An American in Berlin
29 September, 2019
So, books. Last time I said anything about what I was reading, it was that Rue des Voleurs. The ending was not quite what I expected, but it was a great read overall. As I said at the time, it was fun to read a more modern, colloquial French. Learned plenty of new vocab. But the story itself was quite riveting. One episode included a rather gruesome suicide scene. Edge of your seat kinda stuff, even if you knew what was coming. Anyway, it was a good read, and it gave Esma and me stuff to talk about for weeks after.
Speaking of Esma, she just read 1984.1 I imagine we’ll have quite a bit to talk about there as well, but we haven’t had a chance yet. I re-read that again earlier this year as well. I go back to it every four-five years or so, it seems. And it scares the shit outa me every time. Really, it never gets old. Gets the wheels turning, you know? Plus, reading the Principles of Newspeak epilogue now as an English teacher…I mean, shit. That’s a whole different kind of scary.
The last thing I read was Thomas Picketty’s Le Capital au XXIe Siècle, Capital in the 21stCentury. Picketty is a left-leaning French “celebrity” economist. Well, “celebré” was the word Anne used (of course she knows who he is), though I’m not sure ‘celebrity’ is the best translation. Anyway, he’s kind of a big deal, is the point. And this book, which came out in 2013, made a pretty big splash at the time. I mean, I remember he was doing interviews on NPR and shit.
Anyway, fascinating book. The first three-quarters are basically a history of western economies from around 1800 or so to the present. The last quarter is his prescription for how we ought to be thinking about capitalism going forward in the current century.
From the history part, there were several interesting takeaways. The most shocking was this. We have all grown up thinking that the post-war world was some kind of new normal. That each generation should do better than the one before, that socio-economic climbing is naturally possible for all, and all that. And basically, he shows that this period is an anomaly in human history. That it was the result of two world wars and a depression and the subsequent policies put in place to deal with that 31 year period of constant catastrophe.
In other words, the wars and the depression so shook up the old order of things, that we could – and more importantly, chose to – reinvent ourselves. Inflation, which he shows was virtually non-existent before 1914, coupled with the physical and economic destruction of the wars, broke the back of the old aristocracies. At the same time, a conscious decision was made to create what is often called The Welfare State, but which he calls The Social State.
Obviously I’m simplifying. And I’m not going to get into the economics of it. But things like high marginal tax rates, and more importantly – or at least, just as importantly – increased spending on universal education and healthcare (the latter, in Europe, anyway), paved the way for what we grew up thinking of as the normal economic mobility of the 20thcentury. But also, just as importantly, the neo-liberalism of the 70’s and 80’s were also conscious choices, but which threaten to return us to an older order of static classes and self-perpetuating extreme wealth.
“Scientifically” – and I put the word in quotes, because Picketty himself is the first to say that this is not and cannot be a “hard science” – but, “scientifically,” he demonstrates that the inescapable factor at work is that capital grows at a greater rate than the general economy/population. And that bigger piles of capital grow faster than smaller piles. So that the super-rich get richer without having to do any actual work. Couple that with negligible inheritance taxes, and you have a recipe for generationally self-perpetuating wealth.
Couple that again with decreased public spending on education and job training, higher private costs of education, etc. and it becomes increasingly harder for those not already in the wealthiest classes to break into that level.
His proposal then, in simplest terms, is to institute a small tax on capital, something starting at 1% for sums over one million euros and progressing from there, but probably not going higher than 5%.2 Critical, though, is that this exist on a global – or at least, regional – level. Regional being, North America or Europe, but not smaller than that. The idea being, to eliminate “fiscal paradises” where people hide their money to avoid taxes.
He makes a good case. Obviously people will disagree. And Picketty is the first to say there’s more than one way to deal with this problem, and those ways are not mutually exclusive. But it’s a good starting point, I think.
Anyway, it was super fascinating, and honestly, a real page-turner, if such a thing can be said of a social-science-economics treatise. Really, I couldn’t put it down. That said, it took me months to get through, bc that bitch was literally 950 pages long. The French itself was pretty easy, very straightforward. But the economic stuff sometimes required being read two or three times before I got it. Still though, it’s a book I would recommend to anybody who’s interested in these sorts of things. And of course it’s been translated into English, German and who knows what else.
After that, I read a couple of Lovecraft short stories. He’s always fun. Dark, creepy, imaginative, thought provoking. Next up is a French book about a guy who gets shipwrecked alone on an island. Anne recommended it, so I’m sure it’ll be good. We have quite similar tastes most of the time. But I haven’t started it yet.3
Very much on the side, I’m also working through a series of short Yiddish poems by Itzik Manger. They’re collectively titled Chumash Lider, which translates roughly as Torah Poems. Each one is about some or other episode from the Torah. One was about Eve giving Adam the apple. Another was about Abraham getting on Lot’s case for being a drunk. They’re really good. I mean, there’s excellent word play, good imagery, good story telling, humor. They’re also super difficult, as some of the vocabulary is quite obscure.
Anyway, I’m reading these with Bartek, which is a pleasure. Partly because he’s just such a swell guy and we get to talk some Yiddish while we work. But also because he’s super smart and helps me see things I wouldn’t see on my own. And in fairness to myself, it’s a two-way street. We end every reading, both of us, with the feeling of, “Man, that was great, I understand this so much more than I did when I’d read it alone.” We even got Akiva to join us once, which only made the experience that much richer.
But of course, it’s slow going. We’ve only got through three poems so far. And it’s very much based on being able to match up our schedules for a Skype meeting. So that’s ongoing. But I did finally get two very nice Yiddish dictionaries, which should be a big help. Both are published by an institution in Paris. So actually, one dictionary is a Yiddish-French. It’s been translated into Yiddish-English. But the French version was the original, so I figured that was better. That may have been an overreach though. I guess we’ll see. The other is super helpful. It’s a Yiddish-Loshen Koydesh dictionary. In other words, it’s specifically for all the Hebrew and Aramaic words, which it just translates into “Yiddish,” i.e. the Germanic (or occasionally Slavic) variants of those same words. It’s a great resource. OK, I’m done nerding out now.
Music-wise I’ve been working on three things, basically. One is, I’m trying to incorporate a couple of Yiddish songs into my repertoire. I’ve got two down so far. So that’s fun. Another is the ongoing jam sessions with Bibi and Ralph. There’s some talk about maybe trying to score some kind of gig in December, but I have my doubts as to whether we’d actually be ready by then. We’ll see. And on the classical front, I’m still plugging away at those Carcassi studies.
But here’s the thing that’s really cool about that. The sheet music I’m using is from my uncle Mike, who passed away a few years ago. I wound up with a bunch of his sheet music, as I guess I’m the only one currently “studying” classical guitar. Anyway, it’s got his own handwritten notes all over it. Which is super helpful.
Like, I’ll be trying to work out some passage or other and it’s not coming together. And then I’ll see he’s got some note there. Like, use your second finger, or play this on the third string, or go up to the seventh fret, or whatever. And then boom, yeah, that’s so much easier, thanks!
So it’s almost like I’m having a conversation with him. Like he’s there with me, you know? “Oh, you’re playing it thatway? I was doing it thisway. Try that. See? Much better, right?” It’s a bit surreal at times. But it’s also oddly reassuring. Comforting even. Like, being over here in Germany, I don’t get to see my family very often. I’ll never see him again. But we still get to chill and play guitar together.
You know, in the old days, when the family would get together for Thanksgiving or whatever, the guitar players would invariably disappear off to another room. Me, Justin, uncles Mike and Rich, cousin Jay (Mike’s son); and anybody else who wanted to listen. We’d go around playing whatever piece we happened to be working on at the moment. We’d trade guitars around and try out each other’s instruments. Hell, uncle Rich builthis own guitars, so we were always trying out his latest masterwork. Me and him would often try to bang out some or other duet. Me and Justin might try to hack through a Bach invention together.
Unfortunately, those days are pretty much gone. But somehow, alone in my room in Germany, I still get to jam with my uncle Mike a bit. That’s pretty fucking cool.
In other news, by way of burying the lede, I got an apartment! That’s right, my very own apartment. I am well pleased, you guys. I won’t be properly moving in until towards the end of October,4 although I picked up the keys this very day. By which I mean Friday. It’s a pretty decent size, something like 48 sq/m, which probably means as much to y’all in America as it does to me.
It’s two rooms plus a kitchen and a bathroom. The kitchen is well nice, plenty of space to do some proper cooking with room for a table to sit four people…cozily. The living room has plenty of space. I’ll actually finally be able to give people a place to crash, which is fantastic.
The area is pretty solid. Much closer to the city, a lot more going on. The tradeoff, of course, is less nature and no water. But I’ll be able to ride to work directly, no transfers. I mean, that’s a fucking life changing right there. Plus, there’s three trains total, not to mention trams and buses. So transportation options in general are much improved.
It’s not perfect. There’s no balcony, which, as a New Yorker, who the fuck ever expects a balcony. But they’re more common than not here, believe it or not. And there’s no bath tub, just a tiny little shower. But, I mean, fine.
And much like just about literally everything else that’s come my way in this town, it basically fell into my lap. See, the owner is Bibi’s husband. And he’s super chill. He’s like, “Yeah, I don’t need any paperwork or credit checks, I don’t need a security deposit. Just give it back the way you found it.” Wow. I mean, yeah, of course!
Turns out he owns a couple of apartments in the building; his daughter lives upstairs of me. Or, better to say, I’ll live downstairs from her. I met her today when I picked up the keys. Very nice kid. It’ll be nice to have a friendly face in the building. Also, he (his name is Uli) and Bibi live like ten minutes away walking; so we’ll be able to jam that much more. Added bonus.
In addition to all that, I’ll be much closer to most of my friends. I’ll be 25 minutes from Anne and probably about the same from Joschka; as opposed to an hour now. J-Dawg apparently lives basically around the corner. Esma won’t be far either. Oh, and halfway between me and Joschka is a kick-ass whiskey bar. The bonuses just keep on coming. So yeah, I’m pretty psyched.
But there’s a bittersweet note to all of this also. I’m kinda sad that I won’t be near water anymore. I mean, until now, I’ve lived my whole life on islands. Being near water is really kinda key for me. But more than that, I had to break the news to Lucy and Marco. They were of course very happy for me. Bu also, actually kinda sad. I’ll come back to that point in a minute.
First, let me say again, as I’ve said many times, they’re wonderful roommates. We have a great relationship. We still eat together, and lately we’ve even started playing board games together. And look, I’m not an easy person to live with. I sleep for hours in the afternoon and I’m up all hours of the night. I’m often anti-social slash grumpy. And they don’t care a whit. They just let me be, let me keep to my ways, and like me for who I am. And I would never leave here to go live with different people; no matter how nice or practical a given apartment might be. If I have to have roommates, I would choose them every time.
I say all that, because, man, living with roommates has really started to take its toll on me in the last year. I mean, I’m 38. I just want to be alone. I’m tired of hearing the dogs barking every time I come home. I’m tired of sharing a kitchen. Tired of sharing a bathroom. Of everything, really. Like, I have days where I Just think, “Gods, I need to get out of here.” Which is very much about me and not about them. But that doesn’t make it any less real.
Which is why their being sad is so fascinating to me. Like, we’re clearly different people. What I mean is, it’s not strange to me that they like me generally. It’s not strange to me that they find this living arrangement workable. Or, as I do, the best possible outcome in a world where we have tohave roommates. What I can’t really fathom is, why, as a married couple, would they actively chooseto have a third person, unknown to them before I moved in, living with them?
And it is a choice at this point. I don’t think they’re going to rent the room out again after I go. So, while I’m sure the extra money makes their lives easier, it doesn’t appear to be an out-and-out necessity. It was actually kinda funny. Marco was like, “Yeah, well, we’re getting old, we don’t know if we want to start over again with a new roommate.” And yet, by all appearances, I could have stayed just as long as I would have liked.
And we’re not super close, either. I mean, sure, we talk at length when we eat together. We have a great time when we play board games. And obviously we get along wonderfully. But we don’t talk at length most days. We’re not usually going to each other with our problems. We never go out together. So “close” is not a word I would use, necessarily.
Which is not to say I won’t miss them. Of course I will. And I certainly intend to have them over regularly, whether to eat or play games or both. Like, I don’t see this as the end of the relationship in any way. I’m glad I know them, and I want them to continue to be a part of my life here.
But am I sad to be leaving them? No. And because that’s how I am, it’s hard for me to grasp how they can be different, you know? But they are. And they are undeniably a bit sad that I’m going. Which, as I said, is curious. But you know what else it is? It’s also really fucking sweet. That’s they kind of people they are. I got super fucking lucky with them. But it’s time for the next chapter of this whole Berlin story.
I’ll obviously have more to say about this in the coming weeks. But for now, I think I’m gonna stop here. Which I guess makes this an unusually (refreshingly?) short post. But I don’t really have anything else I want to talk about at the moment, so why force it?
So let me just say this. Summer appears to be over. Which is a bit of a shame. Or it would be, if hockey season wasn’t starting up. Let’s go Islanders!!!
- In English. Good on you, girl. [↩]
- Though he stresses that the numbers themselves must be the choices of democratically elected governments. Ultimately the people must decide for themselves what they deem appropriate. [↩]
- Or rather, I hadn’t, when I first started this post. I’m about 50 pages in now. Pretty good so far, but the vocab can be a beast at times. [↩]
- October – which I nearly spelled with ‘k,’ hashtag I’ve been in this country too long. [↩]