An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
9 March, 2019

Hola!  Que paso?  Yeah, so apparently I’m learning Spanish now?  I don’t know why I said that like it’s a question.  It’s not.  Apparently I’m actually learning Spanish now.  Mostly for the same reason people climb Everest.  It’s there.

So remember a while back I mentioned that in our school we have a woman from Columbia who teaches German? And I said that she would often chat me up in the kitchen in Spanish.  Usually I could understand her, but I was also pretty incapable of answering back.  Well, anyway, we’ve been working together for over two years already, so we’ve gotten to be pretty friendly.

And somehow or another, the idea of doing Spanish lessons came up.  Which is weird, in a way.  Cos it’s not something I ever thought about pursuing.  I mean, I’ve never been particularly attracted to Spanish as a language; certainly not the way I’m attracted to Italian or French, for example.  And also, I’m busy.  Not just life busy, but language busy.  In theory, I should have my hands full with German and French and Hebrew and Greek and Yiddish.  So going after Español wasn’t exactly something that was on my mind.

But at the same time, when you’re offered free lessons by someone you know, by a teacher you like, well, how you gonna say no to that?  And they are free, btw.  She – Claudia is her name – just likes doing this.  Although in a way that was vaguely reminiscent of The Godfather, she did say something along the lines of, “I don’t want your money.  But one day, I may ask you for a favor.”  Probably on the day of her daughter’s wedding, amirite?

Anyway, it’s fun.  And she’s really encouraging.  We always start with her asking me about my week, and I just have to do my best to answer in Spanish.  And at first, I was super shy.  Like, I forgot 99% of what I learned in HS and the little bit the remained was bound to be a mess.  Funny thing though, she told me what I always tell my own students.

“Just fucking talk. Who cares if you make mistakes? That’s how your gonna learn and that’s how I’m gonna see what you know and what you don’t.”  Oh, yeah, good advice, fam.1  Since then, I just roll with what I got, no fucks given.  And every week, it’s a tiny bit better than before.

She also gives me HW, which of course I need.  But rather than do it at home, I do it in the mornings before class starts.  It’s actually a nice way to start the day.  I get to work super early anyway.  So I grab a couple of clementines and a cup of tea and sit down and do 15-20 minutes of Spanish every day.  And it’s just a very relaxing way to ease into the day.

The whole thing makes for a rather fascinating look at how my brain works too.  See, cos I had Spanish in HS.  And while I never really learned it as a “language,” in the way that I understand that to mean now, I did learn a lot of vocabulary.  What I mean is, in school, I never understood the grammar. And I never really managed to be able to usethe language, you know, for communication.  But somewhere deep in my brain, there’s this decent repository of words, and on a very basic level, some gut-feeling of how shit is supposed to sound.  Which helps with conjugating verbs, believe it or not.  

But the other thing I find interesting is the role that French plays in all this.  Because they’re obviously both romance languages, right? So when I need a word, and I can’t remember anything, I often go to a French word and try to reverse-engineer it into Spanish.  It doesn’t always work, but often as not it gets me close enough that Claudia at least understands what I’m after.  

It’s also hard to break out of some French patterns for the most basic words like “and” and “but.”  Like, I find myself saying maisinstead of peroand etinstead of y.  Which is hilarious.  Because I feel like an old world grandmother.  Or better yet, my own old world great grandmother.  In those tapes of Bubbi, she’s always saying shit like “UndI remember mein schwester…”  Like, yeah, I guess that’s English…ish?  So sometimes I say shit like “mon amigo,” bc I get my wires crossed.  But it’s all good.  That shit will straighten itself out eventually.  If I do this long enough, anyway.

One nice thing Claudia said to me, she said she likes working with me bc it’s easy.  “You’re a teacher.  You studied Latin.  You get it. I explain things once, and you have it.” Which is not to say that “having it” is the same as “mastering it.”  I still make plenty of repeat mistakes.  Just that conceptually, I understand things with little difficulty.  But she said that, and I was just kinda like, “Oh, thank gods.”  

Bc one thing I’ve found in this job, teachers make the absolute worst students.  I get students sometimes who have taught languages; who have even taught lower level English.  And they’re insufferable.  They can be very know-it-all-y.  And they have their own opinions about howto teach, about pedagogy.  And just like, shut up, you know?  You want me coming into your class and telling you how shit works?  

I’m the same way, not for nothing.  Or I was, when I did my CELTA.  I was always showing off my Greek and Latin and grammar and whatnot.  I must have been insufferable.  But now that I’m on the other side of it, I can see how wretched that all is.  

So I’m conscious of that when I work with Claudia.  She’s the teacher, I trust her.  I’m just along for the ride.  I try to check my own shit at the door now and let her run her show.  So far, it seems to be working.

Anyway, I said earlier that I’ve never really felt any great attraction to Spanish.  And that’s true enough.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum.  Or the biblioteca, as it were.  Reconnecting with Spanish has brought back a flood of happy memories.  The oldest being just doing vocab flash cards with my mom, back in the day.  I mean, that’s definitely something I took for granted at the time.  Hell, I probably even found it rather annoying, since I didn’t enjoy Spanish in school.  But come on, how many kids have a mom who will just sit and quiz them on vocab flash cards?  Pretty cool. Gracias, mamita.

But it’s also bringing back a ton of memories from my time at Starbucks.  Which surprised me, tbh.  Bc look, I did that job for a year.  And that year was 2004-05, so that’s a long time ago already.  But we were a really tight group down at the William St shop. We would often hang out after work, pouring vodka into our passion fruit ice teas.  They’d come over to my apartment and we’d drink on the roof.  Or I’d go up to the Boogey-down and we’d kick in the BX.2

And when I said we were a tight group, I mean it.  It’s kinda the only job I can think of where I can remember all the names and all the faces. And that’s 15 years ago.  Compare that to the school I worked at before coming to Germany, and already most of the names are gone, the faces are fuzzy. But from Starbucks?  Man, we had fun.

It was always super slow on Saturdays.  So that was always a good time for whoever I was working with to teach me some Spanish. And they were great about it, you know? Like, they’d encourage me to try and talk to a Spanish speaking customer in Spanish.  Which I definitely did not have the balls to do.

I remember I’d learn one bit of slang from a Puerto Rican one day.  And then I’d try it the next day with a Dominican, and they’d just laugh at me.  Like, “Where you learned that mierda?” And vice versa.  I remember the way this one girl, would always roll her ‘r’ when saying the number three. That was adorable.  Or the way one of the girls would teach me Spanglish.  “Dave, you ready for lonche?”3

And like I said, none of this was because I had some overriding love of Spanish.  Just, these were my co-workers, who became my friends for a time.  And they were happy to share their language and their culture with me.  And I just loved that.

Because it was the culture as much as the language.  There was this one girl, man she was super cute.  And one day she tells me, “Dave, I gotta put on some weight, yo.”  And I’m like, “Are you kidding?  You look amazing.”  And she was just like, “Nah, you don’t understand.  Spanish girls gotta be bigger.”  I mean, it was a longer conversation.  But the point was, she opened me up to a whole nother cultural conception of what ‘beautiful’ is.  That was new for me, and I’ll never forget that.  Or how one of the girls introduced me to pernil, which is a roasted pork shoulder.  Eye-opening shit for a 23-year old. 

Later, I had a temp gig at an investment bank.  So obviously everybody that worked there was rich and white.  Except for my direct boss (who I guess was like an operations manager?) who was black and the receptionist, who was from Ecuador.  They were both great.

I was pretty close with the receptionist for the time that I worked there.  And she also was always happy to teach me little bits of Spanish.  I’ll never forget, at the end of my first day, when I was leaving, I said goodbye to her in Spanish.  We didn’t really know each other yet.  So I’m all “Te veo mañana.”4  And she’s like, “Wait, are you Spanish?”  To which I said, “Umm, do I lookSpanish?”  You know, cos I’m so white, I get sunburnt in the shade.

But she was just like, “Dude, come on, that doesn’t mean anything.”  Which was news to a 24-year old who went to all levels of school with almost exclusively white people.  Anyway, she was great.  And she’s another one, I remember the name and the face, even though we never spoke after I left that gig.  But while I was there, she was only to happy to share her language and her culture with me.

And the funny thing is, both of those jobs kinda sucked.  The jobs themselves, I mean.  Being a barista.  Being a temp. These were not nice jobs.  But the people.  They were fucking great, man.  And 15 years on, those are such happy memories for me.

So it’s interesting to compare those experiences with my current job.  Y’all know I love this job.  I look forward to going into work.  It’s great.  And you bet I like my colleagues.  But I’m not tight with them the way I was tight with that lot.  And I don’t imagine I’ll remember the people I work with now as fondly as I do the Starbucks gang or the investment bank receptionist, in another 15 years.

But I guess it’s one of those Breakfast Club kinda things.  You all get thrown together in a less than ideal situation.  People who might never be friends in the real world. But you bond in that environment. And you’re tight for as long as it lasts.  And then your paths diverge again.  But what’s the song from that movie?  “Don’t you…forget about me…”  Well, I haven’t so far.  And I don’t think I ever will.

The point is, I miss those mutherfuckers.  And learning Spanish brings that all back.

So much for Español. I’ve also decided it’s time I finally learn English.  What’s that you say?  You’re a native speaking English teacher?  Surely you know English already?  Oh, sorry. I meant, oldEnglish.  As in, Anglo-Saxon.  I’m talking Beowulf English.  The OG. 

Justin sent me this great meme.  It goes something like this: “Q: How come we say bakedbut also naked? Shouldn’t those sound the same? A: That’s because English isn’t actually a language.  It’s actually three languages dressed in a trench coat pretending to be one.”  

Which is more or less true. I have two analogies that I use with my students.  The first is that English is a French house built on a German foundation.  The other is that English is the unruly teenage child of French and German that does whatever the fuck it wants.  Which is true enough.  

But although we say “German,” what we really mean is “Germanic.”  To put it another way, Old English (Anglo-Saxon) was a dialect of German spoken in the NW of what today is Germany.  It has much in common with the local dialects of that region still.  But that is not the dialect of German that won out when Germany became a unified country in the 19thcentury and a single standard German was agreed upon.  So in that sense, Old English is not German.  A modern day German can’t pick up Beowulf and understand it.  But the similarities are there if you know what you’re looking for.

Aaaanyway.  I’ve said before that one of my strengths as a teacher is my knowledge of the languages that influence English.  I can give Greek and Latin roots.  I can trace the origins of words through French or show their cognates in Modern German.  Hell, I can even show how some Slavic words have the same roots as English words.

And so it is perhaps ironic that my biggest blind spot in English is, well, English itself.  I have no working knowledge of pre-10665English.  And tbh, I’m kind of ashamed of that.  So finally, I’ve decided to tackle Old English. 

Well, I say “finally,” but really, this is my third attempt.  I tried once in New York and got nowhere.  I tried again like 18 months ago and also got nowhere.  But now I’m going at it again, this time more slowly, more methodically.  I’ve just started.  But this is for real this time.  I can feel it, you guys.  

I’m not setting any goals, in terms of time.  It’ll take however long it takes.  I’m just gonna work through it.  But can I tell you something?  I kinda love it.  Like, a lot. First of all, it just soundsbadass.  But more than that, it’s like lighting a candle in a dark room.  You can’t see everything, not even close. But all of a sudden, you’re seeing shit you never knew was there.

Also, though, there’s something deeper at work.  I’m talking birthright/heritage shit right now.  Who am I?  Where do I come from?  Linguistically, I mean.  On the one hand, there’s Yiddish.  All of my family on both sides is out of Eastern Europe.  So literally every branch of my family was speaking Yiddish 150 years ago.  

But my mother tongue is English.  And it doesn’t matter that I’m not a WASP.  I was born into English just as I was born into Yiddish, albeit in very different ways.  My connection to those languages may be radically different.  But there is one common outcome.  A desire to know whyI say the things I say.  A desire to know whereit all comes from.  And so it makes sense to me that I’m trying to learn Yiddish at the same time as I’m trying to learn Old English.  They both teach me something about who I am.  

In other news, the music stuff keeps on keeping on.  I get together with Bibi and Ralf once a week, and that’s coming along nicely.  I’m also working on this Scarlatti sonata, which is pretty cool.  Still a ways to go with that one, but it’s a pretty sick sounding piece.  

One thing I was thinking about the other day, this may be the farthest I’ve ever come with classical guitar.  I mean, yeah, I took lessons in college.  Whereas now I’m just working on my own.  And my repertoire may be smaller now than it was when I was taking lessons.  But if it’s smaller, it’s also more advanced.  Not that anybody’s ever gonna mistake me for a professional musician, but I’m handling pieces now that I was never able to handle before.  

So my technique is perhaps the best it’s ever been.  And that’s translating somehow to the music I’m doing with Bibi and Ralf.  I feel like my coordination is better, my picking is tighter. On the other hand, the music that we play tends to be on the slow side, so maybe it’s all just an illusion.  An illusion.  An illusion.  Aww Yeaahhh.6

What I mean is, obviously when I was playing metal, the music was much much faster and therefore more technically demanding.  So while I feel like I’m more technically proficient now, maybe I’m the same as I ever was and it just feels that way bc we’re doing slower stuff.  

I guess it doesn’t matter in the end.  The point is, I’m enjoying it and I think I’m doing some good stuff with those two.  

Reading-wise, my boy Dumas seems to have taken a sharp and sudden turn for the boring.  One minute it’s D’Artagnan and the boys kicking ass. The next, it’s some creepy unrequited love triangle between Louis XIV, some other joker and some married dame, who, best I can tell, is hot, coquettish and totally useless.  So I had to put that shit down for a little minute. 

In it’s place, I’ve just re-read 1984 which…just…sigh.  I mean, that’s a whole nother conversation.  And I’m reading some Lovecraft short stories.  He’s pretty great, if you like dark and creepy.  Umm, let me clarify.  His writing is great if you like dark and creepy.  As a human being, he was apparently, well, dark and creepy. And not in that good way.  Seems he was quite the raging racist, is what I’m saying.  But whatever, he’s dead.  So Imma just enjoy his stories.  

When I finish with those, it’s back to my boy JV – Jules Verne – who never lets me down.  I’ve just picked up a new paperback, Les Cinq Cents Millions de la Bégum.  Apparently, it’s supposed to be somewhat dark and dystopic.  So I’m fairly amped to get going with that.

And that’s when I realized. On any given day, I might be interacting with no less than eight languages.  French on the train.  A bit of Spanish and Yiddish before class.  English in class and German in the real world.  Hebrew when I get home.  A bit of Old English in the evening and some Homer before bed.  

You know, sometimes I get the question, “Jeez, Dave, how many languages do you speak?”  To which I invariably respond, “I speak English.” Because my French and German, while functional, are hot messes.  My Spanish and Yiddish are hardly usable.  And the other ones are dead languages.  And I like dead languages.  You don’t have to deal with people.

So I speak English. But yeah, on some level, I’m doing something with up to eight languages.  Meanwhile, I spoke to Charlotte yesterday.  She’s in South America now, remember.  So we had a long conversation about Spanish.  It was great.  We totally nerded out over Spanish grammar.  I mean, there’s a reason we’re friends, right?

Anyway, she’s like, “So. Still no Italian, huh?”  And I’m just like, “Fucking sigh, no.”  Like, all I ever wanted to do is learn Italian. And all I do is keep learning shit that’s not Italian.  And she’s like, “Welp, you’ll just have to move to Italy.”

And you know what? Maybe.  I mean, putting aside the part of me that’s all “Go be of service to your country and become a civil rights/immigration lawyer already,” why not go live in Italy?  It’s a tempting thought at this time of year, as winters in Berlin are objectively shite. And how long do I really want to live in a country where I find the culture too rigid, where the architecture is dull and where the food is, shall we say, less than inspiring?  

And maybe if my job was different, I’d be more apt to leave.  But I love my job.  I love the freedom I have to make it my own.  I love that it’s steady and I don’t live the normal freelance teacher life of constantly trying to find the next gig.  And I have friends here that I love, that I’m very close with.  I mean, what are the odds I could build friendships on the level of Joschka or Anne or Zibs and Jan somewhere else?  

But on the other hand, how long do I really want to be here?  And if I go home, for the purpose of pursuing a law career, then that’s kinda it, isn’t it?  That would be the end of this whole living abroad adventure.  

So on some level, I have a feeling like I owe it to myself.  Whether it’s in one year or three or ten, shouldn’t I at least make a go of living in Itlay for a year or two?  I mean, every time I go there, the second I get off the plane, I’m hit with this feeling of “Why don’t I live here?!” 

I dunno.  That’s not a plan, by any means.  I’m not even sure it’s a goal.  But it’s something that’s on my mind.  And in the winter, it’s on my mind all the more.  

Also France.  It’s a source of great frustration to me that I can read French as well as I do, but that the spoken language is a struggle. And it’s only a struggle bc I’m not immersed in it.  With French, I always feel like it’s just beyond my fingertips.  Like, if I could just be surrounded by French for six months, I could manage that language really quite well.  Better than I manage German even.  I’d love to be able to do that.

So there’s this conflict. On the one hand, there’s this feeling that I should be doing something more important with my life.  On the other hand, I have this strong desire to live in Italy, to learn the language that, before any other, lit my love affair with languages.  Also to eat good bread.  On the third hand, to live in France and get properly good at that language.  And also to eat good bread.  But on a fourth hand, I have a great job here.  And relationships that are super important to me. There’s so many hands, Imma need an octopus to figure this shit out.

But all that’s for another day.  For now, Imma just keep on keeping on.  I’ve got enough to keep me busy.  More than busy.  Engaged. Mentally, socially, emotionally, musically.  I guess what I’m saying is, good bread can wait.  Just maybe not forever…

זײַ געסונט


  1. Did I use “fam” correctly?  Also, are we still saying “fan”? []
  2. Living in Germany has not been good for my command of urban slang.  Also, getting old doesn’t help either. []
  3. Lunch, obvi. []
  4. Like a boss jefe. []
  5. The year of the Norman invasion, which forever changed the English language.  The conquering (French) Normans basically dropped their own language on top of the existing language.  It took about 300 years, but eventually they merged into what we would recognize as “English.”  Compare Chaucer (AD 1300-ish) and Beowulf (AD 800-ish) and you’ll see what I mean. []
  6. Fury throwback! []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
18 February, 2019

So one of the hardest things about living in a foreign country is that you don’t share the same cultural touchstones.  And for me, one of those touchstones is baseball.  I live in a world where the name Mickey Mantle mean nothing, where people have never heard of Joe DiMaggio but they sure know his wife.  A country where “Who’s on First?” isn’t funny, because nobody knows what a baseball diamond looks like.  It’s tough, I’m tellin’ ya.  

Anyway, the other day in class, we were doing some or other exercise and a student reads the sentence, “Jackie said blah blah blah.”  So I ask, “Is Jackie a boy’s name or a girl’s name?”1  And one student says, “Maybe a girl’s name?  I mean, Jackie Kennedy, right?”  Yes, that’s right, I said.  But also, Jackie Robinson.  And all I got was blank stares.  So I’m like, “Wait, does nobody here know who Jackie Robinson is?”  Now it’s blank stares mixed with slight embarrassment. Like, you can see them thinking, “Hang on, are we all idiots?  He’s asking like it’s obvious.  But I’ve never heard of this Jackie Robinson…fellow?”

“You guys, he’s was the first black baseball player in the Major Leagues.”  At which point, any embarrassment immediately evaporated.  Because they were all like, “Dude, you’re in Germany. You don’t honestly expect us to know the name of a baseball player.”  And yet, when asked, they’d heard of Babe Ruth.  So, you know, there’s that.

Anyway, I sorta sighed. And that’s when I said, “I can’t believe I moved to a country where nobody’s heard of Jackie Robinson.  Like, a little piece of me just died inside. What have I done to myself?”  I think they thought that was perhaps a slight overreaction.  Because they then said something like, “OK, but be real.  What did you expect?  And anyway, what’s the big deal?  He’s just a baseball player.”

Just a baseball player. But he’s so much more than just a baseball player, I tried to explain.  “Look, y’all’ve heard of Martin Luther King, right?”  Of course they had.  “Well Jackie Robinson was just as important.  He’s a major figure in the fight for civil rights.”

Oh, and also the baseball. Jackie stealing home is the stuff of legends.  And the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Boys of Summer.  But you can’t teach them the glory of Jackie and Pee Wee and Hodges, Campy and the Duke of Flatbush when they don’t even know the difference between a touchdown and a homerun.  Which is not an exaggeration, btw.  One of my guys actually thought a touchdown was how you score in baseball.  Like I said, a little piece of me died inside.

Anyway, I decided I had two choices.  I could either go home and cry about it (which I may or may not have done), or I could get off my ass and do something about it.  #WWJD?  What would Jackie do?  So I decided to do something about it.  I went online and started looking for an article about the man and his life, with minimal emphasis on the game of baseball itself.

Because this couldn’t be a lesson about batting average and RBI.  It had to be a lesson about the fight for equality and civil rights, and Robinson’s role in all that.  After a bit of digging around, I found a piece that fit the bill.

Last week, I brought it to class and we read it together.  As a purely English exercise, it was worthwhile, just for the reading practice and new vocabulary.  But more importantly, they learned not only about Jackie Robinson, but some of the history of race relations in general in America.  Like, I had to teach them about segregation and shit.

Anyway, at the end, I thanked them for indulging me in this.  But also, I said something along the lines of, “And also, the world is a better place now because a few more people know about Jackie Robinson.”  Hard to tell how serious they were, but more than a few of them thanked me.  Said they genuinely appreciated learning about him and the history and found the whole thing generally interesting.  

Also, two of my girls each have a pair of young sons.  So I volunteered to teach them how to throw a baseball.  They kinda lit up at that.  They’ll probably be out of the class by the time it’s warm enough to have a catch, so we’ll see if it actually happens.  But it’s nice to know people are interested.

In the article, there was a Roger Kahn quote, from “The Boys of Summer.”  At which point, I had to mention that “Boys of Summer” is one of the best books ever and one of my personal favorites.  One girl circled the quote.  Maybe she’ll read it one day.

This girl is great by the way.  She’s Turkish and an observant Muslim; wears a headscarf, keeps halal, that sort of thing. She studied theology when she was younger, studies architecture now.  Great sense of humor and very smart.  But what I love is, she’s this observant Muslim…and she curses like a sailor.  She gives me shit, too.  So she’s fun to have in class.

She sits next to Mr. A-Touchdown-is-Baseball-Right?, who is an otherwise smart young lad, also with a good sense of humor, who also gives me shit all day long, now that I think about it.  They have a very cute brother-sister thing going on.  It’s kind of adorable.  I’ll come back to them later.

Anyway, we’re sitting in the kitchen for lunch.  And as I’m about to start eating my salad,2each person at the table has to say “Guten Appetit.”  Which means I have to put my fork down seven times and say thank you seven times before I can finally start eating.  You know, bc Germans have a near-pathological need to say “Guten Appetit” to anybody within a 5-meter radius.

So I’m like, “What’s the deal with this Guten Appetitthing?  Why can’t I just eat?”  And Mr. Touchdown is like, “Well, what do you people say?”  And I’m like, “Watchoo mean, you people?”  And he’s like, “Well, in America, don’t you all say ‘grace’ or something like that?” And I’m like, “Uh, I don’t know what the goyim do.”  And he’s like, “The who?”  And I’m like, “The goyim.  The gentiles.”  Blank stare. Me: “The…non-Jews?”  Him: “Wait, your Jewish?”  

Seriously?  Dude, I say “Oy vey” like twelve times a day, and my pedagogical style can best be described as “shtick-based.”  What did you think?  

Anyway, that was kinda funny.  And the conversation moved on from there.  But I’ll use that as a segue to something else I wanted to talk about. Namely, the question of anti-Semitism in this country.

Uncle Art, when he was still among the living, would always ask me if I’d ever experienced any anti-Semitism in Germany.  And I always told him that I hadn’t.  Which is true.  Not once have I personally experienced it here.  What’s more, I’ve always been open about being at my job and with my friends here. And reactions have always ranged from not giving a fuck to genuine curiosity and desire to learn more about Judaism, being Jewish, etc.  Such that I can honestly say, not only have I not experienced any anti-Semitism here, but that indeed my experiences with regard to Judaism have been positive on the whole.

I said that I’ve been open about it at my job.  That’s been true at both language schools for which I’ve worked here.  But at one, my boss was gay and at the other, my boss is Jewish.  

In the case of the other school (I no longer work there), where my boss was gay.  At my interview, he made clear to me that our classes were to be safe spaces and that intolerance would not be, well, tolerated. And he told about negative experiences he’d had as a gay teacher, and that he was determined that such things would not occur on his watch.  At that point, I told him I was relieved to hear that.  Because I was Jewish, and I didn’t want to feel like I should have to hide that.

At my current job, my boss is also Jewish.  And he screens all the students himself.  He doesn’t let just anybody in.  The result is that we naturally have an open-minded student body.  So again, it’s a safe space, in that way.

And as for my friends, well, that’s obviously a self-selecting group.  I mean, I’m not likely to consort with racist, prejudiced or generally closed-minded people.  So it’s no surprise that I don’t experience anti-Semitism in my social circles.

It’s only when you dig a little deeper that some disturbing patterns start to emerge.  I’ve heard more than once that it would be unwise to walk around wearing a yarmulke.  Maybe not everywhere, but certainly as a general rule.  I’ve heard that in certain neighborhoods, people have been attacked just for speaking Hebrew on the street.  Every synagogue, every Jewish bookstore, the Jewish Museum and the Holocaust Memorial, they all have permanent, armed police guards stationed out front.

Margit’s sister-in-law did Judaic Studies when she was younger.  I once asked her if she would be interested in reading some Torah together.3  She said she would, but that we’d best do it at her apartment.  It’s not something we should be seen doing in public, she said.  

I have one student now, apparently both her grandmothers were Jewish.  And she’s keen to learn Hebrew.  Anyway, she pulled me aside one day and was almost whispering when she asked me if it was true that I can read Hebrew.  The implication being that it would be unwise for such a conversation to be overheard.  I offered to let her borrow my textbook, which she was very happy to do.  But when she brought it back, it was wrapped in a black bag and she made sure to give it to me privately.  A precaution which was certainly unnecessary in our school, but which speaks to the bigger picture, to be sure.

And so, no, to this day, I have not personally experienced any anti-Semitism here in Germany.  But neither is the picture so rosy as it might have seemed upon my arrival.  And it may be that a major reason I haven’t experienced anything is because you can’t know I’m Jewish by looking at me.

Compare that with the experience of my Muslim student.  On the one hand, there are many more Muslims than Jews in Berlin.  So in a very real way, she has a community here that I do not. But at the same time, Muslims are still a minority here; even if they are a large one.

And so she was telling us about a job interview, where only a few questions put to her were actually about her experience or qualifications.  Most of the questions were about her dress and her religion.  And you could see, as she was telling the story, she was becoming angry.  I was getting angry right along with her.  I mean, that’s fucked up.  And if I showed up to a job interview wearing a kippah, should I really expect that I wouldn’t be subject to the same bullshit?

One thing I’m realizing, is that, as a New Yorker, there’s something I’ve taken for granted my whole life. And that’s the idea that “everybody is from somewhere.”  What I mean is, on some level, every New Yorker is a hyphenated-New Yorker.  There’s nobody who doesn’t define themselves somehow by their family heritage, and with pride.

Irish-New Yorkers. Italian-, Puerto Rican-, Dominican-, Korean-, Chinese-, Nigerian-, whatever-New Yorkers.  And we’re all proud of our heritages.  The food, the languages, the world-views, etc.  But you just take it for granted that any ‘real’ New Yorker is from somewhere.  Otherwise they’re from the Midwest of some such bullshit.  #NoDisrespect.

And then you get to Europe. In this case Germany.  And you ask people where they’re from.  And they say ‘Germany.’  And you say, yeah, fine, but I mean, where’s your family from?  And they’re like, ‘Germany.’  And you’re just like, shit, right.  People are just fromhere.  You don’t live in a place where every last motherfucker has an immigrant story.  You don’t live in a place where everybody’s grandmother cooks food from ‘the old country.’  I mean, my whole family came through Ellis Island.  Came in on a boat, with the Statue of Fucking Liberty in the background.  For people here, that’s some Hollywood shit right there.  In New York, that just is. OK, maybe you came later.  Maybe you came through JFK instead of Ellis Island. But it’s all the same, at the end of the day.

And I think about my circle of friends back home.  Jared and Adam and Rob, the Yids.  But Keith is German.  His grandmother wasGerman, and his mother understands the language.4  Michael fucking Murphy, whose mother speaks Gaelic and speaks English with an Irish accent.  Vinny, my paisan, whose parents are off the boat and make their own beautiful tomato sauce.5

I fully recognize that the experience of African Americans is its own thing.  But an African-American-New Yorker is as much a New Yorker as anybody else.  And whether they see themselves as part of the Great Migration from the South, or from a distant African homeland, they too come from somewhere.  

The point is, part of being a New Yorker, is inherently knowing that you and both assholes sitting next to you on the subway come from somewhere else, that we all have our own histories and cultures of which we are rightly proud.  But we all ride the subway together, and together we make our city great.  Even if you think the person on your left is an asshole, and the person on your right is also an asshole.  And they both think you’re an asshole.  In the end, it doesn’t matter.  Because all three of us know, the hayseed across from us with the upside-down subway map is the real clown.

Compare that with Berlin, where people have this weird parochial, territorial, jaundiced view of what it means to be a ‘real’ Berliner.  For them, it means you’ve lived here all your life.  And your parents before you and their parents before them.  “But I’ve lived in Berlin for five years,” you protest.  Meh.  They’re not impressed.

More than once, I’ve asked people “How long does one have to live here before they get to call themselves a Berliner?”  And I’ve gotten answers ranging from, “Minimum, ten years,” to “You can’t.  You have to be born here.”  The fuck kind of attitude is that?

You know how long you have to live in NY before you get to call yourself a ‘real’ New Yorker? However long it takes you to stop looking up.  However long it takes you to realize the jerk in front of you is walking too slow.  If you can do that, well, welcome to the club. You’re in, asshole.

French Charlotte lived in New York for two years, maybe three.  And homegirl had to ride the J train into work from fucking Bushwick. You could smell Popeye’s from the front door of her apartment.  She bought Coronas at the bodega.  For as long as that was true, she was a New Yorker.

My point is, that’s something I’ve always taken for granted, this idea that everyone is from somewhere.6  Something I never actively thought about until I got here.  And it’s just not that way here.  Either you’re from here, or you from somewhere else.  And the people who are from here, well, I often get the feeling that they think they have something over the people who aren’t.  It’s not my favorite thing about this town.

I remember once I was out having a drink with Anne.  And there were these two dames sitting at the very next table, quite close to us. Anyway, at one point, Anne gets up to go to the bathroom.  And I’m listening to these two girls.  Because they’re talking accented English, and that’s kinda my job.  So I’m curious where they’re from.  And you know, I’m debating with myself if I should interrupt them and ask.  Cos I don’t want to be creepy, you know?  But on the other hand, I’m clearly here with a female.  So in theory, I should be pretty non-threatening.  Fine, so I ask.

“Excuse me, sorry, but can I ask where you guys are from?”  And one girl says some country, I forget which.  But the other got all up on her high horse and shit, and was all, “I’m from Berlin.  I guess you don’t meet many of those.”  Like, she was pretty arrogant about it.  Because, Berlin, like New York, attracts a lot of young people.  So if we’re only talking about young people, there’s a good chance they’re either from somewhere else in Germany or another country altogether. And that’s only more true in the hip parts of town, which was the case here.

Anyway, so she’s all Miss Thang with her “I’m from Berlin, can you imagine?!”  And I’m just like, “Bitch, I’m from Brooklyn, you think I give a shit?”  Which I definitely did not say.  I just rolled my eyes and waited for Anne to come back. But I mean, the nerve!  

Because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to Duffs – or wherever – and some young transplant asks me where I’m from.  And you know, I gotta say it, I’m from Brooklyn.  Fine.  And often as not, people – transplants and tourists, I mean – get a little wide-eyed, you know?  Like, Wow, a realNew Yorker!  A real person-from-Brooklyn.7  Cos like I said, if we’re only talking about young people, NY is full of transplants and tourists.

But those reactions always make me feel a little embarrassed.  Like – and this is what I’ve been saying – fucking, everybody is form somewhere.  I happen to be from here.  NBD, you guys.  If anything, I’m more impressed by you. Luck of the draw, that I was born here. You actually got off your ass and gotyourself here.  That’swhat it’s all about. At some point, the fact that I remember Ed Koch, how much should that really count for?

Funny thing though. Being from New York often buys me instant cred here too.  Remember that student with the two Jewish grandmothers, wants to learn Hebrew?  She’s Russian, btw; which I only mention bc we’re on the subject of people being from places.  Anyway, one day in class, I’m writing something on the board with my back to the class.  And somebody calls out a question.  But like this: “David?!”

The fuck?  I spin around.  Who just called me David? I’m only ever “Dave” in school. And Little Miss all sheepishly raises her hand.  At which point, she explains that one of her sons is named David.  And he’s quite adamant that people call him Davidand not Dave.

“Funny story,” I tell her. “I was the same way when I was a kid. I wouldn’t let people call me Daveuntil Middle School.  How old is your son?”  I forget, but I wanna say something in the neighborhood of six-ish. Anyway, this was her response.

“Oh!  Well, I’ll tell him that my English teacher – from New York– let’s people call him Dave.”  Like, I could be an axe-murderer.  But I’m from New York.  That’s all the cred you need.

Same thing with Bibi. You remember Bibi, we’re playing music together.  Anyway, her son (13-ish) is also named David.  Remember now, he’s playing a bit of cajón(percussion) with us.  But he’s a tad reluctant.  Like, at 13-ish, does he really want to be jamming with his old mom?  That kinda thing.  

Anyway, she sent me a recording of a song we’re working on.  And in the recording, it’s her singing and playing guitar, and David is on the cajón.  And you guys, it fucking killed.  He was laying down this march beat.  Shit was on point.  So I told her that, and that I was looking forward to jamming with him.

And her response: “Wait til I tell him, Dave – from New York– thought it was cool!”  As if that right there is enough to make jamming with your mom a rad afterschool activity, right?

But always when I hear this shit, I’m just like, “Yo, chill with that.”  Because like I said, everybody is from somewhere.  So when she introduced me to her guitar teacher, it was, “This is Dave, from New York!”  But what does that mean?  Usually it means I’m grumpy because I can’t get a good bagel in this town. I’d much rather be introduced as, “This is Dave, he’s not totally shite with a guitar.”  

Oy.  So the title of this blog is “An American in Berlin.” Which, I’ll be honest, was a conscious play on Gershwin’s An American in Paris.  But maybe it should be called “A New Yorker in Berlin.”  Certainly that’s been the thrust of the better part of this post.

But at the end of the day, that’s how identify myself.  I may live in Berlin.  But I’m always a “Jewish-New Yorker.”  Sometimes that means always being in a rush, impatient.  Sometimes that means missing ‘good deli.’  Usually it means being some version of neurotic.  And my sense of humor is certainly self deprecating.  It also means consciously – perhaps even precociously – sprinkling Yiddishisms into my German.  Sometimes that means saying “Mishpucha” instead of “Familie.”  Other times it means pronouncing a word like Antwort(“answer”) as entfer(ענטפער). But also, it’s about how I see the world.  That we’re all from somewhere.  But wherever we’re from, we’re herenow.  Together.  And it’s that combination of past and present, of diversity and unity, that gives us a chance to be greater than the sum of our parts.

Now if I could only find a bowl of congee8

זײַ געסונט
9


  1. In the traditional binary gender male/female paradigm, obvi. []
  2. I fucking hate salad, btw.  But I eat it every day for lunch, bc healthy? []
  3. Imagine that, studying Torah with a goy. And dollars to donuts, she’d know more about it than me! []
  4. Hell, even Keith knows how to ask “Was hast du gesagt?” – What did you say? []
  5. Also known as “red gold,” that’s how fucking good it is, I shit you not. []
  6. Hell, even when we lived in Massachusetts, everybody was fucking Portuguese. []
  7. Let’s be honest.  Transplants and tourists don’t know the word “Brooklynite.” []
  8. A kind of Chinese rice-porridge, which I would often buy when I lived in Chinatown; with strips of pork, fresh chives and ginger matchsticks.  I’m tellin’ y’all, nothing better on a cold winter’s day. []
  9. זײַ געסונט: “zei gesunt”means “be healthy” or, more colloquially, “be well,” in Yiddish.  Both of those words, however, are German.  And while they are German words, it is not a German expression.  Recently somebody ‘corrected’ me.  “You mean, Bleib gesund.”  Which would mean something like, “Stayhealthy/well.”  And I was like, “No.  I mean, Sei Gesund“ (to use the German spelling).  At which point I had to explain that, “Actually, it’s a Yiddishism, and something my grandmother used to say.”  In fact, it’s one of the last things I remember Ida – my dad’s mother – saying, when we visited her in the nursing home.  It was towards the end, and she wasn’t really all there.  I don’t ever remember her speaking Yiddish when I was growing up.  But then again, if she had, I wouldn’t have recognized it.  But there, at the end, that was how she chose to end visits with the family.  It wasn’t, “Be well,” or “See you later,” or “Goodbye.”  It was something other, out of the depths of time, from the language of her own mother. זײַ געסונט, she said.  It is from Ida, “Grandma,” that I have these words. And these are the words with which I close every post. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
4 February, 2019

Right, so obviously if I write a post going on about how much progress I’m making with my German, what’s the first thing that’s gonna happen?  Yup, you guessed it.  Reality check.  All the way from Bavaria.  But that’s as may be.  First, the visit.

So last weekend, our friends Anna and Stefan visited Joschka and me in the big city.  I’ve written about them before, but by way of a refresher, we know them from the metal festivals.  Anna is in her early-mid twenties and Stefan is her father.  And they’re both wonderful people.  Stefan and I bond over our love of NWOBHM;1 I think we’re the only people we know who are really into that stuff.

Anyway, they came up for the weekend.  Now, whenever we go down to visit them, they always take proper good care of us.  They take us out to the local pubs, give us waves of high quality schnapps and Stefan always cooks up a top-notch meal. As a result, it was really important to Joschka and me to return the favor.  

That meant a proper feast. Appetizers, main, sides, dessert and good quality drinks.  For the apps, Joschka made a slamming hummus from scratch, part of which was also a homemade tahini base.  He also made a pumpkin soup, again from scratch.  To go with the hummus, I went to Neukölln, where all the best Arabic and Turkish bakeries are, and got some really nice bread.

For the main, oh boy, skirt steak.  Now, I’ve been looking for skirt steak in this country since I got here, and I’d never been able to find it.  Finally, I asked my students last month if they knew anything about this.  And none of them did.  But one at least knew somebody to ask.  So she came back with the 411.  She helped me special order it, which was the only way to get it.  And from the date of ordering, I had to wait a week for it to arrive.  And yet despite all this, it was pretty cheap.  10 Euros/kilo, which I guess is like 5 bucks a pound.  Because they just consider it nothing more than “Suppenfleisch,” soup meat.  I gather that’s why nobody bothers to carry it.  Boy are they missing out.

Now, grilling is not an option here in January.  But Joschel has this new sous-vide machine, which is not anything I’d ever heard of before. But basically, you vacuum seal the meat in a plastic bag and then in immerse it in a water bath which is maintained at a constant temperature.  End result, the meat is cooked perfectly every time.  All that’s left to do, when you take it out of the bath, is to give it a quick sear in the pan to get a little crispy crust on the outside.  Anyway, the steak was a bit of teamwork.  I prepped the meat with a soy sauce marinade and did the pan work at the end.  J took care of the sous-vide process.  

For the sides, I made “my” string beans.  Normally, I sauté them in bacon fat and at the end, give them a squirt of lemon juice and sprinkle them with rock salt.  Super simple, but super good, and a creation I’m not a little proud of. This time we didn’t have bacon fat, so I just sautéed them in the steak drippings, which worked pretty well. Alongside that, I seasoned up some potatoes and roasted ‘em in the oven.  

I took care of dessert as well.  Back to the Neukölln bakeries, I picked out two different kinds of baklava as well as some cookies with chocolate and pistachio and some kind of jelly squares with nuts inside and a pistachio crust.  Joschka curated the wine and schnapps selections.

Well, it was a fucking hit, you guys.  The hummus and pumpkin soup were killer, and the bread was a perfect match for the hummus. The steak came out fucking perfect, and everybody loved it.  None of them had ever had skirt steak before, so they didn’t really know what to expect. But by the end, they were asking all kinds of questions: what’s it called, where did you get it, how do you get, etc.  At the end, there was not one piece of meat, not one string bean, not one potato left, not one spoonful of soup left.  The drinks were on point.  Our guests couldn’t have been happier.

For that matter, neither could me or Joschka.  Seriously, we spent the rest of that night and most of the next day high-fiving and patting ourselves on the back.  The phrase, “Dude, we fucking nailed that” was uttered more than a few times.  So that was a fucking win.

Which is more than I can say for my German.  Now look, it wasn’t a total fucking failure.  A total failure would have been them being, “OK, this is too much effort, so we’re just going to English at you.”  That didn’t happen.  We Germaned the whole time.  And if I didn’t understand something or needed something repeated, explanations and repetitions came in German.  The only exceptions were when Joschka and I were cooking, and when Joschka explained the rules of a board game to me; which, fine, I can live with that.

So in that sense, it was OK. But I very much ran up against my limitations with the language too.  Because look, it’s one thing to chat and converse.  And I mean, I’m even at the point where I’m fast enough to crack one liners and make puns with proper timing.  Which is big for me.  

But where I fall down is story telling.  Because it’s one thing to relate the main points of a story in an accurate way.  It’s another thing to make that story interesting and fun.  I can handle the former.  The latter, not so much.  

Which is tough for me, because I like to think I can spin a pretty decent yarn in English.  In fact, it’s part of my job.  Maybe I always had some skill with this, but it’s definitely something I’ve honed in my 2.5 years of teaching.  

Digression-wise, I’ve found story-telling to be a very effective teaching tool.  It’s something I picked up from one of my CELTA instructors. There are a number of benefits, if you do it right.  First of all, it humanizes you.  It makes you more relatable to the students.  And – again, if you do it right – it’s entertaining.  You get laughs, you build rapport.  You also give the students a welcome reprieve from the drudgery of “work.”  Well, it works for me, anyway.  And, I think, I can read a room.  I can see when a story is working with an audience.  

And I can see when it’s not. Which is what happened with the Bavarians.  Once or twice, I tried to tell some story or other.  And I could just see in their faces, it wasn’t going well.  I could feel the vibe drop; the energy just go out of the room.  

Nobody said anything, of course.  They’re my friends, and, like I said, they’re lovely people.  So they were courteous enough to listen attentively.  But I could tell they were doing it out of kindness and not any sort of edge-of-the-seat what-happens-next-ness.  Sort of like when a comedian bombs.  Only without the heckling.  

So one measure of success with a foreign language is the extent to which you can be “yourself” in that language.  And I don’t totally fail here.  Like I said, I can pun rather well in German.  Hell, I can pun bilingually; puns, in other words, that only work if you know both languages.  I can lob zingers and say inappropriate things in German.  That far, at least, I can be some version of “myself.”  But man, fucking storytelling eludes me.  

Sometimes I feel like my German is a station car, the beat up piece of junk that you only drive to and from the train station.  Like, it definitely gets me from A to B.  But it doesn’t have AC or power windows, the heating doesn’t really work, and there’s a knock in the engine that you can’t get rid of.  Yeah, it gets me where I need to go.  But I’d be embarrassed to pick up a date in this bucket of bolts.

But it does get me where I need to go, and that ain’t nothing.  So I think I mentioned last time how I’ve started jamming with this student of mine.  It seems to be becoming a regular thing.  And Friday we took it to the next level.  She invited me to come and jam with her and her guitar teacher; and also her son, who is learning the cajón.  The cajón is basically a wooden box that you sit on and drum with your fingers; it’s a percussion instrument.  Maybe you knew that, but I didn’t.

Anyway, she invited me to come jam with her teacher and her son.  So we get there, and her teacher couldn’t have been nicer.  Super lovely guy.  And at first, he’s like, “We can speak English.”  But Bibiyana, my student, was like, “Dude, he can German.” And after that, it was all German. Which is great.  Really.  I love that I’m beginning to build relationships here where German is just the language.  Makes me feel more a part of this place, you know?2 

But the point is the music. Now, she told me he had a guitar I could use, so I wouldn’t have to schlep mine, which was nice.  So he hands me this flamenco guitar.  And thank gods for that, bc I hate playing steel-strings. But also, I figured that moment was kind of my best chance to set a good impression, to let this guy know he could take me somewhat seriously as a player.  So I sit down and run through the intro to the Sor variations.  And he was like, “Whoa, you can play classical? Not bad!”   Boom, instant credibility.  Which is important.  Because it’s nice to have something in the bank when I make mess of improvising later.

Anyway, we got tuned up and started running through some tunes.  Mostly stuff me and BIbi had already been working on, but also a couple of new tunes.  And you guys, it sounded good.  Like, we were making this three guitar thing work.  She would do arpeggiated finger-picking, he would strum chords and I would put some melodies and harmonies around what they were doing.  I gotta say, it was a pretty good sound.  And it’s not just me saying that.  Everybody was pretty high on it.  We all left feeling pretty excited to do it again.

Plus, having her son there to work the cajónand put some percussion under it all was a fine touch.  This kid is great, btw.  I think he’s like 13, or thereabouts.  But he’s a super-sweet kid and made for a pretty cool group dynamic.

Me and Bibi were talking about where we’d like to go with this, and the idea is, we’d love to get enough stuff together to take this thing on the road.  By which I mean, play a gig at a pub or something.  We’re not there yet, mind you.  We haven’t even perfected the songs we have.  Nor do we have enough songs yet to fill out a whole set. But that’s the goal, and we’re working towards it.  We’ll see where it all goes.

One thing that’s interesting about all this is, Bibi and her teacher – Ralph, btw – aren’t into the same stuff as me.  They’re pretty into the 60’s and sort of softer folk-rock kinda stuff.  Nice music, but not normally my scene.  But that’s actually kinda cool for me, and here’s why.

Most of the songs we’re doing, I’ve never heard before.  Which means I get to come at them fresh.  I’m not trying to copy the original.  I can’t, bc I have no idea what the original sounds like.  I get to put my own imprint on the songs, find my own music in them, if I can say that.  And that’s a fun challenge for me.  And apparently, they seem to like what I’m doing.  So, you know, good stuff there.

“Apparently,” I said. Now there’s an interesting word. It came up in class this week.  I used it once or twice.  And then a student was like, “So what’s the deal with ‘apparently’?  I hear this word all the time.”3  Whereupon did I explain that it’s kind of a cultural difference between English and German.

Because, see, in German, there’s a higher degree of rigidity.  What I mean is, people are very comfortable making bold, declarative statements, with little or no mitigation.  Whereas in English, we like to mitigate everything.  We don’t like to claim anything as a fact, absent absolute certainty.  And even then….

I mean, without firsthand experience, nothing is certain for us.  Everything is ‘apparently,’ or ‘like,’ or ‘-ish,’ or ‘I guess.’  You get the picture.  But they didn’t.  Not at first. So I gave them an example.

“My brother,” says I, “is married.  He has a wife.  And a dog. And also, apparently, a horse.”  Now why did I say apparently here?  After all, I ‘know’ they have a horse.  I’ve seen pictures.  They talk about it all the time.  But like, I’ve never actually seenthis horse.  And anyway, come on.  Who has a fucking horse, amirite?  So yeah, until I actually see this beast with my own two eyes, it’s apparently.

(A further clarification here.  I’ve just discussed this whole apparentlything with Niki, and she pointed out – quite rightly – that we also use ‘apparently’ for things we know to be true, but somehow feel shouldn’tbe true.  For example: “Apparently, this is what the Germans call pizza.”  Which of course, there’s no ‘apparently’ about it. They absolutely call this flatbread-with-sauce-and-cheese “pizza.”  But they sure as shit shouldn’t, say the two jaded New Yorkers.  So we add ‘apparently’ to the comment, to underline the ridculosity of the premise).

Well, they got the picture. And now, they’re using ‘apparently’ with abandon.  And using it correctly, too.  It’s fucking hilarious.  And also kinda awesome.  

And I gotta say, it’s a really good group right now.  I’ve said that before, I know.  And maybe it’s not the most amazing group of all time.  But it’s a really fucking good group.  They’re smart, they’re funny, they’re curious.  And we give each other shit all day long, which is just fun.

We were all having lunch in the kitchen the other day, one of my guys hits me with some or other zinger. I don’t remember what it was, but it was pretty solid.  But you know, I’m like, “Dude, come on.  I’m on my break.  I didn’t come here for abuse.”  And he was just like, “But you taught us this.  We learn abuse from you.”

And I was just like, “Shit, you’re right.”  Like, I’ve created monsters.  Sarcastic, piss-taking monsters.  And just, I couldn’t be more proud, you know?

So yeah, work is a lot of fun right now.  And sure, it usually is, right?  But it’s not always.  End of last summer, beginning of fall, it was really kind of a drag.  But it’s fun again now.  Like, I really look forward to going in every day.4

But also, after almost 2.5 years, I’m finally starting to get some real feedback.  And it’s almost all really positive.  I have students telling me how much they love my class.  Myclass.  They tell me I’m really good at explaining things.  Which is obvi pretty important.  But they also tell me it’s fun, which is just as important imo.  Because you learn better if you’re having fun, I think.

And my boss, too.  One nice thing about my boss, he also likes a tipple.  So Friday before last, after class, we split of a bottle of sparkling wine.  We chatted about a number of things.  But he also said some really nice things to me. Things like he’s really happy he has me; that he thinks I’m properly good at my job; that the students “love” me – his word.

And yeah, also that other thing I’ve heard two or three times before.  You know the one.  The old, “You’re too smart to be doing this forever.”  So he asked what I wanted to do after this.  Academia? he wondered.  Maybe, I said.  Or law. Which is still very much on my mind.

This question also came up in class a few weeks ago.  I went around the room asking the students what they wanted to do when they finished their courses.  And after they’d all answered, they asked me what I wanted to do “when I grow up,” which is actually how I put the question to them.

So I told them about the whole law thing.  And I explained that I feel like I need to do something good for my country, to help my country in these difficult times.  That although I absolutely love my job, I think it’s kind of selfish of me to be over in Germany, enjoying myself, while my country – and the people in it – need help.  And after a bit of a silence, came a most unexpected response. 

“But you are helping your country,” said one of my girls.  “You’re representing your country.  You’re showing people here that there are actually good people in America.”   Or words to that effect.  At which point, one or two other students enthusiastically seconded the point.

I was pretty touched.  Honestly.  I mean, in no way was I fishing for compliments.  Fuck, I wasn’t even expecting a response of any kind.  And then that.  They weren’t blowing smoke, either.  You could tell, they were quite earnest in saying that.  

And the truth is, that’s an angle I’d never considered.  But I guess there’s some truth to it.  After all, what do these people see about America on a daily basis?  Trump? Mass shootings?  Racism?  Ask a German on the street what they think of America, you’re likely to hear about one or more of those things before you hear anything good.

But how many Americans do they actually know?  Well, they know me.  And whatever else I’m doing, it seems I’m being a good ambassador for the ol’ US of A.  Apparently.

Does that change how I feel about things?  Probably not, in the big picture.  I still think it’s selfish of me to be here, doing what I’m doing. And I don’t think being a good ambassador to a group of 8-12 students at a time does nearly the good that working in civil rights or immigration law could do.  But I guess it ain’t nothing, neither.  

I met Anne and Annett for drinks earlier last week.  Which was great.  But it was more great than usual.  So Annett, right?  She’s really my first friend in this country.  I mean, Joschka, but I met him in the States.  Annett is the first person I met herewho’s really my friend.  We met at a language meet up in 2015 when I was doing my CELTA.

And I love Annett.  She’s a properly wonderful person, by which I mean, she has a properly good heart.  She’s kind.  But she’s also a bit of a lost soul.  And most of the time I’ve known her, well, I hesitate to say it.  But, really, I don’t think she’s been a very happy person.  I think she’s someone who’s sort of looking for purpose a little bit.  As long as I’ve known her, she’s sort of bounced from job to job, never really finding anything that has any meaning for her.

Well, now she’s trying something new.  She’s taking a course to become a German language teacher.  Which I think she’ll be great at, not for nothing. Anyway, we’re there having drinks. And all of a sudden, we’re talking shop. Phonetics and pronunciation mostly. But man, she lit up like I’ve never seen before.  She was just really excited to be talking about this stuff.  

And of course, this is in my wheelhouse now.  This is my “profession”…apparently.  But I love talking about this shit.  So I’m getting excited, just having somebody to talk about it with.  And she’s getting excited.  And man, that was just a fun conversation.

But really, the big thing is, I think – I hope – she’s finally found something that will be fulfilling for her.  Because, yeah, she deserves it.  But more than that, I think she needs it.  So I’m really excited for her.  I mean, I can’t tell you how happy it made me to see her jazzed up for something, anything.  But especially this thing.  Because, fucking yes, I think she’s gonna be great at it.  

Oh, and also, just a great fucking time with those two.  I dunno, I wonder if there’s something special about a tripartite friendship.  If you wanna go back to ancient history, you get the two Roman triumvirates.  Or more recently, high school: CoDog, Jared and myself.  Or post college: me, Joschel and Vinny.  And now here, Anne, Annett and me.  

There’s a kind of perfection in three, when it comes to friends. Like, any given two have their own unique relationships.  But then the complete three also have a really special thing.  You know – and I’m talking out of my ass now, riffing – but I wonder if maybe that’s the reason why Dumas titled his book Les TroisMousquetaires– The ThreeMusketeers.  Even though there’s fucking four of them.  Because maybe, I dunno, but maybe even my boy Alex was thinking, “Hey, yeah, three is the magic number for friends.”  

All to say, I love the shit out of Anne.  She’s my drinking buddy.  She’s sarcastic and caustic and vulgar and sweet and talented and hilarious. And I love the shit out of Annett. She’s kind and earnest, giving and empathetic, and also fucking talented.  Very different people, those two.  And yet, not all that different.  And then we get together, and it just fucking works.  Annett tempers me and Anne and we open her up a bit.  Is what I would say, anyway.  But whatever it is, it fucking works a treat.  Apparently.

Almost time to wrap this bitch up, but before I do, lemme go back to music for a second.  The Barry Sisters, you guys.  The fucking Barry Sisters.  Holy shit are they fucking fantastic.  And yet, you’re asking yourself at this very moment, who the actual fuck are The Barry Sisters?   Well, I’ll tell you.

They’re a duo.  Sisters, obvi.  From the mid-century.  And they sing in Yiddish.  But they sing like big-band and jazz.  And yeah, some traditional stuff too.  But omg so good!   Killer harmonies.  Great tunes. And fucking Yiddish, you guys.  

This will be the weirdest comparison ever, but here goes.  They’re like a wholesome, Yiddish, jazzy B-52’s. I know that sounds ridiculous, but give a listen.  Tell me I’m wrong.  Really. You’ve got two broads singing catchy tunes with sick harmonies in a way that’s so fun, even a grumpy SOB like me has to smile.  And they do it in Yiddish.  I don’t normally do links in this blog, but I’ll make an exception here.  Four songs: Vyoch Tyoch TyochYuh Mein Liebe TochterZug Es Mir Noch AmoolChiribim Chiribom.   Uh, I said four.  But actually, also this tune, which they do with some dude who scats the shit out of it: Halevai.  This last one has more of a klezmer vibe, but it kicks proper fucking ass.

So there’s that.  But let me also say this before closing.  Here we are at the beginning of February, the halfway point of the National Hockey League season.  And my beloved Islanders are sitting in first place in the Metropolitan Division.  After years of futility.  After our once-adored captain, that Benedict Arnold, the snake, he-who-shall-not-be-named, ditched us for Toronto.  Here we are, and the team for whom my heart pumps blue and orange is not just in first place, but is also super fun to watch.  Maybe the wheels fall off.  Maybe they crash and burn.  But also, maybe, just maybe, I’m watching something special here.

But you know what, it almost kinda doesn’t matter.  This team that, in theory, I love through thick and thin, but in reality, I’ve basically just loved through only thin…this team, I say, is now an absolute fucking joy to watch.  And I’m so proud of them.  איך קוועלע.  I’m kvelling.

Hockey is beautiful.  My team is gorgeous.  Music is a joy.  And my friends are fucking fantastic.  דינו.  Dayenu.

זײַ געזונט


  1. NWOBHM – New Wave of British Heavy Metal, a bright-burning quasi-DYI metal scene, ca. 1979-1983.  The big bands to come out of this movement are Iron Maiden and Def Leppard; major bands known to metal fans would be Saxon and Diamond Head. But for the most part, the great majority of NWOBHM bands were one and done. []
  2. Follow up note.  We jammed with her teacher again this past Friday.  And now I’m even starting to pick up some of the German music vocab.  The words for major, minor, strings, etc. Cool. []
  3. I paraphrase.  My students don’t say “What’s the deal with ___ ?” []
  4. Which is not to say I look forward to waking up at 6:38 every day.  #eww []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
7 January, 2019

Well, well, well. Happy fucking new year.  Another year in Germany, another year of speaking German.  And you know what?  It’s getting better.  Like, it’s still a hot mess, but like, I can kinda do it for real now.1

Finally.  Finally I’ve got German friends who are just speaking to me in German now.  And that’s really gratifying, you know?  Cos like, in a way, I feel like I’m finally being taken seriously as a German speaker by actual Germans.  Well, some Germans anyway.

J-Dawg, for instance. Y’all remember J-Dawg – Julia – former student, now friend.  Well, we went to an ice hockey game together towards the end of last year.  And while we were there, I told her I really want to next-level my shit.  So I would appreciate it if we could just speak German, no English.  

Which, tbh, is not a small ask, I don’t think.  After all, she likes English.  She reads in English.  She speaks well.  And as a teacher in general, and her teacher specifically, I’m sure she would like to take advantage of that to practice some English.  But in fact, when I told her I wanted to German, she was all in.

To the point where, when I ask a question about a word or how to express a certain idea, she just explains in German.  No English translations.  Which is just so fucking great, you know.  Because first of all, that’s really the best way to learn.  But also, like I said, it makes me feel like I’m being taken more seriously.

We went to a second game, this time with her boyfriend. And her boyfriend is a professional chef. He’s been to America more than a few times.  He’s certainly capable of speaking good English.  In fact, in the past, we have spoken English.

But this time, it was all German.  We had a whole conversation about muscle cars.  It was great. And I never felt like he was dumbing things down for me.  And same thing, if I had a question about a word or whatever, the answer always came back in German.  I dunno, maybe he was just thinking, Dude, we’re in Germany, why the fuck would I speak English with you?  But whatever the reason, no English.  Fuck yeah, bitches.

And all this is coming at the right time.  Because my job is warping my feelings towards English in certain ways.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love my language.  And my job has given me a new and deeper appreciation for things I’d never even thought about before.  I love the elegant practicality of our verbal system.  I love the freedom with which our language nouns adjectives and verbs nouns. I love how user friendly it is; how somebody who is “bad” at the language can nevertheless make themselves understood and carry on a perfectly interesting conversation.  I love the manifold varieties of the language: American, British, Australian, New York-ese, Southern, what linguist John McWhorter calls “black English,” and by extension Spanish-English and any other type of “non-standard” English.  I love it all.

But.  But but but.  There’s one thing that has become a bit strenuous for me.  And that, friends, is the particular brand of English as manifested by native German speakers.  The word orders, word choices, idiomatic renderings, etc. utilized by the people of this country.  And to be clear, I’m not judging it.  I’m in no way saying it’s less valid, or somehow worse, than other varieties of English. Because of course it’s not.  

What I’m saying is, when I hear it, it feels like “work.”  And not work like, “oh this is difficult.”  Hardly.  No, what I mean is, it makes me feel like I’m “at work.”  Because this is what I hear all day, every day.  At work.  

And I know it’s not rational.  I’m no prescrptivist.  I in no way judge a person based on how they use the language.  People who say “ain’t” or “aks” instead of “ask” aren’t stupid. Likewise, a German who says, “Oh, that’s quite interestingly” isn’t stupid.  They’re just a person who hasn’t yet mastered the difference between adjectives and adverbs.  Nbd.  

But here’s the thing. I want to leave my work at the office, just like anybody else.  And it’s just that it’s hard to do that when you hear your job all around you.  The result being that, when I speak English with Germans now outside of school, I’m often hit with a feeling of, “Come on man, I’m off the clock, why I gotta listen to this shit?”  

Which, I know, is totally unfair to the speaker.  And obviously I don’t ever say that to a person.  That’s my mishigas.  All’s I’m saying is, increasingly, I find myself feeling an almost desperate desire to speak German outside of school.  Partly just to improve my German, yes.  But mostly just so I can, please gods, turn off my English-teacher brain for a few hours.  

That’s how I was feeling last month when I had plans to meet two former students for coffee.  And yes, actually coffee.  See, these two ladies are teetotalers.  Which, to each his own, right?  But I found myself nearly praying that this little get-together would be conducted in German.  To the point where I was actually mentally rehearsing asking them if we could just speak German and here’s why.

Well, turns out I needn’t have worried.  Without any prodding from me, the entire meetup was in German, start to finish. What a relief, you guys.  Oh, and also, it was a grand old time.  These two ladies are great.  We had a great time just catching up and shooting the shit. Fantastic.

Also fantastic, Christmas, of which I had 2.5 this year.  The first was by Margit.  How great is this?  Knowing a) I’m Jewish and b) I have no family here, she invited me to spend Christmas Eve with her family.  How can you not love that?

And what made it kind of extra special was, I was the only person there who wasn’t family.  So it wasn’t like some big Xmas party, you know? It was her, her husband, the kids, her mom, her brother and his wife, and her husband’s sister.

Anyway, it was a great time. And obviously I’m really thankful that I’ve got friends like that here in Berlin who think enough of me to bring me into their home and share their family Xmas with me.  That’s pretty great on it’s face.

And this too was all German. And not just German.  But I was exposed to some pretty hardcore Berlinese at this shindig.  Mag’s mom, for example, speaks with a pretty serious Berlin accent.  Now, I’ve met her a couple of times before.  And in the past, I always had a pretty hard time of understanding her.  But this time, somehow, I understood her no problem.  Level-up!

Also, we played Taboo. In German.  And it was kinda funny.  Because, first, they were like, “Uh, Dave, you can just do your cards in English.”  And I was like, “Bitches please, I can German.”  So then, they were like, “Well, OK, but you can use the ‘taboo’ words, we don’t mind.”  And I was like, “Bitches please, I can German.”  And guess what?  I fucking nailed it.  I wasn’t the best player at the table, but I’ll tell you this.  I wasn’t the worst either.  Level-up!

Alright, so I’m making progress with some people, German-wise.  But this is coming largely with former students.  Much harder is making the switch with people with whom I’ve already built a strong relationship exclusively in English.

Which brings me to Second Xmas, which was with Jan and Zibs.  You’ll remember I did my teacher training with Zibs, so her English is pretty perfect.  And Jan’s English is also nearly prefect.  And so, based on where my German was when I got here, it never made any sense for us to speak that language.  

Side-story: Those two met while at Uni in Norway.  So their first common language was English.  Only after years of being married did they finally move their relationship into German.  And they’ve got this other friend here, Felix.  Who I’ve got a total man-crush on, I’m not embarrassed to say.  Now Felix is German, but his bae is Swedish, so their common language is…wait for it…English.  And so naturally Felix, and Sophia his boo, also speak nearly perfect English.  So that, when the five of us get together2 we always speak English.

Sub-story to the side-story: Zibs and Jan had been hearing about Anne for like literally years.  But somehow, they’d never met.  Anyway, finally, last month, we went out to dinner. Anne and me, J&Z, Felix and one of Zib’s friends.  And before we got to the restaurant, I warned Anne that we might be speaking English the whole night.  Since that’s been our modus operandi.  

So naturally, as soon as we sit down at the table, the first thing Jan asks Anne is, is it easier for you if we speak German or English.  To which Anne says, German, duh.  Well, alright.  This should be interesting.  Will they speak German with her and English with me?  Or will they actually finally speak German with me?

Right, so the way we were sitting, it was me, Anne and Jan on one side and Felix, Zibs and her friend on the other.  Anne is between me and Jan.  Felix is across from me.  And wouldn’t you know, it’s just German going on all around.  Anyway, at one point, Jan hears me carrying on with Felix.  And I guess he was sufficiently impressed, for lack of a better word.  Because he says to me across the table, Jan does, “Hey, Dave, wir sollten mehr deutsch reden.”  Hey, Dave, we should speak more German.  And I’m like, “Mutherfucker, yes, I’ve been asking you to do this for like forever!” 

So much for the side and sub stories.  Anyway, I was at J&Z for Second Xmas.  Which was great, btw.  We cooked a bœuf bourguignontogether, which was delish.  Drank a bunch, which was fun.  And just had the usual good times.  The first part of the evening was in English.  But after dinner, I asked if we could do a bit of German. Which, finally, they were only to happy to do.  So that was a first.  Just the three of us, Germaning.  I don’t know if that’s quite a level-up, but it’s certainly progress.

That leaves Joschka. The final frontier.  He’s the last friend where I just haven’t been able to break down that barrier.  One-on-one, I mean.  Because as I’ve written, when we’re together with Cindy or in Bavaria, we all speak German together and it’s fine.  More than fine, even.  But mano-a-mano, we’re not there yet.

Part of the reason is, we’re such good friends.  I mean, I know him twice as long as anybody else here, bc we met in New York in 2012.  So we’ve been mad tight for, shit, six years already.  That’s a lot of inertia.  That’s a big ship to turn around.  And look, no matter how good my German has gotten, I can’t pretend like I can just carry on in this language as well as I can in my mother tongue.

But the other thing is, that mutherfucker demands perfection.  Like, sometimes I’ll ask if we can switch to German for a bit.  And he’ll sorta shrug and say something like, “Yeah, we should because you need to get better.”  But at the first mistake, he’s correcting me.  Which, on its face, fine.  I mean, sure, fix my German.  Please. But corrections derail a conversation, you know?  So after about five minutes, it’s back to English.  

And look, I get it. It’s work for him.  Same as speaking English with Germans is work for me. For whatever reason, he can’t just let my mistakes ride.  I mean, he can in a group.  But one-on-one, he can’t.   And I don’t mean that as a negative.  He genuinely wants to help me improve.  But that’s work, for him.  So like, I somehow need to up my game far above it’s current level before we can German together at length.  So…not level-up.  But maybe that can be a goal for this year.

In any case, the Bavarians are visiting later this month.  So they’ll be plenty of German with Joschka and our “country cousins” when they get here.  And, like, they kinda are our “country cousins.”  Like, we’re thinking of things to do with them when they’re here, to show them “the big city.”  Which is funny and adorable in its own right.  But, and I mean this only with love, most of them are really “country” people. As in, they don’t care for big city life.  Not that they aren’t looking forward to visiting.  But we’re from different worlds in that way.  Same as when we go down to visit them, right?  I love to get away for a weekend.  But I couldn’t imagine living down there.  Anyway, I’m really looking forward to having them here. It should be a fucking blast.

I mentioned 2.5 Christmases. The first was with Mag and fam. The second was with J&Z.  The half-Xmas was by skype, with Flare and her fam. You’ll remember that for every year from 2010 until I moved here, I spent every Xmas with those peeps.  To the point where, my first year here, it felt weird for all of us that I wasn’t there with them.  

Anyway, Flare skyped me up and I got to see her and the whole mishpucha, which was great.  And her uncle was wearing a shirt that said, “Dave’s not here, man.”  Which, come on, how fucking cool is that?  And I got to see her baby.  And I met the baby last time I was in, but he was still pretty fucking new-born at that point.  Now the little dude is all walking around and shit.  And that is one cute kid, lemme tell y’all.

One last thing on the whole German deal.  So I cooked dinner for my roommates tonight.3  And we’re chatting, and at one point, I said something incorrectly.  So Marco corrected me.  But then he made a comment about my German.  He said I’m thinking about it less.  Which, coming on the heels of an error, I wasn’t sure how to take.

But what he meant was this. In the beginning, he said, it was clear that I was carefully considering the grammar and whatnot as I spoke. Which resulted in a very slow, disjointed sort of conversational style.  Whereas now, I was very clearly “just talking.”  It was much faster, much more fluid.  But also, with less attention to detail.  So that, despite the speed and fluidity, my English was showing through much more.

Now this was very interesting.  And before going on, I should say that he meant this as a compliment.  Or at least, that’s how I understood him.  What he was was saying, I think, was I’m now much easier to chat with, it’s a much more natural experience.  Just that there’s a bit of a tradeoff.  That all this comes at the expense of “correctness,” if I can say that.

Which, for me personally, is to be preferred.  I mean, given the choice of being “correct” or being interesting, I’ll take interesting every time.  Which is also how I feel when speaking English with non-native speakers, my previous comments notwithstanding.  Because in my job, I get both.  And I’d much rather talk to someone who can carry on a conversation at speed, even if half the shit is “wrong,” than with somebody who is “perfect” but takes all day to get to their point.  

To borrow from a rather old example from this blogue.  Imagine talking with two people at a bar.  And at some point, each person hears the call of nature.  Here’s how this goes down, by me.

Person 1: “I must to going after the toilets to bring a piss.”

Me: “Sure, I’ll be here.”

Person 2: “Please…excuse me…I…have…have to going…no, have to…go, yes go…to the restroom.  I will be back, no…I will…I’ll, yes, I’ll…be back, be rightback.  Yes, I’ll be right back.”

Me: “Yeah, and while you’re doing that, I’ll just hang myself with my scarf.  Tell my parents I love them.”

So I’d much rather be the “bring the piss guy” than “Mr. Takes Three Hours to Craft the Perfect Sentence but I Get there in the End.”  Which, apparently I am.  Or, at least, that’s what Marco was trying to tell me.  I think.

Of course, in theory, you should be able to have both.  That should be the goal.  I remember I was talking with a student about (linguistic) gender in German.  And she was saying how a lot of Turkish people here, who speak a kind of “broken” German,4 just omit the gendered article altogether. In English, this would be like saying, “I missed bus,” instead of “I missed thebus.”  So I asked her, in view of my problem of getting the gender right, which was worse. Is it worse to use the wrong gender, or no gender at all?5

To which she gave the most German answer ever.  “Of course, the best thing is to just get it right.”  Yeah, great.  Thanks.

So much for German. But what about Greek, my one and only? Also, it’s not my one and only.  In fact, on an emotional level, Yiddish is beginning to rival the Hellenic tongue. But it sounded nice to say “my one and only.”  I mean, how often do you get to use that?  Whatever, the point is, I love Greek.  And I always will.

Anyway, now that I need less time for Hebrew, I’ve decided to spend some of the surplus study time on Greek.  And as a text, I chose Herodotus, the so-called “father of history.”  Although I prefer to think of him as the “drunk uncle of history.”  Because he spins a good yarn, but he also wanders off on tangents like a mofo.  

Tangentially – and indeed this is a very Herodotian tangent – you may remember that I’m still in touch with my second year Greek prof, who is also a huge Yankee fan.  All summer, every summer, we email each other about the doings of the Bronx Bombers, mixing in a healthy helping of puns. Sub-tangentially – which is also a rather Herodotian device – when I was in his class, we read…you guessed it…Herodotus.

So in my reading, I came across a bit of text about which I had a question.  Well, who else could I ask?  So I sent him an email.  And of course he answered my query.  But he added at the end of the email something along the lines of, Herodotus is great and I’m kinda jealous that you’re reading him.

Eh?  OK, I said.  Well, we could read it together if you want.  Which he thought was a great idea.  So now, we Skype on Mondays and read Herodotus together.  And what a fucking joy, you guys.  I mean, I finished grad school in 2013.  So since then, everything I’ve done (Daitz aside), I’ve done alone.  I haven’t had access to “The Academy.”   

And look, it works, right? I mean, I have an MA in Classics. I can Greek.  I read Dumas on the subway.  I taught myself Hebrew well enough to read the fucking Torah already.  So I can work alone.  And I get by.  But that’s what it is.  It’s getting by.  I don’t benefit from the wisdom of others.

And now, all of a sudden, I’m reading Greek with an NYU prof, a proper fucking expert.  So on a technical level, it’s a huge benefit. Already, he’s corrected mistakes I’ve been making, reminded me of things I’ve forgotten, taught me things I never knew and would never have discovered on my own.

But more than that, it’s just fun.  I mean, we really get down into it.  In 90 minutes, maybe we get through two pages of text.  Maybe.  But that’s because we go back and forth debating about a word here, a phrase there, this verb tense or how this usually means something in Homer so what might it mean here?  And also we crack wise and make puns.

We’ve taken a break for the holidays, but the plan is to get back to it in the coming weeks.  And I can’t wait.  It’s 90 minutes, maybe 2 hours.  But it’s become a highlight of my week.  I mean, I’d be enjoying it anyway, if I was just doing it on my own.  But this ups the fun-factor by an order of magnitude.  

And let me tie this back to the German thing.  I said that when people speak only German with me, it makes me feel like they take me seriously as a German speaker.  Well, when we do Herodotus together, I feel like he takes me seriously as a classicist. 

Which is not to say he takes me seriously like a peer or an equal.  He’s been doing this longer than I’ve been alive.  So he’s very much the prof and I’m very much the student.  But he definitely treats me as somebody who knows their shit and with whom he can do this in a way that it’s fun and not work; another recurring theme in this post, apparently.

All to say, this Herodotus reading group (can two people be a “reading group”?) happened by accident. But it’s kinda fucking gorgeous. It’s all of the things I love. Good people.  Greek.  Puns. Intellectual engagement.  What’s not to love?

So I’ll leave it here. It’s 2019.  Hopefully this is the year where German overtakes English as the primary language in most of my relationships.  This is the year I read the Torah for a second time; this time trying to understand what the fuck it’s actually talking about rather than just muddling through the Hebrew.  This is the year I finish my Yiddish grammar book and get that language to a level where I can actually read shit.  And who knows what else?  But it’s 2019.  This is the year…

זײַ געזונט

  1. Sometimes. []
  2. When I’m not rockin’ the third wheel, I’m rockin’ the fifth. []
  3. I wrote this post a week ago and am only proofing it now… []
  4. I don’t care for this term, but it serves the purpose here. []
  5. In German, “bus” is masculine: “Der Bus.”  So the correct sentence is, “Ich hab denBus verpasst.”  I would almost certainly make “bus” feminine: “Ich hab dieBus verpasst.”  Whereas Turkish “street” German would omit the gendered article altogether, giving “Ich hab [_] Bus verpasst.” []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
18 September, 2018

Right, so obviously I haven’t written in a while.  Well, that’s not true.  I’ve written quite a bit.  But I haven’t posted in a little while.  There’s reasons for that, but first, Hi.  How ya doin?  Anyway, I guess the big news is, I had my appointment with the Ausländerbehörde – the foreign peoples office – today, to see about extending my visa, which was due to expire this November.  First of all, I mean, can you believe it’s been two years already?  Crazytown.  Anyway, it went off without a hitch, and they’ve given me three more years.  Now of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to actually stay for another three years.  But it does mean I have the option; and that I don’t have to stress about it until sometime in 2021…if ever.

Lemme tellya though, it was a surreal morning.  Just going to the office, I could remember my last visit there, back in November 2016.  I mean, I could remember it like it was yesterday.  I remember the weather; how dark it was in the morning; how I got lost and wound up having to take an Uber; how just that morning my phone had run out of data because I was staying at an AirBnB with no wifi and how I had to rush to a drugstore to buy more minutes just to call the Uber; how nervous I was while I waited.  All of it.

And I was nervous today, too.  I mean, in theory, I had all my papers in order.  But you know, you’re at the mercy of bureaucrats when it comes to this stuff.  And if the person you’re dealing with is having a bad day, they can decide to fuck you just because.  So I’m turning over and over in my head all the possibilities.  Like, what if they ask for something I didn’t bring?  What if something I brought wasn’t good enough?  What if they ask me something in German and I don’t understand?  What if whoever I got stuck with was having a bad day?

I tried reading my book – Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, btw; more Dumas; the Musketeers continued; he’s so fucking awesome; also Athos is kinda my hero – aaaanyway, I tried reading my book while I waited, but I just kept re-reading the same paragraph over and over.  Mazarin on his literal deathbed, confessing his sins, and I’m just like…whaaaaat even are you talking about you silly Italian cardinal person?  So I put the book away.

Anyway, I needn’t have worried.  My particular bureaucrat today was a young woman, very blond and very pretty.  Which I only mention by way of saying, she was very pleasant and not yet ground down by a life in bureaucracy and therefore more likely to be nice to me.  Which she was.  And also very patient with my German, thank gods.  Because she asked me two questions which I didn’t quite get at first.

I mean, I did get them.  But I so wasn’t expecting them that they caught me off guard and I needed to ask her to explain.  Which she did, patiently, and then I was able to answer her no problem.  She also asked me for my contract with the school, which I didn’t bring because the website didn’t mention it among the required docs.  But fortunately, they already had it in the system from my first go-round.  Major sigh of relief.

Anyway, she takes all my docs and tells me to wait in the waiting room while she does her thang.  And the way she said it, it sounded like it would just be a formality.  But of course, as I waited, I started imagining every worst possibility.  She was going to call me back in and reject my application because she didn’t like my job; or my second job.  Or I didn’t make or have enough money.  Or who the fuck lives in Köpenick?  I mean, who knows what she might decide?

Also, I had expected her to ask me how long I wanted to extend for.  I mean, maybe this was going to be a one-year thing, and I’d have to go through this every year.  Or maybe it would be like the first time where the maximum I could ask for would be three years, but really she could give me whatever she felt like.  My plan had been to ask for two years, on the grounds that my initial visa was also for two years.  In any case, she never asked.

So she calls me back in – finally; it was like half an hour – and she just smiles and said she’d given me three years.  I was delighted, yes, but more than that, relieved.  Vielen herzlichen Dank, I said, thanking her in the most polite but also effusive way I could think of.  To which, she was all, No problem; albeit pleasantly.  But you could tell she was already done with me.  So I hightailed it outa there before she could change her mind.  Which, she probably couldn’t, because the new visa was already pasted into my passport.  But still.

After that, all I had to do was pay.  On the website, it said the cost would be 49-96 Euros, “depending on the technical effort,” whatever that means.  Well my sweet golden angel of a bureaucrat hit me for the 49 minimum.  So I hope she’s having a swell night, wherever she is.

There was one other cost in this whole thing.  I had to take my tax returns, invoices and bank statements to an accountant and have them draw up profit/loss document for me.  That set me back 170 Euros.  So all told, renewing my visa cost me 120 Euros.  Well, that plus the 1.70 I spent on a celebratory beer after I got out of there at 11:30am don’t judge me.

So that’s the biggest news, but not the only news.  About two weeks ago, I finally finished the Torah.  That’s right, bitches.  Operation Read the Whole Fucking Torah in a Year was a success!  And three weeks ahead of schedule to boot.  I don’t usually crow about my accomplishments, but this one, I gotta say, I’m pretty proud of.

I also finally finished my first draft of the French translation of that story I wrote.  I still need to go over it with Charlotte so that it’s actually, you know, readable.  And who knows how long that will take.  But the point is, I did it.  It’s over.  And thank all of the gods.

I’ve had some travels.  In August I visited Jared and family in Italy, which was wonderful.  And this past weekend, Joschka and I were in Bavaria to celebrate the birthday of one of our friends down there, and also to visit a Volksfest – kind of like an Oktoberfest.  So that was a great time as well.  And then the last weekend of this month, I’m meeting Charlotte in Copenhagen; so I’m quite looking forward to that.

As for upcoming projects, I’ve just bought a Yiddish grammar.  So I’m looking to take that journey to the next level.  And I’ve got my hands on a Tanakh, so I’ve started with the book of Joshua, which begins where the Torah left off.  I’m not making any grand plans for how long it will take me to read the whole Tanakh.  More, I’m just gonna try and keep it going as a side project.  Because I’ve also got Greek to do.  And I want to get my Latin back into shape.  And of course, in a few weeks, it’s time to start the Torah all over again; but this year with (English) commentary.  Not to mention, I need to get back to the Federalist Project; which I’ve picked up again this very evening.  Oh, and also work.  So I’m busy as ever, I guess.

I’ll get more into detail on all this stuff in coming posts.  In fact, I’ve written a bunch about it already.  But I haven’t posted any of it because, in their totality, I haven’t been happy with the posts I’ve written (but not published) lately.  To be honest, they read as a bit angry and bitter.  Or, at least, I think they do.

The reason being, I think I was in a bit of a rut for most of August; maybe even most of July as well.  And really, most of September, until today.  Part of it was the visa thing was certainly weighing on me.  But work has been frustrating as well, which I suppose is normal after two years.  Or so says every other freelance language teacher I’ve spoken with.

But I think I’m past the tough stretch now.  Or, at least, I hope I am.  So I’ll probably cull the interesting stuff from those unpublished posts and try to turn them into something a little more upbeat in the coming weeks.  But for now, I just wanted to give this (comparatively) short update.

זײַ געסונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
22 July, 2018

Music, y’all.  What’s a life without music?  So maybe you remember a few years ago, I wrote about Charlotte’s old roommate in New York.  This girl Line.  The short version went something like this.  Line writes her own music.  And she’s fucking fantastic.  Really, she’s got this…I wanna say Geist, because that’s the best word I can find.  But honestly, I don’t even know if that’s right.  Because German.

What I’m trying to say is, she’s got his wonderful energy and intensity to her music.  Even when she sings in a near whisper, it’s intense.  Also, the music itself is really fucking good.  And she’s got a killer voice.  It’s kind of a complete package.  Very singer-songwriter-y though.  Which I only add by way of clarification.  To clarify that the kind of music she does is very different than the kind of music I do.  I do rock and roll, basically.  She does, well, art.

I make this clarification because something very surprising happened last weekend.  So I get a message from Charlotte that Line is going to be in Berlin and that she wants to get in touch with me.  And I’m thinking, yeah, sure, great.  I mean, I haven’t seen her in like 2.5-3 years, so it would be great to catch up, grab a beer, that kinda thing.

Well so Line gets in touch.  And she doesn’t ask me if I want to meet up for a beer.  She asks me if I’d be interested in playing a gig with her.  What the what?  I mean, yeah, obviously!  But I was certainly surprised.  Because as I said, we do very different kinds of music.  And to be clear, she wasn’t asking me if I wanted to play some of my own stuff.  She was asking me if I wanted to lend my guitar to some of her stuff.

Now look, that’s not totally alien.  Back when we were all in New York, we spent many a night in their (C & L’s) Bushwick apartment just jamming.  We’d rock out together.  Drunkenly make up silly songs on the spot.  Sing together on my songs.  Sing together on her songs.  And yeah, I’d noodle over her songs a bit with my guitar.  Nothing with nothing, you know?  Just for fun.  But that’s a long time ago already.  And it was never anything serious.

So yeah, I was surprised when she asked me if I’d be interested in playing an actual gig with her.  But I should give some background here.  Because I don’t want to undersell myself.  But I don’t want to oversell myself either.

So the deal is this.  Basically, the girl decided she wanted to take her music “on tour.”  So she just upped and flew over to Europe (she’s French, btw).  And she just started emailing clubs and bars in cities where she has friends, asking for gigs.  Which, not for nothing, good on you, girl.  That takes fucking balls.

Anyway, it’s not like I’m the only person she’s asked.  She’s asking friends wherever she goes to play with her.  And I discovered that part of this was just down to nerves.  She’s never done anything like this before.  To the point where, I don’t think she’s even ever really played her stuff out before.  So it’s all new for her.  And I get that, for sure.  I mean, I get nervous playing two songs at an open mic night where there’s a room full of supportive people.  And here she is, playing 90 minutes, two hours, to maybe nobody, who knows?  Maybe just a few friends.  That’s scary.  So I got the impression it’s just easier to have somebody up on the stage with her.  Nothing wrong with that.

It’s funny though, because I never think of her as being a nervous person.  I always see her as this true “artist,” you know?  Not giving a fuck what other people think.  Turns out she’s human like the rest of us.  Who knew?

All that said, she still didn’t need to ask me.  And I gotta tell y’all.  I was right honored that she did.  And that’s not an overstatement.  Because I really have the utmost respect for her music.  I mean, she does things I could never dream of doing.  I talked about this in that other post, whenever it was.  That when I play my music, people tap their feet and I’m happy.  But when she plays, people feel shit.  I’ve always been slightly in awe of what she does.  So yeah, honored isn’t too strong a word here.

Fine, so that’s the backstory.  Back to real life.  We didn’t have much time to work on the music.  Just two or three hours before the show.  So this wasn’t going to be anything where I would get to showcase what I can really do with the guitar.  Which may not be much anyway.  No, fuck that actually.  I can do some really nice things, given the time.  But the time wasn’t given.

So basically I just tried to find little things.  Just tired to add a little color, a little depth.  Nothing that would put the spotlight on me, nothing that would take away from her.  Well, I think I was able to do that.

She was great to work with too.  No ego, for either of us.  Some songs, she knew exactly what she wanted.  Other songs, I just tried a few things.  If it wasn’t working, she’d just say, “It’s not working.  Let’s move on.”  Sure.  You’re the boss.  Easy-peasy.

Right, so the gig.  I think it went really well.  By which I mean, from my point of view.  I think the stuff I did served her music well.  I think – or I’d like to think – it was exactly what we both wanted, under the circumstances.  So I’m happy about that.  And for her, I mean, she was great.  I think she kicked ass.

For me, it was just great to be up on stage again.  And not alone, open-mic style.  But really to be playing with somebody.  Was it The Fury?  No, of course not.  But it was special.  It was special to play original music with another person, music which you’ve contributed to in some way, no matter how small.

It also brought me back to the bands I played with after The Fury.  Perfect Syn, a metal band on Staten Island.  And The Rosies, on Long Island.  And in both of those bands, I wasn’t a primary songwriter, which I was in the Fury.  In those bands, I was exploring my instrument in a very different way.

The question was, what can I bring to these songs that have already been written?  How can I serve them?  How can I give them something special that really comes from Dave?  And I was able to do that in those bands.  That’s what I was most proud of there.

I remember in Perfect Syn especially.  That band had all their songs already.  And I didn’t get along with everybody in that band.  Me and the bass player would butt heads.  But I’ll never forget, he said to me one time, “Dave, I’ve never seen a rhythm guitarist like you.  You do things nobody else does.”  Or words to that effect.  But that made me happy.  Because that’s what I was going for.

You know, Brian May, from Queen, I think he’s the greatest guitarist ever.  Not because of his riffs (which are killer) or his leads (which are exhilarating), but because he knew how adding just one note here, a little harmony there, the tiniest thing – he knew how that could make a good song great.  Or maybe that’s not right.  A Freddy Mercury song is great with or without Brian May.  But he had a way of giving those songs – the songs he didn’t write – something special.  So that was the challenge I set for myself in those bands.  And I think I generally succeeded.

Point is, that was the challenge I set for myself with Line’s songs.  What I mean is, those songs stand on their own two legs.  They don’t need me, or anything I can bring.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t give them something extra, something special, if I really succeed.

I think there might be a triangle in Beethoven 9.  A fucking triangle you guys.  Now look.  Beethoven 9 is probably the greatest piece of music in the history of the human race.  And I’m saying ‘probably’ to be polite.  And I’m willing to bet you don’t even know where the triangle comes in.  How much does it matter?  Not much.  But it adds something worth having.  That’s what I’m driving at.  Sometimes you gotta be that triangle.

So I got to play triangle for Line.  And I’m more than a little proud of that.  As a ‘musician,’ I mean.  As a human fucking being though?  Fuck, that was fun, you guys!  So I say thank you to Line for inviting me to play with you, and good luck on the rest of your tour!

Meanwhile, French.  So this translation project continues.  And I gotta be honest, it’s kinda killing me.  I mean, it’s really kicking my ass.  And look, I get it.  I’m not French.  I’ve never formally studied French.  My expectations for myself are too high.  Rationally, I know this.  But emotionally, I’m taking a beating here.

Look, I’m doing it.  And in that cruel “labor of love” sorta way, I am actually enjoying it.  And yeah, there are days where I really do feel like I can do it, like I’m accomplishing something I can be proud of.  But there are more days where I feel like a fucking failure.  And that’s tough.

I’m gonna level with y’all.  Y’all can say what you want about my writing.  Maybe you like it, maybe you don’t.  Maybe you like it, but you don’t think it’s good, whatever that means.  But I know I can write.  What I mean is, when I’m going right, I can always find the words I’m looking for.  I can craft sentences the way I want to craft them.  When I’m going right, I have this feeling like I’m the boss and the words work for me.  And if I’m living inside my own delusions, then so be it.

But that’s one of the things I like most about writing.  Maybe it’s the main reason I do it.  I have control over it.  I create my own worlds, with their own rules.  I’m the master.  If it turns out the worlds I create are second rate, well, we can’t all be Mozart.  Some of us have to be Salieri.  Fine.

But French, man.  Fuck me.  You know, it’s like running under water.  You use up all your energy and just pushing your legs forward is a battle.  And you get nowhere.  Like, I don’t know how to swim in French.  So I just run underwater.  Or try to.  Yeesh.  That’s a shitty analogy.  Maybe I’m not the cat’s meow when it comes to writing after all.  Maybe I’m more like the duck’s quack.

Whatever.  The point is, all of a sudden, this thing I’m supposed to be good at, I’m not.  The words don’t work for me.  If I’m lucky, they work with me.  It’s brutal.

And I’m not talking about the little things.  So what if I use the wrong preposition?  So what if I put the pronoun in the wrong place?  Charlotte will fix that, bless her.  I’m talking about, I have this idea and I want to express it.  And the best I can do is, “Yeah, well, I think this is the word Dumas uses in this situation.”  But I can’t feel it.  And that’s fucking murder.

I’ll give a “positive” example, since this is already drowning in negativity.  As Charlotte is editing my text, she’ll occasionally highlight a sentence or a phrase.  And she’ll add a comment like “I really like this!” or “Nice!”  Which, you know, should be really gratifying.  But it’s not.  Because I don’t feel like I did it on purpose.  Does that make sense?

Like, why is this sentence good, but not the last one?  Or the next one?  We’ve just spoken about this on the phone, me and her.1  And she said something like, “Because those sentences really feel like a French person could have written them.”  So like, I can do it basically by accident.  But I can’t just do it.

Because there’s also a lot shit where she’s just, “Yeah, I know what you mean, but it’s not really French.”  Which again, is normal.  I get it.  I’m not French.  I’m not a native speaker.  No matter how much I read, there’s an upward limit on how much of a feel I can have for this language.  But that can be crushing.

And look, she’s super supportive.  She’s telling me things like, “This is the first time you’ve ever tried this.”  “You’re learning from this.”  “Next time you’ll be better at it.”  All fair enough.  But, you know, Serenity Now!  The Germans have this great saying, which I’ll probably misquote, but goes something like: Gott, schick mir Geduld.  Aber sofort!  Which I loosely translate as, “God, send me patience.  But fucking now!”

This project is kicking my ass in another way, too.  At the risk of sounding like a pompous ass, I’m not used to working this hard at something and being shit at it.  I mean, the last time I really applied myself to something and still sucked was calculus, in college.  And even then, I’ve always been shit with math.

But this is language.  This is supposed to be my thing.  I needed to pass a French reading comp for my Master’s.  So I bought a book and taught myself French.  I passed first try.  I wanted to read the Torah.  So I bought a book and taught myself Hebrew.  Now I’m reading the fucking Torah.  German?  Yeah, I’m a mess.  But also, I never took a class.  I read half a book, moved to Germany, and now I speak the language (more or less).

And now I’m trying to take this story I’ve written, and all I want to do is re-write it in French.  And I feel like I’m banging my head against a fucking wall.  Probably I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.  Probably I should rationally identify a reasonable expectation and make my peace with that.  But emotionally, it’s eating me up.  I very much want to smash and burn a great many things in rage.

But I won’t give up on it either.  I’ll finish it.  And I trust Charlotte to make it right.  Which is another thing.  You know that old trope about an artist’s work being his baby?  Not that I’m calling myself an ‘artist,’ but yeah, this is kinda my baby.  And I’ll be damned if I let any old so-&-so lay hands on it.

But she’s the one who brought me to the place that inspired the story.  (When it’s all said and done, I’ll get into that).  And she knows me.  She knows the story.  So I trust her with it.  And honestly, I’m glad she’s so gung-ho about working on it with me.  Because if I didn’t have her for this…I’d bury it.  Or burn it.  After I finish it.  Because I will fucking finish it.

“Oh!” he exclaimed, subject-changingly.  Yiddish.  Man, I love this shit.  So I’ve started digging up videos on the Youtubes in Yiddish.  Just to see how much I can get out of them, you know?  But it’s such a wonderful language.  I mean, obviously I’m biased.  But it’s fun.  It’s got personality.  And with each video I watch, I understand just a little bit more.  Which is cool.

I’ve just finished reading my second newspaper article.  It takes time, and it’s not easy yet.  But it’s getting easier.  In fairness, it’s mostly funny German, so that helps quite a bit.  But what’s also kinda cool is, I’m about 50/50 when it comes to the Hebrew words.  Which is only because I’ve been reading Torah every day for 10 months.  But I mean, I dig that.

Because the idea with the Hebrew words in Yiddish is, they’re words we’re all supposed to know if we’re going to schul like we should.  They’re not random obscura; they’re often at the core of the whole Jewish experience.  Whatever that means.

So basically, I’ve got three streams of vocabulary input with the language, which is what makes learning it on the side even remotely possible.  The first stream is just the words I’ve been hearing my whole life.  The second is my experience with German.  And the third is Torah.  The former of which, I’ve only been doing for 2-3 years and the latter, ten months, like I said.  מיט אַנדערע ווערטער, if I had tried doing this even three years ago, it would have been a huge undertaking.  But now?  I don’t want to say easy.  But it ain’t hard, neither.

But this realization has led me to another more frustrating and paradoxical realization.  Namely that for most of my life, I’ve had actual Yiddish speakers in my family.  My father’s grandmother was fluent, although she died when I was six or seven.  His mother may also have been fluent, or if not, I think could at least use the language to some degree; and she lived into my thirties.  My mom’s aunt, who raised her more than anybody else, was fluent, and she lived into my twenties if not thirties.

I remember my grandmother, when she was in the nursing home and not knowing who anybody was anymore, still throwing some Yiddish around.  There was a lot of sei gesunt – be well, be healthy – which is what I close all my posts with.  Who knows how much of that stuck with her, or came back to her, in those last years.

My mom’s aunt, well that’s another story.  She was out of my life, and that was by my choice.  I have not until now regretted that decision.  To be honest, I don’t regret it even know.  I made that decision for some very serious reasons.  But had I wanted to reconnect with her – which I know she would have wanted – that would have been my way back in.

Except, what good would it have been?  Because the whole time they were alive, I had no German, no Hebrew.  I maybe could have had them teach me a few phrases by wrote.  But I couldn’t have “learned” the language from them.  I couldn’t have sat down with them and tried to have any kind of conversation.  So on the one hand, I really feel like I missed the boat there.  But on the other hand, even if I’d tried to get on that boat, I’d just have been locked in my own cabin anyway.  That’s what I mean by paradoxical.

But the frustrating part is that it need not have been that way.  It’s only that way because I’m late to literally fucking everything in life.  I took my first Greek class with a bunch of undergrads2 when I was 26.  I didn’t learn French until I was 30.  Didn’t finish my Master’s until I was 32.  I was 35 when I moved to Germany, 35 when I started to learn that language in any meaningful kind of way.

When Vinny arrived in Berlin a couple of weeks ago, I was a half hour late picking him at the airport.  And he said, “I was almost gonna be mad, but when I saw you, I was just like, this fucking guy.  I had to laugh.”  Joschka routinely tells me things start 30 minutes earlier than they actually do because he just expects me to not be on time.3  Hell, I was even late to my first two dates with some girl.  Because why pretend to be something you’re not, i.e. an on-time person?

Fine, so I’m late to everything.  But the point is, it really hurt me here.  Late to German, late to Hebrew, late to my access to the Yiddish language.  And with that, too late for me to (try and) talk to people in my own family who actually spoke the language.  I mean, that stings, you know?

There’s another side to that, too.  Because see, there are several variants – if not dialects – of Yiddish.  And I don’t know what ours was.  I mean, I can guess a little bit.  I know where my dad’s family comes from.  I know where Art’s side of my mom’s family comes from.  I don’t actually know where my mom’s aunt’s side of the family comes from.

But what does that really mean?  Was the stuff my parents heard growing up the same language that was spoken in – I assume – the shtetl?  Or after one and two generations, was it an Americanized, New York-icized kind of Yiddish?  How similar, or different, is the stuff I’m reading now from what was spoken literally in the house I was born in?

All I really have to go on are the way my parents pronounce the words I’ve known my whole life.  I can work backwards from there, but not much.  It doesn’t get you very far.  So there’s that disconnect too.  Like, even if one day I actually can kibbutz around in Yiddish, it might not be the language of my family.  Like, imagine I met my bubbi in some fictitious afterlife and tried to talk to her.  She might say, “Yikes, kid, who taught you mamma loshen?”  That would be awkward.

Speaking of Bubbi, though, all is not lost.  My uncle Richard did a series of video interviews with her late in life, about…well, her life.  Anyway, according to the transcripts, she lapses into Yiddish at points.  But all the transcript says is “She speaks Yiddish,” or words to that effect.  But it occurs to me now, I should try and get my hands on those recordings and see what I can make of them.

First of all, it would be the only real opportunity to hear the language as it was spoken in my family; or my dad’s family, to be more precise.  But also, it would be pretty cool to be able to fill in those blanks for all of us.  That would be a nice contribution.

And that brings me to my last point about Yiddish, and then I’ll wrap this up, I promise.  There’s a gap between the formal written language as I’m reading it in The Forward, and the informal spoken language.  Now, of course that’s true of any language.  But Yiddish was really late to the standardization game.  It wasn’t until the late 19th – early 20th century that efforts were made at a ‘standard’ Yiddish.

And that was really only getting off the ground by around the 20’s and 30’s.  And you know how that ended.  So who knows how much of a gap there is between the Russo-Ukrainian shtetl Yiddish of 130+ years ago and what passes for ‘standard’ Yiddish today?  I mean, I say “who knows,” but obviously people do.  And maybe I will to, if I ever get to the point of being able to understand what she says in those tapes.

I don’t actually think, by the way, that I’m anywhere near ready to tackle those tapes.  Not in a way where I’ll be able to understand what she’s saying in any meaningful way.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear them.  I’m kinda dying to know what Bubbi’s Yiddish sounded like.

So we’ll see where this goes.  It’s obviously going to be a long term project.  A life-term project, really.  But there’s no reason to think I won’t be able to get a good handle on it at some point.  Hell, I just watched five minutes of a Megillah reading in Yiddish on the Youtubes.  Now, it had English subtitles, but I was able to get let’s say 80% of it, maybe more.

My dad tells how when he was a kid, they would go up to the Catskills and see these comedians.  And they would tell the whole joke in English, and everybody would be following along.  But then the punchline would come in Yiddish.  And all the adults would burst out laughing, and all the kids would have no idea what happened.  Well, when I can listen to one of those jokes and get the punchline, I’ll know I’ve made it.

So that’s that.  Now, though, it’s time to climb into bed and put on the ballgame.  Yanks-Mets this weekend.  Baseball.  Now there’s a language I can understand…

זײַ געסונט

  1. Since I’ve been teaching, I’ve decided I have zero problem with things like “Me and Timmy went to the store.”  Or, “We did a good job, you and me.”  Timmy and I.  You and I.  Who gives a fuck?  English wants to be free.  I say, let it be free. []
  2. I actually just had a video chat with Dale, one of my friends from that very first Greek class. []
  3. I’m also fine with split infinitives, obvi. []

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. []