An American in Berlin
17 March, 2018
Welp, I’m 37 now. And I don’t really know what to say about that except, perhaps, fuck you, Time, you merciless, relentless bastard. And while we’re at it, it’s your fault Vin Scully won’t be calling ballgames anymore. Like, what’s your deal? One minute I’m 25, living in Manhattan, drinking unlimited mimosas at brunch after a late night out and feeling fine. And the next minute, I’m 37 in Berlin and hangovers last 24 hours. But every day of the Trump presidency is new, waking hell and one year is an eternity? Like I said, fuck you, Time.
That said, I had a pretty decent birthday this year. First of all, Charlotte came to visit, which was…fine. It was fine. She sends me a message about two weeks beforehand. “How would you feel about your best friend coming to visit for your birthday?” “What? Jared’s coming??!! How do you even know that??” “What?” “Ooohhh, you mean you. Yeah, that’d be…fine. It’d be fine.”
No, seriously though. It was great. I mean, that’s pretty special when your friend in another country just up and offers to fly to Berlin for your birthday. Obviously we had a great time. First of all, she’s the first proper visitor I’ve had to my place here. I mean, Anne’s been over a couple of times. And I had that dinner party. But this was my first proper visiting guest.
And she was pretty excited to see my place as well. As she put it, for the last two years in the states, I was living with my folks. So it wasn’t really my place. You have to go all the way back to 2014 for the last time she visited me in my own apartment. Anyway, the moment she steps into my room, she smiles and says, “Ah, it smells like you!” She meant the pipe smell, obvi.
It kinda reminded me of the last time Niki came to my apartment in Chinatown, after all my furniture had been moved out. And she said, “I’m gonna miss this smell.” Anyway, C loved my place here. It was so me, she said. The candles, the books, the wooden furniture. So that was very cool.
And it was just a nice old-timey visit. We played Yatzee, we talked shop, we drank bottles of wine, we played music. We even learned a new kickass song. Pourtant, by Vanessa Paradis. For one thing, the guitar part is crazy fun to play. For another thing, C does the singing. That’s actually been one really cool thing to have watched develop over the years.
In the beginning, I did all the singing. I don’t know how much of that was just me knowing the songs, or her being self-conscious. I guess I don’t actually know if she was self-conscious about singing. But she didn’t do it in the beginning, is the point. After a while though, she’d start doubling up with me on a couple of songs: Bobby Darin’s Dream Lover, a French version of Rammstein’s Seemann that we had worked up.
But somewhere along the line, she started singing some songs on her own. Carla Bruni’s Quelqu’un M’a Dit, Sympathique by Pink Martini and this song by Moriarty which I call “The Buffalo Song,” but which I think is actually called Jimmy. Anyway, I rather enjoy when she takes over the vox. First of all, it’s a nice break for me. But also, her voice is…fine. I mean, it’s fine. No, seriously, she sings really rather well, and she has a nice voice. But also, as I wrote in my one of my previous posts, it just feels good to play with somebody. To jam, to have that chemistry, to bring music to life. Man, I miss that.
The one song we haven’t beaten yet is Sound of Silence. Mostly because I haven’t been able to master the harmony. Mostly bc I never work on it on my own. But we’ll get it eventually. And when we do, well, that will be fun.
As with most things, I left the planning of my birthday to the last possible minute. Which Joschka loves. Finally, I decided on going to this metal bar, which is the closest thing we’ve found in Berlin to Duffs. Of course I was late. To my own birthday. Because of course I was. Which Joschka also loves. Anyway, me and C roll up to the metal bar – Blackland – to find J waiting outside with Annett and a friend she’d brought. Apparently, there was a record release party that night, and thus a ten euro cover. A fact I might have known, had I done any advance research whatsoever. Well, anyway, fuck a ten euro cover, amirite?
So we went down the block to this Eckkneippe – corner pub – which was, in fact, the same Eckkneippe where me and Anne had got trashed on Glühwein earlier this winter. It turned out to be perfect. Plenty of room. A big table where we could all sit together. Pool. Darts. Cheap drinks. Local Berlin flavor. Next time I do a big outing, I think that’s where I shall do it.
So it was me and C, J, Annett and her friend. A bit later Cindy showed up, and then Anne. For a while we all just sat around the table, hanging out, drinking. It was pretty great. To my right, Anne and C are chatting away in French. To my left, the others are chatting away in German. And I’m sort of going back and forth between the two. Because I’m so fucking cosmopolitan, ya know?
Side Note. The next day, C told me she was really impressed with my German. Not that she understands a word of it. But just that it really looks like I’m fluent. And she’s right. It does look that way. I mean, I can carry on, chat away at speed, make jokes, laugh at jokes. “The trappings and the suits of fluency,” he said, adapting a quote from Shakespeare, because he’s so fucking cosmopolitan, ya know?
But what she doesn’t see, of course, is that it’s basically all wrong, what I’m saying. Wrong genders, wrong cases, wrong prepositions, wrong word orders. The whole “I must to go on the park to bring a piss” thing. I spoke about that with Anne, because she’s in the same leaky boat. We laugh about it. But more on that later. End Side Note.
At some point, the waitress puts a shot of whiskey in front of me, which I didn’t order. “What’s this?” I ask. And Joschka is like, “It’s from me.” And I’m like, “Thanks! What is it?” And he’s like, “I dunno, nothing good.” And I’m like, “Thanks?” And he’s like, “It’s literally the best whiskey I could buy. They have nothing here.” Which was hilarious. I mean, I can imagine him at the bar. “One shot of your finest whiskey, please.” “Sorry, we don’t have that.”
The waitress was great, btw. Total local Berliner. Not a word of English. When C wanted to order a glass of wine, the poor waitress was like, “Can somebody translate?” But she was super sweet, the waitress.
Later on, J-Dawg showed up. J-Dawg, whose real name is Julia (pronounced Yulia), but whom I only ever call J-Dawg or Jules. She’s the one, remember, the former student who invited me to her birthday and I was terrified to go, because speaking German with strangers. Anyway, she came with her boyfriend. Which was really great. All the more so because it was totally out of their way, geography-wise.
But you know, I’m looking around the table. And there’s Joschka, whom I’ve known since 2012 already. And Charlotte, whom I’ve known since 2103 already. And Cindy, who’s a total doll and speaks German with me and plays chess with me on the iPhone. And then there’s Annett, really the first friend I made in Berlin. And Anne, my language partner, my drinking buddy, my fellow stranger-in-a-strange-land. And J-Dawg, a former student who now is actually my friend. And I’m thinking I ain’t doing too bad here.
Then at some point, I look around. Some of my friends are over at the pool table. Some others are talking amongst themselves at the table-table. And I’m talking to who(m)ever I’m talking to. And it was like my old birthdays in New York, at the 11th Street Tavern/Pub/Bar whatever it was called. Where I used to get upwards of 20 people together, and just watch them all have a good time around me, where I was free to float from one crowd to the next at my pleasure, collecting free whiskeys wherever I went. Those were some pretty great birthdays. Some of the best in fact. And it was a bit surreal to realize that Joschka and Charlotte were at those parties too. And this was like that, just smaller. I’ll call that a birthday win, I will. Thank you very much.
I also did pretty well on the presents front. My roommates gave me a bottle of Tullamore Dew. C brought me a bottle of Pastis. Joschka gave me a nice cigar. Even my bosses gave me a taster set of four very nice Irish whiskeys. And Anne gave me a picture of a hoody. Which needs explanation.
So remember I said she found this picture of these two old broads wearing sweatshirts with “New York Drinking Team” across the front? And we decided we needed to get hoodies made that said “Berlin Drinking Team”? Well, anyway, I mention to her that I was looking around online, and I found something that might be nice, but it would run us around 50 bucks, each.
And she’s like, “Welp, I guess I’ll give you your present now.” And she hands me an envelope, in which was a postcard-sized printout of a hoody with “Berlin Drinking Team” printed on it. Like, this is your present, Dave. We just need to sort out the font and all that. And just, wow. Right?
Oh, also, under “Berlin Drinking Team,” in smaller type, was our slogan. Because we have a slogan now. See, a while back, I told her I was watching a documentary on the French Revolution. And this revolutionary – Danton – had this awesome quote. “Do you know it?” “Which one? Danton has a lot of quotes.” “Pour vaincre, il nous faut l’audace, encore l’audace, toujours l’audace!” And by the end, we’re basically shouting “Toujours l’audace!” together. So yeah, she knew the quote. And now that’s the official slogan of the Berlin Drinking Team.
So that’s about it for the birthday. It would have been nice if the roommies could have come. But they just had their one-year anniversary. And the same day as my birthday outing, they had a huge family party that was like eight hours long. So they were pretty dead by the end of it. Schade. Too bad. But they continue to be great. And they were really sweet with C too, which was lovely.
Monday I was over at Anne’s for a bit of day drinking, as I didn’t have any lessons that day. She made lunch. We drank many beers. We played this great little game, the name of which I forget. But it’s a little wooden board with a spinning top and…ah, fuck it. I can’t describe it. But it was a lot of fun. I kinda want one.
We also listened to music. As you do. I found a record in her collection which I had to play. Because on the cover was a middle-aged French dude with a baller moustache and a pipe. So how could I not? Georges something-or-other. Anyway, it was really good, and I need to download some. Just as soon as I remember the fella’s name.
Towards the end, we switched to my iPhone. The first thing I put on was Danzig I. Because that’s a great fucking album. Do I need to a Danzig thing here? OK, fine. Glenn Danzig was the singer for the Misfits. Then he went solo…
Right. So I put on Danzig I. Which wasn’t even the point. The point was, after that, I put on Van Halen II. Ugh, do I need to do a Van Halen thing now? And the answer is yes, because apparently I can’t ever get to my actual point. But this will be shorter than the Danzig thing…
Aaaannnyyyywwaaaay…the point – finally, the fucking point – is that after Danzig, I put on Van Halen II. Dance the Night Away, specifically. And Anne – remember, I’m at Anne’s house now, where this story started 37 pages ago – and Anne says “Is this also Danzig?” What? No! This is Van Halen! And she’s like, “Van Halen?! Omg we have to watch the Hot for Teacher video!” And then she did the jazz hands. Because in the video they do jazz hands. So we watched the Hot for Teacher video. Which was hilarious. And then that was the end of Monday Day Drinking for the Berlin Drinking Team.
Tuesday, I met up with Dafna. Dafna? Yeah, she’s the Israeli girl. My first time in Berlin, 2015, we did a Shabbas dinner for the goyim. Then in 2016, we did a Rosh HaShanah dinner, also for the goyim. And then she moved away for her studies. Anyway, she’s back in Berlin and emailed me about meeting for a beer. Which we did. Well, which I did. Actually, she drank tea. Whatever. But that was cool. Well, apart from me being like 40 minutes late. But she gave the wrong address. Otherwise I would only have been 25-30 minutes late. Because Dave.
Anyway, it was cool, like I said. Like, it’s cool to have another Jew in Berlin. But it’s also strange. Because she’s an Israeli Jew. And I’m a New York Jew. Big difference. She’s all tough and badass, and I’m all self-deprecating and borderline neurotic. And the Israelis dumped Yiddish after the Holocaust. Language of The Weak and all that. So in speaking of my hour-long commute, I’m like, “What a schlepp!” And she’s like, “Huh?”
Or another example. Somewhere in the course of our conversation, the Jewish prayer shawl came up. You know, as it does. But for some reason, I couldn’t remember the name for it. And she’s all, “Bad Jew, I’m not gonna help you.” Anyway, like half an hour later, she’s talking, and I interrupt, slapping my hands on the table, giving her a bit of a start. “Talis!” I yell, accent on the first syllable. And she’s all, “Umm, what?” “Talis!” I say again, “The prayer shawl.” And she’s just looking at me like I have two heads.
And then I remember. “Ooohhh. Taleet,” I say, accent on the second syllable, ending with “t” instead of “s.” Because, see, that’s the Israeli pronunciation. And she’s like, “Oh, yeah. What the fuck is a talis?” And I’m like, “That’s how we say it. In New York. That’s the Yiddish pronunciation.” And she’s all, “Yeah, that’s dumb. We don’t say that.” Which, they don’t.
Because that’s the point. After the war, the people who went on to Israel decided, as I said, to forget all about Yiddish. Language of the Weak, language of the sheep who marched their owned damned selves onto the trains. So when the Israelis brought Hebrew back to life, they made a point of restoring the “original” pronunciation. So they put the accent on the last syllable instead of the first. And they pronounce final tav (ת) as “t” instead of “s.” Although, really the “original” pronunciation would have had “th” instead of “t”; whence “Sabbath.” But whatever.
Anyway, it was a good time. Also a good time was, a few weeks ago I met up with another former student, Margit. I kind of adore Margit, or Mag. I don’t know how old she is, but she’s got two teenagers, so I’m guessing 50-something. Anyway, she’s fantastic. Like, simultaneously sassy and motherly. Like, she’ll give me shit and joke about all manner of inappropriate subjects, but also kinda looks out for me. Actually, she reminds me quite a bit of my mom. Maybe that’s why I like her so much. But the point was, I met up with Mag a couple of weeks ago, and it was lovely to see her. And as I’ve said before, one of the things I love about my job, is just all the awesome people I meet, people who become my friends after they’ve left the school.
Speaking of which, Friday was the last day for three of my students. One is that Polish girl who brought me the pickles. She’s a real character. But also, she started in the beginner class and progressed all the way to the advanced. And she’ll have no problem getting B2 on her exam. She might even get C1; she’s certainly capable of it. Just that she doesn’t work fast enough yet, and it’s a timed exam. Given another month, I’m certain she’d nail it. The point is, I’m actually really proud of her.
Another one whose last day was Friday was the girl I mentioned last time, the one I hope maybe we can do some music together. I love this kid, also my age, btw. Total smartass. For instance. Today, I’m like, “So for her homework – ,” and she cuts me off. “I don’t care about your homework, Dave!” And I was just like, “Omg, have you always been such a bitch?” And she just starts laughing and bites her tongue and gives me this little wink. Like, you’ve reached a special place with your students when you can call one of them a bitch in class and have it be OK. And yeah, obviously, don’t do that. But also, cool.
Anyway, at the end of the day, she’s like, “Wait!” And she pulls out of her bag two craft beers. And one one, she wrote “Thank you…” and on the other, “…Dave.” And she runs up to the front of the room and gives them to me. And of course, I’m like, “Ugh, do I have to, like, hug you now, or something?” And she all like rolls her eyes and shit, and’s like “You don’t have to,” and starts to walk away. To which, of course, I’m like, “Fuck you, bring it in.” So we had a little hug, and that was very sweet. And also, she’s married, so don’t ask.
But also also, last week she helped me make a doctor’s appointment. Yes, mom, everything’s fine. Just, I was a bit under the weather, and I’m paying for this health insurance, so, you know, use it and shit. But I’d never made an appointment over the phone before, and I didn’t know what questions they might ask and what if I didn’t understand something, yadda yadda. So I asked her if she could just come with me to make the call, in case I needed help. Because I do think of her as a friend, and I do trust her. And she did. And I really appreciated that.
And also also also, one other thing I like about this kid, she appreciates word play. So I’m looking at the beers she gave me, and she’s like, “Look on the back!” And there was a note on the back. It said, “By Nina…Bye…” Yes! She punned on the beers she gave me! I love my job.
Right. So this post is already over-long, and even so, there’s things I haven’t gotten to. Like, so many Torah thoughts. But that’s for next time. Right now, I want to close with a few words about Harvey Blatt.
I’ve known Bobby since I’m, what, 15? We went to travel camp together. He taught me how to play Iron Man and Paranoid on this little portable electric guitar while we rode the bus that magical summer. He was the drummer in the first band I ever played in, Sweet ETP. He played bass in The Fury. In those teenage years, Rob was the groundbreaker, the pathfinder. He did everything first. Among other things, he introduced us to all kinds of music, by way of his older brother Russ’ record collection.
Our band practiced in his basement. We had parties in that basement. I can still smell that basement. For years, we were at his house, every Monday night without fail, to watch wrestling. Hell, during college, we even went to his house to watch wrestling…while he was away at college!
That house was a second home to all of us. To Harriet, his mom, we were “The Boys.” She treated us like we were her own children. She cooked for us. She bought junk food for us. She gave us advice about girls and about life.
To his dad, we were, I suppose, “Those Idiots.” But there was no malice in those words, no contempt. There was love though. I mean, fuck, we were teenage boys. What were we, if we weren’t idiots? Harvey Blatt was Rob’s dad.
And look, I don’t pretend to “know” the man. But I knew him how I knew him, if that makes any sense.
Harvey was incredibly sweet, and somehow, even more generous. I’ll come to the generosity in a moment. First the sweet. Look, he wasn’t affectionate. He wasn’t demonstrative. And again, I’m speaking from my interactions with the man. But what I remember, was a man full of zingers, almost always directed at Rob, but sometimes at us too, the idiots.
But man, he was funny! He just made you laugh, you know? And the thing with the zingers was, you never doubted that they were coming from a place of love. I mean that. You never doubted it. Lemme try and paint a picture, though really more a silhouette.
Harvey was the lord of his manor. Not in a heavy-handed way. Not in a way that diminished Harriet in the least, who was very much the lady of the manor, so to speak. Just that, when Harvey came into the room, you knew you were in his house. But he had this way of surveying the scene. Of looking down on us idiots. No, literally, looking down. Because the living room was sunk a bit lower than the rest of the house. So he’d stand on the steps of the kitchen – adjacent to the living room – and look out over his domain.
And he’d see the idiots, watching wrestling, eating M&M’s, and just generally acting like stupid teenagers. And this was his son. And his son’s friends. And you know, I believe he enjoyed that. I believed he enjoyed seeing his youngest son enjoying life, having a good time, surrounded by his best friends. I believe he knew how much love was in that room full of idiots. And I think he was proud, you know? I think he was proud to be able to give his son this life. I think he was proud that it was his home that was the second home to all of these clowns. And then, you know, he’d zing Bobby and we’d all laugh and Rob would cringe and that would be that. Then Harvey would go elsewhere.
But this was a guy who, his home was our home. This was a place where the boys could congregate and be idiots. He gave us that.
I said generous. There was one year – and I don’t remember the occasion – he bought us all, all six of us, tickets to WrestleMania XX. At Madison Square Garden. Look, if you’re not a wrestling fan, you just can’t grasp how big a deal this was. But it was huge fucking deal. And those tickets weren’t cheap. And we were all just out of college, so we didn’t have the proverbial pot to piss in. And he just, he just bought us those tickets. For the idiots. For the clowns that had been clowning around in his house all those years.
And he didn’t want anything in return. He didn’t expect anything. He just knew how much it meant to us, and that was all he needed. And he didn’t come with us either, mind you. It wasn’t, “I’m taking you guys to WrestleMania.” Oh no. He had literally zero interest. But we had interest. So he did that for us.
And I should add, just for the sake of clarity and at the risk of redundancy, we didn’t ask. We didn’t hint. We didn’t fish for it. I mean, I have no idea if Rob spoke to him about it or asked for it. But we certainly didn’t. For us, it was a complete surprise. And just wonderful.
One other story of Harvey’s generosity. One year, during college, the way the schedule worked out, I wasn’t able to make it home for my family’s Passover Seder. Which, if you’re Jewish, you get; and if you’re not, just, it’s a big deal is all you need to know.
Anyway, I asked Rob if it would be OK if I came to his family’s Seder, which was on a different day. And of course I was welcomed with open arms. Harriet was delighted, because Harriet. Anyway, it comes time to search for the Afikomen. Which, I can’t believe I have to explain this for the gentiles, but here’s the short version. The Afikomen is a piece of Matzah, a cracker basically. The grownups hide it and the kids do a scavenger hunt for it. And the winner gets some kind of prize. A money prize.
Actually, it’s not a prize, per se. Really, the kid who finds it is supposed to “sell” it back to the grownups. I mean, we’re Jews, what did you expect? But the point is, it’s for the kids, the children. Normally, college age kids don’t participate in this. You’ve aged out of it.
Fine. So they do the whole Afikomen shtick. And I stay in my seat. But one of Rob’s (also college-aged) cousins says, “Dave, you’ll want to get in on this.” And I’m like, “But surely it’s just for the children.” And she’s like, “Trust me.” At which point, she gets up and joins the hunt. Well, when in Rome, right?
Fast forward to some little cousin finds the damn thing. And we all line up, like ducks in a row, so Harvey can give the prize. I should say here, that in my family, whoever found the Afikomen usually walked away with no more than $20, and probably less. I say this, because Harvey put five hundred (500!) dollars into the hand of whatever prepubescent cousin had found The Big A.
But wait, there’s more! Then, Harvey walks down the line, and into the hand of each loser, he places a fresh, crisp, hundred (100!) dollar bill. I could have untied my shoes with my teeth, so far had my jaw fallen.
One last thing about Harvey and then we can wrap up. This was a man who worked incredibly hard, built a business and did very very well for himself. And then there was us. It looks different now. It looks different when Jared is a social worker and Adam is an attorney and on and on. But way back when – and honestly, for me still – we didn’t know what the fuck we would do with our lives.
And Rob studied one thing, and then he studied another thing, and then he had one job and then he had a totally different job. All of which is fine and normal yadda yadda. All I’m saying is, Harvey was a guy who knew exactly what he was doing and Rob was a guy who was very much figuring it out.
And, you know, you read stories about demanding fathers. Fathers who are disappointed in their sons, because the sons fail to live up to whatever impossible expectations the fathers had set for them. Yes, it’s a trope. But it’s a trope because it’s real. That happens.
And I don’t pretend to know what went on behind closed doors. I can only speak to what I saw. But what I saw was this. I saw a man who, without question or hesitation, supported his son at every turn. A man who believed in his son, who wanted him to succeed. But more importantly, a man who wanted his son to succeed at what his son wanted, not at what he himself might have wished.
And when you get down to it, what more can you ask from a father?
Unwavering, unquestioning support and love. Generosity. But a generosity that extended beyond the circle of the man’s own family. A generosity that encompassed the loved ones of the people he loved. And humor. Because after love, what does more for the heart – for the soul – than laughter?
Rest in peace, Harvey Blatt. And rest easy, for we will all will carry just a bit of that love which you have shared with us, in the kindness of your heart.