An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
24 March, 2018

Right, so I just posted the post which I’d written last week but only now just posted, which is redundant, but I kinda wanted to see how many times I could get the word “post” into the first sentence of this post, which, as a result, may not be the best first sentence of all the posts I’ve ever posted in my history of posting posts.  Am I…?  Yes, I think I’m done.

So anyway.

Since I’ve just posted published a post piece, this post edition will be a bit light in the news department.  One or two work stories, and some riffing on Torah and music.  And then Monday, I’m off to New York, bitches!

So it’s always tough when there is a big turnover in the class.  The new group needs to establish a new dynamic and relationship amongst themselves, and then we need to do the same between us.  And today (Friday) was my first day with the new advanced group (which includes three holdovers).  But it came together pretty nicely and they’re all very sweet.

I earned some cred when I wowed them with some off the cuff linguistic etymologies.  And I think they’re sufficiently interesting that I shall post them here.  Because I even dare to think that you people reading this might find them interesting.

So one student asks me, “What’s the difference between perhaps and maybe?”  To which I (too) casually reply, “Ain’t no difference.”1  So then she’s like, “But which one do you use?”  What, me personally?  “Yes.”  Well, I use maybe almost exclusively.  I hardly ever say perhaps.  But that’s not a right/wrong thing.  It’s not a more/less common thing.  It’s not a formal/informal thing.  It’s not even a British/American thing.  It’s just a Dave thing.

But OK, let’s look at these words, since you bring it up.  Because etymologically, they mean the exact same thing.  See, one thing that we don’t normally do, is break these kinds of words down; especially when we use them all the time; and extra-especially when they’re so small.  Right?  I mean, you just have a translation value in your head.  They mean vielleicht.

So let’s break them down.  may|be : [it] may/can be [possible].  per|haps : (Latin) according to chance.  Which is another way of saying “it can happen” or “it is possible.”  And in German, another way of saying vielleicht (maybe)2 is es kann sein: literally, “it can be.”  And in French (because one of my students speaks French), peut être: also literally, “it can be.”  So in all our languages, we express this idea with words meaning something like “it can happen, but it doesn’t actually have to happen.”  And the English words mean this too.  It’s just that they’ve been condensed down into single words that we take for granted.

So they were all pretty impressed with that.  You know, they had the “holy fucking shit, now it’s so obvious” faces on.  And one of the guys – actually, the guy I snapped at a few weeks back – he’s like, “You know, I really appreciate this.  I’ve never had a teacher who’s been able to explain things the way you do.”  Which was rather gratifying to hear, if I’m being honest.

Fast Forward.  We’ve just completed an exercise.  And I ask if anybody has any questions.  And this same dude, he’s like, “Yeah, what’s the difference between reimburse and indemnify?”  And I’m like, What the actual fuck?  And he’s all, “Yeah, I know it’s not related to what we’re doing, but you asked if we had any questions and this is my question.”  Touché, salesman.  I too have an uncle.

Fine.  But it kinda put me on the spot.  Because “indemnify” is not a word I use.  So I tell him, I’m not exactly sure, and I probably need to look it up in the dictionary, “which you are old enough to do your own damned self,” I absolutely said.  And he’s like, “I cooooulllllddddd….”

Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m the teacher.

So I start thinking.  Like, I know reimburse means to get back money you’ve spent.  And I have this feeling that indemnify has to do with righting a wrong.  But I’m not so solid on that that I’m prepared to teach it as fact.  But I figure, let’s have some fun with this.

“You guys wanna do a little experiment?”  And they’re like, Yeah, let’s do it.  So I put the first word up on the board.  “Let’s break this apart.”

re|im|burse

“What does re- mean, as a prefix?”  ‘Again,’ they answer.  “Good.  And -in- (because -im- is really -in-) just means in.  So far so good.  Now, German has a word like -burse, no?  Bürse? Bourse?”  ‘Börse,’ they tell me.  “OK, and what does it mean?”  Something about stocks, stock exchange, etc.  Fine.  “Good, OK and French has bourse, which also means this, but also something like wallet.  In fact, it’s connected to English purse.  So let’s just agree that -burse- is a place you put money, broadly speaking.  So reimburse literally means something like ‘to again-in-the-money-bag.’”

And you can see their minds are already half-blown.  But that was easy.  Because I already know what reimburse means and I’ve already defined it.  So that was just a parlor trick.  Now for the hard part.  Because remember, I don’t exactly know what indemnify means.  “OK, so now let’s do an experiment.”  And I put the word on the board.

in|demn|ify

“Right, so here, in- doesn’t mean in, it means un-.  And -ify is word ending with a specific job.  It’s a verb marker that describes the process of turning an adjective into a noun that is the condition of that adjective.  Sounds confusing, but let’s look at an example: simplify.  The adjective is simple.  So the verb simplify means to make something simple.  Or solidify, to make something solid.  OK, that’s clear.  So whatever this word indemnify means, it means to make something un-demn.  So what’s –demn- then?”

“Well, to me, it looks an awful lot like damn.  I mean, the vowel is basically meaningless.  But if – and big “if,” because I don’t actually know; this is an experiment, remember – but if I’m right, let’s say, broadly, that –demn- means to put somebody or something into a bad condition.”

At which point the dude who asked the question in the first place yells out, “Oh, like condemn!”  Motherfucker, yes!  Exactly like condemn!  Well done.

Right, so having done all that: “OK, so my guess – and I stress, this is a guess, albeit an educated one – is that indemnify wants to mean something like ‘to un-bad-condition somebody/something.’  Now, can anybody get me a German translation of this word?”

One guy has it ready.  He has entschädigen.  Which translates as indemnify, but which literally means, ‘to un-misfortune somebody/thing.’  Well, holy fucking shit, the experiment is a success!  Oh, and by the way, what’s the German word for reimburse?  Apparently it’s just zurück zahlen – literally, “to pay back.”

Well, there you have it.  Reimburse is just getting money back which you’ve already spent.  But indemnify means to redress a wrong, usually by getting money back.  And we just figured that out.

This time, their minds were fully blown.  I mean, I’m hearing oohs and aahs, the whole nine.  But the funny thing is, I’m like, “Y’all can do this already.  As German speakers, your brains are specially trained to break words apart like this.  You can look at a word like entschädigen, and yeah, you can know what it ‘means.’  But you can also see the two parts of it (three, if you count the verbal ending), and know what they mean individually.  And you know enough about English to at least sort out the prefixes and suffixes.  That at least gets you in the door.  After that, if you happen to know a bit of French and/or Latin, you’re basically unstoppable.  But even if you don’t, you can do an awful lot.”

And look, I’m not trying to toot my own horn here.  Yeah, I mean, OK, maybe a little.  But honestly, I’ve never blown a class away like that before.  Not to that degree.  It felt really good, I can’t lie about that.

But also, it was crazy fun for me.  Because, in real life, if I want to know what indemnify means, I’m going to walk through all those steps mentally before I ever open up a dictionary.  So that, hopefully, when I do open up the dictionary, I’m doing it to confirm my mental research rather than simply asking it for the answer.  And that, that was fun to share.  To maybe give them those tools a little bit.

And maybe this doesn’t work with every group, you know?  Maybe some groups don’t give a flying one and just want the answer.  But this bunch was genuinely interested.  You know, like for a minute there, they were seeing the numbers behind the Matrix.  Which I’m always trying to get them to do.

To sum up, I love my job.  I’ve said it before.  But I really do.  Also, I’m so ready for a fucking vacation, you guys.

Timo was in town.  He was in town last year, so I feel like he’s come up before.  But Timo is one of the festival dudes, from Joschka’s hometown.  So we all went out last night (Thursday).  Good times.  Timo’s a riot.  He speaks a crazy kind of German, which I don’t always understand.  But this time, I understood a helluva lot more.  I was quite pleased with myself, ain’t gonna lie.

Also, I took my shoes off at Joschi’s; as you do.  And Timo’s all, “Du hast Käseweiße Füße.”  Which literally means, you have cheese-white feet.  Which is hilarious.  And I honestly don’t know if that’s a Timoism or a thing Germans actually say.  But it’s great.

Anyway, it was just a lot of joking around and eating and drinking.  But absolutely great times.  I feel very lucky with the people I’ve gotten to know through Joschel.  Timo.  The Bavarians.  Actually, me and J are going to make another road trip to Bavaria in May.  I’m super looking forward to that.

Speaking of German, it’s starting to fuck with my English.  And I don’t like it.  I might have mentioned that one of my colleagues lives in some kind of hippie kibbutz thing.  And they make their own honey.  So he brought a jar of it for one of our students.  And she’s all, You gotta try this.  So I did.  And she’s all, What do you think?

And I say: “For me, it’s OK.”  For me, it’s OK?  What the fuck is that???  I’ve never said that before in my life.  That’s not English!  That’s a thing German people say when they speak English.  Jö, for me, it’s OK.  Like, it’s clearly just a 1:1 translation of what they would say in German.  Because no native speaker would ever say that.

We’d say, “Hey, yeah, not bad.”  Or, “You know, this is pretty good.”  Or something.  But certainly not that.  “For me, it’s OK.”  Fuck me.

Staying with German for a moment longer.  One thing English loves to do, is turning nouns into verbs.  The classic example is to google something.  Right?  Google is a proper name, a noun.  But we’ve turned it into a verb.  You might even say, we’ve verbed google.  E-mail is another example.  When was the last time you said you “sent an email”?  No, you’ve simply “emailed” somebody.

Anyway, for whatever reason, German doesn’t like to do this.  I mean, it certainly could if it wanted to.  But it just doesn’t.  The fuck knows why.  Fine, that’s their business.

Now remember, in a previous post, I mentioned that the German word for “to look (something) up” in the dictionary is nachschlagen?  Well, obviously we now look things up on the internet as well.

Right, so Timo is telling me about something he’d just looked up online.  And he says, “Ja, das hab ich nachgegoogelt.”  Nachgegoogelt.  He looked it up with google.  He googled it up.  Excuse me?  What the actual fuck did you just say, pal?  You literally took an English noun/verb and conjugated it Germanly.  Like, if that’s what you people are about now, then fuck it.  I’m done.  I refuse to learn even one more German verb.  From now now on, I’m just going to use English verbs and conjugate them Germanly.  Ab heute, ich werde nur englische Verben usen.  Hav kein Lust mehr, deutsche Verben upzulooken.  Understandst du?3

So Torah.  I’m confused.  Like, so confused.  Where do I even start?

OK, so the Exodus.  So my understanding is, they get the hell outta Dodge with not even time for the bread to rise.  And then they’re wandering in the desert.  That’s my understanding.  So where I get confused is, the next part of the story is God’s instructions on how to build the Tabernacle and the Ark and the Altar and all that jazz.

And he’s all, Thou needest so many cubits of acacia wood for this and so many cubits of acacia wood for that and so many cubits of acacia wood for…and wait a sec.  Are they not in the desert?  Where is all this lumber coming from?  I mean, he made it rain manna.  Which, already is a stretch.  But if you’re inclined to believe this shit, then fine.  He’s God.  He can make it rain whatever he wants.  But I didn’t see anything about him making it rain timber.  So where are they getting it?

And also, another building material is defined by my dictionary as “dolphin or porpoise skin” (תחש – thachash4).  Like, I was having a hard enough time with the wood.  Now they’re gathering (or have brought with them) fucking dolphin skins?  I mean, if I can paraphrase Scotty here, Ye can test me faith, but ye canna test the laws of physics!

But this interesting.  Because there’s a lot of debate on whether or not the Exodus was a “real” historical event.  Plenty of people have gone digging around the Sinai looking for archaeological evidence.  And so far, bupkis.  But maybe this is a place to start.  I mean, if we accept that they must have had access to these materials, then where, reasonably, could they expect to find such things?  Has anybody done research from that perspective?  I don’t know.  But it’s interesting.

Whatever.  What else can I say?  But now I’m in Leviticus.  And it’s all about how to deal with religiously unclean shit.  Skin diseases and whatnot.  And I mean, sure, why not.  Anyway, you’re supposed to perform certain rituals and sacrifices.  And when I say “you,” I mean the Cohenim, the priests.

It’s not that important.  To me.  What I find interesting is, what do Christians do with all this stuff?  Because, this is also word-of-god shit for them too, right?  But I don’t see them keeping up with all this.  And in Exodus, there were the rules about wearing tfilin.  And they sure as shit don’t do that.  So how do they decide?  How do they choose what to keep and what not to keep?  To me, that’s what’s interesting.  Super interesting.

But enough of that.  I’ve been on a Judas Priest kick of late.  Because last week, The YouTubes recommended to me a live video from 1983.  And it blew me away.  Rob Halford, the singer, blew me away.  He had the flamboyant showmanship of Freddy Mercury mixed with the metal-godness of Bruce Dickinson.  And his voice.  Oh my god, you guys.  Oh. My. God.

And look, it doesn’t have the intangible magic of Dio.5  It doesn’t have the, shit, I don’t even know.  But whatever makes Bruce so great, it doesn’t quite have that either.  But it’s got this range.  Like, he’s simultaneously a tenor, alto and soprano.  And he’s completely metal about it.  He’s doing things that shouldn’t be humanly possible, and he’s doing it like it’s nothing.  Like he’s singing in the fucking shower.

And the guitarists are super special.  If you’re a guitarist and a metal fan, then, fuck, Glen Tipton and KK Downing.  No explanation needed.  Actually, Charlotte’s cousin and uncle played (or still play?) in a Priest tribute band.  And while I was there, I totally nerded out with her cousin over Priest, and Tipton’s guitar playing.

We were both just like, “Dude, that solo, in Beyond the Realms of Death.”  And that was the whole conversation.  Because we both knew exactly what that meant.  We both knew the perfection, the glory, the infallible phrasing, the exquisite tone, the divine melodies of that work of art.  Instant respect.

So yeah, I’ve just been listening to a ton of Priest lately.  And in the 80’s, they got a bit cheesy, sure.  And now, Halford is old and his mid-range is shot.  But man.  Like, I forgot how good this band was.

And you know, they sort of invented metal.  OK, we say that about a lot bands.  Sabbath.  Purple.  Zeppelin.6  Motörhead even.  And there’s some truth to all that.  But Priest was the first band that accepted the metal moniker.  They’re the first band that said, “Yes, we are heavy fucking metal.”  Because all those other bands insisted – still insist – that they “just play rock’n’roll.”

And Priest is also the first band to really do the twin lead guitars with harmonies thing, in a metal context.  I mean yes, Thin Lizzy was doing it before them.7  And I love Thin Lizzy.  No, I love Thin Lizzy.  To me, they’re a truly special band.  In the way that Queen is a special band.  I’m not saying they’re as good as Queen.  Nobody is.  But for me, they’re on that level.  I could go on about Thin Lizzy.8  All I wanted to say was, although Thin Lizzy predated Priest with the twin lead guitar harmonies, they weren’t metal about.  Oh, they were glorious about it.  Just not metal.

Priest brought this to metal.  And every single metal band since, owes them a debt.  Iron Maiden included.  Also, I think I’m rambling now.  And I haven’t said half as much about Priest as I could, or even would like to.  But I think I’ve said enough, when I say, I’ve been enjoying the shit out of them lately.

No, wait.  One more thing.  In that travel camp summer, when I was 15 or however old I was, the one where Rob taught me how to play Iron Man and Paranoid in the back of the bus.  That summer, at some interstate rest stop, I bought a cassette of Priest’s live album “Unleashed in the East.”

I’d been reading about Priest in guitar mags for years already, but somehow, I still didn’t have any of their records.  And there, in some (possibly) Ohio gas station, was this cassette.  So I bought it.  Because this was 1995-ish, and I had a Walkman.  And I put the tape in and press play.  And I didn’t know what to expect.  Like, every guitarist I ever gave a shit about, in every interview I could get my hands on, all they said was, Priest was a major influence.  But what would that mean?

So I press play.  And oh my god shut the fuck up!  The first track.  Exciter.  The guitars.  Halford’s voice.  Never heard anything like it.  Changed my life.  And every track after that.  SinnerThe Ripper.  And get this.  The most metal cover of Joan Baez’ Diamonds and Rust.  To this day, I don’t know what the original sounds like.  Don’t care either.  The Priest version is definitive.  I texted Jared about it last week, or the week before.  He agrees.

Fuck yes, Judas fucking Priest.

And now a bit of copy paste.  Just my thoughts on Danzig and Van Halen, which I cut from my last post…

From the Day-Drinking with Anne post (3/17):

Towards the end, we switched to my iPhone.  The first thing I put on was Danzig I.  Because that’s a great fucking album.  Do I need to a Danzig thing here?  OK, fine.  Glenn Danzig was the singer for the Misfits.9  Then he went solo…

…Well, actually, first he did Samhain.  Which, come on, November Coming Fire.  Great album name.  Great album art.  Great music.  But after Samhain, he went solo.  Rick Rubin produced the first four albums, which are the ones that matter.

And I’m telling you, friends, these are special albums.  Dark.  Bluesy.  Heavy.  Evil.  But with a lot of soul.  They don’t call him “The Evil Elvis” for nothing.  And each one is unique.  Danzig I10 is a proper heavy rock album.  Danzig II: Lucifuge is bluesier, heavier and probably better.  Except when it’s not.  No, but if nothing else, the slide guitar on 777 is fucking…well, I’ve used the word already, but…Evil.  Then you get Danzig III: How the Gods Kill.  Which, first of all, as far as I’m concerned, is the greatest album name of all time.  And it’s less bluesy, but also heavier.  And darker even, if that’s possible.  And it has Anything, which, if you don’t like that song, then probably honestly you should think about going and fucking yourself.  No, seriously.  If you don’t like this song, you had better be some kind of special human being for me to want to still be friends with you.  It’s possible, yes.  Just, it won’t be easy, is what I’m saying.11

And then, yeah, Danzig IV.  Which is somehow Jared’s favorite.  Well, to each his own.  I mean, it’s a great album, no doubt.  It’s one of the Sacred Four.  But this is where he starts to introduce some techno shit.  And yeah, it works.  And yeah, there are great tracks.  But it’s my least favorite of the four.  Which means it’s still better than anything most bands have done.

Anyway, one of the great things about Danzig is the atmosphere it/he/they create(s).  I don’t know how he does it.  But you put on a Danzig album, and it doesn’t matter where you are.  You put on a Danzig album, and it’s automatically a cold, grey, rainy, autumn day.  And when it is actually a cold, grey, rainy, autumn day, well, it’s that…squared.  I love Danzig is what I’m saying.

Right.  So I put on Danzig I.  Which wasn’t even the point.  The point was, after that, I put on Van Halen II.  Ugh, do I need to do a Van Halen thing now?  And the answer is yes, because apparently I can’t ever get to my actual point.  But this will be shorter than the Danzig thing…

…OK, so Halen.  It’s a weird band.  Like, you can either love them or hate them.  You can even do both.  But it’s hard to be in between.  I tend to do both.  Sometimes I love VH.  Sometimes I think it’s the stupidest most self-indulgent shit ever.  But they’re fun.  Ok.  They’re more fun with Roth.  But it’s probably better music with Hagar.  Or is it?  I usually think so.  Except, do I?  Fuck, no, we’re not doing the DLR/Hagar debate here.

But I recently watched a live video of Dance the Night Away, which by any metric is just a good fucking tune.  And you watch this band, and you just see how much fun they’re having.  And that’s not nothing.

But also, Van Halen has this going for them.  They were always Shyer’s favorite band, along with Rush.12  Shyer, you may remember, was the drummer in my band and also my brother’s best friend; the band I played in with Jared and my brother and Rob.  Also the most wonderful, gifted drummer I’ve ever played with.  He visited me in Berlin last year.  Well, he visited Berlin last year.  Not for me.  But we met up.  The point is, I love Shyer.  And Shyer loves the Halen.  So I can’t listen to that band and not think of that guy.  And that always makes me happy.  Because I love Shyer…

So, uh, that’s what I cut from the last post.  And that’s where we’ll stop.  But first let me say this.  If you’re a metal fan, go listen to some Priest.  And while you’re at it, listen to some Halen.  Not much, because they get old fast.  But listen to Dance the Night Away.  And if you have “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” listen to Runaround, Top of the World and Right Now.  Trust me, it’s worth it.

And if you like dark, heavy stuff, acquaint yourself with the first four Danzig albums.  The best way is to just go through them chronologically.  But if you can’t be bothered, then just listen to
“Danzig II: Lucifuge.”  And if you really can’t be bothered, at least listen to Anything, off “Danzig III: How the Gods Kill.”  Which again, is the greatest album name of all time.

And if you’re any kind of music fan…no, you know what?  If you have a beating heart, go listen to Thin Lizzy.  If you want an album, it’s “Jailbreak.”  Or “Fighting.”  Or “Live and Dangerous.”  If you need a song, well, we all know The Boys are Back in Town.  But if you want a new song, heres’ three: Running Back, Angel from the Coast and Song for While I’m Away.  And yeah, Whiskey in the Jar.

And if you somehow don’t like Thin Lizzy, after listening to those songs or albums, then do me a favor.  Keep it to yourself, yeah?  I mean, I love you.  And I’d like to keep it that way.

זײַ געסונט

 

  1. I’m not sure how I feel about using “ain’t” in the classroom.  On the one hand, if they’re learning English for the workplace – which they are – it’s not only not useful, but possibly even counterproductive.  On the other hand, if they’re going to interact with music and television – which they do – I feel like it’s something they should know. []
  2. As I’m proofreading this, it occurs to me that if you break apart viel|leicht, what you get is something that literally means “very light.”  And, like, that’s an interesting way to think about a possibility, about a ‘maybe.’  There’s a very light chance of it happening. []
  3. I assume that’s lost on all but J-Dawg and Joschel. []
  4. What a beautiful language! []
  5. Bless his soul and may he rest in peace.  I love you, Dio. []
  6. Other people say that about Zep.  I don’t.  For my money, Zeppelin is shit.  If you want heavy, listen to Sabbath.  If you want actual good musicianship, listen to Purple.  Because Page isn’t fit to carry Blackmore’s guitar case, imho.  And Jon Lord alone is worth ten Led Zeppelins.  And maybe Robert Plant is “better” than Ozzy.  But he ain’t better than Ian Gillain or David Coverdale or Glenn Hughes.  Fuck Zeppelin, is what I’m saying.  Even though I know I’m pretty much alone on this. []
  7. And apparently Wishbone Ash.  But I never got into them. []
  8. I really want to go on about Thin Lizzy.  I won’t, but I want to.  I will say this though.  If you somehow don’t like Thin Lizzy, I’m going to have to think long and hard about if we can be friends.  I’m not saying it’s impossible.  But I am saying I’ll have misgivings.  That’s where I hold Thin Lizzy. []
  9. If you don’t know The Misfits, then, I dunno, I can’t help you.  Get out from under whatever rock your living under and go know The Misfits. []
  10. Really, it’s just called “Danzig.”  But this is easier. []
  11. So apparently, I feel about Anything the way I feel about Thin Lizzy. []
  12. No.  We’re definitely not doing a Rush thing here.  I mean, we could.  Even if we take two albums: 2012 and Grace Under Pressure…No!  Stop! []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
17 March, 20181

Welp, I’m 37 now.  And I don’t really know what to say about that except, perhaps, fuck you, Time, you merciless, relentless bastard.  And while we’re at it, it’s your fault Vin Scully won’t be calling ballgames anymore.  Like, what’s your deal?  One minute I’m 25, living in Manhattan, drinking unlimited mimosas at brunch after a late night out and feeling fine.  And the next minute, I’m 37 in Berlin and hangovers last 24 hours.  But every day of the Trump presidency is new, waking hell and one year is an eternity?  Like I said, fuck you, Time.

That said, I had a pretty decent birthday this year.  First of all, Charlotte came to visit, which was…fine.  It was fine.  She sends me a message about two weeks beforehand.  “How would you feel about your best friend coming to visit for your birthday?”  “What?  Jared’s coming??!!  How do you even know that??”  “What?”  “Ooohhh, you mean you.  Yeah, that’d be…fine.  It’d be fine.”

No, seriously though.  It was great.  I mean, that’s pretty special when your friend in another country just up and offers to fly to Berlin for your birthday.  Obviously we had a great time.  First of all, she’s the first proper visitor I’ve had to my place here.  I mean, Anne’s been over a couple of times.  And I had that dinner party.  But this was my first proper visiting guest.

And she was pretty excited to see my place as well.  As she put it, for the last two years in the states, I was living with my folks.  So it wasn’t really my place.  You have to go all the way back to 2014 for the last time she visited me in my own apartment.  Anyway, the moment she steps into my room, she smiles and says, “Ah, it smells like you!”  She meant the pipe smell, obvi.

It kinda reminded me of the last time Niki came to my apartment in Chinatown, after all my furniture had been moved out.  And she said, “I’m gonna miss this smell.”   Anyway, C loved my place here.  It was so me, she said.  The candles, the books, the wooden furniture.  So that was very cool.

And it was just a nice old-timey visit.  We played Yatzee, we talked shop, we drank bottles of wine, we played music.  We even learned a new kickass song.  Pourtant, by Vanessa Paradis.  For one thing, the guitar part is crazy fun to play.  For another thing, C does the singing.  That’s actually been one really cool thing to have watched develop over the years.

In the beginning, I did all the singing.  I don’t know how much of that was just me knowing the songs, or her being self-conscious.  I guess I don’t actually know if she was self-conscious about singing.  But she didn’t do it in the beginning, is the point.  After a while though, she’d start doubling up with me on a couple of songs: Bobby Darin’s Dream Lover, a French version of Rammstein’s Seemann that we had worked up.

But somewhere along the line, she started singing some songs on her own.  Carla Bruni’s Quelqu’un M’a Dit, Sympathique by Pink Martini and this song by Moriarty which I call “The Buffalo Song,” but which I think is actually called Jimmy.  Anyway, I rather enjoy when she takes over the vox.  First of all, it’s a nice break for me.  But also, her voice is…fine.  I mean, it’s fine.  No, seriously, she sings really rather well, and she has a nice voice.2  But also, as I wrote in my one of my previous posts, it just feels good to play with somebody.  To jam, to have that chemistry, to bring music to life.  Man, I miss that.

The one song we haven’t beaten yet is Sound of Silence.  Mostly because I haven’t been able to master the harmony.  Mostly bc I never work on it on my own.  But we’ll get it eventually.  And when we do, well, that will be fun.

As with most things, I left the planning of my birthday to the last possible minute.  Which Joschka loves.  Finally, I decided on going to this metal bar, which is the closest thing we’ve found in Berlin to Duffs.  Of course I was late.  To my own birthday.  Because of course I was.  Which Joschka also loves.  Anyway, me and C roll up to the metal bar – Blackland – to find J waiting outside with Annett and a friend she’d brought.  Apparently, there was a record release party that night, and thus a ten euro cover.  A fact I might have known, had I done any advance research whatsoever.  Well, anyway, fuck a ten euro cover, amirite?

So we went down the block to this Eckkneippe – corner pub – which was, in fact, the same Eckkneippe where me and Anne had got trashed on Glühwein earlier this winter.  It turned out to be perfect.  Plenty of room.  A big table where we could all sit together.  Pool.  Darts.  Cheap drinks.  Local Berlin flavor.  Next time I do a big outing, I think that’s where I shall do it.

So it was me and C, J, Annett and her friend.  A bit later Cindy showed up, and then Anne.  For a while we all just sat around the table, hanging out, drinking.  It was pretty great.  To my right, Anne and C are chatting away in French.  To my left, the others are chatting away in German.  And I’m sort of going back and forth between the two.  Because I’m so fucking cosmopolitan, ya know?

Side Note.  The next day, C told me she was really impressed with my German.  Not that she understands a word of it.  But just that it really looks like I’m fluent.  And she’s right.  It does look that way.  I mean, I can carry on, chat away at speed, make jokes, laugh at jokes.  “The trappings and the suits of fluency,” he said, adapting a quote from Shakespeare, because he’s so fucking cosmopolitan, ya know?

But what she doesn’t see, of course, is that it’s basically all wrong, what I’m saying.  Wrong genders, wrong cases, wrong prepositions, wrong word orders.  The whole “I must to go on the park to bring a piss” thing.  I spoke about that with Anne, because she’s in the same leaky boat.  We laugh about it.  But more on that later.  End Side Note.

At some point, the waitress puts a shot of whiskey in front of me, which I didn’t order.  “What’s this?” I ask.  And Joschka is like, “It’s from me.”  And I’m like, “Thanks!  What is it?”  And he’s like, “I dunno, nothing good.”  And I’m like, “Thanks?”  And he’s like, “It’s literally the best whiskey I could buy.  They have nothing here.”  Which was hilarious.  I mean, I can imagine him at the bar.  “One shot of your finest whiskey, please.”  “Sorry, we don’t have that.”

The waitress was great, btw.  Total local Berliner.  Not a word of English.  When C wanted to order a glass of wine, the poor waitress was like, “Can somebody translate?”  But she was super sweet, the waitress.

Later on, J-Dawg showed up.  J-Dawg, whose real name is Julia (pronounced Yulia), but whom I only ever call J-Dawg or Jules.  She’s the one, remember, the former student who invited me to her birthday and I was terrified to go, because speaking German with strangers.  Anyway, she came with her boyfriend.  Which was really great.  All the more so because it was totally out of their way, geography-wise.

But you know, I’m looking around the table.  And there’s Joschka, whom I’ve known since 2012 already.3  And Charlotte, whom I’ve known since 2103 already.4  And Cindy, who’s a total doll and speaks German with me and plays chess with me on the iPhone.5  And then there’s Annett, really the first friend I made in Berlin.  And Anne, my language partner, my drinking buddy, my fellow stranger-in-a-strange-land.  And J-Dawg, a former student who now is actually my friend.  And I’m thinking I ain’t doing too bad here.

Then at some point, I look around.  Some of my friends are over at the pool table.  Some others are talking amongst themselves at the table-table.  And I’m talking to who(m)ever I’m talking to.  And it was like my old birthdays in New York, at the 11th Street Tavern/Pub/Bar whatever it was called.  Where I used to get upwards of 20 people together, and just watch them all have a good time around me, where I was free to float from one crowd to the next at my pleasure, collecting free whiskeys wherever I went.  Those were some pretty great birthdays.  Some of the best in fact.  And it was a bit surreal to realize that Joschka and Charlotte were at those parties too.  And this was like that, just smaller.  I’ll call that a birthday win, I will.  Thank you very much.

I also did pretty well on the presents front.  My roommates gave me a bottle of Tullamore Dew.  C brought me a bottle of Pastis.  Joschka gave me a nice cigar.  Even my bosses gave me a taster set of four very nice Irish whiskeys.  And Anne gave me a picture of a hoody.  Which needs explanation.

So remember I said she found this picture of these two old broads wearing sweatshirts with “New York Drinking Team” across the front?  And we decided we needed to get hoodies made that said “Berlin Drinking Team”?  Well, anyway, I mention to her that I was looking around online, and I found something that might be nice, but it would run us around 50 bucks, each.

And she’s like, “Welp, I guess I’ll give you your present now.”  And she hands me an envelope, in which was a postcard-sized printout of a hoody with “Berlin Drinking Team” printed on it.  Like, this is your present, Dave.  We just need to sort out the font and all that.  And just, wow.  Right?

Oh, also, under “Berlin Drinking Team,” in smaller type, was our slogan.  Because we have a slogan now.  See, a while back, I told her I was watching a documentary on the French Revolution.  And this revolutionary – Danton – had this awesome quote.  “Do you know it?”  “Which one?  Danton has a lot of quotes.”  “Pour vaincre, il nous faut l’audace, encore l’audace, toujours l’audace!”6  And by the end, we’re basically shouting “Toujours l’audace!” together.  So yeah, she knew the quote.  And now that’s the official slogan of the Berlin Drinking Team.

So that’s about it for the birthday.  It would have been nice if the roommies could have come.  But they just had their one-year anniversary.  And the same day as my birthday outing, they had a huge family party that was like eight hours long.  So they were pretty dead by the end of it.  Schade.  Too bad.  But they continue to be great.  And they were really sweet with C too, which was lovely.

Monday I was over at Anne’s for a bit of day drinking, as I didn’t have any lessons that day.  She made lunch.  We drank many beers.  We played this great little game, the name of which I forget.  But it’s a little wooden board with a spinning top and…ah, fuck it.  I can’t describe it.  But it was a lot of fun.  I kinda want one.

We also listened to music.  As you do.  I found a record in her collection which I had to play.  Because on the cover was a middle-aged French dude with a baller moustache and a pipe.  So how could I not?  Georges something-or-other.  Anyway, it was really good, and I need to download some.  Just as soon as I remember the fella’s name.

Towards the end, we switched to my iPhone.  The first thing I put on was Danzig I.  Because that’s a great fucking album.  Do I need to a Danzig thing here?  OK, fine.  Glenn Danzig was the singer for the Misfits.7  Then he went solo…

[…]

Right.  So I put on Danzig I.  Which wasn’t even the point.  The point was, after that, I put on Van Halen II.  Ugh, do I need to do a Van Halen thing now?  And the answer is yes, because apparently I can’t ever get to my actual point.  But this will be shorter than the Danzig thing…

[…]8

Aaaannnyyyywwaaaay…the point – finally, the fucking point – is that after Danzig, I put on Van Halen IIDance the Night Away, specifically.  And Anne – remember, I’m at Anne’s house now, where this story started 37 pages ago – and Anne says “Is this also Danzig?”  What? No!  This is Van Halen!  And she’s like, “Van Halen?!  Omg we have to watch the Hot for Teacher video!”  And then she did the jazz hands.  Because in the video they do jazz hands.  So we watched the Hot for Teacher video.  Which was hilarious.  And then that was the end of Monday Day Drinking for the Berlin Drinking Team.

Tuesday, I met up with Dafna.  Dafna?  Yeah, she’s the Israeli girl.  My first time in Berlin, 2015, we did a Shabbas dinner for the goyim.  Then in 2016, we did a Rosh HaShanah dinner, also for the goyim.  And then she moved away for her studies.  Anyway, she’s back in Berlin and emailed me about meeting for a beer.  Which we did.  Well, which I did.  Actually, she drank tea.  Whatever.  But that was cool.  Well, apart from me being like 40 minutes late.  But she gave the wrong address.  Otherwise I would only have been 25-30 minutes late.  Because Dave.

Anyway, it was cool, like I said.  Like, it’s cool to have another Jew in Berlin.  But it’s also strange.  Because she’s an Israeli Jew.  And I’m a New York Jew.  Big difference.  She’s all tough and badass, and I’m all self-deprecating and borderline neurotic.  And the Israelis dumped Yiddish after the Holocaust.  Language of The Weak and all that.  So in speaking of my hour-long commute, I’m like, “What a schlepp!”  And she’s like, “Huh?”

Or another example.  Somewhere in the course of our conversation, the Jewish prayer shawl came up.  You know, as it does.  But for some reason, I couldn’t remember the name for it.  And she’s all, “Bad Jew, I’m not gonna help you.”  Anyway, like half an hour later, she’s talking, and I interrupt, slapping my hands on the table, giving her a bit of a start.  “Talis!” I yell, accent on the first syllable.  And she’s all, “Umm, what?”  “Talis!” I say again, “The prayer shawl.”  And she’s just looking at me like I have two heads.

And then I remember.  “Ooohhh.  Taleet,” I say, accent on the second syllable, ending with “t” instead of “s.”  Because, see, that’s the Israeli pronunciation.  And she’s like, “Oh, yeah.  What the fuck is a talis?”  And I’m like, “That’s how we say it.  In New York.  That’s the Yiddish pronunciation.”  And she’s all, “Yeah, that’s dumb.  We don’t say that.”  Which, they don’t.

Because that’s the point.  After the war, the people who went on to Israel decided, as I said, to forget all about Yiddish.  Language of the Weak, language of the sheep who marched their owned damned selves onto the trains.  So when the Israelis brought Hebrew back to life, they made a point of restoring the “original” pronunciation.  So they put the accent on the last syllable instead of the first.  And they pronounce final tav (ת) as “t” instead of “s.”  Although, really the “original” pronunciation would have had “th” instead of “t”; whence “Sabbath.”  But whatever.

Anyway, it was a good time.  Also a good time was, a few weeks ago I met up with another former student, Margit.  I kind of adore Margit, or Mag.  I don’t know how old she is, but she’s got two teenagers, so I’m guessing 50-something.  Anyway, she’s fantastic.  Like, simultaneously sassy and motherly.  Like, she’ll give me shit and joke about all manner of inappropriate subjects, but also kinda looks out for me.  Actually, she reminds me quite a bit of my mom.  Maybe that’s why I like her so much.  But the point was, I met up with Mag a couple of weeks ago, and it was lovely to see her.  And as I’ve said before, one of the things I love about my job, is just all the awesome people I meet, people who become my friends after they’ve left the school.

Speaking of which, Friday was the last day for three of my students.  One is that Polish girl who brought me the pickles.  She’s a real character.  But also, she started in the beginner class and progressed all the way to the advanced.  And she’ll have no problem getting B2 on her exam.  She might even get C1; she’s certainly capable of it.  Just that she doesn’t work fast enough yet, and it’s a timed exam.  Given another month, I’m certain she’d nail it.  The point is, I’m actually really proud of her.

Another one whose last day was Friday was the girl I mentioned last time, the one I hope maybe we can do some music together.  I love this kid, also my age, btw.  Total smartass.  For instance.  Today, I’m like, “So for her homework – ,” and she cuts me off.  “I don’t care about your homework, Dave!”  And I was just like, “Omg, have you always been such a bitch?”  And she just starts laughing and bites her tongue and gives me this little wink.  Like, you’ve reached a special place with your students when you can call one of them a bitch in class and have it be OK.  And yeah, obviously, don’t do that.  But also, cool.

Anyway, at the end of the day, she’s like, “Wait!”  And she pulls out of her bag two craft beers.  And one one, she wrote “Thank you…” and on the other, “…Dave.”  And she runs up to the front of the room and gives them to me.  And of course, I’m like, “Ugh, do I have to, like, hug you now, or something?”  And she all like rolls her eyes and shit, and’s like “You don’t have to,” and starts to walk away.  To which, of course, I’m like, “Fuck you, bring it in.”  So we had a little hug, and that was very sweet.  And also, she’s married, so don’t ask.

But also also, last week she helped me make a doctor’s appointment.  Yes, mom, everything’s fine.  Just, I was a bit under the weather, and I’m paying for this health insurance, so, you know, use it and shit.  But I’d never made an appointment over the phone before, and I didn’t know what questions they might ask and what if I didn’t understand something, yadda yadda.  So I asked her if she could just come with me to make the call, in case I needed help.  Because I do think of her as a friend, and I do trust her.  And she did.  And I really appreciated that.

And also also also, one other thing I like about this kid, she appreciates word play.  So I’m looking at the beers she gave me, and she’s like, “Look on the back!”  And there was a note on the back.  It said, “By Nina…Bye…”  Yes!  She punned on the beers she gave me!  I love my job.

Right.  So this post is already over-long, and even so, there’s things I haven’t gotten to.  Like, so many Torah thoughts.  But that’s for next time.  Right now, I want to close with a few words about Harvey Blatt.

I’ve known Bobby since I’m, what, 15?  We went to travel camp together.  He taught me how to play Iron Man and Paranoid on this little portable electric guitar while we rode the bus that magical summer.  He was the drummer in the first band I ever played in, Sweet ETP.9  He played bass in The Fury.  In those teenage years, Rob was the groundbreaker, the pathfinder.  He did everything first.  Among other things, he introduced us to all kinds of music, by way of his older brother Russ’ record collection.

Our band practiced in his basement.  We had parties in that basement.  I can still smell that basement.  For years, we were at his house, every Monday night without fail, to watch wrestling.  Hell, during college, we even went to his house to watch wrestling…while he was away at college!

That house was a second home to all of us.  To Harriet, his mom, we were “The Boys.”  She treated us like we were her own children.  She cooked for us.  She bought junk food for us.  She gave us advice about girls and about life.

To his dad, we were, I suppose, “Those Idiots.”  But there was no malice in those words, no contempt.  There was love though.  I mean, fuck, we were teenage boys.  What were we, if we weren’t idiots?  Harvey Blatt was Rob’s dad.

And look, I don’t pretend to “know” the man.  But I knew him how I knew him, if that makes any sense.

Harvey was incredibly sweet, and somehow, even more generous.  I’ll come to the generosity in a moment.  First the sweet.  Look, he wasn’t affectionate.  He wasn’t demonstrative.  And again, I’m speaking from my interactions with the man.  But what I remember, was a man full of zingers, almost always directed at Rob, but sometimes at us too, the idiots.

But man, he was funny!  He just made you laugh, you know?  And the thing with the zingers was, you never doubted that they were coming from a place of love.  I mean that.  You never doubted it.  Lemme try and paint a picture, though really more a silhouette.

Harvey was the lord of his manor.  Not in a heavy-handed way.  Not in a way that diminished Harriet in the least, who was very much the lady of the manor, so to speak.  Just that, when Harvey came into the room, you knew you were in his house.  But he had this way of surveying the scene.  Of looking down on us idiots.  No, literally, looking down.  Because the living room was sunk a bit lower than the rest of the house.  So he’d stand on the steps of the kitchen – adjacent to the living room – and look out over his domain.

And he’d see the idiots, watching wrestling, eating M&M’s, and just generally acting like stupid teenagers.  And this was his son.  And his son’s friends.  And you know, I believe he enjoyed that.  I believed he enjoyed seeing his youngest son enjoying life, having a good time, surrounded by his best friends.  I believe he knew how much love was in that room full of idiots.  And I think he was proud, you know?  I think he was proud to be able to give his son this life.  I think he was proud that it was his home that was the second home to all of these clowns.  And then, you know, he’d zing Bobby and we’d all laugh and Rob would cringe and that would be that.  Then Harvey would go elsewhere.

But this was a guy who, his home was our home.  This was a place where the boys could congregate and be idiots.  He gave us that.

I said generous.  There was one year – and I don’t remember the occasion – he bought us all, all six of us, tickets to WrestleMania XX.  At Madison Square Garden.  Look, if you’re not a wrestling fan, you just can’t grasp how big a deal this was.  But it was huge fucking deal.  And those tickets weren’t cheap.  And we were all just out of college, so we didn’t have the proverbial pot to piss in.  And he just, he just bought us those tickets.  For the idiots.  For the clowns that had been clowning around in his house all those years.

And he didn’t want anything in return.  He didn’t expect anything.  He just knew how much it meant to us, and that was all he needed.  And he didn’t come with us either, mind you.  It wasn’t, “I’m taking you guys to WrestleMania.”  Oh no.  He had literally zero interest.  But we had interest.  So he did that for us.

And I should add, just for the sake of clarity and at the risk of redundancy, we didn’t ask.  We didn’t hint.  We didn’t fish for it.  I mean, I have no idea if Rob spoke to him about it or asked for it.  But we certainly didn’t.  For us, it was a complete surprise.  And just wonderful.10

One other story of Harvey’s generosity.  One year, during college, the way the schedule worked out, I wasn’t able to make it home for my family’s Passover Seder.  Which, if you’re Jewish, you get; and if you’re not, just, it’s a big deal is all you need to know.

Anyway, I asked Rob if it would be OK if I came to his family’s Seder, which was on a different day.  And of course I was welcomed with open arms.  Harriet was delighted, because Harriet.  Anyway, it comes time to search for the Afikomen.  Which, I can’t believe I have to explain this for the gentiles, but here’s the short version.  The Afikomen is a piece of Matzah, a cracker basically.  The grownups hide it and the kids do a scavenger hunt for it.  And the winner gets some kind of prize.  A money prize.

Actually, it’s not a prize, per se.  Really, the kid who finds it is supposed to “sell” it back to the grownups.  I mean, we’re Jews, what did you expect?  But the point is, it’s for the kids, the children.  Normally, college age kids don’t participate in this.  You’ve aged out of it.

Fine.  So they do the whole Afikomen shtick.  And I stay in my seat.  But one of Rob’s (also college-aged) cousins says, “Dave, you’ll want to get in on this.”  And I’m like, “But surely it’s just for the children.”  And she’s like, “Trust me.”  At which point, she gets up and joins the hunt.  Well, when in Rome, right?

Fast forward to some little cousin finds the damn thing.  And we all line up, like ducks in a row, so Harvey can give the prize.  I should say here, that in my family, whoever found the Afikomen usually walked away with no more than $20, and probably less.  I say this, because Harvey put five hundred (500!) dollars into the hand of whatever prepubescent cousin had found The Big A.

But wait, there’s more!  Then, Harvey walks down the line, and into the hand of each loser, he places a fresh, crisp, hundred (100!) dollar bill.  I could have untied my shoes with my teeth, so far had my jaw fallen.

One last thing about Harvey and then we can wrap up.  This was a man who worked incredibly hard, built a business and did very very well for himself.  And then there was us.  It looks different now.  It looks different when Jared is a social worker and Adam is an attorney and on and on.  But way back when – and honestly, for me still – we didn’t know what the fuck we would do with our lives.

And Rob studied one thing, and then he studied another thing, and then he had one job and then he had a totally different job.  All of which is fine and normal yadda yadda.  All I’m saying is, Harvey was a guy who knew exactly what he was doing and Rob was a guy who was very much figuring it out.

And, you know, you read stories about demanding fathers.  Fathers who are disappointed in their sons, because the sons fail to live up to whatever impossible expectations the fathers had set for them.  Yes, it’s a trope.  But it’s a trope because it’s real.  That happens.

And I don’t pretend to know what went on behind closed doors.  I can only speak to what I saw.  But what I saw was this.  I saw a man who, without question or hesitation, supported his son at every turn.  A man who believed in his son, who wanted him to succeed.  But more importantly, a man who wanted his son to succeed at what his son wanted, not at what he himself might have wished.

And when you get down to it, what more can you ask from a father?

Unwavering, unquestioning support and love.  Generosity.  But a generosity that extended beyond the circle of the man’s own family.  A generosity that encompassed the loved ones of the people he loved.  And humor.  Because after love, what does more for the heart – for the soul – than laughter?

Rest in peace, Harvey Blatt.  And rest easy, for we will all will carry just a bit of that love which you have shared with us, in the kindness of your heart.

זײַ געסונט

 

  1. I wrote this post on the 17th, but for a number of reasons, it’s taken me a week to get it posted.  All temporal references are from the perspective of the 17th and not today, the 24th. []
  2. Ugh, she’s going to read this. []
  3. Jesus fucking Christ. []
  4. Cf. footnote 2. []
  5. And who lately has been kicking my ass. []
  6. “For victory, we must have audacity, and again audacity, always audacity!”  I’m going with the most literal translation of ‘audace’ here, but maybe there’s a better word. []
  7. If you don’t know The Misfits, then, I dunno, I can’t help you.  Get out from under whatever rock you’re living under and go know The Misfits. []
  8. You will notice the pair of lacunae here.  I had gone off on a couple of tangents.  One about Danzig, the other about Van Halen.  But this post wound up being way too long, so I cut them.  But I think I’ll do a separate post on music soon, in which I’ll include said tangents.  #yourewelcome []
  9. Elizabeth Taylor’s Penis.  It’s a fragrance.  Don’t ask. []
  10. Also, Chris Benoit won the title.  And I don’t want to go down a wrestling rabbit-hole here, but, at the time, that was just the most amazing thing in the world.  And to be there for that… []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
24 February, 2018

Busy, busy, busy.  Which is a good thing.  I’m trying to be busy.  Because winter in this town sucks a big bag of donkey dicks.  And also an idle mind is the devil’s playground yadda yadda.  For me, I find that routine is the key.  I like routine.  I get locked in.  It keeps me keeping on, so to speak.

At the moment, the routine is this.  Do some Hebrew when I get home from work.1  Then it’s a little bit of TV before the inevitable nap.  Usually I find some documentary on the YouTubes.  But lately, I’ve been forcing myself to try and watch something in French.  Because I’m at the point now where, yeah, I read pretty easily and pretty well.  And yeah, when I have a one-on-one conversation, I do alright.  But here’s the thing with French, you guys.  The way French people speak to each other, it’s like a totally different fucking language.  And I’ve got almost no handle on that.

So here’s what I’m finding.  I actually do pretty alright with documentaries.  Because the narrators use the sort of formal – and more importantly, clearly enunciated – French that I get from books and one-to-one conversations.  I’m not saying I understand every word, mind you.  But I get most of it.  And with practice, it’s getting better.  So that’s good.  But I just found these 45 minute cartoons of some Jules Verne books.  And theoretically, they’re for kids, right?  But the characters speak in that less formal conversational French that continues to elude me.

Which, in itself, is a bit funny.  Because, I mean, it’s still the language of JV.  It’s still “formal” French; old fashioned.  So it’s not the words themselves.  It’s the way they’re spoken.  The way they all seem to run together.  The way any e without an accent gets dropped, the infamous e-caduc, that Charlotte taught me about.  The way a million other letters and syllables get dropped.  So these characters are talking in a way that’s very much meant for children to understand, and I’m just like, what the actual fuck, you guys??  Or, as I like to say, quoi le fuck?  Which of course is not actually even French.

Anyway, so yeah, I’m working on that.  “But shouldn’t you be making an effort with German?” you rightly ask.  Well, yes, I should.  To that end, I’m also trying to watch some cartoons in the Teutonic tongue.  I recently discovered that German Amazon has the old Care Bears cartoons in German.  I feel like that’s a good starting point.

The Care Bears, btw, are hilarious.  And I’m borrowing from Dave Chappelle here, but the entire premise of the show is that these little bastards actually give a fuck.  They care.  Who does that anymore?  In any case, that’s about all the effort I can make with German at the moment.

I keep telling myself I need to be reading.  And I’m not.  I keep telling myself this, though, because I’m finally beginning to see the effects that reading is having on my French.  Right, I’ve written before how I read at least an hour of French every day on the train.  So my vocabulary is growing, my syntax and grammar are improving, yadda yadda.  Which is not to say that I’m good at it.  I’ve only just said how the spoken language continues to elude me.  But I do some work for a French company, and from time to time I have to write emails to them.

A year ago, every email was a struggle.  But now I can more or less bang something out, and it’s usually pretty decent.  Yes, of course there are mistakes.  But on the whole, it’s decent French.  And I’m knocking them out fairly quickly.  I might stop to look up the gender of a word, or to double-check an idiom.  But the point is, reading every day has made writing about a million times easier, and maybe ten times better.

Which brings on a bit of self-loathing when it comes to German.  Because I’m just not making that effort.  So on the one hand, I get angry with myself for being lazy.  But I inevitably counter this by telling myself, “Hey, man, every day you’re reading French, Hebrew and Greek.  And you fucking live in German.  Relax.”  Which, OK, fair point, Davey.  But just like, how much better would I be if I actually tried?

Because I know my German is decent.  Just decent though.  At the last Stammtisch – our monthly school get-together – I was chatting with one of my advanced students in German.  Which was weird for both of us, albeit in a good way.  Because I never use any kind of sustained German with the advanced class; they don’t need it.  Anyway, he tells me he’s both genuinely impressed with my German and that it’s a disaster.

Impressed because I can absolutely carry on a conversation, and also because I’ve picked up just enough idioms and slang to hoist myself safely above the ‘stupid American’ level.  And a disaster – Germans like the word Katastrophe – because it’s just full of mistakes.  He tried to give me an example in English.  It’s as if, after correctly using a bit of slang, I were to say “OK, I must to go now onto the park to bring a piss.”  Like, yeah, I know what you mean, but everything about that is just so wrong.

So I’d like to fix those things.  And I feel like the best way to get on top of it is just to read.  But I don’t.  I don’t want to.  And the reason I don’t want to?  Not because there’s no time.  I could make the time if I were properly motivated.  The problem is, there’s just so…many…words.  And I just can’t be arsed to be constantly nachschlagging2 shit, to be constantly looking shit up.  That, more than anything, is what makes me feel like a lazy POS with this language.

— Interpolation: I just saved this file. And in so doing, I saw that my last post was dated January 27.  So it’s been a month since my last post?  How is that even possible?  Where is the time going?  Fuck, I’m almost 37.  Fuuuuuuuuck.  :End Interpolation —

I had family dinner with the roommates last weekend.  We were celebrating Lucy’s new job.  She’s just finishing up her degree in geophysics (!?) and has been looking for her first real academic job.  And she just landed one, and not too far away either.  Something about growing crystals, I guess.  So we had to celebrate.

Funny thing about jobs in this country.  You’re actually required to give at least two-weeks notice.  And since that’s required, no job starts immediately either.  The whole, “So, when can you start?” thing isn’t a thing here.  They hire you and it’s like, “Great, see you in a month.”  It’s a strange place.

Anyway.  Normally when we have dinner, we’ll hang out for an hour or two afterwards, have a few drinks, chit-chat, that sort of thing.  This time though, we hung out until midnight.  Like, five hours, I think.  A good deal of it was them showing me funny videos on the YouTubes.  I don’t mean cat videos.  I mean, old TV shows and the like.  But all comedy, is the point.  I got maybe 20% of it.  I mean, comedy is the hardest thing to master.  It’s usually the last thing people get a handle on in a second language.  So the few things that I actually understood were quite funny, but most of it was over my head.

Well, at one point, they ask me, “So, Dave, what do you think is funny?  What do you watch?”  Monty Python obviously.  Obviously.  So I pull up the Cheese Shop Sketch.  One of my absolute favs.  And I’m loving it.  But at the end, they were so lost.  “So…he’s just naming like a million different cheeses?”  Yes.  “And the shop doesn’t actually have any cheese?”  Yes.  “Even though it’s a cheese shop?”  Yes!  Isn’t it genius???  “Well, now at least we know how you feel when we make you watch things.”  Erm, yes.

But it did remind me of the first time my Dad made me watch Python.  It was the Dead Parrot Sketch.  Obviously.  I must have been around 13 at the time, I’m guessing.  “So, he wants to return a dead parrot?”  Yes.  “And he’s insisting that it’s not actually dead?”  Yes.  “Even though it’s very clearly dead?”  Yes.  “And just so I have this straight, he’s insisting it’s not dead so he can return it?”  Yes!  Isn’t it genius???  Erm, yes?

So then I made them watch some clips from Airplane.  That was a little easier.  Though still a lot of it was over there head.  Like the Jive-Talkers.  Good times.  No really, it was good times.

Yeah, man, this Torah shit is boring me half to death at the moment.  I’m at the back end of Exodus now.  And there’s no story to it.  Like, they got out of Egypt and now they’re chilling in the dessert.  And now it’s just a lot of rules and instructions on how to build the ark of the covenant, and the altar and the menorah and all that jazz.  And then I remembered that the word תורה – Torah – literally means “law.”  Oh yeah, now it all makes sense.  Do this.  Do that.  Don’t do this.  Don’t do that.  And also you shall not suffer a sorceress to live amongst you.  Like, they just drop that in.  No reason, no explanation.  Just a one-liner.  No witches.  Uh, OK, God.  I’ll try to remember that.  You know, next time I see a witch.

Speaking of weird shit in the Torah.  Remember a while back I was going off on the whole Sodom and Gomorrah shtick?  And I was like, literally nothing in this is about homosexuality.  So how the hell did people turn this into an anti-gay story?  Well.  So I was watching a documentary on the subject.  And the narrator gets to the part where the Sodomites are banging on Lot’s door because they want to meet the angels he’s hosting.

Now remember, for me, the takeaway from this was, the motherfucker offered up his virgin daughters to the mob if they would only leave his guests alone.3  But the narrator has a different takeaway.  He says, and I’m paraphrasing, “And the Sodomites said unto Lot, let us in that we may know your guests.  And the Hebrew word for know here is a word that specifically means ‘have sexual intercourse with.’  And so the Sodomites were clearly depraved.”  That was the gist of it.

But surely that can’t be right?  I mean, I read this.  If there was a sex word, I’m pretty sure I’d have noticed.  So I go and look up the passage.  And the verb is ידע – yādha’.  And the primary definition for this word is simply “know.”  As in, “to know a fact.”  The vast majority of the time, that’s what this word means.  Now, to be fair, it can mean “know someone sexually,”4 just like it can in English.  But like, how often do we use that?  Would you say that know is a special English word that connotes a sexual encounter?  No.  You would not.  And usually, in Hebrew – at least as far as I’ve read – when it does mean this, the context is very clear.  It’s almost always with some version of “lie with” or “go to bed with.”  Like, “He lay with her and he knew her.”  Yes, in such a context, I think we can all agree they fucked.

But come on.  You have (male) angels visiting and a group of dudes shows up knocking on your door, saying they want to “know” your guests.  You mean to tell me that the first conclusion you jump to is, “Well, clearly these gentlemen would like to run a train on my visitors”?  Could it be possible, I mean, just maybe, that all they want is to meet some actual fucking angels?5  And look, if your other first reaction is to offer them your virgin daughters instead, well, OK, maybe that’s what you think is going on.  But also, if that is actually what you think is going on, you have to be some special kind of asshole to offer up your virgin daughters – wait, who even cares that they’re virgins at this point? – to offer up, I say, your human daughters to a foaming at the mouth gangbang mob.

At which point, my question becomes this:  Oh hi, God.  I see that you’re going to destroy this city of depraved perverts.  Fair enough.  But, you know, you had that whole bargaining thing with Abraham.  And you pretty much agreed to save anybody worth saving.  And, if I’m not mistaken, you intend to save this Lot guy.  The guy offering his daughters to what he apparently believes to be an unruly lot of train-running gangbangers.  I guess what I’m asking is, this is the guy worth saving?  Not that I’m questioning your omni-benevolence/all-knowing-ness/omni-potence.  I mean, I would never do that.  God forbid.  Err, no pun intended.  But seriously.  This guy?

Or maybe “know” just means “know.”  But what do I know?

I snapped at one of my students Friday.  Not cool.  The advanced group is a little different now.  I’ve got three who are still here from before.  Super high level.  One new guy, also super high level.  And two new dames, not at their level.  And the two dudes in the room (it’s two dudes and five chicks), they just love to show off.  Ask somebody a question, anybody, and after like five seconds, they just have to answer it.  Either out loud, or in a whisper.  And look, I get it.  They’re not trying to show off, per se.  They just want to demonstrate that they know what the teacher is asking.  On some level, they want me to realize how good they are at English.

Except I’m the teacher.  I already know.  I see your work.  I hear your answers when I ask you questions.  I know how good you are.  But what they don’t seem to get is, when I ask somebody a question, I’m asking that specific person for a reason.  Bitches, I know the answer.  What I’m trying to do, is get the answer out of this person.  And look, most of the time, it’s not about the answer, it’s about the process.

What I mean is this.  I’m very Socratic in my method.  I’ll ask a series of questions in an effort to lead the student to the answer, so that in the end, they can answer it themselves.  Usually, I think that’s much better than just giving them the right answer and then explaining it to them.  So for example, there’s a multiple choice question where they need to choose the right verb.  And the student has the wrong answer.  OK, so let’s figure this out.

What’s the subject?  Singular or plural?  What’s the verb in the next sentence?  What tense is it?  OK, good.  So what must the answer be?  And then, usually, they get it.  See, I’m trying to teach them how to read.  How to analyze a sentence.  How to break it down.  How to bring to bear the knowledge they already to have to confidently arrive at the only right answer.  It’s not the only way.  But it’s my way.

Fine.  So when I ask the student with the wrong answer what the subject of the sentence is, the last thing I need is some other mutherfucker whispering the answer.  First, you already know the answer.  So zip it.  And second, you’re not helping your classmate.  So zip it.

Anyway, Friday it was really getting on my nerves.  Because it’s hard when not everybody is on the same level.  And you see that the two who are a bit behind are already self-conscious.  They’d be self-conscious anyway, and now they’re more so because they know they’re not where the rest of the class is.  So now I’m not just trying to teach English, I’m trying to build their confidence.  I’m trying to get them to understand – nay, believe – that they have the tools to be just as good as everybody else.

So like I said, that shit was getting on my nerves Friday.  So finally I had to say something.  So I did.  And I was pretty firm about it.  Not rude, but certainly firm in a way that I’ve never been with them before; never had to be with them before.  And I could see that one of the dudes was a bit chastened, a bit embarrassed.  And I felt bad about that, you know?  I’m not trying to make anybody feel bad.  But it had to be said.  And after that, he didn’t do it no more.

But the other dude.  Man.  So later in the day, I direct a question to one of these fine ladies who happened to be struggling with a particular question.  And this dude just says out the answer, full volume.  And I just snapped.  “I swear to God, ______, do that again and you’re out!”   And he just turned to stone.  Like I said, not cool on my part.

First of all, I just felt terrible about it.  Notwithstanding that he absolutely deserved it – I’d already addressed the issue once that day – it was just unprofessional.  So that’s bad.  But also, did I just lose the room?  Were they all like, who is this asshole?  Thankfully, I hadn’t lost the room.  I think they agreed with the sentiment, if not its delivery.  But still.

Anyway, I caught up with this dude in the kitchen at the next break.  And I tried to apologize.  But at first, he wasn’t having it.  He was like, “No, I don’t accept that from you.”  At first, I thought he meant the apology, but he actually meant my little explosion.  And he’s like, “I’m going to talk to your boss about this.”  And I was like, well, fine, you should.  I mean, he has that right, and I’m confident enough in my standing with my boss that it wouldn’t be a problem.  But we kept talking and in the end, we sorted it out.  He may still talk to jefe.  Don’t know, don’t care.  But I think we’re good now.

Still though, I’m not happy with myself.  I get that it happens.  I’ve seen it happen with my own teachers, teachers whom I love.  So I’m not sitting here thinking I’m a shitty teacher or anything.  But I made a mistake today, and it’s one that I very much regret.

Kismet.  On the same day that his happened, two of my students who’d just finished the course got their exams scores back.  Both of them got C1, which is effectively the highest score.  One of them came in to the school, so it was nice to see her.  But she thanked me, which was nicer.  The other one didn’t come in.  But he texted me.  He texted me to tell me he got C1, and he thanked me for the “entertaining and helpful teaching.”  I deflected with “Just doing my job.”  To which he replied “But ur [sic] doing it good.”  To which I thought, Well, if I was any good, you’d have said “well,” but whatever.6

And on top of that, another former student contacted the office to ask that I get in touch with her about helping with a presentation.  She could have asked for another teacher, but she asked for me.  So on the same day that I fucked up and went off on a student, two former students aced their exams, one of them going out of his way to thank me for my efforts; and a third reached out for help on a presentation.  This on top of another former student who, a year after finishing his course, has sought me out for regular private lessons.

I guess what I’m saying is, I if had to fuck up like I did, Friday was a good to do it.

Oh, I started this post with my routine.  So just to finish up on that.  After dinner, I do a bit of Greek.  At the moment, I’m working through Demosthenes’ First Philippic with a commentary that Justin bought me a few years back.  I’m pretty interested in the art of oratory at the moment.  Maybe because I recently did that lesson on style and rhetoric.  Anyway, it’s super fascinating.  And then I finish up with some work on my ever-ongoing Federalist Project.  And I have to say, it’s nice to get back to that.

So much of what I’ve been focusing on lately has been straight up reading.  Just reading French, for fun.  Reading Hebrew, to get better at it, to learn the fucking language better.  Both of those things with Homer.  But there’s very little critical thinking involved.  So that’s the real joy of reading the Demosthenes with the commentary, of working on the Federalist Papers.  In the case of the former, reading academic commentary.  Not just reading the text for understanding, but really getting into the weeds.  And in the case of the latter, thinking.  Engaging the brain.  Writing my own quasi-academic commentary, as it were.  It feels good.  I’m a fucking nerd, what can I say?

Anyway, that’s about it.  Joschka and Cindy are in South America.  Anne is in France.  Jan is buried under his thesis and Zibs has just started a new full-time teaching gig.  Annett is busy with a new boyfriend.  OKCupid has been a dead-end of late.  So at the moment, it’s just me and my books.

But there’s shit on the horizon.  The overseaers will come back and the others will come up for air.  Also, I recently discovered that one of my favorite students was a singer in her past life.  Apparently she has some classical training in addition to having sung in bands, one of which it seems was a singer-songwriter duo where they wrote at least some of their own shit.  So we’ve been talking about getting together and jamming.  Admittedly, we’ve been talking about it at my instigation, so we’ll see if it actually happens.  But I would certainly welcome it open-armedly.

And that, I guess, is as good a place to stop as any.

זײַ געסונט

 

  1. Holy shit, you guys.  This shit got boring in a hurry.  But more on that later. []
  2. Nachschlagen means to “look up” a word in the dictionary.  (Schlagen, incidentally means “beat,” or “strike.”  Which is appropriate.  Because the sheer volume of vocabulary involved in this language just beats the shit out of you).  Anyway, one of the funner things about German is, that because English is Germanic in its structure, it’s super easy to transpose words back and forth.  Like I did here with “nachschlagging.”  You can only do it with people who already speak German.  But you can literally do it whenever the fuck you want, and it never doesn’t work. []
  3. Hashtag ξενία. []
  4. In my dictionary (Halladay), this definition is number six.  So, hardly the primary definition.  Not even the secondary.  Not even the tertiary.  (The…sextiary?  Ha!). []
  5. Hashtag Occam’s Razor. []
  6. This is the same guy from the Stammtisch, btw.  The one who was simultaneously impressed/horrified by my German.  Also the guy who was constantly giving me shit/bantering with me while he was in the class.  He’s a good egg.  Side story.  At the end of that Stammtisch, I was pretty drunk.  On top of all the beer, one former student decided we needed to do shots of rum.  This before this guy decided we needed to do shots of Sambuca.  So I was fairly half-in-the-bag by the end.  Anyway, we walked to the train together.  And he’s like, “Your train is over there, on that track.”  To which I could have replied, “Thanks, but I know where my train is.”  Or even just, “Thanks,” since all he was trying to do was be helpful.  But instead, I replied with, “Typical.  The German puts the Jew on the train.”  Look, sometimes you just have to laugh at these things.  He laughed. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
27 January, 2018

Umm, how, exactly, is January basically over already?  Didn’t we literally just start this thing?  I can’t, you guys.  I seriously can’t.  Like, my visa is up in 11 months.  It’s probably time I started thinking about whether I want to extend it.  Anyway, what’s new?  Same old, eh?

Speaking of “What’s new?”, Germans are a funny lot.  I always have to explain to my classes that when somebody says “How are you?” by way of a greeting in the morning, we don’t actually give a shit.  It’s just a pleasantry.  I have to explain this, you see, because when I say “How are you?”, I often get answers like: “Well, not too good actually.  My cat is sick.  Or my father is in the hospital.”  Excuse me?  Do you actually think I’m emotionally equipped to handle such a response?  What exactly am I supposed to say to that?  “But you asked!” they insist.

I mean, yeah, technically I asked.  I guess.  But no.  I was just saying hello.  Your job, in this situation, is to tell me you’re fine.  Lie, if you must.  And don’t overdo it either.  Don’t tell me you’re “great.”  Because then I get suspicious.  Like, who the fuck is “great” at 9am?  Needless to say, they find this very confusing in the beginning.  But they get the hang of it.  Eventually.

My advanced class generally has a pretty good handle on this.  When I ask “What’s up?” or “How ya doin’?” I now get answers like “Same shit, different day,” or “Yeah, whatever, fine.”  I kinda love my advanced class.  More on them later.

I’m happy if the beginners just give me a “Fine, thanks.  And you?”  To the intermediate group, I recently explained that we New Yorkers have devised a rather clever work-around for this situation.  We ask and answer our own questions in one breath; all the other person has to do is confirm.  For example: “Howyadoin’, a’right?”  “How’re the kids, good?”  “How’s work, same old?”  In this way, we tell the other person the answers we are prepared to hear.  It’s easier that way.  Nobody wants to hear about your sick father.  Not at 9am.

“But how then do you ask when you really want to know the answer?”  That’s always the next question.  Well, that’s a bit harder, isn’t it?  Part of it, I explain, is inflection; the tone of your voice.  Also, we will add more words to indicate sincerity.  For instance: “Hey, you look a little down/out of it/whatever.  Is everything OK?”  That last bit, “Is everything OK?”, still means we’d prefer to hear “Yes, everything’s fine.”  But we’re at least prepared to hear the truth.

And yet.  And yet, the Germans are a funny lot.  They have – what seems to me, anyway – an almost pathological need to say “Guten Appetit” to anybody who might be eating anything within 15 feet 3 meters of them.  Like, you could be having lunch in the kitchen, and somebody will walk by in the hallway.  In theory, you should both be minding your own business.  But they know there’s food in front of you, and so they absolutely must stick their head in the door and say Guten Appetit.  And it’s just like, “Umm, thanks?”  But after the 17th time, I just can’t anymore.

They have this with “Guten Morgen” also.  Like, I’ll be in the kitchen, eating a croissant with my coffee, headphones in – headphones in! – and there’s just this never-ending cascade of Guten Morgens.  And I’m just like, Jeez, not yet!  OK, fine.  I’m clearly an asshole in the morning.  Which people gradually learn to accept.  Apparently there’s even a word for this in German: Morgenmuffel.

Anyway, I was explaining all this to my advanced class.  Cause, I mean, they get it.  And in making reference to the lower levels, I said something like “those Dummkopfs in the other classes.”  I chose that word because I remember hearing my Aunt Cookie use it the last time I was in.  And to me, at least, it seemed to have a bit of a playful air.  Like, when you don’t want to say “idiot” or “asshole.”  Like, in English, I would probably just say “clowns.”  No actual ill intent behind it, kinda thing.  But they told me that in German, Dummkopf is actually really quite mean.  Apparently the word I was looking for was Quatschkopf.  Which I guess you could translate as something like “silly-head.”

Well, like I said, I love this advanced class.  They’re easily the most advanced group I’ve had all at one time.  Here and there I’ve had a couple of students at this level.  But always at the same time there were other people who probably didn’t belong in the advanced.  At the moment, though, there’s only five of them, and they’re all really fucking good.

And they’re fun too.  Like, we give each other a lot of shit.  Give and take, in both directions.  Like, sometimes, one of them will land a properly good jab, and I’m like, “I don’t know if I should feel wounded…or proud?”  For example, Friday, we were talking about euphemisms.  And one of my guys says: “So, I can say…Yeah, Dave, he’s a…special…teacher.”  To which I can only answer something like, “Fuck you, you brilliant asshole.  That’s exactly how euphemism works.  Well done.”  Which I obviously didn’t say.  In those words.

And they appreciate puns.  Not only are they getting a feel for English punning, but they’re even starting to figure out bi-lingual punning.  Puns, in other words, that require knowledge of both languages to function.  I mean, that’s some next level shit.

I love my two days with this group.  At some point, you can’t even really call it “work.”  It’s just a good time.  Somehow or another, on Thursday, we got onto the connections between Yiddish, Hebrew and German; just for the last few minutes of class.  Apparently, there’s a rather decent-sized cache of Hebrew/Yiddish words that have been borrowed into German.  So we were talking about that.

Anyway, class ends at 2:30.  And at like 2:32, I said, “You know you guys can go home now?”  And they were just like, “No, we’re good.”  Yeah?  Cool!  So we just hung out for an extra half hour talking about Jewish loan words in German.  We all learned some pretty interesting stuff.  I’ll give a few examples, which I think are worth repeating.

Mezuzah: OK, we all know what a mezuzah is.  Well, the Jews reading this do, at least.  Anyway, apparently in German, mezuzah is a slang word for ‘whore.’  Because…get this…everybody touches it.

Blau machen:  OK, so blau just means ‘blue.’  And machen is ‘make/do.’  So blau sein (literally ‘to be blue’) is a slang-ism for ‘to be drunk.’  But blau machen means ‘to do nothing.’  Which makes no sense.  Until you realize that in this idiom, blau is a corruption of the Hebrew בלא (b’lo), which means ‘nothing.’  So blau machen means ‘to do nothing.’

Dufte: Apparently this is an old-fashioned slang word for ‘good’ or ‘super’ in Berlinerdeutsch.  Which, OK, Berlin-German has lots of weird slang words that the rest of Germany doesn’t have.  And I just assumed this was one more.  But apparently it’s a corruption of טוב (tov).  So it’s literally the Hebrew word for ‘good,’ pronounced Yiddishly and then Germanized.

There were a bunch more.  Like the word for ‘throw up’ – necessary vocabulary for any good lush – is kotzen.  I learned that one very early on.  But only on Thursday did I learn that it’s a corruption of קוץ (qotz), which according to my dictionary means ‘to feel sick, feel revulsion.’  Although apparently on a moral level rather than physical.

And it goes beyond German, too.  One of my students is this Polish girl.  And I used the word ‘schmatte.”  You know, ‘rag.’  And she just starts laughing.  Like, how do I know Polish words?  Because apparently ‘schmatte’ is literally the Polish word and it means the exact same thing.

The point is, you gotta love a class that chooses to stay late just to chat about this kind of stuff.  And what’s also cool, is you can tell they genuinely enjoy teaching me stuff too.  They’re always throwing me new vocabulary, new idioms, new slang and so forth.  That’s something I very much appreciate.

There’s this one dude in my intermediate class.  Cool guy, interesting cat.  Anyway, he distills his own rum.  So a while back, he gave me two little bottles – maybe a shot or two each.  I shared it with Joschka.  It was properly nice, if a bit woody.  Anyway, I told him that we quite enjoyed it.  So Friday, he brought me to larger bottles.  Maybe a flask’s-worth each.

Anyway, my advanced class saw themn and were all “What’s that?”  So I explained.  And then I offered that if they didn’t have to rush out, we could all taste it together after class.  So three of them (plus one girl from the intermediate) hung around.  And we just hung out for another 15-20 and tasted the rums.  I mean, what a great job.

Also, one of my girls even made a pretty great (German) pun.  Another person had declined to join us because she had to drive.  Now in German, the preposition rum– means ‘around.’  And fahren means ‘drive.’  So rumfahren means something like ‘drive around.’  Anyway, this person declines because they have to drive home.  So my student says, “Ja, du solltest nicht Rumfahren!”  (Yeah, you shouldn’t rum-drive!).  And I was just like, “Yaassss!”

So yeah, working with this lot is super fun on a social-banter level.  But speaking strictly as a ‘teacher,’ it’s kind of a dream.  See, because they’re starting from a position of being already quite good with the language, we can spend much more time focusing on what I call ‘the good stuff.’  This week, we’ve been talking about style.  Like, OK, you can all write “correctly.”  Let’s next-level this shit.  Let’s talk about writing “well.”

Thursday we looked at subordinate clauses.  Friday we looked at rhetorical structures and literary devices.  Things like anaphora, antithesis, periphrasis, alliteration, metonymy and synecdoche, simile and metaphor, asyndeton and polysyndeton and hendiadys, litotes and paraleipsis.  You know, shit that’s properly in my wheel-house.  And the nice thing, for them, is that these things all exist in German (or Polish or Arabic or whatever their mother-tongue may be).  So it’s not just an English thing.  It’s a literature thing.  And that’s fucking cool.  That’s much more interesting to me than “When do we use the past progressive?”

So as a way of seeing these things in action, I brought them copies of JFK’s inaugural address and of Trump’s.  And of course, the first reaction, before we actually look at the text, is to assume that Trump’s speech will be drivel and that Kennedy’s will be high art.  And yeah, that’s certainly one valid interpretation.

But then we get to talking about how both of these guys won their elections by super-slim margins.  Which means that their respective rhetorical styles deeply touch about half the population while really turning off the other half.  And I ask them to put aside their politics and just read for style.  Look for the things we talked about.  And I tell them to take it home and read it on their own time and come back the next day with questions and opinions.

And what do you know?  As non-native speakers, they found the Trump speech much easier to understand, much more approachable.  Which it objectively is.  But is that good or bad?  Is that more ‘small-d’ democratic, or is just appealing to the lowest common denominator?  Well, you can have your own opinions about that.

We’re not done with it yet.  We’re going to continue on with it next week, and really get into the weeds a bit.  But the point is, for me, I love doing this kind of stuff.  Yeah, working with the beginners is nice.  Watching them start from nothing and seeing them get to a place where they can really use the language is gratifying.  But also, it’s booooooring.  This, though.  This is almost like teaching a college class.  And that, my friends, is pretty f’ing fantastic.

I went to a birthday party last weekend.  Well, two actually.  Friday night was for Annett.  So that was mostly just me and Anne drinking our faces off, comme habitude.  She – Anne, I mean – sent me a picture of two old ladies wearing sweatshirts with the words “New York Drinking Team” printed across the chest.  We need shirts like that, she said.  Because we are the “Berlin Drinking Team.”  I love that kid.

Last week we met up for our usual conversation exchange.  One drink in French, one drink in English, many subsequent drinks in German.  Comme habitude.  Well, all I’d eaten that day was a croissant for breakfast and a small salad for lunch.  But I stupidly didn’t eat anything before we went to the bar.  So after four or five grogs, I was three sheets to the wind (Ich war ziemlich blau, you could even say).  Anyway, at the birthday party she said something about us playing darts the other day.  I had no idea what she was talking about.  So she showed me a picture of me throwing a dart from our conversation exchange.  And if there wasn’t an actual picture, I would never have believed it.  That’s how much I didn’t remember it happening.  Nevertheless, good times.  Apparently.

Where was I?  Oh yeah.  I went to a birthday party last weekend.  Although I kinda didn’t want to.  See, it was for a former student of mine.  And she’s great.  We meet up once every month or two for drinks.  But that’s one-on-one.  That’s fine.  This would be a party where I didn’t know anybody and where everybody would be German.  Stress!

Well, I get there and everybody is in the kitchen.  Something like ten or more people sitting around a huge kitchen table.  And there’s no empty seats.  So she has to pull in a chair from the other room and I’m kinda on the outside.  Awkward!  And for the first hour or so, all I’m thinking is, what’s the minimum amount of time I can stay before I leave without it being rude?

But at some point, of course, I start chatting with somebody.  And then somebody else joins the conversation.  And I’m drinking gin.  And next thing I know, I’m actually having a good time.  And also, nobody is speaking English.  What’s more, it’s clear that these people I’m chatting with can speak English.  But they’re not.  There’s no need.  Like, here I am, at a party with strangers, and we’re all just speaking German.  Like, holy shit, I can do this without a safety-net!  The training wheels are off!

Or mostly off.  Because at some point, I apologize to the first guy I’m chatting with for the poor state of my German.  And of course he’s like, “What are you talking about?  You’re German is very good!”  Which was a nice thing to say.  But even as I’m pulling this off, I’m fully aware that I’m making all kinds of mistakes, and my vocabulary is limited.  So I tell him, you know, what helps is, you’re very easy to understand.  You speak a very clear German.

To which he replies, “Oh, this isn’t my real German.”   And it’s not that he was ‘dumbing it down’ for me, so to speak.  It’s just that he’s speaking proper textbook German.  Because apparently his ‘real’ German is hardcore Berliner-slang.  Well, OK, that’s the same English I use with Germans; proper textbook English, I mean.  If I spoke the kind of English with them that I normally speak with, let’s say Vinny, well, they’d be just as lost.

So the training wheels aren’t totally off.  But we’re getting there.  I mean, when I hang out with Joschka and Cindy, yes, we speak German.  But, first of all, I know that it’s their ‘real’ German.  Just in general, they speak more ‘properly,’ more ‘textbook.’  But also, Joschka is there.  That’s a safety-net.

This was different.  Yeah, Jules – my friend – speaks pretty good English.  But our friendship isn’t rooted in English the way it is for me and Joschel.  This was new.  This was – I think – my first experience being thrown into an entirely German setting.  And I hacked it.  #AchievementUnlocked

Strangely, this got me thinking about French.  French – that bitch – always feels just beyond my reach.  Like, it’s objectively easier than German.  I have a bigger vocabulary.  I read in French quite easily; which I definitely do not in German.  And yet, it’s elusive.  Always like I’m looking at it across a schmutzy window.  I can manage with Anne for an hour.  I can scrape by in France.  But if you dropped me into a French party the way I was dropped into this one, I’d be up the proverbial creek…sans proverbial paddle.

Anyway, it got me thinking.  What if I had been living in France all this time?  How good would my French be?  Would it be even better than my German?  And I can’t say that it didn’t cause me not a little regret.1  Because French was my first second language.2  It’s the language of hockey, nevermind Dumas and Verne.  And it’s the language of two of my best friends on planet earth: Charlotte & Anne.  Maybe I should go live in France after this.  Or not.  Who the fuck knows?

When I was in France, I did the obligatory gift-buying for friends.  I brought back chocolate for the roommates.3  I brought back a bottle of rosé for one of my colleagues.  And I brought back something for Anne.

On my last day in Nice, Charlotte and I visited the modern art museum.  Which is not my thing, but hey, who doesn’t like a bit of cultchuh?  Anyway, there’s this artist native to Nice, whose nom d’art (is that a thing?) is “Ben.”  His stuff is all over the city.  But mostly, it’s just him writing clever things in his own cursive handwriting.  Hashtag modern art.  And of course, he’s got a ton of stuff in the museum.

So in the gift shop, I grab this little pocket-sized notebook/writing block for Anne.  It’s not lined paper, it’s just blank pages.  And on the cover, in Ben’s “art” are the words “J’aime les pages blanches.”  Or “vides.”  I don’t remember exactly.  Whatever, it translates to something like “I love blank/empty pages.”  And Anne’s an artist, right?  So I figure, that’s perfect for her.

Anyway, I bring it back.  And I’ve got a little spiel prepared.  Not much; just enough so I can explain who the artist is, how he’s native to Nice, etc.  And I don’t know why I was surprised – she’s an artist, after all – she knew exactly who he was.  I didn’t have to explain anything.  She was just like, “Oh yeah, Ben, from Nice.  Cool!’

It was cool.  I generally suck at gift-buying.  Like, you know how there’s those people who just always know the exact right thoughtful gift?  Even if it costs a buck-fifty, it’s perfect.  Because they know you and they’re thoughtful people.  Fuck them, the bastards.  I can’t do that.  But this one, I think I got it right.  She seemed to really dig it.  So that was cool.

She also had a gift for me.4  Remember her and Annett had an exhibition back in December?  Well, I’d had it in my head that I would like to support her by buying something.  But when I asked about prices, she showed me the list, and, well, it was too rich for my blood.  Not that the prices were unfair.  Far from it.  But for me, it would have been a luxury I can’t quite afford.

Anyway, at the end of the night, she’s showing me all the little red-sticker dots next to so many of her works.  If you’ve ever been to an art gallery, you know that a little red sticker-dot means the piece has been sold.  And she was so proud of herself.  Like, “Can you believe I sold so many pieces?!”  Well, yeah, I could believe it.  She’s really good, you guys.  And I was well proud of her too.

But also if you’ve ever been to an art gallery exhibition, you know there’s booze.  So at this point, I was a bit…blau.  Anyway, I said something like…well, first I told her how proud of her I was.  Because I genuinely was.  But then I said something like, “But you know, these people are idiots, because they didn’t buy the best ones.”

So she asked me which ones were “the best ones.”  And I didn’t hesitate.  Because I’d looked at them all already.  I knew which ones I thought were the best.  For me, I love things where the background has just enough to excite your imagination, but not enough to give real detail.

This was true in Florence too, when Jared and Josh and I went to the art museums.  The actual subjects of the paintings are fine.  But I love the backgrounds.  There are whole worlds back there.  People living lives, going about their business, loving, living, doing business, fucking (presumably) and dying.  And your imagination is free to invent all kinds of stories.

–Interpolation: Tolkien knew this.  He did this consciously.  In the Silmarillion most of all, but also in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.  He knew that if you just gave a hint of a story, the reader would imagine the rest.  And that’s where the real magic is.  :End Interpolation–

So she asked me which was my favorite.  And I still didn’t hesitate.  Because there was one.  I just loved it.  Somewhere, in the back of my mind, it reminded me of the cover of this old sci-fi book, The Day of the Triffids.  I vaguely remember the story.  It’s not important.  But it reminded me of the cover, is the point.

And that right there is enough.  That’s full of all sorts of good memories.  My teenage years devouring all the old sci-fi I could get my hands on.  But also, that all of that stuff came from my dad.  Either directly, from his own old books.  Or indirectly, from the stuff I found on my own as I branched out from that.  The point is, wrapped up in all of that, is that nostalgic feeling that comes with the whole father-to-son passing-things-on shtick.5

So there’s that.  But also, I just loved this piece, this little ink drawing that Anne had made.  To my eye, it’s these mysterious – almost alien – plants, growing underwater, anchored to the seabed.  And the background is kind of smudgy and mysterious.  And who knows what’s going on back there?  You can – or, I can, anyway – just look at it and get lost in your own imagination.  That’s what I love about it.

Anyway, that’s my favorite, I tell her, with zero hesitation.  Because it was very much my favorite.  And do you know what she says?  “It’s yours.”  That’s it.

What?  No.  I can’t accept that.  That’d be taking money out of your pocket.  Absolutely not.  “Stop that,” she says.  “It’s mine, and I want to give it to you.”  I continued to protest.  In the end, I got her to agree that she would try to sell it as long as the exhibition ran.  And then, when it was time to close up shop, if nobody had bought it, then she could give it to me.  That seemed fair.

That’s how I remember it anyway.  We were both drunk at the point.  And because of that, I knew that I would never bring it up again.  Indeed, I decided to forget about it.  Which I did.  And then, right after the exhibition, she went back to France for a month.

So when we got back together for our conversation exchange, she’s like: “I have something for you.”  And I’m like: “Well, I have something for you too.”  And I just figured she’d brought me back a little Kleinigkeit from France; last time she brought me back tea.  Anyway, she slides this brown envelope onto the table.  And I honestly have no idea what’s in it.

I was genuinely surprised when I opened it.  I really had forgotten about it.  But she hadn’t.  And I was just like…wow.  You know, I was really touched.  No, really.  I’m talking tears in the eyes, the whole nine.  Because this is her work, this is her labor.  And she can sell this.  I felt before, I felt at the time, and I still feel, that in some way, I’m taking money out of her pocket.  It doesn’t seem right somehow.

And look, maybe I’m making too big a deal of it.  I mean, clearly, she doesn’t feel that way.  She chose to give it to me.  I never asked for it.  I could never.  But that’s the point.  She decided she wanted me to have it, because I’m her friend.  And that’s like…I don’t know.  Even now as I’m writing about it, I’m getting a bit emotional.

Because actions speak louder than words, right?  We’re each other’s best friends here.  She has her life-long friends in France; I have mine in the States.  And we both have other very good friends in Berlin.

Joschka is also my best friend here.  But it’s different.  He is of this place.  He’s German.  Anne and I, we’re both strangers here.  We’re both fish out of water.  But we have each other.  We understand each other.  And you can say that.  We say it all the time, in fact, when we’ve had enough to drink.  But you don’t always get to show it.  And when she gave me this thing – this truc, as she would say – she showed me something special.  She showed me what our friendship means to her.  I fucking love that kid.

Look, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.  I honestly don’t.  But Keith and Murph and Flare have kids, and all of a fucking sudden, I’m “Uncle Dave.”  I go to France and C’s Uncle Dan gifts me a home-made flask.  Gallou gives me a hand-painted guardian-stone.  My students hang out with me after class, and some of them continue to drink with me even after they leave the school.  My roommates remember my birthday.6  And Anne – The Notorious ABG7 – she just up and gives me a piece of her artwork.  I may not know what the fuck I’m doing, but I must be doing something right…

זײַ געסונט

  1. Litotes! []
  2. Well, my first second living language. []
  3. Because if there’s anything they love, it’s pizza.  But pizza won’t travel.  So if there’s anything else they love, it’s chocolate. []
  4. If I wrote about this before, I apologize.  But a little exposition never hurt anybody. []
  5. It occurs to me just now as I’m writing this – and this is totally tangential – but it seems to me that the old Yiddish “shtick” and the modern internet “meme” have quite a lot in common.  A sort of constant re-imagining of an archetype that requires a baseline cultural understanding for its basic functioning.  Just a thought… []
  6. I mentioned to Marco that I’d be going home towards the end of March, and he says, “Yeah, OK, but your birthday is on the tenth right?  So you’ll be here for that?” []
  7. I love this nickname, which I’m fairly certain she doesn’t fully appreciate.  So obviously there was the rapper, Notorious B.I.G.  But then, some law-wonks started a tribute blog to Ruth Bader Ginsburg and called it The Notorious RBG.  Which then caught fire.  Because how could it not?  So Anne, whose initials are A.B.G., how could I not call her the Notorious ABG? []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
13 January, 2018

Well, well, well, Happy fuckin New Y – oh, wait, I think I did that gag already.  So I flew back to Germany on New Year’s Eve.  My flight was due to land at 11:30 pm.  Which was not ideal, but did at least have the virtue of being over a hundred Euros cheaper.  That said, we touched down at 11; which had me wondering if I’d somehow managed to get myself on the wrong aeroplane.  I still don’t know how we managed to land so early.  Maybe there was no traffic?

Anyway, one cool thing about it, I got to see fireworks from above.  This was very cool.  Small and far away, yes.  But popping off bright against the blackness, it was surreal and gorgeous.  I imagine it’s a rare sight, and so all the more precious.

The plan was to go straight to Joschka’s from the airport.  The timing was such that I was above ground on the S-Bahn, travelling through the middle of Berlin at midnight.  A bit lonely perhaps, but it afforded me yet another great view of the fireworks.

This city is crazy with fireworks on New Year’s.  They’re legal here, though possibly only for the one day.  So people kinda go nuts with it.  Just, like, in the streets.  Setting off all kinds of crazy shit.  Best to have your windows closed though.  You see plenty of rockets landing on roofs and bouncing off the sides of buildings.  I’ve heard stories of rockets going through open windows and starting fires.  It’s all a bit mad, if I’m being perfectly honest.  And “safe” isn’t really a word that comes to mind; at least not without an accompanying negation.  But it’s impressive.  Also loud.

Charlotte and the gang called me shortly after midnight as I happened to be on the sidewalk on Joschka’s block.  The downside of leaving when I did was that I missed what I assume was a killer party.  Anyway, it was very sweet of them to call.  Gallou and Marion took a turn on the horn as well, but to be honest, it was so loud – the fireworks, I mean – I could scarcely hear a blesséd word they said.  Still, it was a nice coda to that whole trip.

Meanwhile, the plan, as I said, was to meet Joschka.  Only he wasn’t answering his phone; neither texts nor actual calls.  Fortunately, I have a key.  So I went up anyway, only to find the apartment empty.  Well, that was weird.  But at least I could put my bag down.  Upon which I went back outside and went for a walk to take in the last of the fireworks shit-show.  Finally, Joschka got back to me.  He was at Cindy’s restaurant.  So I met them there.

I was starving, but sadly, the kitchen had already closed.  However, Cindy, being the absolute doll that she is, went into the kitchen and scored me a baguette.  Which I promptly devoured; not having eaten since something like two in the afternoon.  That was “socca” with C and P.  Socca, I take it, is a bit of a Nice specialty.  It’s like a fried chick-pea bread.  Sorta like if Matzah-meal pancakes and hummus had a baby.  Anyway, I was hungry, is the point.  And the bread was a lifesaver.

Also at the restaurant were the Dinner Party Gang.  These are the people I first met at Cindy’s for Christmas last year and with whom we periodically get together for dinner.  Hence the tag.  That was a happy surprise, and it was nice to catch up with them for a bit.  Also there were two of J’s cousins.  We kinda had the restaurant to ourselves, as they had already shut down for the night, save for one table of old ladies.  So it was cool.

When it was time to go, the Dinner Party Gang went their own way while we – J, C, the cousins and me – headed back to J’s place.  One of the cousins peeled off along the way, so in the end we were down to four.  After an obligatory Döner stop, we went up to chez-Joschka.

The first order of business was the (also obligatory and now traditional) Dinner for One reenactment.  I may have written about this last year, but Dinner for One is a black-and-white comedy sketch from the 50’s or 60’s, about 15m long.  It’s basically mandatory watching on New Year’s in Germany.  And it’s in English, which is weird.

Anyway, the plot is, this rich old lady has a dinner party for herself and her four best friends.  Only they’re all dead.  But that doesn’t stop her from setting a place for all of them.  And her poor servant has to drink all their drinks.  Four rounds.  Times four.  So he’s pretty soused by the end of it.  It’s good slapstick.

Right, so our tradition – J and me – is to also go the four rounds; though only one drink each.  A white wine, champagne, sherry and port.  When the servant drinks, we drink.  It’s fun.  And cultural, so you know, highbrow…in a way.  Funnily, Joschka’s cousin is like 21, and didn’t care a whit for the sherry or port.  Kids, eh?

The rest of the night was spent playing Settlers of Catan.  Which is more and more fun every time we play.  Very good times indeed.  I think I got home around eight.

I think I had to leave Germany and then come back to realize how far I’ve come with the language.  And don’t get me wrong, I’m still a disaster.  Mistakes everywhere.  Gender, word order, general grammar.  It’s a mess.  But at the end of the day, I’m fairly functional.

You know, in France, it took me about three days to even begin to feel comfortable.  And as I said in my last post, I definitely managed.  But with French, I’m missing so much of the day-to-day stuff.  The little filler phrases, the quotidian shit.  On the last day there, I was asking C about all the little things I now take for granted in Germany.  For just one example, I was asking about the words for “change.”  As in, “Sorry, I don’t have any change.”  Or, how do you say “exact change”?  That kind of thing.  And as I said before, my listening skills are basically garbage.

So I was genuinely surprised to see how easily I fell back into things with German when I got back.  Like, I could just understand people.  Now, to be sure, my vocabulary still isn’t great.  I miss words.  Sometimes I miss whole ideas.  But by and large, I get it.  And it was just German the whole night.  Barely any English.1  And I could participate.  I felt like I could be myself again; like I got my tongue back.2  Honestly, it was a huge relief.  However great my week in Nice was – and it was absolutely great – language-wise, it was a real slog.  Now I was free again.

Staying with the language thing here for a minute, I had dinner with Lucie and Marco on Tuesday for Marco’s birthday.  It was a great example of how far my language skills have come and how far they still have to go.

To the former, we somehow got into a very funny philosophical discussion about the use of the Future Perfect tense.  And I realized, after 18 months in this country, this was the first philosophical discussion I’d ever had in German.  Not because the opportunity never presented itself, but because I simply wasn’t up to it.  So I mentioned this to them.  And Marco said something along the lines of, “Well, yeah, actually we were just saying the other day how in the beginning it was pretty clear that you were just not understanding many things.  But now you seem to be getting most things most of the time.”  Achievement unlocked, amirite?

So much for progress.  And yet, I clearly still have a ways to go.  See, I cooked dinner that night.  Because on Sunday, Lucie asked me if I would cook dinner on Tuesday for Marco’s birthday.  At the time, I thought this just a touch odd.  After all, we have dinner together once or twice a month.  But always its at the instigation of whoever is offering to cook.  No one has ever asked someone else to do the cooking.  But I rationalized it as, well, it’s a birthday thing, so they probably just want to enjoy the night and not have to worry about shit.  And also, that’s a nice compliment, right?  I mean, they must obviously enjoy my cooking enough to actually ask me to do it.

Right, so I get home from work and immediately get to it in the kitchen.  Which, I have to say, was kind of a mess.  And I’ll be honest, I was very very slightly annoyed.  Like, come on you guys, you asked me to cook.  The least you could do is not leave the kitchen a mess.  But whatever, not a big deal.

Anyway, I finally get Big Bertha – that’s my cast iron dutch oven, remember – into the oven.3  And about an hour later, Marco is knocking on my door.  “Hey, how much longer do you need the oven for?”  Probably another hour, I tell him.  “Well, umm, Lucie needs it also,” he tells me.  Which I thought was strange.  “Are we not all eating together at like seven?” I ask.  “Are you cooking for all of us?” he asks.  “Well, yeah, Lucie asked me to.  That’s tonight, isn’t it?”  And he starts laughing.

“Dude, did you honestly thing we would ask you to cook?”  Well, yeah, I did think that was a bit unusual.  So I gave my reasons, just as I’ve given them here.  To which he was all, “Yeah, OK, my wife is demanding, but she’s not that demanding.”4  But I thought…

So we go find Lucie and tell her what’s happened.  And she’s like, “You’re kidding right?  I would never ask you to do the cooking.  All I asked was, if you were free to have dinner with us tonight.”  And I’m like, “Well.  This is embarrassing.”

Anyway, it all worked out, obviously.  And in the end, Lucie cooked her dinner on Thursday.  So Marco got two birthday dinners.  But I was just like, jeez man, just when I think I’m getting good at this language, I screw up something so simple, you know?

Oh, the dinner was great, btw.  I crusted the pork loin with this mustard-horseradish sauce that I made.5  And I used all sweet veggies, plus my homemade stock.  Parsnips, carrots, celery, sweet potatoes and regular potatoes and onions.  So the pan sauce was fucking fantastic, if I do say so myself.

Then on Thursday, Lucie made some killer steaks with green-beans and fries.  Terrific.  Yeah, so two darn good dinners this week.  And good times with the roommies.  Which is important, not for nothing.  Because I’m not generally very social when I’m home.  I mean, if I’m home, it’s probably precisely because I don’t want to be social.  So I often find myself feeling annoyed that there’s other people in the house when I want to be alone.  Which is absurd, I know; though true to my general misanthropic nature.

The point is, it’s important for me to spend time with those clowns every once in a while, if only to remind myself that I do actually genuinely like them and to reset my annoyance meter back down to zero.  Yeah, I know.  I’m an asshole.  Everybody knows that.

So.  The Torah.  That continues to be interesting.  It’s calmed down a bit.  By which I mean, no crazy shit on the order of Lot and his “skanky daughters,” as Josh dubbed them.  But here’s a thing I’m noticing.  It’s a very spare text.  What I mean is, there’s hardly any adjectives.  Oh sure, they’ll name like seven different spices and nine kinds of trees.  But like, nobody is tall or short, skinny or fat.  Sometimes somebody is strong.  Somebody had red hair.6  And of course plenty of things are “good” or “evil.”

But at some point, you start to feel like maybe God was slacking off a bit.  I mean, I don’t imagine he gets tired.  And yet, first week on the job, he’s already taking a day off.  Like, you couldn’t crawl out of bed for five minutes on Sunday Saturday for a quick “Let there be adjectives” before going back to sleep?

But OK, at least it makes learning vocabulary easier.  Anyway, I’m in Exodus now.  Just got through the ninth plague.  And I have to be honest, I’m not entirely sure I grasp the premise of all this business.  What I mean is, at the end of each plague, you get this formulaic: “And God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he didn’t let them go.”

And OK, if Pharaoh is just naturally stubborn or a dick, fine.  But God is making him stubborn?  Does that not defeat the purpose?  As far as I can tell, it always comes back to what I read as God’s inferiority complex.  I mean, for an all-mighty, he seems rather insecure.  What do I mean?  Well, see, there’s another formulaic bit.  With every plague, Moses says to Pharaoh something along the lines of: “So God says ‘Let my people go, or you will suffer this plague, so that you will know that I am the Lord God.”

What?  Is the point to free the Hebrews or is the point for the Egyptians to respect you?  And it’s not just Pharaoh who has to suffer, but all of Egypt.  It’s very clear.  Lots of “All the land of Egypt”s and “Every house”s.  Are we not shooting a mosquito with an elephant-gun here?

So my current – and admittedly blasphemous – reading of all this is as follows.  God is like some mafia don.  And Pharaoh is not showing him enough respect.  So Pharaoh needs to be taught a lesson.  And not just Pharaoh, but his whole family; and by extension, all his subjects.

So God says, “What a nice country you have here.  It’d be a shame if anything should happen to it.  Let my people go.”  Then he preordains that the people are not let go.  So he sends a plague.  Then he preordains that this will have no effect.  Because he needs to show what a big deal he is.  Rinse, wash, repeat.

Meanwhile, the Hebrews are still toiling away in slavery.  And the Egyptian population – who have not elected this Pharaoh, it’s worth pointing out – has to suffer the consequences.  And, I mean, who knows?  Maybe if the question were submitted to a referendum, the Egyptian people would agree to release the Hebrews after the first plague; maybe even at just the threat of a plague.  Who knows?  If they had some kind of recall mechanism, maybe they’d eject the current Pharaoh and replace him with one who was more attentive to their interests.

But no.  Death to all the crops and livestock.  Because Pharaoh is a dick.  And it’s not even clear that he’s actually a dick by nature.  Because remember, it’s God who keeps “hardening his heart.”  It’s weird, is what I’m saying.

So much for Torah.  I went for a long walk on Wednesday.  It was a very foggy night.  I like foggy nights.  It makes everything more mysterious, somehow.  So I just walked in a direction for a few hours.  Wound up someplace I’d never been.  Which is always the goal.

I don’t really know what to say about it.  It was good me-time.  And it was eerily beautiful.  The way the fog hangs out under the street lamps; the way buildings across the water float in smudgy darkness.  Out here, in this part of town, it feels like another world.  It’s hard to believe I’m still in Berlin, some of these places I go.

I wonder what the people are like who live all the way out there, in the middle of nowhere.  What do they do?  Also, where do they shop?  Where do they get Chinese food?  There’s a part of me that thinks it must be very peaceful to live in some of these places, so far removed from the hustle and bustle, so much closer to nature.  It must feel like a kind of luxury to have a whole big house to yourself; or with your family.  But like, what do these people do when they want noodle soup?  Do they even know about noodle soup?

School is good.  Or work.  I don’t know if I’m supposed to call it school or work.  Whatever.  One of my students brought me pickles from Poland.  Before I go on, I need to say something about the pickles in Germany.  They’re all wrong.  Which, I have to admit, came as a surprise.  I mean, in my mind, pickles are a part of the culture here.  Spreewald pickles – local pickles from Berlin-Brandenburg – are kind of a big deal.  But they’re all wrong.  The put sugar in them.  They’re all sweet.  What the actual fuck is up with that?  So I’ve been trying to find proper sour pickles for months now; or proper new pickles.  But with zero success.  My student didn’t know this though.

Right, so I have salad for lunch every day.  It’s boring as hell, and I don’t actually like it.  But I feel like it’s important to get regular vitamins and whatnot.  So I make a point of eating salad for lunch. Anyway, a while back, this student asks me one day for a bit of cucumber.  I guess she loves cucumber.  Sure, OK.  Well, one thing led to another and soon I was just giving her a bit of cucumber every day; she didn’t need to ask anymore.

Fine.  So we get back from the break, and she says, “Dave, I have a Christmas present for you.  It’s just a Kleinigkeit (“a little nothing”).  A joke really.  Because you give me ‘gherkins’7 everyday…I brought you gherkins from Poland…”  And she gives me a little gift bag.  And in the bag is a jar of pickles.  Not just pickles.  Actual sour pickles.

Naturally, the first thing I do is turn the jar around to read the ingredients.  “Please no sugar, please no sugar,” I’m thinking to myself.  And lo and behold: No sugar!!!  And as she’s watching me inspect the label, she must be thinking – well, I don’t know what she’s thinking.  But she says, “It’s just a joke, you know?

And I’m like, “Girl, this is no joke.  This is dead-ass serious.”  And now I think she thinks I’m just weird.  Which, OK, fair enough.  I proceed to do the only logical thing one can do in this situation.  I jump up and give her a big hug.  Which I’m sure she thought was all out of proportion.

So I try to tell her.  “Girl, you have no idea how happy you’ve just made me.”  And it was clear that she literally had no idea.  But I was – and still am – pretty damned over-the-moon about it.  I mean, proper fucking sour pickles.  If I didn’t already know she was married with three kids, I probably would have asked her to marry me on the spot.  Because pickles.  In fact, I nearly asked her to leave her family and run away with me.  I mean, I didn’t.  But it crossed my mind.  Like, let’s just elope to Poland and eat pickles and pirogis and live happily ever after.  Look, we all have dreams.  I’m just saying.

My advanced class is a lot of fun at the moment.  Hands down the most advanced groups I’ve had.  Every one of them is at a super high level.  They were four, but five as of this week.  We verarsch each other a lot – we joke around and give each other shit.  It’s often hilarious.

For example, when we reconvened after the break, I was telling them about my experience in France.  Specifically about my experience with the language.  And at one point, I said something to the effect of, “Well, I felt pretty good about my French with one-year-old Nino.”  And one of the girls was just like, “Yeah, well, you probably speak at his level.”  And I was just, “Nice!  My hat is off to you, my lady.”

The other cool thing is, and I may have mentioned this, there’s an Italian broad in the German class.  She’s very cool and rather a bit goth.  In a number of ways, she reminds me of an older, goth, Italian Niki.  Anyway, she’s helping me with my Italian.  Remember when I came back from Italy and I was all, “I’m gonna learn Italian, bitches!”?  Yeah, well, I’ve been slacking off there.  Between French and Hebrew and Greek I’m just not finding the time.

But she reads with me on the breaks and it’s both fun and helpful.  She’s a ballbreaker when it comes to pronunciation.  But half the fun of Italian is just making the sounds, so it’s totes worth it.  One thing she really gets on me about is double “n.”  OK, in English, if a word is spelled with one ‘n’ or two, we don’t really change the pronunciation.  But in Italian, apparently, this is important.

So the word for ‘year’ is anno.  And if you want to say it right, you really have to linger on that ‘n.’  Because, as she continues to remind me, with one ‘n’ – ano – it means anus.  Which I appreciate, but can’t feel.  To her, it’s hilarious.

Right, so we’re reading this stupid super-beginner-level story about some guy and he’s however-many-years old.  And I read his age, and she’s like, “Annnni.  You said ani, and I think, ‘ah yes, now I’m interested!,’ but that’s not what it says.”  And of course she’s saying all this with her Italian accent, and it’s fucking hilarious.  We’re just cracking up.

Anyway, that’s that.  It’s a nice little side-highlight from my job.  I guess it’ll last as long as she’s in the school.  But it’s very cool.  I kinda love Italian.  It’s just fun for my mouth in a way that German and French aren’t.  And it sounds so cool.  Like, when she speaks, I go all Jamie Lee Curtis in A Fish Called Wanda.

Which I just re-watched recently.  What a great film.  Like when Kevin Kline yells “ass-hoooole!!!”  Classic.

Well now I’m just rambling.  Let’s call this the end, shall we?  Until next time…

זײַ געסונט

  1. With the one caveat that when it’s just me and Joschka, we still tend to slip into English.  Probably because that’s just how we know each other. []
  2. Probably to the chagrin of those around me. []
  3. I was doing a braised pork loin with mad veggies. []
  4. Also, Lucie is like the sweetest person ever and not even remotely demanding. []
  5. Homemade horseradish, obvi. []
  6. Maybe it was Isaac? []
  7. In German, Gerken is the same word for both cucumber and pickle.  Which is insane, I don’t mind telling you. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
7 January, 2018

 

Well, well, well.  Happy fucking New Year.  Let’s get the preliminaries out of the way first, shall we?  Resolutions.  Nothing new this year, as I’ve already got my hands plenty full.  However, my goals – if not resolutions – are to keep my hands full with the things I set in motion last year.  Primarily, that’s three tasks.  The first is to keep on keeping on with Operation Read the Whole Fucking Torah in a Year.  The second is to keep on keeping on reading Greek.  I’d love for this to expand beyond Homer.  But since just trying to read a bit of The Poet before bed most nights is all I’ve been able to manage of late, at the moment my goal is to simply keep that going.  The last is to keep on keeping on with my Federalist Project.  This is going slower than I’d anticipated, but it is still going.  So any progress there – as long as there is progress – will be enough.  That was always going to be a long-game anyway.

Right, enough of that.  So I was in France for the week between Christmas and New Year’s, for to visit Charlotte.  Lots to say about that.  Where to begin?  Well, Charlotte I guess.  I hadn’t seen her in over a year.  The last time I saw her was when she was in Berlin last September.  Thereafter, she went to Australia for about a year with a month or so in Japan at the end.  That’s quite a while not to see a dear friend.

But as is common with dear friends, we picked up right where we’d left off.  It was as if no time had passed.  Or at least it was to me.  No doubt she’ll counter that sentiment in a [snarky] comment if she found it otherwise.  The point is, after many months and miles of separation, it was wonderful – though not surprising – to find our friendship as strong as ever.  As with our Great Western Roadtrip and the many other journeys we have together undertaken, I find again that she is one of very few people with whom I can spend so much time in so close quarters and not grow weary of.  Though I do grow weary of saying nice things about her, and so I shall now proceed to an accounting of my visit.

She met me at the airport, which was not the plan.  I was supposed to take a bus and meet her somewhere else.  Since she knew my schedule, there was no real need of communicating my deplaning.  It was only by chance that I turned my phone on and sent a text that I was on the bus.  Upon which she called me and told me to get off the bus, for she was upstairs waiting for me.  Another minute, and it would have been too late; the bus hadn’t left yet.  So I scrambled off the bus just in time.  Though it would have been better comedy – howsoever less convenient – had I not.

Anyway, happy reunion at the airport and then it was off to her new apartment to drop off my bag.  Not long after that, it was Christmas time.  By which I mean, Christmas dinner at her friend’s mom’s house.  Already I was nervous about this.  I mean, I’d only met her friend once, and that briefly in 2103; I’d certainly never met her mom.  Then there would be an uncle of Charlotte’s whom I’d never met.  Then Charlotte’s mom, dad and sister.  These, at least, I knew, had spent time with and already liked.  And finally, of course, Charlotte herself.  Which was…fine.  I mean, she’s fine.

Right, so this would be anxiety-inducing enough in a situation where everybody spoke English; or, dare I say, even German.  But French?  And just off the plane, no time to adjust.  Straight into the frying pan, as it were.  Well, at first it was a bit stressful.  And certainly, I was not understanding very much at all.  But look, friends.  These are problems that are easily rectified by wine.  And of that, there was plenty.  So I settled into a comfort zone soon enough, even if I was in the dark as to the general dinner-table conversation.

Before going any further, let’s put some names to these people, since they’ll all come up again.  The friend is Rapha.  Her mom is, well, Rapha’s Mom.  Charlotte’s dad is Philippe.  Her mom is Carine.  Her sister is Marion.  And the Uncle is Dan.  Also, I may have spelled one or all of those names wrong.  Désolé.

Off the bat, Rapha’s Mom was terrifying.  Try to imagine an old, stone-faced, stereotypical French woman.  And remember, she speaks no English.  And my French is, at this juncture, shite.  And I’m in her home for Christmas.  Like I say: terrifying.  That is, until later in the night – the drunken part of the night – when she puts on a ridiculous hat and feather boa.  At which point I was like, OK, this dame’s alright.  I believe there’s a picture of the two of us like that.

Anyway, it was all great.  The food, the times, the people.  As is wont to happen with that great social lubricant, things loosened up as the night went on.  People tried to speak to me in broken English.  I tried speaking to them in broken French.  We managed.

As a side note, this is now the second family that’s taken me in on Christmas.  As I’ve written elsewhere, I spent every Christmas from 2010 to 2015 with Jen and her family; we skyped last year.  This year, she sent me a picture of her uncle wearing a shirt which read: “Dave’s not here, man.”  Which is amazing.  Anyway, the point is, it’s extremely touching.

I mean, as a Yid, obviously Christmas doesn’t mean all that much to me.  But for the Goyim, it’s quite the big deal.  So when your friends take you in, with their family, treat as you part of the family…well, it means a lot.  That’s a lot of love coming my way, and it’s humbling, not to put too fine a point on it.  But more on this later.

Apparently we crashed in Rapha’s room.  I say apparently, because I woke up around six with an awful allergic attack (owing to two dogs) and not knowing where I was.  Took me a few minutes to get my bearings.  Anyway, it was bad enough, we went back to Charlotte’s place at that ungodly hour, which fortunately was only about two blocks away.

So much for First Christmas.  Second Christmas was with her dad’s family.  Though I was thankful to be included, it wasn’t nearly as enjoyable.  Possibly Definitely this owed to the severe hangover I was suffering.  Not my best work, but I got through it.

Moving right along then.  The next few days are a bit of a blur, insofar as I don’t remember the exact chronology.  I cooked dinner one night, for just the two of us, which was lovely.  There was a night where Rapha came over to hang out.

Man, that was fun.  This was really my first Rapha experience, even though I’d been hearing stories about her for years.  Simply put, she’s a riot.  We played dice, broke out the guitar, drank a bunch and just generally hung out.  Complete shit-show.  And complete fun.

Rapha’s English is kind of a train wreck.  But she makes it work.  Also my French is kind of a train wreck.  But I make it work.  So we were all able to chat and make it work.  For Charlotte this was hilarious, just listening to the both of us mangle each other’s languages, both of which Charlotte is fluent in.

Here’s another thing about Rapha.  And this is the sort of thing I normally would not write.  But since, in the end, I said it to Charlotte and, eventually, to Rapha, I see no reason to withhold it.  So the girl shows up wearing a black dress and a beige sweater.  Then, rather a bit later on, she took off the beige sweater.  And the neckline on this dress, well, “plunging” doesn’t go far enough.  We’re talking Olympic level high-dive here.  I believe my exact words were, “Her tits are out of control.”  Which, though vulgar, does at least have the virtue of accuracy.

But remember, this is really only the second time I’d properly met the girl and the first where we could be said to be properly “hanging out.”  Way to soon to introduce Inappropriate Dave.  In other words, no leering, no rude remarks.  This necessitated a reallocation of mental resources in the form of constantly reminding myself not to stare and to maintain eye-contact.  Unfortunately, this made conversation rather a bit more difficult.  But I muddled through.  And for that night, at least, maintained the (fraudulent) appearance of the perfect gentleman.

It was also on this night that I first learned of the ridiculosity of my French.  By now, we all know that I read plenty of Jules Verne and Alexander Dumas.  In other words, 19th century stuff.  And it has, theretofore unbeknownst to me, shaped my vocabulary in ways I had not expected.

So Rapha is telling this story of a girlfriend of theirs.  And in this story, the girl apparently broke some guy’s nose at a bar and wound up in jail.  She’s telling me this in her unique brand of English.  So naturally I try to reply in French, repeating back elements of the story.  So I try to say something like, “Wait, so she broke his nose?”

And as I’m organizing this in my brain, I’m not thinking about vocabulary, but grammar.  Because in French, the construction is not “She broke his nose,” but rather “She broke him the nose.”  And I’m getting ready to be pretty proud of remembering that.  So I say, “Alors, elle l’a brisé le nez?”  And immediately, they both start laughing.  Cracking up even.

Oh no!  What did I say wrong?  Did I screw up the construction?  Did I get the vocabulary wrong?  Did I somehow manage to say “She poured him a cabbage” or something equally nonsensical?  “What?  Is it wrong?” I asked flusterdly.1

No, no it’s not wrong they tell me, through unabating laughter.  It’s just, nobody says briser.  It’s sooo 19th century.  Apparently I should have used “casser.”  It would be akin to saying something like, “Verily, hath she smitten him upon the nose?”  Such is the state of my French vocabulary, apparently.  And “mistakes” like this just kept happening; and were always followed by a good laugh.

The next night (I think), we had a bit of a party.  Rapha again.  Laura, whom I know from New York.  She’s great.  We banter.  Magalie – which may or may not be how she spells it – who I also met briefly in 2013.  And Uncle Dan.

This was proper fun.  Music, booze, games, jokes, food, the whole nine.  It would have been fun under any circumstances.  But something about this was extra cool.  These were Charlotte’s besties.  The girls she grew up with.  But I didn’t feel out of place, I didn’t feel awkward.  I felt like I got on with everybody and they all accepted me; not as some random friend of a friend, but almost as a part of the family.  It was really quite special in that way.  Also there was a drunken Queen sing along.  Probably Don’t Stop Me Now.  Which is always glorious.

French-wise it was also interesting.  I’ve spoken about Rapha already.  Laura has been living in New York for years and London before that, so she’s basically native-speaker fluent at this point.  We speak – and banter – in English; anything else would be absurd.  Mag’s English is pretty decent.  But where all the others speak French fast and slangy, she speaks slowly and, dare I say, “properly.”

In other words, when she spoke to me in French, I could totally understand her.  Like, we just chatted away in French and it was totally fine.  Kinda like with Anne.  Which, now that I think of it, is kind of interesting.  Because when Anne and I meet up for our conversation exchange, I feel pretty OK about my French.  I can go for 30-60 minutes with her.  And yes, she slows down to speak with me, but she doesn’t dumb down.

And so that was kind of a cold bucket of water in the face, going to France.  Because although everybody was very patient with me, precious few of them know how to talk to somebody who doesn’t properly speak the language.  As a result, I suddenly felt very stupid, and my confidence with the language dropped like a rock.

But Mag was talking to me in “perfect” French, almost as if she had stepped out of a textbook.  And all of a sudden, I felt like, “Yeah, I can do this!”  Like, “I know this language.”  Well, early on in our conversation, Charlotte comes over and says to Mag something along the lines of, “Umm, you know he doesn’t really speak French?  Take it easy.”  And Mag was all, “Oh, no, he’s doing fine.”  And I was like, “Yeah he’s doing fine.  Kindly fuck off.”  Which to her credit, she fucked off, and kindly.

Next day, though, I was curious.  So I asked Charlotte.  “Hey, so Mag kinda speaks like a textbook.  Very easy to understand.  But I’m curious.  How much was she dumbing things down for me?”  To which Charlotte, “She wasn’t.  That’s just how she speaks.”  In other words, an actual French person was speaking their own actual French to me and it was no problem at all.  Fuck yeah.  Finger pistols.  I’m the man.  Right?

The next night, we had Carine and Marion and Uncle Dan over for dinner.  The good times continued to roll.  And my French was improving, though not as successful.  What I mean is, I felt more confident and was able to accomplish more.  But at the same time, this group was faster and more slangy, so it wasn’t nearly so easy as with Mag.  But again, I managed.

Here’s a funny thing.  My last two visits to Nice, Charlotte was living with her mom.  So that’s obviously where I stayed.  And during those two visits, Carine spoke zero words of English to me.  And to be sure, this time she didn’t “speak” English with me.  But she did break out some vocabulary and some fairly impressive idioms.  And I was damned impressed.  It was very cool.

Marion, on the other hand, speaks like no English.  So with her, I absolutely need to find a way to say what I want to say in French, or I can’t say it at all.  Based on that, you’d think she’d be hard to chat with, hard to connect with.  And yet.  And yet, I kinda love that kid.  I can’t quite put words to it.  All I can say is, something about that girl makes me feel like, this broad is peoples.  The word “cool” is so overused as to have little real value at this point.  But that’s the word I keep coming back to.  She’s “cool.”  Like, she gets it.

Here’s a humorous vignette.  Charlotte has a cat.  I’m sleeping on the pull-out sofa.  The cat insists on sleeping with me.  Fine.  Anyway, Marion says something to the effect of, “So you have to sleep with the cat?”  Well, that calls for a joke.  And it’s the same joke in French as in English, so I’ll give both.  “Je dois me coucher avec le chat…quand j’aimerais bien de me coucher avec une chatte.”  (I have to sleep with the cat…when I’d much rather sleep with a pussy).  Right, OK, it’s a middling joke.  But it had the element of surprise, since nobody was expecting me to able to do that in French.

Needless to say, Marion and Carine were dying.  So I turn to Marion and say, “Il faut pratiquer le français.”  (One must practice their French).  But she puts her finger to her lips, which is the universal sign for “Shut up, Dave.”  So I turn to her mom.  And she says – and this is just fantastic – she says, “Il faut pratiquer la langue.”  Which means, “One must practice the language.”  Except, literally it means, “One must practice the tongue” – the word for tongue and language being the same.  In other words, Charlotte’s mom just made an oral sex joke to me.  And I was just like, I fucking love you people.

Well, Charlotte wasn’t there for any of that, because she’d gone with Dan to pick up Gallou and little Nino from the train station; on more which shortly.  But just to finish up here.  So C goes and runs out for a bit and leaves me alone with her mom and her sister, neither of whom speaks very much English.  And that could have been awkward, you know?  Or difficult.  Only it wasn’t.  It was fun.  I genuinely enjoyed it.  And again, I had that feeling of belonging.

You know what I mean?  Like, I had come to Nice to visit my friend.  And here I am hanging out with her mom and her sister, and I don’t really know them.  And I was just enjoying it, having a good time.  It was easy.  I liked – no, I like – these people.  And yeah, on some level, this is the family of one of my best friends.  It makes sense.  I love Jared’s family.  And Keith’s.  And Rob’s.  And Jen’s.  But I grew up in their homes.  These people are new for me.  There’s a language barrier.  And yet.  And yet, it’s the same thing.  It’s familiar.  And it’s good.

So Charlotte went to pick up Gallou and Nino from the train station.  You remember them from last summer?  Summer of ’16, I mean.  The first time I met them was in the hospital, just after Gallou had given birth.  It was me and C and Philippe and Marion.  And then later we visited them at their home up in the mountains.  Anyway, their visit here wasn’t part of the plan.  She – Gallou – called while I was there and asked if she could come stay for a few days.  Well, of course.

Let’s do Nino first.  Last time I saw him, he was what, two months old?  There’s a picture of me somewhere, holding the baby.  And at the time, it was all very sweet.  But now he’s a year and a half or so.  I didn’t know what to expect.  And look, to be honest, when it comes to children, I’m rather partial to girls.  They’re cuter, for one thing.  For another, they tend to bounce off the walls considerably less.

But there’s Nino.  And he’s walking around now.  And you know what?  What a fucking beautiful child.  And that’s neither platitude nor exaggeration.  In his face, he’s just beautiful.  Great big eyes and that smile.  Man, that smile.  Just so honest and joyful.  And incredibly well behaved on top of it all.  If you don’t instantly fall in love with this child, you are a special kind of asshole.

And Gallou.  What a total sweetheart.  Her particular brand of French is the devil’s own invention.  But she’s a doll, no two ways about it.  Also, she often addresses Nino as mon cœur – my heart.  Which, I don’t know how that sounds to French ears.  But to my ears, fuck, it’s just beautiful.  Anyway, the second night she was there, we were the last two awake.  So we stayed up and chatted a bit.

Before that though, it was her and me and Charlotte, playing dice.  And honestly, I understood precious little of what she had to say.  The way she speaks, I mean, I just can’t.  Not in a group, anyway.  But after C went to bed and it was just us, it got easier.  She’s got just barely enough English to fill in the blanks.  And when she’s speaking directly to me, I can either sort it out or else tell her I can’t sort it out and ask for a rephrase.  The point is, we had a nice conversation.

At one point, I said something about how nice it was to see them again.  Something about how much Nino had grown and what a great kid he was.  And she said something about how, when he was born, her family was far away.  And how much it meant to her that we visited her in the hospital – C and Philippe and Marion; and me.  A lovely thing to say.  And at the time, I thought she was just being polite.  You know, she grew up with the rest of them.  It was just an accident really that I was there.  My presence, I figured, couldn’t possibly have mattered all that much.

Well, I’ll come back to Gallou at the end.  But for now, let’s keep going.  The next night, Philippe invited us over for apero – drinks and snacks.  He also invited another friend of his, Jerome – which, again, may or may not be the right spelling.

I gotta say something about Philippe here.  I kinda love this guy.  I first met him in New York, in 2013, when he and Chloe (C’s other sister) visited Charlotte.  Then we all did that roadtrip together in the summer of ’16.  First of all, C adores him.  She’s a world traveler, right?  And everywhere she’s lived, he’s gone to visit her.  It’s very cool.

Also, he’s a big music fan.  Which is fine.  But more importantly, he’s an AC/DC fan.  His first concert was AC/DC in Nice in 1979, with Bon Scott singing.  Every time I see him, he tells me the story.  And it never gets old.  Seriously.  I feel like a little kid.  Like, “Tell me the story again!”  You know?  It’s great.

Also, there’s this.  He’s the only person who, when he speaks to me in English, I don’t feel like an asshole.  Like, whenever anybody else speaks to me in English, I feel one of two things.  It’s either, “Well, your French is shit, so I’ll just speak English.”  Or else they just want to practice.  But with him, I genuinely feel like when he speaks English with me, it’s because he just wants me to feel comfortable.  Like it’s coming from a place of genuine kindness.  And look, maybe I’m reading that wrong.  What do I know?  All I know is, I don’t feel bad when he does it.

Because also, he takes the time to speak French with me too.  And he takes the time to teach me shit.  Phrases, idioms, etc.  He’s also the person who introduced me to pastis.  The point is, I’m a big fan.

Right.  So anyway, he has us over for apero along with this Jerome character.  And I go into it thinking, “Ah fuck, another new French person who doesn’t speak English and I’m gonna be in the dark and social situations are hard and I’m awkward and gna-gna-gna (which is how one whines in French, apparently).

Except here’s the thing.  This isn’t random.  Jerome is also a guitar player.  That’s why Philippe wanted us all to get together.  Anyway, Jermoe’s thing is Spanish and Flamenco.  So he’s brought his guitar.  And we have Philippe’s too, which he’d lent us for my visit.  But where P’s is a steel string, J’s is nylon.  So I ask if I can try it out.  He obliges.  So I bust through a Bach prelude and then the Sor variations.  And J is properly impressed.

Which is kind, because I’m quite mediocre.  But good enough to at least demonstrate that I can handle the instrument.  And that’s enough.  I’ve earned this stranger’s respect.  Achievement unlocked.  Then he takes the guitar and tears through some flamenco shit.  And his right hand is doing shit I might one day pretend to dream about.  Mutual respect.  Next level achievement unlocked.

Now here’s where things get interesting.  He wants me to take the rhythm section of some Spanish piece while he takes the lead.  Well, OK, show me the changes.  He does.  I get it down.  And next thing you know, we’re rocking this thing.  Gods, that was good.

It’s been years since I’ve been in a band.  I don’t know when the last time I jammed with another person was.  And now, we’re tearing up this song.  And man did that feel good.  I don’t know if I’d realized how much I’d missed playing with other people before that.  With no disrespect to all the wonderful people I spent time with on that trip, that might well have been the highlight for me.  It was fucking good.

I don’t want to oversell myself here, to be clear.  All I did was comp some changes.  But we put it together, and it sounded like real fucking music.  And that was shit-hot.  I was very very happy.  Like, maybe I suck at French.  But, bitches, I can play.

Anyway, Jerome left.  So it was just me and C and P.  And Philippe, gods bless him, put on AC/DC’s live concert video from 1979 – Let There Be Rock.  And what was cool was, you knew that me and P were loving this.  His first concert, my favorite band.  Nobody’s pretending to be polite for the other.  I was a very happy human being, watching that AC/DC concert with Philippe and Charlotte.

When we got back to C’s place, we were both quite happily drunk.  So we hung out for a bit.  And she gave me some spiel about how I’m her best friend and how much it means to her that she can take me to her family and to her best friends and I kinda kick ass.  There may have been something along the lines of watching me succeed with her nearest and dearest made her feel proud to have brought “that guy,” proud of me, even.

Well, she was drunk when she said it, whatever she said.  So I’ll simply take it as an exaggerated version of, “Thanks for not embarrassing me.”  Which is a shame really.  I mean, embarrassing you, Charlotte – if you’re reading this – is all I ever really wanted.  Well, one can’t have everything, can one?

We made a bit of a hike, on Sunday, around the environs; up a mountain.  Nice is beautiful.  And the view from above ain’t nothin’ to sneeze at.  And that brings us to the end of this visit.  Chronologically, anyway.  But before I close, I’d like to return to two of our characters.

First, Uncle Dan.  A strange cat.  His French was exceptionally difficult for me to follow.  C told me it’s very visual, perhaps even poetic.  Full of metaphor.  Which, if your French, I imagine must be quite lovely.  Anyway, he did seem a bit a fish out of water.  But then, so was I.  And so, while I’m not really sure I understand the man, it was nevertheless quite nice to make his acquaintance.  And he gifted me a flask he’d made, shrouded in ray-skin apparently.  And if he was a strange cat, he was nothing but kind to me, and for that I am thankful.

And Gallou.  My first impression of her was of a woman who had just lately given birth and who was not shy about constantly breast-feeding in my presence.  But this time around I got to know her a bit better.  And I found her to be a kind and sweet and loving person.  Yet, because of the language barrier, how well could I really say I know her?

Recall, for a moment, that she told me how much it had meant to her that “we” were there, to visit her in the hospital, after she had given birth; how she included me in that we.  When I went to say goodbye to her, at the end of it all, I said that I hoped we would see each other again.  But she cut me off.  I forget her exact words, because she spoke to me in French then.  But what she said, when she cut me off, was, “Of course we will.  You’re a part of my family now.”

Those words hit me hard.  That humbled me.  And I remembered back to when she first arrived.  Because I had said something about Nino probably not remembering me.  And her response was simply, “Just talk to him.  […] the sound of your voice.”  And I hadn’t thought anything of it at the time.  But I realized now what she’d meant.  She was telling me that I was there for him when he was a baby, and that that mattered.  And what’s more, it still mattered.  I wasn’t some alien friend of a friend.  I was part of the family.  Her family.

What can you say in the face of that?

I live in a foreign country.  And even as a I make a life for myself here, even as I make wonderful friends, I’m never entirely sure that I belong.  I left New York because I couldn’t make a place for myself there either; was never really sure that I belonged.  And yet, I go to Jen’s for Christmas and her family accepts me as one of their own.  I visit Jared in Italy and his family accepts me as one of their own.  I visit Charlotte in France, and there too I am taken in, not a stranger, but a part of the family.

Perhaps I overstate things.  Perhaps I make more out of things than they really are.  I have my own family.  And I am blessed in that they love me, unconditionally.  Some poor bastards don’t even have that much.  I have that.  And then I step beyond my own, and I have a second family and a third and even a fourth.

It is not clear to me what I have done to deserve this.  Indeed, there are days when I think that I do not.  Deserve it.  And yet I have it.  And I am humbled.

I am loved and I am over-loved.  If there is anything that I wish for 2018, then, it is that you all should know such love as I have known.

ז׳׳ געסונט

 

  1. Spellcheck doesn’t care for “flusteredly.”  Personally, I think it’s a perfectly lovely adverb, and much more efficient than “all-a-fluster.” []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
20 November, 2017

Well, shit.  Apparently, this is An American in Berlin #50.  That’s right.  If WordPress is to be believed, this post will the 50th in the series.  And as we so often do with arbitrary milestones which only exist as a function of our base-ten numbering system, it seems fitting to take a moment and reflect.

I first started this series way back in aught-fifteen, when I came over here to do my CELTA training.  At that time, I was alternately living in an Airbnb in Neukölln with Anja and Mischa or up Sonnenallee with Lisa.  That seems like a million years ago now.  I reconnected with A&M for a while when I first came back here in the summer of ’16.  Indeed, I wound up staying with them for another three months.  It was mostly great.  I think the world of them, and it’s a great apartment.  But by the end, I had got to feeling tired of being a “guest,” and from their end, I maybe sorta felt like I was beginning to wear out my welcome.

To be clear, they never said or did anything to make me feel like I was being pushed out.  They were only ever kind.  It was more, I think, that they were – in the end – hosts, and were perhaps tired of having the same person around for so long.  Nevertheless, they will always have a special place in my heart.  For one, theirs was the first place I ever lived in Berlin.  Also, they’re just great people.

Be that as it may,1 I haven’t seen them since I moved out.  Although Anja did just send me a message on the Facebook today wishing me a happy birthday.  Which, you know, my birthday is in March.  But when I first signed up, I didn’t want the Facebookers to know my real birthday.  So I chose Armistice Day instead.  It amused me at the time.  It’s less funny now that I live in Germany.  In any case, I’d like to see them again.  But it’s one of those things I keep putting off.

As for Lisa, that’s just weird.  We were very close when we lived together.  Not in any kind of romantic way.  Just, we hung out a lot and ate and drank lots of wine together.  But I’ve only seen her once since I came back, and that was kind of awkward.  No idea why.  I’d tried to get a hold of her a couple of times, but she always pleaded busy.  So I went to a concert of her a cappella group which she invited me to.  And as I say, it was strangely awk.  She was just like, “Yeah, I’m super busy.  But just keep messaging me; I’ll come around eventually.”  But it left me feeling like, hey, I’m busy too.  If you can’t be arsed, neither can I.  Which is maybe immature of me, I dunno.  That’s that, anyway.

The last connection from those times worth mentioning is The Blonde Girl from Downstairs.  You remember the one?  She lived downstairs from A&M.  After I moved out from their place, we would meet up for coffee every couple of weeks.  But then I went home for a few weeks in March and we never picked up again after that.  Not really sure why.  I keep meaning to reach out, but I’m always feeling too busy or too tired.  Poor excuse, I know.  I keep telling myself I’ll get round to it eventually.  So we’ll see.

Oh, and remember Dafna?  She’s the Israeli girl with whom I did that Shabas dinner the first time around, and then we did Rosh HaShanah last September; Sept ’16, I mean.  Well she’s since moved away.

All this to say, almost all of the connections I made my first time around, in 2015, seem to have been severed; though some of these breaks are perhaps only temporary.  The only ones which are still a going concern are my classmates from the CELTA.

Zibs I see quite often, along with Jan; though I only really became friends with the latter this time around.  In fact, I’m not even sure I had met him in ’15.  Paul, I work with at the school and he’s just lovely.  We each have the beginner class twice a week, so we’re working together now to map out a plan for them.  That’s been very nice.  And I see Alice for coffee every two months or so, and she’s just a treat.

Oh, and what am I saying?  Annett is one of the very first friends I made here, and we’re still close.  I just saw her Friday, in fact.  And she’s just a wonderful person, you know?  I really adore that kid.  “Kid.”  You know, she turned forty in January.  Fucking weird, man.

So here we are, fifty posts into this adventure.  Now I’m living in lovely Köpenick, with my lovely roommates.  I’ve get a steady four-day-a-week gig at a lovely school with lovely people.  Jan & Zibs.  Anne, Annett; the Killer A’s.  Joschel2 and Cindy.  Lovely friends.  Things are lovely, is what I’m trying to say.  Now, if I could only find me a lovely Mädel

Another nice thing is the (perhaps tenuous) connections I’ve made with some of my (now former)3 students.  I talked about the one dude in my last post.  Which, I’m just thinking, would be great if it continues, if for no other reason than that I have very few guy friends here.  There’s Joschel, obviously; but he antedates my arrival.  And Ziba’s Jan, of course.  But I’m kinda short on “mates,” of the variety with whom you go to the bar and drink and possibly hit on dames with.  So there’s him.  But also, I just met up for drinks with another former student.  I’m meeting yet another for coffee on Wednesday.  And there’s still another with whom I do private lessons sometimes.  So we can file all that too under ‘L’ for ‘Lovely.’

I went for another walk again today,4 he said, shifting gears.  I was really in the mood after last week’s sojourn.  So I headed East.  Crossing the river, I found myself someplace entirely new.  Which is always sort of the goal.  Came across some classic East German Plattenbauen, Soviet-era UU architecture.  “UU,” btw, is a term a I coined literally just now.  Stands for Utilitarian and Ugly.  Continuing on, I then found myself in the woods.  Which was kinda cool.  I mean, this is Berlin.  Major world city, capital of Germany, etc.  And yet, here I am, in the godsdamned forest.  And who knows how long I could have gone, just East-ing.  But it gets so dark early now, around 4:30.  So at some point, I turned North.5  Eventually, I got back to the river, and from there it was easy enough to find my way home.

On the way back, I popped into a gas station so’s I could buy a beer.  I’d been walking for two hours, and had had no beer to that point.  And just, fuck that, you know?  So that was a nice coda to the day’s adventure.

At the risk of being repetitive, living way out here in K-nick has its advantages and drawbacks.  The drawbacks are obvious.  It’s mad far.  ADW, as people say: am Arsch der Welt, at the ass[end] of the world.  It takes an hour to get anywhere.  The food options are, generally speaking, nothing to write home about out here.6  And so on.

But also, you know what?  I lived in Manhattan for ten years.  I did the big city thing.  And I did it in the best city in the world.  So like, on some level, yeah Berlin is great.  But also, whatever.  Get back to me when you have real pizza.  Or when I can get tripe in my noodle soup.  Or when your subway has express lines.  Or when the subway runs 24/7.  Well, you get the point.

On the other hand, living out here, I get things you just can’t get in Gotham; never mind Berlin-proper.  Walks through the forest, for example.  Or trams.  Or going into a shop and just knowing nobody speaks English.  But really it’s the nature.  That’s what justifies all the bullshit.

Because Neukölln was great.  It was the only place that felt even remotely like home.  Brown people.  Signs in foreign languages.  Turkish, I mean, and Arabic; not German.  Better food.  Hustle and bustle.  Graffiti.  Filth.  All the finer things in life.  But this place – Köpenick, I mean – is unique in my experience.  And that’s worth its weight in…well, probably not gold.  But something of value, anyway.

Also, the commute…well, actually the commute is a fucking shitshow.  But that’s because Deutsche Bahn is a fucking shitshow.  Nevertheless, it affords me good reading time.  I don’t do much reading at home.  No wait, I do a lot of “reading” at home.  But it’s of the Hebrew/Greek variety.  I don’t do much pleasure-reading at home.  So the commute is good for that.  I get a solid two hours of French most days; or Grant’s memoirs; or whatever.  So I hate the commute, but I love the reading.

Speaking of which, the Three Musketeers is awesome.  I mean, I said that last time.  But also, kinda all of the heroes are assholes.  D’Artagnan is really kind of a twat.  I mean, maybe he’ll step it up at some point.  But he reminds me a lot of Aeneas.7

Oh, pius Aeneas.  There was this dude at Latin boot-camp, one of the teachers.  His name was Akiva.  Weird guy, but super fascinating too.  Also, he had this weird way of sort of hanging off of the furniture while he listened to you try and translate shit.  Like, he was listening 100%, but also he was bored?  And he clearly liked his job, but this was not his favorite part.  And, really rather oddly, I’ve kind of adopted this.

It’s hard to explain; harder to paint the picture.  But sometimes a student will be reading something, and I’ll just sort of be hanging from a bookshelf.  What does that even mean?  Like, my hand is on the top shelf, and my head is half-in a lower one?  I dunno.  But it always makes me think of Akiva.  Also, he had this way of walking out of a room while he was in the middle of a sentence, and he’d just sort of trail off as he mumbled out the door.  Sometimes I wonder if he ever finished those sentences.  I imagine that he did, but like, only in his head.  Like, he gave up on vocalizing them as he crossed the threshold.  But he always saw it through to the end, mentally.  That’s what I imagine.

Anyway, Akiva was trying to describe Aeneas once, what sort of “hero” he was.  “He’s not a shmuck,” he said.  “Nor is he a putz.”  He paused, as if working it out for himself before speaking.  “He’s not really a schlemiel, either.”  He looked at us.  “He’s really kind of a shmendrick.”  And it was clear that he was more pleased with his own analysis and much less concerned with if anybody actually understood what he was talking about.

Staying with Akiva, for just a moment longer, he also had this great line.  But it unfortunately requires getting into the Latin weeds for a second.  To keep it short, Latin has five “cases.”  In other words, it changes the spelling of a word based on that word’s job in the sentence.  English does this with prepositions.  For example, the dative-case of pater (father) is patri (to/for the father).

Anyway, his line was in reference to the Latin words for “custom,” “Mars” and “death”: mos, Mars, mors.  His line was, the datives for these words sound like a gaggle of old Jewish men: Mori, Marti and Mori.  Maybe you had to be there.  Anyway, that was Akiva.

What the fuck was I talking about, anyway?  Oh, yeah.  So basically, D’Artagnan is a shmendrick.  And Porthos is a diva.  And Aramis kinda needs to chill the fuck out.  However, Athos is kinda da man.  Silent, stoic, ass-kicking, loyal.  Also, he has dark secrets and he drinks when he’s down.  Athos is aight.  Also, M. de Treville is a pretty stand-up dude.  This is the guy you want having your back.

Tell you who really kicks ass though, is the villain.  The Cardinal Richelieu.  He is one bad motherfucker.  Seriously.  Next time they make a 3M movie, Richelieu needs to be played by Samuel L. Jackson.  “There’s muthafuckin’ musketeers in the muthfuckin’ Louvre!”  Krass.8

Going back to Latin for a second.  But first, y’all know that German be using mad commas, right?  I mean, these people be like Jackson Pollack with that shit, nah mean?  Anyway, one of my students was clearly displeased by how infrequently (compared with German) English uses commas, and on top of that, how un-concrete the rules seem to be.  So I did a lesson on commas on Friday.  And to illustrate the point, I also brought in an article about how the 2nd Amendment is interpreted vis-à-vis commas; in this case with regard to DC v. Heller, the struck-down handgun ban.

But Latin.  So in examining the text of the Amendment, and in reading the article, it dawned on me.  The first two clauses: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, …”.  You guys, it’s an “ablative absolute.”  Remember now, all the Framers were super-well schooled in Latin.  And it’s on-its-fucking-face-obvious that these two clauses are an English version of the “ablative absolute.”  And there can be no question that this is exactly how they understood-slash-wrote it.

So what’s an “ablative absolute” then?  OK, remember the cases?  We looked at the dative case earlier.  The ablative is a different case, and it has its own syntactic functions.  And one of those functions is the “absolute” clause.  Bear with me, I know this is awful.  But basically, every sentence has a subject and verb.  Not basically, in fact.  Every sentence has a subject and a (main) verb.  Lacking these, it ain’t a sentence.  OK, fine.

But sometimes, you want to add information that is relevant, information that has a very important impact on the sentence.  Only this information has a different subject and a different verbal idea.  How do you do that?  Well, the Romans did it with this device called the “ablative absolute.”  They take this secondary subject with its secondary verbal idea, and they kick it all into the ablative case, making the verbal idea into a participle while they do it.9

Now here’s the thing with the “AbAb,” as I call it.  It can do a lot of things.  It can mean “because.”  It can mean “although.”  Or it can just mean “when.”  You need to sort that out for yourself from context.  I’ve probably lost you.  Sorry.  Lemme give an example of what this would look like in English.

“It being a rainy day, I decided to bring my umbrella.”  OK, so the subject of this sentence is clearly “I” and the verb is clearly “decided.”  That’s the meat of the sentence.  The bit about the rainy day is secondary.  But it’s not fluff.  And there’s a huge difference.  It’s secondary because it contains neither the subject nor the verb of the sentence.  But it’s not fluff, because it explains very clearly the reason why I decided to bring an umbrella.

“It being a rainy day, I decided to bring an umbrella.”  That’s a literal translation of what this sentence would look like in Latin.  And just as in Latin, the verb “to be” is in present participle form; the “-ing” form, if you will.  All that would be in the ablative case in Latin.  Fine.  But here’s the thing.  Nobody would ever – and I mean ever – translate it that way.  It would always be translated: “Because it was a rainy day, I decided to bring my umbrella.”

I know that.  Now you know that.  And the Framers sure-as-shit knew that.  So that when they wrote “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, …”, they all knew instinctively that there was a causal relationship between the well regulated militia and the right of the people to bear arms.  They didn’t need to write “because”; it was implicitly understood.

Now look, I’m not making a case for or against guns, gun control, or anything else.  There’s strong arguments on both sides for all of this garbage.  And there’s plenty of middle ground for people to meet half-way on, if people would just get their shit together.  Also I have no interest in wading into those arguments here, and even less interest in putting down my own opinions on the subject.

What I am saying, and emphatically so, is that if you’re trying to determine what the text says/means by way of the commas, then you absolutely need to know how Latin works.  And it’s pretty clear from both the oral arguments and the Justices’ opinions, that basically nobody involved had a proper understanding of Latin.  And yet, everybody saw fit to make a big deal out of the commas.  It would be like trying to understand cancer via the four humors.  It’s insanity.  No, it’s worse.  It’s ignorance.

Anyway, that’s my rant.  Also, sorry if that was insufficiently clear.  I’ve never tried explaining that in such detail before.  But I think I needed to get it down for my own peace of mind, if nothing else.  So I hope you’ll indulge me.

I bought an Italian stove-top espresso maker today.10  And also some cardamom pods.  Because I’ve been missing that.  I started in with the stove-top espresso makers towards the end of my thesis, when Vinny put me on to it.  And then adding a cardamom pod to it, that I picked up from Sermad, our Lebanese couchsurfing host when Charlotte and I visited Montréal.  So this post has mostly been powered by that.  Well, and also whiskey.  And my pipe.

Speaking of Charlotte, I just booked a flight to go visit her in Nice for Christmas.  That should be nice.  And I don’t mind telling you, I’m looking forward to getting out of Berlin in December and going someplace warm.  I fly back on New Year’s Eve, landing at 11:30pm.  It’s over a hundred euros cheaper doing it that way.  And there’s no ball-drop here, so who cares?  But I expect I’ll be making a B-line straight up to Joschka’s from the airport.  So there’s a couple of things to look forward to, to be sure.

Right, well that’s surely enough for this post.  Post number fifty.  Fucking crazy, right?  Well, you know what they say.  Time flies.  Or, if you prefer the Latin: tempus fugit.

Post Scriptum:
Sad news this week.  Malcolm Young died.  If you’re asking who Malcolm Young is, I probably don’t know you.  Or you don’t know me.  But I have to say something about that.

AC/DC is my favorite band of all time.  Anybody who has been around me long enough has heard me wax poetic.  I’ve probably even done it here in this blogue.  The greatest rock’n’roll band ever.  They perfected the form.  Every rock record made after 1978 is pointless because Let There Be Rock and Powerage are the apotheosis of the genre.

Mal was the key to all of that.  It was his band.  His vision.  Sure, we all think of Angus when we think of AC/DC.  The little man in the schoolboy outfit running around like a madman and just shredding.  Or we think of the more polished and more commercially successful stuff like Highway to Hell or Back in Black.

But the real backbone of the band was the rhythm guitar, it was Mal.  The easy swinging groove, the empty spaces, the muted beat-keeping pick scrapes.  That’s what drove this most perfect music.  That, and Phil’s drumming.

And we need to take a moment here to acknowledge Phil.  Because they were never the same without him.  Those two, together, were – and there can be no debate about this; reasonable people cannot reasonably disagree about this – they were the greatest rhythm section in all the history of music.

But, and no disrespect here, Phil was a hired gun.  He was the perfect piece.  In a way, so too was Angus.  He was family.  He was integral.  There’s no AC/DC without Angus.  But he was a piece.  The vision, the essence, that was Mal.

Angus was the perfect compliment to Mal.  But that’s the thing I’ve learned.  He was a compliment.  You can listen to an Accadacca track without Angus.  Of course something would be missing, it wouldn’t be the same.  It would suffer for it.  But you could do it.  Without Mal, though?  Nothing.  Try it.  Try listening to a track with only one ear.  With Angus, you’ll just have lots of open ringing chords and some fills.11  Now listen with only Mal.  It still works.

It took me a long time to learn that.  When I was a teenager, when I was learning to play the guitar, I was all about Angus.  And Bon.  But Angus.  My whole stage-shtick was modeled on his crazy antics (and Cliff Burton’s headbanging).  I didn’t really tap into the whole Mal/Phil thing until my early thirties.  Even though Shuman was trying to teach me about it from the day he showed up at SLU.

One of my favorite things to listen to these last few years, especially coming home drunk from a night out, is a live version of Rocker or Let There Be Rock.  Just the end of those songs.  The part where Angus goes up on Bon’s shoulders and out into the crowd.  Which is great theatre if you’re there, or watching a video.

But if you’re listening to the music, the real gold is just listening to Mal and Phil go after an A-chord for ten minutes.  It’s phrenetic.  It’s kinetic.  It’s a freight train.  It’s just…you can’t top it.

And then there’s this.  Sometimes people claim they don’t care for AC/DC.  And they’re always wrong.  Always.  And here’s how I know.  I’ll put some AC/DC on without telling them I’m doing so.  And do you know what happens?  Every single time?  They start tapping their foot.  Because you literally can’t not.  It’s nature.  Hear Accadacca, your foot taps.  You don’t like them?  Fuck you, yes you do.  See?

And this is the real genius of Malcolm Young.  He knew that this simplicity is what makes it all work.  The best compliment he could ever give a song, was to call it “a real toe-tapper.”  That’s it.  That’s the goal.

It’s a goal I’ve set for myself, for the handful of tunes I’ve written.  I don’t claim to write art or to be any kind of poet with lyrics.  I can handle the guitar, sure, but I’m no whiz.  And I’m nothing to write home about as a singer.  But when I used to do the open-mic nights, I would notice that one of my songs always had people tapping their feet.  A little touch of AC/DC.  A little touch of that magic groove.

Charlotte had this friend back in New York, this girl Line.  And Line is one of those special artist people.  You know, the ones who don’t really seem to live in the same world that you and I do.  They just see everything slightly differently.  Anyway, she’s great with music.  Has this really haunting voice.  And this almost Janis Joplin-like energy when she really gets cooking.  And she  could absolutely do some proper poetry with her lyrics.

It was a treat watching her.  And great fun to jam with her.  But she also made me feel very self-conscious about my own stuff.  No, let me correct that.  I made myself feel self-conscious on account of her superior talent.  I always got this feeling like, “Damn, Line makes proper art.  And here I am with my rinky-dink rock’n’roll.”  I felt very small sometimes.  But then I would notice people tapping their feet when I played my stuff.

And you know what?  That’s just fine.  I don’t need to be Queen or The Beatles.  But I think I get proper rock’n’roll.  And to the extent that I do get it, I learned everything I know from Malcolm Young.  If I’ve got “a real toe-tapper” or two in my arsenal, I know who to thank.

Rock in Peace, Mal.  And Ride On.

זיי געסונט

 

 

  1. Election is Friday.  Right, Dad/Justin? []
  2. Sometimes I call Joschka “Joschel” now, just to get some Yiddish flavor up in here.  Although, here’s a funny thing.  Every now and then, I’ll throw out of these little Yiddishisms and people are like, “Why are you talking Bavarian?”  Two examples.  There’s a Bavarian beer, called Büble, which sports a young lad on the label.  Büble, it seems, is a Bavarian diminutive for “young boy.”  Cognate with Bubbela.  And once, when somebody asked me a question, I answered with “a Bissel,” instead of “ein Bisschen” – a little bit.  (Literally, they both mean “a small bite”).  Anyway, my friend answered with some weirdly accented words I’d never heard before.  So I was all, “Wtf, mate?”  And he was like, “Oh, I thought we were talking Bavarian now.”  Neat, eh? []
  3. Always former.  I don’t think it’s approps to start hanging out outside of school while they’re still students.  Apart from the monthly Stammtisch, of course. []
  4. Er, last Saturday, the 11th.  This has been sitting un-proofread for a week.  #soz []
  5. Having a compass in your phone is fantastic.  Because the point here was just to wander and get sort of lost.  So I didn’t really want to know where I was, not on a map.  But I did want – need, even – to know which way I was heading. []
  6. Though this could fairly be said of Germany in general.  2.5 days in Italy reminded me of that; as if I needed reminding. []
  7. The eponymous hero of Virgil’s Aeneid, and founding hero of Rome, Aeneas as was a refugee from Troy. []
  8. Krass appears to be the German word for all things superlatively good or superlatively bad.  Kind of like “sick” in English, maybe. []
  9. They may have been copying the Greeks here – as they so often did – who did the same thing, but only with the genitive, because Greek had lost its ablative case.  Because Greek is better. []
  10. Still last Saturday. []
  11. And yes, glorious blues rock solos.  The best blues rock solos, in fact. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
4 November, 2017

So in the last post, I did a lot of catching up in terms of what I’m up to, what I’m reading, where I’ve been and the ol’ job sitch.  Now I’m thinking it might not be a bad idea to “circle back”1 and talk about Berlin again.  You know, since I live here and whatnot.

There are things I love about this city, and things I don’t love.  And then there are things that are nice, but which are probably not really specific to Berlin per se.  Let’s start with the things I don’t love.  That way, we get the nastiness out of the way and we’ll all get happier as we go, yeah?

So, first of all, fuck the S-Bahn.  I may have said nice things about the transit system here in the past.  But that was when I didn’t need to use it for two hours a day to get across town and back.  Now that I do, I take much of it back.  Look, the U-Bahn may be great.  I don’t know; I hardly use it.  And I still have a soft spot for the trams.  But man, the S-Bahn is just the fucking worst.  If I can quote Vince McMahon – and really, let’s be honest, nobody should ever quote Vince McMahon – but if, as I say, I were to quote Vince McMahon, I’d say that the S-Bahn is “the drizzling shits.”  Gross, I know.  But if the shoe fits.

Look, I think the “S” in S-Bahn stands for schnell – fast.  But really, it should stand for scheiße – no translation required.  I mean, there’s a fucking problem nearly every day.  Late trains, cancelled trains.  My commute requires that I take a tram to one S-Bahn and then that S-Bahn to a second.  And if I make my connections twice in one week, I account myself lucky.

Also, the layout of the cars is simply offensive.  All the seating is blocks of four seats, two facing two.  I ask you: Who was the mutherfucker who decided I need to sit knee-to-knee with a complete stranger?  If I ever get my hands on that SOB…

And it’s just the biggest waste of space.  You have 16 seats – eight a side – between the doors, with just a narrow path between them, taking up a huge amount of space.  So at rush hour, this layout is not just inefficient, it’s offensive in its inefficiency.  And this from the Germans!  So what results is all the people cram into the open square space between the blocks of seats, in front of the doors.  Hardly anybody moves down between the seats.  Because the fucking savages were raised by wolves, I guess.  I know this, because these savages also don’t know to take off their backpacks when they step into a crowded train.  Like, get your shit together already

And yeah, I guess I could just accept it and move on with my life.  But I feel like that’s letting them win.  Better just to be angry about it.  That’s the rational response, right?

A quick note on the metro operations in this town.2  So the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn (and the tram, for that matter) are, from a ticket perspective, one unified system.  In other words, your ticket entitles you to ride on all services.  And you can transfer from one system to the other at many stations; though this often requires going from underground to an el-platform and vice-versa.

However, the U-Bahn is operated by the BVG, which is the Berlin mass transit authority.  Whereas the S-Bahn is operated by Deutsche Bahn, the national rail authority.  Like, they use different track gauges (I think) and different power systems (I know).  Think of it this way.  Imagine if, in NY, all the number trains were operated by one company and all the letter trains were operated by a different company.  And the Number People were good at their job.  And the Letter People were very much not.  The Letter People are Deutsche Bahn.

But enough of that.  The other thing I wanted to rant about is the sandwich culture in this town.  Look, bitches, we need to talk about sandwiches for a minute.  Let’s start with: What’s a sandwich?  For me, broadly speaking, a sandwich is simply one something stuck between two other pieces of something.  That’s it.  And even within that, I’m pretty open minded.  Like, I’m willing to say, if you stuff a pita, it’s now a pita-sandwich.  Because you essentially have a top-pita and a bottom-pita.  Just, in the case of a pita, they happen to be connected.

But here, people give some variation of: A sandwich is two pieces of white bread with perhaps some cold cured meat and maybe some salad in between.  Change the bread, change the filling and it’s not a sandwich.  It’s something else.  Dafuq?  Example: if you slice a roll in half and put a chicken cutlet in it, that’s not a sandwich, that’s a “belegte Brötchen” – a stuffed roll, basically.  No.  No, it’s fucking not.  It’s a sandwich.  Come on!

Riddle me this: What’s the most important ingredient of any sandwich?  The filling?  The bread?  The quality of the ingredients?  No.  No, the most important ingredient of any sandwich is one little four-letter word.  Love.  That’s it.  You need to care, when you make a sandwich.  It’s the guy at the deli who picks up, and then rejects, the inferior slice of tomato.  It’s your mom who lines the chicken cutlet up just right so the maximum amount of chicken is covered by the maximum amount of bread.  It’s the extra three minutes you take to put your creation in the oven.  It’s love, OK?  It’s fucking love.

And nobody in this country loves the sandwiches they make.  You walk into a bakery and they have pre-made sandwiches just chilling in the showcase.  And not, like, for display.  Like, that’s your sandwich.  Take it or leave.  Well, I’ll leave it, thank you very much.

And you can’t even say that whoever made them, however many hours ago, put any love into them at the time.  They’re just slapped together.  Also they’re slathered with this awful herb-mayo confection.  It’s just gross.  Me and Vinny have spoken about this at length.  “The sandwich culture in this country is a fucking joke,” is what we both say, and often.

— Vignette: At the metal festival this year, me and Vinny leave camp in search of breakfast.  We find a little food truck.  We get “sandwiches.”  Now, just looking at them, we’re already expecting disappointment.3  But we get them anyway.  Because we’re hungry, and it’s a festival.  Well, Vin takes one bite and this look crosses his face.  It’s not exactly disgust.  I mean, it’s disgust, but not “this tastes awful.”  It was more of a “what even the fuck is this?” kind of disgust.  Like, “what savage put this together?”

So he opens it up and takes a look inside.  And upon viewing the susdit herb-mayo travesty, says simply, “I can’t eat this shit.”  Whereupon did he promptly drop it into the first available trash receptacle.  Where it belonged.  I, however, ate mine.  Because I guess I’ve been desensitized.  — End Vignette.

While Vinny was here, he was crashing at Joschka’s.  At one point, Joschka was out, but I was over to hang with the Big V.  And we needed to get lunch, but we didn’t want to spend a lot of money.  So we went to the supermarket and bought stuff to make sandwiches.  Real sandwiches.  I forget now what the main ingredient was, but I know we picked out some nice baguettes, cheese and salad-stuff.

And we did it right.  We took our time and we made those sandwiches with love.  Arranging the ingredients just so.  Using good olive oil.  Taking the time to toast them in the oven.  And you know what?  Delicious.  Just fantastic.  And we were so happy with ourselves.  Not just for the wonderful sandwiches we’d made.  But also, we felt like we’d righted some cosmic wrong, howbeit all too briefly.

And honestly, we just looked at each other afterwards and agreed that it was probably the best lunch we’d had the whole time he was in Germany.  We said to each other, “Paisan,4 best fucking lunch we’ve had since you/I-‘ve been here.”  Because it well and truly was.  Then we ranted some more about German sandwiches.  And we talked some more about how love is the most important ingredient.  And then we discussed what worked especially well with these particular sandwiches and what could be improved upon.

By way of a side-note, me and Vin love talking cooking.  Doesn’t matter when or where.  We could be at Duff’s at three in the morning or on the field at the festival.  Out of nowhere, we’re talking about his mom’s red-sauce5 or how it’s criminal to waste pasta-water, or any number of things.  Never gets old.

So now, my thing is, I’m always asking people here: What’s a sandwich?  And I’m invariably offended by the answer.  But it doesn’t matter.  New acquaintances, new students, whatever, I’m always asking.  It’s to the point where my colleagues at work, when I ask a new student, they’re like, “shit, this again?”  Well, yeah, this again.

I remember one time I was making a sandwich at work.  And one of my colleagues, watching me do this with all due care and love, asked, “Mate,6 are you gonna do food photography with that?”  “Huh?” I says.  “It looks like you’re making your masterpiece over there,” he says.  “Umm, this is how you making a fucking sandwich, mate,” I says.  And then I asked to the whole room, “What’s the most important ingredient of any sandwich?”  None of them knew, poor bastards.

Incidentally, when my parents were here, I asked them, “What’s a sandwich?”  And of course they knew exactly what a sandwich was.  I don’t think I’d ever been so happy to see them.  And then, yeah, we talked about sandwiches for like twenty minutes.  Which, btw, is not a long time at all, when you actually give a shit about sandwiches.  I mean, my mom is telling stories about the sandwiches she used to have as a kid.  My dad is telling me about his favorite sandwiches to make.  And I’m reminiscing about the sandwiches Mom used to pack me for lunch back when I was doing electrical work with Gerry.7

Alright, that’s enough about sandwiches.  We may now proceed to some of things I actually like about this town.  Let’s say, for the purposes of this discussion, it’s part the nature and part the spread-out-ness of the place.

I went for a long walk on Tuesday.  Like I used to do.  Just pick a direction and see what’s there.  And it’s getting dark earlier now.  Also the weather wasn’t great.  So most of the walk was in this sort of hazy, foggy, winter twilight.  You know the one I’m talking about.  Where the sky is that special shade of grey-pink that you only get in the winter.  And the fog isn’t thick enough to be totally obscursive,8 but just enough to soften all the lines and give everything a misty mysty vibe.

Anyway, it was great.  Two things I love about long walks in this town.  One is simply just seeing new places, walking somewhere I’ve never been before.  The mystery, the adventure.  The other thing I love is, it’s my long-form podcast time.

Tangentially, I’m always listening to WNYC podcasts.  Brian Lehrer and Leonard Lopate, specifically.  Which in itself is, well, not weird.  But it’s something.  What I mean is, it keeps me tethered to New York.  Which, on the one hand, I need.  Because on some level, I’m never not going to be a New Yorker.  In my time here, I’ve learned that.  Once you’re a New Yorker, I don’t think you can ever not be.  But on the other hand, I sometimes wonder if it keeps me too firmly rooted in a place I’m not living at the expense of getting closer to where I am actually living.

Because I could be making the effort to find some local Berlin podcast that would get my finger nearer the pulse of this place.  And I’m not doing that.  Does staying tied to NY prevent me from really adopting this place?  Or do I not get closer because I already feel like I’m just passing through.  It’s a chicken and egg thing, I guess.  But I do think, if I ever felt like I didn’t have a very clear picture of what was going on at home – because even if I never go back (not something I anticipate), it will always be home – if I didn’t have a very clear picture of it, I think I would feel very lost.  I need it, is what I think I’m saying.

Anyway, I listen to the WNYC podcasts when I’m cooking or cleaning.  Because segments are rarely longer than 30 minutes, which is perfect for that sort of thing.  But when I go for walks, that’s when I listen to the longer stuff.  The Dollop, More Perfect, Infinite Monkey Cage, those would be the big ones.

And it gives me these sort of Proustian memories.  In other words, I remember exactly where I was when I was listening to a certain podcast.  And if I ever return to that place, I can nearly hear it again.  For example, I remember, even now, listening to Infinite Monkey Cage while walking along the Spree by Obermauerbrücke, or More Perfect in Treptower Park and then again in the woods at the end of the 68 Tram Line.  Listening to The Dollop by the Müggelsee, and not for nothing, in my car with the top down on the way up to Maine.  Even an Islander podcast while walking the old runways at Tempelhoferfeld.

All to say, long walks exploring Berlin while listening to podcasts is one of my very favorite things about living in this town.  And when I look at the podcasts piling up in my phone, all I can think is, when can I go on my next walk?

And then there are the things that are quite nice here, but really, I suppose, could – and probably would – happen anywhere.  For instance, there’s the lady in the shop where I buy my tobacco.  One day, I went in and she just pulled by brand off the shelf without even asking me.  And I was so delighted.  And she’s always so sweet.  So now that I know she knows me, we chat a little bit every time I go.

Turns out she was in Venice while I was in Florence.  So the last couple of times we were just chatting about Italy.  On the one hand, it’s not a big deal, obviously.  But on the other hand, it’s really rather nice.  One thing I wonder about, she must know I’m not from here.  Like, I make plenty of mistakes with my German, and I go back and forth between addressing her with the formal Sie and informal du, depending on if I can remember the right form of the verb.  But she never ever switches over to English, which is what might happen more in the center of the city.

And I have no idea if that’s because she simply doesn’t speak English, or because this is Germany and I should be speaking German.  But she never ever makes me feel bad about it.  And when I don’t understand something she says, she never makes me feel like an idiot.  If anything, I think she gets a little embarrassed that she hasn’t put it in a way that my feeble brain can handle.

My point is, my tobacco lady knows me and she chats with me and it’s really nice.  Contrary to what I was saying about the WNYC podcasts and not making the effort to fully assimilate, she makes me feel like a part of the neighborhood.  I feel more a part of this place when I pop in there for two minutes than I do most other times.  It’s something I appreciate each and every time.

— Vignette: One other story about my tobacco lady; which is what I have to call her since I don’t know her name; though I think I’m in enough that I can soon ask.  Last time I was there, when I walked in, she was standing behind a customer zipping up his backpack.  That was the first thing I noticed.  The second thing I noticed was, dude as on crutches and his legs were all bent out of shape.  And she was just chatting with him while she zipped him up.  And I was like, what a mensch!  So yeah, she’s cool.  — End Vignette.

Another example.  I had this student who just finished up.  And we just got on really well.  He’s about my age.  In his thirties, but a bit younger.  Into metal, plays in bands.  Political, philosophical.  We agree on some things, disagree on others.  But very smart, and great to talk with.  He’s one of these (increasingly rare) people with whom you can debate and argue and disagree, but all the while respect.

Anyway, he just finished up, as I said.  So at the end, we traded phone numbers.  And Monday we met up for a few drinks.  And just, good times, you know?  Also, he’s very keen to help me with my German.  Very patient.  Very willing to just keep the conversation going in German, try and get me up to speed.  Which is great, which is what I need.

Now, it’s too soon to say.  But I think, maybe, I’ve made a new friend.  Which is always exciting.  But if we do wind up being friends, he could really be my first properly German friend.  What I mean is, all my other friends who are German, we met speaking English and English remains our primary means of communication.  Annett or Joschka, for example.

But if this continues, it’s pretty clear that the end-goal is to have German as the primary language.  And that’s something I only have with Anne, who, like me, is not a native speaker.  So again, returning to the subject of assimilating and feeling like I’m a part of this place, that would be a big step.  So we’ll see where it goes.

The last example, vis-à-vis nice things I have here, but which could really happen anywhere, is my roommates continue to be great.  I’ve been here with them eleven months.  And you could easily imagine that after that much time things could sour.  But they really haven’t.9  As has always been the case, we don’t go out together.  But we continue to have “family dinner” every couple of weeks.  And there are days when we don’t see each other at all.  But there are also days where we’ll just chat for a few minutes and catch up.  And they’re just the sweetest people.  The phrase that keeps coming to mind is, they just have really good hearts, you know?

Here’s a thing about them.  They both always wear only all black.  They’re not goth or anything.  Just, they only ever wear black.  It’s their thing.  Which is not at all important, other than it helps paint the picture, I guess.  But I bring it up because it will illuminate the next, and last, vignette of this piece.

But first, I need to come clean about something, and it’s probably not going to make my parents happy.  Ugh.  Don’t worry, you guys, we’re not in a poly love triangle.  No, it’s just that they have two dogs.  So yeah, this whole time I’ve been living here, I’ve also been living with two dogs.  And strangely, it hasn’t seemed to be terrible for my allergies.  Obviously they never come into my room.  OK, one of them might come in if the door is open.  But only if it’s a sunny day, and she wants to get out to the balcony.  And generally I don’t touch them or play with them.  Though I’ve been known to get a little affectionate if I have enough to drink.10  But I’m always quick to wash my hands and not touch my face.11  The point is, there are two dogs here, and they’re adorable, but we keep a respectful distance and my allergies are cooperating (knock wood).  Who knows?  Maybe I’m building a tolerance.  Let’s see how I do with Oscar next time I’m home.

Anyway.  The dogs are, generally speaking, extremely well behaved.  Here’s what amazes me though.  They’re very energetic at home.  And if a new person comes in the house, they can go kinda nuts.  And sometimes, they just like to bark for no reason.  Like, when Marco and Lucie are both out, they keep the dogs in their room with the door closed.  But if I come home, and the dogs are in a mood, they ask me to let them out.  “Die doofe Hünden bellen” is what Lucie might say by text – the stupid dogs are barking again.  So I let them out and then they relax.

OK, so that’s at home.  But what’s amazing is, outside, they’re totally silent.  I mean, they could be running and jumping on the sidewalk, but not a peep out of them.  That’s how well they’ve got them trained.  Not that I go for walks with them.  But every now and again, I’ll be getting home just as Luc is coming back from a walk.  And I’m always amazed by how silent they are.  Which brings me to my last…

— Vignette: So one day, not long ago, I was coming home from work.  And it was pretty chilly, you know?  And just as I’m getting to the house, I see Lucie at the corner, with Kessie and Emma,12 the dogs.  And Lucie, comme habitude, is dressed in all black, right down to the black scarf halfway up her face.  And the dogs are sort of running with her but also circling around her feet because she’s not fast enough for their liking.  But when she stops, they stop.  And she holds up a hand, and the go up on the hind legs.  And they’re full of energy and yet completely silent withal.

And I swear to god, you guys.  I could have believed she was an actual witch and that she had a spell over these creatures.  Because that’s what it looked like.  This pale skinned woman, wrapped all in black.  And these beasts, her minions, obeying her every command, as under some kind of witchcraft.  It was creepy and eerie and yet somehow also kind of sweet.  But also, there was a part of me that would have believed: These were my last roommates.  But they were bad.  They didn’t clean the bathroom when they were supposed to.  So I turned them into dogs.  And now they obey me. 

I’m not doing this justice.  I mean, you had to see it.  The way she walked so confidently, with these beasts swirling around at her feet.  And did I mention the all-black?  Honestly, she could have stepped out of a Grimm fairy tale.  But then, you know, we start talking and she’s just the sweetest person.  — End Vignette.

One last thing, has nothing to do with Berlin, and then I’m done.  I had a Skype with Niki the other day.  We don’t talk as often as we should, and most of our communication these days is through Instagram or random Whatsapp messages.  But every now and again, we’ll do a Skype.  And honestly, friends, I laugh so hard.

Just, right from the get, it’s jokes, it’s rants, it’s  comparing notes on living in a foreign country,13 it’s ranting about living in a foreign country.  But it’s also comedy.  And it’s hilarious.  To us, anyway.  But seriously, I can’t even remember the last time I laughed that much or that hard.  Just fantastic.

One example.  We ranted about how in both of our countries, what the fuck is up with the meat selection at the supermarkets?  Like, why the fuck is everything lean af?  Why can you not find meat that has bones in it?  Bones are where the fucking flavor is, people!  What the fuck is wrong with y’all?  And I don’t know what the difference is.  But when me and Vin rant about sandwiches, for instance, it’s very serious.  Gravely serious.  But when me and Niki rant, man, do we just laugh our asses off.

Though if I can depart from this for just a moment: I’m not kidding about the above.  I bought “American style” bacon a while back.  Seriously, they print that on the package, “American style.”  And the only reason I bought it was so I could render the fat.  So I could then later have bacon grease to cook with.  But this shit was so thin, so lean, it just stuck to the pan.  And I got nothing.  Zilch.  Zero.  Bupkis.  I mean, what the actual fuck?  And forget about finding beef that has an actual bone attached.  I seriously fucking can’t.

But what was I saying?  Oh yeah.  Niki.  Side splitting, physically painful laughter.  For two-and-a-half hours.  I miss that kid.  A lot.  Like, a lot a lot.  And then I remember, sometimes, the old days.  Of pregaming with Niki at her place before meeting Vin and Joschka at Duffs.  Those were the days, boy, I tellya.

But I’m making new those-were-the-days days here too.  Drinking with my new maybe-friend.  Long podcast-walks exploring the city.  Chilling with Zibs and Jan.  Doing the stranger-in-a-strange-land shtick with Anne.  Drinking cocktails and playing Settlers of Catan14  with Joschka.  Living with German roommates and hanging out in German.  Enjoying the shit outa my job.  So yeah, today was a good day.  Lots of a good days here.  And more to come.

זיי געסונט

  1. Jargon shout out to MZ! []
  2. And I say “town,” because until the mass transit here gets its shit together, it’s hard for me to take this place seriously as a “city.” []
  3. Semantic question: Can one expect disappointment?  Is disappointment not, by definition, the failing of something to meet expectations?  So, perhaps what I mean is, whatever we were expecting, we were prepared for it to be even worse. []
  4. We always call each other paisan. []
  5. Red Gold, as I call it. []
  6. He’s British. []
  7. Then my dad caught me upon Gerry, who is doing quite well, I was happy to hear.  Nothing but great memories of my time working with that guy.  I may have told this story before, but I’ll never forget how he explained to me the right way to wire up an outlet.  “You connect this bitch here.  You connect this bitch there.  Badda-fucking-bing!”  Italian Gerry was not being ironic, I hasten to add. []
  8. OK, I think I made that word up.  #logodaedalism []
  9. Or if they have, they hide it extremely well. []
  10. OK, that’s generally true – of people and of dogs. []
  11. I made that mistake but one single time, and yes, my eye swelled shut like Fort Knox. []
  12. Funny thing about the dogs.  Look, I hate – and I can’t stress this enough – I hate the anthropomorphization of dogs.  I’m sorry, Justin, but the dog is not your “baby.”  I’m sorry, Mom & Dad, but Oscar is not your “grand-dog.”  He’s just a dog.  And you can love him, that’s fine.  But dogs aren’t people.  And yet.  And yet, these dogs do have something like personalities.  And Emma is just, well, to me, she’s annoying.  She’s always all over you.  And anytime I go into the kitchen, she comes running.  Like, no, sweetie, I don’t have food for you.  But Kessie is like me.  When I come home, Kessie comes out and sorta says hello.  But that’s it.  Then she’s go back to her room.  And I get that.  We understand each other.  Yes, it’s genuinely nice to see you.  And now, let us leave each other alone.  I’d fist bump you, Kessie, if you could make a fist.  But you can’t.  Because you’re a dog.  Not a person.  Anyway. []
  13. She’s in Australia. []
  14. Yeah, that’s a thing now. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
30 October, 2017

Well, now.  There’s much to cover since my last writing.  So let’s get right down to it.  I’ve been reading quite a lot.  Working rather a lot.  Throw in the odd bit of travel and a new language project and I’ve well got my hands full.  To say nothing of the writing project I’ve lately finished; or finished for now, anyway.

Reading first.  I’ve just lately read U.S. Grant’s memoirs.  I’ve long read that his writings are held in very high esteem, being championed from the outset by none other than Mark Twain himself.  He’s even been called – with respect to his writing, we should be clear – the American Caesar.  So I figured it was time I take a look for myself.  I was not disappointed.

In terms of style, the Caesar comparison is more than apt.  Grant’s writing is clear and direct.  It is eloquent without ostentation.  And it is distinctly American.  The same is often said of Caesar, though obviously, to the last point, distinctly Roman.  There is one important difference to be noted, however.  And that is that Caesar’s war journals were very much self-aggrandizing propaganda.

Grant, on the other hand, had no real desire to compose his memoirs at all.  This he did at the end of his life, when he was sick with throat cancer and had no money.  And even then, it was done not for himself, but in the hopes that the proceeds therefrom would be enough to support his wife after his death.  This lends a nobility of motive to Grant’s writing that is necessarily wanting in Caesar’s.

I will say here that Grant’s memoirs are not for everybody.  The bulk of it is out-and-out military history.  I would say that, for myself, I have more than a passing interest in the Civil War and its various battles.  And that even for me, it was trying at times.  I can read about only so many troop movements and tactical decisions before my eyes start to cross.  It is interesting, but borders on tedious.

The real merit of the work, as I read it, is Grant’s observations on American society, politics and war itself.  To the latter point, I mean war both as an institution, and the Civil War in particular.  What blew my mind was Grant’s keen insights, and his ability to state truths – as he saw them – without pulling punches and yet without animosity.

I will paraphrase a few of his observations, that I might give some indication of what I mean.  He viewed the Mexican war as inherently unjust and as a land grab by the slave states; and so as a prelude to the Civil War.  He saw the poor whites of the south – he even uses the term “white trash” at times, though rather with pity than scorn – as being as much under the heel of the landed aristocracy as the slaves.  Not to say that he equated their actual condition.  But that he saw the poor whites as being held down politically and economically and as being brainwashed with respect to politics in general and racial attitudes in particular.

He even argues that the South had more to gain by losing the war than the North had to gain in winning it.  By this he means that if there were to be a permanent division of the States, the North would be fine in the end.  But that the South would remain a backwards place for many more years to come and in all respects.  And that the poor whites, who were doing the fighting, would be kept in a condition of “white trash”-ness, while the scourge of slavery would persist to the detriment not only of those held in bondage, but for all.

The above is just a hint of what Grant gets at, and the language with which he gets at it is essentially perfect.  I’m not sure I would recommend this book to most people; indeed I’m not sure I’d recommend it to more than one or two.  But it was a fascinating insight into the man and that part of our history.

I should note that Ron Chernow is coming out with a book on Grant (or perhaps it is already out).  That would be Chernow of Hamilton fame.  So, first, I imagine Grant’s reputation is about to get a major and well deserved boost.  But also, having read the Hamilton book and based on Grant’s own work, I would strongly urge anybody with even a passing interest to pick up his new work on Number 18.  I know I am looking forward to it.

So much for Grant.  I’ve just started in on Les Trois Mousquetaires – The Three Musketeers.  Look, it’s fucking great.  Like, there’s a reason it’s a classic, right?  It’s not necessarily easy, however.  I’m getting back in the groove; it’s getting easier.  But I often need to read a paragraph two or three times before I get it.  Moreso at the outset, but still now to a greater or lesser degree.

But the point is, this book kicks serious ass.  Like, when D’Artagnan joins the group for their first fight together.  It looked like it was going to be five against three.  And then D is like, “Count me in, bitches.”  And they’re like, “Uh, what’d you say your name was again.”  And he’s like, “D’Artagnan.”  And then:

“Eh bien, Athos, Porthos, Aramis et D’Artagnan, en avant!”

And on the train, out loud, I was like, “Fuck, yeah!”  Finger pistols and everything.  I’m not kidding.  This book kicks serious ass.  But also the language is gorgeous.  This is the second book of Dumas that I’ve read; the first being Le Comte de Monte Cristo, which was wonderful and epic and really maybe like the best book ever.  But I forgot how great his prose is.  Like, it was worth learning French just to read that one book.  And now this one.  And I guess Dumas in general really.

I recently lent Anne the last Jules Verne book I read, L’Île à Hélice.  Which was great, btw.  I find I prefer JV’s later stuff – I say by way of aside – as it tends to be rather a bit darker.  Anyway, Anne had read a lot of JV as a teenager, but not much (or any?) since.  And she told me nice it was to read him again.  She described reading his style as putting on a pair of old comfortable shoes.  Which I thought was a great and apt analogy, not for nothing.  Because Dumas and JV have very different styles.  JV is fun and playful and adventurous and (for me) quite easy to read.  Dumas, on the other hand, is dark and serious and purposeful.  And while he writes about adventures, his language doesn’t feel adventurous.

So anyway, Anne says that reading JV feels like putting on a pair of old comfortable shoes.  Well, reading Dumas feels like putting on my Sunday best.  You sit up a little straighter when you read this shit.  It pumps a bit of air into your lungs.  You walk around feeling rather a bit of the “How do you like me now, bitches.”  If that makes any sense.  Anyway, it’s fucking fantastic is the point.

–Interpolation: I’ve taken to referring to Jules Verne as “JV,” which seems right.  Like, that’s the kind of nickname you’d give a buddy.  And JV feels like your buddy when you read him.  Like, he’s cool and you know you’re gonna have a good time.  But it also feels weird to call him “JV,” and it has nothing to do with Monsieur Verne.

OK, so I had this friend in college; and for many years after college.  In fact, I’m pretty sure we’re still friends.  It’s just we haven’t spoke in a few years.  In fact, this reminds me I need to send him an email.  Anyway.  There’s this friend, Dennis.  And Dennis is the biggest most passionate Red Sox fan I ever met.  And, like, that should have been insufferable.  Actually, it was, at times.  But he was so passionate and knowledgeable and respectful of the Yankees (whom he obviously loathed) that I’ve only ever had no choice but to hold a grudging respect for him in this regard.  (In other regards, the respect need not be grudging; wonderful and brilliant guy, that Dennis).

Anyway, Dennis’ absolute no-question-about-it favorite player was one Jason Varitek.  I mean, he had the official jersey with that (stupid) “C” on it and everything.  Like, he loved Jason Varitek.  Which I hated.  Because, you know, Varitek was one of the few players on those Boston teams that I had a grudging respect for.  What I mean is, I was already prepared to be like, “Yeah, man, Varitek is a good player.  Gotta respect Varitek.”  But he loved him so much, it kinda made me want to hate Varitek just to spite Dennis; whom I love, you know?

All this to say, Dennis obviously had a nickname for that Boston catcher.  And if you haven’t picked up on it by now, that nickname was obviously “JV.”  And to this day, I can still hear Dennis talking about “JV” in conversation.  Fuck, I can still hear him yelling “Jay-Vee!!!” from across the hall anytime that bastard did anything remotely praiseworthy.

And so, to bring this back around, I love Jules Verne.  But, you know, you either have to say his name in English, by which I mean with a hard “j” and pronouncing the “s.”  Or you can try to pronounce it frenchly, and butcher it.  I care for neither of these options.  So apart from the above stated reasons for nicknaming him JV, there is this practical one as well.

And yet, every single time I refer to my (first or second, I’m not sure) favorite French author by this cool and practicable nickname, all I hear is Dennis.  And all I see is Jason Varitek with that stupid “C” on his jersey and that stupid goatee, and the ’04 comeback and the breaking of The Curse and then again in ’07, and on and on.  And I’m just like, “Ugh! Will I never be free of this?”

So to wrap up, I love JV but I can’t stand “JV.”  And I love and miss Dennis, but man do I hate the Sawx.  And I guess that’s just all one more cross to bear.  End Interpolation. —

We move now from French to Hebrew.  Operation “Read the Whole Fucking Torah in a Year” has officially commenced.  And, umm, I may have bit off more than I can chew here.  It’s not that it’s particularly hard.  It’s not.  In fact, it’s pretty straightforward.  It’s just that there’s a lot of it.  And so, it’s not that I spend a lot of time poring over each sentence trying to understand it.  Rather, it’s that I spend a lot of time in the dictionary.

So one of two things will happen.  Either the vocabulary will become repetitive and I’ll be able to move at a faster pace.  Or it won’t and I won’t.  Time will tell, I guess.  But whether or not I meet my goal of reading the whole thing in a year, I’m doing honest work and that’s enough.  I read everyday when I come home from work for an hour or two.  So that’s good.

But right from the get, the text itself is surprising.  What I mean is, I’m surprised by how sparse it is, how little it actually says.  See, whole stories that get major treatment in Hebrew School turn out to be like, at most, a paragraph long.  One example will suffice.  I give you Cain and Abel.  And I paraphrase, obviously.

“So Abel made his sacrifice, and God thought it was fine.  And Cain made his sacrifice and God thought it was less then fine.  So God says, ‘Bruh, you can do better.’  At which point Cain goes out into the field, rises up and kills Abel.”

And that’s literally it.  Like, that’s the whole story.  The fuck?

Oh, and speaking of “The fuck?”, there’s the whole Sodom and Gomorrah routine.  We all know the story.  God, in his infinite patience, decides he’s had enough of their bullshit.1  Make ready the fire and brimstone, ya know?  Oh, but wait, Lot2 is living there, with his wife and two daughters.  Well, we can’t have that.

So God sends down a couple of angels.  And the angels go to Lot and are all, “Dude, you gotta go.  Like, now.  The Old Man is about to burn this mother down.”  Meanwhile, the Sodomites get wind of there being angels among them.  So they go knocking on Lot’s door.  “We want to meet the Angels.”

But Lot, you know, he’s a good host.  So he says, “Go away.  These are my guests.  I won’t have them disturbed.”  Which, I mean, that’s respectable.  But the Sodomites aren’t having it.  Like, they’re ready to break the door down.

Now, I don’t know how you would handle this situation.  But I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t do what Lot did.  See, Lot opens the door and says: “Listen up, bitches.  I said, these are my guests and I won’t have them disturbed.  But just to prove I can be reasonable, allow me to offer you my two virgin daughters here.  You can have them, if you promise to leave my guests alone.”

Yeah, you read that right.  When I read that, I was sitting alone at my desk and literally said out loud, like fifty times, “Wait, what the actual fuck?”  “No.”  “No, that can’t be right.”  “Wait, what the fuck?”  “What the actual fuck?”  Well, you get the idea.  And I re-read the passage another four times, just to be sure.  I checked every word in the dictionary.  No question about it.  That’s what he said.  And I’m just like, I don’t even know what the fuck to do with this.

But wait, there’s more.  Right, so we all know the part where Lot and his fam leave the city, and the angels are all, “Whatever you do, don’t look back.  No time to explain, just don’t look back.”  But, having apparently not seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mrs. Lot looks back.  And turns into a pillar of salt.  OK, fine, nbd.  Listen to God when he warns you, &c., &c.  Which would be fine if that’s how the story ended.3

But that’s not how it ends.  So Lot and his two (apparently unravaged?) daughters eventually settle somewhere safe.  Fine.  But there’s only one problem.  Well, I wouldn’t call it a problem.  I’d call it, “Wow, thank God (?) I got out of there in one piece and at least I still have my daughters, whom are important(-ish ?) to me.”  But from the daughter’s POV, there’s only one problem.  Lot never had any sons and his wife is dead.  So the line ends here.

Which, first of all, does it?  Because, I mean, fucking find a new wife.  How is that not the obvious solution to this problem?  But I think they settled in a mountain or something, so I guess a) there’re no women around and b) they’re not allowed to move to another city?  I seriously can’t.

But OK, the daughters don’t want the family line to end.  So the older sister has a bright idea.  She says to the younger sister, “Hey, I know.  Let’s get dad nice and drunk and then…wait for it…let’s fuck him.  No, seriously, I’m suggesting to you that we fornicate with our father and bear his children.  To keep the line going.  Don’t roll your eyes at me, this is a good plan.”4

So they do!  They fucking do that!  First night it’s the older sister and next night the younger.  They both take a ride on the L Train and they both get all pregged up with daddy’s seed.  And of course Lot has an out, b/c he was so drunk he had no idea.  So, the moral of the story is, women are evil?  Or, women are smart and heroic and problem-solvers?  Like, seriously, what is the takeaway from all this?  And also, how is the pillar of salt thing the highlight here?  Talk about burying the leed.

So yeah, this whole Torah thing is an adventure.  And also, how are we Jews not popular and beloved by all?  #askingforafriend

So that’s where the Hebrew is at.  Oh, I wonder what crazy adventures I’ll read about next.  And then of course, there’s the Greek.  Most nights, I’m doing 50 or so lines of Homer before bed.  Which is great.  Because Homer is just the best, you know?  And it’s so long.  I mean, there’s just so much of it.  So there’s no rush, you know?  Just read a little bit every day.  Great way to wrap up the night.

The Oedipus at Colonus is on a break though.  Partly because I just don’t have the time, and partly because – like I said last time – it’s sadly kinda boring.  Oh, I’m sure I’ll get back to it at some point.  I mean, I’m not gonna not finish it.  Just taking a little break for now.

But yeah, that’s my reading schedule at the moment.  French on the train, Hebrew when I get home and Greek before bed.  It’s good.  I’m happy about it.  Keeps the ol’ brain engaged.  Well, so much for that then.

I was in Italy two weeks ago.  Man, was that fantastic.  For the past several years, Jared’s family does this thing where they rent out their house on Long Island and then turn around and rent a villa in France or Italy.  And then they invite all the friends and family along for the ride.

Well, this year they didn’t do that.  This year it was just the parents and the kids.  Carol and Paul, Jared and Amanda, and of course Josh.  And no fancy villa this time, just a hotel.5  And they didn’t invite any extras this time around.  Really, it was just for the family, for Amanda’s big 4-0.

But one of the nice things about living in Europe is, well, living in Europe.  What I mean is, without making a big deal out of anything, I can just hop on a cheap flight and pop down to say hello for 2.5 days.  Which is great, of course, for the obvious reasons.  But also, it’s kinda my only chance to see these people.  So to the extent that they made an exception in allowing me to show my face, it seems a touch more justified in this latter regard.

Anyway, Florence.  Fucking Florence.  What a beautiful little city.  The last – and only – time I was there was on my very first travel alone abroad trip, back in 2003, while I was studying in London.  My first stop on that trip was Rome, but I was there with some friends.  We split up after Rome and only met up again in Venice for the flight back.  So Florence was my first solo stop.

Stepping off the train was a mind-fuck.  I mean, it was like stepping into a time machine.  Returning to this place I’d only ever been once before, and that 14 years ago.  And all the amazing memories that go along with it.  And I arrived the same way, in the same train station.  The first time, I had taken the train up from Rome, obviously.

This time, I’d flown into Bologna and then taken the train again.  Because somehow it was both cheaper and faster than flying into Venice.  Go fig.  Anyway, just stepping into the train station was crazy.  And wonderful.

Well, what can I say?  We did the museums.  We ate great food.  We drank great wine.  Also, I drank some Talisker, which I don’t do very often and which is my favorite scotch.  And yeah, seeing my friends was nice too.  So, you know, it was OK, I guess.

And look, I love Italy in general and I love Florence in particular.  But really, this was about seeing my friends.  Jared had done his semester abroad in Florence.  So it was a real joy to walk around his city with him, to see where he lived, where he used to hang out, and just pick his brain for memories.

It was great to visit the museums with him and Josh, who between the two of them have so much knowledge and appreciation of all the art and history.  It was great to catch up with Amanda and shoot the shit with Carol.  It was great being together with everybody for meals.6  Just to tell stories and crack jokes and enjoy each other’s company.  If there’s a downside to living overseas, it’s that you so rarely get to see your friends.  So that, when you do, it makes it all the more special.  And then to do it in Florence.  Well, like I said, it was OK, I guess.

But as is so often the case, the best times came at the end of the day.  The first night, the boys hung out in the hotel bar, just having guy time.  Paul and I drank wine, cocktails for Jared and Josh.  The next two nights, we were sans Paul.  And then, Jared went to bed first, which left me and Josh to keep on drinking and chatting.

I have to say here that this was a real highlight for me.  I’ve said before how much I love Josh.  But my one-on-one time with him has always been somewhat limited.  Part of that is down to his just being a mensch.  What I mean is, whenever I’d visit them after moving out of the city, he’d always go out of his way to make sure Jared and I could have our Jared and Dave Time.7  To which Jared and I would always respond, “Ugh, I lived with this bastard for ten years.  Please stay.”

Which is part of the point, I think.  What I mean is, Jared and I lived together for ten years.  We’ve known each other for well more than half our lives already.  He’s still my best friend, and probably always will be, the bastard.  Whereas Josh is, from my point of view, still relatively new.  And most of the time he’s been around, I’ve not been living in the city.  I could go on, but the point is this: I really enjoy hanging out with the lad, and more to the point, talking with him.  Because he’s super smart and well-learnéd and we have many of the same points of interest.

Also this.  He’s got a big religious background.  He’s not religious now, but he’s steeped in the stuff.  So talking to him about what I’m reading is super illuminating.  I mean, look, at the moment, I’m just reading the text as-is.  So all I have is what’s on the page.  But he’s got all the theory and theology and whatnot.  So he’s kinda like my little goyish rabbi, which I realize is a strange thing to say.

Anyway, all this to say, wrapping up the night having a few drinks with Josh, just talking about life, politics, Torah, whatever.  Just a little extra something special tacked on to what was already a special couple of days.

One other thing to come of this Italy trip.  Italian was the first foreign language that ever moved me.  I did Spanish in high school, and tbh, I hated it.  But when I went to Italy for the first time, back in ’03, I just loved the language and wanted to learn it.  It was the first time I ever felt that.  I mean, by that time, I’d probably already had it in my head that I wanted to learn Greek.  But that was in a very abstract way.  I knew I wanted to read Homer and Thucydides and Aurelius in the original, but I had no idea what it meant to learn another language.  Hell, I didn’t even know the Greek alphabet yet.

So Italian was the first language I ever had actual contact with where I was like, “Omg, I want to learn this!”  And then I didn’t.  I learned Greek.  I studied Latin.  I taught myself French and later German and now Hebrew.  But in all of this, Italian always managed to elude me.

And now, when I was there, I found that I was angry at myself that I couldn’t order food in Italian, that I couldn’t ask basic questions, that I couldn’t even pretend to bullshit with some or other native.  And so I decided that, fuck it, it’s time.  So as soon as I got back home, I ordered up a textbook and a graded reader.  In fact, I ordered the counterparts of the same books I used to teach myself French.

Because I figure, I did actually teach myself French, you know?  And now I have French friends, and I read Dumas and Verne and shit.  And anyway, Italian is basically French and they’re both basically Latin.  Just wearing different clothes, so to speak.  So in my mind, how hard can it be?  I mean, we’re basically just talking about morphology and maybe some idiomatic shit.

So I’ve just started.  But I’m pretty excited about it.  Fourteen years after I first fell for that language, and five foreign languages later (two living, three dead), I’m finally taking a crack at it.  So we’ll see where it takes me.  But as I say, I’m pretty excited about it.

Of course, time is the problem.  When do I find time for it?  I have, so far.  And I’m sure I will.  There’s no rush.  But my Federalist Project has been suffering for want of time.  I’ve taken a break from the OC.  And this is my first blog post in a month.  Time, always time.  Never enough.

Oh, and I’m supposed to have a social life.  So every time I’m out with friends is time I’m not studying or writing.  Which, I mean, you can’t complain about.  You’ve got to have a life.  And I’m glad I do.  In fact, I’m sure I’d go crazy if I didn’t.  Just, could the days be longer, I guess is what I’m asking.  Or maybe we could have a nine-day week, but like, no Mondays?  Just a thought.

Ugh, this is already long.  That’s the problem when you don’t post for a month.  So much to cover.  But I’ve finished that writing project; for now, anyway.  So that should free up some time.  I was out with Zibs and Jan last night, and they’re just the best.  I think we’re going to do a Thanksgiving this year.  Classic good times continue to be had with Joschka.  There’s talk of going to his hometown for their Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market).  I guess all (or most) of the festival people will be there, so that should be a good time.

And work is very good at the moment.  I’m loving the people in my classes.  In terms of just being fun people to work with, they might be the best classes I’ve had yet.  But it’s always the same.  Old people go, new people come.  So we’ll see how long this particular group lasts.  But it’s good times, which is the point.  I mean, there are days when I just stop and think for a second, “Wow, this is my job.  I’m getting paid to do this.”  But you know, then I get my paycheck and I realize I’ve used the term “getting paid” somewhat liberally.  But such is teaching, I guess.

Well, there’s a million more things to say.  Yet this post is already longer than usual.  So I think it best if I end here.  But before I do, I’d like to close with my new favorite joke.  Anne told it to me, though I don’t remember if she told it in French or German.  I’ve added the second punchline myself.

A guy with two left legs walks into a shoe store.  He asks if they sell…”flip-flips.”
Unfortunately, they only had “flop-flops.”

Thank you, good night!

זיי געסונט   

 

  1. It’s worth noting, the “bullshit” goes unspecified.  There is literally – and I mean “literally” literally – there is literally, I say, nothing in the text that even gives the slightest indication that this is about homosexuality; or anything else for that matter.  All it says is: וחטאתמ כי כבדה מוד.  “And because their sins were very great.”  That’s it.  So, also here, I ask: The fuck? []
  2. Lot, whom, so far as I can tell, we only give a shit about because he’s Abraham’s brother. []
  3. Also, it wouldn’t be fine.  I mean, the ostensible hero of this story literally offered his virgin daughters to an angry mob.  But…whatever? []
  4. Again, I paraphrase. []
  5. “Just a hotel,” he says.  It was a five-star Westin. []
  6. Did I mention the food was insane good? []
  7. OK, let’s be honest.  Dii-Time. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
27 September, 2017

Oh, hey.  Yeah, I’ve been meaning to write for a while, but I’ve been busy.  More on that later.  I had actually written up a post just after Charlottesville.  Which, yikes, that was already like six weeks ago.  And feels like a million years ago.  But anyway, I wrote up a post shortly after Charlottesville which veered into the political at one point.  And I didn’t want to publish it night-off, as I wanted to give it a fresh (i.e. sober) read the next day.  Only, then I got sidetracked and never got back to it.  So this post is going to be a bit of what’s going on now, but also I’ll probably cannibalize that last post a bit.  Though I haven’t decided yet if I want do the political this time around.  I mean, I rather enjoy keeping politics out of this.  Mal schauen.  Anyway.

The parents were in town ten days ago or so.  It was pretty great to see them, especially here, even if the whole thing was a bit rushed.  And depressing.  I mean, not seeing them.  The activities.  I’ll get to it.

[Sorry, I’m feeling a bit disorganized in my thoughts right now and I fear that’s being reflected in this piece.  I hope y’all can deal with it].

No, so the first day, I pick them up at the airport.  I thought I would be all cool and Berlinery, so I bought them subway tickets in advance.  Naturally they wanted to take a cab.  Well done, Davey.  Then we get to the hotel.  Which was properly nice.  I mean, really properly nice.  To the point where I was like, “Who are you people?”  But I guess they’d been saving for a while, so it wasn’t a problem.

We went to dinner at this German joint a friend recommended to me.  That was quite nice.  And they seemed to really like the food.  So that was a win.  On the way back to the hotel, I introduced them to the Stolpersteine.  These are little bronze, square plaques built into the Berlin sidewalks.  They all say something like “Here lived so-and-so, born on such-and-such date, murdered at such-on-such camp, on such-and-such date.”  A bit of foreshadowing for the next day.

And the next day started out innocently enough.  A walk through the Tiergarten to the Brandenburger Tor, with a quick stop by the Reichstag.  But from there, it got depressing.  We visited the Holocaust Memorial.  And then the Topographie des Terrors, which is basically a timeline of Berlin in the 20th century.  Oh, and it’s built into what used to the basement of the Gestapo HQ.  And across the street from the former Reich Air Ministry (now Finance Ministry).

And from there it was off to the Jewish Museum.  Which is not, I hasten to add, a Holocaust museum.  It’s the whole history of Jews in Germany.  But, like, you know how it ends.  And don’t get me wrong.  It’s an amazing museum.  But it’s a lot for one day.  Like, a lot a lot.  Worth it.  Glad we did it.  But it was draining, is all I’m saying.

Two things I want to make especial mention of from that day though.  One nice, one…something else.  So at the Holocaust Memorial, we talked about what we thought it was supposed to be, what it was supposed to represent and all that.  Among the things we came up with, is that people just “disappear” into it; my dad’s word.  Also that you have no idea of the scope and scale of thing (memorial/actual Holocaust) until you get down into it.  But we also thought that each of the concrete blocks were like tombstones.  So we decided to find little stones on the ground and place them atop one of the blocks.  Which, if you’re Jewish, you get.  And if you’re not, well, we don’t leave flowers at graves.  We leave pebbles on top of the tombstones.  Anyway, we put them on top of one of the taller blocks, so they wouldn’t be easily knocked off.

The other thing I wanted to mention, well, it still gives me the creeps.  There was one point when we were all standing together.  I honestly don’t remember whether it was the Memorial, or the TdT or the Holocausty part of the museum.  But we were just standing together.  And I was hit by this awful feeling.  Like, here we are, a Jewish family in Berlin.  And it was just this feeling of total helplessness.  Because you know there was a time when that meant nothing.  They’d come for one of you, or they’d come for all of you.  But they’d come.  And there was nothing you could do.

I don’t know.  Like, I could actually see that last moment when you get off the train.  Right before they send you off to one line and send them off to another line.  And maybe it’s the last time you see each other.  And it was just too real.  It made me shiver.  Still does.  It didn’t last long either.  It was just a moment.  But I’ve never felt so powerless.  I didn’t say anything about it either.  So when they read this, it will be the first they hear of it.  And I’m not really interested in talking about it again.  But I had to put it down, for the record of things.

But enough of that.  We went to a classical concert that night, which was pretty great.  Killer organ player.  Tore up the Bach toccata in Dm.  Man, to hear that live, on an organ, just fucking wow.  We had Chinese for dinner, which was also top notch.  And then I crashed with them at the hotel.

That morning, they had made arrangements with the front desk to be upgraded to a room with a cot.  The hotel was supposed to take care of everything; even move our bags.  Only they didn’t.  And when my dad asked the guy at the desk about it, he had no idea.  And it was clear he was at the limits of his English.  At which point, my dad was like, “Umm, can you help?”  So I had to use my best/poor German to explain the situation.  In the end, we got it sorted.  But of course, my mom got all teary-eyed and did the whole, “I’m so proud of you” shtick.  Hashtag moms, I guess.  What can you do, right?

And that was basically it.  Oh, and I stopped us by a Spati so they could experience drinking a beer on the street.  And obviously we had Currywurst for lunch, because how can you not?  And yeah, that was basically it.  But it was great to have them here, even if it was short.  Hopefully they can come back.

Moving right along.  The roommates were out of town around the middle of August.  So I took advantage of having the place to myself to host what can fairly be called my first grownup dinner party.  It’s something I’ve wanted to do for quite a while.  And while I’ve had people over for dinner at my parents’ house, I mean, if it’s at your folks’ abode, you can’t really call it a “grownup” dinner party, can you?  And obviously in Chinatown, just like, where would you put anybody?

So this was it.  My own (albeit shared) place.  And I went the whole nine.  Appetizer hour (Apéro!) with Hungarian sausage, Spreewald pickles, prosciutto, tomatoes, three types of cheese, bread and seasoned olive oil.  The main was an Italian style “Sunday gravy,” but with a German twist.  Ham hocks, bratwurst and stew-beef cooked for 4-5 hours in a homemade tomato sauce; the sauce which then went with the pasta.  Chocolate for dessert.  And of course, plenty of wine.

I invited Joschka and Cindy, Annett and Jan, and Anne.  It was a little cramped, sure.  And I didn’t know how the mixing of people would work.  But in the end, everybody got on quite well.  Joschka had actually brought a couple of board games in case things went dead, but we never needed them.  The food was good.  The wine was good.  The company was good.  I’m prepared to call that a success.

It was a lot of work, but I really enjoyed doing it.  I mean, I like cooking and I like cooking for people even more.  It’s definitely something I’d like to do more regularly, if I can manage to get the place to myself again.  Because six was people was the upward limit, and it’d be tough to do with the roommates home.  Partly because you can’t exclude them, obviously.  And partly because, even if they decided to stay out of the way, the house would still feel that much more crowded.  So we’ll see.  But good times.

Last post [whenever that was], I wrote that I needed to start getting Homer back into my life, and that the way to do that was probably to just read 10-15 lines every day.  Well, I’m happy to report that I’ve gotten that off the ground.  So far, I’ve read Iliad 24, the last book.  And now I’ve started over at the beginning, so I’m about halfway through Book 1.  When I began, I was doing maybe 10-20 lines a night.  Now I’m averaging around 40.  I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, because I only started about two months ago.  But this can’t be a for-now thing.  It needs to be an every-day-forever thing.  And I’m glad I’m doing it.  It feels right.  Also, I know Daitz would be pleased; which matters to me.

But it has become a part of my nightly routine.  I almost can’t go to bed without reading a bit of Homer.  And I just love it.  So here’s hoping I can keep it going.  Forever.  As a tack-on to this, I would love to one day get to the point where I can quote Homer the way bible-thumpers quote the bible, or the way the English professor who ran my London program could quote Shakespeare.  Or, presumably, the way Daitz could quote Homer.  Call that a life goal, I guess.

Speaking of keeping things going, the Hebrew has slowed down a bit.  As I’ve written previously, I finished the Megillah, but I needed something to keep me busy until the new year came around.  So I figured why not tackle one (or more) of the haftaras?  Well, let me tell you, I’m bored out of my mind.  It’s just a whole lot of “God is great, he’s going to do this to your enemies, he’s going to take care of you the chosen people, God is a big deal, etc.”  Like, yeah, I get it.

And this is where I run into my inner conflict with this stuff.  Because on the one hand, I’m interested in the “history,” the stories.  And I’m very much interested in connecting with my heritage; with understanding our sacred text; with being able to read it in its own words.  But man, let me tell you how much I don’t care about the whole “God” angle.  I mean, he basically says, “Listen, go get circumcised and I’ll take care of the rest.”  Fun fact, the word bris (ברית) literally means “covenant.”  So whenever he’s talking about the covenant, that’s what’s going on.

So yeah, anyway, “Go get circumcised and I’ll take care of the rest.”  Except, it’s mostly just a lot of “Oh hey, remember that time I brought you out of Egypt?”  Talk about resting on your laurels.  Because after that, apart from some random victories at Jericho etc. and some near misses at Chanukah and Purim, it’s been mostly 2500 years of down-trodden anti-Semitism.  Yes, yes, I know that’s a terribly cynical way to read it.  But that’s where I’m at with it at the moment.

Anyway, Rosh HaShanah has come and gone.  I got through two of those dreadful haftaras, which is plenty enough for now.  Next week begins “Operation Read the Whole Fucking Torah in a Year.”  And you know, I’m really looking forward to it.  Time to get this show on the road.  In the beginning, bitches.  In the beginning.

So a little while back, I was reading about the Tram system in Berlin.  And I came across this little factoid which said that one of the lines out by me was apparently rated one of the ten best tram lines in the world by National Geographic.  So obvi I had to check that out.

And it was great.  You head progressively Southeast until next thing you know, you’re in the middle of the woods.  I stayed on til the end, which was a small town.  There, I popped into a gas station to pick up a couple of beers.  Because Berlin.  And then I got to walking.

It was gorgeous.  It’s basically a path through the woods that runs along the biggest lake in Berlin, the Müggelsee.  The crazy thing was, because of the types of trees and the particular layout of the place, I felt like I just as easily could have been in upstate New York or Maine.  It did make me a touch homesick, if I’m honest.  But it was also pretty wonderful.

It has to be counted among the unique benefits of living in this part of town.  And remember, this part of town is JWD, ADW (very far away, basically).  So most of the time, it’s inconvenient.  But the nature is what makes up for it, especially this time of year.  And this tram line stops around the corner from me.  So it’s pretty great.  I’ll definitely be going back.  Maybe next time I’ll bring my guitar or some Homer.  And beer, natch.

That was around the beginning of August.  I haven’t yet been back to that particular spot.  But I did take a tram to the other side of the Müggelsee and had another nice, long, beer-walk.  And again, just fucking gorgeous.  And now, this was in September already.  So it was pretty empty of people.  Peaceful and quiet.  So to all the folks who give me a hard time about living out in the sticks…the sticks are beautiful, y’all.  Come visit.

Teaching has been interesting.  For three weeks in August/September, some of the teachers went on vacay, so I was covering extra shifts.  Working five full days a week.  Which is a lot.  I know, it doesn’t sound like a lot.  It sounds normal.  But it’s tough.  Mostly because it was all at the one school, where – remember – there’s no curriculum; so I have to come up with everything myself.

It was three days a week with the beginners and two with the advanced.  Well, I do two days a week with the advanced anyway, so that was nbd.  But three days a week with the beginners, that was tough.  Especially at first.  But I started to get into a groove.

And at some point, I looked at it as an opportunity.  As an opportunity to mold them into the students I wanted them to be.  To set them up with the skills I know I’d want them to have if they stick around long enough to get to the advanced class.  And even though now I’m back to one day a week with them, I think I’m making some serious inroads.

See, before, it was very much, “Well, I guess we’ll do this today.”  But now I’m starting to knit the lessons together, to build one on top of another.  And by George, I think they’re getting it!  Well, most of them, anyway.  So just at the moment, I’m feeling pretty good about it.  Which is nice, because normally it’s the beginners that give me the most angst.

Teaching is funny.  There are days when I walk out of there feeling like I must not be very good at this.  Especially with the beginners.  But lately, I’m feeling very much like I know what I’m doing.  I guess it’s always going to be a bit of up-and-down.  But for the first time, I really feel like I’m working with a plan for both my classes, and that’s quite a nice thing.  Teaching is funny.

Two more things about teaching.  One, my boss offered me another full-time day.  So that’s quite nice.  Cha-ching.  But better, I had an awesome lesson with my advanced class last week.  See, I’m always teaching them that “rules” are mutable and that languages are constantly changing.  As an example, I always ask, “OK, you know what the ‘rules’ of German are today.  But your language has changed quite a lot too.  For example, could you just sit down and read the Nibelungenlied?”  And of course, they’re always like, “How the fuck should I know.  I’ve never seen it.”  Well, I decided it was finally time to take a look.

So I gathered an example of Middle English and Middle High German.  And then an example of Old English and Old High German.  Chaucer and Nibelungenlied for the Middles; the Lord’s Prayer and Beowulf for the Olds.  And for all four examples, I walked them through the changes, showed them how spellings have mutated, how the grammar has morphed, but in the end, how it was still recognizably their language.

Because, in the case of the German, at least, it is.  Granted, I’m not an expert on any of this.  But I have enough tools to walk them through it.  And even the Chaucer, we could all keep up.  Only the Beowulf was unreadable.  But even there, we had no problem picking out words; some English, some German.

Anyway, they got a real kick out of it.  Like, you could see it in their faces.  You could even hear it.  There were actual audible gasps and exclamations when they figured something out.  Man, yeah, that was fucking cool.  And that’s got to be the best thing about this particular job.  Since there’s no curriculum, no book, I can just do that.  Probably my favorite lesson to date.

I think last time I mentioned that I’d started in on the Oedipus at Colonus.  That’s going slowly, but it’s going.  Tragedy is a bitch, though, Greekly speaking.  I mean, the vocabulary is tough.  Lots of hapax legomenoi (words used only once) and lots of variation in spelling.  Although, I have to say, after reading Aristotle’s Poetics, it all makes a lot more sense.  He had some things to say about word variation and alternate spellings, and now I’m seeing it work in ways I never saw before.  So that’s kind of cool.

But then there’s the choruses.  And they’re just tough, man.  First of all, the dialect changes.  So that right there is a barrier.  But they’re also much more poetic, metaphoric.  Like sometimes, even after you work out what a passage means, you still don’t know what it “means.”  But I ordered a hardcore commentary that has shed a lot of light on things, so that’s been a huge help.

That said, I’m about a third of the way through the play.  And… dunno.  Not my fav.  Like, nothing happens.  The OT – sorry, Oidpous Tyrannos (Oedipus Rex) – is gangbusters.  But this one.  Well, let’s just say I’m looking forward to finishing it and getting on with some nice prose history.  Though I haven’t yet decided if I’m going to go with Herodotus or Thucydides.  A decision for another day.

Baseball continues to be a godsend.  Most games start at 1am here, which means I’m usually falling asleep to the radio.  I’m sure I’ve written about this before.  But it doesn’t get old.  And I always look forward to the emails from my Greek professor.  Glorious puns and good baseball banter.  Even in Germany, baseball might be the best thing about summer.

Speaking of Greek professors, I reached out to my first year prof, Markus, who now teaches in Berlin.  We’re going to try and meet up soon.  I’m definitely looking forward to seeing him again.  It’s probably been seven years.  That said, I’m a bit nervous.  I guess I shouldn’t be.  And I can’t really put words to it.  Maybe something about justifying where I’m at, post-Masters.  I dunno.  We’ll see.  I’m sure it’ll be fine.  I mean, that was the most fun – and most influential class – I’ve ever taken.  And by most influential, I mean, he’s probably the teacher I most model my own style on.  But I can get more into that whenever I do the write-up of the meet-up.  Anyway, as I said, I’m sure it’ll be fine.

One last thing.  After Steve died, I had a rather odd dream.  And for whatever reason, I felt compelled to write that dream into a story.  I just finished it this week; well the first draft, anyway.  Took me two and half months or so.  And honestly, that’s the reason I haven’t posted anything.  All my free writing time has been consumed with that project.  Every night where I didn’t have to work the next day (and didn’t have plans to go out) was a dedicated writing night.  I’d start around 11 or 12 and finish anywhere between 3 and 5.

For the better part of nine weeks, it was all consuming.  I was living in that story.  And now it’s over.  I mean, I still need to edit it.  But I’m out of it now.  And I’ve got the same feeling I had when I finished my thesis.  I don’t to relinquish the momentum.  I want to keep working.  But I also don’t have any new story ideas.  So maybe that means more regular blogging.  Mal schauen.

Anyway, It’s a bit weird; the story, I mean.  There’s definitely some Lovecraft that’s crept into it…

…That’s something I’ve always been guilty of.  Having my style influenced to a degree by whatever the last thing I read was.  I mean, it’s still me.  It’s still my voice, my style.  But it’s probably a very different story if I hadn’t just read a bunch of Lovecraft.  Anyway…

…So it’s a bit weird, but I hope it manages to be a bit moving at times as well.  We’ll see.  That’ll be for other people to judge, I guess.  Though I’m not sure I’ll want to show it to anybody.  (Then why bring it up, David?).  But that’s been occupying a lot (OK, all) of my creative time and energy lately, so it seemed worth mentioning.

One other last thing.  Lately, I’ve been trying to reconnect with the classical guitar.  See, once I’d finally taught myself to sing and play at the same time, I really kinda let the classical stuff fall by the wayside.  For years.  Honestly, it’s embarrassing.  I mean, I used to handle the Prelude to the first Bach Cello/Lute suite pretty well.  Now I’ve simply forgotten it.

But I’ve got myself all the way through the Sor Variations.  I’m not saying well.  But I can play the whole thing.  Which I could never do before.  And it’s super fucking cool.  It’s just a hot piece.  I mean, smokin’.  Also demanding.  And man, are my finger-picking skills in a state.  The colder weather ain’t helping either.  Doesn’t matter.  It’s nice to be getting this back a bit.  We’ll see how far I can take it.

Right, well surely that’s enough.  Ooh, and politics avoided.  Maybe I’ll tackle that next time.  Or maybe not.  In any case,

זיי געסונט