An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
10 June, 2019

A couple of weeks ago, Joschka and I drove down to Bavaria to visit our friends there.  Always a good time.  Last time we went, J took a train down and I took a bus.  The bus is certainly cheaper than renting a car. And of course you can read or sleep on the bus.  But there’s something about a roadtrip.  

There’s the freedom, sure. Stop when you want to.  Leave when you want to.  You’re not a slave to the bus or train schedule.  And also, you guys, this is Germany.  Mercedes Benz.  Autobahn.  You pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down?  You can mutherfucking fly, y’all.  I mean, normally, when I have the wheel, I’m cruising at around 180 kmh (111 mph); which is downright conservative in this country, no joke.

But I had to see what this car could do, just once.  So on one wide open, flat piece of road, with no other cars around, I floored it. Pedal to the metal time.  I got up to 217 kmh (136 mph), before I got scared and backed off.  Because I’m old?  I dunno. It certainly wasn’t because the car didn’t seem like it couldn’t handle it.  Smooth as could be and quiet as a whisper.  

But you start to feel the wind at that speed.  And you realize – or at least I realized – there’s no margin for error going that fast. So I took my foot of the gas and let it float back down to an even 200 until we started seeing other cars, or the road stopped being straight and flat.

Man, that was fun though. “German engineering.”  Yeah, it’s for real.  If you don’t have a reference frame, you can creep up to 200 without realizing it.  You don’t feel it and you don’t hear it.  You just look down, and it’s like, “Oh, I’m going 125 mph.  Who knew?”  And then some dude in an Audi blows by you like you’re standing still.

Here’s another thing about the Autobahn.  People follow the fucking rules here.  People really actually just drive in the right lane and only use the left for passing. And if someone does happen to be in the left when a yet faster car comes up behind them, they just nonchalantly slide back into the right so Mr. Audi can scream past on his merry way.  Oh, and Mr. Audi hardly ever tailgates either. Like, he knows he doesn’t have to. Because the guy in front of him will yield.  Because dem’s the rules.

A student played me this joke a while back.  It’s a conversation between a British guy and a German guy, about driving without a license. It goes like this:

British Guy: So like, what happens in Germany in if you get caught driving without a license?

German Guy:  You can’t drive without a license.

BG: No, I know.  But I mean, ifyou did.  What would happen?

GG:  You can’t.

BG: I understand that. I’m just asking, hypothetically, what would happen if you were to drive without a license?

GG: It’s not possible. You can’t drive without a license.

And it goes on.  But you get the point.  And it’s really like that here.  People just actually follow the fucking rules.  All the damned time.

Anyway, Joschka asked me if I wouldn’t mind taking some of the driving, so he could “work” in the car. I told him I’d take over once we got out of Berlin.  I wasn’t about to drive in the city.  So that’s what we did.  Except he didn’t actually get any work done.  We just talked the whole way down.  Because roadtrip!

So Bavaria.  I’ve written before about how lucky I am with the people I’ve met here, the friends I’ve made.  How it all comes down to luck, and how good must my luck be, etc. And our trips down south are no exception.  Apart from me and Joschka and the Bavarians themselves, a friend form Joschka’s hometown (and also from the metal festivals) – Björn – joins us too.  And it’s just an amazing group of people.

What I struggle to wrap my mind around, though, is the extent to which they treat us like family when we’re down there.  I’m not exaggerating.  There’s so much love with those people.  We usually stay with Anna and her family.  But that’s not even the right way to say it.  We stay with Anna and Stefan and Lisa, the latter two being her parents.  And our adopted parents for the weekend.  

Because it’s not like we visit our friend and stay in her parents’ house.  We all hang out together for the weekend.  We eat together, drink together, play games together, stay up all night together.  Usually Anna’s sister will come by with her little daughter too.  Which I love, cause you know me with kids.  I’d usually rather play on the floor with a child then sit at the table with the grownups.1

And there’s so much affection.  Like, just the way they hug you.  Stefan has this way of hugging; not just me, all of us.  He’ll hug you.  But then, after, he’ll sort of take you by the forearms and and look you in the eye, and he’ll just say your name and smile.  And Lisa, man, she hugs me like I’m her own flesh and blood.  These people love us, and that’s the word for it.  And we love them.

So there’s all this love there.  And it’s beautiful.  But I can’t say I totally understand it either.  I mean, we see them maybe four or five times a year.  Where does love like that come from?  How does it develop?  I feel truly blessed by it.  Like, I hit the lottery to have people like this in my life.  But I struggle to understand it.

I was outside with Björn at some point.  He was having a cigarette and I needed some fresh air.  Anyway, we got to talking, drunkenly.  As you do. It was kinda funny.  I don’t know how we came to it, be we decided that he would speak English and I would speak German.  

Anyway, it somehow became one of those drunken “I love you, man” conversations.  I mean, it started with him saying to me a lot of what I just said.  How great the Bavarians treat us whenever we visit, how lucky we are to know them, how much love is in that house.  But then he got to giving me the “I love you, man” spiel.

I shouldn’t say “spiel.” He was 100% genuine.  But he was explaining how he has friends he’s known his whole life, Joschka who he’s known forever, and so on.  And even though he sees me just a couple of times a year, he loves me the same we he loves those guys.  How music brings us all together.  And other things I’ve forgotten in the drunkenness of it all. Everything he said to me, I could have – and did – say to him in return.  

But I walked away from that conversation thinking, “Shit, this makes as little sense to him as it does to me. He’s struggling to understand this as much as I am.”  Like, how do such people just fall into your life?  How can it be that, even though you hardly ever see them, you love each other like family?  Like, we’ve all of us received this wondrous gift that we treasure.  But why?  How?

One way – maybe the only way – you know you’re talking about genuine love, the real McCoy, is when people see you at your worst and just don’t give a shit.  That’s certainly true of Jared, Joschka, Anne, Charlotte.  They’ve all seen the worst of me.  They’ve all seen the depths to which I can be an asshole. They’ve all seen my cry, not for nothing.  Never batted an eye.  Not one of them.

Well, I’m happy to say I’ve never cried in Bavaria.  And I don’t think I’ve ever been a proper asshole down there either.  But I’ve certainly been not at my best.  They don’t care.  Friday nights are always rough.  You travel all day, and then you drink all night.  Not much time to rest or eat in between.  The result is, I’m usually a hot mess on Saturdays.  Tired, hungover, grouchy.  And really, who wants a tired, hungover, grouchy guest in their house?

But they see me.  They see I’m riding the struggle bus.  And you know what they say?  “Dave, why don’t you go upstairs and sleep for a bit?”  That’s it.  No pressure to be “on.”  No pressure to be “a good guest.”  Just sympathy, if that’s the right word.  Or patience. Understanding.  Just, here’s some Gatorade and go take a nap.  No, sympathy isn’t the right word.  Grace.  These people have fucking grace.  I fucking love these people.

Meanwhile (mittlerweile),2 the guitar.  I’m trying to up my game here.  At 38, I’m trying to be better at this instrument than I’ve ever been before. Which isn’t saying much, come on. But still.  Also, I’m talking about classical guitar, just to be clear.

Anyway, I’m trying to up my skill level.  I’m working on this Carcassi study, Matteo Carcassi being a musician.  His opus 60 is a series of 25 estudios.  Each one is designed to develop a particular skill.  Study number 1 is written to build your finger picking skills, particularly your index and middle finger.  

The piece itself is deceptively difficult.  It’s in C major, and it’s 99% scalar or arpeggiated chords.  And if you don’t pay attention to the fingering, you could learn it in an afternoon.  What I mean is, the left hand work is child’s play.  But man, the right hand.  Fucking brutal.  For me, anyway.  That is, if you do it correctly.  

Look, I could bludgeon my way though it with any old fingering.  It’s easy enough, both in terms of tempo and left-hand work, that it should be super easy.  But that’s the point.  The fretwork is supposed to be easy, precisely so you can focus on your right hand. And the right hand is…and this is an adjective I don’t normally use…wickedhard.  

Deceptively so.  It’s just constantly index finger, middle finger, index finger, middle finger, on and on.  But it’s not instinctive.  That’s the problem.  And it doesn’t give a shit.  It’s like Goodfellas.  Switching strings?  Fuck you, keep the fingering going.  Going up the neck?  Fuck you, keep the fingering going.  Going down the neck?  Fuck you, keep the fingering going.  It’s the “Fuck you, pay me” of guitar work.

And it’s super frustrating. Like, I’ve been playing guitar for some 25 years at this point.3  How can I not just do this?  But I’m working on it.  And I’ve got the first 8 measures pretty solid now.  Only 30 more to go.  And then after that, just 23 more studies.4  The point is, though, I’m building skills I didn’t have before.  I am, in theory, becoming a better player.

The other piece I’m working on is Gaspar Sanz’ Suite Española.  I’ve mentioned this before, because I was also working on it last year.  It’s a long piece.  It’s got 10 movements, the last of which is the Canarios.  I mention it by name because it’s what my mom calls “a Starr piece.”  Something both my uncles and I myself have been playing forever. 

But as I say, it’s just the last part of this bigger work.  I learned the first seven pieces last summer.  I’m working on the 8thnow.  I’ve nearly got it to a good place.  Probably needs another week or two.  The 9thbit has an A and a B section.  The A I’ve already got down.  So when I finish this part, it’s on to 9B.  And then I’ll have the whole thing.  At which point, I shall give myself a little pat on the back.  And then also curse myself for not being good enough.  But that’s how it goes.  No, but really, I’m looking forward to having this whole big work under my fingers, because it really is a wonderful piece of music.  

I mean, the music itself is gorgeous.  But it’s more than that.  For one thing, it’s sounds “Spanish,” if I can say that.  Like, just when you hear it, you think of Spain.  Which, I dunno, how can I put this?  It transports you.  It brings you somewhere.  You hear it, and you’re in the Spanish countryside, or in the court of the king and queen, sipping wine in summer.  Or something, fuck do I know?  

But also, it’s not (mostly) a fast piece of music.  There’s so much room for expression.  I love the slow bits.  You can just wring out a vibrato or linger with a hammer-on and pull-of and it just sings, you know?  

It’s really the first piece of music where I’ve felt, jeez, you know, I need a better instrument. Shit.  I feel guilty even writing that.  Because I love this guitar.  Her name is Outis, btw.  And that’s a story too.  

My electric guitar, my Gibson SG Standard, cherry red, the apple of my eye, her name is Rosie.  But for a long time, I never named my acoustic guitar.  And then, in Greek II, we read Book IX of the Odyssey.  And there, the Cyclops asks Odysseus his name.  Which of course he doesn’t want to give.  So he says, “My name is Nobody.”  And in Greek, ‘nobody’ is οὔτιϲ, outs.5  And I was like, Shit, that’s perfect!  So my acoustic guitar is Outis.  

Anyway, I feel guilty saying I need a better instrument.  Because I love Outis.  She’s my first classical guitar.  She’s the guitar I learned to sing with.  The guitar I learned how to write my own songs with.  The guitar I’ve turned to when I’ve been sad or lonely or happy or just so full of energy I needed to rock.  She’s the guitar I’ve stayed up all night making music with Charlotte with, the one I pay extra to bring to Nice or Brussels or the Great American West for that same Charlotte, because making music is a language for us as much as French or English, and man do we love language.  She’s the guitar I brought to the metal festivals and entertained my friends with, the guitar I bring to Bavaria and make up silly songs for and about those same friends with.  I love her.  Always have, always will.

But also, she’s a starter guitar.  Cost something like $200 bucks, and sounds like it.  And when you’re playing rock or folk or just having fun, she’s worth her weight in gold.  But she has her limitations.  The sustain’s not great, and neither is the tone.  And when you’re trying to play classical music, you hear that.

Margit has a wonderful guitar.  My uncle Richard buildswonderful guitars. And when I play instruments like that…when I try to play a Bach prelude on instruments like that, I hear the difference.  And look, nobody is going to confuse me with Segovia.  Like, ever.  But I know I can sound better than I do, with a better instrument.  And so, if I’m serious about making myself a better player – which I am – then it’s probably time to start thinking about getting myself a better axe.  

Which I can do, I think. I mean, I’ll have to save.  It won’t be cheap.  But I’m setting that as a goal for myself.  Because I want this.  I love playing guitar.  And I can do it well enough that it brings me peace.  

Something piano never brought me, btw.  You know, my parents made me take piano lessons when I was a kid.  As many parents do.  And I’m grateful for that.  It gave me a lot.  It taught me how to read music, it taught me how music works.  And it absolutely furthered and deepened my appreciation for classical music.

And in college, I took piano lessons.  Freshman year, I practiced like a mofo.  Every free hour, I was off to a practice room.  And I got nowhere with it.  I ran up against my own limitations.  No matter how much I practiced, I could only do so much.  And I hated it.  I loved – still love – Beethoven and Bach.  I knew what I wanted the music to sound like.  I knew what I wanted to do with it.  And I discovered that I was entirely incapable.  I found out the hard way that, no matter how much I practiced, I would never be able to play a Beethoven sonata or a Bach fugue and get it to sound the way I heard it in my head.  And I hated it.  Hated myself. It brought me something worse than disappointment.  It brought me rage.

But the guitar is different. I’ll never be Segovia.  I know that.  But it’s ok.  Because I can do enough.  I can make the music I want to make.  And I can do it well…enough; for me.  The guitar, in a way that the piano never could, brings me joy.  And on good days, it brings me some kind of peace.  So yeah, I’d like a better instrument.  I’d like to have a tool that can help me get more out of myself.  So that’s the goal.  All in good time.

Welp, it’s 4am.  And here in Berlin it’s the…un-gloaming? Gloaming.  That’s a word I love.  It means ‘evening’ or ‘twilight.’  But the root of the word means something like ‘glow.’  The way the sky glows between afternoon and night.  Gloaming.  Just, what a great fucking word.  And now, at 4am, the sky is the same color.  Only, going in the opposite direction.  So, un-gloaming.  Or maybe Second Gloaming.  Or, better still, maybe First Gloaming.  It all depends upon your point of view.  Thus spoke Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Right, well, if I’m quoting Star Wars, it’s surely time for bed.  Whereupon do I bid ye6pleasant dreams.

זײַ געזונט

  1. They didn’t come this time though; I gather the kid was a bit sick. []
  2. Mittlerweile– this word looks like it should mean ‘meanwhile.’  And maybe it does?  Sometimes? But it also means other things. People use it all the damn time and I’m struggling with its usage.  My current goal – Germanwise – is to get a handle on this word. []
  3. I’ve been playing guitar for 25 years? Fuck me, I’m old.  Feels like yesterday I was begging, yes begging, my parents for my first guitar.  Which I still have.  A POS Lotus, a Strat knockoff, that buzzes up around the high frets because the strings touch the pickup if you’re not careful.  It also has a picture of The Rock and a printed “The People’s Guitar” label. Also a Gore/Lieberman 2000 campaign sticker.  And it weighs a ton.  But it was my first guitar.  And it has a single coil, which gives me that Ritchie Blackmore sound (kinda), and also sounds like a beast on my ‘Midnight’ solo.  Justin knows what I’m talking about. []
  4. Study number 7 I learned in college and still play.  Oh, and that’s a badass piece, I ain’t even kidding. []
  5. In Latin, this is ‘nemo,’ btw.  Which is why in 20k Leagues Under the Sea, the captain’s name is Nemo.  He’s a man without an identity.  He’s nobody. He’s Outis. []
  6. Did you know ‘ye’ is plural and ‘thee’ is singular?  I love English, y’all.  But we’ve lost some shit.  Shit we maybe shouldn’t have lost.  Just saying’. []