impression, to let this guy know he could take me somewhat seriously as a player. So I sit down and run through the intro to the Sor variations. And he was like, “Whoa, you can play classical? Not bad!” Boom, instant credibility. Which is important. Because it’s nice to have something in the bank when I make mess of improvising later.
Anyway, we got tuned up and started running through some tunes. Mostly stuff me and BIbi had already been working on, but also a couple of new tunes. And you guys, it sounded good. Like, we were making this three guitar thing work. She would do arpeggiated finger-picking, he would strum chords and I would put some melodies and harmonies around what they were doing. I gotta say, it was a pretty good sound. And it’s not just me saying that. Everybody was pretty high on it. We all left feeling pretty excited to do it again.
Plus, having her son there to work the cajónand put some percussion under it all was a fine touch. This kid is great, btw. I think he’s like 13, or thereabouts. But he’s a super-sweet kid and made for a pretty cool group dynamic.
Me and Bibi were talking about where we’d like to go with this, and the idea is, we’d love to get enough stuff together to take this thing on the road. By which I mean, play a gig at a pub or something. We’re not there yet, mind you. We haven’t even perfected the songs we have. Nor do we have enough songs yet to fill out a whole set. But that’s the goal, and we’re working towards it. We’ll see where it all goes.
One thing that’s interesting about all this is, Bibi and her teacher – Ralph, btw – aren’t into the same stuff as me. They’re pretty into the 60’s and sort of softer folk-rock kinda stuff. Nice music, but not normally my scene. But that’s actually kinda cool for me, and here’s why.
Most of the songs we’re doing, I’ve never heard before. Which means I get to come at them fresh. I’m not trying to copy the original. I can’t, bc I have no idea what the original sounds like. I get to put my own imprint on the songs, find my own music in them, if I can say that. And that’s a fun challenge for me. And apparently, they seem to like what I’m doing. So, you know, good stuff there.
“Apparently,” I said. Now there’s an interesting word. It came up in class this week. I used it once or twice. And then a student was like, “So what’s the deal with ‘apparently’? I hear this word all the time.”3 Whereupon did I explain that it’s kind of a cultural difference between English and German.
Because, see, in German, there’s a higher degree of rigidity. What I mean is, people are very comfortable making bold, declarative statements, with little or no mitigation. Whereas in English, we like to mitigate everything. We don’t like to claim anything as a fact, absent absolute certainty. And even then….
I mean, without firsthand experience, nothing is certain for us. Everything is ‘apparently,’ or ‘like,’ or ‘-ish,’ or ‘I guess.’ You get the picture. But they didn’t. Not at first. So I gave them an example.
“My brother,” says I, “is married. He has a wife. And a dog. And also, apparently, a horse.” Now why did I say apparently here? After all, I ‘know’ they have a horse. I’ve seen pictures. They talk about it all the time. But like, I’ve never actually seenthis horse. And anyway, come on. Who has a fucking horse, amirite? So yeah, until I actually see this beast with my own two eyes, it’s apparently.
(A further clarification here. I’ve just discussed this whole apparentlything with Niki, and she pointed out – quite rightly – that we also use ‘apparently’ for things we know to be true, but somehow feel shouldn’tbe true. For example: “Apparently, this is what the Germans call pizza.” Which of course, there’s no ‘apparently’ about it. They absolutely call this flatbread-with-sauce-and-cheese “pizza.” But they sure as shit shouldn’t, say the two jaded New Yorkers. So we add ‘apparently’ to the comment, to underline the ridculosity of the premise).
Well, they got the picture. And now, they’re using ‘apparently’ with abandon. And using it correctly, too. It’s fucking hilarious. And also kinda awesome.
And I gotta say, it’s a really good group right now. I’ve said that before, I know. And maybe it’s not the most amazing group of all time. But it’s a really fucking good group. They’re smart, they’re funny, they’re curious. And we give each other shit all day long, which is just fun.
We were all having lunch in the kitchen the other day, one of my guys hits me with some or other zinger. I don’t remember what it was, but it was pretty solid. But you know, I’m like, “Dude, come on. I’m on my break. I didn’t come here for abuse.” And he was just like, “But you taught us this. We learn abuse from you.”
And I was just like, “Shit, you’re right.” Like, I’ve created monsters. Sarcastic, piss-taking monsters. And just, I couldn’t be more proud, you know?
So yeah, work is a lot of fun right now. And sure, it usually is, right? But it’s not always. End of last summer, beginning of fall, it was really kind of a drag. But it’s fun again now. Like, I really look forward to going in every day.4
But also, after almost 2.5 years, I’m finally starting to get some real feedback. And it’s almost all really positive. I have students telling me how much they love my class. Myclass. They tell me I’m really good at explaining things. Which is obvi pretty important. But they also tell me it’s fun, which is just as important imo. Because you learn better if you’re having fun, I think.
And my boss, too. One nice thing about my boss, he also likes a tipple. So Friday before last, after class, we split of a bottle of sparkling wine. We chatted about a number of things. But he also said some really nice things to me. Things like he’s really happy he has me; that he thinks I’m properly good at my job; that the students “love” me – his word.
And yeah, also that other thing I’ve heard two or three times before. You know the one. The old, “You’re too smart to be doing this forever.” So he asked what I wanted to do after this. Academia? he wondered. Maybe, I said. Or law. Which is still very much on my mind.
This question also came up in class a few weeks ago. I went around the room asking the students what they wanted to do when they finished their courses. And after they’d all answered, they asked me what I wanted to do “when I grow up,” which is actually how I put the question to them.
So I told them about the whole law thing. And I explained that I feel like I need to do something good for my country, to help my country in these difficult times. That although I absolutely love my job, I think it’s kind of selfish of me to be over in Germany, enjoying myself, while my country – and the people in it – need help. And after a bit of a silence, came a most unexpected response.
“But you are helping your country,” said one of my girls. “You’re representing your country. You’re showing people here that there are actually good people in America.” Or words to that effect. At which point, one or two other students enthusiastically seconded the point.
I was pretty touched. Honestly. I mean, in no way was I fishing for compliments. Fuck, I wasn’t even expecting a response of any kind. And then that. They weren’t blowing smoke, either. You could tell, they were quite earnest in saying that.
And the truth is, that’s an angle I’d never considered. But I guess there’s some truth to it. After all, what do these people see about America on a daily basis? Trump? Mass shootings? Racism? Ask a German on the street what they think of America, you’re likely to hear about one or more of those things before you hear anything good.
But how many Americans do they actually know? Well, they know me. And whatever else I’m doing, it seems I’m being a good ambassador for the ol’ US of A. Apparently.
Does that change how I feel about things? Probably not, in the big picture. I still think it’s selfish of me to be here, doing what I’m doing. And I don’t think being a good ambassador to a group of 8-12 students at a time does nearly the good that working in civil rights or immigration law could do. But I guess it ain’t nothing, neither.
I met Anne and Annett for drinks earlier last week. Which was great. But it was more great than usual. So Annett, right? She’s really my first friend in this country. I mean, Joschka, but I met him in the States. Annett is the first person I met herewho’s really my friend. We met at a language meet up in 2015 when I was doing my CELTA.
And I love Annett. She’s a properly wonderful person, by which I mean, she has a properly good heart. She’s kind. But she’s also a bit of a lost soul. And most of the time I’ve known her, well, I hesitate to say it. But, really, I don’t think she’s been a very happy person. I think she’s someone who’s sort of looking for purpose a little bit. As long as I’ve known her, she’s sort of bounced from job to job, never really finding anything that has any meaning for her.
Well, now she’s trying something new. She’s taking a course to become a German language teacher. Which I think she’ll be great at, not for nothing. Anyway, we’re there having drinks. And all of a sudden, we’re talking shop. Phonetics and pronunciation mostly. But man, she lit up like I’ve never seen before. She was just really excited to be talking about this stuff.
And of course, this is in my wheelhouse now. This is my “profession”…apparently. But I love talking about this shit. So I’m getting excited, just having somebody to talk about it with. And she’s getting excited. And man, that was just a fun conversation.
But really, the big thing is, I think – I hope – she’s finally found something that will be fulfilling for her. Because, yeah, she deserves it. But more than that, I think she needs it. So I’m really excited for her. I mean, I can’t tell you how happy it made me to see her jazzed up for something, anything. But especially this thing. Because, fucking yes, I think she’s gonna be great at it.
Oh, and also, just a great fucking time with those two. I dunno, I wonder if there’s something special about a tripartite friendship. If you wanna go back to ancient history, you get the two Roman triumvirates. Or more recently, high school: CoDog, Jared and myself. Or post college: me, Joschel and Vinny. And now here, Anne, Annett and me.
There’s a kind of perfection in three, when it comes to friends. Like, any given two have their own unique relationships. But then the complete three also have a really special thing. You know – and I’m talking out of my ass now, riffing – but I wonder if maybe that’s the reason why Dumas titled his book Les TroisMousquetaires– The ThreeMusketeers. Even though there’s fucking four of them. Because maybe, I dunno, but maybe even my boy Alex was thinking, “Hey, yeah, three is the magic number for friends.”
All to say, I love the shit out of Anne. She’s my drinking buddy. She’s sarcastic and caustic and vulgar and sweet and talented and hilarious. And I love the shit out of Annett. She’s kind and earnest, giving and empathetic, and also fucking talented. Very different people, those two. And yet, not all that different. And then we get together, and it just fucking works. Annett tempers me and Anne and we open her up a bit. Is what I would say, anyway. But whatever it is, it fucking works a treat. Apparently.
Almost time to wrap this bitch up, but before I do, lemme go back to music for a second. The Barry Sisters, you guys. The fucking Barry Sisters. Holy shit are they fucking fantastic. And yet, you’re asking yourself at this very moment, who the actual fuck are The Barry Sisters? Well, I’ll tell you.
They’re a duo. Sisters, obvi. From the mid-century. And they sing in Yiddish. But they sing like big-band and jazz. And yeah, some traditional stuff too. But omg so good! Killer harmonies. Great tunes. And fucking Yiddish, you guys.
This will be the weirdest comparison ever, but here goes. They’re like a wholesome, Yiddish, jazzy B-52’s. I know that sounds ridiculous, but give a listen. Tell me I’m wrong. Really. You’ve got two broads singing catchy tunes with sick harmonies in a way that’s so fun, even a grumpy SOB like me has to smile. And they do it in Yiddish. I don’t normally do links in this blog, but I’ll make an exception here. Four songs: Vyoch Tyoch Tyoch; Yuh Mein Liebe Tochter; Zug Es Mir Noch Amool; Chiribim Chiribom. Uh, I said four. But actually, also this tune, which they do with some dude who scats the shit out of it: Halevai. This last one has more of a klezmer vibe, but it kicks proper fucking ass.
So there’s that. But let me also say this before closing. Here we are at the beginning of February, the halfway point of the National Hockey League season. And my beloved Islanders are sitting in first place in the Metropolitan Division. After years of futility. After our once-adored captain, that Benedict Arnold, the snake, he-who-shall-not-be-named, ditched us for Toronto. Here we are, and the team for whom my heart pumps blue and orange is not just in first place, but is also super fun to watch. Maybe the wheels fall off. Maybe they crash and burn. But also, maybe, just maybe, I’m watching something special here.
But you know what, it almost kinda doesn’t matter. This team that, in theory, I love through thick and thin, but in reality, I’ve basically just loved through only thin…this team, I say, is now an absolute fucking joy to watch. And I’m so proud of them. איך קוועלע. I’m kvelling.
Hockey is beautiful. My team is gorgeous. Music is a joy. And my friends are fucking fantastic. דינו. Dayenu.
- NWOBHM – New Wave of British Heavy Metal, a bright-burning quasi-DYI metal scene, ca. 1979-1983. The big bands to come out of this movement are Iron Maiden and Def Leppard; major bands known to metal fans would be Saxon and Diamond Head. But for the most part, the great majority of NWOBHM bands were one and done. [↩]
- Follow up note. We jammed with her teacher again this past Friday. And now I’m even starting to pick up some of the German music vocab. The words for major, minor, strings, etc. Cool. [↩]
- I paraphrase. My students don’t say “What’s the deal with ___ ?” [↩]
- Which is not to say I look forward to waking up at 6:38 every day. #eww [↩]