An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
23 February, 2020

Careful readers of this blog, such as may be, have perhaps noticed a reduction in output over the last six months; maybe a year.  This owes not so much to a lack of desire, I think, as a lack of material.  There’s simply not that much newgoing on.

I go to work.  I hang out with my friends.  I ‘study’ Torah, meet Bartek to read Yiddish.  Jam with Bibi and Ralf on Fridays; play a gig once a month.1  There’s not a whole lot else, generally speaking.  Or if there is, it doesn’t scream to be written about.

I go for less walks than I used to.  Part of that is the weather, at least at the moment.  Or so I tell myself.  But if I’m honest, I remember some very lovely winter walks in Köpenick.  Really, what I think is happening, is I’ve undergone a transition.  Somewhere along the line, this stopped being some grand adventure and just sorta became my life.

I didn’t notice it until I was home for a wedding last fall.  At this wedding, I was chatting with a rather pretty girl.  And we seemed to be getting on pretty well.  So it occurred to me.  We were getting to the point where I’d normally ask for her phone number. Except what would be the point? And that’s when I realized.  My life is over therenow.

I wasn’t on some short term jaunt, some exciting let’s-roll-the-dice-and-see-what-happens adventure.  I actually livein Germany.  And even if I don’t know for how long – I could call it quits this year, when my lease is up or next year when my visa is up – it is nevertheless my current reality.  

And that has robbed this experience of some of its wonder, the feeling that every day will bring something new and unexpected.  Which isn’t all bad, mind you.  There are advantages to this as well.  I feel settled in some respects, which is nice.  I have my own place, my routines, my circle of friends.  I have my ‘intellectual’ pursuits and my outlet for musical expression, such as it is.  But it is less adventure and more quotidian.  

And it’s hard to write about the quotidian.  That’s why I didn’t really keep a regular blog in the States, although that’s where I started.  But when I first got here, I was writing a post every week or two.  Because every week – hell, every day – was packed with new experiences; new sights, new sounds, new words, new people, new places.

It’s not like that anymore. Now, to be sure, I do have new experiences.  Nice and Paris for the holidays.  Leipzig for Annett’s birthday last month.  Our first gig, also last month.  A new apartment, and with it, a new neighborhood.  But the new things are fewer and farther between.  

Even the job has grown repetitive.  Yes, occasionally I get new questions.  I try to look at things in new ways.  But really, it’s the people who are new.  I mostly just keep on doing the same shtick.  

But maybe I’m also dealing with a bit of writer’s block.  I struggle with creative writing these days.  Time was, I used to write stories.  Good stories, I like to think.  Fantasies, fairy tales, Star Wars send-ups.  Now, the muse seems to have abandoned me.  I have no ideas.

Back in the day, Charlotte would say, “Tell me a story.”  And I’d just make something up, on the spot.  She used to wonder at my ability to do that, if wonderis not too strong a word.  Now I can think of nothing.  And there’s nobody here who asks me for a story.  

Does that mean my time here has run its course?  I don’t know. I’m settled.  But also, I kinda like being settled.  At least some of the time.  I’ll be 39 next month.  Do I really want to move to another country and start all over again from zero?  To go somewhere where I don’t know a single soul? It would certainly re-introduce the wonder, the excitement.  But it would bring with it upheaval, uncertainty, insecurity.  There are days where I hear the siren song.  But mostly, I don’t feel up to it.

I’m not sure that I would say that things are often great here.  Things are great, but rarely. Things are often good, though, and that ain’t nothing.  Among the myriad goods – and myriad, which in Greek literally means 10,000, is the right word here – among the myriad goods, there is but one thing missing.  And if that should be found…

Books.  Books are good.  I recently finished Poe’s Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym, which I gather is his only serious ‘novel.’  It is a novel, I don’t know why I put that in quotes.  It’s not something I would normally have chosen, but for two tie-ins.  Lovecraft tied his mythology into this story, which I only discovered by accident, when I read At the Mountains of Madness.  And Le Sphinx des Glaces, by my boy JV, is quite literally a sequel to Poe’s tome, in every sense of the word.

It’s really for the latter that I read the Poe; so I could read the Verne afterwards.  Well, the Poe was fine.  Better than fine.  In fact, you see why Verne chose to write a sequel to it.  It really reads like a JV adventure, but tinged with Poe’s trademark darkness and mystery.  I wouldn’t recommend it to everybody, but if you like Verne and you like Poe, it’s worth it.

The real story here is, of course, the Verne; which I’m not quite halfway through at the moment.  And I just love Jules Verne; you all know that. But having read over a dozen of his books by now, it’s more than just the stories that I love.  It’s his style too.  It’s familiar, it’s easy, it’s comfortable.  It’s like sitting down with an old friend.

Strangely, perhaps, I find that I enjoy the beginnings of his stories more than the ends.  Because, with him, the mystery comes up front.  When he sets you up, when he introduces the characters, lays out the first steps of the adventure.  I say the beginning is where the mystery comes, because if I have one knock on JV, it’s that there’s always a happy ending.  Even if you don’t know the details of how things will turn out, you know it’s not gonna be Hamlet, with Fortinbras surveying a field of corpses.  

Which, for me, is a shame. Because JV’s at his best when he’s working dark.  And based on what I know of the man, and what comes through in his stories, I get the feeling that he was dark and cynical by nature.  If I understand correctly, it was his editor who pushed him to these happy endings.  Well, that’s not always so fun.  

And maybe I’m working too hard to draw a parallel here.  But his stories are kind of like my time here.  In the beginning, it’s new a cast of characters, new places, new mysteries to be solved.  But as things progress, the characters become familiar, mysteries get resolved, things get comfortable.  

One thing I like about this book – Le Sphinx des Glaces – is that it’s told in the first person, which is usually not the case with JV.  What I like about this is, it it allows the narration a more cynical tack,2 because it’s the characterwho is cynical, not the author. Ostensibly.  

One feature of JV stories is the attention to detail, the effort to get the science right.  You appreciate this, but you don’t always love it.  I’ll give an example.  In this story, they are currently traipsing around the Antarctic circle.  And so we get the exact latitudes and longitudes of various islands, their geographical features, their flora and fauna.  It can be a bit of a slog at times.  And even if I were reading this in English, I wouldn’t know half the birds or plants he’s talking about.  

But it’s important to him, and like I said, you appreciate the effort and attention to detail.  But it got me thinking.  He’s writing in a time where most people don’t have the opportunity to travel the world.  There are no airplanes.  There are no David Attenborough-narrated HD documentaries.  There aren’t even color photographs.  

So you couldn’t see these places, much less visit them.  How exciting must that have been for the contemporary reader, how transportative? That’s a feeling which I think the modern reader must be entirely incapable of recapturing.  

In any case, I’m enjoying the hell out of it, encyclopaedic descriptions notwithstanding.  And although I’m not quite halfway through, I have the feeling that this is one of the better ones.  Or, at least, accords better with my own tastes.  

Also, the book is dedicated to mes amis d’Amérique– my American friends. That’s pretty fucking cool. Because even though the man’s been dead for well over a hundred years, I feel like he’s including mein that group.  He wrote this for me. I’m one of Jules Verne’s American friends!

The Yiddish story I just finished with Bartek was a beast in every sense of the words.  The language itself was a real challenge.  Much harder than the Shalom Aleichem or Itzik Manger we’d previously read.  But more than that, it was very powerful; moving, tragic.  It’s called איו א קארנעוואל נאכט – On a Carnival Night, by Shalom Ash.  

The first three chapters take place in Rome, probably during the late 1800’s (it’s not specified),and tell of the humiliation suffered by the Jews of the Roman Ghetto during Carnival.  It’s heartbreaking.  These women are weaving a tapestry to be hung on the Arch of Titus during the festivities. And the Italian overseer comes and accuses them of using not their best material, of trying to cheat the Romans. And so each woman goes to her room and digs out her wedding dress, using them as the material for the tapestry.

The next chapter details how eight old Jewish men were made to run, almost naked, through the streets, chased by Romans on horseback, while the citizenry laughs them on from the sidelines.  At the finish line is the Pope, laughing along with everybody else.

In the next chapter, Jesus comes down from the cross and finds the (Jewish) Messiah, chained to a wall. Whereupon does he ask, at length, how people could do such things in his name.  But he Messiah is silent.  In the end, Jesus sits down beside the Messiah, and he too is silent.  

In the final chapter, we leave Rome behind and are transported to the Ukrainian shtetlof Troyanav.  This place is neither random nor fictional.  It was chosen because it would have been on the mind of Ash’s readers at the time.  In 1905 (the story is written in 1909), the Jews of another shtetl received word of an impending pogrom.  Five young Jews left for another town, there to join some kind of self-defense league.

On the way, the stopped in Troyanav.  There, the Ukrainians got word of what the five young men were trying to do.  They ordered the Jews of Troyanav to turn over the five or else face a pogrom of their own.  Tragically, they were turned over and promptly executed.  Ash takes it for granted that the reader would know all this.

Bartek and I did not know this however, and struggled for quite a while to make sense of the narrative. Until, finally, Bartek found the above story buried in the pages of some ancient book, preserved online by The Mighty Frenemy, Google.

In any case, the final chapter of the story tells how the matriarch Rachel comes from her grave on the road to Bethlehem to solemnly weave a death shroud for the five.  She weaves it from torn up ספרי טורות (Torah scrolls), from torn up טליתים (prayer shawls), from torn up פרוכת׳ער (the curtains which hang before the ארון קדש, the most holy space in a synagogue, the closet where the Torah scrolls are kept).

She is then joined by Miriam (i.e. Mary, the mother of Jesus).  And Miriam wants only to help her weave the death shrouds, because her son too was murdered.  And she could have been happy at the time of his death, because he was a קרבן, an offering, a sacrifice.  He was murdered, yes, but he died for the sins of man. And that is a death worth dying. Only, look what his followers have done in his name.  This she cannot bear.  And so she wants to help Rachel, her “mother,”3 weave her death shrouds.  This they do, and the story ends with them laying the death shrouds over the corpses of the five.

The story was quite controversial at the time.  In 1905, with pogroms still very much a real and current thing, Jews had little sympathy for Jesus, Mister נישט געשטויגען נישט געפלויגען.4  In a way, it was very head of its time.  After all, today, most Jews are comfortable saying things like, “Jesus himself wasn’t a bad guy.”  Or “Jesus’ teachings were on point, it’s the people who twist his teachings into an excuse for war or murder who are the problem.”  In that way, it’s startlingly modern.  But as I say, at the time, it caused quite a stir.

Anyway, reading it was extremely challenging; therefore extremely rewarding.  And as with previous texts, neither of us could have done this on our own.  We each solved problems for the other, so that by the end, we (think we) understood nearly everything.

But the process was so much fun too.  We’d get on skype, and spend three or for hours getting though just two or three pages. Grammatical discussions were the easy part.  Quasi-Talmudic debates on the meaningof various passages were invigorating.  Add to this, tangents on Slavic linguistics, English idioms, modern Hebrew and Arabic usages, connotations of certain vocabulary with respect to their use in the Torah.  It’s only the two of us, but it’s the sort of hifalutin “intellectual” reading group a dilettante like me dreams of having.

Next we’re going to tackle something more personal.  At first, I wasn’t sure Bartek would be interested in it, since it’s not properly “literature.” But when I told him about, he was quite excited.  Exactly the kind of thing he loves, he said.  Well, fantastic.  Because I should be very glad of his help, when it comes to this particular text.

So, one line of my family – the line that goes back through my Uncle Art, עליב השלום– comes from a small city in Lithuania, name Oshmoneh.  Now, our family, ברוך חשם, came to America well before the war.  I’m lucky to be able to say, I have no close relations who perished in the holocaust.

All the same, the Jews of Oshmoneh suffered the same fate as so many others in Europe.  The Jewish community of Oshmoneh was annihilated during the war.  But after the war, the survivors and expats had a book made.  And this book is history of the Jewish community of that city. What it was like before the war and what happened there during the war.  And even though I know of no direct relations from that place, have never been there, just knowing that that’s where we’re from, it makes this book very special, very personal.  I don’t know how many copies of this book exist.  But because it was made by those people for those people, the number can’t be a big one.

Funny thing, I never knew about this book.  I suspect nobody in our family did.  It was found amongst Art’s things after he died.5  I suppose not everybody has a deep interest in family history.  But for those who do, this book is surely an אוצר, a treasure.  Or it would be, if anybody could read it.  See, the book is written in two languages: Yiddish and Modern Hebrew. I don’t believe anybody alive today in my family is fluent in either of these languages.  My ability with Yiddish, such as it is, probably comes closest.

So this is the thing I’m going to read next with Bartek.  And honestly, I couldn’t be happier at his genuine interest.  I mean, I would soon be making an effort to read this anyway.  But already I’ve seen how many of my mistakes he catches.  Already I’ve seen the insights he can bring, insights which fly right past me when I’m reading alone.  So yeah, I’m kinda over the moon that we’re going to tackle this text together. Or, at least, parts of it.  I mean, the book is fucking huge.  But anything we can do will be a win.

In any case, I’ve se the goal for myself of translating it into English.  Not for me, but for the family.  Because I want to believe I’m not the only one who’s interested in its contents.  And even if I should be the only one currently interested, I have to hope that one of the young cousins will grow up to be interested.  And if not them, then some child yet unborn.  Whatever the case, there’s a story worth telling in there. And if I can get that into English – imperfect as it might be – well, that will be an achievement.  

Lastly, on books.  The great Roger Kahn has just died.  Kahn, a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, covered the Jackie Robinson Dodgers in 1951, 1952 for the long defunct Herald Tribune.  His greatest claim to fame, among many, though, is his beloved Boys of Summer.  This I’m now re-reading for at least the third time.  

And what a beautiful book it is.  I mean, the man was the poet fucking laureate of baseball.  When I say it’s a beautiful book, it’s not hyperbole.  Yes, he’s a master of the English language; it’s poetry in prose.  But it’s a book about fathers and sons, a book about youth, about becoming a man, about leaving youth behind, the cold realities of adulthood, aging.  

And the backdrop to all of this: perhaps the most wondrous, the most beloved of any baseball team of any time, Dem Bums, The Brooklyn Dodgers.   A team of players we know by first names and nicknames.  Jackie, Pee Wee, Skoonj, Campy, Shotgun Shuba, Preacher Roe, Oisk.  The magical mystical glove of Billy Cox.  Hell, even the bad guys are known by their nicknames: Sal ‘The Barber,’ Leo ‘The Lip.’ You don’t have to be a baseball fan to love – not like, love– this book.

Reading it has got me in a Dodger mood.  I found two Dodger games on Youtube, called by the great Red Barber.  You read stories about Red Barber.  People talk about him like he was the greatest mouth to ever sit behind a mic in the history of baseball.  These days, that accolade is more likely attributed to Vin Scully.  Scully is famous for calling Dodger games after they moved to LA.6  But Scully is a New Yorker too, and his career started in Brooklyn.  It was Red Barber who taught him the craft.  For a short time, they called Dodger games together. The torch was passed.

Anyway, I found two Dodger games on YouTube, with the Ol’ Redhead on the mic.  And the beauty of them is, they’re nothing games.  Spring games.  Two random games, each from a different season, each a season of 154 such games.  And that’s what makes them special.  It’s not the World Series.  They’re just any old game, what any Brooklyn fan would have heard on the radio, one sunny afternoon in the early 1950’s.  There’s magic in that.

You know those questions. The ones about, if you could have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who would you choose?  Or, if you could go anywhere at anytime in the history of the world, where would you go?  

The former question is not relevant here, but I’ll answer it anyway.  I’m not inviting Jesus to dinner, or Julius Caesar.  No, sir.  Just my dad, my grandpa and Bubbi.  The men, to talk with.  About anything.  To listento them talk.  Bubbi?  You can have Jesus, if you like.  I’d give anything צו האלטן א שמועז מיט דער באבע, to just chat in Yiddish with my great grandmother.  

But the relevant question, where and when would you go?  That’s easy. New York, the early fifties, summer. A Dodgers-Giants game at Ebbets field in the afternoon and a game at Yankee stadium at night.  Willie, Mickey and the Duke.  Yogi and Campy.  Pee Wee and The Scooter.  The Chairmen of the Board.  Jackie fucking Robinson.  And if pocket transistor radios were a thing – and I don’t know if they were yet – but I’d have one of those with me.  Just so I could hear Red Barber in the afternoon and Mel Allen at night.  I mean, it’s the only possible answer to such a question.

Well, I suppose that’s enough for now.  The Islanders are going through a bit of a rough patch at the mo, although they won tonight.  Still though, the hockey is exciting right now.  And boy, do I love hockey.  I don’t have words for how much I miss playing.  But I’ve got enough to keep me busy here.  And so what if things aren’t greatevery day?  Most things are goodmost days.  And that ain’t nuthin’…

זײַ געזונט

  1. This month will be our second.  Hmm, you know, I should probably write about the first… []
  2. Pun intended.  It is a sea-faring adventure, after all. []
  3. In a non-literal sense, Rachel isthe mother of Mary.  The latter is directly descended from the former.  Both are members of the Davidic line, from whence we are taught meshiachwill arise. Christians, obviously, believe Jesus wasthe messiah.  We are still waiting.  But the genealogy checks out. []
  4. Nisht geshtoygen, nisht gefloygen. Not arisen, not flown (to heaven). This is how Jesus is (or was) often referred to in Yiddish. []
  5. Actually, I found an inscription in the back cover from my great aunt Pearl, Art’s sister. Written in 1969, it’s to her father.  So knowledge of the book certainly went backwards from Art’s generation, but seemingly not forward. Until now, that is. []
  6. Hashtag crime of the century. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
15 February, 2020

Mishpucha Edition

The following was mostly written on January 4th, with only a few additions since then.  For whatever reason, I’ve held off on posting it until now.  זײַ מיר מוחל.

Well, Happy New Year. Here we are.  2020.  Time just keeps on moving, don’t it?  But more on that later, perhaps.  So my boss says to me, “Did you have a relaxing holiday?”  He’s British, so when he says ‘holiday,’ he means vacation. “No,” says I.  “Well, did you at least have a nice holiday?” he asks, pushing the issue.  “Yes,” says I.  “Very good,” quoth he.  “And now I shall leave you alone.  I know how you hate to talk in the morning.”  I could hug that man.  If I were capable of displaying emotion.

In any case, both of my answers were truthful.  It was not a relaxing vacation.  But it sure was nice.  I was in Nice from the 24thto the 28th, getting home sometime around 10:30pm.  Then up at 6:30 and it was off to Paris.  Came back on the 31stand went straight to Joschka’s for New Year’s Eve. Got home around 6:30-7:00am.  So yeah, it was not ‘relaxing.’  But it sure was nice.

One of the things I like about going to France, obviously, is the opportunity to, you know, speak some French.  Boy, that was hit or miss, I tellya.  Usually, it takes me a couple of days to get locked in.  And it always seems that I’m just starting to get the hang of things on my last day.  Then, boom, time to leave.  This time was no different.

The first night, Christmas Eve, I show up at Charlotte’s place.  Well, her mom’s place.  Well, it used to be her mom’s place.  Now it’s her sister’s place.  Anyway, I show up on Christmas Eve, and I’m the last one there.  It’s already 8:30, nine o’clock.  So I walk into the kitchen, and it’s Charlotte’s mom, dad, sister, friend and obviously the Big C herself.  And natch, they’re all talking French.

Group situations are always hard.  Socially, yeah.  But linguistically is what I mean here.  It’s always easier to talk one-on-one, when the only person you’re talking to is giving you their full attention, when things can go at your pace, when things are tailored more or less to your level. But in groups, people talk among themselves.  They talk faster.  They use more slang.  They’re not so careful about their pronunciation.  And they don’t slow the whole thing down just for little old you. Which is as it should me, mind you.

And certainly I’ve been in situations where the group will switch to English for little old you. Which you know I hate.  But that’s not even an option with this group, because the English just isn’t there for most of them.  Which I love, in general.  But it’s a hard thing to get dropped in the middle of.  I’m doing my best just to keep up, in terms of following what’s going on around me.  But I’m way too slow at that point to actually join in.  So I just sorta sit there and smile and nod and eat and drink. I mean, could be worse.

But there was a lot of this. Because as you may or may not know, Charlotte is living in Ecuador at the moment, teaching French there.  So she’s only in for the holidays.  Got in the day before I did and left the same day as me.  So now, it’s not just the normal sitch, but it’s actually her first opportunity to catch up with friends and family in person in, gosh, over a year, at least. So they’ve got even more than usual to talk about.  And less that includes me, in many ways.  Again, as it should be.  But it was a challenge.

And believe it or not, the fact that Charlotte is fluent in English actually makes things harder for me in some ways.  No doubt it’s very helpful at times.  But it’s a crutch, for everybody.  For her, if she wants to tell me something, English is the easiest way.  For the others, if they want to communicate something, it’s easier to do it through her.  And for me, if I have a question, I can just go through her as well.  So it sort of disincentivizes everybody to make that effort, you know?

Which isn’t to say I wasn’t involved or didn’t speak any French or that nobody spoke to me in French. Just that it was a touch overwhelming, language-wise, and less French for me as might be expected.  

That said, there’s a lot of love in that room.  Her mom gave me a big old hug when I arrived.  Her dad is always super sweet with me.  Her sister too.  Even her friend, whom I’ve met several times now, is always very nice to me, always makes an effort to chat with me a bit in French.  So I didn’t feel at all like an outsider or less a part of the group. Just that there was a language barrier.

And so it went.  The next day was more of the same, this time with her dad’s family.  The French was a little better than the day before, but my head was still spinning. I did eat fois gras though.  That was a first.  Morally ambiguous at best, but certainly delicious.  And hey, I’m in France, right?

The next night we went out for drinks with her friends.  And that was a bit tougher for me.  I mean, I’ve met these friends.  I like all of them.  They like me.  But again, Charlotte hadn’t been home in over a year, so this was their first chance to all hang out together in quite a while.  Lot of catching up to do.  In that kind of situation, even in English, I’d be a bit left out.  After all, these girls had grown up together.  So it’s catching up on what’s new, but it’s also retelling old stories.  And again, all that’s as should be.  But it did leave me a bit on the outside.  Then add the language barrier on top of that, and I did feel a bit left out.

Not that I’m complaining. I still had a good time.  Just maybe not a great time.  Add to that, by that point I’d now encountered several setbacks with the language. To me, these were embarrassing, though Charlotte the French Teacher assured me I had nothing to feel bad about. But several times that day I’d tried to say say some very basic things, only to not be understood.

That very morning, for example, I was sitting in the kitchen alone, reading the paper on my phone. Her mom (Karine) and her sister (Marion) come in.  Karine asks me what I’m doing.  Je lis (I’m reading).  Quoi tu lis? (What are you reading?).  Le journal (the newspaper).  Quoi?  Le journal. Quoi?  Le…journal.  Quoi?  The…newspaper?  Aaaah, le journal! (Karine).  Aaaah, le jooouuurnal! (Marion).  Oui! Le journal! (me).  What the fuck did I say?1

Then, later, at a café with Charlotte, I tried to order a cup of tea and the waiter had no idea what I was saying.  Finally, that night, out with the girls, I tried to order a glass of grappa and the waitress looked at me like I had three heads.  In both cases, I needed Charlotte to order for me.  I was less than pleased with myself.

Anyway, the first couple of days, I’m having a little trouble getting acclimated.  Only after all this, at the end of the second night, I think, do we finally get to sit down, just the two of us, and play some music. Finally.  And that was great.  Just like old times.  

But really, the next day is when things started coming together.  Charlotte again met some of her friends for coffee.  But instead of staying with them, this time I went for a walk in the old town.  And this was really the first time I was getting any time to myself, which was great in itself.  But also, Nice is fucking gorgeous and the weather was wunder-fucking-schön. Or, err, magni-putain de-fique?.  

In the course of this, I do what I always do in these situations and just started turning down whatever street looked interesting.  This led me up the mountain and, eventually, to the Jewish cemetery. This was not planned; I hadn’t even considered that there might be a Jewish cemetery, though it’s hardly surprising.

Anyway, I’m glad I found it. Very peaceful, very beautiful, it’s up on the mountain overlooking the sea.  It’s a great, if melancholy, spot.  Also rather interesting.  Because as you would expect, most of the stones were in French.  But there was also a decent number in strictly Hebrew, and still others in Polish, in Russian and even in English.  There were also a couple of holocaust memorials, which were quite touching.  

Anyway, the last night was the best.  We did apéro at her dad’s place.  Just me, her, Karine, Marion and Philippe, her dad.  And it was great.  We all played music together and laughed and ate and drank and just had a good time.  I’ll come back to this later.  But for now, it’s enough to say, that was the best night.  Finally, I was feeling at ease, and there was just a lot of love in that room.  

And the best part was, as I said, we all played music together.  This new song that C and I worked up has a whistling section.  So Karine and Marion were whistling, Philippe was playing his bongo drum, I had the guitar and C & I were singing. Everybody was in on it.  And it was great, man.  I mean, I don’t think anybody is buying this record, but we had a blast.

The next day, it was time to go already.  C left early in the morning and so had her parents.  They were all off to Turkey to see her other sister, Chloe.  Chloe, see, is married to a Turkish fella and they live in Istanbul.  And she’s just had a baby.  So they were all off to meet the niece/grandchild.  Which meant that by the time I got up, it was just me and Marion. 

A bit slow going at first, but by the end, we were getting on like a house on fire.  See, she doesn’t really speak English, so we had to get by on only French.  But now, with nobody else around and no safety net, I finally found my feet (or, my tongue?).  So we chatted for a few hours, and it was just fun, you know?

Also, she was shopping for flutes online. I asked her if she played, and she said she used to a bit. But the reason she was shopping was, she had so much fun the night before, but she wished she could have contributed more to the music, wished she could have been more a part of it, beyond just the whistling.

Which itself was kinda funny.  Because I told her C was the same way, back in the beginning.  When we first met, she didn’t sing at all.  She just sat and listened to me sing and play.  But eventually, she got to the point where she wanted to participate as well.  Only then did she start singing with me.  And the rest is history.  Anyway, there was Marion, just like her sister.

And it would be really great if the next time we’re all together, we can have a little bit of flute with our music too.  So here’s hoping that will come to pass.  We also agreed that it would be good for both of us to have more practice with the language. I gather she knows more English than she lets on and that it’s more of a confidence thing.  So we exchanged emails with the hope of maybe doing a bit of language exchange over Skype or whatever.  We’ll see if that actually happens.  But it would be nice, for sure.

And that was Nice.  I hardly got any sleep when I got back to Berlin. It was the seventh night of Chanukah when I got back, so I lit the candles.  Only they kept going until like 3:30am (talk about your Chanukah miracles), and I obvi didn’t want to fall asleep with them still lit.  So yeah, I went to Paris on like three hours of sleep.

Paris.  Yeah, that was great.  But mostly because it was great to see everybody.  Jared, Josh, Amanda, the baby, the parents, Monica.  We ate like kings and drank like idiots.  Or I did, anyway.  To the point where I was laid up the whole second day with a terrible hangover.  That was kind of a waste.  But I did use the opportunity to watch some Jackie Mason on the Youtube.  Which was great in itself, but also, I was able to mine it for all kinds of little Yiddishisms, which was fantastic.  Things that in the past would have gone right past me, now I totally understood.  It not only enriched the comedy, but also my own usable Yiddish.  Hard to argue with that.

The last day, Carol, Paul, Amanda and Sabine flew home.  So it was just me, Jared, Josh and Monica.  We went out for lunch.  At which point, I asked, “Hey, can I buy you guys a drink?  I haven’t paid for a goddamn thing since I’ve been here.” Which was true.  So they agreed.  

We went to a very nice wine bar, whereupon they ordered a not cheap bottle of champagne, plus some extra glasses of wine.  I swallowed hard when the bill came.  “Well guys, thanks for having me along on this trip,” I said.  “This is the least I can do to say thank you.  Well, I don’t know if it’s the least I can do.  But it’s certainly the most I can do.”  

I was joking, of course. I mean, it was expensive.  But when you consider where we were staying and the restaurants we went to, well, it really was the least I could do.  And anyway, I work.  I can afford it.  

We were staying in five star hotels, btw, Place Vendome.  Monica got me a cot in her room, which was great.  Because we just stayed up late each night, drinking wine and talking about how most people are idiots.  I mean, other stuff to.  But that’s usually the main theme.  Anyway, it’s good times.

And then it was back to Berlin.  There was a major transit strike going on in Paris at the time, so I wound up taking a cab to the airport.  And this, my last experience in France, was a win.  Because I get in the car, and start chatting in French with the cabbie.  In fact, we chatted the whole way to the airport, the better part of an hour.  And so, as usual, my last experience, on my last day, and finally – finally– I feel like, yes, I can actually speak French.

And then it was over, and I was back in Berlin.

Joschka and I have a New Year’s tradition of sorts.  We watch this 15-minute film, an old b/w number, called Dinner for One.  Actually, watching this film on NYE is a tradition in this country generally.  But in the course of the film, the main character must drink four glasses each of white wine, champagne, port and sherry.  Thus, our tradition is to have one glass each of those drinks, as the little film unfolds. This year was year four of that tradition.  

We also cook a nice dinner. This year was steak, roasted cauliflower, parsnip purée and a meatball appetizer.   Sometimes we go out after, sometime the party just carries on at his apartment.  

This year, though, Joschel wasn’t feeling so well.  So the drinks were smaller, and after the movie it was just a bottle of champagne between the two of us.  We stayed up til six playing board games and drinking nothing but tea, once the champagne ran out.  I guess some people actually live this way.  Go fig.2

Anyway, I titled this post Mishpucha Edition. ‘Mishpucha,’ as many of you know, is the Hebrew word for ‘family.’   And even as a Yid, I know that Christmas is a time for family.  Now, it goes without saying that one of the hardest things – perhaps the hardest thing – about living in a foreign country is being far away from your family.

Well, Christmas was never a big deal in our house, obvi.  The big family holidays were always Passover (with my mom’s mishpucha) and Thanksgiving (with my dad’s mishpucha).  But my last few years in New York, I started spending Christmas with Flare’s family.  And that was always really special.  And then, when I got to Berlin, well, you notice it, when everybody else is with their families and you’re kind of alone.

Except in Berlin, I’ve never really been alone on Christmas.  My first year here, Cindy invited me to her Xmas party, at which she cooked a duck.  The next year, I was in Nice with Charlotte and her family.  Last year, I was invited to spend the holiday with Margit and her family.  This year, again in Nice, followed by that little jaunt to Paris with Jared and his mishpucha.

I know I’ve written about this before, but it never ceases to amaze me, the way people take me in and make me a part of their family.  I’m always touched, filled with wonder, and yeah, even surprised.  I mean, you just can’t take these things for granted, you know?

Look, I’ve known Jared and the whole clan since I’m, what, fifteen?  We grew up together.  But not just me and Jared.  All of us. I’ve watched Amanda graduate college, get jobs, be very successful professionally, and now, have a baby. When I met them, Carol was still walking around on her own.  Now I push her wheelchair and help her with her drinks.  I’ve been enjoying steaks and sipping fine scotch and now cognac with Paul, having those man-to-man conversations in New York steakhouses, on his roof deck, in Italy and in France.  In fact, sitting in Paul’s hotel room and sipping Armagnac, just the two of us, was one of the highlights of this short trip.

Jared and I lived together for ten years.  And in the course of those ten years, we walked – sometimes drunkenly stumbled – from boyhood to become men.  I think that for each of us, who we are now has in some way been shaped by the other. And now last year I was at his wedding. 

They say you choose your friends but you don’t get to choose your family.  Well, maybe we chose to be friends, long ago.  But we’re family now.  And that won’t change any more than it could with my own blood relations.

But if I’ve known the Morgensterns for nigh on 25 years, the situation with Charlotte and her family is quite the opposite.  We only met in in 2013.  I met her parents that same year.  Philippe, when he visited her in NY, Karine when I visited C in Nice for the first time that summer.

Now obviously, C and I are very close.  At the moment, it’s the sort of close where you talk on the phone for two hours once every couple of months, but when you see each other you pick up exactly where you left off.  But there’s no less love there, for all that.

Though, that’s not the whole story either. Cos see, she reads every one of these posts; leaves a comment on most of them. In a way, we communicate through this blog. She once said to me, “I read you.” She didn’t say, “I read your blog.” She said, “I read you.” And every time I sit down to write, some small part of it is for her. So even if we only talk every couple of months, we’re more connected than that.

>> Interpolation: It’s worth mentioning here just how much C herself makes me feel like family, the level of trust, comfort, whatever you want to call it, that exists between us. As mentioned, my time in Nice overlapped almost entirely with hers.  Basically the whole time she was there, I was there too.  And I maybe felt a little guilty about that, even though we had coordinated the dates together.

After all, this was her first chance in a long time to catch up with friends and family.  Who would want to be burdened with a guest the entirety of that time?  So I apologized, if that’s the right word.  I said something like, “I hope I’m not in your way too much,” or “I’m sorry if I’m a burden on you here, taking up all of your time.”  Something like that.

To which she replied, something along the lines of, “Don’t be ridiculous.  I’m happy you’re here.  I want you here.  You are in no way a burden.”   And she meant that.  That’s where our friendship is at.  She has a finite time with her childhood friends and family, and she wants me there for all of it, to share in it, to be a part of it.

Every minute I get with my family now, every minute I get with my friends from home now, it’s precious. And every minute I get with Charlotte, it’s no less precious.  And it’s that way for her too.  What can I say?  I love that bitch.  End Interpolation: <<

And while I’ve grown up with Jared’s family, I can count the number of times I’ve spent time with C’s family one two hands; maybe one.  And yet they treat me as if I’ve been there all along.  There’s just so much love.  

I can try to describe all this, but I know I’ll fail to capture it.  Better would be to give an example.  This trip to Nice was only the third time I’ve ever met Marion.  The first was on a roadtrip we did, back in 2016, I think – Me, C, Philippe and Marion.  The second time was Xmas, two years ago.  And we’ve never spoken outside of these two encounters.  

Anyway, like I said, my last morning in Nice this year, it was just the two of us, me and M.  And like I said, it was slow going at first. But I think we bonded a bit.  We talked about how we’re both uncomfortable in group settings, how we can both find it difficult to talk to people in groups. How we’re both much better one-on-one. We also talked about language, about France, made plenty of jokes, and so on.  It was a good time.

The point is, like I said, it was only the third time we’d met; and the parents, not many more times than that.  Anyway, we’re at the door, saying our goodbyes.  And I say, Merci pour tout, thanks for everything. And she says, De rien?, you’re welcome?  It was definitely a question.  Mais, pour quoi?, But, for what?, she added.  Pour l’hospitalité, pour le lit, pour…tout, for the hospitality, for the bed, for…everything. And she just sorta looks at me like I have three heads.  So I say, On dit merci, non?, One says ‘thank you,’ no?  To which she just sorta rolls her eyes and says, Ouais, mais pas avec famille.  Yeah, but not with family.  

Well, what can you say to that?

It’s hard being so far away from your family.  But it’s a little bit easier when you’ve got families on this side of the ocean too. Who could ask for a better Christmas (or Chanukah) gift?

זײַ געזונט

  1. It reminded me of Abbot and Costello’s Who’s on First.  C: I throw the ball to who?  A: Naturally.  C: Now you ask me.  A: You throw the ball to Who?  C: Naturally. A: That’s it.  C: SAME AS YOU!  SAME AS YOU!  (If you don’t know Who’s on First, a) have you been living under a rock? and b) go watch it, now. []
  2. Although I gotta say, waking up on January first without a hangover ain’t the worst thing in the world. []