An American in Berlin
15 February, 2020
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?
- 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. [↩]
- Although I gotta say, waking up on January first without a hangover ain’t the worst thing in the world. [↩]