An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
24 December, 2019
Lech Li’cha Edition

Oh hey.  It’s been a while.  Yeah, I don’t even know when the last time I posted was.  But I moved into the new apartment the last weekend of October, and tbh it’s been kind of a whirlwind since then.  The first three weeks, I felt like I was buying something new almost every day.  Which was kinda draining, I ain’t gonna lie.

See, it’s a funny thing, living with roommates.  Well, obviously.  But I mean, when you move in with roommates who are already living in the apartment, there’s a lot of stuff that’s just there, you know?  Like all the stuff in the kitchen, for example.  But also, little things, that you might not even be aware of until, oh shit, where’s the whosie-whatsit?

So like, I had to stock the kitchen.  With food, yeah.  But also, pots and pans.  And cutlery. And paper towels.  And a French press, because when people come over, apparently they like to drink coffee, and all I had was my one cup stove-top espresso maker. And spices.  All the spices.  And not just spices, but salt and pepper mills.  

Then, you want to hang something and you realize you ain’t got no hammer.  Or you buy something from Ikea and you realize you ain’t got no screwdriver.  Nor a toilet brush.  Or something to hold your toothbrush.  And garbage cans.1

Anyway, for like three weeks, it felt like I was stopping off somewhere every day on my way home to pick something up.  Sometimes it was something biggish, like a stock pot.  Other days, nothing more than a mason jar at the dollar store.  But every day, man.  It was kinda exhausting, really.

And does it ever end? This week, after receiving two bottles of wine as gifts, I realized I now had five bottles of wine just taking up space on my kitchen counter.  So off I went to the hardware store, to buy a wine rack.  Although I have to say, I do feel rather adulty, having a (albeit half-filled) wine rack.2

But at least the place is starting to feel a little Dave-d up.  I hung a print of the Brooklyn Bridge going into lower Manhattan, the old neighborhood.  I’ve got my desk set up the way I like it.  Got the kitchen the way I want it.  I even hung a mezuzah on the doorframe which leads to the living room.  So it’s coming together.

Changing gears now, German. I’ve written plenty before about how I’ve never formally studied the language, how I learn from my friends and the city in general.  How that’s largely by design.  How my goal is to be able to communicate with – and sound like – my friends.  Well, that’s been largely theoretical until now. Then, a few weeks ago, it hit me in the face.

What happened was, I finally made an appointment to see an allergist.  They ran some tests, after which they said, “Holy shit, you’re super allergic to like everything.”  Yes, thanks, I know.  So they put me on a shot regimen.  Only, instead of showing up every few weeks for shots, I have to take a pill.  Every blessed day.  For like three years.3

Oh, and btw, the appointments (there were three) cost me nothing out of pocket.  The first 30 days of pills cost me nine (9) euros.  The next ninety days of pills cost me nothing. Zero.  Zilch.  Nada.4  Even if I want to leave this country, I don’t know how I can.  But that’s for another day.

Anyway, German, was the point.  Nobody in the office really speaks English.  Not the actual allergist and not the three nurses.  Which can be a bit tricky, when you’re dealing with medical vocabulary, but I managed.  

Right, so at the first appointment, I was given the allergy test by one of the nurses, a young girl in her early twenties, I’d wager.  Very nice. But see, she spoke with this very formal, very polished hochdeutsch.  In other words, the formal language as it’s taught in schools and used in workplace environments.  Which is to say, very much not the German I use in my every day life.

So she speaks fancy-pants German, though in fairness, rather slowly and very clearly.  And at one point, she asks me a question that I don’t understand.  So I say, “Sorry, I don’t understand.  What do you mean?”  And she just looked at me with this disappointed face, and with a voice full of pity says, “Oh, du sprichst nicht so gut deutsch?”  Well, I thought I did, thank you very much!  But now I’m just fucking ashamed.  So thanks for that.  At which point she re-worded the question as if she were talking to a fucking child. Yeah, OK, now I got it. Thanks.  And also, let’s not even bother with the rest of the test, since I’m just gonna jump in front of a bus when I get outta here anyway.

Well, obviously I didn’t jump in front of a bus.  And two days later, I was back, to discuss the results of the test and to learn about my new med regimen.  But this time, I got a different nurse.  A dude, roughly my age.  And this guy speaks with a pretty serious Berlin accent.  I mean, this is the Berlin equivalent of our Vinny Bagadonuts, you know?  So he’s talking slang, he’s mushing his words together, he’s talking a million miles an hour. And I’m just like, Oh, thank gods. Somebody I can understand!

But really!  Like he spent about 20 minutes explaining all the rules of this new medication to me.  When I can take it, with what, time of day, eating and drinking rules, circumstances under which I shouldn’t take it, what to do if I have an adverse reaction, the whole nine.  And in mittendrinnen, he’s asking me about New York, what do I think of Berlin, what do I do, all that.  And I’m asking him where he grew up, what he thinks of Berlin.  I mean, we’re even cracking jokes.  Like, I was just totally at home talking to this guy.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.  After all, I teach English.  I’m always explaining the difference between formal and informal, the difference between the written language and the spoken language, between registers.  I know that this is a thing.

I’ve even experienced it on some level with French.  I’m very comfortable with the formal written language, but struggle with the spoken language.  But when the formal language I know also happens to be 150 years old, you tend to feel the difference in age more than register.  And since formal spoken French hews closer to what I read, I’m more at home with formal spoken French anyway.

So even though this should have been no surprise to me in theory, it was actually quite shocking. To discover firsthand how different formal and informal German are.  How different is the language I speak with my friends from that which you hear from an educated medical professional.

And it was a bit of a comeuppance, too, you know?  Like, let’s be honest.  On the one hand, I’ve always sort of looked down my nose at the formal, regulated, “artificial” (by my lights) hochdeutsch.  And on the other hand, I’ve been taking a sort of perverse pride in how far I’ve come with this language on my own, with no formal training or education.  Like, I’m probably guilty of puffing out my chest a bit, when I say, “Nah, I’ve never taken any classes.  I just keep my ears open and learn from my surroundings.” 

Haha, well fuck you, Davey boy. That’s all well and good, until you go to the doctor, and the nurse looks at like you like you’re a fucking idiot. Guess I had that coming, didn’t I?

But from a linguistic perspective, it’s genuinely fascinating.  Like, they really are two distinct languages – or, at least dialects. And there’s an upside to this too. Namely, it probably makes me a better teacher.  Or, at least, a more empathetic one.  

I was talking with a couple of my more advanced students a little while back.  And they’re doing quite well in class.  They’re really mastering the grammar, improving their vocab and just generally getting better at speaking and understanding the language.

And they were telling me that they watched a TED Talk with Paul, the other teacher.  And that they felt like they could barely understand it. It was a real setback for them, or so they felt.  Like, they were under the impression that they were really making progress.  And then they watched this lecture, and it was almost like back to square one.  

So I told them this story, about what happened at the allergist.  And they were genuinely relieved.  They were like, “Wait, this happens to you to?”  Fuck yeah, it happens to me.  And they didn’t feel so bad anymore.  So that ain’t nothing, I guess.

In other language news, the Yiddish reading with Bartek continues.  And it continues to be great.  We’ve moved on from the Itzik Manger poetry and we’re now reading our second short story by Shalom Aleichem.  Which itself is real progress.  Because I remember that before this summer’s Yiddish class, I tried taking a look at some of his stuff.  And I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.  Even though I could listen to that radio program or read the Forvarts, Shalom Aleichem’s literature, was a bridge to far.

And now we’re reading it. To be sure, I absolutely need a dictionary.  And I think I speak for both of us when I say, I don’t think I could manage it alone. There’s a lot of stuff that only becomes clear when we talk it through together.  But be that as it may, here I am, reading Shalom Aleichem.  And enjoying the shit out of it, btw.  I mean, he’s great.  Great story teller, great sense of humor.  

Added bonus of doing this with Bartek is, he’s Polish.  So a lot of the Slavic words, and especially the Polish ones, he brings insights that I just don’t have access to.  Added sub-bonus to this, I have a couple of Polish students in my beginner class now. So rarely – very rarely – I drop a Polish word here and there.  Which always seems to impress.  “How do you know that?”  “Meh, I know things.”  It’s fun, you guys.

So I said I hung a mezuzah, as part of the Dave-ing up process.  Which is perhaps a weird thing to say.  After all, I’ve never hung a mezuzah before.  Not when I lived with Jared, but also, we never had one in my parents’ house either.  But it seems more important here.  Part of that whole “schlepping goles” thing, I guess.  

But I like knowing it’s there.  Just seeing it hanging in the doorway makes me feel (oddly) contented.  Even though I don’t “use” it.  What I mean is, every time you enter the room, you’re supposed to “kiss” the thing.  Actually what you’re supposed to do is, kiss your fingers and then touch your fingers to it. I don’t do that.  Because I’m not “religious.”  Ich bin nisht keyn gleybiker, ich bin a weltlicher. I’m not a believer, I’m secular. But somehow that doesn’t matter.  This is something we’re supposed to do, hanging the mezuzah.  So I did it. I even said the bruchahwhen I hung it.  But that’s the end of it.  It’s there, and I’m happier for it.

My boss took us all out for dinner, as a sort of thank-you slash holiday celebration.  We went to a very nice Italian joint.  The food was great, as was the night out.  I mean, everybody I work with is great, but we don’t usually socialize outside of work.  This was a nice chance to do that.  

Apart from that, he said some very nice things to me.  “You know, Dave, sometimes I think you think I don’t appreciate you.  But you’re really a wonderful teacher.  I heard it again today.”  From some students, he meant.  Because we also had a holiday party in the school, and he made his rounds.  But the way he said it, it was very genuine, from the heart.  It was really nice to here.  Also, he got me one of those fancy rabbit-looking corkscrews and a bottle of wine. Because he knows me.  And he wished me a happy Chanukah.  He’s not religious either, but we both appreciate having another member of the tribe around, and that ain’t no joke.

In other news, Joschka and I went to his hometown the first weekend of December.  There’s a big Xmas market there every year and the whole festival gang turns out.  His hometown crew, but also the Bavarians.  The Xmas market is whatever, but you can’t pass up an opportunity to get everybody together in one place.

Naturally, it was a good drunken time.  But really, I love those clowns.  And that’s the word.  I’ve said it before, but there’s so much love in the room with those people.  Ich hob gefunen an oytzer af der velt.  I’ve found a treasure in the world, would be a fair translation.  

So that’s where things are at, more or less.  To be sure, there’s more to say.  But it’ll have to wait until next year.  That said, I started a post shortly after I moved in to my new digs.  Only, I never finished it.  So I’m going to append it here.  What follows was written sometime around the beginning of November…

>> Welp, here I am, writing from my new room in my new apartment.  Kind of a big deal, you guys.  And I gotta say, living alone kinda suits me.  No surprise there, I guess.  But also, this is myplace.  I mean, I get to make it my own.  Set the kitchen up the way I want it.  Decorate according to my own style.  And it’s coming along.  Still a few things I need to pick up, still a few things that need taking care of.  But all in all, I’d say I’m settling in nicely. 

The move was surprisingly easy and, even more surprisingly, quite fast.  I had three friends help me, plus Marco and Lucy helped bring things downstairs on the Köpenick side.  It was Esma, Chris and Linda who did the helping.  And Linda’s dad has a pickup truck.  Linda’s dad, btw, whom I’d never met before, was just like, “Yeah, no problem, we’ll make as many trips as you need.”  Pretty amazing.  

In the end, we only needed one trip, as everything I had fit on the truck in one go.  Well, I say that, but actually Linda came by twice before the move with her car and helped me shuttle some stuff over.  Not a ton of stuff, but it certainly made a difference. Anyway, one hour to get everything down and onto the truck.  One hour to get everything off the truck and up & in.  So two hours total work, plus maybe half an hour of travel.  I was expecting much worse, tbh.  And they were all total troopers about everything.  So tomorrow I’m taking them out to dinner as a thank you.

But I did notice what I took to be two cultural differences in the course of this.  The first was people’s readiness to help.  These three (and others) were offering to help well before I’d even considered asking.  Whereas, in the States, I feel like people would help if asked, but sort of grudgingly.  I mentioned this to Joschka (who had offered to help, but wound up being Stateside on the actual moving day).  And he said this was totally normal for Germany. Everybody moves, so everybody knows what it’s like.  And so everybody is always ready and willing to help.  That this extended so far as Linda’s dad, who didn’t know me from Adam, is still surprising to me.  But obviously I’m beyond grateful.  

The other thing was the approach to the work.  I said they were troopers, and they absolutely were.  But in a way that was different from my own approach.  See, I’ve been through enough of my own moves, and helped enough on others, that I know how I like to work.  That is, start early, work hard, work fast, and take breaks only when absolutely necessary.  It’s not a time for joking around or fun.  It’s work.  

But with these guys, it was much more, “What’s the rush?  We have all day.”  And they meant that.  They would have stayed for however long was necessary.  And like I said, the dad was ready to make multiple trips, at a half-hour each way.  I got the impression that for them, it was more like, “Hey, yeah, we gotta work, but also, this is a chance to hang out and have a good time.”  

I wasn’t expecting that. I mean, I was already feeling guilty for leaning on them in the first place, no matter how happy and eager they were to help.  So I wanted to get them outa here as fast as possible.  To release them, if I can say that, with as much of the day left to them as possible.  Which resulted in Chris saying, more than once, “Dave, slow down.  It’s really OK.”  So that was new for me.

One other thing about Linda’s dad.  Dude speaks with a super hardcore Berlin-Brandenburg accent, with tons of slang. He also has a super dry sense of humor, and he spent a lot of time playfully giving Linda and Chris the business. So when he was talking in the car, I was like, this is amazing.  I would love to listen to this guy talk for hours.  I mean, it’s like a free course on the local dialect right?  

But also, I was kinda terrified every time he talked to me.  Cos then I’m like, what if he says something I don’t understand?  What if I smile-&-nod at the wrong thing?  I could come off as ungrateful, which would be awful.  Or what if he turned that sense of humor on me, and the joke went over my head.  Then I’d either look like I can’t take a joke, or just look like an asshole.  So it was kinda like, “Omg, thank you so much for helping me like this, but also I’m gonna go hide now, so I don’t make an ass of myself.  But also, you know, please keep talking to other people, cos the way you speak is so cool!”

Anyway, point is, the move went a thousand times smoother than I could have hoped, and that’s all down to my friends.  Thanks, gang!

As I mentioned in the last post, one of the many advantages of the new place is, I’m close to a lot of people now.  J-Dawg lives like 15 minutes away by foot.  So my first night here, we went out for dinner and drinks, which was great. And Joschka lives 20 minutes away (by Tram,5 if you’re Dave) or 10 minutes away (by Taxi, if you’re Joschka).

So Joschka’s already been over like three times.  Which is great, but also dangerous.  Because he always shows up with a bottle of something and we’re both night owls.  So it’s not so easy to know when to call it a night, even when I have work the next day.  But it’s pretty great when you send a text saying, “Wanna hang tonight?” And that can go down with like zero planning.

The other nice thing there is, it’s allowed to me to share a bit of my cooking.  I mean, obviously I would cook for the roommates in the old place. But those were always planned events, as it were.  Yet, my normal cooking, that was always just for me.  Which, of course, was fine.  But many were the times when I’d throw something together that I was rather proud of, only to have nobody to share it with.  And that would make me just a little sad sometimes.  

But since Joschel and I are on similar schedules, he’s also a late eater.  So he’ll come over around 9 or 10, and I’ll be just starting or finishing dinner.  And now I get to share a bit of my cooking sometimes.  And that’s nice.  Last time he was here, he thanked me for sharing my food.  Yes, to be polite, but also because he knows I normally cook in big batches, for the week ahead.  So he knows that’s one less dinner I’ll have for myself later.  And of course, I’m happy to do that.  But it’s nice that he recognizes it.  

Anyway, he says thanks for sharing your food, and I’m like, “Dude, I’ve been eating your food for literally years.”  Which is true, right?  I mean, we’ve done so much cooking over there.  And when we go to the supermarket, we’ll share the cost.  But we don’t always go to the supermarket.  Plenty of times we’ve cooked with just whatever he’s had in the house.  Like, “Hey, I’ve got this really nice salmon.  Let’s use that.”  No thought given to what it cost or that he won’t have it for himself later.

So yeah, “Dude, I’ve been eating your food for literally years.”  To which he replies, well, I forget the exact words, but something to the effect of, “Dude, we don’t keep score.”  Like, there was never an expectation of being paid back, was the point. And of course.  I obviously didn’t mean it in a transactional way.  Just a different way of saying what he said.  This is what friends do.  You come over, you get fed.  My booze is your booze.  That’s how we roll.  

I got good people here, ya know?

So I called this post, “Lech Li’chaEdition,” which I’ll explain shortly.  But by way of introduction, last month [October] saw the start of this year’s Torah reading cycle.  Year three, for me.  And rather coincidentally, it lined up almost perfectly with the move.  So I actually began reading this year in the new apartment. Genesis, the cosmogony, Adam and Even, Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel.  A new year, a new apartment.

Anyway, the name of each parsha– the weekly reading – is taken from the opening phrase of said reading.  The first is B’raeshis– “In the beginning.” The second is Noach– “Noah.”  And the third is Lech Li’cha– roughly translated as “Take yourself and go.”  It’s what God says to Abraham when he tells him to forsake his ancestral homeland and schlep west to Canaan.  And you’d better believe this is a big-deal theme in the history of our people.

Sometimes it’s positive, like when God said it to Abraham.  Although even there, it’s bittersweet, because it meant leaving his land, his friends and his family.  Or when Jews started leaving Europe for Palestine and later Israel.  Time to go back to the homeland.  Lech Li’cha.  

But more often it’s negative.  It’s “Get out of your own land and go somewhere else.”  Or worse, when said by whatever host nation, “Get out of ourland and go somewhere else.”  Often as not, it kinda walks hand in hand with schlepping goles.  I mean, it’s what the people of Anatevka say at the end of “Fiddler” when they’re forced from their shtetl

So when it finally came time to leave Köpenick, there was a bit of Lech Li’chain that too.  Time to take yourself and go, Dave.  Time to be independent.  But also, time to leave your first real home in this country.  Time to leave the people you’ve been living with for three years. It’s a good thing, but there’s a bittersweetness to that too.

And looking at things from this perspective, coming to Germany itself was also a kind of Lech Li’cha.  Take yourself and go, make your own way, your own future.  But yes, also, leave your land, your friends, your family. Thankfully, it wasn’t something that was forced on me from the outside.  But it was something I felt I needed to do.  

People often ask me, “Why did you come to Germany?”  And I never love my answer.  I needed a change.  I wanted to experience living in another country.  I wanted to learn a new language.  Having affordable health care is nice.  Berlin is cheap.  And so on. But really, the best answer I can give is a two-worder: Lech Li’cha.  Try explaining that to a goy though, amirite?

In the midst of this realization, something else occurred to me, as I was reading Torah.  Up til now, I’ve only ever read Torah in the old apartment. I mean, yes, I’d brought my Chumash with me on vacations.  So I’ve read at my parents’ house.  I’ve read in Nice.  But until now, Köpenick is the only homeI’ve ever read Torah in.

And now I’m reading it in my new home.  And I realized, “Shit, this is what we do, isn’t it?”  Like, it doesn’t matter where we live.  Until (arguably) America and then the modern state of Israel, we have two thousand years of history of never feeling permanently settled, no matter how hard we try.  Of knowing that the only thing that keeps us who we are in the midst of constant upheaval is this book we carry around with us.

And so now, for the first time, I’m playing my part in that story, sharing in that tradition.  A new apartment, a new neighborhood.  An unforced move, to be sure.  And a happy one.  But still a move.  Same book, though.  That’s what we do. <<

So much for that. Tuesday, it’s off to Nice. Charlotte’s dad is flying her in from South America for Xmas and I’m invited.  Fuck yeah, bitches!  Seriously though.  I mean, it’s enough just to get out of Berlin for a few days.  And obviously, I had such a great time when I did Xmas down there two years ago.  So I’m really looking forward to the sequel.  But more than all that, I’m just looking forward to seeing my friend again. It’s been too long.

So I’m in Nice for four days, and then it’s back to Berlin for a night.  Because the next day I’m off to Paris.  You may have noticed there was no annual Morgenstern trip to Italy this summer.  That’s because Paul is turning 70 this year, and they’ve decided to celebrate in the City of Lights.  And I’m invited.  Ain’t no way I’m turning that down.  So obviously I’m super excited for that as well.  Plus, Anne will be there, so I’m looking forward to seeing her in France for a change.  Plus plus, with any luck, I’ll be able to introduce her to Jared and Josh and Amanda.  I shall be well pleased if I can connect those worlds, you know?

And then it’s back to Berlin on New Year’s Eve.  I should land just in time for the, well, not “ball drop.”  For the (literal) fireworks, I guess.  Joschka and I have our “Dinner for One” tradition to uphold. And who knows what will follow on the heels of that.  But I can report on those festivities in 2020.  

And so, consider this my last post of 2019 and, jeez, of the 2010’s in general.  Wow, that happened fast.  That probably calls for some reflection.  But that’ll have to wait until next year as well.  In the meantime, merry merry and happy happy.  

איך ווינטש אײַך א געזונטע א פרייליכע און א געבענטשטע יאר

זײַט געזונט

  1. One Yiddish word for ‘garbage cans’ is apparently mistkestlech, which I kinda love. []
  2. Interesting side-note.  I sent a picture of said wine rack to my mom, and she’s like “That’s the first wine rack I ever had!”  Small world, eh? []
  3. If I even stay that long. []
  4. My friend Chris – who recommended this allergist to me – later told me that 90 days of pills (or possibly the whole course, but either way) would cost between one and two thousandeuros, if I didn’t have insurance.  I mean, Deutschland über Alles, or what? []
  5. The M1, which stops literally in front of Joschka’s door, stops a block and half from my new place.  #gamechanger []