An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
30 October, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, good night!

זיי געסונט   

 

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

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
27 September, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

זיי געסונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
30 July, 2017

Wow, what’s it been? Like two months since my last (non-Federalist related) blogue post? That’s some weak tea. So lots to catch up on. But before going any further, let me first just say – and I cannot overstate this – fuck cancer. Fuck it bigly.1 But more on that later.

Since my last post, the two most note-worthy adventures over here have been my roadtrip to Bavaria with Joschka and then Rock Harz, the yearly metal festival. In fact, I had started a post on the Bavaria trip not long after I got back, but I never finished it. Maybe I’ll get back to it at some point and give a fuller accounting of that sojourn. But for now, a super-short recap will have to do.

The weekend after my trip to the Baltic with Jan, Zibs and M, Joschka and I drove down to Bavaria to visit some of our friends from the afore-mentioned yearly metal festival. One of Joschka’s friends from his hometown (and fellow festival-goer) also met us down there. It was a great time, an absolute blast. We ate, we drank, we played German Cards Against Humanity and we ate and we drank.

It was also a high-water mark for my German. Basically, we spoke German the whole weekend. Apparently I’ve gotten good enough where nobody ever felt they had to switch to English for my sake. Which was fantastic. It’s also not to say that I understood everything. I asked plenty of questions, and certainly whole topics simply went over my head. But I was more or less able to keep up.

That said, it was mentally exhausting. And whether it’s causation or simply correlation, I came back from that trip with a severe case of writer’s block; which is why I haven’t posted in so long. It’s only in the last two weeks or so that I’ve slowly gotten back to putting proverbial pen to paper; or literal fingers to keyboard, I suppose.

The festival was the first week of July, Wednesday to Sunday. “Same procedure as every year,” to quote from the German-beloved, traditional New Year’s flick Dinner for One. Drink a lot, sleep a little, see great bands, hang out with friends. Rinse, repeat. If the trip to Bavaria was mentally exhausting, this was physically so. I love going to this festival, I love seeing the amazing people in our group. But it definitely gets harder every year, and I wonder how many of these things I have left in me.

So much for Bavaria and Rock Harz.

If I have, of late, been suffering from writer’s block on the creative side, I have nevertheless been able to keep myself productive. And that is quite important to me. I rather abhor the idea of coming home from work and just laying around, watching TV. “Be productive” is a mantra I keep repeating to myself.

The key to this, for me at least, has been routine. Just, get in a routine. Let the momentum carry you through. Well, it works for me anyway. So the routine is something like this: Hebrew after work; nap; dinner; more work – whether it be Greek, my Federalist Project, or something else.

First the Hebrew. I’ve just lately finished reading the Purim story, and the subsequent set of prayers that go with it. The, uh, ‘whole Megillah,’ if you will.2 Anyway, this marks the first real Hebrew text I’ve read in its entirety. Most definitely an enjoyable experience, and I certainly learned a lot. One thing surprised me though. We learn as children that when the Persian king was looking for a new wife, all the other broads showed up dressed to the nines, but our heroine Esther simply showed up dressed in white; which apparently made quite an impression on the king. However, this detail is not to be found in the Megillah. So I don’t know where, or from what source, that enters the tradition. All in all, though, it was a cool experience.

In any case, my goal continues to be to try and keep pace with the weekly parsha readings once the new year rolls around in September. So until then, I’ve decided to keep myself busy working my way through the haftaros. These are selections from other books of the bible which accompany the actual weekly Torah readings. I won’t get through all of them before Rosh HaShanah, and that’s fine. The important thing is to keep working. I’m not nearly good enough at Hebrew yet to be able to afford taking a month or two off.

As for the Greek, I’ve just finished Aristotle’s Poetics. Largely fascinating, though at times boring. Either way, though, it’s good exercise. Good, straight, direct Attic prose. Worlds away from Homer, but that’s OK. If the only thing I ever read is Homer, then my skillset with regard to that language will atrophy and narrow, perhaps irreparably. So it’s important to keep one foot in different styles. To that end, I’ve decided that my next undertaking will be Oedipus at Colonus; tragedy by Sophocles.

The one downside is, since I’ve been here, I’ve read precious little Homer. Which is, honestly, inexcusable. Even ten lines a day would be enough. So my goal, which I’ve yet to be able to implement, is to add a little bit of Homer every day between the Hebrew and my naps.

I do want to say something more about Homer, however. Homer, who we should remember is a) just the fucking best and b) the very foundation of Western Lit already. It’s very strange for me to be reading Homer alone. It’s always been a social thing. For five years, I read Homer with Daitz on Saturday mornings. And then, for the last year or so before I left, I was reading with Nat again (and some others). And this is the way Homer should be read. It’s an oral medium. It is, at its core, campfire storytelling. In the same way that you can read Shakespeare, but it’s really meant to be seen in performance; so it is with Homer. It’s better to sit in a circle, trade off lines, to hear it, feel it, and yes, perform it. Reading it alone in your room, it’s just not the same.

Also, every time I read Homer it makes me miss Daitz. And so, sometimes, it’s easier just not to do it; not to deal with that feeling of loss. It wasn’t so bad reading with Nat, who was the other central figure of the Daitz group anyway. And when we would read together, we’d always be saying “Well, Daitz would say so-and-so here,” or “Daitz always thought x about y.” So even though he was gone, he was always with us and we could rely on each other to keep him there. But now, when I read Homer alone, that burden is entirely mine, and it’s not easy. The one thing I know though, is that if Daitz ever new I had stopped reading Homer, he’d be rolling in his grave. So I’ve got to find a way to keep it going on my own, and to keep the Old Man with me as I do. His memory – and all the time he put in with me – demands nothing less.

Anyway, fuck cancer. Fuck it bigly. My uncle Steve, this time. I know what I want to say about the man, but I’m not sure how to tell the story. So I’ll just do my best, and beg your indulgence if it’s all a little disjointed.

So I get a message from my brother one day, completely out of the blue. Steve went to the doctor with some pretty serious back pain, and the doctor (well, like the third or fucking fourth doctor) was basically like, “Oh, yeah, that’s not sciatica, that’s cancer. And it’s fucking everywhere. You’ll be wanting to get your shit in order. And no time to lose, not to put too fine a point on it.”

Interpolationally, this seems like a good opportunity to say, “Fuck you, American health care system.” Because, as I indicated, he had been to several doctors, and they were all saying ‘sciatica.’ But my understanding is, he either had no, or else poor, insurance. So proper testing and whatnot just wasn’t done. I may have that wrong, but as I say, that’s my understanding of it. And not for nothing, even if it is wrong, still fuck you, American healthcare system. But more on this later.

Anyway let’s back up and figure out who Steve is. Because just saying he’s ‘my uncle,’ doesn’t even get at it nearly. In order to understand the relationship, some family history is required. The short version is this: My mom was essentially raised by her aunt and uncle. Steve was their son. So while technically my mom’s cousin, he was, in any way that mattered, her brother; and so my uncle.

He was around a lot when I was kid. But the truth is, as a kid, I didn’t get the guy. Not in the least. He was just so different. He smoked cigarettes. He drank beer out of cans. He wore tinted sunglasses. He used double negatives. He was the kind of guy that had a carpeted toilet-seat cover. My dad once said, “If it’s nailed down, Steve will carpet it over.”

I don’t know if this is factually true, but so far as impressions go, I also remember him as a guy who would wear sleeveless shirts. Not wifebeaters, mind you. Just, you know, T-shirts that didn’t have sleeves. He was also a guy, that as I got a little older would ask me about “broads;” I word that I often use ironically, but which he used earnestly. And he would ask me if I wanted him to “talk to them” for me. Uh, no thanks, Steve.

My point is, whether as a child or an adolescent, I had no idea what to make of this guy; no idea what to do with this guy. None of this is criticism, by the way. It’s simply description. We inhabited two very different worlds. In my world, nobody ever said “ain’t.” Whereas this was the standard negation in his. And as a yung’un, I didn’t yet possess the social skills to bridge the two. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like, or even love, the guy. He was family. I just didn’t get him.

Anyway, around the time of my brother’s Bar Mitzvah, there was a falling out. Not just with Steve, but with that whole family. There were reasons. Some were stupid, some were quite serious. But the point is, the families didn’t speak for several years. Then, at some point, my mom re-established the connection. I, however, did not.

My problem was with my mom’s aunt, not with Steve. I won’t go anywhere near the details here, but suffice it to say, I let my problem with one person affect my relationship with that whole clan. And so, from around the time I was 15 until I was 30 (or so) I had nothing to do with Steve.

Then Edie, my mom’s aunt, died. Personally, I had no interest in going to the funeral. But it was important to my mom, and I told her that if she wanted me there, I would come, no questions asked. And not to put too fine a point on it, but I made it rather clear that I didn’t want to go. So she would have to say so. But she did say so, and so I went, no questions asked.

Anyway, this was 2011. So that’s roughly 15 years that I had nothing to do with Steve. And I didn’t know what to expect from the guy; at the funeral, I mean. Maybe I wouldn’t have to talk to him at all. But maybe, he would be wanting to give me a piece of his mind. I was playing it out in my head. “You’ve got some nerve coming here,” he would say. “She was your grandmother and you just walked out of her life; never looked back. And now she’s dead, you think you can just show up at her funeral like nothing happened?” This was his mother, after all. He would have every right to say that. And worse. And I would have had to stand there and take it, because he wouldn’t have been wrong.

And yet, that’s not what happened at all. Look, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t avoiding him at the funeral. But at the cemetery, he came and found me. He sought me out. And I braced myself. Here it comes, I thought. And what does the bastard do? He shakes my hand. He shakes my fucking hand. And he says, “Thank you so much for coming. It would make my mom so happy to know that you’re here.” Not a hint of malice. Not the slightest touch of ill will. If it’s not already clear from my earlier description, this was not a man who knew how to bullshit. This was a man who only knew one way of talking, and that was straight.

So when he said those words, they were honest, from the heart, no bullshit. And I was floored. I mean, in no way whatsoever was I prepared for that. And he taught me something that day. With those few words, he taught me how to be a mensch. No, ‘taught’ is the wrong word. He showed me how to be a mensch. Because, in his mind – I believe – he wasn’t teaching me a lesson. He was just being. This is the sort of guy he was.

And I remember thinking, shit, this is a good man. Which isn’t to say he was perfect or that he didn’t do bad things. Facts to go undescribed in this post, Steve straight up did things that were not cool. He made mistakes, right up until the end, as I’m sadly still learning. But he didn’t hold a grudge; not with family at least. Even as I’m writing this paragraph, I’m realizing that I still don’t fully understand the guy.

The point is, I’ll never forget that encounter. Because I don’t think I could have acted as he did in that situation. I remember walking away from that exchange feeling like that man was a giant; and, not for nothing, like I was an ant. And I remember saying to my mom afterwards, that I was done with the grudge, that it was all over. I told her that if she wanted to have a relationship with Steve, I was all in. Anytime they wanted to drive out to Pennsylvania (where he lived), to count me in.

Only, that never happened. I never saw Steve again. Not in person, anyway. My mom would talk to him on the phone all the time. And she’d keep up with him on the Facebook as well; which anybody who knows me, knows is something I don’t do.

But from the time of Edie’s funeral until 2015, I worked in the same office as my mom. And I always asked about Steve, what was the news. And I always rooted for the guy. This is going to sound awful, but I rooted for him in the way you root for a recovering drug addict. He’d fucked up a lot – and maybe still was – but he had a good heart. You had to root for him. You couldn’t not.

Be that as it may, the stars never aligned for a visit. And yeah, while I was always open to seeing him again, I never really went out of my way either. And then I went to Germany. And look, I’d be lying if I said that this was something that was on my mind. It just wasn’t. He wasn’t a guy that I had a lot to do with, even if it was more circumstance at that point than anything else.

But then I get the news that he’s sick. And my first thoughts are for my mom. I mean, come on. Mike, my father’s brother, has only just recently died from cancer.3 And they – my parents and Mike & Mag – were really close. Risa, sister to Steve and cousin/sister to my mom, died in a car crash in ’05. And Edie, as we saw, in ’11; although she was at least old. So yeah, my first thoughts were for my mom, and what kind of bullshit is this that she has to go through all this again.

And then, later, I was sad for myself too. I can’t overstate how much respect I had for the guy after his mother’s funeral. And I was so open to reconnecting, to putting all the bad shit behind us. And now, apparently, nope.

Anyway, towards the end (it all happened so fast), I get a text from my brother that Steve wants to talk to me via video chat. He gives me the Whatsapp info for Steve’s daughter; that’s how we’d do it. And look, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this. What would I say to the guy? Remember, the last time I saw him was at his mother’s funeral; six years ago. Sure, we had a connection. But relationship is probably too strong a word.

But the guy wants to talk. So you talk. And I didn’t know what to expect. The video crystalizes on my phone. And there’s Steve, lying in a hospital bed, no shirt. And it’s the same fucking Steve I’ve known since I was kid. Double negatives. Talking about broads. Funny.4 Easy. Uncomplicated.

Now to be honest, I was once again expecting some kind of reproach. “How come you never fucking visit?” Something like that. But of course, nothing of the sort. He wants to know how’s Germany. How do I like what I’m doing. And also, no admission of what’s actually going on. The closest he came was something along the lines of, “Yeah, so there’s some bullshit happening, but we can talk about that later.”

So we just chatted for a while. And I could hear his wife and daughter laughing in the background at times. Because we were just shooting the shit, cracking jokes. Yeah, there was some serious stuff, but not much.

One thing that stands out, he asked me to write him a letter. He seemed a bit annoyed that people don’t write letters anymore. I remember he said something about “Your uncles don’t write anymore.” And I remember wondering who the fuck he was talking about. I mean, I’m pretty sure he knew who he was talking about. But he was the extent of my relationship with that family by then. What fucking uncles? Anyway, sure.

So the next day I wrote him a letter. And I sent a picture of it to my mom, so he could read it on the iPad. Because, godsdammit, by the time it would get to him by mail, he’d be too far gone to read it.5 And that was it. That was the last time I spoke to Steve.

But he left the same impression on me which he left at his mother’s funeral. There were no questions asked. It was just, “we’re family.” Like, that’s how you’re supposed to act. That’s how you be a mensch. And I walk away from that last video chat with the same feeling I walked way with from Edie’s funeral. That this outwardly crass and uncouth, cigarette smoking, beer swilling, double negative using guy knew something about being a decent person than I’ve yet to figure out.

So that was Steve. A guy I never fully got. A guy I never felt particularly close to. And also a rôle-model. And the loss of him has affected me for more than I had expected or was prepared for. But that’s about as far as I can get with it now. I’m still processing.

Right, well, I hate ending these things on a downer. So I’m gonna tack on one little story before the end. It’s not necessarily a happy story, but I think it’s at least a bit uplifting.

So look, I don’t really get emotionally attached to rock stars, even my favorites. My connection is to the music, not the people. But one exception to this has always been Dio. The best way I can explain it is, perhaps strangely, by analogy with FDR.

The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin tells this story, that when FDR’s funeral train was passing through a town, a guy is standing there watching. And he’s crying. So the guy next to him says, “Excuse me, but did you know him?” And the guy says, “No, but he knew me.” And that’s how Dio made me feel. I told this to Jared once, also a big Dio fan by the way. And his response was, “Wow man, that gave me chills.” So it’s not just me, is the point.

Anyway, just recently, Mag is visiting with my parents. And, spending the night, they give her my room. Now apparently, her and Mike had a thing with rainbows. And of course, she’s still having a hard time dealing with that loss. Anyway, I guess she had a pretty rough night. And so, she wakes up in pretty bad shape. And she’s saying to herself, “Mike, please give me a sign. Just give me a sign!”

And then she looks up and sees on the wall, my framed LP of Rainbow Rising. The cover of this LP is a giant fist rising out of the waves and it is clutching this huge rainbow. And that was her sign. Mike was still looking out for her. And so was Dio.

And it made me very happy – in a very melancholy kind of way – to know that this record, which has been so important to me for so many years, and which may be the very best record Dio ever made, was able to help her in a time of distress.

Because Dio has always been there for me when I’ve felt said. And he still is. So let me end this post by saying, Thank you Dio.

זיי געסנט
And fuck cancer.

  1. Also, why is Microsoft’s spell-checker OK with “bigly”? And isn’t this interesting. It seems bigly is attested as early as the 14th century. (Thanks, dictionary.com). I’ll admit I’m surprised to learn that. []
  2. “The whole Megillah” is the Jewish version of “the whole enchilada.” But the actual Megillah is the story of Purim; a sort of Jewish Halloween. That’s an oversimplification, but I don’t want to get into it here. []
  3. Fuck cancer. []
  4. My mom tells this story from when they were kids. I guess he had been using some foul language, so Edie chastises for his “toilet mouth.” So he just ups and goes into the bathroom and flushes the toilet. What the hell was that about, Edie asks. “Oh, just clearing my throat.” []
  5. Of course, I mailed it all the same. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
27 May, 2017

I must confess to feeling a bit burned out these last few days.  Two roadtrips in two weekends will do that to you.  The first trip was up north to the Ostsee, the Baltic sea.  Last weekend was down south to Bavaria.  Two totally different experiences that were, in fact, not all that different in the end.

The trip to the Ostsee, that was with Jan and Zibs and Zibs’ friend Marianne, from Norway.  I was the driver on this trip, as we rented the car under my credit card.  It was, in all likelihood, my last time renting a car in this country.  Apparently, after living in Germany for six months, one is required to get an actual German license; you can no longer legally drive on a foreign one.  I learned this fact accidentally, when I made the mistake1 of updating my address information with the rental agency.  Fortunately, I came in just under the wire, as I was a week short of the six-month mark according to my Anmeldung.2

So we pile into the car, the four of us, and off we go.  Me, two close friends and a complete stranger who was about to get thrown head-first into my awful jokes, my worse advances, and just general Dave-ness.  The poor thing.  Or so I thought.  But we’ll come back to that later.

The drive was more or less uneventful, if pleasant.  It’s always nice to take roadtrips, to just hit the open road and go.  Plus, I mean, Germany.  Autobahn.  No speed limit.  Which isn’t to say that I drove recklessly; I didn’t.  But you can definitely go.  The countryside was pretty, albeit mostly flat and covered in fields of rapeseed, which has its own unique smell.  Ah, rapeseed.  There’s a name for you.  We’ll come back to that too.

Anyway, we finally got to our little cottage, quite literally in the middle of nowhere.  In fact, it hardly seemed as if anybody actually lived in the area.  It seemed to be entirely composed of rental vacation homes.  My old dad sometimes talks about how they used to go to a “bungalow colony” when he was a kid.  To this day, I have no idea what the actual fuck a “bungalow colony” is,3 but I imagine it must not be too far off from this.

The house itself was adorbs, being all wood everything on the inside.  The first night, we went shopping for the essentials.  You know, beer & wine.  But also food.  I cooked us a late-evening meal of beef stew, in which, for lack of mushrooms, I added an eggplant.  Never did that before, but it added a really nice flavor, I thought.  Anyway, everybody seemed quite happy with it, as there were no leftovers.

After that, the drinks started flowing.  Jan and I both brought our guitars, so we had a nice little jam sesh.  Beyond that, it was just the usual good-times hanging out stuff.  I quickly became a fan of the new girl.  She was very quiet in the car, so I really didn’t get to know her until this point.  Turns out she’s got a razor-sharp wit and gives as good as she gets.  “Impressed” wouldn’t be too strong a word.  In fact, she even succeeded in leaving me speechless with some of her well-timed, whip-smart comebacks.

I don’t know how to describe her exactly.  She’s Norwegian, yes, but also Nordic, if that means anything.  In other words, she doesn’t say much.  But when she does speak, it’s always very soft, as few words as possible.  But she can make those words cut like a knife.  And funny as hell.  So she was a good fit, for sure.  I’m glad she was there.

I’m also glad she was there because without her, I would have been a third wheel.  I hang out with J&Z all the time, and they never make me feel third-wheely.  But for a whole weekend?  That could have been different.  In any case, that potential problem was neatly avoided by the addition of their diminutive Norse friend.

The second day, we took a trip to the nearby vacation/resort town of Boltenhagen.4  Absolutely gorgeous and right on the water.  It was a lovely place to walk around.  I even made up a little fairy tale there, just based on the random things we were seeing.  It started at the end of a long pier.  Over the railing, was a shorter wooden post sticking out of the water, with a copper plate on top.  On that plate were two dozen or so pennies that people had thrown.  That was the starting point for the story.  I’ll give a short version here, because why not?

There once was a king in these parts, and he had a daughter of surpassing beauty.  Every man in the kingdom wanted to marry her.  So the king offered a challenge.  Any man who could toss a penny from the end of the pier and land it on the copper plate could marry his daughter.  Only, as evidenced by all the pennies, the challenge wasn’t nearly hard enough.

Whereupon did he contract the local witch to add some danger to it all.  Now, anybody who failed to land a penny on the copper plate would be turned to stone.  Proof of this, all the stone statues scattered throughout the area.  But if they did manage to land the penny, they would first be turned into a swan.  Proof of this, all the swans in the area.  In the end, only a man with true love in his heart, who also managed to land the penny, would be able to marry the princess. 

So every day, the princess would go down to the pier and await her true love.  But many years passed and she grew tired of waiting.  Still, she did not wish to forsake hope.  Yet neither did she wish to grow old in her waiting.  So at last, she asked the witch to turn her to stone until her true love should appear.  Proof of this, the stone statue of a young woman at the foot of the pier.  And so, she waits to this day.

Maybe one day I’ll sit down and write that out into a proper story.  But for an on-the-fly story, made up on the spot, I thought it was pretty nice.  The others thought it was alright, I guess.  But it made me think for a moment of Charlotte, who always loves this sort of silliness.

After this, we sat down for lunch.  We got Fischbrötchen, fish rolls, which is apparently the thing to do at the German seaside.  It’s basically a piece of whitefish, breaded and fried, inside a roll, with some kind of tartar sauce I guess.  It was pretty perfect, to be honest.  So after we’d all enjoyed our lunches, I collected the empty plates to throw them out.  Marianne said something along the lines of, “Oh, that’s very nice of you.”  To which I replied, “Honestly, it’s just an honor for me to touch anything where your mouth has been.”5  To which she then replied in perfect Nordic deadpan, “Wow.  That’s like 30% creepy…but 70% charming.”  Which may well be the nicest thing any girl has ever said to me.

On the way back, we hit the supermarket again, as our plan for the evening was to make a little BBQ.  The house had a grill, after all.  And this being Germany, we were obliged to buy at least two different kinds of sausages as well as potatoes and probably something green.  No wait, definitely something green.  We bought asparagus, which we proceeded to wrap in bacon.  And also salad.  Jan worked the grill, while I did some variant of my oven roasted potatoes.  The girls took care of the salad.  Oh, and we also bought a bottle of whiskey, because Jan wanted whiskey sours.  To which I wondered, why spoil perfectly good whiskey?6

So dinner was fantastic.  Apart from the obligatory bratwurst, we also had Krakauer sausage, which basically tasted like the American version of kielbasa.  It was a gorgeous feast.  Jan was a master on the grill.  Everything was delicious.  Not least, for me, because I insisted on the spiciest mustard we could find.  It was funny to watch all their faces go red as they tried it, while I put it away effortlessly.

Upon which, I shared with them the story of my family’s Passovers vis-à-vis horseradish.  Because, as you know – or should know – mustard isn’t spicy like peppers.  It doesn’t burn in your mouth.  It goes straight up to your sinuses with a bomb strapped to its chest.  So I told them how Uncle Art and Uncle Don usually make their own horseradish; how I usually bring a jar from The Pickle Guys; how all the men pass it around the table, testing themselves in the most macho way Jewish men are able, namely to just eat straight horseradish and try to handle it with as much dignity as you can mustard muster.  In other words, it was a very long way of saying, “Y’all are pussies for not being able to handle your mustard.”  I think they appreciated the story, if not the sentiment.  But after the first bite, they steered pretty clear of that yellow fire, while I devoured it.

After dinner, we moved to the living room for drinks and music.  First, we jammed out for a bit, which was obvi a good time.  But then they wanted to watch Eurovision.  This, apparently, is Europe’s version of American Idol.  Which is an incredibly arrogant and Americo-centric way of describing it, since, apparently, it’s been around forever.  But I didn’t know that, and I’m guessing you didn’t either.  It reminded me of back in the day, back when Amanda was still hosting Wednesday Night Dinners, and we’d retire to the living room to watch American Idol.  Yeah, I didn’t love it then, either.

Two short remembrances from this Eurovision experience.  First.  Each country had a representative video in to deliver their countries votes.  And invariably, each representative would say a word or two in Ukrainian, as that’s where the show was being held.  But it was always something generic, like, “Greetings!”  Then the Israeli guy gets on, and speaks like a paragraph of flawless Ukrainian.  And you just know that, somewhere, his mother was kvelling.

Second.  It was fascinating to see English function, in real-time, as a lingua franca.  What I mean is, everything was conducted in English.  And yet, outside of Australia, England and maybe Ireland, English was the native language of none of these countries.  Nevertheless, that was the standard.  And at first, it was super interesting to watch.  To observe the type of English they used, to see how they used it.  Because it was full of “mistakes.”  None of which mattered, of course, to the people speaking it or hearing it.

By this time, I was hitting the whiskey pretty hard.  And at some point, this went from fascinating to frustrating.  Because they were saying things where I felt, “Wait, was that a passive-aggressive insult, or is that just a function of your un-nuanced use of the language?”  I suppose I could have just let it go.  But it’s hard for me to turn my brain off with this stuff.  I can’t hear it passively.  I’m constantly analyzing it.  And it became exhausting.  So eventually I went outside to have a pipe and just sit in the grass and look at the dark night sky.  Which was very serene and just what I needed.

I want to clarify my remarks on English for a moment, because I’m not sure how they read.  Under no circumstances do I take a parochial view of my language.  I don’t think it “belongs” to native speakers.  Nor am I a prescriptivist.  I take a dim view of the words “right” and “wrong” with respect to English.  In fact, I love the myriad ways non-native speakers use the language, and how that usage reflects their own language and culture.

My point is simply this.  It’s so completely fascinating that I often can’t hear the forest for the trees, so to speak.  I get so focused on the little things, that I lose sight of the actual content.  Every odd turn of phrase, every “misplaced” adverb, raises a question.  Add to that a fair helping of scotch, and it becomes exhausting.  That’s all I meant.

If Sunday taught me anything, it’s that I handle my spicy mustard better than I handle my whiskey these days.  I woke up around three, and I was not feeling well.  The plan was to return to Boltenhagen for dinner.  Technically, only I was allowed to drive, as the car was under my name, and we didn’t sign up for a second driver.  But Jan was sufficiently worried to the point that he offered to drive.

But I was fine.  Or would be.  I just needed to puke, and I’d be better.  I knew that from experience.  Γνῶθι ϲεάυτον – know thyself.  I’ve done this enough times by now to know.  So I went and had a very lovely throw-up and I was good to go.  I hope that doesn’t read as a brag.  It’s rather a bit embarrassing, actually.  But, you know, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

So we went to a nice Italian joint in Boltenhagen.  It was great.  My state solved the problem of being the designated driver.  The day before, it had struck me as an awful proposition.  But in the moment, I was happy to do it.  So I had an Apfelschörler – apple juice with seltzer – with my meal, and it was perfect.  After dinner, we went back out to the pier for sunset, which was lovely.  And then back to the house.

There we had more music and more drinks; I had, by this point, returned to myself.  But we all took it pretty easy, as Monday was a travel day.  On the way back home, we stopped into the city of Schwerin.  It was gorgeous.  Had a castle and everything.  In fact, the local government conducts all its business in the castle.  It’s functionally their city hall.  You have to admit, that’s pretty cool.  So we spent a few hours wandering the castle gardens before having lunch.  And then it was back to Berlin.

Funny thing.  The reason we rented the car on my credit card, was because my card provides free auto-rental insurance.  But when it came time to making the reservation, I could tell that Jan was a bit nervous about not taking the actual insurance offered by the rental agency.  So I said, fuck it, let’s just do it.  Because, the way I see, if you’re going to be worrying about something, then you’re not actually on vacation.

Well, this proved a wise choice.  Because about 15 minutes from Berlin, a little stone got kicked up by a truck in front of us and smacked into our windshield, leaving a nice little crater.  Now, maybe my cc insurance would have covered this anyway.  But it would have been a process.  Now, we were simply covered.  No worries.  So that worked out just fine.

And so, yeah, 15 minutes later, we were back at the airport, dropping off our car.  And that was the end of our trip.  Personally, I thought it was a success.  I had a blast.  It’s always hard to know, though, right?  And maybe this is just me being self-conscious.  But you never know how other people see it.  I mean, I’m a very “sleep-til-whenever, we don’t need a plan” kind of guy.  And not everybody is that way.  So maybe they walked away thinking, “Geez, let’s not travel with a guy who doesn’t have his shit together again.”  I dunno.  But for me, I had a great time.  And there was some talk of making a trip to visit M in Norway.  Which, I would fucking love to do.  I mean, FJORDS, you guys.  Fucking fjords.  So we’ll see.

OK, so that went longer than I thought.  I’m not about to now start in the whole Bavaria trip.  That will have to be another post.  Instead, I want to take a few minutes to ruminate about German.  More specifically, my German.

What does it mean to make a language your own?  What does it mean to speak a language your way?  Certainly I have my own way of speaking English.  I definitely have my English.  As does every native speaker.  But German is not my native language.  And so, yeah, of course I have my German, my own way of speaking the language.  And obviously, some of that is just down to the routine mistakes that I make.  But that’s not what I’m talking about.

You can learn the “textbook” version of a language.  And this is good for writing.  But nobody speaks this way.  Everybody has their own idiosyncrasies.  Some of that is down to word choice and phrasing.  Some of it is down to dialect and regionalisms.  But what does that mean for me as a non-native speaker?  What is “affectation” and what is “real”?  What do I choose and what happens naturally?

The question of “what do I choose” is what interests me.  Because I’m reaching the stage now where I find that I’m making choices.  By which I mean, I’m consciously suppressing things I naturally do/say in favor of things I choose to do/say.  At the moment, this manifests itself in two ways.

The first is what I call “Berlinese.”  There is, in fact, a Berlin dialect and a Berlin accent.  In terms of dialect, there are slangy things that Berliners say that don’t show up in textbook Hochdeutsch, never mind the rest of the country.  I’ll give one example, out of many.  In German, when something is far away, you can simply say that it is weit weg: literally, “far away.”  But in Berlin – and apparently only Berlin (& Brandenburg) – you can say that something is JWD (pronounced: Yod-Weh-Deh), an acronym which stands for Janz Weit Draußen.  I try to use this whenever possible.

But already this gets complicated.  Because, much like New York, most of the people that live here aren’t actually from here.  So it’s entirely possible that when you say JWD to somebody, be they German but from somewhere else or simply from another country, they won’t understand you.  And the point, after all, is to be understood, isn’t it?  So on a practical level, it may not serve me that well.  It’d be like, if you were from, I dunno, Pakistan, and showing up in New York you asked for directions to “toity toid ‘n’ toid.”  Yeah, you can find people that speak this way.  But most people don’t.  And your cab driver from Gana might have no idea what you mean.  It’s an affectation.  An attempt to be “authentic,” whatever that means.

So that’s on the level of idiom.  But it also operates on the level of accent, or dialect.  Born Berliners tend to pronounce their “g”s as “j”s (or “y”s to our ears).  Take the above example.  JWD.  As I said, the acronym stands for Janz Weit Draußen.  “Janz” is how Berliners pronounce “ganz.”  So they take their pronunciation, and create an acronym not from the actual words but from how they say those words.  Which I love, by the way.

Anyway, I find myself making an effort to change all the “g”s I learned into “j”s.  I find myself making an effort to say “schlaff jut” instead of “shlaff gut” – sleep well.  Or “jut jemacht” instead of “gut gemacht” – well done.  And I know it’s an affectation.  But my question is, is not the totality of my German an affectation?  Aren’t I always trying to mimic something?  If the answer is yes, then why not try to mimic the speech patterns of the place that I live, as opposed to the speech patters of some generic “neutral” German?  For me, I think, it’s all a part of trying to make this place my home, of trying to be a part of this place.  Maybe it’s bullshit.  But at the moment, I tend to think it’s no less bullshit than anything else.

I said there were two ways I was making choices.  The first is the adoption of at least some elements of Berinese, as just discussed.  But the second, and more complicated, is the conscious effort to sprinkle in Yiddishisms.  And the reason it’s complicated, is because while the vast majority of the Yiddish lexicon is German, the words don’t always have the same meaning.

Let’s take the word verbissene, for example; which we might spell farbissine in Yinglish.  Having learned this word from my mother, it seems the perfect way to describe the sour, grumpy old lady who lives downstairs, who knocks on the door when my music is too loud.  But in German, verbissene, simply means somebody who is super-dedicated and hardworking.  The root is the verb bissen, which means “to bite.”  In German, this goes in one direction: somebody who bites down hard and gets to work, and doesn’t “unbite,” so to speak, until they finish the task at hand.  In Yiddish, it goes in another direction.  It’s somebody who maybe is always biting their lower lip out of frustration or annoyance.  I mean, you can picture it.

So, in German, I often want to refer to “Die verbissene drunter” – the sour, grumpy old lady who lives downstairs.  And yet, if I say that, people raise an eyebrow.  “Wait, what?”  And I need to explain.  Same goes for the word “menschlich.”  In Yiddish, this means basically, ‘decent,’ ‘kind,’ ‘good.’  For example, you bring your sick friend a bowl of chicken soup.  The response is, “Thank you, that’s very menschlich.”  But in modern German, it simply seems to denote something of human – as opposed to animal – quality.  So when I say, “Danke schön, das war sehr menschlich” – Thank you, that was extraordinarily decent of you,” well, the heartfeltness of it tends to get lost.

One more example, one that is more day-to-day.  German has two words for “remember.”  There’s gedenken and there’s erinnern.  Now, it’s been my observation – and it’s always important to remember that I don’t speak  the language, I just know words and phrases – it’s been my observation, I say, that Yiddish uses gedenken exclusively.  Whereas in German, there’s a distinction.  Erinnern is your everyday “remember,” but gedenken is reserved for serious matters, as in “Let us remember those who have fallen in the war,” as opposed to “I don’t remember where I left my keys.”

So on a very basic level, I can use these Yiddishisms.  They will, if only after a question or two, be understood.  But they will sound off, there’s no two ways about it.  So does it make sense to use them?  Does it make sense to choose to use them?  Some words, like verbissene or menschlich I would use even in English.  But others, like gedenken, only function – for me – as “German” words.

So the question, again, is, does it make sense to use them?  Does it make sense to go out of my way to use them, to make a conscious decision to choose the Yiddish word over the German word?  I don’t know.  Clearly, in some way, it’s a manifestation of my trying to assert my own identity over the language.  Fair enough.  We all assert our own identities over whatever language we speak.  I just wonder, if it’s more conscious and less organic, is that OK?  Is that less “authentic,” for lack of a better word?  And is it practical?  Just some of the things that have been on my mind as I continue my journey – and hopefully progress – with the German language.

Right, so that’s enough for tonight.  Next time, Bavaria.

זיי געסונט

 

  1. I say “mistake,” because I wonder, had I just let them run with my New York address, could I keep renting indefinitely? []
  2. Remember that thing?  It just keeps coming back. []
  3. Let alone a bungalow; apart from it’s being a silly looking and sounding word. []
  4. The “town” where we were staying, Zierow, had literally nothing in it.  Even my German spell-checker has never heard of it. []
  5. #davestheworst []
  6. It was not perfectly good whiskey.  It was cheap scotch.  But I stand by my question. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
7 May, 2017

A busy week, indeed.  I must admit, I’m not entirely sure that I want to sit down and start writing now, at 2am.  But the longer I put it off, the more I will have to jam into the next post, and I’m not really keen to do that either.  So I’ll at least make an effort to begin this evening morning.

A busy week, indeed.  A week ago, that is, last Saturday, I was over Joschka’s for dinner.  We ate comparatively early; in other words, before midnight.  I’ll come to the dinner later.  The big news is, he went out and bought this Virtual Reality system, Oculus.  Let me tell you, friends, I was absolutely blown away.  Maybe because I went in with pretty low expectations.  Maybe because the damn thing really was so incredibly impressive.  Maybe a little bit of both.

But I honestly felt like I was in a different world.  It was like being in the holodeck on Star Trek.  I really felt like I was in a huge space.  Everything seemed so real.  In one of the demonstrations – where you can just look around, but not actually do anything – they have you on top of a skyscraper, right on the edge.  And you can look down.  And when I looked down, I actually got a pit in my stomach.  I really felt like I was in danger of falling.  My body couldn’t tell the fucking difference.  That’s how real it was.  I was floored.  Still am, to be perfectly honest.

A bit later, Cindy came over.  She approached it with the same “yeah, yeah, I’m sure it’s great” attitude that I’d had.  And she came away equally impressed.  For dinner, we knocked something together just with whatever was in the house.  I tried something with sautéed eggplant, sprinkled with cinnamon.  It didn’t really work out.  Nonetheless, dinner was perfectly fine and we all had a good time of it.

Later in the week, I tried again with the eggplant and cinnamon.  But this time, I did it a bit different.  I chopped up some bratwurst, and cooked that up first.  Then I added onions, string beans and eggplant.  Once they cooked down a bit, I did up a bit of a sauce with white wine, pork stock and tomato paste.  Only once the sauce started to take shape did I finally add the cinnamon, and also caraway seeds.  At the end, I mixed in some rice.  And this came out really quite nice.  In fact, I think I’ll do it again.

On Wednesday night, Annett invited me to go see a band.  Anne was there too.  Anyway, the band was English; she was friends with them from her time living in that country.  It wasn’t really my kind of music.  It was kind of just a wall of very loud sound, very little melody, lots of screaming and a bit of electronic stuff mixed in.  Well, she loved it, which is what matters.  And it was fun to get out and see some live music.  Plus it was just nice to see Annett again; I don’t think I’d seen her since January or so, as she’d been out of town on an internship.

The highlight of it all, though, was when she got on stage with them for the last song (or two; it all kind of blended together).  She rocked out and “sang;” more screaming, really.  But it was very cool to see, and you could tell she was loving the shit out of it, which was the most important thing.  The guys in the band were very nice as well.  We chatted and had a few beers before the show.  Funny thing though, I often enjoy talking to other native English speakers, because I can speak my own English as opposed to the moderated English I usually have to speak here.  But they, being from Manchester, well, their English was sufficiently different that I didn’t actually enjoy it all that much.  I mean, it was nice chatting with them.  But from a language perspective…meh.

It was also pretty great to see Anne again, as it was only the second time I’d seen here since before I went to the States.  Since this wasn’t a language-exchange meetup, we only spoke German.  Our German is pretty funny though.  We both make plenty of mistakes, and when we don’t know a word, we usually ask for it in English or French.  But the point is, we always seem to understand each other.

What I don’t think either of us was quite prepared for, however, was how screwed up our version of the language sounds to actual Germans.  Because it wasn’t just the two of us, Annett was chatting with us as well; Annett who is a native German.  And she was basically like, “OMG you guys, what the hell are you even talking about?  That’s not even German!”  To which we replied something along the lines of, “Well, we know what we’re talking about.  And if it’s not properly German, it’s our German.”  To which Annett, “Tja, pidgin German.”

Of course, it wasn’t that bad.  And it was all in good fun.  I mean, the three of us could obviously talk together with no problem.  But it did get me thinking a little bit.  Because lately Joschka has been giving me shit about my German.  I don’t know if it’s actually gotten worse, if he simply expects more of me at this point, or if it’s just good-natured ribbing.  Anyway, it did get me wondering if Anne and I are developing, and then reinforcing, bad habits.  Maybe.  But if so, it just means I need to spend more time talking with native speakers.  Which brings me to Thursday night.

Cindy invited me to a little dinner shindig.  In fact, it was the same crew as was at her Christmas party.  First of all, she invited me directly, which was super nice.  Somewhere along the line, we had exchanged phone numbers for logistical purposes; we don’t normally talk to each other otherwise.  But she just as easily could have invited me through Joschka.  So the fact that she invited me directly, well, I thought that was really sweet.

The dinner was a lot of fun.  And here was a night speaking German with three native speakers, as well as an Italian dude who is way above my level.  I was able to keep up; even crack some well-received jokes.  And Joschka didn’t give me any shit.1  Though perhaps that was more not to embarrass me in front of the others rather than any kind of reflection on my ability.  Still, I’m going to count going to a dinner party and not using English as some kind of success.

The dinner itself was centered around white asparagus, which apparently is a very big deal here and has just lately come into season.  The whole meal was really quite good.  Also good were the cocktails.  It was a lovely evening, although one which I had to cut a bit short, as apparently I was the only one who had to get up for work in the morning.

Work on Friday was pretty cool.  For the first time, I had planned my Thursday-Friday lessons as a pair, building the latter off of the former.  The central idea was to spend some time focusing on style.  Thursday, we spent a lot of time on relative clauses.  But Friday, I led this to a larger discussion of parataxis and hypotaxis, how those work, what kind of feeling you can get from them, the merits and disadvantages of each, and so on.  But the ultimate point was to wind up comparing a bit of JFK’s Inaugural with Trump’s Inaugural.  I think it was pretty fun.  And the students seemed to enjoy it.  Or, at least, they seemed to enjoy the end of it, when I read off a bit from each speech.  My terrible JFK accent was good for a laugh or two as well.

Technically, we’re supposed to pay more than a little attention to “business” English.  And my boss is a grammar nut, so he prefers a focus on that as well.  And obviously I love that.  But sometimes, it’s nice to look at the more artistic side of the language.  Style, poetry, literature, whatever.  It’s a big ask for the students.  Even if they are interested – and most of them are, though not all – it’s pushing them to their limits in a lot of ways.

But I do think it’s good for them.  And it’s not like they can’t use this stuff with respect to German; a fact I’m sure to remind them of.  After all, the languages function in much the same way.  So when they read a book in German, or listen to politician’s speech, I think – or hope, at least – that I’m giving them some new tools with which to interact with their own language.

You can’t do this stuff every week, of course.  And maybe it’s a little bit selfish on my part.  On some level, it’s about me finding a way to teach the sort of class I want to teach.  On some level it’s about the part of me that would rather be teaching a university class than an ESL class.  That doesn’t make it a bad thing, either.  I don’t think it does, at least.  Like I said, I try to find ways to make it useful to them in English and in German.  The key, I think, is not going overboard; which is very easy for me to do.

So it’s a process.  But I think it’s a process that’s headed in the right direction.  And also, I like to think that when we do these kinds of things, I’m giving them something they (likely) won’t get anywhere else.  I mean, I doubt the Unemployment Office is paying the freight on these English classes so they can read Shakespeare.  But I’m prepared to argue that the world would be a better place if more people would spend some time with The Bard every once in a while.

Friday evening, I met Anne for an actual language exchange.  I was a little nervous about this, insofar as I hadn’t spoken a word of French since the beginning of March or maybe even the end of February.  Well, apart from a bit of nothing at that Theatre evening a few weeks ago.  And I haven’t been reading as much French either, lately.  I mean, I’ve been reading Rousseau, but that’s dense as hell, and probably doesn’t help very much in the way of conversational French.  And I’ll come back to JJR a bit later, because I’m having some thoughts on that mofo.

Anyway, it was fine.  The French, I mean.  We did our usual routine.  One beer in English, one beer in French.  All subsequent drinks in German; and these were manifold.  All to say, it came back pretty quickly.  I didn’t have too much trouble expressing myself.  Harder was understanding, as I hadn’t actually listened to any French at length since our last exchange, several months ago.  And while I certainly missed more than a few things, I was never really lost.  So I was quite pleased about that.  And yeah, after that, several more beers topped off with a couple of shots of Berliner Luft, which is a kind of peppermint schnapps.  Just good times, you know?

Tonight, Saturday night, was family dinner with the roommates.  Lucie cooked a pork goulash with potatoes and red cabbage.  Delicious.  As always, we eat, we sit around, we drink, we chat.  They’re really great.  I mean, everybody always gives me shit about living all the way out here in the sticks, but the truth is, it’s hard not to feel like I really got lucky with these two.

Once nice thing is, we’re all interested in each other’s languages.  So there’s a lot of “how do you say this in German” and “wie sagt man das auf englisch”?  Also, they now both need English for school.  So whereas before, these nights would be almost entirely in German, it’s now more of a 70/30 or even 60/40 split.  Which, on the one hand, is maybe not the very best for my development.  But on the other hand, it gives my brain a bit of a break, and makes the whole affair less stressful.

Nicer though than simply being interested in each other’s languages, they both have a clear interest in word play, in puns.  So I’m always trying out puns in German.  Sometimes they work, sometimes not.  But often when they don’t work, Marco suggests a correction.  And from there, he’ll offer up a variation or two as well.  I was thinking tonight, it reminds me a bit of Thanksgivings back in the day, when the Starr family would just go around the table, each person punning off the last person’s pun.  I feel pretty at home with it.  I think I’ll try to put down an example.

So the German word for toy is Spielzeug.  And the word for train is Zug.  And the word for to show is zeigen.  So I tried something like, “So a toy train is a Spielzeug Zug.  And when a boy shows you his toy train, er zeigt dir seinen Spielzeug Zug.”  Which was OK.  But Marco improved upon it with, “Better, when he wants to show you his toy train, Er will dir seinen Spielzeug Zug Zeigen.”  He then went yet a step further by pointing out that a toy airplane would be a Spielzeug Luftzug, which has a lovely trochaic bounce to it.

I don’t know how well any of that comes across in written English, especially to people who don’t speak German.  But the point is, it was very funny to us, and a whole lot of fun.  I nailed some puns at Cindy’s dinner party as well, some of them even bilingual ones, though I don’t remember them now.  This rather impressed the other guests; even Joschka, who is often not easily impressed.

Funny thing was, the two guests who I’d only ever met that one time at Christmas were sufficiently impressed as to tell me that my German must be really quite good if I can pull off puns like that.  I tried to explain that this was hardly true.  I mean, I see their point that being able to pun would seemingly require a certain degree of mastery of the language.  But for me, having grown up with puns, it’s all second nature.  You have two words that sound similar and you jam them into a sentence.  It’s childsplay simply because I’ve been doing it since I was a child.  The fact that the words happen not be English is almost irrelevant.  So to me, this doesn’t require any mastery of the language at all; not that they were buying this argument.  But I mean, ask me to explain in German what I did at work that day, and forget it.  I can’t do it.

I’ve talked about this whole pun thing with Charlotte in the past.  I mean, I can do (admittedly bad) puns in French as well, even bilingual Franglish puns.  So at some point, she asked me about the how, about the process.  And I think it’s like a muscle.  When you exercise it, as I do – to the chagrin of my friends – it doesn’t take much effort.  I think my ear is always listening to words, what they sound like, what they mean, making connections with other words.

Remember my Yankee fan Greek professor?  We hardly talk at all during the offseason.  But come Spring, we’re always going back and forth about the Bombers.  And mixed in with these baseball emails are a never ending series of puns.  It’s like playing verbal catch, if that makes any sense.

Anyway, he’s in Abu Dhabi.  So a few weeks ago, he sends me an email.  The email was a sort of transcription from a dinner party he attended in which they spent the whole night making bilingual puns in Arabic/English.  It was super fucking impressive, if we’re being perfectly honest.  But what was extra nice was, he wrote in the email, “we could have used you.”  It’s one thing when you can impress your friends.  But when your NYU Ancient Greek professor friend respects your punning ability, that’s something else.

Anyway, that’s enough of that nonsense.  If I don’t stop tooting my own horn, I’ll wake the neighbors.  I said I wanted to say something about the Rousseau I’ve been reading, namely On the Social Contract, du Contrat Social.  I’m not sure I’m ready to say anything about the content itself yet, though at some point I think I’ll want to.

What I do want to talk about is the language.  This shit is not easy.  I mean, it is easy, in a sense.  The vocabulary is no problem.  And the grammar, the syntax, the style – all of it is fine.  The difficulty arises in trying to understand what he’s saying.  I find that I have to read each paragraph twice at a minimum, sometimes five or six times before I get it through my head.  I mentioned this to Anne, and she said, “It’s the same for French people, don’t worry about it.”2

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I’m reading it.  It is most certainly fascinating.  But it’s also most certainly a challenge.  But Aristotle is a challenge.  And Hebrew is a challenge.  And when I finally finish with this, I’m going to want to read – and honestly just enjoy for the sheer pleasure of it – some Jules Verne.

Staying in the vain of political literature, this whole Federalist Project is proving to be more intense than I’d anticipated.  I sort of thought I’d just read an essay and than write a page or two in response to it.  Instead, I find I’m taking copious notes, copying down quotes and passages, adding bits of commentary all over the place.  And all this for Federalist No. 1, mind you.  It’s very slow going.  When I outlined this project a couple of posts ago, I said my goal was to try and knock out one or two a month.  And that was based simply on the fact that I’m so busy with other projects.  But in fact, at the moment, it seems like I’ll be able to do one a month, yes, but only with a great deal of effort

And maybe that will change.  Maybe I’ll find a better method of approaching this.  But at the moment, the only way I can see of doing it is the way I’m currently doing it.  Eight-five Federalist essays.  At one a month, this will take me seven years.  And look, if it takes seven years, then that’s what it takes.  But wow, that’s a big fucking project then.

Which isn’t to say I’m not enjoying it.  Because let me tell you this.  Alexander Hamilton is a gorgeous writer.  I haven’t seen the play, let alone heard the soundtrack.  I don’t know how his words are presented there.  And in a sense, I don’t care.  I’m not trying to be snide.  I think the play has great artistic merit in its own rights.  And if it brings more people to American history, if it revives Hamilton’s image, then that’s all for the best.

But I suspect there’s a great difference between Hamilton the Musical and Hamilton the writer.  And holy cow can this guy write!  I want to talk about this here for a bit, because I don’t want to clutter up my eventual Federalist post on issues of style; that should be about substance.

So his writing is gorgeous, as I’ve said.  That doesn’t mean it’s easy.  At least, not in a modern sense.  It’s dense af.  The man is capable of packing a tremendous amount of information into a single sentence.  And those sentences aren’t short either; it’s very hypotactic, returning to an earlier theme of this post.  Nevertheless, it’s clear, it’s direct, it’s to the point.  And for the length of his sentences, he’s nevertheless concise.  He’s plain, in the sense that he doesn’t waste words, but he’s ornate, in that the words he chooses are precise and elevated.  He’s also plain in the sense that in the whole of Federalist No.1, I think there’s but one extended metaphor.  He’s writing to be understood.3  He’s writing artfully, but he’s not writing art, if that makes any sense.

And yet, it is a sort of art.  I think that the way I’m describing his writing is the way Latinists4 tend to describe Caesar.  Which is twice ironic.  Because on the one hand, there was a bit of Caesar in ol’ Alex.  But on the other hand, The Founders reviled Caesar as the murderer of The Great Roman Republic.  To tie all this together, I’m going to give here a passage from Federalist No.1 in which he attacks demagogues.  And let us try to bear in mind that he is quite implicitly attacking Caesar himself while very much writing in a style really quite similar to Caesar’s own…

…A dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people, than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics the greatest number have begun their career, by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing Demagogues and ending Tyrants.

They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but this guy wields the English language as if it were a fucking sword.  One the one hand, he turns a beautiful phrase: “the specious mask of zeal,” “paying obsequious court to the people.”  On the other hand, there’s no ambiguity, he’s perfectly clear, when he talks of “the introduction of despotism,” “men who have overturned the liberties of republics,” and “commencing Demagogues and ending Tyrants.”  To put it another way, he uses fancy words when they serve to illustrate his point, but he never lets his point get bogged down in loquacious blather.

My point is, he’s a pure joy to read.  Not for the content, which is integral to the very understanding of our constitution and which stands firmly on its own two legs already.  But for the style.  For the elegance of it, for the clarity of it, for the so-well-orderedness of it.  It wasn’t my intention to set out on a project that could take me half a dozen years to complete.  But if it means reading Alexander Hamilton closely for seven years, well, there’s worse things.

Right, well, I think that’s enough for tonight.  It’s 4:15 and I still need to proofread and publish.  And I want to go to bed.  So until the next time.

זיי געסונט

 

  1. A side-thought for the one French person who reads this.  I had originally written, “And Joschka didn’t give me shit about my German.”  But then I replaced “about my German,” which was already understood, with “any.”  And, I think, this is how French uses “en.”  Compare (and I hope this is right): Il n’a moqué de moi pour mon Allemande with Il n’en a moqué de moi.  So I’m wondering if there’s a relationship between the way English uses “any” in this situation compared with the way French uses “en,” which, by the way, don’t sound entirely indifferent.  Anyway, I’m sure the French reader will have something to say about this. []
  2. Also, apparently, she’s not a big fan of Rousseau.  Apparently he was a very “Do as I say, not as I do” kind of guy.  So I can get that.  But he’s a pretty big figure in the Enlightenment and certainly had an impact on the American Revolution.  So the fact that he might personally have been a cunt doesn’t interest me so much. []
  3. And this is in stark contrast, it seems to me, with Rousseau, I must say. []
  4. And even Cicero, for that matter. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
2 May, 2017

Who are we?  That’s an easy one, right?  Let me narrow that down.  How do we define ourselves?  As individuals, I mean.  What makes you you?  What makes me me?  In our own eyes, I mean.  It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately.  And I think – I hope – I’ve been drawing nearer to an answer; for myself at least.  On more which shortly.

I was listening to an interview on NPR a while back, with an author – the name escapes me – who was talking about what he thought the economies of the future would be like.  Specifically, what would happen when, due to ever-increasing mechanization, there simply won’t be enough jobs for everybody.  In fact, I think we’re already entering that world.  But it’s not yet reached a scale where we can’t overlook it; as many, nay most, governments still seem content to do.  Ultimately, this led the author to the inevitable conclusion of Universal Basic Incomes.

In his mind, this would be a wonderful development as it would allow people to pursue their passions without the hindrance of being forced to work a job one dislikes, simply to pay the rent and put food on the table.  But then a caller asked, what about those of us who have jobs we love?  To which the author replied with something along the lines of, identifying yourself by your job is an outmoded way of thinking.  In a future of UBIs, he argued, people will no longer say, “I am a sanitation worker,” or “I am an office clerk,” or whatever.

The caller, however, found this unsatisfactory.  After all, some of us, she argued, do we what we do because that’s how we identify ourselves.  Doctors, teachers, artists, were some of the examples she gave; or if not the specific examples, at least the sort of examples.  Anyway, this got me thinking.  Am I “a teacher”?  Surely that’s my job.  It may well be my career.  But is it who I am?  Certainly other people have said that about me.  “Dave, you’re a natural teacher.”  Meaning, there’s something in my nature that makes me “a teacher,” as opposed to simply that being the job I happen to have.  And perhaps that’s true.  I’ll come back to it.

I have a friend who keeps a really quite wonderful Instagram feed.  The pictures are of course lovely, to be sure.  But when I say “wonderful,” I mean more the comments she attaches to the pictures.  For, there seems to be a tension – and I don’t mean the word negatively, but I can’t think of a better one – between two concurrently existing identities.  One is that of an independent person who also happens to be an artist.  The other is that of a mother and wife.

And what I read in the comments, is that she struggles to find time to be both.  I also think she succeeds wildly at both.  But it seems not to be easy, as I read it.  One picture will be of her kids playing outside, and the caption will express the sheer joy of raising these children, at seeing them grow, and all the rest of it.  And she seems to be saying, “This is who I am, I am a mother.”

And then she’ll post something as simple as a cup of coffee.  And the caption will be something along the lines of, “It’s so nice to have a few quiet moments to myself, to be free to be me.”  I paraphrase, of course.  But my point is, in all of that, she seeks her own identity.  A proud mother, who nevertheless must be a strong and independent individual.  I hasten to add; this is how I interpret her Instagram.  I’ve not yet had the chance to have this conversation with her; and gods know when I’ll next get home to do so.  And so, obviously, I imprint my own experiences onto my reading of her timeline.  Nevertheless, even if I may be wrong in some of the particulars, it helps me in my quest to answer this question for myself.

So then, who am I?  Am I simply a teacher?  I don’t seek to deny it.  Yet neither do I think that this is a complete answer.  What gets me a little bit closer to my answer is an examination of how I choose to spend my free time.

Until this month, all of my free (productive) time had been bound up in my efforts to complete my Hebrew course book.  Now that I have, I find I have the freedom to apply myself to a broader range of interests.  I continue, of course, with my Hebrew studies.  But to this, I have added a (long-overdue) return to Greek.  At the moment, I’ve undertaken to read Aristotle’s Περὶ Ποιητικἢϲ (Poetics).  And I’m already thinking I’d like to move on to Sophocles when I finish this, to read Oedipus at Colonus and then Antigone; I’ve already read Oedipus Tyrannus twice.

If that’s not enough, I’ve finally got to work on my Federalist Project, which I explained in my last post.  And I’ve started reading Rousseau’s Du Contrat Social (On the Social Contract).  All that to say nothing of keeping this blogue a going concern while trying to find the time to write creatively, i.e. the odd bit of silly fiction.

And so, most days look something like this.  Go to work and read French on the subway.  Teach.  Come home and nap.  Ease back into life with a bit of Netflix before cooking something for dinner.  But after dinner, it’s down to work.  An hour or two of Hebrew followed by an hour or two of Greek.  Lesson planning, if necessary.  Do up a blogue post of there’s time.  Some days I’ll switch out the Greek or the Hebrew to work on the Federalist.  Oh, and squeeze in some time for the guitar if nobody’s home.

But lately, when I climb into bed at the end of it all, I’ve been feeling rather good about myself.  Something along the lines of, “Yes, I’m (finally) doing the things I want to do.  This feels right.”  Or, at least, most of the things I want to do.  Because I’m still not finding any time to actively improve my German.  Though lately, I’m thinking, if I can find the time for all these other things, I ought to be able to schedule in 20-30 minutes a day to do the hard work of reading some German.

And it is hard work, I say by way of a slight detour.  The problem with German, for me, is not one of difficulty, per se, nor is it one of grammar.  It is, quite simply, a question of vocabulary.  There are just…so…many…fucking…words.  The French lexicon is a fraction of the size, which is why I actually can simply read it on the subway.  But with German, I find I must constantly be looking up words.  And I know that if I would simply do a little bit every day, my Wortschatz would grow of its own accord.  But to try and read something and have to look up every third word is, not to put too fine a point on it, frustrating as all hell.  But if I’m ever going to get beyond my present level, I shall simply have to do the hard work.

And yet, I’m working hard already, I say by way of brining it back around.  I make the time every day to study Hebrew and/or Greek and/or to write.  Surely I can make the time – a mere 20-30 minutes – to grind through a bit of German; until it stops being a grind at all.

So who am I? I ask again.  And I find that “teacher” is too narrow, even if it fits seamlessly into all of the other things I’ve just touched on.  “Academic” sounds nice to my ear, but I don’t have a PhD, much less a University position, much less do I publish academic articles.  So that’s out.  “Intellectual” sounds pretty good to my ear too.  But I think calling oneself an “intellectual” sounds a touch arrogant; though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t facny the idea of other people seeing me that way.  But two steps down from “academic” and one down from “intellectual” we find “dilettante.”  Which, let’s face it, sounds a bit foppish.

Nevertheless, dictionary.com defines dilettante this way: “1) a person who takes up an art, activity, or subject merely for amusement, especially in a desultory or superficial way; dabbler.  2) a lover of an art or science, especially of fine art.”  Foppish though it may sound, that does seem to fit the bill.

It also seems to match up pretty well with who my friends are here.  And we must add, that however much time I spend on these pursuits when I’m alone, I am also a social creature.  Or, at least, as social a creature as a misanthropic sonofabitch like myself can reasonably be expected to be. But as I say, look at my friends here.

There’s Zibs & Jan, who all along I’ve been referring to as my “intellectual” friends.  And Annett and Jan, my “artist” friends.  Also an artist, my friend/conversation partner/stranger-in-a-strange-land comrade, Anne.  And Joschka – who, along with Dale, is one of the most effortlessly brilliant people I know – is a computer programmer by trade (which is both an art and a science), but also a music lover.  And I don’t know how you classify the person you can drunkenly talk politics with over a game of chess at 3:30 in the morning, but “intellectual” has to come pretty close.

Now, admittedly, who my friends are here in Berlin owes as much to accident as anything.  And yet, you’re always going to be friends with the sort of people you’re going to be friends with.  Which, I grant you, is tautological.  But I have to admit, I’ve really lucked out in that department.  My friends match up really quite well with the person I think I am, the person I’m trying to be.

So, finally, to answer the question, “Who am I?”, well, I guess “dilettante” is the best I’m going to do for now.  Maybe one day I will have the good fortune to be able to add “father” to that.  But that’s a question for Κλωθώ, Λάχεϲιϲ καὶ ¨Ατροποϲ, who are the Fates, for you lay-people.

So much for that bit of self-indulgent solipsism.  I’ve been wanting to put down some thoughts about living in “the East” for a while now.  So let me hit on that for a bit.

The thing that strikes you about East Berlin in 2017 – or that strikes me, anyway – is that there’s a certain degree of romanticization with the whole thing.  In fact, German even has a word for it.  Because of course it does.  The word is Ostalgie, which is a portmanteau of Ost and Nostalgie – ‘East’ & ‘nostalgia.’  It’s not a just a vibe, it’s something that’s actively marketed.  As a transplant who’s only been here a scant ten months, I surely can’t cover the full semantic range of this word.  But it seems to be a fondness for a bygone time, a bygone way of life, when (and obviously where) things were simpler.

For example, we still have the tram here; which was torn up in West Berlin after the war.  And trams/trollies/street cars are romanticized everywhere: Brooklyn, Roger Rabbit, etc.  They’re seen – I think – as symbols of a time from before Big Auto remade our cities for the worse.  But anyway, my first impression of the tram was a positive one.  I like having the tram around.  And the fact that it’s only in the East, well, that’s kinda cool.  And while it would be silly for me to self-identify as an East-Berliner – whatever that even means in 2017 – it’s nevertheless where I live.  And so I want to find things I can like about living here, things I can be proud of, even.  The tram, generally, is one of those things.

Hell, even the pickles have been made into…well, if not a big deal, then, at least, kind of a big deal…or, at the very least, a deal.  If you go to the right shops, you can find Spreewaldgurken, which – to my understanding – are held to be a holdover product, one of the few consumer goods that was born in, and subsequently survived, the DDR.  Like, “Whoa, actual communist German pickles!  That’s so oldschool!”

Ugh, fucking hipsters ruin everything.  But that’s what it is, though.  It’s the hipsters that have created this cool “vibe” around The East.  Because here’s a thing I’ve learned.  (Or, at least, an observation I’ve made in my limited and self-selecting experiences).  There’s three kinds of people, when it comes to The East.1

First, there’s the hipsters, just mentioned.  Either transplants like myself,2 or else just people who, even if they were born before the wall fell, are nevertheless too young to have any meaningful memories of what life was like in the DDR.  These people can cherry-pick all the nice things and dither around in rose-colored nostalgia.

Then there’s the people who actually lived in the DDR, and hated it.  Hated the oppression, the spying, the economic stagnation and lack of opportunity.3  With them, go the people from The West.  Though obviously they don’t have the same emotional investment going on.  I’ll give the example of two former students: one grew up in the East, one in the West.

The one who grew up in the East, man did she hate it.  Any time I’d ask her about it, she’d make a face and say it was terrible and immediately try and change the subject.  In fact, I was able to learn very little of substance from her on the topic, so unwilling was she to speak of it, so bitter (apparently) were her memories.  But that’s not nothing.  Her visceral, emotional reaction to the subject of “East Germany” spoke for itself.

My student from the West comes at it from a totally different perspective.  I’ve written about her before.  This is the one who gave me a map of the city and a list of things to check out in West Berlin; the one who gave me a book before I left for New York.  Apparently she had family in the DDR.  She told me stories of how difficult it was to travel between West & East, how you’d have to change your money at bend-you-over-a-barrel rates.  And she told me that when her relatives would visit, they would give them oranges as gifts.  This struck me.

It struck me, but apparently I gleaned the wrong impression from it.  I understood this as, “Shit, how bad must life be in The East when something as simple as a fucking orange becomes a meaningful gift?”  However, when I mentioned this to Joschka, he told me that I’d had it all wrong.  It wasn’t a question of life being bad, he said.  It was simply that you couldn’t get oranges in The East; it was a novelty.  No different than a uniquely Chinese food product that you can’t find in America.  It doesn’t mean life is bad in America.  It just means you don’t have access to that particular product.4

I mention this thing about the oranges to illustrate the point that my impressions are, per se, superficial.  I don’t have – I can’t have – the full picture.  When I report my impressions here, that’s all they are: impressions.  It doesn’t mean they’re invalid.  But we – I the writer, and you the reader – should always be aware that there may be more to the picture than I can see.

Anyway, I asked her once – my West German student – if, growing up, she thought of the DDR as a different country, the same way she might think of France, or Italy or China; or if she conceived of one Germany that had had a division forced upon it from the outside.  After all, as an American, born in 1981; as a metic living in Berlin but not a proper Berliner (and certainly not a German); after all of this, I say, I’ve only ever thought of Germany.

Germany as an idea, as a country, was always, for me, a simple fact.  America was a country.  France was a country.  China was a country.  And Germany was a country.  It was just that, after the war, we split them up for a while, as a precaution.  A unified Germany always seemed to me to be a fait accompli.  Nevermind the fact that I actually remember my father sitting me down in front of the TV and making me watch the wall come down, because it was “important.”

All to say, that’s what I was bringing to the table when I asked my student how she saw things.  And her answer surprised me.  For she told me that, to her, the DDR was a foreign country, just as surely as China was a foreign country.  Yes, she happened to have family there.  Yes, they also spoke German.  But they speak German in Switzerland and Austria too.  Fine.  The point is, you had Germans in the DDR who hated it.  And you had Germans in The West who thought it was sufficiently different as to be a genuinely different country.

Then there’s the third group.  These are the people who genuinely liked the DDR.  Some of them even want it back.  And that’s a whole different sort of Ostalgie.  To them, life was better.  You were guaranteed a job, even if it wasn’t something you wanted to do.  You were guaranteed a home, even if it was a boilerplate Plattenbau.  You were guaranteed a car, even if it was a shitty Trabi5– which you might have to wait years for, not for nothing.

I’ve never met any of these people.  But I’ve read about them.  I’ve written previously about a former student who was studying “memory and the DDR.”  We read many articles together about people who miss the “good old days,” as improbable as that may seem.  Most of them missed the DDR for the reasons given above.  But we also read about people who were part of the system.  People who were either outright Stasi informants; others who would simply benefit from an anonymous tip at their neighbor’s expense.  Look, I won’t split hairs.  To my mind, it was a twisted system, and good riddance to it.

But there were people who profited by it.  Well, there’s people who profit by any system.  More troubling to me, there were people who did perfectly alright by it.  And many of these people are not doing alright by the current system.  At the risk of injecting my own politics into this – which as I rule, I try to avoid – we’re all getting screwed by the current system.  But to me, that means, fix the current system in accordance with the ideals of free speech and economic mobility.  I’m troubled by people who recognize that they’re getting screwed but who then think that the answer is totalitarian government enforcing a minimum baseline of survivability hand-in-hand with a secret police that promotes neighbor-on-neighbor, even family-on-family, surveillance.

So no, I don’t personally know any people like that.  But I know they’re out there.  And more to the point, they’re out here.  In East Berlin, where I live.  In Köpenick, where I live.  Hell, apparently the NPD – the current day Nazi party – has their headquarters in Köpenick.  And no, I’ve never seen it.  I’ve never seen any public displays of rightwing activity here.  But it is here, all the same.  And in a broader sense, the right-wing nationalist stuff tends to be concentrated in the East.  AfD, for example, is big in Dresden.

And so, fairly or not, I do walk around my neighborhood with a bit of a skeptical eye.  Especially when I look at older folk.  I do wonder, “Have you lived here your whole life?  Do you miss the DDR?  How do you see the world?”

I also wonder, why is it that nationalism takes deeper root in the East.  I mean, sometimes I wonder, “What does 60 years of Gestapo and Stasi do to a people?”  And I know it’s not fair to paint with that kind of broad brush, to look at old people on the street and just start wondering.  But sometimes it’s hard not too.  It’s got to warp people, doesn’t it?

But then I look at people my age.  I have students, my age or younger, who’ve lived their whole lives in Berlin.  Some were born in East Berlin before the wall came down.  And they seem to be entirely unaffected by it.  For them, Germany is Germany and they don’t know anything about the DDR; don’t care to, even.  So even if it has somehow warped the older generations, young people seem to be remarkably free from it all.  And that, I think, is a great cause for optimism.

I surely have more to say on the subject.  But what’s the rush.  I’ll no doubt return to this in a later post.  This, at least, gets down some of the impressions I’ve formed of the whole East/West divide, to the extent that it exists at all; which, as I hope I’ve shown, is no sure thing.  But politics is a shitty note to end on.

So I’ll close with this.  Of the six tomato seeds I’ve planted, five of them have sprouted.  Not much, so far.  Just tiny little sprigs of green with two tiny little leaves at the ends.  And I know that for people who normally do this shit, it’s totes nbd.  But to me, it’s amazing.  You see them stretching towards the window during the day, leaves wide open.  But at night, those little tiny wings fold up and their stalks straighten out.  Nature is incredible.  They’re actually growing, right before my very eyes.  They’re alive!!!6

I showed them to Marco and he was quite pleased.  But also cautious.  It’s a good start, he was saying.  But it’s far too soon to tell if we’ll actually get tomatoes from them.  So I guess we’ll have to wait and see.  Nevertheless, it’s 10,000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean a good start.

It’s still a bit chilly here.  Spring hasn’t quite sprung yet.  But maybe my tomatoes have.  So here’s to finding out what you’re going to grow up to be.  Here’s to growth.

זיי געסונט

 

  1. Three kinds of people?  That’s a nice break from the usual, “There’s two kinds of people” duality that we construct around every blessed issue. []
  2. Though, “No hipster am I,” I say defiantly behind my overgrown beard and stupid hat, disproving myself in the very act. []
  3. As they see it. []
  4. This, btw, is why I loved living in Chinatown. []
  5. The Trabant, as I understand it, was basically communism in car-form.  Ugly and underpowered, yet practical and utilitarian.  There was only one model.  Everybody got the same damned car.  I once passingly insulted the Trabi to another student of mine (roughly my age), and she chastised me for it.  If I understood her correctly – and I’m not at all sure that I did – what I derided as nothing more than a jalopy was, for generations of Germans, something to aspire to. []
  6. Where’s Colin Clive when you need him? []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
24 April, 2017

April, April, der macht was er will.  This is a little saying that they have here in Berlin.  It means, basically, April does whatever the fuck it wants.  The beginning of the month was lovely and warm and all Spring-like.  But the last couple of weeks have been cold and windy and generally rubbishy.  The sun sets much later, and during the day, if you manage to find a spot of direct light, it’s actually quite nice.  But cross the street, or step into a shadow, and you start to shiver.  Well, friends, I’ve had enough.  I’m ready for Spring.  So come on already!

Anyway, I’m settling back into life here.  Things with the roommates are good.  We’ve had two “family dinners” since I’ve been back.  And it’s a good vibe here, when we see each other.  Although during the week, we don’t see each other all that much.  I’m out at work during the day and napping when I get home.  They’re usually in their room by the time I’m ready for dinner.  So, for me at least, it’s a very nice blend of time together and time to myself.

For years, he wrote, changing gears, I’ve dreamed of having my own little herb garden.  What could be better than picking my own fresh basil or dill or whatever?  So last weekend, I went to Hellweg, which is the German version of Home Depot1 and I bought a bunch of seed packs, two window boxes and some dirt.  Only thing was, I don’t know the first thing about gardening.

Fortunately, Lucie and Marco are big fans, and I guess Marco has sort of grown up around this stuff.  So they helped me get started, teaching me how to plant the seeds and so on.  They even gave me some soil, as apparently I’d bought soil for flowers, which I guess you shouldn’t grow things you want to eat in; I’ll have to get more.  They also gave me some extra flower pots to get started with.

I don’t know how well this is going to work out, if at all.  On the one hand, my balcony is South-facing, so it gets plenty of light.  On the other hand, there’s no shade, so maybe it gets too much light?  We’ll see.  But I’ve got cherry tomatoes, basil, parsley, dill, coriander, peppermint and rosemary.  I dream about coming home in the summer, walking out to the balcony, plucking a fresh tomato and wrapping a fresh basil leaf around it.  Or cucumbers with fresh dill.  Or cooking with fresh parsley.  Or making fresh mint tea.  Or getting some fresh coriander into my beef stock for homemade Pho.  All that, and also just looking out the window and seeing green; living things that I planted.  So either that, or it’ll all burn to death in the sun.  Like I said, we’ll see.

Zibs, Jan and I finally booked our little roadtrip.  We’re going for a three-day weekend, along with some Norwegian friend of theirs from college, up to a little vacation house on the Ostsee, which in English is the Baltic.  This will be the second weekend in May.  Hopefully it will have warmed up by then.  Anyway, the house – which we booked through Airbnb – seems to be right on the water.  So I’m thinking it will be quite nice.

Then, the next weekend, Joschka and I are planning to drive down to Bavaria to visit our friends from the metal festivals.  Another festival mate, from Joschka’s hometown, will be meeting us there too apparently.  I’m definitely looking forward to this.  I’ve never been to Bavaria, and I’ve never seen this crew outside of the festival.  The kids – and they are kids; they’re all in their early 20’s – are just all around good people, to say nothing of fun.

But in addition to the kids, I’m also looking forward to seeing the dad of one of the girls.  He also comes to all the festivals.  I guess he’s probably around 50 or so.  But at the last festival, we bonded over our love of old school classic rock and metal, which the young’uns don’t seem to be into so much.  He’s probably the only guy I know who’s into Gary Moore, for example.

So that will be two trips in two weekends.  And after that, I think I’ll just stay home for a bit and not spend money.

I’m settling into my new work schedule too.  Now it’s three days a week at the heretofore “Friday school,” which I guess I’ll just call my “main school” going forward.  At the moment, I’ve got beginners on Tuesdays and the advanced on Thursday/Friday.  The beginners are absolutely sweet and motivated and hardworking.  But two or three of them barely speak any English at all, so in that sense it’s quite challenging.  And then there’s another guy in the class who, while not quite ready to move up to the intermediate group, is nevertheless well ahead of the others.  The upshot being that you’ve got to find different work for him.  Meaning, basically, that you’re teaching two classes at once.  I enjoy working with them, but it ain’t easy.

Having the advanced group two days in a row, though, is pretty great.  It means I get to connect my lessons; use Friday to build on what we did Thursday.  I think – or at least I hope – I’ll be able to get a lot more out of them this way.  And of course, the material is just more interesting.  This week, for example, I did Shakespeare Sonnet 116 with them.2  The language is tough, but I walk them through it.  The real point, though, is to get some conversation going.

Basically, the poem is about “true love.”  But from there, everybody has their own ideas and opinions and they’re usually pretty good about expressing them.  Some people think it’s beautiful, others find it naïve.  Some think it’s a worthy goal, others find it constraining.  But they talk, is the point.  And there are some pretty smart people in that room, which makes it a lot of fun.

Not to say there aren’t smart people in the beginner group.  There certainly are.  But they don’t have the tools to handle that kind of discussion yet.  It will be cool, though, to do this with them, when, several months from now, they find their way into the advanced class.

Anne, my French tandem partner/stranger-in-a-strange land friend, is back in Berlin.  So Friday, she invited me to this little theatre piece she was working.  It’s a French company, in Berlin.  So the show was in French with German supertitles.  The show itself was very cool.  It was a one-woman spiel, in which she played the characters of several social workers3 who work with refugees.  The actress was very good indeed, and the text itself was both touching and terribly relevant.  Though in the case of the text, I couldn’t feel the full force of it.

Despite the fact that the actress spoke her lines quite clearly, I was really up against the limits of my French.  And so, while I could follow the story and generally knew what was going on, I wasn’t getting the nuance.  The supertitles weren’t much help either.  See, to watch something in German or French with English subtitles is one thing; that’s no problem.  But to try and grab the German supertitles at the same time as the French sound, well, 1) I’m too slow and 2) it’s an extra step, because I’m filtering it through English either coming or going.  Going direct between two foreign languages – both of which I’m functional in, but neither of which I’m fluent in – that’s hard work.

So hard was it, in fact, that I found myself either listening to the French or reading the German.  Not, as I’d hoped, filling in the French gaps with German when I needed it.  Because once I switched my attention to the second language, the first had moved on sufficiently that I could no longer catch up.  So I needed to wait for a pause before I could switch back.  But even with all this, it was a pretty cool experience; and not anything I’d ever tried before.  And I was fairly pleased with myself to have been able to keep up as well as I did.  It just wasn’t easy.

After the show, Anne asked me if I cried; I guess a number of people did.  But I didn’t.  It was all I could do to simply understand.  Interacting with the show on an emotional level was beyond me.  Which is instructive too.  It’s something to keep in mind when I put 16th century English poetry in front of my students.  Granted, we have the freedom to stop and discuss and explain.  But on some level, there’s going to be a wall there.  In that sense, I’m all the more impressed with what they’re able to give me.

So I mostly hung out with Anne after the show, and we mostly spoke German.  Ostensibly, we were also hanging out with her colleagues – the writer, admin people from the theatre, etc.  But since they’re all French, and were speaking French, I couldn’t really participate.  Listening to one actress in a quiet theatre is one thing.  Keeping up with a conversation in a noisy bar, that’s a horse of a different color.

Anne’s boyfriend was also there.  He’s a lovely chap; a sound engineer by trade, and often not in Berlin.  I’d only met him once before.  He hardly speaks any English and his German is pretty rudimentary.  So one-on-one, we were mostly doing French, with a smattering of the other two.  But he’s sweet as can be, and – thank the gods – speaks quite slowly.  So with him, I could manage.  In the end though, it was just great to catch up with Anne.  I probably hadn’t seen her in at least six weeks.

Around midnight, everybody started going their separate ways.  My way led me to Joschka’s, as the theatre was literally a three-minute walk from his apartment.  I hadn’t seen him in at least six weeks either, but for the one time at Vinny’s while I was home.  I’d say it was classic times, but we didn’t really drink much.  We had a couple of very nice beers, but no cocktails or scotch.  On the other hand, we made dinner (or breakfast) around two or three in the morning, and that’s not not classic.  I think I must have got home around six.

Saturday night, we – Joschka and I – went to go see this Austrian metal band, Harakiri for the Sky.  He’s a big fan.  I thought they were alright.  They’re very “soundscape-y.”  What I mean, I think, is that their music, while melodic, kind of drones on.  It’s very nice and atmospheric when you’re listening at home, but I think it’s not so great for a live show.  They weren’t bad, mind you.  Just not very exciting, to my mind.  Also, I found the bass player kind of disappointing.  He was clearly extremely talented, wielding a six-string axe.  But there was a lot of open space in the music where he really could have added something special; and he never seemed to.

Taken altogether, though, I went to the theatre on Friday and a metal show on Saturday.  I spent time with two of my Berlin besties whom I hadn’t seen in quite a while.  It was a pretty good weekend, any way you cut it.

The difficulty now is finding time to work on all my “projects.”  I’ve put off getting back to Greek long enough.  For a while, I’ve been debating with myself what text I should read.  Thucydides is wonderfully relevant – to say nothing of being the best prose in any language ever – but also quite difficult.  Herodotus is a wonderful story teller, and quite readable, but also quite long.  So I’ve decided I’m going to do Aristotle’s Poetics.  It’s not that long, and his style is pretty clean.  I think that’ll be a good way back in.  I’m off Mondays, so I’ll start that tomorrow.

Then there’s my “Federalist project.”  I wrote about this in my New Year’s Resolution post, but in short, the plan is to read each Federalist essay and write a short post reacting to it.  I’ll give a full explanation as an opening post.  The difficulty lies in the fact that this becomes my third on-going writing project.  The first, obviously, is this blogue.  The second is another silly fairy tale I’m working on.  So when I sit down in front of the computer, which do I write for?  I do want to get that under way though.  Hopefully this week or next.

And of course, there’s the Hebrew.  After I finished the course book, I bought a new workbook by the same authors.  If the course book is designed as a first-year Hebrew course, then this new workbook is designed as a second year text.  It’s got about thirty or so biblical passages of varying length.  But they’re all unabridged, real-deal readings.  So I’m working on that as well.

And, frustratingly, it’s giving me second thoughts about my original goal of keeping up with the weekly parsha readings starting with the new year in September.  I don’t mean that the language is so difficult that it’s beyond me.  It’s not.  But it is difficult, and it’s slow going.  So on the one hand, I’ve no doubt that I have the skills to read The Five Books.  On the other hand, I’m far less certain that I have the skills to read so much so fast.  It’s a question of pace.  But that’s still four-plus months away.  I’ll reassess again when I finish this workbook.  I’m still going to try, but I may have to modify my goal a bit.  We’ll see.

Last weekend, I tried my hand at an Eisbein, which is a sort of German ham hock.  It’s a part of the pig’s leg, with a giant bone in the middle of some rather tough meat.  Traditionally, it’s roasted and served with Rotkohl (red cabbage) and kraut and maybe potatoes.  However, I did it as a braise with leeks and pears.  The meat itself was pretty fucking fantastic, if I do say so myself.  The difficulty, for me, lies in the skin.  We don’t usually buy pork products with the skin attached.  After all, pork skin is quite think and quite chewy.  If you roast it right, you can get it to crisp up pretty nice; which, I guess, is why they do it that way.  But I chose the braise, because it seemed to me that this would be the best way to get the meat tender.

But what to do about the skin?  The first problem is, we have an electric oven.  In other words, no broiler, no direct flame.  If I had a gas oven, I’d have just finished it underneath broiler and that should have crisped up the skin just fine.  So I experimented.  After about four hours, I removed half the skin.  Removing the cover, I put the rest of it back in under high heat for 15-20 minutes.  That didn’t do much of anything, and that part of the skin remained rather chewy and flavorless.

But for the skin I removed, I cut it into little squares and fried it up in olive oil.  First of all, man did that shit pop and dance around in the pan!  That’s what aprons are for, my friends.  Also, I don’t have an apron.  However, the end product was pretty fantastic.  It was crispy and crunchy and full of flavor.  I guess it’s a take on pork rinds?4  I dunno.  I was inspired to try it from something I saw in Anthony Borudain’s No Reservations.  I don’t think that’s exactly what he did, but it gave me the idea, anyway.  In the end, I was damned pleased with that, and it’s just what I’m going to do the next time.

The only other thing, then, that still requires some experimentation is the braise itself.  The idea behind the leeks and pears is that pork has an inherent sweetness, and I thought they would pear pair well together.  And they still might.  But I found them to be somewhat bitter.  So maybe I need to put them in closer to the end?  Or maybe just do it with something else entirely?  I dunno.  Like I said, I still need to experiment there.

But that’s enough of that.  To the extent that anybody actually reads this thing, I don’t think people are coming here for my rambling thoughts on cooking.  In fact, I think that’s enough for this post in general.  I keep wanting to put down my thoughts about this whole East Berlin/East Germany thing.  But it’s a lot to go into now.  And also, it’s not that late, so I’m thinking I may take another crack at that silly fairy tale or even get started on this whole “Federalist Project.”  So until next time…

זיי געסונט

  1. Or, “Home Shithole,” as my old electrician-boss Gerry used to call it. []
  2. …Love is not love / which alters when it alteration finds… []
  3. Or possibly just one social worker. []
  4. But not the gross shit they sell in plastic bags at the supermarket as junk food. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
19 April, 2017
A Berliner in New York, Part III

Right, so Part The third of my time in New York; and hopefully Part the Last as well.  After lunch with Uncle Art, we dropped him back off at the factory/office.  It’s always great to see that guy.  That said, it’s also a touch bittersweet.  You see him slowing down, you know he’s 90.  God willing, he’ll be around for a long time yet.  But you don’t take these visits for granted.  It was important to me to see him while I was in, so I’m glad I got the chance.

He asked me at one point during the visit if I’m living in “East Germany.”  And I honestly wasn’t sure if he just meant the east of the country or the DDR.  My impression was that he meant the latter.  So I started to say that it’s all just one Germany now.  But than I realized that if he was going to ask about what life is like in Berlin (and East Berlin, at that), I’d soon find myself saying something like, “Well, things are pretty different in the East, actually.”  Which they are.  In the end, though, the conversation didn’t go much further than asking about my job and if I was happy there/here.

Anyway, as I said, it was great to see him.  After we dropped him off, we drove down to Jersey to visit Aunt Cookie, my mom’s sister.  As it happens, I’m probably closer with her than any of my other aunts and uncles.  This despite the fact that she doesn’t travel anymore with the result that I only see her maybe two or three times a year.

But when I was living in the city, I’d usually call her about once a month or so.  I was in the habit of calling during my walks home from work, which as a general rule was a great time to catch up with people.  Anyway, I’d ring her up and our chats would usually last the whole of my walk, which is to say about an hour.  So that was a lovely thing.

Anyway, we drove down – me and the ‘rents – for a visit; this was the Tuesday before I flew back to Germany.  We had a very nice time.  Just the usual catching up and joking around.  She’s always excited to have company, so she tends to fuss over me/us rather a bit.  I’m not generally one to be fussed over, but that’s her way and you’ve got to let her have it.  And anyway, she puts up with my surly, sarcastic, deadpan ass, so I’m certainly not going to throw stones from my glass house.

Also, she’s great about respecting my boundaries.  What I mean is, she’ll ask me any question on any subject, but if she senses that I don’t want to talk about something, she’ll dead it, no questions asked.  So that’s something I definitely appreciate.  Add to that the fact that I can speak pretty candidly with her and never have to worry about offending her.  She’s good people.  And as I said, it was a very lovely – if short – visit.

After that, my next stop was Queens, to have dinner with Flare1 and Garth.  Shout-out to my dad for driving me to Astoria on their way home.  Anyway, Flare is another one of these people I’ve known since High School; though we didn’t go to the same HS.  She’s another one who fits the “friends as much as family” schema.  Indeed, the family thing goes a bit further with her.  See, I’ve spent every Christmas with her and her fam from 2010 to 2015.  And this past Christmas, they Skyped me in.  That’s a pretty special thing for me.  I mean, they don’t treat me as a guest, they treat me like part of the family.  And this past year, her mom, her uncle, her cousins, they all got on the Skype and said some variation of, “It’s weird that you’re not here; you’re a part of our Christmas.”  That’s pretty fucking special.  And for a Yid, it beats the hell out of Chinese food and a movie, don’t it?

When I got there, Garth hadn’t come home from work yet, so we had some nice one-on-one time to catch up.  But it was a little different than the usual catch-ups.  By which I mean, we’ve had a lot of the same experiences.  She did a year in Spain, so she’s a) got the living in Europe thing and b) the learning a foreign language in a foreign country thing.  She’s an art teacher now and has done ESL teaching in the past.  So while there was of course just regular catching up, we also did a lot comparing notes, which was really cool; and not something I was really able to do with anyone else.

For dinner, we ordered in Chinese.  Halal Chinese.  Which, I mean, I fucking love New York.  That was my first reaction, right?  Like, where else in the world do you get halal Chinese food?  My second reaction was, “Well, fuck, that defeats the purpose of getting wanton soup.”2  Garth Vader3 picked up the food on his way home, so we all ate together which was great.

Garth is lovely, gregarious, nerdy, jock-y, funny and wicked smaht.  He also works for the city DEP4 doing waste-water treatment.  Which is fascinating.  He’s another one I just ask questions to and listen to the answers.  I learned a lot about how the city functions, but a part of the city that we a) never see and b) take for granted anyway.  It’s downright fascinating.

Well, it was a late night for both of them and you could tell they were both pretty tired by the end of it.  So I didn’t stay too late, and caught a reasonable train back to the Island.  But it was wonderful to see them.  Two of the sweetest people I know.  And I’ll tell you something else, they’re too of the best huggers.  Seriously.

Wednesday I was supposed to have lunch with Heather (Keith’s wife) and the girls, by which I mean her two daughters and also Mike & Jen’s daughter, whom she had for the day.  But in the event, Jen was able to come along as well.  And then Murp surprised me by showing up too.  We went to the Inn Between, which is the definition of classic with that crew.  I normally get the wings there, because they make the best fucking wings.  But I didn’t want to eat that the day before I was flying, so I opted for the chicken Caesar salad, which is also top fucking notch.

This was perfectly lovely.  Though, as you can imagine, with three little girls at the table, it wasn’t necessarily easy to carry on an in-depth conversation.  But it didn’t matter.  It was just nice to have a little extra time with those clowns.  And little Kelsey is just starting to become an actual talking person, so it was definitely fun to chat with her a bit too.

Dinner was at a pre-grand opening for a new Shake Shack on Long Island.  Jo recently landed a big-deal job with the company, so she got us all invited to this thing, which was otherwise closed to the public.  And yet, it was so fucking crowded!  I have to admit, at first, I was like, fuck this, I don’t want to stand on a line for fast food.  But the line moved pretty quickly, and it turned out to be pretty damned good.  I mean, it’s Shake Shack after all.  Also, it was nice to have the whole fam together for one last dinner before I split.

Afterwards, Justin came back to the house for a final few rounds of NHL; in which I totally thrashed him, btw.  So that was great.  For me.  Which is what matters, right?  No, but seriously, the game itself is only half the fun.  The other half is just the sheer ridiculous of acting like idiots, yelling like crazy people and the general comedy that ensues from all that.  But also I won.  So, you know.  Party all around, points all around.5

And that was my last night home.  Next day, my ‘rents drove me to the airport.  My flight was delayed over an hour, so they hung out with me for a while before I finally went through security.  The goodbyes are always tough, no question.

But also, it felt a bit weird to be going back.  Even with that crazy busy schedule, there were still people I didn’t get to see.  In fact, after I published the first part of this post, I got an email from Amber being all, “Don’t come to New York and not see me.”  Which, she’s absolutely right, and I immediately felt guilty.  I also wanted to visit my old Jewish special-needs school, to see some of my old colleagues and students.  I didn’t get to do that either.

So I left feeling like I didn’t have enough time, not seeing everybody I wanted to see.  I also left feeling not at all rested.  I mean, I basically spent the entire two weeks either drunk, hung over or sleeping.  I really could have used a third week.  But I also couldn’t have afforded a third week.  So that was tough.

Add to that, it was a bit surreal leaving.  By the end, I wasn’t sure if “home” referred to Berlin or New York.  It was surreal leaving Berlin to go back to the states, and now it was surreal in the other direction.

Back in Berlin, I got through immigration with zero difficulty.  Which is how it should be, but I didn’t know for sure.  I was definitely playing out worst-case scenarios in my head with regard to my visa.  But in the end, there were no problems.  Well, other than the flight being delayed and it taking forever to collect my bags.

Amongst which was was a duffel bag filled with about 20 kilos of books; mostly Greek stuff.  I mean, I’ve got a proper book shelf here, and it was distressingly empty.  Also, how could I get back to work on Greek if all my books were across the Ocean?   So now I’ve got my books here, and that is glorious.  Also, my bookshelf looks amazing.  But lugging that bag home was no fun.  It was worth it, but it was no fun.

After dropping my stuff off, I went back out and grabbed a Döner for lunch.  And since that is pretty much the most Berlin thing I could do upon my return, I mark that as the official end of my visit home and my official return to Germany.  And with that, I’ll also end the official recording of my vacation.

זיי געסונט

 

  1. Her name is Jen.  In high school, we called her Jen-a-Flare (instead of Jennifer).  Anyway, Flare stuck and that’s all I ever call her. []
  2. #nopork []
  3. Garth Vader is not a Dave nickname; that’s a real nickname. []
  4. Department of Environmental Protection. []
  5. #ifyouwannabemyturgeon []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
17 April, 2017
A Berliner in New York, Part II

Diving straight in and picking up where I left off in my last post, I had just parted ways with Shuman – this is Wednesday – after bialys at Kossar’s.  Not long after, I was supposed to meet up with Codog for more noodle soup on Bayard street (still Chinatown).  But first I had to sneak in a quick beer with my friend Rachel, who was good enough to go out of her way to meet me in the neighborhood.

Rachel is part of the NYU extended “Greek” family, so to speak.  I’d see the rest of the gang Friday night for Dale’s birthday.  But Rachel couldn’t make that shindig, so it was now or never.  For years, we’d spoken together of our mutual love of pickles.  Yet, somehow, in all the years of my living around the corner from The Pickle Guys (and possibly Guss’ Pickles; was Guss’ still on the LES when we first moved in, or when did they pack up and head for Brooklyn?  The LES used to be pickle city, but now all that’s left are The Pickle Guys.  Also, why am I writing this in an extended parenthetical and not a footnote?), in all those years, I say, Rachel and I had somehow never gotten1 together for pickles.

So now we decided that’s exactly what we must do.  Only TPG would be closed by the time she could get down there.  So I ran in to their new shop, which is directly across Essex from the old shop.  And you know what?  That was fucking weird.  I mean, I’d been going to TPG for years.  Like, my thing was, anytime I went anywhere, that’s what I would bring: pickles.  Except on Pesach.  Then I’d bring a jar of their absolutely lethal, sinus-destroying, god-manifested-in-horesradish horseradish.2  But seriously, I used to bring pickles even all the way up to Maine; on the bus, no less.  I’d pop in and buy a single pickle while I was walking around or buy whole quarts for the house.  I was there all the damn time, is my point.  And while I’ve been away, they move into new, fancier digs across the street.  Like I said, it was fucking weird.

Anyway, I bought a pair of new pickles, a pair of sours & finally a pair of spicy pickles.  Got in just in time too, right before they closed.  A few minutes later, Rachel shows up and we head around the corner to some rando bar for a beer.  Now mind you, Rachel is tired from a long day at work while I’m already half-in-the-bag3 from an afternoon of day-drinking with Shuman.  So I felt a bit bad about that; but good ol’ Rach didn’t seem to mind.

Right, so we sit down with our beers and I pull out the bag of magic pickles.  At which point, Rachel confesses something to me that I was not expecting.  Turns out, for all her love pickles, she (inexplicably) doesn’t like new pickles.  Takes all kinds, I suppose.  But that’s OK, I’ll eat them later.  It certainly didn’t stop us from enjoying the hell out of those sours and spicies.  Man, I forgot how much I love pickles.  Which is weird, right?  I mean, pickles are supposed to be a big deal in Germany.  And they are, insofar as they’re everywhere.  But they’re all kinda sweet and dill-y.  I haven’t had a good sour pickle over here; not yet anyway.  So between the bialy and the sour pickle, that was some classic LES Jewish cuisine right there.

Anyway, me and Rach did the ol’ fast version of the catch-up.  It was great, if all too short.  Still, it was really nice to see her.  And I have to say, it meant a lot to me that she would go out of her way like that, knowing we’d have to rush through a single beer and speed-eat those pickles.  Seriously, I was touched.

But it was over almost as soon as it had started.  I was already late for noodles with Codog.  So I stumbled up and over to Bayard, where I found another one of these guys who’s been around for more than half my life already.  There was a time, back in high school, where Jared and I would be over at Codog’s, playing Super Bases Loaded II every single weekend in his basement.  On Sunday afternoons, we would get a tray of 50 buffalo wings and devour them while watching the Yankee game.  Those were the good times, man, I tellya.

So I meet Codog at the noodle ship.  And right after I show up, in walks his fiancée, Arlene.  Which was great, because I adore her; but I didn’t know she was coming.  So that was a lovely surprise.  Anyway, we all ate noodles.  And it was great.  How could it not be?  After that, we headed back to their place, where I was crashing for the night.  This was my only other crash of the vacation.  And for good reason.

During my first stint living back on the Island, while I was still working in the city, I was crashing at their place once a week, basically every week, for I don’t even remember how many months.  It was like a second home, and I needed it.  More than that, they were great to me.  First of all, there are no easier people to get along with.  Second, they always had a home-cooked dinner for me; always had something to drink.  The couch was comfortable.  And they both leave for work mad early; they were both gone by the time I’d wake up, which meant zero-stress mornings.  And instead of the hour-long train ride from hell, it was a twenty-minute subway ride from their place to the office.

So beyond just wanting to spend time with two of my favorite people, there was a bit of nostalgia to crashing at their place again.  We hung out, caught up, cracked all sorts of inappropriate jokes and generally just had a classic good time.  After they went to bed, I watched some cooking channel TV, which was my old routine, before finally passing out.  I didn’t see them in the morning.

Which was probably for the best, because I felt awful.  Seriously, I was not in good shape.  But I had to get it together, because I was scheduled to have lunch with my mom and my old boss.  This too was pretty classic.  I’ve had a lot of great bosses over the years, but MZ might well be my favorite.  So many laughs.  And if I was having a day, I’d just walk into his office and launch into some or other rant.  Which he always seemed to appreciate.  And the jokes were gloriously inappropriate.  Those too were the good times.  All to say, I was glad I got to have lunch with him.  Even if I was hung-over and feeling shite.

After lunch, I went over to that godforsaken shithole of a train station on 34th & 7th, only to find I’d just missed the train by like four minutes.  And the next one wasn’t for another 90.  Which sucks under ideal circumstances.  And these circumstances were definitely not ideal.  So that was quite possibly my least favorite 90 minutes of my time home.  I don’t remember the rest of that day, but I’m sure I did fuck-all, beyond climbing into bed.

Speaking of Penn Station, when I got in on Tuesday, it was rush hour.  So I had to wade through that hot mess of The Public.  Which normally I would have hated.  But it was the first New York rush hour I’d seen in at least nine months.  And actually, strangely, it was quite refreshing.  Remember what I said about the diversity at JFK?  Well, it was that all over again.  But also, just sooo many people.  I mean, when you’ve done rush hour in the Big Apple, rush hour in Berlin is, I dunno, quaint.  Cute, even.

Friday night was Dale’s birthday party.  This was at Swift’s, on E. 4th, as usual.  I walked down from Penn, because honestly, I desperately needed to walk the streets of Gotham once more.  I took Broadway all the way down to 4th and then headed over.  It was a bit surreal, knowing I don’t live there anymore.  But it was also comfortable.  Like a pair of old slippers, or some other equally shitty clichéd simile.  Maybe better, it was also a bit Good Night Moon-y.  Like, good night Herald Square, good night Union Square; Good night Flatiron Building, good night Madison Square, good night NYU; good night My Old Liquor Store on 8th Street.4

So look, Swift’s is not my favorite bar.  I’m still salty over the fact that they charged me for a fucking seltzer at 3:30am at one of Dale’s previous birthdays.  I know that sounds petty.  But, come on, it’s fucking seltzer.  It’s the non-alcoholic aqua vitae, the water of life.  You don’t charge for that.  Especially at that hour.  Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m going to regret committing this paragraph to the internets.  Like, I’m going to apply for a job one day, and the asshole interviewing me is gonna be all, “Well, your CV is impressive, but we’ve read the entirety of your blog[ue],5 and while that Star Wars spoof was mildly entertaining, we’re just not prepared to hire somebody who can’t let go of getting charged for a seltzer fifteen years ago.  But, you know, good luck.”  Then they’ll go and hire somebody whose sext pictures they’ve all seen.  What a world.

Where the hell was I?  Oh yeah, Dale’s birthday.  This was great.  The whole rest of the extended NYU fam was there.  Fredo, Lesley, Katy and Ang, who did the hard work of coming all the way down from CT.  I know I wasn’t the only reason she made the trip, but as with Rachel, it meant a lot to me.  I also know it was a pain in the ass for her to get there after working all day in the Nutmeg state; so it was kind of extra special, if you know what I mean.

For the most part, there’s not too much worth reporting as far as the party goes.  It was just great to see everybody and to catch up and hang out like old times.  What’s funny though, is that somewhere along the line, we realized that this September will mark ten years that we’ve known each other.  Dale, Katy, Fredo and I met in Greek 101, way back in the Fall of aught-seven.  I can’t believe it’s been ten years.  Neither could they.

Funny side-story with Fredo.  First of all, her name isn’t Fredo.  It’s Miranda.  But I’ve only ever called her Fredo.  She has kinda red hair, so right from the get, I was calling her “Red.”  But then she said her hair wasn’t really red.  Which meant it was faux-red.  Faux-red –> Fred –> Fredo.  Nobody else calls her that.  But I do, and she answers to it.  So it’s stuck.  Anyway, she says to me at the party, “You know Dave, when we first met, you told me I would reach ‘peak hotness’ at 27.  Well, guess what.  I’m 27.”  OK, so first of all, who says that?  Well, I do, apparently.  “And you look great!” I said.  And she did.  She’s a very pretty girl.  “Yeah,” she said, “but ‘peak hotness’ means it goes downhill from here.”  At which point, I kinda looked uncomfortably at my shoes and said something along the lines of, “Well, to be honest, at the time, I didn’t think we’d still be friends ten years later, so I wasn’t really planning on dealing with the consequences of that prediction.”  She just laughed.  It was all in good fun, anyway.

But it does get at something, that to me anyway, is quite nice really.  See, when I went back to school – when I met this lot – I was already 26.  But Fredo was a freshman.  Dale and Katy were juniors I think.  The whole bunch of them were in that stage where you’re just beginning to transition from awkward teenager into real person.  Lesley and Dale are both tall and skinny.  Back then though, they were all gangly limbs and bones.  (I dread to think how people would describe 19-year-old Dave; yeesh).  But they’ve really grown into themselves.  Lesley is positively elegant and Dale, it must be said, with his impeccable taste in dress, cuts a rather dashing figure.

What I’m trying to say – and almost certainly making a mess of – is that they were basically children when I met them.  And now they’re proper grown fucking humans, living proper fucking adult lives.  Ang lives in an actual house with her boyfriend.  Katy is married.  Dale is moving to Austin (heartbreaking; as if I was still in New York to feel the pain of it).  Lesley, Rachel and Fredo are all living with or soon to be living with their boyfriends; having actual careers and whatnot.

All my other friends, we’re roughly the same age.  We’ve grown up together.  But this lot, over the last ten years, I’ve watched them grow up; kind of like an older brother, though I’m sure none of them would ever describe me that way.  I adore them all, and I’m genuinely proud of them.  And I occasionally take the time to reflect on how special it is that they’re still a part of my life.  It very easily could have gone a different way.

If there was one downside to the evening, it’s that I didn’t get very much one-on-one time with Dale.  That, of course, was a function of his being the man of honor and having to spend time with they myriad folk there to celebrate his birthday.  But we did get to catch up a bit.  Also, he brought me back of book of Icelandic mythology from Iceland.  In Icelandic, mind you.  The book is gorgeous, though I can’t do a thing with it.  Yet.  Obviously I’ll have to learn Old Norse at some point.  Still, I can’t believe he’s moving to Texas.  Him and his girl have an artisanal craft something-something business.  They make cool stuff.  I’ll even plug their website, which is not a thing I’m in the habit of doing.  http://www.fesswavy.com/  Anyway, he’ll be fine.  Dale is one of the most effortlessly brilliant people I’ve ever met, and he’s good at literally everything he puts his hand too.  Anyway, either he’ll find a way to visit me in Berlin or I’ll find a way to visit him in Austin.  Or both.

Saturday was Niki’s wedding.  This, btw, was the reason I came home when I did.  No way was I missing that.  Aaand…then I missed it.  Not the whole thing.  Just the actual marriage part.  See, we left the house a half hour ahead of schedule.  Then we hit the worst ever traffic.  And got there after the ceremony.  Dave was not pleased.  Niki was very understanding.  And Harry was lovelily,6 “Aww, now worries mayte, wee’re jist glad ye could mayke it,” in his darling Ozzie accent.

Anyway, the wedding was great.  Very small affair; less than 30 people, I think.  They had it in the garden of this cute little Italian joint in Carol Gardens.  Vinny was my date.  No, seriously.  Due to some last minute cancellations, Niki asked me if I wanted to bring a plus-one.  Vinny was the obvious choice.  After all, they already knew each other.  They’re both part of what I call the “official Duffs crew.”  Loosely defined, the official Duffs crew is Vinny, Joschka and me; the Finns, Lus, Niki and somehow also Dutch Eddie.7  So it felt completely appropriate to drag Vinny along.  And honestly, if he wasn’t able to come, I wouldn’t have brought anybody else.

Oh, I should clarify.  When I say “we left,” I mean me and parents, as they were also invited.  Niki worked at my old job with me and mom and then took over most of my work after I left.  Her and my mom got pretty close, so that’s how my ‘rents got invited to this shindig.

Meanwhile, Vinny got there on schedule.  So by the time I show up, he’s already chatting away with a couple of Australians.  I mean, that’s Vinny.  He’ll make friends with a lawn gnome if you put a beer in his hand.  Him and Codog, the two friendliest sons of bitches I’ve ever met.  Seriously though, it was great to have him there.

And of course it was great to see Niki.  Much like Dale’s birthday, with her being the guest of honor, I didn’t get as much time with her as I would have liked.  But honestly, I was just glad to be there.  My last two years in the city, I was probably tighter with her than anybody.  I lived with Jared, of course.  But we weren’t going out together much by then.  He was busy with school, and anyway, leaving the house at midnight and coming home at 530 after WoHop just isn’t his scene.

So Niki was my comrade in arms when it came to partying.  Duffs, RockaRolla, noodles in Williamsburgh or WoHop.  To say nothing of all the Archer Nights.  My last 18 months in the city, I don’t know what I would have done without her.  So if there’s anybody I’m going to fly 4000k miles for their wedding, it’s that kid.  And now she’s in Australia.  And I’m in Berlin.  Those Duffs days won’t come again.  Getting hammered and watching Always Sunny over Skype just won’t be the same.

You know who I fucking hate?  Holden fucking Caulfield.  Catcher in the Rye is shit, I’ll say it.  Fucking Holden Caulfield, what an unhappy sonofabitch.  But I’ll be damned if sometimes I don’t want to take those good times – the best times – and lock them up in a glass case and keep them forever.  Except, you know what?  Fuck you, Holden Caulfield.  We’re gonna make new good times.  And when we do, we’ll raise a toast to Dutch Eddie, and Duffs and RockaRolla and the good old days.  That’ll be the first drink.  After that, let the [new] good times roll, bitches!

Sunday was another busy day.  First up, brunch at Keith and Heather’s.  And it’s back to that family vibe.  The whole gang was there, and this time all the wives and kids, too.  Keith made omelets and pancakes.  Jared & Josh brought bagels from H&H.  Rob & Meg brought desert.  Nothing special to report here.  Just classic good times.  Lots of laughs.  By which I mean, we all just make fun of each other.  I played some video games with Kelsey, Keith’s daughter.  Because sometimes you just need a break from grownups, right?

But I did have one weird moment to myself in all of this.  At one point, I’m looking around the table, looking at all these people who are as much family as they are friends.  And I’m thinking, I dunno how to put it.  I’m thinking, on the one hand, I’ve made some pretty amazing friends in Berlin.  Zibs and Jan, with whom I’m planning a roadtrip.  Annett and Jan, who’ve done so much to help me get settled here.  Anne, my stranger-in-a-strange-land tandem partner.  Joschka, who with Vinny, we’re like the three metal musketeers.  So I’m doing pretty good in Berlin.  Better than pretty good, in fact.  I mean, if my friends here were my only friends, I’d be pretty damn lucky.

Anyway, I’m looking around the room at these people, these mutherfuckers I’ve grown up with, these bastards for whom I’ve been not just at, but in, their weddings.  Their kids, who call me “Uncle Dave.”  And I’m thinking, what the fuck is wrong with me that I would ever leave these people?  How unsatisfying was I finding my life that I could just turn around and say, “peace out, bitches”?

And then it passed.  Because the truth is, I was finding my life unsatisfying.  And you don’t live your life for your friends, even if they are fucking family.  You live it for yourself.  Certainly they all do.  Which isn’t to say they’ve all found what they’re looking for.  But I think, by and large, they’ve at least all found what they need.  And that’s something I don’t have back home.  Not yet, anyway.  That’s why I left.  But it’s not easy to leave those fuckers.  I love them.  Even when I don’t like them – which happens; even when I don’t like them, I still love them.  The bastards.

Sunday night, my parents took us – me, Justin & Jo – out for a fancy steak dinner at Bryant & Cooper’s; Long Island’s answer to Peter Luger’s.8  And once again, here’s people going out of their way to do something special for me while I’m in.  And yeah, this is special.  Because it ain’t cheap.  And gods, do I love steak.

I’ve really changed my diet in the last 4-5 years.  Much less meat, a lot more veg.  By and large, I eat healthier.  Which is fine, whatever.  It also means that when you do go for a proper steak, it’s that much more special.  And man, this is proper steak.  There’s really nothing better.  Essentially, it’s more or less the same as Luger’s.  Incredible beef.  Lots of butter.  Hash browns, creamed spinach, tomatoes & onions.  This is how kings eat, I’m sure of it.  I want to say we had a lovely time.  I want to say it was great to be with the family.  And it was.  Obviously.  But this was about the steak.  And it was glorious.

Monday was dinner at Vinny’s.  More great food.  We’re talking meatballs, his mom’s dried tomatoes, pasta with his mom’s sauce.  We’re talking sausage from Arthur Ave in the Bronx and excellent cheese.  We’re talking wine and good beer.  Look, the man is a natural cook.  So when he invites you to dinner, you go.  Joschka and Cindy were there too; the only time I got to see them in the city.

Back in Berlin, there was big talk of taking them to Joe’s Shanghai and Duffs and WoHop.  It didn’t work out.  I had a choice.  Meet them in the city or meet them at Vinny’s.  But that’s no choice at all.  If Vinny is cooking, you go to Vinny’s.  It was cool to see them in New York though; and good to have Vinny, Joschka and me together in the same room.  Classic City, population: 3.

Cindy has enough English to get by in this setting, but she’s not fluent.  So one-on-one, we were speaking German.  Which was great, until she says to me, “Dave, what’s happened to your German?”  I dunno, two weeks in New York has set me back.  But you can still understand me, at least, right?  To which she replies, “Eh.”  Ouch.  Still though, that was a good night.

Tuesday was family day, this time for my mom’s side.  We met my great uncle for lunch.  He’s 90, I wanna say.  And he’s slowing down, there’s no denying it.  But he’s still got his sense of humor.  And he’s still full of great stories.  I mean, they’re the same stories.  Me and my dad were making bets in the car as to which ones he’d tell.  We were both right.

One of my favorites involves a rich oil-man relative.  I’m going to give an abridged “telephone” version here.  By which I mean, I’m sure I’m screwing up details in the re-telling.  But the essential core is roughly intact.  And the punchline is accurate.  Anyway, it goes something like this.

“My father’s brother was a bit of a trouble maker.9  One day, he gets in a fight with an Irishman.10  And he killed him.  So he ran away.11  Anyway, he goes down to South Carolina.12  And he gets into business selling goods13 to people moving West.  Well, eventually he moves out to Oklahoma14 and somebody gives him some business advice.  [Making a long story short], they cheat some Indians out of their land.15  And that land turns out to have oil under it.  And [making a long story short again] he gets crazy rich off this.”

That’s incredible.  Literally, it strains credulity.  But also, what an amazing story.  So I ask, knowing full well the answer, “Wait, Uncle Art, are you saying we have a millionaire in our family?!  Why don’t we talk to these people?!”  To which he replies, “My mother16 said we don’t need anything to do with him.”  Here it comes.  “Because he doesn’t keep kosher.”

Whaaat?!  Right, so I have no idea how much of that story is true.  But even leaving room for embellishment, there’s enough there that just, wow.  Also, in trying write that down, I realize I simply need to record him telling it.  Because I’m too fuzzy on too many of the details.  But still.  A fight with an Irishman?  Cheating Indians out of their land?  Oil Money?  And we don’t talk to them…because they don’t keep kosher?!

But he’s full of great stories.  “The atomic bomb saved my life,” is a classic.  He was earmarked for the invasion of Japan, before the bomb.  “I should have married this one girl, but she was fat.”  That’s another classic.  And the best insult in his book is describing someone as being “of the shtetl.”  Which you either get or you don’t, but I ain’t gonna explain it here.

What’s hard to wrap your mind around, though, is that you’re getting a distorted version of these stories many many years after the fact.  What’s objectively true, is that this was a 5’4” Jewish kid from the Bronx who joined the army during WWII and carried the BAR, the biggest, heaviest gun they had.  This is a guy who built and maintained a successful business.  A guy who took care of his developmentally disabled sister.  A guy who regularly goes to Shul…and then calls himself a “fraud” because he’s “not really that religious”…and then reads Hebrew out of the Hagaddah at Passover like a boss.  Whatever else he may be, he’s a fucking treasure.

Right, so this has gone rather a bit longer than I’d anticipated.  So Imma stop here for tonight and I guess I’ll wrap it all up in the next post.  Until then…

זיי געסונט

 

Post Scriptum: I always close my posts with that little bit of Yiddish: זיי געסונט – ‘be well’, or ‘be healthy.’  Anyway, I once asked Uncle Art if they spoke Yiddish in his house growing up.  After all, his family came out of Eastern Europe, where they would absolutely have spoken mama loshen.  His answer was very interesting.

“My father could speak Yiddish,” he said.  I can hear his voice.  In my last post, I wrote about that Marky Ramone “Queens” accent.  Art has an oldschool New York accent.  I guess it’s Bronx; though not anything that would be called a Bronx accent in my generation.  It’s a wonderful accent though.  Nobody sounds like that anymore.  It’s a time machine.

Anyway: “My father could speak Yiddish.  And if he went into a store or something, and somebody spoke Yiddish to him, he would answer in Yiddish.  But my father really only spoke English.  And the reason was, ‘I’m an American,’ he would say.  ‘I speak English.’”

I catch all kinds of feels from that.  On the one hand, I’m proud of that.  You come to America with goal of making a better life for yourself and your family.  And Step One of getting ahead is simply to speak English.  That’s the Jewish-American ethos, right there.  First Generation: Work hard & speak English.  Second Generation: College.  Third Generation: “Oy, my son the doctuh!”

Look, clearly there’s a lot that went into making me who I am.  And I don’t want to put too much on the back of a man I never met.  But it was the same in my father’s family too.  Bubby spoke Yiddish.  But ask her where her accent came from and the answer was “Florida.”  Press her harder, and the most you’d get was “Brooklyn.”  Anyway, by the time I came along, there as never any question as to whether I was going to college.  And I think that goes back to that generation.  We speak English, our children get better jobs than we have, and our grandkids go to college.

On the other hand, there’s always this background noise of, “we left for a reason.”  Right?  The Old World was not a nice place for Jews.  And Yiddish is the Old World.  So how much of it is assimilation, and how much of it is rejecting the past?  So I get the whole, “I’m an American, I speak English thing.”  But four generations later, I’ve been deprived of something.

It occurs to me that Vinny can go back to Calabria and speak his family’s ancient dialect with distant cousins.  But for us, there’s nowhere to go back to.  The people that stayed were destroyed.  And the people that left, weather by assimilation or rejection or neglect, well, they let the language die.  The culture lingers.  Mel Brooks, as a Native American, speaks Yiddish in Blazing Saddles.  The sense of humor is shot through our culture.  But the language is mostly gone.  And there’s no “old country” to go back to.

But who the hell wants to end on a downer like that.  Here’s a fascinating thing.  Bits and pieces of Yiddish have made their way into modern German.  My Berlin friends use words and idioms that come straight of Yiddish.  And that’s pretty fucking cool.  But I’ll save that for another post.  Until then, I say again:

זיי געסונט

 

  1. I literally just had a conversation with one of my colleagues about whether the past participle of “get” is “got” or “gotten.”  Technically, both are valid.  We think.  Anyway, I insisted I was pretty sure I only ever use “got.”  And now here I am writing “gotten.”  So much for that. []
  2. Btw, I have not able to find actual raw horseradish root in this city.  Which is frustrating.  Because like literally everything is better with horseradish.  Dad knows what I’m talking about. []
  3. “Half-in-the-bag” definitely doesn’t get used nearly enough. []
  4. Did that work? []
  5. He won’t spell it right; even if he’s only speaking it. []
  6. Because “lovely” is an adjective; so I guess “lovelily” would be the adverb? []
  7. So-called because he’s actually from the Netherlands.  Lovely guy, that Eddie. []
  8. Well, technically LI’s answer to Luger’s is Luger’s…in Great Neck.  So better to say, maybe, the authentic Long Island answer to Luger’s. []
  9. My great uncle, like I said, is around 90.  So if we’re talking his uncle, this is early 1900’s. []
  10. I swear, he used the word “Irishman” in at least one telling of this story; though not this particular time. []
  11. I don’t know if he actually killed the guy.  But he definitely ran away.  So it seems plausible. []
  12. Or some other southern state. []
  13. Clothes, maybe. []
  14. Or some other flyover state. []
  15. I mean, seriously? []
  16. Or whoever. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
12 April, 2017
A Berliner in New York

The subtitle is a bit misleading.  To paraphrase JFK, Ich bin kein Berliner.  I’m not a Berliner.  That is not a statement of protest.  It’s not a complaint.  Nor is it a wistful regret.  It’s just a fact.  I’m not a Berliner.  And that’s fine.  It doesn’t mean, by the way, that I don’t love it here.  It doesn’t mean I regret coming here or that I wish I’d chosen somewhere else.  It simply means what it means.  I’m not a Berliner.  Thing is, I had to go home to learn this.

I’m a New Yorker.  Bottom line.  That’s not a knock on Berlin, or anywhere else for that matter.  It’s not a brag either.  It’s just a statement of fact.  My name is Dave.  I’m about 5’6”.  I’m a New Yorker.  None of those declarations is any more or less true than another.  Just the facts, ma’am.  But like I said, I needed to go home to (re)learn it.

I recently spent last two weeks on Long Island and in the City, visiting family and friends.1  Now, to be clear, Long Island can go screw.  Sure, my family is there, and some of my best friends too; to say nothing of many memories.  But that place is the pits.

Now the City, that’s where I belong.  Not now, no.  I needed to get out of there, and I’m glad as hell I did.  When I left, I was often saying that the City didn’t speak to me anymore.  Well, having been back, what can I say?  It’s not singing to me.  But we’re back on speaking terms.

Before I left, I could think of little more than food.  Chinese food.  Pizza.  Mexican food.  Jewish food.  And not in generalities either.  Chinese food meant Wo Hop, but it also meant Joe’s Shanghai (Soup Dumplings!) and my old corner spot.  Jewish food meant pastrami on rye, but also pickles and matzah ball soup; um, and bagels.  Yeah, OK, Mexican meant tacos and pizza is, well, pizza.  But the point is, from my Berlin hideaway, New York meant food.

Then I got back.  And all I had to do was stand in the passport line at our glorious shithole of an airport, JFK.  And all of a sudden, New York meant “attitude.”  It meant diversity – beautiful, gorgeous, annoying, frustrating, wonderful diversity.

Lemme tackle diversity first.  See, I always have a hard time explaining this to Berliners.  They feel – and rightly so, to a certain extent – that their city is very “mulit-culti,” multicultural, and that’s the word they use in German.  They see their city as a major European capital filled with people from all over the world.  And as I said, that’s true, to an extent.

But when people say this to me, I always have an answer for them.  But I think it’s not a very good answer, because when I give it, they always look at me kinda funny.  See, what I say is – though I never know quite how to express it, in English or German is – I say, “Guys, you don’t even know.  This city is so fucking white.”

And again, I don’t mean that to be insulting.  I’m not trying to take the place down a peg, or anything like that.  It’s just that, well, everybody kinda looks the same here.  And yes, I’m generalizing.  There’s a sizable Turkish population, after all.  But this is Northern Europe.  And so, even when people are coming from Poland and Russia, for example, everybody kinda sorta looks alike.

Anyway, I’ve yet to find the person in this town who doesn’t look at me funny when I say my spiel about Berlin being “white.”  So I was sorta wondering what kind of reaction that would get at home.  How would it play in the Big Apple?  Well, as it turned out, people understood me instantly.  I was met with knowing nods, and comments along the lines of, “Well, yeah, man, no place else really looks like here.”

My buddy Shuman put it in more logical terms though.  He said, and I paraphrase here, “Look man, I was in Italy.  And at first, I had the same reaction you did.  And then I realized, Oh yeah, it’s Italy.  Everybody is just Italian here.”  Oh yeah, it’s Germany.  Everybody is just German here.  It was only then that I realized to what extent I’ve taken this whole “melting pot” thing for granted my whole life.  I guess I’d just assumed all big cities look like New York.  And so, while I never meant anything böse (mean) with my line about Berlin being white, I’m realizing now that it’s a bit of prejudice I’m going to have to unlearn.

And yet, one can have a preference without being prejudiced, right?  I can prefer the complex plurality of New York to the comparative homogeneity of Berlin without being judgey or superior about it, can’t I?  I certainly hope so, anyway.

Oh, but I was talking about the diversity at JFK.  So I get into the Citizen/Resident passport line at Immigration, and it was a sight for sore eyes.  In that one line was every color imaginable, a dozen languages, religious garb of every stripe and what I can only assume was the full spectrum of sexuality.  It was beautiful.  I also think I saw more diversity standing in that one line for 45 minutes than I’ve seen in nine months over here.  That.  That is my city.

I also mentioned the attitude.  So there I am, standing at the tail end of this long-ass Immigration line.  And this dude walks up to me.  “Hey man, is this the line for US citizens?” he asks.  “Yes,” I tell him, “I’m afraid so.”  To which he replies, “Fuuuuck.”  Ah yes, I thought.  I am indeed home.

This trip home for me was basically about three things.  Seeing my family.  Seeing my friends.  And eating.  Well, also drinking.  But, I mean, that’s a constant.  So what about all that, anyway?  Family first, right?

Apart from two nights crashing in the city with Jared and Josh and then Codog & Arlene, I stayed with my parents on the Island.  I can’t say I was particularly happy to be in the ‘burbs.  And I can’t say it was convenient, when most of the people I wanted to see were in the city.  But there’s no denying it was great to be back with the fam.  And it was nice to be back in the closest thing I have to my own home Stateside.  I mean, when you add it all up, I probably lived there for about 18 months, maybe a bit more.

Naturally, one of the highlights of being at my ‘rents house was that I got to cook dinner for them a couple of times.  Look, when you’re in your mid-thirties, you just don’t want to be living with your folks.  No matter how much you love them, no matter how good a relationship you have with them, it’s just not where you’re supposed to be in your life.  And I do love my parents.  We do have a good relationship.  Not that we don’t break on each other sometimes.

Anyway, when I was living there, one of my favorite things was cooking family dinner.  I mean, everything about it comes up Dave.  They usually foot the shopping bill.  They do the dishes.  And they generally like what I cook.  Plus I drink a goodly amount, which has the effect of putting me in a good and talkative mood.2  So that’s the time I most enjoy hanging out with the parental units.  And this trip home was no exception.

Also, one night I made a Guiness-braised corned-beef brisket.  Personally, I think I overdid it on the spices; especially the cloves.  And I maybe thought it was too salty.  But the meat was tender as all get-out.  And my old dad insists it’s the best thing I’ve ever made.  I don’t think I agree, but it’s nice when your dish goes over well all the same.

The one downside was, I didn’t get to see my brother nearly enough.  And that was just a function of shitty timing.  Being a music teacher, he was working late almost every night with concerts and rehearsals.  But it was classic good times when we did get some time together.  And I kicked his ass at NHL94, which was mission critical.  I mean, if I’d lost, it could have rendered the entire trip home a failure.  That’s a lot of pressure.  But I came through.3

Right.  So your family is your family.  You basically know what to expect.  And you’ve only got one family.  Well, one blood-family, anyway.  What I mean is, it’s not a thing you’re going to replicate or recreate abroad.  Your family is your family.  But your friends, that’s where things get interesting.

What’s amazing to me, is just how much friend-love I’ve got back home.  So many people went out of their way to see me, to make time for me, to do something special for me.  It was incredible.  I’ve done a pretty damn fine job, I have to admit, of filling my life up with some pretty wonderful peeps.  And these people genuinely love me; as I love them.  But it’s the kind of thing you can take for granted when they’re (or you’re) just around all the time.

And you know what?  Maybe I shouldn’t be making too much of a distinction between friends and family here.  It’s more like there’s the blood-family and the choice-family.  So many of these clowns have been around for well over half my life already.  What do you call that, if not family?

At this point, I’m going to try and do a brief run-down of my schedule over those two weeks; without hopefully getting too bogged down in the details.  And if that seems a bit self-indulgent, well it might be.  But as much as anything, it’s so I can have some kind of record of those times; before I forget.  And also, it’s my blogue.  So deal.  No, but seriously, this actually goes on like a (very) long diary entry, so do feel free to just skip it…

Right, so I came in on a Thursday.  I went for dinner with my parents to the diner, which is about as classic as it gets.  Natch, I got a burger deluxe and a Corona.  Comfort food, comfort company.  It was exactly what I wanted.

Friday night was dinner at Amanda’s.  The whole gang was there, though not all the wives.  Keith was already in the city for work, so the only people coming from the Island were me and Murph; Murph, who was good enough to drive me since we all knew I’d be hittin’ the sauce.  Let me tell you, I enjoyed the shit out of that car ride.

Murphy is an interesting cat.  In a group setting, he’s exceedingly quiet.  I mean, he’s good for about one absolutely brilliant one-liner/zinger per night.  But generally speaking, he’s a man of few words.  In a group setting.  One-on-one, it’s a different story.  And I love chatting with Murph, one-to-one.  See, he’s a mechanical engineer.  So to me, his work is fascinating.  I’ll never be my dad when it comes to cars, or mechanical things in general.  But I certainly learned a lot from the old man, not least of which is a simple appreciation for the mechanical and scientific world.

So when I get together with Murph, we talk about cars, we talk about engineering, we talk about science.  To put it simply, we talk about man things.  I love it.  We talk, but mostly he teaches me.  Remember when, in a previous post, I spoke about the conversations I’d have with my former roommate Christian, about economics?  The idea was – and is – if I’m lucky enough to be able to chat with someone who has expertise in a field, I want to learn everything I can from them.  It’s the same with the Murph.  He’s so fucking knowledgeable.  So I just ask questions and let him go.  And I appreciate the hell out of it.

And I think – I hope – he appreciates it too.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think any of the rest of the gang have much interest in this direction.  None of the other guys are into cars, or machines, or airplanes or whatever.  And so, while I’m clearly no engineer, I can at least keep up.  I think, or I like to think, he enjoys talking with me about this stuff too.  Anyway, that was the car ride to Amanda’s, and it was a joy.

Then there was the dinner itself.  Amanda made ribs, which were uh-mazing.  And then all the guys were there.  Jared, Rob, Keith, Lermo, Murph.  The Original Six.  You know – and I’m just thinking about this now for the first time – in the past, it was always hard to get all six together.  There was always somebody who had something.  Yet, this trip home, we got the whole gang together not once, but twice.  That’s pretty special.  Josh and Monica were there too, and man do I love those two.  Josh, of course, is Jared’s boyfriend.  And MoMo is Amanda’s bestie.4  Of the wives, though, only Kira was there; and she’s fantastic.  But the Carroll girls were absent, as was Rob’s wife Meg, who I’d yet to meet.  Needless to say it was a great time.

Me and Murph were the last to leave.  I’m sure he didn’t want to stay as late as we did, but bless him, he let me have all the time I could have with my friends before we finally called it a night.  We had another long chat on the way home, this time about him trying to decide if he should go back to school.  It was either a really good conversation, or it was me drunkenly rambling and him politely “Yes, Dave”-ing me the whole time.  I suppose I’ll never know.

Saturday night we went to visit my dad’s family at what used to be Mike and Mag’s place in BK, but which, sadly, is now just Mag’s place.  It was the first time I’d seen everybody since Mike died.  It was bittersweet.  But, tbh, it was mostly just sweet.  There’s so much love there.

I spent most of the night chatting with my cousin Jay.  Another interesting cat.  It’s weird.  I can’t say that we’re close.  We never get together outside of family gatherings, even though there’s really no good reason for this.  But we have the same damned sense of humor.  We see each other maybe three or four times a year.  But when we do, we’re finishing each other’s jokes, and it’s just effortless.  I laugh as hard with him as I do with my best friends.

My plan was to drink only wine, and not to get too wasted.  But towards the end of the evening, Mag – Jay’s stepmom, for the record – plunked a bottle of “vodka”5 and two shot glasses down between me and Jay.  And then the wheels came off.  By which I mean, we went down the Jew-joke rabbit hole.6  Which, let’s be honest, is pretty par for the course with us.  We mixed in plenty of Russian and Yiddish accents, which are always fun.  But sometime around the fourth shot of “vodka,”7 we got into the German accents and the Holocaust jokes.  And, regrettably, I think I went a bit overboard.

It was only then, though, that I realized how much I’ve been suppressing this stuff over here.  I mean, yeah, I do Jew jokes.  But there’s a limit to how far I’m willing to push those in this country.  And so, stuff was coming out of me that even I was like, “duuude.”  But I’d had nine months of pent-up Holocaust jokes that needed to get out.  Not my finest showing, to be sure.  But if you can’t fuck up in front of your own family, where can you?

Sunday, Vinny drove down from Mt. Vernon to spend the afternoon.  I met Vin sometime around 2009, just because we kept bumping into each other at metal shows.  At first, we traded numbers only to say “Hey, bro, you going to the so-&-so show?”  It was probably another year or so before we started actually hanging out.  So compared to the lads from high school, he’s relatively new in my life.  And yet, that mutherfucker is like a godsdamned brother to me.  Anyway, Sunday, he came down to the Island.

I drove him up to Huntington so we could have lunch at Little Vincent’s, my favorite fucking pizza place on God’s green earth already.  It’s important to remember here that Vinny is not only Italian, but first generation American.  I mean, his mom makes her own tomato sauce from scratch.  And by “from scratch,” I mean she picks the godsdamned tomatoes herself.  So when I say the dude has high standards when it comes to Italian fare, I’m not exaggerating.

All this to say, he gave his seal of approval to LV’s.  Which fucking matters, alright?  Because if had said to me, “You know what, paisan?  It’s fine.  But honestly, it’s not really any different than the shit you can get anywhere.”  If he had said that, I would have felt shame.  But what he actually said was, “You know what, paisan?  This is actually pretty fucking good.  Honestly, the best part is the crust.  It’s nice and thin, and it has great texture.”  Which is true, btw.  But it matters to me that he thought so.  He didn’t say anything about the sauce though.  He didn’t have to.  We’ve both had his mom’s sauce.

That night, after he left, I knocked together a stir fry for my parents.  That was the first family dinner we had that I cooked.  We were all pretty happy with it.  Also happy with, was I, was the bottle of Dewar’s that was somehow in the house.  Not the white label shit, that’s fit for naught but scotch-&-soda.  This was the next level up.  I wasn’t expecting much, but it was actually pretty solid.  So I drank a bunch of scotch and hung out with the ‘rents, and although I don’t remember what we talked about, it was a good time.

Monday was a recovery day.  Tuesday’s plan called for me to have dinner at Jared & Josh’s and then to crash there.  But first, I had a Taco-Tuesday lunch date with my dad in Levittown.  This was a habit we’d got into while I was living at home, since, as a museum manager, he works weekends but not Tuesdays.  So he actually texted me before I flew back, asking if I wanted to do Taco Tuesday when I got in.  Which was funny, because I was about to text him the same thing.

It was pretty classic.  By which I mean, we ate tacos and bitched about politics, which is what we always used to do.  Also, amongst the tacos I ordered, one was lengua, tongue.  At which point, he tells the story (again) about how he can’t eat tongue.  Because when he was a kid, Bubbi (or possibly his mother?) had a pot on the stove, and when he opened it up, all he saw this giant cow’s tongue just boiling away.  And while my taco just looked like chunks of beef, there in that pot, he saw a complete actual tongue.  And that sufficiently grossed him out to the point that he had no interest in a lengua taco.8

Anyway, we ate delicious tacos and bitched about politics.  Which is a thing, apparently, that they just do now.  Bitching about politics, I mean.  And by “they,” I mean my parents.  I swear to God, every morning I woke up to the sound of them yelling at each other.  Not fighting.  Not even disagreeing.  Just yelling.  About Trump.  It would go something like this.  Mom: “Can you believe what this asshole is saying now?!”  Dad: “Can you not?!  He’s a fucking asshole!”  Whereupon would I roll over and cover my head with my pillow all the while wondering what kind of masochist you have to be to watch the news in the morning anymore.

So much for lunch.  I asked Jared what I should bring to dinner.  He said bourbon.  I brought rye.  Because #davestheworst.  Whatever.  It was great.  First of all, better than anyone I know, Jared knows how to roast a fucking chicken.  It was moist and it was tender and it was delicious.  “How much butter did you use,” I asked.  “A lot,” he said.  I suppose the expected question is something along the lines of “What’s your secret?”  But when you live with someone for ten years, you know the secret is fucking butter.  So the question is simply, “How much?”

So look, I’ve talked about this before.  I lived with Jared for ten years.  That sonofabitch is my best friend on planet earth.  But now he’s with Josh.  And I just adore that fucker.  I mean, he really is one of my favorite people of all the people.  And they’re great together.  If it was anybody else, I’m sure I’d be feeling all, “Can we get some classic Dave-&-Jared time?”  And indeed, Josh will sometimes be all, “I’m gonna go to bed and let you guys catch up.”  But I’m like, “Uh-uh, honey, you ain’t goin’ nowhere.”  There’s a reason they’re one of only two people I crashed with while I was in.

Added bonus, they also invited Hot Michelle to dinner.  Hot Michelle is a lot of things.  She’s Italian.  She’s smart.  She has yuuuge tracks of land.  But more than any of that, she not only puts up with my bullshit, but indeed seems to find my peculiar brand of flirtation (?) amusing.  She sees through the shtick.  And she plays along.  So I adore Hot Michelle.  She’s a colleague of Josh’s, btw, which is how she fits into the schema.  Anyway, a night with Jared and Josh and Hot Michelle (and rye) is a good godsdamned night.

Added bonus, they are all social workers.  So, inevitably, at some point they get down to talking shop.  Some of it is gossip, and for this, I kind of tune out.  But some of it is the actual science of social work and psychology.  And, just as with Murph and Christian, my brain gets turned on.  I listen, and I ask questions, and I listen some more.  And I learn what I can.  What I’ve learned is, you’re never too drunk to learn.  Now, remembering what you’ve learned the next day, that’s something else…

Wednesday was a hard day’s drinking.  But first, noodle soup.  I met my buddy Shuman at Pho Grand for the bowl I’d been dreaming of for months.  Eye of round, brisket, tendon, tripe.  God, I missed this stuff.  Say what you will about Chinatown.  It’s gross.  It’s smells bad in the summer.  People spit on the sidewalk.  But man, I love eating there.

So I meet Shuman at Pho Grand.  Shuman.  One of the few good things to come out of my St. Lawrence experience.  The only guy I’ve ever met who can credibly claim to be a bigger AC/DC fan than me.  In fact, that’s how I met him.  He’s this giant of a man, over 6’ tall; football player.  And he walks up to me one day, in college, out of nowhere.  I’d never seen him before.  And he’s towering over me.  “Hey, you like AC/DC, right?”  Not as random as it seems.  I stood out in college, with my long hair and denim jacket with a giant accadacca patch on the back.  “Hey, you like AC/DC, right?” he says.  And I look up at this man-monster.  “Umm, yes, sir, an’ it please you.”

See, he’d bought an original Back in Black tour shirt on eBay.  Only it was a size Small.  Poor guy couldn’t even try it on, let alone actually wear it.  So he wanted to sell it to me.  Obviously I bought it.  I still have it.  So that’s how we met.  We’re never not emailing each other about our favorite band.  But we’re also both huge Yankee fans.  And students of history.  And Jews with a sense of humor.  We get on well, is the point.

So after that glorious noodle soup, we head around the corner to 169, one of the last true LES dive bars.  Beer & a shot for three bucks.  And we spend a few hours drinking cans of Genny and shots of well whiskey, all the while cracking jokes, talking about AC/DC, and trading off Yiddish and German accents, making fun of everything that rightfully (or wrongfully) deserves to have the piss taken out of it.

Talking about accents, here’s a funny thing.  We’re both New Yorkers.  He was born – and grew up – in, I want to say, Washington Heights.  I’m from BK, grew up on the Island.  German accents, Yiddish accents, Russian accents, no problem.  Then we get to talking about Marky Ramone and how he as the quintessential Queens accent, and how it doesn’t really exist anymore.  And we try it, but neither of us can nail it.

But that’s one of things I love about Shuman.  He’s got this bone-deep appreciation and affection for old New York, for the city as it was when we were kids, but in which we didn’t quite grow up either.  I mean, we’re talking about the three shifts of alcoholics9 at Rudy’s (free hot dogs!) and dive bars that don’t exist anymore and a Queens accent that’s on its last legs.

And, not for nothing, a Queens mutherfucking accent.  Not Brooklyn.  Not Manhattan.  Not Staten Island or the Bronx.  Queens.  I’m over here in Berlin talking in broad generalities to my students about some kind of “New Yawk” accent, whatever that means.10  Because when you’re in exile, you paint in broad strokes, and everything is rose-colored.

But when you’re back in it, it’s different.  All the Hollywood shit falls away.  I remember reading once that Mel Blanc described his Bugs Bunny voice as being a cross between a Brooklyn accent and a Bronx accent.  Think about that.  To him, these were two completely different and unique ways of speaking that he chose to blend together for a cartoon wiseass of a fucking rabbit.  So yes, debating the finer points of Marky Ramone’s diction absolutely counts as a highlight of my trip home.

Anyway, somewhere around 5pm, we reached peak tipsiness.  You know, when you tiptoe right up to the line of being actually drunk, look over the abyss, take a step back and realize there’s only one thing to do.  Now, that one thing can be lots of things.  It just depends on where you are.  If you’re in Texas, maybe that one thing is to go and eat BBQ.  If you’re in Philly (gods help you), the one thing, I guess, is to go for a cheesesteak.11  But when you’re on East Broadway, where it meets Canal, and it’s 5pm on a weekday, you have one choice.

And that, my friends, is why we stumbled into Kossar’s, there to eat bialys.  And so we ordered two bialys.  And we ate the bialys.  And they were good.  Man, they were good.  I really did love living in that neighborhood.  But that’s where me and Shuman parted ways.

And yet, my day had only just begun.  But seeing as how it’s only Wednesday in this story, and there’s so much more to tell, I think I’ll stop here and finish the tale in my next posting.  Until then…

זיי געסונט

 

  1. Chiasmatically – the family is on the Island, the friends are in the City. []
  2. Whereas, at home at least, I am normally hardly talkative and often grumpy. []
  3. #BRIANMULLEN []
  4. Or do we spell it “best”? []
  5. “Vodker” is the sort of thing I’d maybe have looked down on in the past.  But after nine months of German accented English, this brand of Brooklynese was like an oasis in the desert.  I mean, when my cousin Melissa addressed my cousin Cedar as, “Hey yo, Ceduh!”, it was music. []
  6. Incidentally, I just taught my advanced class the “down the rabbit hole” idiom.  Because we were going down all sorts of grammatical and linguistic rabbit holes.  Then, one of my students thought I said rabbit hall (#accents).  To which I explained, the rabbit hall was simply the rabbit’s home at the end of the rabbit hole. []
  7. And this on the heels of an entire bottle of wine, mind you. []
  8. Interesting follow up.  Back in Berlin, I was in the supermarket the other day, where I was perusing the butcher’s section.  And there, in the back of the showcase, was a whole, complete, giant cow’s tongue.  And it looked like a fucking tongue.  And you know what?  Yeah, that’s gross. []
  9. Go to Rudy’s at 8am and you find three kinds: 1) Actual nothing-to-live-for alcoholics; 2) Tourists; 3) People coming off the night shift. []
  10. Cawfee?  Wawtuh?  Manha’’an? []
  11. Gross. []