An American in Berlin
31 May, 2019
It’s funny how things connect, things that you would think couldn’t be further apart. So, remember back in December 2017 I visited Charlotte in Nice for Xmas? Well, part of the deal with all that was a gift exchange. Everybody was randomly assigned somebody else to give a gift to. Not like a Secret Santa, of which there was also. In this case, you knew who you were getting your gift from.
Anyway, I was assigned to Charlotte’s friend Rapha, who is fantastic btw. At the time, I was just finishing (or had just finished) the Three Musketeers. So her gift to me was an annotated edition of the 3M and the sequel, Vingt Ans Après, which had at one point belonged to her grandfather. Which, to me, is just so special. Because I love things that have history, that have a story, that have a personal connection.
But she also gave me another book, which seemed to me, at the time, to be totally random. It was by an author I’d never heard of, it was modern, and it seemed to be about a subject that would not normally be in my wheelhouse. The name of the book is Rue des Voleurs– Street of Thieves – by one Mathias Enard.1
I asked Charlotte if she’d read it, but she said she’d never even heard of it. She simply said, “It’s from Rapha,” or words to that effect. Which either meant that Rapha had read it and liked it, or that she had picked it off the shelf at random. I don’t honestly know.
Anyway, going by the back of the book, it looked like it could be interesting. But it didn’t really fit into my schema of alternating Dumas and Verne. So I kinda just stuck it on the shelf to be read at some indeterminate future date.
Fast forward to January of this year. This Turkish girl shows up in my class. Well, born in Turkey, but she’s a German citizen now. I mentioned her once before; wears a headscarf, curses like a sailor, cool af. Well, a while back, she asked me if I wouldn’t mind taking a look at something she had written in English. Which of course I was happy to do.
Turns out, what she was working on was a sort of memoir/autobiography kind of thing. At that point, she only had a couple of pages in a notebook. But you could see immediately that she had a helluva story to tell. And her English wasn’t bad. I mean, it was full of all the mistakes you would expect. Wrong prepositions, idioms that weren’t quite right, that sort of thing.
More interesting to me, as an English teacher, was the structure, the nuts and bolts of building sentences and paragraphs. Because you could see that this was a person who, on the one hand, was clearly intelligent, thoughtful, well read. But on the other hand, clearly didn’t have a whole lot of experience or training in formal English writing.
Which made this exactly the kind of project I love to work on as an English teacher. You have somebody who already has a voice, who is smart, who wants to learn. I mean, what else can you ask for, right?
So we’d sit down after class for an hour or so. And the small corrections go quickly: change this preposition, put the adverb here, that sorta thing. But then we can work on style. I’d present her with several different options of how she might compose a sentence; paratactic, hypotactic, subordinate clause first or last, all that jazz.
And she’d learn it, you guys. Sit down the next week, and shit I showed her last time would be cropping up in the new stuff. And the process is fun. Like this weird bilingual conversation goes on. She’ll explain an idea in German and I’ll offer some ways of dealing with it in English. Or I’ll explain a grammar point in German and she’ll turn around and work it out on the page in English.
Also, she pays for my alcohol while we work, which is just all of the winning. And also funny, because she doesn’t drink on religious grounds. So you have this American alcohol-imbibing Jew working with a Muslim tee-totaling Turk working on an English memoir in Berlin.
So I said she’s got a helluva story to tell. And it’s hers to tell. So I won’t say much about it here. But briefly, she comes from a religious family and she’s kind of the black sheep. She’s making a life in a country she wasn’t born in. She’s been through a lot of shit. I think I can leave it at that.
Well. I had to take a break from my boy Dumas. The first three Musketeer novels were some of the best shit I’ve ever read. The stories are epic, the characters are badass,2 and his style is just a pleasure to read. So I was on the fourth book. Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, vol ii. And it picks up where the last one left off, still kicking ass.
And then, all of a sudden, that shit hit a wall. And fast. One minute, I’m reading about middle-aged D’Artagnan and how he’s basically completely out of fucks to give. And then, next thing I know, I’m in the middle of some gods-awful love triangle between a young, angsty Louis XIV, some other even angstier clown, and this horrific, absolutely useless woman. And just, omg you guys, I couldn’t. I had to put that shit down.
Naturally, at this point, I turned to my boy JV. Jules Verne has never yet let me down. This time it would be Le Cinq Cent Millions de la Bégum. Hoo boy, this was a good one. Dark. I love when JV goes dark. I mean, there’s always a happy ending with this guy. But you can tell he had a dark side. And from what I can gather, it was really his editor who reigned that in, who pushed the happy ending shit on him. Although maybe he still had some embers of optimism burning. Who knows?
Point is, shit was dark. And excellent. And totally relevant to my life. The premise, in short, is that a French guy and a German guy each set about building their own competing Utopias. But each man’s vision was based on his cultural-national identity, as Verne understood them. So the French utopia was based on education, the arts and humanities. The German utopia was based on industry and cold Prussian efficiency.
And that shit spoke to me. Now look, obviously, he was playing up the stereotypes. There’s not a lot of nuance there. But reading it, I was just like, man, the French are soFrench! And the Germans are sooo German! In ways that I have personally experienced.
More than that though, it had the usual touch of Jules Verne prophecy. Because the German industrial utopia was basically a giant Krupp Werk– an arms factory. Like, the sole purpose of this city was to manufacture artillery. And not just artillery, but bigger, stronger, more destructive than anything that had ever been built before. We’re talking Dicke Bertha, Schwerer Gustav level shit.3 Except he’s writing this in the late 1800’s.
And of course the Germans are aggressive, expansionist. The German guy’s sole purpose is to wipe out the French utopia, thereby establishing the supremacy of German culture for all the world to see. I mean, he’s basically predicting major elements of both world wars, decades in advance.
Fine. So I finish Bégum. And I look over at Bragelonne, with the bookmark sticking out from 200 or so pages in. And I know I should finish it. But also, just, really? I mean, can I make myself care about this love-triangle cluster-f? Like, I know at some point the Man in the Iron Mask is gonna show up. But when? Fuck it, says I. I can’t, says I.
So I think, Hey, maybe this is a good time to crack into that random book Rapha gave me over a year ago. Which is what I do. And at first, it’s slow going. I mean, it’s one thing to read “the classics.” When you read Dumas or Verne, you’re reading “textbook” French. What I mean is, you’re reading the language as it’s taught in schools; not as it’s spoken on the street.
Well, I’ve gotten pretty good with “textbook” French. I don’t pretend to be native-speaker fluent. I absolutely use a dictionary. But I can read that shit on the subway, no problem. This new book, though. Different kettle of fish, friends. Horse of a different color. Slang. Modern idioms. Informal constructions. There’s also just a lot of everyday vocab. Like – and I’ve already forgotten the word – but the other day, I came across the word for “bra-strap.” That’s just not coming up in the Three Musketeers, know what I mean?4 So it’s something much more in line with what you hear on the street (or hanging out with friends in Nice), than what you learn in school. It took some getting used to, is what I’m trying to say.
So it’s slow going. My dictionary is my new best friend. It’s “work.” But that’s OK. The first Verne that I read was Around the World in 80 Days. That was slow-going too. Needed the dictionary ten times a page. But I got through it. And now I read JV on the subway. Like a boss, y’all.
I’ll get there with this book, too. Just, it’s slow going now. But it’s fun. I enjoy it. If it’s “work,” it’s rewarding work. And it’s opening me up to a new kind of French. A “real” French, in a way that Dumas and Verne have ceased to be “real.”
What I mean is, last time I was in Nice, I would occasionally say things and people would laugh at me. Like, “What century are you from?” Because the only words I had were from these oldschool dudes. But now I’m getting exposed to a kind of French that real people are speaking, today, in my time. And that’s fun. So I’ll report back when I finish this book. In three-to-six months, or however long it takes me to get through this.
All that being said, it’s a great story. The main character is this Moroccan kid. Comes from a religious family, but isn’t himself religious. Loves to read, dreams of seeing the world. Runs away from home and winds up getting taken in by a Mosque, which gives him a job in their bookshop. Only the Mosque turns out to be pretty fundamentalist, in the middle of the Arab Spring. There’s a bombing, maybe the Mosque is behind it, but he doesn’t know. Shortly thereafter, the Mosque itself burns down and all the people disappear, including his best friend. Meanwhile, he gets a new job and falls for this Spanish dame. And that’s about where I’m at.
Anyway, I’m really enjoying it. Both for the story and for the challenge of this new kind of French which I’ve never read before. But I’m reading this, and I’m thinking, Hey, you know, that Turkish girl might like this. She might identify with some of what’s going on here. So I recommend it to her, thinking there’s probably a German translation out there, based on what the back of the book said. I wasn’t really expecting her to dig around for it, if I’m being honest.
But then, one day, I meet her at Potsdamer Platz, and she’s sitting there reading some book. And she’s all, “Look!” And she turns the spine towards me, and I see “Straße der Diebe” – Street of Thieves. Oh shit! She found it! And homegirl was already halfway through the damn thing.
I asked her what she thought. She said she was loving it, but also, it was pretty…I think starkwas the word she used – strong, but that’s probably not the right translation. I gather it was hitting pretty close to home. But like, in a good way. Not easy, maybe, but good.
“But you know, Suzyn, you just can’t predict baseball.” I mean, in December 2017, I get this random book for Christmas from the friend of a friend. It sits on my shelf for over a year. Finally, I start reading it just as this Turkish girl shows up in my class. And it’s like, Hey, you might dig this. And lo and behold, she totally connects with this book. It’s funny how things connect.
In other news, my beloved Islanders are done. Out in the second round of the playoffs. Heartbreaking, yes. But also, they got much farther than anybody had predicted, back before the season started. So I’m proud of those guys. And it was a great ride. Can’t wait til next year.
For my actual day-to-day life, though, I’m (ever so slightly) relieved that it’s all over. The games were starting at 1:30am, Berlin time. And being the playoffs, I was naturally staying up to watch the whole damn thing. In other words, I was routinely going to bed at like 4:30am and waking up two hours later for work. It was tough, I ain’t gonna lie. The sacrifices we make, amirite?
But I had fun. One night during the playoff run, I made myself a little viewing party. Homemade buffalo wings, roasted potatoes (tossed in buffalo sauce – omg, so good!) and carrot sticks. First of all, best wings I’ve yet made. Still not Inn Between good, but real progress here, folks. In any case, I enjoyed the shit outa that. Great way to watch the game.
Oh and speaking of great ways to watch the game. Canadian French, you guys. Lemme explain. See, the games were being nationally televised. Which on the one hand is great, because national exposure for my boys. But on the other hand, we lose having our hometown guys call the came.
Now on the internet, where I was watching, you had two viewing options. You had the US national feed (NBC) and a Canadian national French broadcast. Well, obviously, if I couldn’t have my own home-team guys, I was gonna go with the French. And what a joy. Really, I love Canadian French. And here’s why. It’s my first French.
I’m sure I’ve written about this, but back when I was in grad school, I had to pass a French reading comprehension exam as part of my degree. So I taught myself to read French. And hockey was my way in. Every day, I was reading game recaps in French on the CBC website. I was listening to Montréal games on French radio.
The result being, Canadian French has this dual attraction for me. It’s my first real exposure to the language, and it’s inextricably linked to this game that I love. Which, in 2019, feels like another life. I live in Europe. I have French friends – Charlotte, Anne – from actual France. I don’t play hockey here. I read “real” French: Dumas, Verne.
And all of a sudden, I’m watching my favorite team…over a French Canadian broadcast. And it’s like, well, can I say this? It’s like, if you grew up in the country, with a backwater version of the language, a version that doesn’t have international prestige. Then you move to the big city and leave that behind and become all cosmopolitan and shit.
But then, years later, you go home. And you’re hearing this “provincial” language that you “grew up” with. And it’s like this warm cozy blanket, you know? Like, tuck me in and tell me bedtime stories about les faits glorieux demes gars, the glorious deeds ofmy boys.
As always, my French experience stands in contrast to my German experience. Or maybe, actually, they’re finally aligning.
My thing with German is, I love the spoken language. And yet, I have almost no interest in the written language. Which is not something I’m proud of, not for nothing. But the written language strikes me as artificial. Nobody I know speaks that way.
And above all, I just want to communicate. I want to be accepted by my friends. I want to be taken for one of the group. I don’t want to be seen as an outsider. To that end, I’m not trying to speak “correctly.” And reading, I dunno, Goethe, for example, ain’t exactly at the top of my to-do list.
I’d much rather be able to have a conversation, trade insults, make jokes, listen to and tell stories. That’s where German is interesting to me. I guess that’s where I’ve always sorta been with it.
Sure, there are days when I think it would be nice to be able to code-switch up. To be able to speak formally. But only when I needto. Only when it would be to my advantage. Not as an end, but only as a means to an end.
There are other days, though, when I reproach myself for this attitude. When I think that this is an incurious way to deal with the language of the country in which I live. And that to be incurious about anything is a grievous sin. One should always be curious.
But in my heart, I know, it just doesn’t interest me. What interests me is the spoken language, as I’ve said. And to that end, I think it’s time to admit something. I’ve leveled up. Which means, it’s time to grow up.
I’ve “leveled up.” What do I mean? I mean, it’s time to stop patting myself on the back for the little things. Up til now, I’ve considered it an achievement when I’d hang out with German people and we’d speak only German. Well, no more, I think. Or, I hope, anyway.
I saw Margit a while back. We played music with her guitar teacher and afterwards, she took me out for dinner to celebrate my birthday.5 All in German. Two days later, I met a former student for drinks and dinner. Previously, we’ve only really ever spoken in English. This time, the first beer in English. But after that, we had several more beers and a long conversation about politics and culture, all in German. The next day, jammed with Bibi and Ralph, all in German. Two days later again, lunch with former/current students, all in German. The following weekend, dinner, drinks and board games with Joschel and Cindy, all in German.
Hell, on my birthday, the Bavarians called me – actually called me, on the fucking telephone – to wish me happy birthday. All in German.6 And a few weeks ago, dinner with Jules at her boyfriend’s restaurant – where he’s the head fucking chef – in German. And after hours, he and the cook joined us at our table. More German.
The point is, it’s time to stop thinking of pulling off a night in German as some kind of accomplishment. I’ve been in this country for 2.5 years. If I couldn’t swing that, I’d be doing something wrong. So this will be the last post where I write, “Oh and we spoke only German the whole night, look how much progress I’m making!”
Which is great, right? That’s 100% a positive. But also. But also, it resets the counter to zero. I’m back to square one. Here’s what all this means. It means, if the people around me are now comfortable enough with my German that the idea of switching to English would never occur to them, it also means, the bar has been set to a whole higher level.
It means, getting through a night without English isn’t good enough anymore. It doesn’t deserve a pat on the back anymore. It means, I’ve actually got to be goodat this. Somehow. It means getting things right without being corrected. It means telling a story without boring the shit outta people because I can’t find the right vocabulary. It means, I gotta be better. That’s the next step. The next goal.
But I think I can do this, you guys. Not because I’m smart or because I’m somehow gifted with languages. But because I have awesome friends. I have friends who are not only willing, but actually happy, to help me. Friends who are patient, and who don’t get annoyed by my mistakes or by my asking them to repeat shit.
I’ve leveled-up once. If I can get to the next level, it will be because of my friends. So to them I say, in advance, thank you.
Meanwhile, all that being said, things have a funny way of happening. After class one day, one of my students comes up to me and gently, politely says something along the lines of – and I’m gonna paraphrase here – “You should make an effort to hang around the universities. You’ll meet more ‘educated/academic’ types. And they’ll speak a ‘better/higher’ kind of German. Not the ‘street’ German you’re picking up here in this school.” Again, I paraphrase. And she was bending over backwards to not sound narrow-minded or racist or anything like that. Her heart was in the right place. But I kinda pooh-poohed her. Like, a) not interested, when you put it that way and also b) hey, that’s my friends you’re talking about. I might have been a little defensive.
Well, not long thereafter, I found myself sitting next to this girl with a laptop, who was clearly working on some kind of presentation. So I asked her politely what she was working on. I forget the details now, but it was some kind of presentation on German Lit that she was going to give at an academic conference at Princeton.
And bang, just like that, for the first time in all my time here, I was embarrassed by my German. Embarrassed that I didn’t have that ability to code-switch up. And again, that’s not how I actually want to talk in my everyday life. Just that I’d like to be able to.
So after all that business about, Meh, I don’t really want to read, I just want to sound like my friends, blah blah blah…after all that, I find myself talking to an academic and sounding like, well, sounding like a person who doesn’t read.
I just got done saying that it’s time to level-up again. And I just got done saying that if I succeed in leveling-up, it’s gonna be because of my friends. Which is true. But also, maybe it’s time to pick up a fucking book already.
But like also, when exactly? Because I still have the weekly Torah readings. I still try to read some Homer every night before bed. And Herodotus on Mondays with Phil. And Yiddish. And Old English. And French. And Spanish, apparently. When, pray tell, am I supposed to find time to slog through a bit of German?
Well. Clearly I have a lot on my plate. But things are mostly good, outside of the never ending apartment hunt #fml. And it’s finally starting to summer around here. Which means I can finally start wearing linen and only linen all the damn time. Oh, linen, how I do love thee.
And that, I suppose, is as good a place to stop as any…
- According to the back of the book, Enard won the 2015 Goncourt prize (no idea what that’s awarded for, btw) for a different novel. The back of the book also mentions that his works are translated throughout the world. This last point will become relevant later. [↩]
- I heart Athos and omg, you guys, Richelieu. [↩]
- Not for nothing, I’ve named my cast iron Dutch oven “Dicke Bertha.” And I’ve decided that when I buy a cast iron skillet, it will be named “Schwerer Gustav.” Also, whenever I get around to buying my own set of quality knives, I will name them after First Age Elvish blades. But that’s another story… [↩]
- Although that may have something to do with the fact that in Duams/Verne’s time, ladies were all girdled up to the point of near suffocation… [↩]
- She’s a doll. [↩]
- Except Anna, who wants to speak English and doesn’t have much opportunity to do so down there. So for her, I’m always happy to speak English. [↩]