An American in Berlin
26 April, 2020
Quarantine, Week 6. Accepting the New Normal. No longer laying in bed all day burning through seven seasons of Deep Space Nine. Though this could be because I’ve finished the series, and there’s nothing else of that quality and volume to sustain me. But I miss The X-Files. If I had X-Files (first six seasons, let’s be clear), it’s possible I’d still be in bed watching TV all day.
Have given up on “dressing up” for work. First two weeks of quarantine, I routinely wore a tie or a jacket with a button shirt. Now it’s just a clean T-Shirt and pajama pants.
In films, people demonstrate their affection for one another by means of physical contact. Where the bond of affection is particularly strong, they often seem to touch their lips to the lips of their counterpart. Did we also used to do this? I no longer remember.
Have noticed another curious custom portrayed in films. People from western cultures grab each other by the hand when first meeting. A curious act. Don’t they know how dangerous that can be? People from some Eastern cultures are portrayed as bowing at the waist rather than employing this hand-grab. But travel to the East is forbidden, so perhaps this is only myth or legend.
Have noticed a number of curious establishments on the street between my home and the supermarket. In looking through the window, one can see a large room filled with many tables and chairs. But these establishments are never open, the lights are always dark. What was their purpose in the Before Time?
On Youtube, one can find videos of one’s favorite band performing their music. They can be seen to be playing in large halls, filled with people. A reckless act to be sure. One wonders, how many of those people, crushed together, breathing on one another, have been taken by The Sickness.
From the news, we see clips of the President in America. He wears neither mask nor gloves. He seems to be without fear. Perhaps he is some kind of Übermensch, a super man. We should be thankful that the leader of such a large and prosperous nation is so constituted. Perhaps we can draw strength from his example. He seems to be not very well-spoken. But surely this is an act. It gives the illusion that any idiot could run the country. And if any idiot can run the country, surely we, as individuals, can manage our own small lives.
Seriously though, I do seem to be finding something of a groove in all of this. And by groove, I mean ways of keeping busy and productive. Perhaps too busy. Indeed, I may have bitten off slightly more than I can chew.
As you know from previous posts, I’m reading that family history book with Bartek and working up a translation alongside our readings. I have my regular Torah readings. My job, thankfully. I’ve also decided to use this time to get my Latin back into shape. Just trying to do a little bit every day; or at least most days. But it’s a project that requires dedication and commitment. My textbook is 18 units, and with all the exercises at the end of each unit, I need about a week per chapter. So to see this through to completion, we’re talking about 3-4 months dedicated study. After which I’ll have to, you know, actually find time to read some fucking Latin because otherwise what’s the point?
Also, I don’t even like Latin. In fact, I rather detest it. But I’m sort of ashamed of the fact that I learned it once and my abilities have dwindled to the point of near-uselessness. And also, I’m always bringing up Latin in my classes by way of explaining both vocabulary and grammatical structures. If I’m gonna do that, it would be nice if I actually had some little command of the language.
Then there’s another translation project. One of my students has written whodunit. She’s about to self-publish on Amazon. And I sorta joked with her that if she needed a translator, I’d be happy to do it…for a fee. I was mostly joking, but she jumped at it. Said she’d been looking for a translator actually. I told her my German was hardly up to it. But she said that didn’t matter. What mattered was that the English should be good and “form the heart.” So I said why not, I could give it a try.
She sent me five pages. I translated a little over one page and sent it to her, just to make sure it wasn’t a total waste of time. But she was quite pleased. So I’ll go ahead and finish these five pages. At which point, she’ll send it to her editor/friend who is a native German but lives in New York. If it passes his inspection, I may well have a monumental task on my hands.
Which, if nothing else, will be great for my German. I mean, what better way to learn a language than to translate a whole f’ing book? But it’s a bear of a job, because like I said, my German is shit. Fortunately, she’s quite serious about this “from the heart” business. In other words, she doesn’t want a literal translation, something of which I’m not capable. All I have to do is get the general sense/feel of her text and re-write it in my own English. Easier said than done, to be sure. But doable. Doable with a shit-ton of time and effort.
So we’ll see what happens. Maybe her editor/friend will shoot it down and that will be the end of it. But first I’ve got to get through these five pages. Which would be enough if I had nothing else going on…
There’s also the French translation of my fairy-tale story, which Anne is doing the illustrations for. She’s now also helping me edit my French translation. We try to meet once a week or so to work on it. It’s more work for her than me, and truth be told, it goes pretty fast when we’re working together. We’re about a third of the way through, I guess. But it’s still another commitment.
It’s also rather humbling and helps me empathize with my students. In one breath she’ll say it’s very good and my French is quite strong before going on to correct half my verb tenses and prepositions. It’s good to be on the other side of the teacher’s desk for a change. Keeps you honest.
Speaking of being on the other side of the teacher’s desk. I read in The Forward that the Yiddish Cultural Center in Paris is offering online mini-courses during the mageyfeh-tseit, the plague times. I mentioned it to Bartek and he was quite interested. So we signed up for one. It meets this weekend and next, Saturdays and Sundays, 90 minutes each time. The class will be focused around the text of a play.
I’m quite excited about it, but it’s added an intensive reading load to these next two weeks. The play itself is fascinating. So far, it’s told from the perspective of some Nazi soldiers in the Sudetenland in 1938-9 or so. So obviously it’s dark as shit. I’ll have more to say about It after the class. Stay tuned.
And if that weren’t enough. I may have mentioned that back in the early 80’s, my uncle performed an in-depth interview of my great-grandmother, then in her 90’s. It’s pretty amazing. She tells her whole life story, from her childhood in Tsarist Russia, to coming to America and then all that happened here. It’s nothing short of incredible.
Anyway, she periodically lapses into Yiddish. Sometimes it’s just a word here or there, but sometimes it’s whole sentences or even short stories. My uncle wrote up a transcript of the interview, but when she speaks Yiddish he either just transliterates a word or else just writes “(Yiddish)” if it’s a longer passage.
So for a long time, I’ve had the idea that I’d like to go through it and pick out all her Yiddish. Try to translate as much of it as I could. But until now, I’ve held off for two reasons. Primarily, I was waiting for my Yiddish to be good enough; or to feel that it was so. But also, I wanted to have a pair of properly good headphones so I could hear her as clearly as possible.
Well. I do finally feel like my Yiddish is up to the task. And since I’m not spending a dime at bars or restaurants, I decided to splurge on a pair of properly nice, good quality over-ear headphones. No more excuses.
So this last week, I finally got started on that project. Let’s call it a labor of love. It’s not easy, for more than a few reasons. But I’m having success. Not 100% success, but real success nonetheless. It’s rewarding both intellectually and on a personal level. I’ll not say more about it here since it’s still so early in the process. But I’ll surely have more to say about this in the coming months.
And then there’s the project that hasn’t even started yet. As I’ve previously written, I make it a point of doing a Shakespeare sonnet with each of my advanced classes. Anyway, as my last group was ending a few weeks ago, we did this. And at the end, one of my students said something like, “You know, in school we read a Shakespeare play (in English) and I really loved it. And I swore that Shakespeare would always be a part of my life. But unfortunately, I haven’t been able to do that. So I’m really glad we read this.” Which was nice to hear.
So I contacted her privately and said that if she was interested, we could choose a play and read it together. She was pretty excited about this, and so after this Yiddish mini-course is over, we’re going to read Lear.
Now to be sure, there’s a selfish element to this. I also have always wanted more Shakespeare in my life. From doing it in High School with Connor, to having my prof in England who constantly quoted Shakespeare for every possible situation, I’ve always loved it. But I’ve never found the time or effort to actually do anything about it. Now though, if I have someone to read with, then that should be sufficient motivation. So yeah, on some level, this is very much for me.
But also, and not insignificantly, there’s a pay-it-forward element at work here. Or, to put it another way, of trying to follow the example of those who have given me their time. For five years, Daitz had me over to his own home, every Saturday morning to read Homer. And now, Phil gives me his time to read Herodotus with me.
And I’m sure there’s a selfish element for both of them as well. It gave Daitz a chance to pass on his knowledge, and to keep Homer alive in his own home and in his life. Phil too enjoys our readings. It wasn’t or isn’t “charity,” you know? But true as that is, it they didn’t “have to” do it. They both could have chosen to interact with other academics, other professionals. Perhaps that would have been more rewarding than shepherding a less-learned student through these difficult texts. To engage with an academic equal rather than to “teach,” as it were.
But they did choose to do that, freely, with love and with joy. And that’s an example I’d like to follow. Now, to be sure, I’m not a professional Shakespeare scholar. I don’t have the relationship with Shakespeare that Daitz had with Homer. I don’t have the relationship with Shakespeare’s language that Phil has with Greek in general.
But I am a native speaker, who has studied and read a bit of Shakespeare over the years. And so, in theory, I should have something to offer a native German speaker who hasn’t read The Bard since her school days. That said, you’d better believe I’ll be digging into the ol’ Spark Notes. Gotta come correct, know what I mean? Anyway, the plan is to start that in a little over a week.
So that’s what I’ve got going on now. It’s a lot. And truth be told, I do feel like I’m burning the candle at both ends a bit here. But it’s better than laying around watching Star Trek all day. And I do genuinely love all these things I’m working on. Except maybe Latin. No, I definitely don’t love Latin. But it needs to happen. And it’s happening.
I watched Unorthodox. Very well done and worth watching. I highly recommend it. People keep messaging me about it, because of the Yiddish. So just a few words on that. It’s Chasidic Yiddish, which is more than a little different from the YIVO “standard” Yiddish which we studied at Weimar. It’s also quite different from Bubby’s Yiddish or the Yiddish in the family Memorial Book, both of which are quite secular. Or, as secular as a language riddled with loshen-koydishe werter– holy words – can be. On the other hand, it has the virtue of being the only true lebedike sprach, the only true “living” variant of the language.
Bartek and I had a long shmoozabout all its idiosyncrasies, all the things, in short, that make it different from the language we know and work with. But before you can even get into those things, you’ve got to deal with the accent, just the way they pronounce the words you already know. It’s so different!
I felt like I needed all four hours of that series before I could finally begin to lock in to their dialect. And just as I was starting to finally get a feel for it, it was over. Kinda like French, every time I go to that country. But all in all, I thoroughly enjoyed it. And getting a window into chasidishwas a trip.
What else? A few weeks back, I met one of my former students in the park. I invited her for a game of catch. A pretty good social distancing sport, since you’ve got to stand quite far apart.
Playing catch in this country is weird. Nobody here has grown up with it. It’s like a strange novelty to them. But credit to this kid, she picked it up super fast. I thought she was catching quite well from the outset. I mean, she was. But she showed me the inside of her forearm when were done and it was all bruised up from all the balls she didn’t quite get to.
And it took her some time to learn how to throw properly. Like, in the beginning, I said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you throw like a girl.” Well, she did. But again, to her credit, by the end, she was winging it in their pretty good. No joke, I was legit impressed.
At one point, some lady walks by and starts talking to my friend. When it was clear the lady wasn’t leaving anytime soon, I walked over. And in German, she’s like, “This game you’re playing, is it British or American?” Which like, come on, lady. Seriously? So I told her, over the sound of my breaking heart, that it was American. So then she asks, again in German, are you both American? I mean, she had just been talking with my German friend. So, in German, I’m like, “She’s not, I am.” And the lady was just like, and I don’t remember the adjective, but she basically was like, “What a strange/interesting game.” Sure, lady. You can go away now.
Whatever. The point is, I was finally able to get a game of catch in. And more than that, by the end, my friend was throwing and catching like a real person. I wasn’t holding her hand, so to speak. We were really throwing the ol’ apple around. Man, that was good for the soul, I tellya. Hopefully we’ll do that again soon.
I went for a walk the other day. Beautiful weather, so I went for a walk. And I discovered that I don’t like it here half so much as I liked it in Köpenick. Don’t get me wrong, my commute is a thousand times easier. Or, it was, when I had a commute. And Joschka is a stone’s throw away, which is great. And I love having my own place, and the apartment itself is wonderful. But the area? Meh.
What I loved about Köpenick was, well it was the water. But beyond that, you could walk into nature. Real, wild nature. Here, you get manicured parks. Which are lovely. If you’re into that sort of thing. I’m discovering that I’m not.
Let me see if I can explain this. I much prefer a bit of civilization imposing itself on wild nature to a beautifully manicured park imposing itself on civilization. Here’s an example. In Köpenick, I would be wandering through the woods and suddenly stumble upon some railroad or tram tracks. And that was excitingsomehow.
Like, you’re alone, just you and the trees. And all of a sudden, here are these tracks. Whence do they come? Whither do they go? What people, upon what journeys, might come rumbling through your world? Look left, look right. Mystery in both directions. There’s a peaceful quiet, wind in the leaves, birds singing. And then, for an instant, the mighty iron horse breaks the silence, in all its majesty and power. Then it’s gone. And you’re alone again, with the trees and the birds. It’s almost like a fairy tale.
But parks? They’re filled with people. They have defined borders, clear paths. There is no mystery. And you just know, it’s not far in any direction back to the real world. It’s not an escape. It’s a zoo. No, really. It’s a zoo. Everybody is watching everybody else. Look at that couple kissing over there. Look at the children kicking a football. Look at the old man on the bench or the idiots playing Frisbee or the group of friends having a picnic.
Is it better to have parks than to not have parks? Of course. I suppose I should be thankful that I have a really nice park around the corner, and two more 15 minutes walking. But they just feel artificial. And there’s no chance of being alone.
So yeah, I miss Köpenick. I miss the realness, the nature, the solitude. Most of all, I miss the water.
On the other hand, there’s a Lebanese place around the corner, where you can get realfalafel, with pickled radishes. You couldn’t get realfalafel in Köpenick and forget about pickled radishes. So, you know, there’s that, I guess.
Oh, and here’s a rant. It seems supermarkets have done away with baskets. Now you musttake a fucking shopping cart. Presumably as a way of enforcing social distancing. But holy shit fuck my life. I mean, I hated shopping carts with a passion even before all this. Everybody is always in everybody’s way. Moving around becomes a chore, no more just strolling down the aisles. Plus, it plays tricks on your eyes. A full basket tells you you’ve bought all you can carry home on your own two feet. Now, with shopping carts, it’s a fucking guessing game. Fucking grocery Tetris. What fresh hell, I ask you?
But also, yes, the supermarkets are open every day (except Sunday, I’ll never be OK with that), and you can usually get most of what you need. So what am I really complaining about? It just becomes an exercise in mental discipline, that’s all. Now, when I enter the store pushing that godforsaken wagon, I just repeat to myself, “Take it easy, Davey. It is what it is. Take a deep breath. It’s out of your control.” Learning to do that, maybe there’s value in that. Is what I tell myself as I suppress my rage. Rage at the unwieldy wagon, rage at the fools not wearing masks or gloves, rage at the fact that this country doesn’t sell chicken thighs – seriously! – or beef with bones in it and so how am I supposed to make beef stock? Deep breaths, Davey. Deep breaths.
And that’s what this quarantine is all about in the end, isn’t it? Deep breaths. Don’t fight what you can’t control. Be thankful for what you have. And god willing, it will all be over soon.
So until then,