An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
9 March, 2019

Hola!  Que paso?  Yeah, so apparently I’m learning Spanish now?  I don’t know why I said that like it’s a question.  It’s not.  Apparently I’m actually learning Spanish now.  Mostly for the same reason people climb Everest.  It’s there.

So remember a while back I mentioned that in our school we have a woman from Columbia who teaches German? And I said that she would often chat me up in the kitchen in Spanish.  Usually I could understand her, but I was also pretty incapable of answering back.  Well, anyway, we’ve been working together for over two years already, so we’ve gotten to be pretty friendly.

And somehow or another, the idea of doing Spanish lessons came up.  Which is weird, in a way.  Cos it’s not something I ever thought about pursuing.  I mean, I’ve never been particularly attracted to Spanish as a language; certainly not the way I’m attracted to Italian or French, for example.  And also, I’m busy.  Not just life busy, but language busy.  In theory, I should have my hands full with German and French and Hebrew and Greek and Yiddish.  So going after Español wasn’t exactly something that was on my mind.

But at the same time, when you’re offered free lessons by someone you know, by a teacher you like, well, how you gonna say no to that?  And they are free, btw.  She – Claudia is her name – just likes doing this.  Although in a way that was vaguely reminiscent of The Godfather, she did say something along the lines of, “I don’t want your money.  But one day, I may ask you for a favor.”  Probably on the day of her daughter’s wedding, amirite?

Anyway, it’s fun.  And she’s really encouraging.  We always start with her asking me about my week, and I just have to do my best to answer in Spanish.  And at first, I was super shy.  Like, I forgot 99% of what I learned in HS and the little bit the remained was bound to be a mess.  Funny thing though, she told me what I always tell my own students.

“Just fucking talk. Who cares if you make mistakes? That’s how your gonna learn and that’s how I’m gonna see what you know and what you don’t.”  Oh, yeah, good advice, fam.1  Since then, I just roll with what I got, no fucks given.  And every week, it’s a tiny bit better than before.

She also gives me HW, which of course I need.  But rather than do it at home, I do it in the mornings before class starts.  It’s actually a nice way to start the day.  I get to work super early anyway.  So I grab a couple of clementines and a cup of tea and sit down and do 15-20 minutes of Spanish every day.  And it’s just a very relaxing way to ease into the day.

The whole thing makes for a rather fascinating look at how my brain works too.  See, cos I had Spanish in HS.  And while I never really learned it as a “language,” in the way that I understand that to mean now, I did learn a lot of vocabulary.  What I mean is, in school, I never understood the grammar. And I never really managed to be able to usethe language, you know, for communication.  But somewhere deep in my brain, there’s this decent repository of words, and on a very basic level, some gut-feeling of how shit is supposed to sound.  Which helps with conjugating verbs, believe it or not.  

But the other thing I find interesting is the role that French plays in all this.  Because they’re obviously both romance languages, right? So when I need a word, and I can’t remember anything, I often go to a French word and try to reverse-engineer it into Spanish.  It doesn’t always work, but often as not it gets me close enough that Claudia at least understands what I’m after.  

It’s also hard to break out of some French patterns for the most basic words like “and” and “but.”  Like, I find myself saying maisinstead of peroand etinstead of y.  Which is hilarious.  Because I feel like an old world grandmother.  Or better yet, my own old world great grandmother.  In those tapes of Bubbi, she’s always saying shit like “UndI remember mein schwester…”  Like, yeah, I guess that’s English…ish?  So sometimes I say shit like “mon amigo,” bc I get my wires crossed.  But it’s all good.  That shit will straighten itself out eventually.  If I do this long enough, anyway.

One nice thing Claudia said to me, she said she likes working with me bc it’s easy.  “You’re a teacher.  You studied Latin.  You get it. I explain things once, and you have it.” Which is not to say that “having it” is the same as “mastering it.”  I still make plenty of repeat mistakes.  Just that conceptually, I understand things with little difficulty.  But she said that, and I was just kinda like, “Oh, thank gods.”  

Bc one thing I’ve found in this job, teachers make the absolute worst students.  I get students sometimes who have taught languages; who have even taught lower level English.  And they’re insufferable.  They can be very know-it-all-y.  And they have their own opinions about howto teach, about pedagogy.  And just like, shut up, you know?  You want me coming into your class and telling you how shit works?  

I’m the same way, not for nothing.  Or I was, when I did my CELTA.  I was always showing off my Greek and Latin and grammar and whatnot.  I must have been insufferable.  But now that I’m on the other side of it, I can see how wretched that all is.  

So I’m conscious of that when I work with Claudia.  She’s the teacher, I trust her.  I’m just along for the ride.  I try to check my own shit at the door now and let her run her show.  So far, it seems to be working.

Anyway, I said earlier that I’ve never really felt any great attraction to Spanish.  And that’s true enough.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum.  Or the biblioteca, as it were.  Reconnecting with Spanish has brought back a flood of happy memories.  The oldest being just doing vocab flash cards with my mom, back in the day.  I mean, that’s definitely something I took for granted at the time.  Hell, I probably even found it rather annoying, since I didn’t enjoy Spanish in school.  But come on, how many kids have a mom who will just sit and quiz them on vocab flash cards?  Pretty cool. Gracias, mamita.

But it’s also bringing back a ton of memories from my time at Starbucks.  Which surprised me, tbh.  Bc look, I did that job for a year.  And that year was 2004-05, so that’s a long time ago already.  But we were a really tight group down at the William St shop. We would often hang out after work, pouring vodka into our passion fruit ice teas.  They’d come over to my apartment and we’d drink on the roof.  Or I’d go up to the Boogey-down and we’d kick in the BX.2

And when I said we were a tight group, I mean it.  It’s kinda the only job I can think of where I can remember all the names and all the faces. And that’s 15 years ago.  Compare that to the school I worked at before coming to Germany, and already most of the names are gone, the faces are fuzzy. But from Starbucks?  Man, we had fun.

It was always super slow on Saturdays.  So that was always a good time for whoever I was working with to teach me some Spanish. And they were great about it, you know? Like, they’d encourage me to try and talk to a Spanish speaking customer in Spanish.  Which I definitely did not have the balls to do.

I remember I’d learn one bit of slang from a Puerto Rican one day.  And then I’d try it the next day with a Dominican, and they’d just laugh at me.  Like, “Where you learned that mierda?” And vice versa.  I remember the way this one girl, would always roll her ‘r’ when saying the number three. That was adorable.  Or the way one of the girls would teach me Spanglish.  “Dave, you ready for lonche?”3

And like I said, none of this was because I had some overriding love of Spanish.  Just, these were my co-workers, who became my friends for a time.  And they were happy to share their language and their culture with me.  And I just loved that.

Because it was the culture as much as the language.  There was this one girl, man she was super cute.  And one day she tells me, “Dave, I gotta put on some weight, yo.”  And I’m like, “Are you kidding?  You look amazing.”  And she was just like, “Nah, you don’t understand.  Spanish girls gotta be bigger.”  I mean, it was a longer conversation.  But the point was, she opened me up to a whole nother cultural conception of what ‘beautiful’ is.  That was new for me, and I’ll never forget that.  Or how one of the girls introduced me to pernil, which is a roasted pork shoulder.  Eye-opening shit for a 23-year old. 

Later, I had a temp gig at an investment bank.  So obviously everybody that worked there was rich and white.  Except for my direct boss (who I guess was like an operations manager?) who was black and the receptionist, who was from Ecuador.  They were both great.

I was pretty close with the receptionist for the time that I worked there.  And she also was always happy to teach me little bits of Spanish.  I’ll never forget, at the end of my first day, when I was leaving, I said goodbye to her in Spanish.  We didn’t really know each other yet.  So I’m all “Te veo mañana.”4  And she’s like, “Wait, are you Spanish?”  To which I said, “Umm, do I lookSpanish?”  You know, cos I’m so white, I get sunburnt in the shade.

But she was just like, “Dude, come on, that doesn’t mean anything.”  Which was news to a 24-year old who went to all levels of school with almost exclusively white people.  Anyway, she was great.  And she’s another one, I remember the name and the face, even though we never spoke after I left that gig.  But while I was there, she was only to happy to share her language and her culture with me.

And the funny thing is, both of those jobs kinda sucked.  The jobs themselves, I mean.  Being a barista.  Being a temp. These were not nice jobs.  But the people.  They were fucking great, man.  And 15 years on, those are such happy memories for me.

So it’s interesting to compare those experiences with my current job.  Y’all know I love this job.  I look forward to going into work.  It’s great.  And you bet I like my colleagues.  But I’m not tight with them the way I was tight with that lot.  And I don’t imagine I’ll remember the people I work with now as fondly as I do the Starbucks gang or the investment bank receptionist, in another 15 years.

But I guess it’s one of those Breakfast Club kinda things.  You all get thrown together in a less than ideal situation.  People who might never be friends in the real world. But you bond in that environment. And you’re tight for as long as it lasts.  And then your paths diverge again.  But what’s the song from that movie?  “Don’t you…forget about me…”  Well, I haven’t so far.  And I don’t think I ever will.

The point is, I miss those mutherfuckers.  And learning Spanish brings that all back.

So much for Español. I’ve also decided it’s time I finally learn English.  What’s that you say?  You’re a native speaking English teacher?  Surely you know English already?  Oh, sorry. I meant, oldEnglish.  As in, Anglo-Saxon.  I’m talking Beowulf English.  The OG. 

Justin sent me this great meme.  It goes something like this: “Q: How come we say bakedbut also naked? Shouldn’t those sound the same? A: That’s because English isn’t actually a language.  It’s actually three languages dressed in a trench coat pretending to be one.”  

Which is more or less true. I have two analogies that I use with my students.  The first is that English is a French house built on a German foundation.  The other is that English is the unruly teenage child of French and German that does whatever the fuck it wants.  Which is true enough.  

But although we say “German,” what we really mean is “Germanic.”  To put it another way, Old English (Anglo-Saxon) was a dialect of German spoken in the NW of what today is Germany.  It has much in common with the local dialects of that region still.  But that is not the dialect of German that won out when Germany became a unified country in the 19thcentury and a single standard German was agreed upon.  So in that sense, Old English is not German.  A modern day German can’t pick up Beowulf and understand it.  But the similarities are there if you know what you’re looking for.

Aaaanyway.  I’ve said before that one of my strengths as a teacher is my knowledge of the languages that influence English.  I can give Greek and Latin roots.  I can trace the origins of words through French or show their cognates in Modern German.  Hell, I can even show how some Slavic words have the same roots as English words.

And so it is perhaps ironic that my biggest blind spot in English is, well, English itself.  I have no working knowledge of pre-10665English.  And tbh, I’m kind of ashamed of that.  So finally, I’ve decided to tackle Old English. 

Well, I say “finally,” but really, this is my third attempt.  I tried once in New York and got nowhere.  I tried again like 18 months ago and also got nowhere.  But now I’m going at it again, this time more slowly, more methodically.  I’ve just started.  But this is for real this time.  I can feel it, you guys.  

I’m not setting any goals, in terms of time.  It’ll take however long it takes.  I’m just gonna work through it.  But can I tell you something?  I kinda love it.  Like, a lot. First of all, it just soundsbadass.  But more than that, it’s like lighting a candle in a dark room.  You can’t see everything, not even close. But all of a sudden, you’re seeing shit you never knew was there.

Also, though, there’s something deeper at work.  I’m talking birthright/heritage shit right now.  Who am I?  Where do I come from?  Linguistically, I mean.  On the one hand, there’s Yiddish.  All of my family on both sides is out of Eastern Europe.  So literally every branch of my family was speaking Yiddish 150 years ago.  

But my mother tongue is English.  And it doesn’t matter that I’m not a WASP.  I was born into English just as I was born into Yiddish, albeit in very different ways.  My connection to those languages may be radically different.  But there is one common outcome.  A desire to know whyI say the things I say.  A desire to know whereit all comes from.  And so it makes sense to me that I’m trying to learn Yiddish at the same time as I’m trying to learn Old English.  They both teach me something about who I am.  

In other news, the music stuff keeps on keeping on.  I get together with Bibi and Ralf once a week, and that’s coming along nicely.  I’m also working on this Scarlatti sonata, which is pretty cool.  Still a ways to go with that one, but it’s a pretty sick sounding piece.  

One thing I was thinking about the other day, this may be the farthest I’ve ever come with classical guitar.  I mean, yeah, I took lessons in college.  Whereas now I’m just working on my own.  And my repertoire may be smaller now than it was when I was taking lessons.  But if it’s smaller, it’s also more advanced.  Not that anybody’s ever gonna mistake me for a professional musician, but I’m handling pieces now that I was never able to handle before.  

So my technique is perhaps the best it’s ever been.  And that’s translating somehow to the music I’m doing with Bibi and Ralf.  I feel like my coordination is better, my picking is tighter. On the other hand, the music that we play tends to be on the slow side, so maybe it’s all just an illusion.  An illusion.  An illusion.  Aww Yeaahhh.6

What I mean is, obviously when I was playing metal, the music was much much faster and therefore more technically demanding.  So while I feel like I’m more technically proficient now, maybe I’m the same as I ever was and it just feels that way bc we’re doing slower stuff.  

I guess it doesn’t matter in the end.  The point is, I’m enjoying it and I think I’m doing some good stuff with those two.  

Reading-wise, my boy Dumas seems to have taken a sharp and sudden turn for the boring.  One minute it’s D’Artagnan and the boys kicking ass. The next, it’s some creepy unrequited love triangle between Louis XIV, some other joker and some married dame, who, best I can tell, is hot, coquettish and totally useless.  So I had to put that shit down for a little minute. 

In it’s place, I’ve just re-read 1984 which…just…sigh.  I mean, that’s a whole nother conversation.  And I’m reading some Lovecraft short stories.  He’s pretty great, if you like dark and creepy.  Umm, let me clarify.  His writing is great if you like dark and creepy.  As a human being, he was apparently, well, dark and creepy. And not in that good way.  Seems he was quite the raging racist, is what I’m saying.  But whatever, he’s dead.  So Imma just enjoy his stories.  

When I finish with those, it’s back to my boy JV – Jules Verne – who never lets me down.  I’ve just picked up a new paperback, Les Cinq Cents Millions de la Bégum.  Apparently, it’s supposed to be somewhat dark and dystopic.  So I’m fairly amped to get going with that.

And that’s when I realized. On any given day, I might be interacting with no less than eight languages.  French on the train.  A bit of Spanish and Yiddish before class.  English in class and German in the real world.  Hebrew when I get home.  A bit of Old English in the evening and some Homer before bed.  

You know, sometimes I get the question, “Jeez, Dave, how many languages do you speak?”  To which I invariably respond, “I speak English.” Because my French and German, while functional, are hot messes.  My Spanish and Yiddish are hardly usable.  And the other ones are dead languages.  And I like dead languages.  You don’t have to deal with people.

So I speak English. But yeah, on some level, I’m doing something with up to eight languages.  Meanwhile, I spoke to Charlotte yesterday.  She’s in South America now, remember.  So we had a long conversation about Spanish.  It was great.  We totally nerded out over Spanish grammar.  I mean, there’s a reason we’re friends, right?

Anyway, she’s like, “So. Still no Italian, huh?”  And I’m just like, “Fucking sigh, no.”  Like, all I ever wanted to do is learn Italian. And all I do is keep learning shit that’s not Italian.  And she’s like, “Welp, you’ll just have to move to Italy.”

And you know what? Maybe.  I mean, putting aside the part of me that’s all “Go be of service to your country and become a civil rights/immigration lawyer already,” why not go live in Italy?  It’s a tempting thought at this time of year, as winters in Berlin are objectively shite. And how long do I really want to live in a country where I find the culture too rigid, where the architecture is dull and where the food is, shall we say, less than inspiring?  

And maybe if my job was different, I’d be more apt to leave.  But I love my job.  I love the freedom I have to make it my own.  I love that it’s steady and I don’t live the normal freelance teacher life of constantly trying to find the next gig.  And I have friends here that I love, that I’m very close with.  I mean, what are the odds I could build friendships on the level of Joschka or Anne or Zibs and Jan somewhere else?  

But on the other hand, how long do I really want to be here?  And if I go home, for the purpose of pursuing a law career, then that’s kinda it, isn’t it?  That would be the end of this whole living abroad adventure.  

So on some level, I have a feeling like I owe it to myself.  Whether it’s in one year or three or ten, shouldn’t I at least make a go of living in Itlay for a year or two?  I mean, every time I go there, the second I get off the plane, I’m hit with this feeling of “Why don’t I live here?!” 

I dunno.  That’s not a plan, by any means.  I’m not even sure it’s a goal.  But it’s something that’s on my mind.  And in the winter, it’s on my mind all the more.  

Also France.  It’s a source of great frustration to me that I can read French as well as I do, but that the spoken language is a struggle. And it’s only a struggle bc I’m not immersed in it.  With French, I always feel like it’s just beyond my fingertips.  Like, if I could just be surrounded by French for six months, I could manage that language really quite well.  Better than I manage German even.  I’d love to be able to do that.

So there’s this conflict. On the one hand, there’s this feeling that I should be doing something more important with my life.  On the other hand, I have this strong desire to live in Italy, to learn the language that, before any other, lit my love affair with languages.  Also to eat good bread.  On the third hand, to live in France and get properly good at that language.  And also to eat good bread.  But on a fourth hand, I have a great job here.  And relationships that are super important to me. There’s so many hands, Imma need an octopus to figure this shit out.

But all that’s for another day.  For now, Imma just keep on keeping on.  I’ve got enough to keep me busy.  More than busy.  Engaged. Mentally, socially, emotionally, musically.  I guess what I’m saying is, good bread can wait.  Just maybe not forever…

זײַ געסונט


  1. Did I use “fam” correctly?  Also, are we still saying “fan”? []
  2. Living in Germany has not been good for my command of urban slang.  Also, getting old doesn’t help either. []
  3. Lunch, obvi. []
  4. Like a boss jefe. []
  5. The year of the Norman invasion, which forever changed the English language.  The conquering (French) Normans basically dropped their own language on top of the existing language.  It took about 300 years, but eventually they merged into what we would recognize as “English.”  Compare Chaucer (AD 1300-ish) and Beowulf (AD 800-ish) and you’ll see what I mean. []
  6. Fury throwback! []

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