An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
9 July, 2018

Oh, hey.  So remember way back in January of 2017 I did a sort of New Year’s Resolution post?  Except it wasn’t so much a “resolution” post as “here’s the shit I want to get done, or at least, get started” post?  Well, one of those things was to translate this fairy tale thing I’d written into French.  So yeah, like 2.5 weeks ago – which, you’ll note, is firmly in 2018 – I finally got started.

Really fascinating process.  And really hard!  But also really gratifying.  Until it wasn’t.  And then it was again.  I’ll explain.  Right, so the story itself, in English, is 20 pages, single-spaced.  By now, I’ve spent about two weeks on it.  Which has worked out to just over seven pages.  So like, half a page a night.  And after the first night, I was like, “Hey, you know what?  This ain’t half bad!  I think I can do this!”

Which isn’t to say it was good, either.  Just, you know, not half bad.  And I knew, off the bat, there would be problems.  Basic shit, like prepositions (impossible), idioms (possible, but mad hard) and the finer points of grammar (not impossible, but I don’t know what I don’t know kinda thing).  But after the first night, I thought I was off to a decent start.

After the second night, though.  Not so much.  What I mean is, I read the whole thing over, and I just thought, “Jeez, this is fucking terrible!”  See, I was out of the ‘working’ headspace and into the ‘reading’ headspace.  And to whatever extent I can or can’t write French, I can certainly read it.  And when I read what I had wrought…yeesh.  No, really.  I wanted to burn it and never ever even try to write French again as long as I live.  Seriously.

But as luck would have it, Charlotte was visiting that weekend.  More on that later.  But the point is, she’s a French teacher with a background in lit.  So she knows what she’s talking about.  Anyway, I asked her if she wouldn’t mind taking a look at it.  Which, turns out, she was pretty excited to do.

So she did.  And sure enough, wrong prepositions all over the place.  Some grammar problems that are easy enough to fix and which I can learn from and hopefully get better at.  And she helped out with some idiomatic stuff which I just don’t have access to.  But there were also more than a few things which she thought I did really well, and one or two things I may even have impressed her with.

And then we talked about approach.  Because when I started, I really was trying to “translate” my English.  Which is what lead to the ‘idiom traps’ if I can call them that.  What I mean is, I was trying to translate English idioms directly into French, which just doesn’t work.  So what we talked about was basically this.  That going forward, I should stop trying to “translate,” so to speak.  What I should really be trying to do, is simply to tell the story in French.

After all, it’s my story.  I don’t owe it to some original author to try and create a “faithful translation,” whatever that might mean.  I’m the author.  It’s already mine.  Which means I have the freedom to just tell it in French, the way I can.  And so, I guess it won’t be so much a “translation” as a “French version” of my story.  My French version.  Which, the more I think about it, is actually pretty cool.

So we decided that I’ll create a google doc so she can edit as I go, basically.  But she’s the perfect person to be doing this with.  Because her attitude is essentially, “I’m not trying to re-write your story.  I just want to fix the things that are wrong and give you suggestions where things don’t work.”

Which is great.  Because there’s something that’s very important to me here.  And maybe this is a bit venal on my part.  But when it’s done, I really want to be able to say that I wrote it.  In fucking French.  And obviously I’m happy to give credit where credit is due, right?  Like, obviously I can’t just do this alone.  But I really want for it to be mine, you know?  I hope that makes sense.  Just, I feel like that would be such a huge accomplishment, to be able to really write a story in another language.  And have it not suck.

But she’s also the perfect person to be doing this with for another reason.  Not to sound corny, but she gets me.  What I mean is, working with her was pretty effortless.  Hand-in-glove kinda thing.  She explains something with a minimum of words, and I get it.  I ask a question, she knows exactly what I mean and how to answer.  She doesn’t get something I wrote, I can tell her what I was trying to do, and in a flash, she’s on it.  Just easy, you know?

Anyway, two big takeaways from going over just this first page with Charlotte.  The first is, keep trying.  Because I asked.  “Do I suck at this?  Should I just give up and never try to write French again as long as I live?”  And she’s like, “No, of course not.”  Because, like I said, that’s where I was at the end of the first page.

But the other takeaway was really special.  To me, anyway.  She said, “Looking at this, it’s very obvious that you read literary French.”  Or words to that effect.  But I mean, fuck yeah!  Because, come on, how long have I been reading Verne and Dumas and now Hugo (more on that later, too).  Like, yeah, I hope that shows through.  I hope I’m learning something from all this reading I do.  Well, I guess I am.  But to have that sort of be noticed and appreciated, well, yeah, that’s kind of a little feather in the cap, you know?

So yeah, Charlotte came for a short visit the last weekend of June.  A short visit, but a lot of fun.  And productive, obviously.  I picked her up at the airport around 11 on Friday night, which means we only had time to come home (an hour ride) and drink a bunch of wine.  Classic.  Saturday we played some music, went for a short walk in the woods out east (bad weather), and took a look at my story.

We realized we were hungry around 10.  Which is annoying because nothing out here is open that late, even on a Saturday.  But in the end we found a traditional German restaurant which Yelp said was open til midnight.  We got there at like 11.  And it was empty, save for the three people working.  And by working, I mean sitting around a table drinking beer.

So I asked if it was too late to order food.  And they were so nice about it.  Of course it’s not too late, we’re happy to have you.  That kinda thing.  And you guys.  The food was uh-mazing.  We both got schnitzel.  Which itself was fantastic.  But it also came with a little salad, string beans and fried potatoes.  And in the string beans and potatoes were little bits of bacon.  And all of it cooked in so much butter.  I mean, it was outa this world.  And the waitress, who didn’t speak a word of English, was just adorable.  The sweetest lady.

And also, the place was so empty and so quiet, we could actually hear the chef whistling and singing in the kitchen while he cooked for us.  I mean, what a win, you guys.

We actually, oddly, didn’t really get drunk.  So we came back, listened to music for a bit1 and just sorta fell asleep.  Just a nice, peaceful night.  And then Sunday was more music playing.  We had to leave to get her to the airport around 2:45, so there wasn’t really time for much else.

But you know how last time I was saying we had been working on Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence, and just not getting it?  Well, yesterday, finally, we got it.  I mean, it took a lot of work.  And nobody’s gonna confuse us for S&G.  But we can do it.  And you know what?  It sounds pretty good!  She does the melody and I do the harmony.  And it works.  It just works.  And holy shit, y’all, that is fun!

And we also came back to this song by some band called Moriarty (which may or may not be how it’s spelled).  I mentioned this song last time she was here, I think.  It’s probably called “Jimmy,” but we just call it “The Buffalo Song.”  Anyway, I worked up a new guitar arrangement.  She does the singing.  On the choruses I started experimenting with some harmonies.  Some definitely didn’t work.  Some worked a treat.

But there’s this too.  She’s got a good voice, you guys.  Like, she’s still figuring out how to use it.  But she’s got no problems with pitch.  And her tone is really sweet.  I mean, I just enjoy listening to her sing.  You would too.  So we recorded it.  And when I listened back to it, I was like, “Shit, that’s you?  You sound good!”

And I know I said this last time, but I love this now.  I love when I can just play the guitar and listen to her sing.  It’s really great.  And then when we get some good harmonies going, I fucking love it.  Because, that’s something that’s brand new for me.  Harmonies I mean.

All those years playing in bands, I never once stepped in front of a microphone.  And then, all these past years doing my own stuff, I’ve always sang alone.  So I don’t know the first thing about harmonizing.  I mean, Shyer, for example, that dude could just harmonize on top of anything and it would be instant gold.  Not me, nossir.

So this is new for me.  And it’s not easy or natural.  But I guess I can kinda do it.  And when it works, damn.  Fun City, Population: Two.

Anyway, that was that.  Basically a 36-hour visit.  But crazy good times, as always, (if a bit less crazy than always).  The plan is to hopefully meet up in the north of France sometime in September.  Already looking forward to it.

So, Victor Hugo.  I guess I decided it was finally time I see what this dude is all about, seeing as how he’s such a big deal and all.  Now, the obvious choice would have been Les Misérables.  But that shit’s crazy long.  And I’m not done with my Musketeers yet, so that one’s gonna have to wait.  So I decided instead on Notre Dame de Paris.  Which, in English, we know as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  But that’s a bit misleading.  The French title is more accurate.  Because so much of this book, apparently, is just about the fucking church.  And architecture in general.

No, seriously.  He has whole chapters that have literally nothing to do with the story.  They’re just about architecture and Paris in general.  The guy’s passionate about buildings, whaddya want?

Anyway, it’s good, obviously.  It’s hard though.  First of all, he’s dropping Latin left and right.  And not words or phrases, mind you.  Whole sentences in Latin.  And not bothering to translate them either.  He’s just, “It’s like, ‘blah-us blah-us blah-us,’ know what I mean?  Of course you do.  On with the story!”  Uh, thanks?

And the vocabulary is hard.  Lotta words I’ve never seen before.  Which, on the one hand, great.  That’s how you learn.  But on the other hand, uh, what?  The upshot being that I find myself skipping a lot of words.  Because I’d like to finish this book before I die.  So it’s a challenge.

But it’s worth it.  Because he does a lot of things where I’m just like, “Wow, nice!”  Like, yeah, OK, I see why this guy is a big deal.  Also, did you guys know Quasimodo has only one eye?  I mean, I guess he has two eyes.  But he’s got some awful growth that completely covers one of them.  So effectively he’s a Cyclops.  And he’s deaf.  Not born deaf.  But he went deaf from all the chruchbell-ringing.  Did you guys know that?  I didn’t know that.  Anyway, it’s pretty great, is what I’m saying.

Staying on the subject of reading.  I’ve just finished the Book of Numbers, maybe two weeks ago.  So that’s four out of five books of the Torah read.  Crazytown.  But I’ll get more into that next time maybe.

More interestingly, I’ve decided to get a bit more serious with regard to my curiosity about/passion for Yiddish.  Like, let’s see if I can teach myself to read this language.  After all, it’s basically German (which I speak, but ironically can’t read) with a smattering of Hebrew.  So there’s this newspaper, The Forward, out of New York.  It started life in the early 20th century as a Yiddish-language daily.  At some point it switched to a weekly English paper.  But they still publish in Yiddish online.  So, I figured, Fuck it.  I printed out an article.

And I just started hacking away at it.  Usually just in the mornings at work, before class starts.  It’s going very slowly.  But it’s going, absolutely.  Basically, I’m just working with my (admittedly imperfect) knowledge of German and Hebrew, my general (admittedly limited) linguistic knowledge and a dictionary.  And yeah, I guess I’m working with what I guess I can call the overall background music of my life.  What I mean is, I’m finding words that I just know because I heard them growing up.  Which is cool.

Anyway, it’s endlessly fascinating.  But more than that, there’s a joy in it.  Like, I feel like I’m connecting with something that belongs to me, but which is hazy, that hangs out in the past, but not the ancient past.  This is the language of my grandparents and my great-grandparents.  This is the language my parents heard around them growing up, even if they never learned it.  It’s words that are a part of my parents’ English vocabulary.2  It’s woven into the fabric of my life and yet largely out of reach.

I can’t talk to my grandparents anymore, never mind my great-grandparents.  But maybe I can learn their language a little bit.  It’s a way to connect with my ancestors that I didn’t have even when they were alive.  But not my ancient ancestors.  Hebrew does that, in a very different way.  Hebrew connects me with people I never knew, who died thousands of years before I was born.  Yiddish connects me with people who I knew and loved, and who loved me.   And that’s powerful.  Yeah, there’s a power in that.

So where is this going?  I mean, I’m not about to go start hanging out with the Chasidim, thank you very much.  Nor can I dig up The Olds and ask וואַס מאַכסטו (Was Machste?, What’s up?).  So I ask again, apart from the spiritual mumbo-jumbo, where is this going?  I guess, my goal – for now, anyway – is, first just to finish this article.3  And then read another.  And another.  Until I feel good enough about it to try my hand at, I dunno, Shalom Alechem?  I mean, why not?

But yeah, I guess I’d love to get to the point where I could read Yiddish on the subway about as easily as I read French.  Is that attainable?  No idea.  Maybe.  But there’s only one way to find out.

So that’s a side project.  Among a million side projects.  But it’s a good one, I think.  And a fun one.  Because whatever else, there’s something undeniably fun about Yiddish.  To me, anyway.  But the way it’s almost sort of an argot.  Like, on the one hand, it really is just a dialect of German.  But the pronunciation is different.  And the idioms are different.  The word order and sentence construction are different.  And then there’s the Hebrew sprinkled throughout.  So that, I think, you could speak Yiddish in front of a German and, yeah, maybe they’d catch some of it, but they probably wouldn’t really understand it.  That’s what I mean by argot, I guess.  But that’s fun.  Like cockney rhyming-slang.  But for Jews.  Now if only I could find anybody to actually speak it with…

Right, well that’s probably enough for now.  Vinny is in Berlin now, so of course that’s fun – you know, drinking and philosophizing about sandwiches.  Plus he brought meat and cheese from Italy, so added bonus there.  And then in August I’m off to Italy myself for a week of desperately needed vacation.  And hopefully France in September.  And in between, work and work.  My job work and my projects work.  My Federalist Project, this translation project, Torah, Yiddish, Greek – I’ve got to get back on track with this Demosthenes oration; and Homer, I’ve got to get back to Homer.

And the guitar.  I’m trying to learn the whole of Gaspar Sanz’ Suite Española.  I’ve been playing the Canarios4 for years; as have two of my uncles.  But I don’t know that either of them ever learned the whole suite.  I should ask.  Anyway, I’m working on that now.  So yeah, much to do.  But so much of it is wonderful.  It’s good to be busy, when this is the kinda shit you’re busy with.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

זײַ געסנט

  1. Turns out we both sorta secretly love Ace of Base.  Who knew? []
  2. I sent my mom a picture of the article I was working on, all marked up with my grammar and vocab notes.  And as it’s properly in Yiddish, it’s using the modified Hebrew alphabet; it’s not been anglicized.  And she just writes back “Fershtayce?”  Which in Yiddish would look like פאַרשטייסטו and in German, Verstehst du?  “Do you understand?”, in other words.  Only one answer to that question, obviously.  “A bissell.” []
  3. So I drafted this last week.  But since then, I have actually finished the article.  Like, oh shit, I just read an actual newspaper article in Yiddish.  Fucking cool!  So now I’ve started a second… []
  4. Canarios – the last movement of the suite. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
10 June, 2018

Right, so I’ll just carry on writing about dead people then, shall I?  I mean, Anthony Bourdain, man.  Look, I’d be lying if I said I was a huge fan of this guy or that I’m taking his death pretty hard.  I mean, he’s not Dio.  When Dio died, I wore the same black Dio shirt every day for a week.  This is not on that level.  And yet.

And yet, the guy certainly had an impact on my life.  What I mean is, cooking is very central to my life; to who I am, I think.  And he changed the way I think about cooking.  Maybe not so much to the point that I’d say he’s a major influence on me.  But I think I’d say he was part of a constellation.

Let’s take a ride in the Way-Back Machine.  Obviously I’ve been cooking for myself ever since I moved out of my parents’ house.  But I didn’t really start to think about cooking until Jared and I moved into our apartment on Orchard Street.  That’s when I started experimenting.  That’s when I started picking Jared’s brain.  That’s when I started taking recipes from my mom and discussing ideas with my dad.  That’s when I started listening to chefs and food writers on NPR.  And that’s when I read Kitchen Confidential.

In the immediate wake of Bourdain’s death, the big takeaway from his breakthrough book seems to be his writing style and the way he opened people’s eyes to the theretofore hidden world of professional kitchens; the culture, the way of life, the language, the filth, the sounds, the fun, the work, and yeah, the food.

But that wasn’t my big takeaway.  It wasn’t Jared’s either.  For Jared, it was the idea of montre au beurre.  Basically, the idea that it’s physical impossible to use too much butter.  To which I say, Amen.  But for me, the big takeaway was this: you can do a lot with a little.

He has this part in the book where he goes to work at an Italian restaurant.  And he talks about how he was educated in the French style, where everything is a big deal, everything is a process, everything has a bunch of ingredients.  And then he gets to this Italian joint, and they’re making dishes with like three ingredients and they’re incredible.  But the key is, everything has got to be good.  It’s gotta be fresh, high quality.

But this idea that you can make the most amazing pasta pomodoro with just spaghetti, tomatoes and basil – that was new.  And this was before I met Vinny, before I ever tasted his mom’s red sauce.  But it’s something me and Vin talk about all the time.  It was the guiding principle last time I was in, when he took me to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.

We bought some sausage from a butcher.  We bought some nice bread from the bakery.  We looked at the produce in the market.  And then we – well, he, really – made a very excellent and very simple dinner.  And it was just, I mean, you guys, you don’t know what you’re missing.  The kid is naturally gifted in the kitchen, in a way that I am most certainly not.

But we have the same philosophy.  The key ingredient is love.  And that’s something that Bourdain was selling too.  That when people put their heart into their food, it’s only ever always good.

Something else stood out from that chapter about the Italian restaurant.  It was that you can always learn new things.  Like I said, the guy had been classically (i.e. French) trained.  And for a long time, that was the way; everything else was second rate.  But he went into that gig willing to put that attitude aside, ready to soak up what new information they had to offer.

Which is also something I do.  I do that in all walks of life; or I try to.  I’ve written about that before.  Trying to learn everything I can from Murphy about not just his job, but the whole engineering business he works in.  Trying to learn all I could about economics from that guy Christian who lived here for a few months.  About psychology and the practice of social work from Josh and Jared.  Learn anything you can from whomever you can.

And that’s true in the kitchen too.  I love watching other people cook, love asking them questions.  Joschka and I do that now.  We’re always sharing techniques, recipes, new information.  And it never gets old.1

So maybe I didn’t learn any dishes from Bourdain.  I have only one of his recipes in my little app.  It’s for a beouf bourgignon.  And I’ve never actually made it.  But my approach, my philosophy; a lot of that comes from him.  Not all of it, but a lot of it.

Something else hit me too, when I learned of his death.  And this had nothing to do with cooking.  No, what hit me was, it took me back to that apartment on Orchard Street.  One day, Jared’s copy of Kitchen Confidential showed up in the bathroom.  At first, I’d just read a chapter here and a chapter there.  But I quickly realized, holy shit, this guy is a fun writer!   And before long, I’d read the whole book.

All of it.  In that bathroom.  And it took me back to that time, to that place.  And maybe it’s a funny thing to say, but you know what?  I kinda fucking loved that bathroom.  That was my favorite bathroom I’ve ever had.  Is that even a thing?  Am I the only person who has a favorite bathroom?

Like, there’s two kinds of people.  People who read in the bathroom and people who don’t.  And you know immediately who’s who when you go over someone’s house for the first time.  Because that’s when you see if they have books and magazines in there or they don’t.

And to all you people who don’t: What’s up with that?  No, really.  What is actually up with that?2

Anyway, we always had books and magazines on the windowsill across from the terlit.  And that’s where Kitchen Confidential showed up in my life.  On that windowsill.  Like, I can still see it, you know?  It was almost as if whoever designed that building, intentionally made that windowsill just big enough for books and magazines.  I say ‘almost as if’ because it was a tenement building, and I wonder now if it was even originally built with bathrooms in every apartment.

And speaking of windowsills, I remember also how when we first moved in, the other window – the one at the far end of the bathroom – would leak when it rained.  I mean, sheets of water coming through, you guys.  Which, yeah, classic Chinatown.  But also, can we get that fixed?  I feel they took their sweet time fixing that.  Because classic Chinatown.

And the shower was spacious, which was nice at the time, and nicer now when my current shower/tub doesn’t even have a curtain.  OK, sidenote.  This is like a thing in Germany.  Some people just don’t have shower curtains.  Which means you need to sit down in the tub and “shower” by holding the showerhead the whole damn time.  Honestly, it takes all the joy out of it.  It’s like work now.  Anyway.

But it was a funny bathroom.  Like the kitchen in that apartment, it was very long and very narrow.  I believe the technical term is ‘railroad kitchen.’  Well, I guess it was a ‘railroad bathroom’ too.  But the point is, it was a great room to spend time in.  It was a great room to read in.

I loved that kitchen too.  We had a chopping block set up opposite the counter.  And the place was so narrow, that you could just pivot on your heels and work both spaces at the same time.  Everything was at your finger tips.  And you could just create.  With a glass of wine and some music.  It was a kitchen, a studio and a lounge, all in one.  I miss that kitchen.

And that apartment.  That apartment where, one year, after Jared’s birthday, he was so drunk that Rob had to literally carry him up the stairs.  That apartment where, every year on Rob’s birthday, he would come over and the three of us would drink a bottle of scotch.  That apartment where Jared and I watched four seasons of Dr. Who and grumbled the whole time about how David Tennant was no Christopher Eccleston.  That apartment where we had a big wooden bookshelf in the living room, overflowing with tomes.  Where Jared and I would drunkenly watch old WCW matches on VHS and marvel at how Dean Malenko could carry any nobody you like to the greatest match you’ve ever seen; where we’d watch Bret Hart fight Ricky Steamboat again and again; where we’d sit on the couch with a glass of scotch and just talk.

That apartment where within three days of meeting her, Charlotte was sleeping on my couch; and that was just the beginning of a story that’s still running.  Where Niki and me would cook English food, get drunk and watch Sherlock.  That apartment where I spent all of Hurricane Sandy alone with a bottle of Tullamore Dew.  Where I wrote my thesis.  And where, not for nothing, I had a weeklong fling with a 20-year-old French smokeshow.

That apartment from where all the best Chinese food was just around the corner.  And on the way to where, after a morning of reading Homer with Daitz, I’d stop by Prosperity Dumpling and grab five pork-&-chives for a buck.  (Talk about things I miss!)  That apartment where I spent the last years of my twenties and the first of my thirties.  Where I once tried baking a brioche without a mixer, so Jared, Rob and I just passed the bowl around for hours, taking turns mixing with a wooden spoon until we couldn’t feel our arms anymore.

That apartment I’d walk home to every day after work, all the way from 31st between 6th and 7th, watching the city change from Midtown to Downtown to Chinatown.  Where you could always catch the D, on-time, in all its express, 35 minutes to One-Six-One and Yankee Stadium glory.  Getting out at Grand Street – never missing my stop, thank you very much – after falling asleep on the way home from one of Amber’s backyard bashes.

Walking the ten minutes from that apartment to Katz’ Deli for a Matzah-ball soup when I was sick.  Walking over the Williamsburg bridge for a night out at Duffs or for a bit of day-drinking with Niki.  That apartment where I taught myself French, where I would spend countless evenings laying in bed, in the dark, listening to Montréal Canadiens games on the radio, “studying” la langue française.

That apartment where, one Sunday afternoon, I sat down in the black leather easy-chair I had in my room, and started watching The Walking Dead; I never did get out out of that chair that day.  That apartment where, after a rough breakup, I watched Fawlty Towers and every single episode of all nine seasons the X-Files; in like three months.  Where after passing my Greek reading comps, I watched every single episode of all of the Star Treks.3  And where, while studying for my Greek reading comps, I listened to John Sterling call Derek Jeter’s 3000th hit on the radio.4

That apartment where, really for the first time, I started to write my own music.  Where Justin would come over and write music with Jared.  That apartment where I would come home drunk from something, where Jared would come home drunk from something else, and we would just drunkenly listen to Dio.  And really, is there anything better?

That apartment we shared with Chutzpah the Mouse.  That apartment from where Jared and I would go around the corner to Lolita, where our bartender friend Ally would pour us a shit-ton of whiskey and then round the bill off to $20.

The last time & place I lived with my best friend, and my last apartment in New York fucking City.  That apartment.

All this and more came flooding back to me, when I read about Anthony Bourdain’s death, when I remembered reading Kitchen Confidential in that bathroom…

So, changing gears, can I just say, Fuck Nazis?  And also fuck cancer.  Because always fuck cancer.  But also, I think it’s important to say, from time to time, fuck Nazis.  So say it with me now.  Ready?  1, 2, 3, FUCK NAZIS!  Good job, you guys.

So the reason I mention all this is, two weeks ago I went to my first ever protest-march-whatsit.  Here, the word is Demo; short for Demonstration, obviously.  Which I guess now is a German word.  But anyway, I did that.  Which, also, very late shoutout to my boss-ass bitch5 of a mom who went all the way down to DC for the Women’s March, back whenever that was.  Respect.  Well, now, finally, I’ve gotten in on the fun.

First some backstory.  Here in Germany, the nationalist, right wing, generally racist party is the AfD (Alternativ für Deutschland).  And those cunts – I use the word in solidarity with Sam Bee – won 13% of the vote in the last election and now have seats in the Bundestag, the Parliament.  Gross.6

Anyway, the AfD had planned a big rally in Berlin two Sundays ago.  Not of actual Berliners, mind you.  You couldn’t find enough AfDers in this town to have a proper rally.  Because we’re7 awesome.  But they planned a rally.  And they actually paid to bus and train people in from all over Germany for it.  And they were all, “We’re gonna have ten thousand people!”  Well, they managed five thousand.  So, haha, fuck you, cunts.

Well so, Berlin was like, “Not in our backyard, bitches.”  And there were all sorts of counter-rallies planned.  And in glorious typical Berlin fashion, the biggest counter-rally was just a rave.  Yes, a rave.  An electro-dance party in the Tiergarten.  And they were like, “Yeah, we’re just gonna dance you down and drown you out with our loud bass.”

Obviously that’s not the counter-rally I went to.  No, so Zibs sent me a message that her and Jan and Felix were going to a counter-protest and did I want to come.  Uh, yeah, obvi.  So we met up in front of the Reichstag and listened to some speeches to start off with.  And then it was off to the actual protest.

The AfD clowns were staging their main rally at the Brandenburg Gate.  So what we did was to basically surround them on three sides and just yell at them.  And I’ll get to that bit shortly.  But first I gotta fill in a little more background.

So earlier, I described the AfD as a nationalist, right wing, generally racist party.  Which they absolutely are.  We don’t have anything like it in the states.  But there’s a wing of the Republican party that matches up pretty well.  The Trump wing, not to put too fine a point on it.  Anyway, it’s one thing to be right wing, nationalist and generally racist.  It’s still another thing to be actual Nazis.

Side note, except, or is it?  Because see, the actual Nazi party is illegal here.  So is displaying a swastika flag.  Which, not for nothing, to my American eyes is an uncomfortable repression of freedom of political speech.  But also, we didn’t have Hitler.  So, Germany’s gonna do what Germany’s gonna do.  Anyway, all this to say, if you were an actual Nazi, the AfD is probably where you’re gonna hang out.

Nevertheless, when I woke up last Sunday, I was not really comfortable casually throwing around N-word8 to describe any and everybody who might be associated with AfD.  But when I showed up, the first thing Jan said to me was, “So, Dave, are you ready to shout at some Nazis?”

So I asked him.  Is that where we’re at?  The AfD are straight up Nazis?  And he said yes.  And Zibs said yes.  Well, OK, they’re the Germans.  They’re politically active.  I trust them.  If they say – at the very least – that for today’s purposes, for the purpose of this rally and counter-rally, that the AfD are Nazis, well, fuck it.  They’re Nazis, the bastards.  So I said, yes, let’s give those Nazi bastards hell.

Which we proceeded to do.  We re-gathered at the entrance to the Tiergarten, directly across from the Brandenburg Gate, where we could see those cunts and where they could absolutely hear us.  And we spent the next few hours shouting them down.

Chants included, “Hau Ab!” (Go Away!) and “Nazis Raus!” (Nazis Out!).  And also, Ganz Berlin Hasst die AfD!”  (All Berlin Hates the AfD!).  Although there was apparently a second version of this chant from the ravers: “Ganz Berlin Basst die AfD!”  (All Berlin Basses the AfD, in reference to the loud bass they were using to drown them out.  Cool).

There were horns and whistles and all kinds of flags.  Communist flags.  Political party flags.  Rainbow flags.  One flag was just a giant hand, middle finger extended.  Also, there were a lot of middle fingers extended.  It was cool.

And It also made me just the slightest bit uncomfortable.  Because here’s the thing.  I don’t like mobs.  I think they’re ugly and dangerous.  Mobs take on a life of their own.  Emotion trumps reason.  Which is why you need effective police, btw.  To keep the people separated.  To prevent violence.

This, to my mind, was the big failing of Germany in the late 20’s and early 30’s.  The police didn’t do their job.  So Nazis brawled with communists.  Nazis intimidated would-be voters.  When the police do their job, this doesn’t happen.

At one point, somebody yelled – and I forget the German, but basically – “The police protect fascists!”  Well, yeah.  That’s their job.  And they should protect fascists.  They should also protect communists, and greens, and everybody else.  It’s literally their job.  If you’re suppressing the right of fascists to freely (and peacefully, which is key) express their political views, then what kind of democracy are you running?

But that’s my point.  Somebody yells, “Police protect fascists.”  Somebody else yells Ganz Berlin hasst die AfD!”  And yeah, OK, we hate Nazis.  But also, hate?  I looked over at one point, and watched the woman next to me.  And her face was contorted in this violent expression of, well let’s call a spade a spade, hatred.  And a part of me was like: Wait a second, isn’t this what we’re against?

But it’s complicated, innit?  Because like I said, Fuck Nazis.  But, I dunno.  Can we not be dispassionate about this?  Can we not just outnumber them 10:1 and just say “Boo!”  Or better yet, outnumber them 10:1 and just be a silent, impenetrable wall?  Can that not be enough?  Do we actually have to hate them?  Do we have to label every last one of them a Nazi?  Or is my head in the clouds, munching on a pie in the sky?

But it’s complicated.  I had a very uncomfortable exchange with an acquaintance recently.  She was complaining about how in certain parts of Berlin, any shop you go into, the staff are speaking English.  To the point where they only speak English.  And look, I get it.  I myself have complained that “I didn’t come to Germany to speak English with a bunch of ex-pats.”

But there was something in the way she was saying it.  “My mom is old.  What about the old people?  Shouldn’t they be able to go into a shop in their own country and speak their own language?”  Which, I mean, on some level, I’m not unsympathetic to that.  But also, English is a world language.  No, it’s the world language.  It would kill you to learn enough to order your food or drink item, to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’?

I grant you, yeah, it’s annoying.  But is it worth kvetching about?  OK, kvetching, maybe.  But elevating it to one of the real problems facing Germany?  Come on.  So I said – and maybe I shouldn’t have – but I said, “Well, if that’s how you feel about it, you can always vote AfD.”

And she looked at me with more than a little distress, and she said, “Dave, come on, I’m not a Nazi.”  But.  She didn’t say ‘but.’  But it was there.  Almost like, “I’m not a Nazi…but…maybe the AfD isn’t wrong about everything.”  Now to be clear, she definitely didn’t say that.  All she said was, “Dave, come on, I’m not a Nazi.”  But me – and yes, this is highly subjective – I felt like that ‘but’ was very much there.

So I said – and again, maybe I shouldn’t have – but I said, “But…Deutschland für die Deutschen.”  (Germany for the Germans).  This was followed by an uncomfortable silence, and then we moved on.

And look, I want to be clear.  This girl is in no way a Nazi.  She’s young, she’s open minded.  Hell, she knows I’m Jewish.  And we’ve spent more than a little time talking about all the Yiddish/Hebrew words that have found their way into German; and she thinks that’s all very cool.  She’s a good kid.  And just so there’s not even a shadow of a doubt, not a Nazi.

But that’s my point.  Not everybody associated with the AfD is a Nazi.  And by the way, I can’t imagine that she would ever vote AfD.  But she has this concern.  And it’s a concern that those AfD cunts make real political hay out of.

But do you see the reason I’m telling this story?  I don’t like painting everybody who votes AfD as a Nazi.  I don’t like going to a rally and ‘hating’ these people.  Which isn’t to say that some of them are not in fact Nazis.  Surely some – even many…fuck, even most – of them are; or at least might be.  And there’s no room for Nazis in our political discourse.

But just because Fuck Nazis – and let’s be clear, Fuck Nazis – but just because Fuck Nazis, are we supposed to hate our fellow man?  Are we supposed to use the law to curtail their freedom to express their political views, no matter how heinous?  Personally, I don’t think so.

What we are supposed to do, I think, is outnumber the shit out of them.  To show them, through peaceable numbers, that there are far more of us than there are of them.  Which we did, btw, and I’ll come to that shortly.

But to come back to that lady standing beside me, who wore so much hate on her face as she shouted down those Nazi cunts, maybe dial it back a little.  Maybe.  When the police are doing their job, you can afford to take the emotional high road, is what I would argue.

But also, I’ll never be a German.  I don’t own this country’s history the way a German does.  And the attitude here seems to be, don’t give those Nazi cunts so much as in inch.  Because not only will they take a mile, they’ve already taken it once.  And that, I think, is the divide.  I don’t know if I can ever personally bridge it.

Fine.  So I said, to me, the thing to do is, outnumber them 10:1.  Show them there’s more of us than of you, and there always will be.  Well, we did that.  Five thousand of them.  Twenty-five thousand of us.  And that was just in the immediate vicinity.  Apparently, there were counter-rallies all over Berlin, in places where the AfD would never see the faces or hear the voices.  And when you add it all up, according to what I’ve read, the counter-protesters numbered as much as 75,000.  That’s 15:1.

You wanna express the idea of “Nazis Raus!”?  Wunderbar.  Show me, don’t tell me.  Well, we showed ‘em.  We showed those Nazi cunts.

But the battle continues.  Because they will continue to fight.  They will continue to hate refugees and Muslims and Jews and gays and whoever else they blame for their plight.  So we have to keep on fighting too.  But I hope we can keep our heads about us.  I hope we can remember that hate is ugly, even when our opponents are Nazis.  I hope we can be better than them.

So.  Will I go to the next anti-AfD rally?  You bet your bottom dollar.  But not with hate in my heart.  Pity, maybe, if I can muster it, for these poor bastards who can’t see beyond their own backyard, beyond their own town square.  Disgust, if I can’t manage pity.  But not hate.

Because there’s more of us than there are of them.  And if we can just remember that, and act accordingly, then those Nazi cunts don’t stand a chance.

זײַ געסונט

  1. Just today, we had a whole conversation about stews and braises.  Basically, he asked me why I do so many of them.  And my answer was basically, economics.  With a stew or a braise, you get a lot from a little and it goes a long way.  Plus it keeps your stock supply moving. []
  2. My roommates here – and you know I love these cats – they have zero reading material in the bathroom.  They are not bathroom readers.  And just like, why? []
  3. I still maintain that DS9 is far-and-away the best of the Treks. []
  4. I had a ticket to that game.  And I had to pass it up, because I was studying.  So instead of remembering being there for Jete’s 3K, I remember sitting at my desk, in that apartment. []
  5. Hi, Ma.  Just so you know, “boss-ass bitch” is a good thing.  It refers to strong women who kick ass.  You can confirm that with any millennial. []
  6. Not for nothing, in light of all this, I can’t not remember my (now late) Uncle Art asking me if there was anti-Semitism in Germany.  I always told him I’d never experienced any.  And on a personal level, I haven’t.  But yeah, there is.  And here it is.  I’d like to think he’d be pleased to know I showed up to stand against it. []
  7. Apparently I can include myself amongst Berliners now.  I was told recently that by bitching about Deutsche Bahn (the rail service) and by reading a book and drinking a beer on the train I’m basically a real Berliner. []
  8. Funny that Germany also has an N-word and it’s not the same as our N-word. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
28 May, 2018

With each passing year, the world is just a little more different than the world into which I was born.  Some of that is about technology, sure.  Some of it is about the environment or politics.  But also, on some very basic level, it’s simply about the people who are in this world.  And, more to the point, the people who aren’t.  Among the latter group may now be numbered my Uncle Art, né Arthur Levine and finally Mr. Arturo LeMay.

Which – and OK yes, I’m getting off track kind of early here – is a bit ironic.  The name, I mean.  Because Art was a pretty religious dude.  No, that’s not quite right.  I don’t think he was particularly religious.  He didn’t keep kosher, so far as I know.  I’m not sure how many holidays he “celebrated” in the religious sense of the word; although he was at every Seder of my life until this year.

But he went to schul three times a week.  He was very pro-Israel in that old-school, unquestioning sort of way; the way which my generation – and those younger than me – are finding increasingly difficult to be.  And the dude could beast through a page of Hebrew like it was nobody’s business.  Though I don’t actually know if he could understand the language.  But he could read it off the page, and he could do it with the oldschool Yiddish pronunciation, where all the final tav’s sounded like “S”s; not the way people my age were taught.

The point is, his Judaism – however secular it might have been – was a huge part of his identity.  So yeah, I always found it more than a little ironic that he would change his name.  Because “Levine” is a pretty big deal name in Judaism.  It’s of the priest class, right up there with Cohen.  It’s not a Euro-Yiddish invention like Lindenberg (Mountain of the Linden-Tree), my mother’s maiden name; or Starr, and who even knows what the origin is there.  Levine – the Levis – goes all the way back to the Torah.

So why would he give that up for the totally non-Jewish sounding LeMay?  Because he liked the way it sounded.  But it was a very Art thing to do.  He could be eccentric like that.  The dude had his own way of making sense of shit.  Like anti-Semitism.  More than once he said Jews could be more anti-Semitic than gentiles; ‘self-hating Jews’ was, I think, the term he used.  But he also said that Arabs couldn’t be anti-Semitic.  Because the Arabs are themselves a Semitic people.  So there you go.  In Art’s world, there were anti-Semitic Jews and non-anti-Semitic death-to-Israel Arabs.

Or the fact that although he’d be at schul every Saturday, he’d insist he wasn’t religious.  Called himself a ‘fraud.’  Sure Art.  You read Hebrew.  You practically lived at the synagogue.  But you weren’t religious.  As you wish.

He was the the last Patriarch standing.  That’s a bit weird to think about.  All the grandparents were already gone.  So Art was the last of that generation.  That’s fucking weird, I’m sorry.  To look at my parents, my aunts and uncles and realize, shit, they’re the patriarchs now.  Or matriarchs.  They’re the grandparents now.  The Olds.  Which knocks me back a generation too.  That knocks me into the Aunts & Uncles generation, rather than the Children & Cousins generation.  With Art’s passing, I became a generation older.  I’m just realizing this as I’m typing, btw.  So, you know, thanks for that, Art.

So now it’s Shelly and Don, on my mom’s side.  Shelly sits at one head of the Seder table and Don at the other.  And this year, I had to read the big Hebrew spiel.  Art’s part.  The part that actually says, in Shelly’s homemade Hagaddah, “Uncle Art reads:”.  Surreal is the word I’m looking for.

Anyway, what about the man himself?  What about Arthur “the atomic bomb saved my life” Levine?  Lemme start by saying he was a tough motherfucker.  The short, red-headed Jewish kid from the Bronx who volunteered to carry the big Browning Automatic Rifle in the army.  The dude who took over his father’s business and made it big.  The dude who ran marathons.  The dude who went back to college – cut short by the war – and got a degree from Columbia when he was already a million years old.  Those are some pretty serious achievements.

Soldier.  Businessman.  Athlete.  Student.  All of those words describe Arturo.  But the word I would choose, if I had to pick just one, would be this.  Storyteller.  That man could spin a yarn.  Let’s start with the whole “the atomic bomb saved my life” spiel.  We’ve all heard that one a gazillion times.

When I was a kid, there was one major school of thought on our use of The Bomb in WWII, and one minor one.  The major school of thought was that it ended the war sooner and saved untold lives.  Along with that was the notion that by seeing the power of those early bombs in 1945, later world leaders were sufficiently scared into never pushing the button.  The minor school of thought was that even if this were all true, the bombs were so terrible as to be unjustifiable by any argument.

Those were the arguments I heard when I was young, when I was in school.  Nowadays, the latter argument seems to be more in vogue.  To the point that the term “war crime” is even trotted out to describe their use.

My point here, though, is that Art was one of the last people entitled to a different view by direct personal association.  Because he was ticketed for the invasion of Japan.  So when the war ended shortly after those two terrible detonations, it meant that rather than dying on a beach, he would spend a couple of years cooling his heels in the Philippines.

And you know what?  I don’t know if he thought the bombs were a good thing.  I don’t know if he thought we did the right thing in using them.  Maybe he did.  I don’t know.  But he always believed that The Bomb saved his life.  And that is almost certainly true.  And there aren’t many people left now who can say that.

So yeah, the stories.  My favorite thing about Art in the later years was the car trips to Passover and Thanksgiving.  We’d drive over the Tap and pick him at his home “upstate” and drive him up to Connecticut with us.  And he’d just tell stories the whole way.  Stories about how he nearly married some Jewish dame in the late 40’s, but didn’t, “because she was fat.”  Or the one about the rich oilman relative, who may or may not have killed an “Irishman,” who may or may not have screwed Indians out of some land, who may or may not have sold dry goods to settlers moving West, but who definitely was cut out of the family because “he didn’t keep kosher.”

There were stories about his time in college.  About his military training.  About how his, I want to say father, moved from one of the Baltic states to Germany (Frankfurt am Mein) because they needed a Rabbi; and then moved to America.

I once asked him if he could speak Yiddish.  He couldn’t.  I asked him if his father could.  “He could,” he said.  “But he didn’t like to.  If somebody addressed him in Yiddish, he’d answer in Yiddish; to be polite.  But he always said, ‘I’m an American.  I speak English.’”   And that was Art too.  Proudly Jewish.  Staunchly pro-Israel.  100% American.

Art had a million stories.  And not one of them was self-aggrandizing.  You knew he had to have been one tough SOB, because only tough SOB’s volunteer to carry the BAR.  But when he talked about his military training, it was always about how it affected his schooling, or about how some other guy outperformed him.  He wasn’t religious, he was a “fraud.”  But he went to schul more times in one week than I’ve been in the last decade.  He talked about business trips to Asia but he never let on how successful his business was.  He talked about about business trips to Puerto Rico, but never mentioned that he could understand Spanish quite well and could even speak it a bit.

He had a sister, Ferna.  She had Down Syndrome.  She was in an institution or a home or something; not totally sure on the deets.  The point is, yeah, of course other people visited her.  But he visited her every single week.  And you know what you never heard stories about?  That.

A few years back, we were over his house.  And he had this room full of old junk.  Mementos, pictures, awards, all that kind of shit.  Anyway, I found the damnedest thing.  It was a framed letter to a rabbi on his mom’s side of the family, so a Coblenz; maybe it was an uncle, I’m not sure.  The point is, it was a personally addressed letter from FDR thanking this rabbi for some small service.  I’d need to see the letter again.  I don’t know if he had served on some religious council, or given some kind of advice or what.  But it was a thank-you letter from Franklin fucking Delano fucking Roosevelt.  I mean, come on, that’s kind of a big deal.  Yeah, well, he never spoke about that either.

So as I’m writing this, I’m texting back and forth with my mom, asking for little clarifications here and there.  And she reminded me that I have a couple of recordings of him from the last years.  I have one on my phone, where I asked him a few questions and just let him go.  It’s only about two minutes.  But sure enough, it’s the whole “the atomic bomb saved my life” spiel.

And so, just two little things I want to add to that story.  There was no glory in it, no joy.  He simply said, “I was fortunate.”  He also said he enlisted because “the army paid for six months of NYU.”  What a good Jewish boy.  The goal wasn’t war, it was an education.

More important than that though, is simply the fact that I have his voice.  Because people don’t sound like that no more.  See, he had this oldschool Bronx accent.  And let’s be clear here.  Not the stereotypical “New York” accent from old movies.  Not “dese, dem ‘n’ dose.”  Not “I’ll meetcha at tree’o’clock on toity-toid ‘n’ toid.”  No, it’s far more subtle, but also far more real.

Mel Blanc once described his choice of voice for Bugs Bunny as being a cross between a Brooklyn and Bronx accent.  Because Bugs was a wiseguy, and that’s where wiseguys came from.  And if you think you can tell the difference between a 1930’s Brooklyn accent and a 1930’s Bronx accent, I think you’re full of shit.  But whatever is the Bronx part of Bugs Bunny’s voice, that’s what Art sounded like.

And I gotta tell y’all.  It’s beautiful.

And maybe it doesn’t matter to other people.  Maybe it only matters to me, because I’m interested in language.  But when Art died, that sound died with him.  That voice died with him.  There ain’t nobody left in my life who sounds quite like that anymore.  But I’m sure as shit glad I can still go back and listen to it now.

But maybe it doesn’t just matter to me.  Because I know I’ve heard my mom talk about the way Carol’s booming “Hi!” could fill a room.  My point is, you don’t just remember the person.  You remember how they sounded.  It’s really a sort of Proustian experience.  A sort of auditory madeleine.  He says having never read Proust.

But yeah.  I can still hear Carol’s warm and grand greetings; which, btw, was also Herb’s warm and grand greeting.  I can still hear Ida’s glottal stops, how she would pronounce ‘dentist’ as den’ist.  I can still hear Steve’s absolutely classic Brooklyn.  Just as I can hear Daitz’ baritone “Well, Dave…”.  Or how, on the phone, Mike sounded exactly like my dad.

And it makes me treasure the sound of those who are still around.  My dad’s very subtle but unmistakable Brooklyn which 30+ years on Long Island haven’t dimmed; totally different than Steve’s btw.  My mom’s sharp, elbows-out Brooklyn when she gets mad; totally different than my dad’s.  Jay’s ‘Vinny Baggadonuts’ Brooklyn, different from all of them.  To say nothing of Margaret’s again totally different Sicilian-Italian Brooklyn, which yields the wonderfully hypercorrective vodker.

So, always when people die, come the inevitable questions of regret.  Art had his.  He regretted never marrying in general, and, towards the end, never marrying Linda specifically.  Man, Linda was a character.  I didn’t know her well, so keep that in mind.  But she had this gracious southern accent; I don’t know from where.  And she had all these wacky southern idioms, all of which escape me at the moment.  But she was probably Art’s best friend.  And I’m fairly certain they were a thing at some point.  It never worked out though.  She had MS, which may have had everything – or nothing – to do with it.  In any case, she died quite a few years back.

But towards the end, you could tell he missed her.  And you could tell he was lonely, which was tough.  In the last few years, he would talk about how he wished he’d gotten married.  To which my dad would invariably reply with something along the lines of, “Trust me, Art, you’re better off.”  But it was just a joke to try and make him feel better.   And he appreciated the sentiment.  He’d play along.  But yeah, that was kind of sad.

On the other hand, he loved his family.  He was close with Cookie, I know.  And my mom would always call him.  But – for me at least – he wasn’t an easy guy to get close to.  “Demonstrative” is not a word that comes to mind.  Which should not be mistaken for not caring.

He was always asking about Germany.  Always asking if I was happy.  If I enjoyed teaching.  And, not for nothing, always asked if there was anti-Semitism in Germany.  Because the Jewish identity was always central with him.  And now, as I write this, I’m wondering if that also didn’t play a role in him and Linda never really getting together.  Because when he talked about the fatty he didn’t marry back in the 40’s, he never failed to mention that she was, if nothing else, Jewish.

Oh!  And the worst insult in his book – at least towards another Jew – was that they were “of the shtetl.”  Shtetl is the Yiddish word for the backwater ghettos which Jews used to inhabit in Eastern Europe before…well, you know.  But if somebody was “of the shtetl,” they were low class, uneducated, uncouth, worthy of derision.  It’s witheringly brutal and wonderfully oldschool.  My cousin Jay (Mike’s son) is the only person of my generation whom I know that still uses it.  And even then, it’s always ironic and spoken with an old-timey Jew-y accent; either preceded or followed by an “Oy!”

So yeah, regrets.  I regret that I didn’t know the man better.  I regret that I didn’t get more of his stories down by recording.  Because already the finer details escape me, and I can only paint them with broad strokes.

But these are small things.  The dude made it all the way to 91.  Lived at home, just until the very end.  Drove his own car until he was 89 or 90.  Which, OK, may not have been the best idea.  Ran his business right up to the end.  Was mentally with it until the end.  When I was home in March, he knew exactly who I was, knew I was living in Germany, The Whole 9.  So what if he asked the same questions 20 times?  He knew who he was asking them to, and they were on point.  We should all be so lucky.

I feel like I’m walking around with dead people in my back pocket.  Hm.  There’s probably a better way to phrase that.  What I mean is, there are people – dead people – who are always with me.  Daitz, right?  For as long as I read Homer – which will be as long as I live – Daitz will always be sitting across from me, nudging my pronunciation, carefully noting the verb tense and debating my interpretations with a deep, gentle, “Well, Dave…”.

My grandfather will always be the measure by which the Starr family judges itself.  Whether that be the love of music, the love of learning or just curiosity about the world.  If he’s not around to be the patriarch anymore, he’s very much the spirit animal.  Nobody who knew him doesn’t still get emotional when he comes up.

And now Art.  By way of a slight detour for the goyim, the Hebrew word for the number ‘five’ is chamesh.  From this, we get the word chumash, which means “The Five,” meaning the five books of Moses, the Torah.  The use of the article matters here.  When we say a Torah, we mean the scroll, whichever one happens to be in the ארון קדש – the ark – at your local schul.  When we talk about the Torah, we mean the content, the thing generally.  All this to say that a chumash is not a Torah, but it is a bound-book edition of the Torah.

All this to say, I have Art’s chumash.  Well, really, Cookie’s chumash, which Art gave to her as a gift, which she then gave to me.  He inscribed it too, you know.  He wrote:

                                                                                                            February 26, 2005
To my Niece “Fran”
I hope you enjoy this Chumash.  Happy Birthday.
Love
Art

Two things about this are great.  First, “Fran” in quotes?  So her name is Francine, but she goes by Cookie.  So like, if you were gonna put a name in quotes, wouldn’t it be “Cookie”?  But he always called her Fran.  So in Art-World, her real name is Francine; obviously the shorter “Fran” deserves quotes.  Classic Art.  Also, “enjoy”?  I mean, this book is great for a lot of things.  Cultural connection.  Learning.  Family heirloom.  Whatever you want.  But enjoyment?  Uh, not so much.

Whatever.  The point is, it came from Art.  And this is the book that I work with.  Every day.  Remember my whole Operation Read the Whole Fucking Torah in a Year thing?  The Torah that I’m reading is Art’s chumash.  So he’s with me.  Every day, when I sit down to read, Art’s there too.

Daitz and Homer.  Art and Torah.  One more dead guy in my back pocket.  If this keeps up, I’m gonna need bigger pants.

So that’s the end.  No, that’s not quite right.  It’s an end.  You say goodbye to the man.  And lemme tellya, I’m so glad I got to see him one more time, this last time I was in.  So glad I got to say goodbye.  Even if I didn’t say the word “goodbye.”  Because I’m pretty sure what I actually said was, “Take care of yourself and listen to your doctors.  I expect to see you at Passover next year.”  But that’ll have to do.

So yeah, it’s an end.  It’s the end of his life.  It’s the end of an era, even.  It’s a different world without him.  It’s passed just that much more from the hands of his generation to the hands of the next.  But he did his part to shape this world, and my life in it.  And whatever I do with my life, it will be what it is for his having been a part of it.

So I raise my glass to you, Arthur Levine.  Rest in Peace, Arturo LeMay.  You bloody well earned it.

Let me end this with a wish, with a hope.  It is my wish that, for many years to come, I will have the great honor at our Passover Seder of reading the Hebrew bit in the Hagaddah marked, “Uncle Art reads:”.  And I hope that one day, there will be a child; a child not yet born.  And I hope that child will see the words “Uncle Art reads:” and ask, “Who is Uncle Art?”  Because on that day, I will say, “Come ‘ere, kid.  Lemme tellya a story…”

זײַ געסונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
15 May, 2018

Oh hey, Writer’s Block.  What’s up?  Ugh, you guys.  I’ve tried writing a post – the same post – twice already, and just…I’m not feeling it.  So I’m officially ditching it and starting a new one.  Maybe I’ll circle back at the end though and try to recapture some of it though.  Not that you, dear reader, would know the diff if I didn’t tell you.  So why am I telling you?  Because it’s my blogue and I can ramble if I want to.

Anyway, Germany.  No matter how much I like this country and its fine people, there’s always gonna be some shit that’s just straight up weird, you know?  And by weird, I mean, yeah, every culture is different and they’re all valid and blah blah blah.  But listen to this and tell me if you don’t think it’s fucking weird.

So a couple of weeks back, I went for one of my walks.  I ended up in Friedrichshagen, which is adorable and one of my favorite spots in this neck of the woods.  There’s a Japanese joint I really like there as well as what passes for a good Vietnamese spot in this town.  It was at this Vietnamese outpost that I stopped for a late lunch after several hours of strolling.  I got a bowl of Pho, which was quite good for Berlin, but wouldn’t even make the menu at Pho Grand.  Such is life.

Anyway, after this lovely meal, I mosey up the block where I encounter a little gelato shop.  Well, remembering how nice it was to have a bit of gelato back when I was in Florence, I decided to get a little desert.  I mean, a little gelato never hurt anybody, right?  Well, it hurts me if it has lactose.  So I ask what they’ve got that’s lactose free and the lady behind the counter gives me my options.

And at first, it seemed like I was getting the answer I was hoping for.  Namely that they had both a chocolate and a raspberry that were lactose-free.  Great.  So I ask the lady if I can get a small half-chocolate-half raspberry.  And that’s where things got weird.  Cos the lady looked at me like I had three heads and said, “Halbkugeln geht nicht bei uns.”  We don’t do half scoops.  And I’m like, how do you say “Can’t…or won’t?” in German?

Like, what the actual fuck is that?  I mean, what exactly is stopping you from taking half a scoop of one and half a scoop of the other and jamming them into the same tiny little cup?  Sure, I get that they won’t be exactly halves.  And, yeah, maybe that offends your German sense of…what, even?  Exactitude?  I ain’t exactly asking you to go in the back and concoct an entirely new flavor, just for me, you know?  And I’m not asking for extra ice cream.

I’m literally asking for the same total amount of product for the listed price.  And you know what even?  Fuck the listed price.  If you need to charge me an extra twenty cents for asking for something “off-menu,” so be it.  Although, even that, honestly would be weird.  But just flat out being all, “Yeeaaah, sorry, we don’t do half scoops”???  Oh, and not even “sorry.”  Just straight up, “We don’t do that, [implied] you monster.”  Like, that can’t be normal.

Except, apparently, that’s totally normal.  Here, I mean.  Apparently it’s totally normal here.  It’s obviously not normal.  What I mean is, I’ve told this story to like three people here; three Germans.  And it was the same reaction each time.  Every time I get to the part where I ask for half-&-half, their eyes go wide and the look at me like I’ve just kicked their dog.  I can see it in their faces.  Oh gods, you’re going to take her side, aren’t you?

“So she says – get this – she says, ‘Halbkugeln geht nicht bei uns.’  Can you believe that?”  And they all said the same thing.  “Dude, this is Germany.”  As if that were sufficient as an explanation.  I try to reason with them.  I try to make them see where I’m coming from.  They can’t.  Because Germany.

They have a saying here.  Kunden ist König – the customer is king.  Unless the customer asks for two half scoops.  Then apparently, the customer is a mad king and needs to be protected from himself.  It’s weird, is all I’m saying.

Anyway, Saturday I went for another walk. I didn’t really have a plan.  Just, it was a nice day.  So why not grab a brew and stroll?  Well, so I do that, and it’s lovely.  I got back to my Infinite Monkey Cage podcast.1  For some reason, it feels like a summer podcast to me.  My first time here, in 2015, I listened to it a lot whilst exploring.  So it evokes that – this – time of year for me.  I’m rambling again.

Well, as my walk is winding down, I notice that it’s about 4pm and also that I haven’t really eaten anything yet.  Which isn’t as bad as it sounds, when you consider I couldn’t be bothered to get my ass out of bed before noon.  But I was hungry, is the point.

So I pass a döner shop and awkwardly pause to look in the window.  It looks good, but there’s another one up the block, so I decide to check that one out too before making a decision.  I dunno why.  Not like they’re gonna be vastly different.  Meanwhile, I say that, and sure enough, the second one doesn’t look quite as good as the first.

What I mean by that is, the huge rotating döner in the window of the first shop looked crispier.  Which I like.  Because first of all, I feel like if it’s crispier, then it’s less likely to be super greasy and therefore a bit easier on my not-so-iron gut.  But also, when it’s crispy, you get that nice little crunch.

OK, now I sound like Billy Crystal in the Princess Bride.  You know, with the MLT – Mutton, Lettuce and Tomato, when the mutton is nice and lean…

Right, so I decide I want to go back to the first shop.  The only problem is, I’ve now lingered in front of both their windows; long enough for the guys behind the counter to see me.  And like, that’s awkward.  I mean, it’s not awkward for the more well-adjusted among us.  But I’m like, Great, Döner Guy #1 is gonna be all, “Oh, now you want my sammich only after deciding you didn’t want the other one more?”  And then I’d have to re-walk past the second shop with my purchase from the first shop in hand.  So then Döner Guy #2 could be all, “Oh, I see how it is.  My sammich isn’t good enough for you?  So you bought one from my competitor and are walking past my shop with it, what, to rub it in my face?”

Am I overthinking this?

Anyway, I decide to walk around the block the long way.  That should buy me 5-7 minutes, by which time, hopefully, both Döner Guys will have forgotten about my awkward window shopping.  Except, on the other side of the block, I find a cemetery.  So obvi I need to go check that out.

And at first, it’s just your usual cemetery business.  Nothing’s very old, mind you.  The oldest stones might be from late 19th or early 20th century.  But that’s OK.  It’s still nice and peaceful.  And it reminded me of the time me and Niki went to a cemetery.  That was either one of our last “dates” or one of our first “friend activities.”  We made up stories for some of the people.  And this one guy, Ruben (or Rueben?), Niki actually found a picture of his family.  Crazytown.  Probably not any Rubens in this joint though.  Not a very goyish name.

Well, as I’m looking at these stones I’m noticing the dates.  And it gets my mind going.  Because a great many of the people buried in this cemetery lived through the Nazi times.  And for me, it’s impossible not wonder about that.  Who were they?  What did they do?  Were some of the Nazis?  Did some of them resist?  Did most of them just go with the flow?  The shit these people must have lived through.  And why?  Because they happened to be born at a certain time, in a certain place?

And that’s when things took a turn.  Because then I came to a most interesting part of the cemetery.  Most interesting indeed.  Here, there were not the usual upstanding gravestones.  More square plaques, almost flat in the ground.  And I start to notice, all the death dates are 1945.  These stones are very Spartan, I should say.  Just a name (or “unknown”), a birth date (if known), a death date (if known), and then at the bottom “1939-1945.”

So is this a military part of the cemetery?  There’s nothing to indicate branch of service, rank or anything else.  But all the stones are of equal size, make, layout.  And it’s got the war dates.  So what’s the deal?  I start to look closer, and some of the people died in their 20’s and 30’s.  But some are definitely teenagers.  And a lot of them have death dates of April-May ’45.  So now we’re talking Battle of Berlin?

But so far, I can’t find any sign or plaque that gives actual information.  So after reading a bunch of the first stones I stumble across, I make my way to the front of this little area.  (I had entered from the back of it).  And there I do find a plaque.  But all it says is, 1st and 2nd World War.

Hey?  First also?  I turn around, and sure enough, at the front of this area, all the stones – which are otherwise identical to the ones above described – show the dates 1914 – 1918 across the bottom.  Well now that’s interesting.

So what is actually the deal here?  Did this start as only a cemetery for WWI soldiers; if indeed actually soldiers?  Was it expanded after the second world war?  Or was it all done at one time, later on?  Were bodies exhumed from both wars and reburied here all together?  I don’t know, because I can’t find any information.

But there’s layers of history here, beyond the obvious.  One just has to look at the names.  What I mean is, while many of the names are clearly German, a whole bunch are also Polish.  Which means there are even more stories here.

First, we need to remember that a huge chunk of western Poland was part of Germany up until Versailles.  So Polish names in the WWI section shouldn’t be so surprising.  And Berlin, after all, is quite close to the border.  So at least for these guys – the ’14 – ’18 gang – it’s probably safe to assume they were German citizens of Polish descent.

But what about the Polish names in the WWII section?  Were they also German citizens, long settled in or around Berlin?  Could they have been POWs or other Poles forced to fight, forced to defend Berlin in the last days of the war?  Was that even a thing?  Or did they see themselves as “German” as the guy buried next to them?  And if so, what did they make of the war, of German aggression against Poland, of the Nazi position that the Slavs, the Poles, were subhuman?  How could they take up arms in defense of that regime?  Questions.  But no answers.

And then, going back to the WWII stones, the ones showing deaths in April-May ’45.  The dates are very clearly Battle of Berlin, and I think it’s a safe assumption given where they’re buried.  Right in the path of the advancing Red Army.

But even then, what does that tell us about them?  Almost nothing.  The Russian Army was brutal.  “The Big Red Rape Machine” would be un unflattering but historically not inaccurate epithet.  So even if you hated the Nazis, do you take up arms willingly, when these guys are knocking down your door; knocking down your house; knocking down your whole block?  Do you defend your family, even as you pray for the end of the Nazis and all the madness they’ve wrought?

Or were some of these guys true believers?  The younger ones especially would have known nothing else.  They would have been indoctrinated almost from birth.  How many of them willingly gave their lives for The Führer?  Again, questions.  No answers.

And another point of interest.  While all the WWII stones that I inspected showed 1945 death dates, some of them were as late as September, October, November.  The war was already over.  How did they die?  In POW camps?  As war criminals?  From wounds or sickness sustained in battle?  How does somebody die 4, 5, 6 months after the war is over and still get buried beside the fighting dead?  (Again, assuming these are the fighting dead).  More questions.  Still no answers.

And then, finally, some answers.  But answers that beg more questions.  All the way in the front of this little area, I find a plaque with the following inscription:

In diesem Grab ruhen über 60 unbekannte Frauen und Männer, die infolge von Kriegseinwirkungen verstorben sind.  Die Toten wurden im Jahr 2009 vom St. Laurentius-Friedhof in diese geschlossene Gräberanlage des kommunalen Friedhofsteils Rudower Straße verlegt.

In this grave rest over 60 unknown women and men, who died due to the effects of war.  The dead were lain here from the St. Laurentius Cemetery in this separated grave area in 2009, by the Rudower Steet community.2

Well, the only thing I know for a fact after reading this is that this special section was only dedicated in 2009.  The cemetery itself is St. Laurentius, so I gather that before ’09 all these people were buried elsewhere in the same cemetery.  Oh, and women also?  I didn’t see any lady names, but then I didn’t inspect every stone.  And also, this plaque seemed only to be about the 60 unknowns.  What about all the “knowns”?

And what about the Kriegseinwirkungen – the “effects of war”?  Did they fight?  Or were they just poor civilian bastards who bought it in the Battle of Berlin?  From shelling or bombing or gods know what?

Indeed, now that I think about it a second time, was this plaque for the “unknowns” who were under “unknown” stones or was this a separate 60 people who didn’t even get that much?  So that was good for like two answers and a shit-ton more questions.

So much of this was unexpected and unexplained.  But the most unexpected, and the most wanting for explanation were the final two stones I found, set apart from all the others.  Just two.  The stone themselves looked just like all the others.  Name, birthdate, deathdate.  Only instead of the war dates across the bottom, were these words: NS – OPFER.  Nazi Victim.

Well, shit.  What does that mean?  Political victims?  Resistance fighters?  Jews?  Probably not Jews.  I can’t imagine any Jews would find their way into this cemetery.  But then again, who knows?  I mean, maybe.  So what was their “crime”?  Why were they victims of the Nazis?  Again, no answers.  But whatever the reason, here they lie.  And for them, for these two poor bastards, I’ll give their inscriptions.  It seems worth it.

GOTTFRIED KILIAN
* 7.10.1892
+ 6.8.1940
NS – OPFER

ERICH JANITZKY
* 21.7.1900
+ 21.6.1938
NS – OPFER

I don’t know what you did, fellas.  But you pissed off those Nazi bastards enough to get yourselves killed.  So here’s to you.

Anyway, that was my detour to the cemetery.  I grabbed my döner on the way home.  From the first shop.  And it was quite good.  Not too greasy and with a little bit of crunch.  Just how I like it.

A few weeks ago, my friend-former student Margit asked me if I would do a bit of tutoring with her daughter.  I’ve written about Mag before.  She’s awesome.  Half buddy, half my Berin-mom.  Total wiseass.

I had written a whole thing about this, but I wasn’t happy with it.  So here’s the short version.  The tutoring itself was great.  Super easy.  Sarah, her daughter, is very smart, very good with English.  But more than that, we just had fun.  Not just me and Sarah.  But also Margit, her husband, the other two kids; even Sarah’s French boyfriend visiting from France.3  They’re just good people, you know?

But good people can also be boring people, amirite?  No fear here though.  Everybody in that family is a total wise-ass.  And I mean that as a compliment.  They’re all very sweet.  You walk in the door, and you know right away there’s a lot of love in that house.  But everybody’s just giving everybody else shit all the time.  I fit right in, is what I’m trying to say.

Mag is also taking classical guitar lessons.  So I asked if I could try her axe.  She gladly let me.  It’s a great instrument.  I ran through a couple of Bach preludes and the Sor variations.  Thoroughly enjoyed that, I tellya.  But even more fun was the Edith Piaf.

See, the kid is also studying French and has a bit of culture.  So during the tutoring time, she was goofing around with Je ne regrette rien.  So I’m like, “Hey kid, come here and sing this with me.”  So we sat together and jammed out on that for the fam.  Crazy fun.  Seriously.

Like, Mag is already one of my favorite people.  And not just in Berlin, either.  I think I said last time, she reminds me a lot of my mom.  Which, when I told her, I think she found alternately flattering and annoying.  Annoying if only because who wants to be thought of as a mom by their friends?

But flattering because this.  We went out for drinks around Christmas.  And we wound up at some not-so-cheap (for Berlin)4 German restaurant on Unter den Linden.  And she insisted on paying for the whole thing.  So next time we met up, we went to a Vietnamese spot.  Whereupon I insisted on paying.  At first, she wasn’t having it.  But I reminded her that she had paid last time and that it couldn’t have been cheap, so really she didn’t have a choice.  At which point she relented, and said, “You know, your mom did a good job with you.”  Which I’m not writing here to brag.  Only because I know my mom reads this shit and I thought she’d like to hear the compliment.  All to say, I think Mag is OK if I happen to notice some similarities between her and one Cindy A. Starr.

Anyway, I’m a big fan of this whole family.  Add a few more to the list of awesome people I’ve met in this town.  I mean, I’m still always wondering how much of this is luck, you know?  What if I went to a different city?  What if I worked in a different school?  No Anne.  No Margit and fam.  No Jan and Zibs.  No J-Dawg.

Would there be other awesome people?  As awesome as these people?  Maybe.  I dunno.  What I do know is, I think I’m pretty fucking lucky here.

Could I still kvetch?  Sure.  But it’s baseball season.  Why would I?

זײַ געסונט

 

  1. Highly recommended, btw.  It’s a BBC science/comedy pod. []
  2. My translation.  It may not be perfect, but it’s close enough. []
  3. He had virtually no English and even less German, so it was a good opportunity to speak some French; though I did get my wires crossed quite a bit. []
  4. Which means cheap anywhere else. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
24 April, 2018

Right, so this is weird.  Writing on a weeknight, I mean.  It’s gonna be an unusually short post, I think.  See, I’ve done all the Hebrew I care to do for the day.  And I’m not feeling up to hitting the Greek or cracking on with the Federalist Project.  But watching TV doesn’t really appeal to me either just now.  I want to do something that passes for productive, so why not write a bit?

So I did a mitzvah1 on Sunday.  Not intentionally, mind you.  And the whole thing was really rather surreal.  So strange was it, that I feel I need to write it down.  Here’s what happened.

The weather being just swell on Sunday, I set out on of my long walks.  And as I’m walking down Seelenbinderstraße, not ten minutes from my apartment, I see this strange-looking man ahead of me, further down the street.  “Strange looking” is perhaps a rather cruel way to put it.  It was clear that he was struggling with some sort of physical handicap, at the very least.

Now in New York, you would immediately think “troubled homeless guy.”  But as we shall see, things are a bit different here.  Anyway, I see this guy ambling towards me.  But I’m listening to a podcast and just doing my thing, so of course, I’m just kinda hoping to pass this guy without any kind of interaction.  Which is a polite of way of saying, I was hoping this guy wouldn’t stop me and ask me for change.

Either I’m that much of an asshole, or that’s how New York has got me conditioned.  Or both.  Anyway, that’s where I was at.  Judge if you must.

Well, of course he waves me down as I’m passing him.  Damn.  Well, even my asshole-ocity has its limits.  So I stop and take out my headphones, prepared for the inevitable asking for change.  Now, mind you, I’m listening to an English-language podcast, so my ear doesn’t tune in to his German right away.  I didn’t quite catch what he said, but it was clear he wasn’t asking for money.  “Wie, bitte?” I ask him to repeat himself.  And whatever he said, it’s very clear that he’s got some kind of physical disability; possibly a mental one on top of that.  He repeats:

Kannst du mich nach Hause bringen?”  Can you bring me home?

Oh, fuck.  I mean, yes, obviously.  But shit.  Sorry, let me clarify.  Not, “Shit, I don’t need this inconvenience.”  I mean, “Shit, that’s kind of heartbreaking.”  Can you bring me home.  Well, yeah, obviously.  Which is what I said: Ja, natürlich.  And I give him my arm.  Which he takes.  I know, how romantic.  And we start to walk.

I ask him where lives.  And he tells me the name of his street.  Which I didn’t know.  And so, I’m kinda like, Welp, I hope it’s not too far.  In hindsight, I should have known it couldn’t have been that far.  Because clearly this guy wasn’t built for cross-country, you know?

Anyway, there I am, walking down the street, with this old dude on my arm.  And I notice he’s carrying this wicker basket.  Well, I’m a curious guy.  I sneak a peak down at the basket.  And all he’s carrying is three SternisSterni – Sternburg – is a beer.  In fact, it is the single cheapest beer in all of Germany.  It’s kinda like their PBR.  Either you love it, and it’s your number-one go-to beer, or you turn your nose up at it.  Personally, I’ve never had one.  No real reason, I just haven’t.  But they also make a Radler, and I’ve certainly had plenty of those.

Anyway, I look down, and I see he’s got a basket of nothing more than three beers.  And I had two very opposite reactions to this.  On the one hand, there was something a bit heartbreaking about it.  Like, clearly this guy had left his home at great difficulty to himself, just to buy three not-very-good beers; which was probably all he could carry.  On the other hand, I kinda felt like this guy really wasn’t all that different from me, and I kinda wanted to give him a hug.

I was thinking this until I was interrupted by the sound of the three glass bottles beginning to clink against each other in the basket.  It took me, honestly, longer than it should have, to realize that the reason these bottles were clinking was because it was too heavy for him and his arm was starting to shake.

Shit.  Get your shit together, Davey.  So I got my shit together.  I stopped our walking and reached for the basket.  “Darf ich das tragen?”  Can I carry that?  He handed the basket over with not a little relief and we started walking again.  So now I’m walking with an old man on one arm and a wicker basket full of beer on the other.

I tried to make a bit of small talk.  I asked him how long he’d been living here.  He didn’t understand me.  I asked again, and he didn’t understand again.  So I gave up.  I hope this doesn’t sound dickish, but my German’s not that bad.  So I kinda chalked it up to maybe some mental disability.  So we just walked in silence.

And now I’m thinking, this is Germany.  Land of the Brothers Grimm.  Maybe this dude is fairy godmother in disguise and he’s testing strangers.  Maybe the last three people he asked to walk him home ignored him.  Maybe when I get him home, he’ll turn into the fairy godmother and grant me a wish or some shit.  Or, you know, not.

Then I had a darker thought.  Or a brighter one, depending on your point of view.  Because, again, I realized, this is Germany.  And how lucky for him that he lives in Germany now, where they do an excellent job of taking care of their people; excellent social safety net in this country.  But man, what if this was the 1930’s?  This guy would have been sterilized at the least; at the worst…well, you know.  But it’s not the 30’s.  It’s now.  And he has his own apartment and he can go out and buy beer.  In New York, this guy might be sleeping on the sidewalk outside of Penn Station.

Anyway, we finally get to his building.  Now he makes a bit of small talk.  Something along the lines of, “We’re almost there.  Number 22.”  OK, that’s not really small talk.  Whatever.  So he fishes out his keys and goes to unlock the front door.  That wasn’t so easy to watch.  His hands were all shaky and shit, so it took him a few seconds to slot the key.  And you could see that the metal plate around the lock was scratched to shit.  So yeah, that’s life for this guy.  Getting the key into the front door is a new adventure every day.  Fuck me.

We get inside and I ask him what floor.  Because everything here is a walkup.  I thought he said first floor.  It was the second.  And for a second, I was thinking, Shit, how’m I gonna get this guy up the stairs?  But he just grabs hold of the railing and starts climbing.  No problem.  Right, good.  But I stay close behind him, just in case.

Anyway, we get to his front door.  He opens it up and I give him his basket back.  He thanks me kindly and that’s that.

So yeah, that was that.  Like I said, very surreal.  But he was a very sweet man.  The thing that sticks with me most though, was his initial question.  Kannst du mich nach Hause bringen?  Can you bring me home?  I don’t know why, but that really got to me.  Just, I dunno, when you have to ask that to a complete stranger.  That’s rough.

Anyway, that happened.

The other thing I want to touch on in this post is my future.  Look, I’ve said a million times by now, I love my job.  And today was another great day.  I don’t feel like getting into it here, but maybe I’ll touch on it in my next full-length post.  Just that, I developed a new way of teaching some difficult material, and it seemed to be a big hit.  That was cool.

But the point is, no matter how much I love what I’m doing right now, I don’t actually know if I want to do it forever.  And that’s all things being equal.  But all things aren’t equal.  Bad shit is happening at home, and I’m often feeling like I’m not doing anything to fight it.  And I should be.  So what can I do?

Well, some months back, I got this crazy idea that wouldn’t it be cool to be a lawyer and do civil rights or immigration or something like that.  You know, help the people who are most defenseless and most under attack.

Well yeah, that would be cool.  But, I mean, I’m 37.  Am I too old for law school?  Could I hack it?  Is law school – never mind breaking into actually practicing law – a young man’s game?  Well, I didn’t want to make any mention of this until I had a chance to speak with someone who’d been through it.

So while I was home, I asked Adam about it.  Adam is my oldest continuous friend; we’ve been friends since the fourth grade; what is that – nine years old?  And he’s an attorney.  So if anyone would know, it’s him.

Right.  So I ask him.  And before I can even finish the question, he’s like: Yes.  Yes!  Do it!

Really?  Really.  So we discussed it at some length.  And he’s of the opinion that I’m not at all too old and that I absolutely could do it, and people older than me have done it, and he’d always thought I’d make a good lawyer.2  Which was amazing to hear and very encouraging.  Like, before that conversation, I thought maybe I was crazy for even considering this.

And Jared was there for the conversation.  And he says, “David, I think this is a wonderful idea.  And just so you know, when I finish my PhD [he’s doing a PhD now], I’ll be 39 or 40.  So of course you can do this.”  Which was equally great to hear and just as encouraging.

Of course there’s one major problem here.  Namely, how the hell could I hope to pay for this?  I mean, do I really want to take on even more student debt?  And it’s not like I’d make a whole lot of money if I did this.  Civil rights and immigration lawyers are not exactly well paid.  Which, to be clear, doesn’t matter to me.  I wouldn’t be doing it for money.  Just to say, do I want even more debt when I’d hardly be making enough to service said debt?

So that’s something I need to figure out, obviously.  And also, I’m not quite ready to leave Germany.  I’m not quite ready to put a bow on this whole experience I’m having over here.  To say nothing of the fact that I’m not done growing as a teacher.

To that last point, maybe you’re never done growing as a teacher.  But for example, when just today I tested a new methodology of my own device and saw it to be a success, well, who knows what else I can come up with before all is said and done?

But then, as far as that goes, here’s another thing.  And I’m almost ashamed to put this down, because I’m afraid it’s going to sound a bit arrogant.  But that’s not how I mean it.  So now I’ve had two students tell me they think I’m wasting my time and my talents at this job.  That I should be doing something bigger, more challenging, whatever.

And I dunno.  Am I too overqualified for what I do?  I hate to think that.  Like I said, I think it sounds arrogant.  And look, I’m not blind to the fact that most people who do what I do don’t have M.A’s in dead languages.  Most people who do what I do aren’t roping in French and Latin and Ancient Greek and Hebrew.  Most people who do what I do aren’t finding time to teach Shakespeare or rhetorical stylistics.

But you know what?  Just because you know a lot of shit doesn’t mean you’re good at communicating it.  All that stuff is great, but if people don’t leave my class being better at English than when they started, well, I’m not a good teacher, am I?  Now, I do think people leave my class better than when they started.  And I do happen to think I’m good at what I do.  But I also know I can be better.

And that’s what I’m focusing on right now.  Trying to be better every day, trying to be better for every class.  However good I might have been for the last student, I’m trying to be better for the next one.

So I try to remember all that when a student tells me, “Du verschwendest dein Talent in der Schule” – You’re wasting your talent in the school.  But when she says, “Du bist zu großer Angsthase” – You’re such a scaredy-cat3 – well, you gotta think about that too.  Don’t you?  I mean, I’d hate to think the reason I didn’t pursue a PhD, or don’t go to law school – if I don’t – is because I was too comfortable doing what I was doing or I was too scared to try.

So I’ve got all that going on in my head at the moment.  But six months ago, if I thought about the future, I couldn’t see anything beyond that day.  Now though, now sometimes at least, I think maybe I have a goal.  And that goal would be law school, and then civil rights or immigration law.

In any case, for now, I’m going to try and extend my visa.  I know I’m not ready to leave in November, when this incarnation of my visa expires.  I want to do this for at least another year.  But after that?  We’ll see.  If nothing else, I can at least be trying to save money, to ease the financial burden if I do decide to go down that road.

A quick note to my parents, who are hearing about this here for the first time.  I very much wanted to talk to you guys about this while I was in.  But I didn’t want to bring it up until I’d had a chance to discuss it with Adam.  And I didn’t see him until the Saturday before I left.  And after that, there wasn’t time to sit down and properly chat.  By which I mean, with wine.  Obviously.

Anyway, that’s enough for this post.

זײַ געסונט

 

  1. מצוח : The word technically means “commandment.”  But when, in English, we say “to do a mitzvah,” it means “to do a good deed.” []
  2. That last part has been true for a while.  He’s been telling me for years he thinks I’d make a great (or at least good) lawyer. []
  3. Angsthase – literally, “scaredy-rabbit.”  Sometimes you gotta love this language. []

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. []