An American in Berlin
1 July, 2022
Note: About two thirds of this post was written over a month ago, shortly after I returned from second trip. The final third was written this week.
Well, I’ve just been to France twice in the last month, so that’s probably worth a post on ye olde blogue. Both trips were for the expressed purpose of visiting friends: The Morgenstern clan in Paris and Charlotte in/around Lyon. Hard not to be happy about that.
Paris first, according to the order of the trips. Look, Paris is great, right? So much to see and do. Architecture, museums, the various neighborhoods. But let’s be honest. This adventure was really about seeing my friends, eating and drinking. And we did well in that regard. Real well.
I was there for five days. This time, I sprung for my own hotel room. See, the last two times we did this, somebody was good enough to get a cot in their fancy-pants hotel room for me, as a way of easing the monetary costs involved on my end. In Paris, just before the last New Year’s of The Before Times (2019), Monica (hereafter MoMo) set me up with a cot. And in 2018, in Florence, Jared and Josh did the same. And I’m sure we could have worked out a similar arrangement this time around. But honestly, at the age of 41, I felt like it was time to do this trip like a grownup. So I got a room near the Opera. Nothing fancy. But it was an absolute luxury to have my own, private home-base this time around. And it was 10 minutes walking to MoMo’s hotel, 15 to the Morgensterns’. Plus, there was a subway stop around the corner. So it was quite practical as well.
I don’t really have much experience staying in hotels by myself, so it’s hard to form a basis for comparison. But it was a nice experience, with the staff and all. I was able to manage entirely in French with them without them ever having to switch to English on me, which was nice. Nothing major, but things like asking for a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign, asking about checkout times and if I could leave my bag before and after checking in/out.
And the staff were really nice. Like, after the first day or so, they knew me by name and room number. I sprang for the daily breakfast, just a little continental deal, nothing special. But a nice way to start the day. And the girls who ran the breakfast knew me too. After the second day, they stopped asking me if I wanted coffee or tea and simply brought a pot of hot water to my table. So it was a pretty positive experience. Sometimes, being a grownup ain’t so bad.
It was great to see everybody of course. Not just Jared and Josh, but Paul and Carol (the parents), Amanda and now four-year-old Sabine, MoMo and her sister Andrea (hereafter DreDre). Great to catch up, eat, drink, laugh, tell stories and forge new memories.
On the food side of things, Paul had restaurants picked out for each of the first four nights. Some really nice spots. Good food and good wine, always. The last place we went to was this place they called “Louis’,” although I think the full name is something like “Chez l’ami Louis” or some such. Apparently, it’s Paul’s favorite restaurant in Paris. So I asked him how he came to know about it. He said he’d read about it in the Times back in the 90’s (I think) and had been coming ever since. So I just said, “Well, thank you for sharing it with us.” To which he replied, “You know I don’t do this for just anybody, Davey.” What a thing to say, you know? Just lovely.
Every night after dinner, some smaller group of us would go to one of the hotel bars (i.e. either Jared’s or MoMo’s hotel bar) for drinks. Sometimes it would just be Jared and Josh, sometimes MoMo and DreDre would come; even Amanda would show up for a bit, after putting Sabine down or leaving her with the ‘rents.
I don’t remember if it was the first or second night, but after the post-dinner drinks, Jared and I decided we weren’t done yet. So we went in search of a bar. Turns out it was some kind of public holiday, so lots of places were closing early. After being turned away by three or four different establishments, we stumbled upon a bar. “Trop tard?” I asked the barman; “Too late?” He looked at me like it was a stupid question and waved us in.
So in we went. And it was just like old times, drinking scotch and talking about any number of things. It was great to have that time, just the two of us, just like the old days. We really tied one on, such that I don’t remember everything. Jared tells me I wound up speaking German with one of the waiters at one point. Who knew? Anyway, that was a definite highlight of the trip. Also, there’s no way I could ever find that bar again, no matter how hard I might try.
Another night, post-dinner drinks were held at MoMo’s bar. This time, all the kids were there. At one point, some guy at a neighboring table interrupts us to tell us that he overhead something that Amanda had said (I don’t remember what) and that he really appreciated her words. The guy had a slight accent, so I asked him where he was from. He said California. Sure, why not?
Well, we’re talking with the guy for a few minutes longer, and he recommends a restaurant called Balagan. Balagan is a Yiddish word, borrowed out of Polish. “Balagan,” I say. “That just means ‘a mess.’ Odd name for a restaurant.” He says, Yes, it’s an Israeli joint ((‘Balagan’ is one of those Yiddish words that’s found a second life in Israeli Hebrew.)). Israeli. Ah, now I had his accent. And that kind of made me laugh. I mean, here we were, a bunch of Jews sitting around a table in a Paris hotel bar, shooting the shit in our Lon-Gisland accents. And this guy with a clearly Israeli accent chats us up and tells us he’s from California. Like, who are we kidding and why are we pretending?
Come to think of it, it reminds me of a story from that Yiddish memorial book Bartek and I are translating. In the story, this guy is telling of journey he was making by ship. And the ship is full of Jews. And yet, all the other Jews are speaking Russian because they don’t want to give themselves away. Jews are speaking to other Jews in Russian instead of their native Yiddish, just because they never knew who might be listening. Some things never change, I guess.
There were no post-dinner drinks on the last night. Or if there were, it was very short, on account of everybody else had to a catch an early flight the next morning. Meanwhile, my flight wasn’t until 8pm. So finally, after four days, I decided to do some walking around, do some sight-seeing. And that was wonderful.
I walked along the river to the Eifel Tower, resplendent in its nighttime illumination. From there, I made my way to the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysées before ultimately heading back to the hotel. The weather was perfect. And it was just nice to walk around alone, get some fresh air and take in the sights. I mean, yes, I’d seen these things before. But the last time I was down that way was probably 2003, when I visited the city during my semester in London. So I was due for a reaquaintance.
On the last day, owing to my late flight, I basically had the whole afternoon to kill. So I made a quick stop by Notre Dame. Not much to see there, as quite a bit of it is covered in scaffolding and walled off with the sort of wooden fencing you find around construction sites. But the island it’s on is quite nice. And that, I did not remember. Old buildings, old and narrow winding streets. Quite charming really.
After that, I made my way to the old Jewish Quarter. In French, it’s known as Le Marais. But apparently it has on older Yiddish appellation, דאָס פּלעצל (dos peltzl), which means ‘the little place,’ or possibly ‘the little plaza.’ I bought a little magnet in the shape of a Parisian street sign with the word פּלעצל where the street name would normally be. It is now on my fridge.
Anyway, I found a really nice bookstore, a proper Jewish bookstore. I mean, one of the lads working there was even wearing tzitsis. It had loads of fancy religious texts, prayer books, bibles, volumes upon volumes of Talmud, and so on. But it also had a world of secular books. Lots of stuff I would have loved to buy, but which I didn’t have the space to carry. I did, however, find one actual book in Yiddish, and that I did buy. A book on the 6-day war, originally written in Hebrew but translated into Yiddish.
When I brought the book to the register, the lady who took it from me opened it up to find the price, as is so often the case with used books. And seeing that the book was Yiddish, she raised an eyebrow, looked at me and nodded approvingly. Given that there were other books I would have liked to buy, I asked in French if they shipped to Germany. She said they did, and not only that, but if there was something specific I was looking for, I could always call or email. And then she added, with a smile, that she couldn’t guarantee they’d have anything more in Yiddish. Well, that’s alright. There’s more than enough there to keep me busy. Oh, and I also bought a little French paperback on Rashi. Ostensibly it’s a historical overview of his Torah and Talmud commentaries, but it includes a biography of the man himself and some history on Jewish life in the France of his day. It’s quite interesting and I’m about halfway through it.
There’s one other highlight from the Paris trip I need to include, and that’s the fact that I had the opportunity to meet up with Anne. We wound up going for drinks at the same bistro ((Bistro. I’ve learned two things about this word. I don’t know about you, but I just always assumed it was a French word. Apparently, it’s actually Russian, and means something like ‘fast’ or ‘quick.’ Also, in France, it seems they spell it with a final ‘t,’ bistrot.)) where we went last time we met in Paris, in 2019. Not only that, we wound up sitting at the very same table. How about that? Anyway, it was great to see her and catch up and laugh and drink. Added bonus, Jared came along as well. That was really great, and I’ll tell you why.
See, Jared and Anne are two of my best friends, two of my favorite people. Why shouldn’t they meet, you know? And of course they hit it off, because why wouldn’t they. At one point, Jared went to the bathroom, and Anne took the opportunity to tell me how great she thought Jared was. And Jared had the same to say about her after we left.
Now, maybe it’s a bit of an odd thing to say, but I was actually kind of proud of that encounter. Like, proud to show off the quality of people I have around me to those who are dear to me. I’ve been over this ground a thousand times, how lucky I think I am to have found the friends that I have, how that’s not to be taken for granted. But I don’t normally have the pleasure of introducing my friends here to my friends from home. So to have that opportunity, and to have each of them see what I see, it’s a good feeling.
I said I was proud to show off the quality of the people I have around me. But ‘pride’ isn’t really a great word. After all, ‘pride’ can often carry with it a sense of haughtiness or self-aggrandizement, which is not at all what I mean. To really capture the feeling of my emotion here, I have to turn to Yiddish; English just doesn’t seem up to the job. So rather than pride, I would say either קוועלן (kvelln) or שעפּן נחת (sheppn nakhes). Those will have to stand as they are, since if I could translate them, I wouldn’t have needed to write them in Yiddish in the first place.
And those are pretty much the highlights from Paris. A strange trip in that it wasn’t so much Parisius gratia Parisii, but rather Paris as background for a social gathering. Yet for all that, it was nonetheless a great time. And just a 90m plane ride away. Sometimes I love Europe.
The Charlotte visit was no less excellent, but quite different in nature. Instead of hotels, there were couches and futons. Instead of fancy restaurants, there were homemade sandwiches and salads. Instead of rounds and rounds of drinks at bars, there were bottles of wine and beer at home. And while I certainly enjoy being pampered, enjoy eating at fancy restaurants, if I’m being honest, I’m probably more at home in this simpler environment.
After landing in Lyon and taking two trains into the heart of the city, I met Charlotte and her sister Chloe down by the riverbank, where Chloe’s little son, Emil, was joyfully picking up little fistfuls of mud and throwing them into the water. Believe me when I tell you, this kid is cute as all get out. I’m talking million-dollar smile over here.
After hanging around by the water for a bit, we made our way into the city for drinks at a random café; an Aperol Spritz, for those scoring at home. After that, we went up to Charlotte’s friend Rapha’s place, where we’d be spending the night. I’d met Rapha briefly, a million years ago back in 2013, the very first time I visited Charlotte in Nice. In fact, I’d met Chloe even earlier, when she and her dad came to visit C in NY. But I’d also re-met Rapha a few years back, the first time I did Xmas in Nice with C and her fam. At that time, I’d also met her boyfriend, Charles. A lovely guy, we’d jammed on a couple of Irish tunes. So while I wouldn’t call them friends, at least I knew and liked these people who’d be putting us up. The only difference was that now, they had a little baby, Daria. Beautiful child, another million-dollar smile. And so sweet and peaceful. I don’t think the kid cried once the whole time we were there. Apparently she sleeps through the night too.
For breakfast the next day, Rapha hit up the bakery. Fresh croissants and sourdough bread, among other delights. Friends, this is a country that knows how to do bread, I’m just saying. All to say, it was a very nice visit with them, albeit a short one.
Not long after breakfast, we began our journey to Joyeuse, the village where Charlotte is currently residing. The first leg of the journey was a train ride to Valance. We only had an hour to kill there, but we did some walking around, found a lovely park overlooking a valley and the river beyond. Very picturesque, though annoyingly windy. I reached out to a former student of mine who lives not far from there on the off chance that he might be able to pop over for a quick coffee, but in the end it didn’t work out.
We sat for a while at a café across from train station having seltzers and something like a ciabatta baguette with baked-in emmental cheese and olives; delish. Across the street, there stood a statue of a man with a raised arm and open hand, as if reaching for something. I asked C if she knew the story about this man. She laughed and said, “No, but I’m sure you do.” So I said simply that the poor guy had lost his balloon. She laughed again. After all, the dude really did look like he was reaching for a balloon that had only just escaped his grasp. From there, I made up some story about how he had followed his balloon all the way from Paris to Valance. He never did get his balloon back, but he wound up meeting his wife in Valance and they raised a family there. Moral of the story, never stop searching for your balloon. You never know what you’ll find. Who knows, maybe I’ll write it up into a real story one day. In any case, it helped pass the time until our bus to Joyeuse.
The only thing was, the bus didn’t quite go all the way to Joyeuse. So in the event, we wound up hitchhiking the last 20km or so. Hitchhiking? I know. It’s not something I’ve ever done, or would ever have considered doing. Too many horror stories, right? But I guess she does it all the time, and alone too, as a female. Apparently the south of France, especially in village country, is just a safe place.
And so of course – I mean, fucking obviously – some dude in a literally windowless van picks us up. And I’m just thinking, “Welp, this is how it ends. At least it’s in a beautiful place.” But the guy turned out to be really nice. Not only that, it seems he’s an actor of sorts in some kind of local community theatre. He even had posters in the van for his next upcoming show, to which he kindly invited us. (We didn’t wind up going in the end, though it hardly seemed like a bad option).
Anyway, the guy drops us off and now we’re in this little village of Joyeuse. Well, I say “little,” but C informed me that as villages go, it’s on the larger side with *checks notes* all of 1,500 inhabitants and its very own supermarket. I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess that more than 1,500 people lived on my side of the street on my block in Chinatown. I guess it all depends, as Obi Wan Kenobi said, on your point of view.
Be that as it may, it’s a lovely little town. As best I can describe it, the village is bisected by the main road that runs through it. On one side of the road is a hill, upon which are built all these old, stone houses, the sort you expect to see in the southern French countryside. Lots of winding little streets to go with little stone alleys and passageways cut with stone staircases going from one level of the hill to the next. The other side of the road is downhill and leads to the river. It’s on this side where the supermarket, bank and most of the bars and restaurants are to be found.
Charlotte’s apartment is up on the hill, on the ground floor of one of those old stone houses. It’s what we would call a studio. But really it’s a converted ‘cave,’ that being the French word. Really it was designed as a root or wine cellar. Just a small room of arching stone walls outfitted with a kitchen, bathroom and some wooden shelving. But the stone walls are painted white, and the furnishings are rustic in a very cozy kind of way. Gemütlich would be the German word. ‘Cozy’ is the best I can do in English. But really, the best way to describe it, is to say that it’s actually a kind of Hobbit-house. Not a rich Hobbit like Bilbo, but a hobbit of average means. For those who are not LOTR fans, I should emphasize that I mean this as high praise.
In any case, she is subletting the room from the woman who lives upstairs. Also, the woman who lives upstairs happens to be one of her very best friends, Annelise. Annelise also happens to have a nine-year-old son, one Django. I’ll come back to him in a bit. But it’s such a homely vibe they have going on there. We were sitting on C’s little patio in front of the apartment, drinking our beers, when Annelise appears above, sticking her head out over the balcony to chat. Soon after, Django’s head appears, and then that of their dog. And from where, I’m sitting, craning my head back and looking up, I see three upside-down faces looking back at me.
Like, on the one hand, it’s comedy. It reminded me of The Honeymooners, how when Alice and Trixie wanted to talk, they would just open their kitchen windows and call up/down to each other. But it was also very sweet, very homely, very gemütlich. Just a good vibe, you know?
Not long after I got settled, Django popped down to meet me. He knew I was coming and wanted to see what I was about. This kid, lemme tell ya, he’s a trip. Good heart, that much is clear. But he’s also definitely a little hell-raiser. Shoulder-length blonde hair. Full of energy, as boys that age are. I can’t describe it exactly, but something about this kid reminded me of a little D’Artagnan from The Three Musketeers. Like, he’s a got a clear sense of right and wrong, has a good heart, like I said, but also quite mischievous. Anyway, that first day, he and I played some card games he’d brought down with him.
It was all I could do to keep up with his French patter, especially after C went upstairs to hang with Annelise. On the one hand, he speaks like a nine year-old, which is to say not overly complicated. But on the other hand, he speaks like a kid, which is to say, fast and with no sense of how to moderate his speech for a foreigner. But I was able to keep up sufficiently to play the games and even trash talk a little. And when I say ‘trash talk,’ I just mean in the way that you joke around with kids. Like, “With this game we will see who’s the best. Also, I am the best.” And he’s like, “No, I’m the best!” That kinda shit. It was fun.
They also had an acoustic guitar which they let us borrow for the duration of my stay. Which was key, right? Because any time me and C get together, there must be music. So of course we played a bunch of songs we’ve been playing forever. But we also worked up two new ones, which was definitely fun.
I’ve said it before, but I love playing music with that girl. It’s always free and easy, always just fun. No egos, no bullshit. Very different from playing in a band. And honestly, she’s like the only person I do that with. It’s one of the best things about spending time with her. But beyond playing music with her, it’s also really nice to play music for her.
It’s the same as with the metal crew when we get together. As we get into the small hours of the night, as people get tipsy and tired, it seems that that’s the moment when people want somebody to sing to them. Whether it’s sitting around a fire with the metal gang or in an apartment with Charlotte, it’s a special feeling to sing to people and watch the effect that such music can have on the spirit.
And it doesn’t matter if it’s a beer-swilling German metalhead or wine-sipping French girl. You can just see the power of music, how it brings people to a particular state of contentment. As much as it’s a good feeling for them, it’s a good feeling for me too. It also doesn’t hurt that C had some really lovely things to say about my voice either.
Tellya what surprised me though. One night, I’m playing the ol’ guitar and C is laying there on the couch with her eyes closed. And then she’s like, “Hey, can you play that Mary Jane song?” And I had no idea what she was talking about until she fished some partial lyrics out of the depths of her memory. Then I realized she was referring to a Ramones song I used to play back when I was still living in Chinatown. I hadn’t played that song in years, probably, although it came back to me pretty quick. Anyway, she starts singing along. Knew every fucking word. Of this song I last played for her – quite probably – some eight years ago on the other side of an ocean. And while she has recording of many of the songs I do myself or we do together, I don’t think we ever recorded that one. So, yeah, I was pretty surprised when she a) requested it and b) knew all the words. Surprised, but in the happiest of ways.
Other highlights of the visit. We went for a hike, which was just lovely. At some point, we ended up on some cliffs overlooking a small canyon with a river running through it. Look, there’s a reason people talk about the south of France the way they do. We shoulda brought more water, but other than that, good stuff.
We went to some hippie-ass carnival, which, admittedly, is not really my scene. There we watched a performance by this girl who was doing a…well, I don’t really know. I mean, it was like an aerobic-hula hoop shtick, but also kinda interactive; geared towards the kids in the crowd. Lotsa kids at this thing, btw. Anyway, the girl seemed to be a novice of sorts. Like she seemed nervous and there were some mistakes in her routine, which I couldn’t decide if they were intentional or not. Charlotte found it all a bit cringe, I think. But I thought it was actually rather endearing.
When we left, we had to hitch a ride back to her place. This time, a young woman picked us up. A mother, she had her two little kids in the back seat. So I mean, for me, yeah, this was preferable to a windowless van. But I was surprised that a mother with her own children in the car would pick up a couple of strangers. Sure, we looked pretty harmless, and we were all coming from the same carnival. But still, to me, that’s unusual. Except, in that neck of the woods, I guess it’s not.
I also took C out for a nice dinner. By which I mean, we went to a local restaurant and I paid. This was not a big deal. But it was just nice to go out, you know? Like I said, everything else was homemade sandwiches and salads and what not. So, nothing fancy, low maintenance, but still dinner at a restaurant. Good vibes.
We also had a picnic in the park near the river. We brought the guitar and a homemade salad. That’s where we knocked together a version of the theme song to this Japanese show we both love (Midnight Diner, it’s called); so C sings in Japanese now. Nothing really else to say about it. The only reason I bring it up is because, also at the park, was a donkey. Yes, you read that right. There was a fucking donkey. Tied up to a tree, as if it were nothing more that someone’s dog. Umm, ok? At one point it brayed. That shit is loud, you guys. So I guess the short version of this story is, I went to France…and saw a donkey. Hey, you travel to forge new experiences, right? Well, that was…one.
My flight back to Berlin was ass-early, such that there was no way to get to the airport from C’s place on the day-of. Thus, I wound up going back to Lyon a day early, by myself. Rapha and Charles put me up again, and of course they were just lovely and gracious as could be about it. It also gave me a chance to explore Lyon on my own.
It was alright. I mean, I didn’t fall in love with the city or anything, but I had a nice time. Saw the cathedral, as one does. Visited the ruins of the Roman amphitheater, which was pretty damn cool. Oh, and I stumbled upon a public urinal. Which, already, is a great thing. But, what makes this noteworthy, is that this public urinal had a built-in cupholder! And this, friends, is why I love the French.
I also stumbled into a cloister-type museum. See, the cathedral and amphitheater are way up top of a very large and steep hill. It’s a schlep, is what I’m saying. And on top of that, it was roughly one million degrees. So when I saw this little cloister-thingy about two thirds of the way up, it seemed like a good place to stop and have a bit of a rest. Which is all I did at first; just sat and relaxed in the courtyard. But when I saw that there was a museum as well, I decided to check it out. Turns out it was about some early Christian martyrs who were put to death by the Romans back in the day.
When I went in to buy my ticket, I chatted briefly with the only two people working there. A young woman working the register and an older dame who was the resident tour guide. Lovely people, they asked me where I was from and all that jazz. And even though I didn’t pay for a guided tour, the older woman escorted me to the first room of the museum and explained to me the nature of the videos which were to be viewed there.
After watching the videos and taking in a few other pieces, I returned to the register area. The girl at the counter pointed to where I should go next, assuming I was lost. I actually knew where to go next, but had another question. See, it was already late afternoon, and I wanted to know how much longer they’d be open. Then the girl frowned and said I only had about 15-20 minutes. Then she asked me how long I’d be in Lyon, because given the time and how late I showed up, she’d be happy to let me back in the next day, free of charge. Which, I mean, how classy is that? But I told her it wouldn’t be possible owing to my early flight. At which point, the older woman took it upon herself to give me an express version of the guided tour, also free of charge. Pure class, like I said.
The tour was basically of the catacombs. This was where, at first, the martyrs had been imprisoned before dying the usual martyr deaths at the hands (paws? teeth?) of wild animals or else being sworded to death somehow or another. The catacombs, originally a prison, had since been turned into a shrine of sorts by the faithful. Anyway, for all how fast it was, it was nevertheless quite a nice little tour. My guide was quite knowledgeable and friendly and quite ready to answer any questions I might have.
And all of this was in French, btw. My interactions with the girl at the register as well as the tour. And that’s gratifying, you know? I mean, they knew I was from New York. And they’d clearly heard the poor state of my French. Now, maybe they just didn’t speak any English; a distinct possibility. Nevertheless, they just talked to me in their normal, everyday French without any apparent doubt about my being able to handle it. So we’ll call that a win.
I had a rather unexpected reaction to the story of these martyrs as portrayed by the museum, btw. See, as a Jew, we are accustomed to thinking of Christian fanatics as the ones having power, as the ones doing the oppressing. But in this case, these poor bastards were the powerless, the oppressed. And it was hard not to sympathize with them, it was easy to empathize with them. Poor religious wierdos, they just wanted to do their thing and be left alone. But of course the bloody Romans would have none of that. Off with their heads. Throw them to lions. What on earth for? I must confess, I don’t normally give much thought to the early Christian martyrs. And when I do, it’s with the hindsight of knowing what their progeny would become. So to be in this place, to be forced to consider them in their own context, it put a whole new spin on things for me. By the time I’d left, I had this feeling of, “Wow, you know, we were all in the same boat, once upon a time. Why can’t – or couldn’t we – get along?”
I really wanted a burger for dinner. So a found a diner that looked fitting. I asked the waiter for a glass of pastis. They didn’t have any. I ordered the burger. It was not great. Can’t win ‘em all. Then it was back to Rapha and Charles. We didn’t really hang out as they were both exhausted, but like I said, they were most gracious. Next morning, 5am Uber to the airport and then it was back to Berlin. Thus ended my second trip to France in a month. Sometimes I just kinda love Europe…