An American in Berlin
30 March, 2020
Well, we’re really in the shit now, huh? First of all, I’m healthy, kinahura. But every time I say I’m healthy, I feel like what I’m really saying is, “Well, I was healthy two weeks ago. The fuck knows what’s going on inside me today?” But at this time, I’m fortunate to be able to say I don’t know anybody here who’s infected. In fact – and not to tempt the Fates – but to this point, Berlin has been doing comparatively well in general.
To the point where I have to wonder if the man-in-the-street is taking this seriously enough. Joschka assures me that where he is – pretty much the center of the city – is quite dead. But up here, in my new hood, I’m rather surprised by the number of people I see out and about. For the last two weeks now, I’ve been wearing rubber gloves whenever I leave the house; and until the other day, I’ve felt like I was the only one.
Friday, on my trip to the supermarket, was really the first time I saw any significant number of people wearing masks and gloves; though still a minority. I don’t know how much real ‘protection’ rubber gloves offer, but they do have this advantage. You’re very conscious of wearing them; very conscious of your hands. The result being, it’s much easier to avoid accidently touching your face. So there’s that, anyway.
Also, as of Thursday the 19th, we’ve been doing our classes online from home. And just Friday, my boss got approval from the Arbeitsamt– the local labor department, I guess – to officially offer remote classes and accept new students on that basis. So at least for the time being, I’m able to work my normal schedule, which is a blessing.
Working from home, though, man. Don’t get me wrong, it has its advantages, which I’ll come to. But it feels weird. Just, I mean, being in the house all day. You feel like you’re on some kind of lame vacation. It makes it just a little bit harder to take work seriously. Especially since the current schedule we’ve developed is super lax.
We have instruction from 9-10, 11:30-12:30 and 2-2:30. If you’re doing the math, that means I’m only actually “working” 2.5 hours a day. The rest of the time is for the students to work alone on whatever we assign to them, plus “breaks.” It’s effective, as far as it goes. Honestly, it’s working much better than I’d anticipated. But it does contribute to the feeling of “barely working-ness.”
To combat this, I’ve started dressing more formally than I ever did when I was going in to work. You know, they say something about dressing up to work from home makes you feel more serious. Well, it helps anyway. Every day, I wear a button-down shirt with either a tie, a vest or a jacket.
On the other hand, some of my students show up looking like total schlubs, in undershirts or whatnot. But it’s not their job. If I was a student, who knows, maybe I’d be rolling up in my PJ’s.
I’ve been putting these extended breaks to some practical use. Trying (and sometimes failing) to get a bit of cleaning done. But more often, just playing a lot of guitar. Not really any classical, unfortunately. It’s still a bit chilly and my fingers don’t behave as well as they do in warm weather. But I’m adding to my repertoire of Yiddish folk songs, of which I’ve got around ten or so now; some memorized, others I still need my handwritten lyric sheets.
And then there’s the electric guitar. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this. After the first gig with Bibi and Ralf, the café owner was sufficiently pleased that she offered us a regular monthly gig. We played precisely one of these before the corona-shutdown hit. But upon learning that we would be playing out on the reg, I decided to purchase an electric guitar.
Reason being, Bibi and Ralf hold down 99% of the rhythm parts. So even on the acoustic, I was mostly doing leads, color or bass. So I thought adding an electric guitar to the mix, especially for what I was doing, could be really cool. Give things a whole different dynamic. Those two loved the idea.
I mean, I was prepared to ease the thing in slowly. To get a month or so of practice, learning the instrument, learning how to fit it in, make it blend with what they were doing. But they were so excited, they wanted it in the show straight away.
Result being, I used it at our last show, after having had it only a week and precisely one practice session. All things considered, it worked out pretty well. There were some glitches, some things that need adjustment, to be sure. But they were quite pleased, which was enough for me.
I said I had to learn the instrument, and that was true. It’s not like any guitar I’ve ever had. My primary electric guitar for my whole life has been my beloved Rosie, a Gibson SG Standard. And that’s really a rock/metal guitar. My secondary guitar is this gorgeous Jackson Rhoads flying-V, which plays like a dream. But that’s a purely metal instrument. And my starter guitar was a Strat knockoff; a blues/rock guitar.
The point is, all those guitars are solid-body rock guitars and have quite a lot in common. But the kind of music I’m playing with Bibi and Ralf is not rock. Well, not by my lights, anyway. So I thought an entirely different kind of instrument was called for.
To that end, I bought a Gretsch semi-hollow-body. You know, the kind that has the S-shaped cello-like cutouts in the body; picture something like what Chuck Berry or BB King played. It’s bigger, the balance is totally different. More importantly, the sound it makes and the way it plays are quite a departure from my other electrics. So it really has taken quite a bit of getting used to.
It’s a much rounder, softer sound. But there’s less sustain and it’s not really made for tearing things up up above the 12thfret. It was totally the right choice for the Bibi-Ralf stuff. I mean, I’m really pleased with the way it fits what we’re doing together.
The only problem is, we’re not doing it now. So I’ve got this beautiful instrument – she really is gorgeous – that’s not the right instrument for the kind of music I want to play at home alone. Which apparently is Bach. Back in high school, I had worked up a sort of adaptation of Bach’s Toccata in d-minor, which was pretty cool. But I’m a better player now than I was then. So I figured, with all this down time, I should try to learn it properly.
And that’s what I’ve been working on since I’ve been stuck at home. A lot of my break time goes to that damned piece. It is not easy, friends. But it’s bad-fucking-ass, and I’m making progress. But it’s just a touch frustrating, knowing that Leyke1 – that’s my guitar’s name – just wasn’t made for this kind of playing. Like finger tapping just doesn’t come off well with this instrument. But it’s fun anyway, which is the point.
Although, as with so much of what I attempt musically, it has me up against my limits. I’ve never been particularly good with right hand picking technique. And this piece sure calls for it. So on the one hand, that’s a skill I’m trying to develop. On the other, I’m quite clearly not especially gifted in that department.
One thing that’s suffering as a result of not going into school is my French reading. Normally, I read French every day on the train. But now I have no train rides. Trying to carve out time for that has been difficult. And since we’re in isolation, I also haven’t been able to meet Anne for our conversation exchange. So my French is getting hit on two fronts.
Something that’s benefited, though, has been my contact with friends who aren’t in Berlin. As with so many people, I’ve been doing more Skyping. Catching up with people I normally only see when I’m in the States or with whom I would otherwise chat two or three times a year. So that’s been nice.
And of course my reading sessions with Bartek (Yiddish) and Phil (Greek) are even easier to arrange now. Those continue to be a source of fun and gratification. Now here’s something that’s really cool. I mentioned in my last post that Bartek and I were going to start reading this book about the history of the Shtetl were Art’s side of the family came from.
The first chapter was a brief summary history, from the founding of the town, which first appears in historical documents around 1040, until the tragedies of the second World War. Now to me, all the medieval history was just a jumble of unpronounceable Slavic names. But for Bartek, who is Polish, this is his personal-national history.
So as we’re reading, he’s like, “This is so cool! I know this king, I know this city, I know this treaty, that marriage was a really big deal!” I mean, reading this with him brings the history alive in a way that would not be even remotely possible were I reading this alone.
I mean, this is why I love reading with these guys. Phil and I met to read some Herodotus on Thursday. Over something like two hours we got through one page of text. Because we go off on so many tangents. Debating the use or meaning of this word or that. Considering how the use of oracles figures into Herodotus’ history and Greek culture in general. And of course the obligatory side-chatter about baseball.
In other words, reading with these guys, the language is just the beginning. I’ve said it before, but it’s such an enriching experience. I sometimes wonder if I should find a way to go back to school for a PhD, whether Greek or Yiddish or who knows what; never mind the law stuff I’ve written about previously. But so long as I’m not in school, this is the closest I can get to Academia, to that sort of mental workout. I don’t just love it, I need it. So thank the gods for that.
Speaking of baseball, not having it is rough. The longer I’m cooped up inside, and the nicer the weather gets, all I want to do is go have a catch. And, just, you can’t. Even though it’s kinda the perfect social-distancing sport. I mean, if you’re standing anything like 6 feet apart, you’re doing something wrong. And the parks are open, which makes it harder to bear.
But I figure, I’m imposing hardcore self-isolation for two weeks counting from my last day going in to school. So next weekend, maybe I’ll head down to Joschka for a gathering of precisely two people. To cook, play some games, have a few drinks. But maybe at that point I can go have a catch too. If I can find anybody who wants to join, that is. I guess we’ll see.
One other thing I should add. Things being as they are, it’s super hard to find a routine, to be productive. I think depression is probably too strong a word. But we’re all sorta struggling with being stuck inside. And there are days when it’s way too easy to just open a bottle of something, stay in bed and watch Star Trek for hours on end.
To that end, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but thank God for Torah. Whether I actually love what I’m reading is beside the point. In fact, it’s kind of boring right now. Just a bunch of rules regarding sacrifices to atone for any number of misdeeds. But there’s a schedule to stick to. Three days a week, every week. Read the parsha. It forces me to get off my ass, to do something, to work. I’d be lost without it right now. How about that? Lost without Torah. That’s a sentence I would have laughed at for the first 35 years of my life. But here we are. Strange times, indeed.
I guess there’s not a whole lot else to say, since, you know, I can’t fucking do anything. With that in mind, I’ll close this post with a little vignette. This little story took place when I landed in Nice, back in December, to visit Charlotte for Christmas. And so, without further ado…
“Entschuldigung. Sprechen Sie deutsch?” The question caught me off guard for a couple of reasons. First of all, I was in France. I mean, yes, I’d just gotten off a flight from Berlin and yes, I was still in the airport. So maybe this woman had been on my flight; had recognized me at the ticket machine for the Tram. But also, it was immediately clear from her accent that she herself was not German.
And look, maybe this is the conceit of the English speaker. That my first thought should be, “Who speaks German as a second language but not English?” Nevertheless, the thought crossed my mind.
But also, you know, yeah, I do kinda speak German. “Ja,” I said. “Kann ich dich helfen?” ‘Yes, can I help you?’ Turns out she wanted to know if I could show her where the central train station was, in Nice. I was in Nice, by the way. In the event, I couldn’t. I didn’t actually know where the central train station in Nice was. Best I could do, was to point out the city center on the map and tell her that it almost certainly was “somewhere around here-ish.”
And I coulda left it there. But something about this woman made me want to help her. I mean beyond the standard do-a-mitzvah, good Samaritan shit. First of all, she was with her family; three young kids and her husband. But more than that, something about this dame was familiar. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it though. Was it the face? The manner of dress? The hair? Her general bearing?
Or maybe it was how lost she seemed. The way she spoke German with an accent. I mean, you gotta be some kinda lost, to be asking for directions in German, in France; in not your native language in not-even-the-country-of-that-second-language. So what the hell was it, then? Why was I drawn to this woman, if that’s not too strong a word? Why did I feel so responsible for her and her family?
Then I heard it. I don’t now remember if it was her talking to her husband, or the husband talking to the kids, or the kids talking amongst themselves. But I heard it. I was nearly certain. They were speaking Hebrew! Members of the tribe!
I should say here that I’ve never felt any particular affinity for Israelis. For me, they’ve always sorta been the weird cousins you see at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, but with whom you otherwise never hang out. They eat different food. They have a totally different sense of humor. And the shit we’re supposed to have in common, all those things, they pronounce the names of those things differently, rendering strange even the familiar.
And that’s all well and fine when I’m in New York and they’re in Tel Aviv. But here, in France, speaking German with one another, we’re both גרים, gayrim, sojourners, aliens. In which case, all that American Jew vs. Israeli Jew mishigasgoes out the window. We’re family. Family sticks together. Family helps each other out.
Without letting on anything about my own identity, I told her that I was at least going in that general direction and that if they’d like, we could travel together. And in the meantime, I could text my friend (Charlotte) and try and get some concrete information on how best to reach the train station.
So we board the tram and sort of hang out in the same area without speaking much. Until I get a message from Charlotte. Turns out the train station is actually on my way. So I go back to the lady and tell her that; that and also that I’d be happy to bring them there directly. At which point she was quite thankful. That’s when I decided to the roll the dice. I looked at her and rather softly said in Yiddish: “Achutz dem, wintch ich eych a freyliche Chanukah.” And also, I wish you a joyful Chanukah. It was, after all, the 8thnight. It was clear she didn’t quite understand me, although she certainly heard the word ‘Chanukah.’ Well, alright, she didn’t speak Yiddish. I expected as much, but it was worth a shot anyway.
Which isn’t to say I wasn’t a little disappointed. I mean, I’d read how, back in the day, Jews from all over Europe could greet each other in Yiddish. Didn’t matter if you were from France or Germany or Poland or Russia. Once upon a time, it was a lingua francafor our people. And there are times when I imagine what that would be like.
And indeed, even here in Berlin, I find myself at times a bit jealous of all the Arabic speakers. Be they from Turkey or Lebanon or wherever. They can walk into a shop and greet each other with a ‘Salem Alechem.’ Why don’t we have that anymore? But we don’t, is the point. And it’s no use dwelling on it.
So seeing that she didn’t speak Yiddish, I tried a bit of Hebrew. Chag Sameach, I said; Happy Holiday. This she understood. She looked at me, with not a little surprise. Then she drew her head close to mine and looked over both shoulders. Kinda the way people do when they’re about to tell a racist joke. To see who’s around, if it’s safe to speak. And she says, in German, ״Bist du Jude?” Are you a Jew? I nodded.
At which point her whole body language changed. She smiled, seemed more relaxed. Then she went to go find her husband. On the way, she stopped to talk to her kids. I could see her gesturing towards me as she spoke to them. And I could see that their body language now changed as well. They were smiling at me, no longer keeping their distance. I was no longer some kindly rando helping with directions. I was a distant cousin, part of the family. They didn’t talk to me, exactly. But they shared space with me in a way that demonstrated total comfort and trust.
Then her husband came up to me, started talking to me. And he wasn’t so easy to understand, because he spoke German with a heavy Israeli accent. Didn’t speak English, either; I asked. Turns out, this dude is the cantor in a synagogue in Berlin. So now come the standard questions. Do I go to shul? Do I keep Shabbos?2 Am I part of the Jewish Community?
Rarely. Not really. And not so much. To these answers he gave me his business card and also the phone number of a woman who heads what I took to be a sort of expat community of Jews in roughly my part of Berlin; mostly Americans and Brits from what I could gather. And he told me I should get in touch with her. Try to meet these people.
“It’ll be good for you,” he says. “It’s for young people.” Young people? I look him dead in the eye and say, “Dude, I’m not that young.” He looks me dead in the eye and answers the most Jewish answer ever. In fact, the onlyJewish answer. He looks me dead in the eye and says, “Are you married?”
Anyway, we all get off together at the same Tram station. This station, mind you, is deep underground. Which means we need to ascend three really quite long escalators to get to street level. I mention this because, after exiting, it was him and his wife who managed all the luggage for the whole family. Which is another way of saying that they were moving quite a bit slower than the rest of us.
What I mean is, they two were with all their bags, while the kids were with me. And this seemed not the least bit odd; not to the parents, not the kids themselves. The parents were not the least bit troubled to have me, a stranger, escorting their children. And the children seemed perfectly at ease being escorted by me, a stranger. The youngest of the lot was even playing with me on the escalator. Really, it was no different than if I had actually been a blood relative to this lot.
When we finally got streetside, we went on a few blocks in this way. The parents lagging behind with the bags and me keeping pace up front with the kids. Until finally, they decided to go a different route.
Which was odd. Because they had asked for the train station. And I was going to walk right past it. And now they were saying they needed to go a different way. With no explanation. I asked the father if he was sure and he said that he was. So that was that. We said our goodbyes and that was the last I saw of them.
I have the father’s card. And I do mean to call that lady he recommended to me. So who knows? Maybe our paths will cross again in Berlin some day.
Well, I haven’t called yet. It’s been on my mind, but I never quite got around to it. And now with the plague stuff, it’s obviously out of the question. I mean, not calling; but meeting. So I’ll have to wait for things to get back to some kind of normal.
In the meantime, all I can do is keep on keeping on. And be thankful that I’ve got my health, and that all those I care about also are – knock wood – healthy. Thankful also that I can keep working. And playing guitar. And reading with Bartek and Phil. And skyping with my friends all over the world. All things considered, it could be a helluva lot worse.
So like I said, I’ll just keep on keeping on. And dreaming of throwing the ol’ apple around. One day…
And so I close with my usual closing. But now, more than ever, please:
זײַט זשע מיר געזונד
- Leyke is a Yiddish diminutive of Leah. I chose that name because, in the Torah, Leah is the less loved sister of Rachel; both of whom wind up marrying Yakov. I kinda dig her because, all she ever did wrong was be less pretty than her sister. But she’s loyal and somehow noble. And under normal circumstances, this would not be the guitar I would choose. But here she is and I love her anyway. [↩]
- ]I say ‘shul’ and ‘Shabbos’ because I’m writing in my own English. But as a German speaking Israeli, he didn’t say ‘shul,’ he said ‘synagogue.’ He didn’t say ‘Shabbos,’ he said ‘Shabbat.’ [↩]