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. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
11 April, 2017

Well, here I am, back in Berlin.  After an all-too-short two weeks Stateside, it’s back to work.  I’m officially on my new schedule at the so called “Friday School.”  Only that moniker no longer fits, as they’ve got me working Tuesdays and Thursdays now as well.  Which is quite a nice situation to be in, tbh.  First of all, I just straight-up enjoy working there.  The people are cool – my colleagues as well as the students; and the atmosphere is very relaxed.  Also, it guarantees my rent/insurance/metrocard money.  So it’s nice to not have to worry about that, month-to-monthly.

At the time of writing, I’ve just got home from drinks and dinner with Jan & Zibs.  We were ostensibly meeting to discuss plans for a roadtrip next month.1  We met around 7pm at this Persian joint on the other end of town,2 near Hohenzollernplatz.  If I’ve learned one thing about these two, it’s this: When your stated plan is to meet for “dinner and a few drinks,” you’d do well to just leave the rest of your night open.

Yes, we met at 7.  And yes, we ate dinner and had a few drinks.  We also shared two shisha pipes and drank a few pots of tea.  And all of a sudden – well, six hours later, anyway – they’re kicking us out of the restaurant.  Something about the staff wanting to go home.3  And yes, we did rough out a plan for the roadtrip.  We also hatched a scheme to buy a vineyard in one of those southern European countries with a shitty economy; possibly Portugal.

I mean, come on.  That would be the life, wouldn’t it?  Owning a vineyard in Portugal?  Sure, we’d have to come up with the money.  “And that’s just for the land,” protested Jan.  “What about business expenses?”  To which I replied, quite logically, I think, “Business expenses, shmizness expenses.”  At that point, we agreed to defer further planning until after the roadtrip.

So on Monday, I had my last lesson with my up-til-Monday one-to-one student at the other school.  Although I had prepared some materials for the lesson, she herself had come prepared with a practice TOEIC exam which she wanted to do.  The funny thing was, she didn’t want me in the room when she took the test; she just wanted me to go over the answers with her after.  The test, mind you, takes something like 90 minutes.

All this to say, I left her alone for like an hour and a half.  Which is highly irregular, btw.  But that’s what she wanted, and the customer is always right, right?  And well, also no.  Because she made plenty of mistakes on the test.  So in that sense, the customer was clearly not always right.  But you give the customer what they want, is the point.  So I split.

I brought soup for lunch that day.  Which may seem irrelevant, but I’m going somewhere with this.  In the cupboard that morning, I found an appropriate Tupperware-thingy for the soup; roughly the shape of a large takeout wanton soup container, but a touch smaller; an inane detail which will also be eventually relevant.  Anyway, I throw my bag over my shoulder, grab the soup container (along with my chopsticks, because noodle soup) and head to school.  And I’m carrying the soup awkwardly in my hand, because I’m afraid it might open up in my bag.  Just so you have the picture.

After all, I wasn’t planning on getting kicked out of my classroom.  I wasn’t planning on carrying this soup container around central Berlin.  But kicked out I was.  Which is how I found myself carrying around this awkwardly sized-&-shaped Tupperware to a park bench near the Mohrenstraße U-Bahn station.  It was there that I had my lunch, happily eating noodle soup with chopsticks like a fucking civilized human being already.4

So now I’ve eaten lunch, but I’ve still got an hour to kill.  And this awkward empty Tupperware5 to carry around.  What to do?  Well, given my location, I decided to go for a bit of historical sight-seeing.  My plan was to walk around to the site of the old (new) Reichskanzlei (Reich’s Chancellery); then from there, around back to the parking lot where the Führerbunker used to be and then finally to the Holocaust memorial, which stands across the street and one block up.

First of all, I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t win with this shit.  What I mean is, as a student of history, I do think it’s a bit of a shame that the Chancellery and the bunker were completely demolished with nary a sign that they ever even existed.  On the other hand, good fucking riddance.  But on yet another hand, I’m also completely creeped out by the Nazi buildings that still exist, all the more so given that they’re actually in use.  Göring’s Air Ministry building is now the Finance Ministry.  How the hell does one actually go to their ho-fucking-hum job in a place like that?  Last year, I saw AC/DC at the Olympiastadion, which was really cool until you remember the damn thing was built for the express purpose of showcasing Aryan superiority.  So it’s a loss when the buildings are destroyed, and it’s disturbing when they still stand.  That’s what I mean by you can’t win with this shit.

Anyway, on the site of the Chancellery, they’ve built an apartment complex.  Oh, and also a little elementary school.6  I mean, that’s just creepy.  It’s creepy, right?  Like, how do you live on that ground, knowing what was there?  The parking lot around back is where the exit for the bunker was.  And all that’s there about it is one little sign.  And even that was only put up sometime in the early 2000’s.

Still, I felt it was important to at least visit the site.  And since I was in the neighborhood with an hour to kill, it seemed like as good a time as any.  Only, like I said, I’m carrying this annoying and awkward Tupperware under my arm.  Well, as I’m walking from the parking lot/bunker site to the Holocaust memorial, I decide to try and jam it into my coat pocket.  It didn’t really fit well, but it seemed good enough.

Right, so I get to the memorial and promptly sit myself down on one of the stones.  Whereupon did I dig out my phone and open up the Wikipedia pages for the Neureichskanzlei and the Führerbunker.  And I read for a bit, until I decide it’s time to head back.  But as I stand up, I notice the lack of a large, awkward bulge in my coat pocket.  Fuck.  My Tupperware – my roommate’s Tupperware, to be precise – must have fallen out as I was walking.  So I prepare myself to go and retrace my steps to find it.

It was then that I saw the bright yellow plastic cap lying in the street; in the street just between the Holocaust memorial and the bunker parking lot.  I approach it with quick steps, hoping to recover the goods before it was too late.  But it was too late.  A car had run over it, shattering it to pieces and launching the yellow cap to its landing spot about five feet away.  And if I’d had any hope of at least recovering the chopsticks, I was disabused of it by the black tire tracks across them.  Fuck again.

And look, yeah, it was dumb to try and jamb the thing into my coat pocket when it clearly didn’t fit.  But it also easily could have fallen out on the sidewalk where I simply could have just picked it up again.  It even could have fallen out in the street and rolled to the curb.  But no.  Having a mind like The One Ring, it jumped out of my jacket smack in the middle of the road, where it waited to be found by a Gollum-car.  Only the Gollum-car didn’t save the precious, it destroyed it.  What were the odds of this?  There was only conclusion to draw: Even after all these years, this place was haunted.

But there was something else in this episode, too.  Something uglier.  See, I stood over the remains of this Tupperware, there in the middle of the road.  And I looked at it.  Only I knew what it was.  Only I knew who it belonged to.  And I wondered if I should try to clean it up, try to pick up the pieces.  Or should I just keep walking and pretend I didn’t know anything about it?  I mean, that would be easier.  And in the end, that’s exactly what I did.  I just walked away from it, acted like it had nothing to do with me.  I have to tell you, to have that thought process, in that place, even over something so small, so insignificant, it gave me a chill.  I hurried the hell away from that place.  It’s a bad place.

It’s a bad place.  You’d think I could find a better word.  But what are words to a place like that?  And people fucking live there.  I couldn’t.

Changing gears, thankfully, I finally finished my Hebrew course book last week.  I started in November of 2015.  So that’s 17 months of hard work and study.  But I did it.  I do feel like it’s rather a bit of an accomplishment.  That said, I’ve still got the last chapter of the accompanying workbook to polish off.  This consists of parsing 160-odd verbs7 and an extended passage from Genesis about Joseph’s dreams.8  But that’s just putting a bow on things.  The point is, I’ve successfully taught myself to read biblical Hebrew.

Which is not the same thing as saying I’m good at it, mind you.  That will come with time and further study.  But I have the tools now.  I know what I’m looking at.  Which is crazy, when you think about it.  I went to Hebrew school.  I was Bar Mitzvahed.9  And in all that, they never teach how you to read the language.  Oh sure, they teach you how to phonetically read the words on the page.  But to read the language?  Nah.  So I did it myself.  Twenty-three years later, but I did it myself.

So I take a moment to pat myself on the back a little bit.  Because ten years ago, I decided I wanted to learn how to read Greek.  And you better believe I needed to go to school for that.  Ain’t no way I was teaching myself Greek; which even now is the hardest of all the languages I’ve yet dealt with.  But in the course of going down that road, I taught myself French and German and now Hebrew.  And I don’t mind saying I feel pretty good about that.

The funny thing is, I don’t actually think I’m particularly good with languages.  I mean, I know I’m not.  And the reason I know I’m not is because I’ve met people who actually are.  In grad school, I met people who would sight-read Plato and translate it into not just serviceable but actually very good English, on the fly.  I’ve never been able to do that; still can’t.

But once you learn a second language, it gets easier.  You start to see how things work.  So for me, I think, it’s more about experience.  And genuine interest.  The latter is probably more important.  What I mean is, this shit never gets boring for me.  I enjoy spending my nights working on Hebrew, reading Homer.  I love reading Jules Verne on the subway.  I love chatting – well, trying to chat – in German with my friends here.  My point is, I have to work hard at it.  It doesn’t come easy to me.  But I enjoy the work.

Sometimes I think about the funny turns my life has taken.  Because it seems to me that so many of the important things in my life right now have hinged upon chance and random events.  Let’s look at just two examples.  The first is the simple fact that I’m teaching English in Berlin.  The other is this whole Hebrew thing.

So let’s dial up the Way-Back Machine to winter, 2012.  The only reason I decided to learn French was because I needed to pass a reading comp in a modern language for my Master’s.  I could have done Italian (I still want to learn Italian) or German (too hard) or French.  And I chose French, for literally no other reason than it looks most like Latin on the page.  I figured it would be the easiest.

Remember before when I said you have to enjoy the work?  Well, very quickly, I found a way into French.  And that was hockey.  Once I had the basics down, I just started devouring French Canadian hockey coverage.  It gave me a reason to want to work on French every day.  But I digress.  The point is, I passed my reading comp.  And by that time, I was now firmly interested in the language itself; which I was not when I started.

Sometime after the test, I said something about wanting to continue with it to Jared and he suggested finding a conversation partner.  So I googled it up and found this website, conversationexchange.com.  This is the beginning of 2013 now.  But I needed to put this off for a few weeks, because I had jury duty.  So it wasn’t until February of that year that I finally reached out to try and find a French conversation partner.

That’s how I met Charlotte, who was in New York at the time on a three-month study-vacation; to learn English.  Obviously we hit it off.  And as I’ve written before, she’s the one who gave me the confidence – and the kick in the ass – I needed to move home for a year, to save money, to finally do my CELTA and ultimately go teach English abroad.

But think about that.  I started my Greek pre-req’s in 2007; started my Master’s in 2009.  But I only finished my degree in 2013.  That’s four years; longer than normal.  But I was working at the same time, which is why it took as long as it did.  If I finished in 2012, let’s say, I would have found a different conversation partner.  If I didn’t have jury duty, if I reached out for a partner in January instead of February, maybe we never meet.

I’m not trying to take anything away from myself here.  I’m the one who did the hard work of the CELTA.  I’m the one who came here on a one-way ticket, with no job offers, and made it work.  But of all those things, maybe the hardest was making the decision to go live on Long Island with my parents for year, to save money for this adventure.  That’s not an idea I would have countenanced on my own.  But she showed me by her own example that it was OK to do this, that I should do this.  And if the timing had been just a little bit different, maybe none of that happens.  Maybe I’m still lost in New York, trying to figure out what to do with myself.

So much for Charlotte.  But why Germany specifically?  Now that’s down to Joschka.  Another random and chance encounter.  Vinny met Joschka first, at a concert.  And the reason he met him was because Joschka was wearing a Wacken T-shirt.  Wacken, of course, is the Mecca of metal festivals; something that all American metal fans know about and dream of one day going to.

So Vinny sees this kid wearing a Wacken T-shirt and does the only thing Vinny can do in that situation.  He yells out, “WACKEN!!!”  They get to talking, and in the end, they agree to go together to another metal show, a few weeks later.  At that time, I had no idea about Joschka.  I just knew I was meeting Vinny at the concert.  So I get there, and there’s Vinny, hanging out with this baby German kid.  Seriously, I think he was like 22 at the time; this is 2012.

Anyway, we all have a great time at the show, which was on Long Island.  Vinny was driving back upstate, so that left me and Joschka to take the train together back to the city.  We chatted the whole way, hitting it off instantly.  And in the course of this, I said, “Hey, you should teach me German.”  Which was a weird thing for me to say, as up to that point, I’d had literally interest in learning German.  Mostly because all the PhD students had scared me off it, with horror stories about how hard it was.

But I like languages, and here’s this new friend who speaks one I don’t know.  “Hey, you should teach me German,” I said.  To which he replied, “Sure, OK.”  Wait, seriously?  “Yeah, why not?”  I went out and bought a book the next day.  And lo-&-behold, I loved it.  I mean, I instantly saw why all the best Greek scholars were Germans.  The languages work fundamentally the same way, though German is a far sight less complicated.  But this language had everything I loved about Greek in a way that French, a child of Latin – which I hate – certainly didn’t.

It also had the added bonus of feeling good in my mouth.  Look, I love French, I really do.  There’s loads of literature in French that I adore.  The language sounds beautiful.  It looks good on the page.  I find it to be elegant in the way it organizes itself and expresses its thoughts; not something I’d say about German, btw.10  But I also find it very difficult to speak.  Or more accurately, very difficult to pronounce.  When I try to speak French, my tongue feels like its wearing its shoe on the wrong foot, if that makes any sense.

Not so with German.  I don’t mean that it’s easy, per se.  And I obviously have an accent; nobody’s going to confuse me for a native speaker.  And there are certainly words that give me a hard time.11  But by and large, German feels pretty comfortable with regard to pronunciation.  I’ve often wondered if this owes in any part to the bits and pieces of Yiddish that were in the background of my childhood.  Indeed, I was surprised to learn how many German words I already knew, just because they’re the same in mama loshen.

I’m going off track here.  The point is, at some point, it came time to make a decision as to where I wanted to go abroad and teach English.  The only thing I knew was, I wanted to go somewhere where I was interested in learning the language and indeed had already started learning the language.  And that meant either France or Germany.  With that, I also knew I wanted to be in a big city.  So that meant either Paris or Berlin.  Then I looked at what it cost to live in Paris and what it cost to live in Berlin.12  In the end, there really wasn’t a choice at all.

But think about that.  If Joschka wears any other shirt to that concert, Vinny probably doesn’t meet him.  If Vinny doesn’t meet him, I don’t meet him.  If I don’t meet him, I’m probably still walking around with no interest in German.  And If I’m walking around with no interest in German, I certainly don’t move to Berlin to teach English.  So maybe I’m trying to hack it in Paris, or even Rome.  And I’m sure my life would great in either case.  But it wouldn’t be this life.

And what about Hebrew?  A few years ago, I had about as much interest in learning Hebrew as I did in learning German.  But I came back from Germany, after doing my CELTA, in August of 2015, and I needed a job.  And there’s Keith, telling me about an open position at the school where he’s the principal.  Believe me when I tell you that working as a paraprofessional at a special needs school was never ever on my radar.  This was not a job I ever would have applied for on my own.

But there’s Keith, whom I’ve known since High School, telling me I should go for it.  Well, I needed a job, so I went for it.  And they hired me.  And it was a Jewish school, this little school for special needs kids.  At that time, the extent of my connection with Judaism was going to the family Seder once a year and maybe lighting the candles at Chanukah.  And I was plenty fine with that.

Anyway, there I am at this Jewish school, and there’s Hebrew being thrown around left and right and I’m starting to feel like it’s kind of ridiculous that I’m so ignorant of this language.  So I start thinking that if there was ever a time for me to tackle loshen koidesh, the holy tongue, it was now, when I’m around it all day, and not for nothing, surrounded by a bunch of learned rabbis.  So again, I went out and bought a book.  Seventeen months later, here I am.

But think about that.  If I had a job waiting for me, I don’t go to that school.  If Keith isn’t the principal there, I don’t end up there.  And he’s not the principal there anymore, I should add.  He left to go back to public school.  So that was a pretty small window, actually.  The point is, that job kind of fell in my lap.  I wasn’t looking for it.  And without it, I never go down this road of learning Hebrew.

Anyway, I think about all this sometimes.  Because I didn’t plan any of it.  It all just sort of happened to me.  And in between, how many trips have Charlotte and I taken together?  How many German metal festivals have I gone to with Joschka?  So here I am.  Here I am teaching English abroad, in Berlin, and studying Hebrew in my spare time.  And why?  Because I took my sweet time finishing my Master’s?  Because of a T-shirt?  Because I was friends with the principal?  It’s funny how things work out.

זיי געסונט

  1. More on that in a future post, when the plans are more solid. []
  2. Also known as their end of town. []
  3. #lame []
  4. One tries not to be a snob.  But then one sees Berliners eating Chinese food with forks and all one’s good intentions go for naught. []
  5. Autocorrect keeps capitalizing “Tupperware.”  But it wasn’t a Tupperware brand container.  I’m using the name as a generic adjective.  Which makes me feel like it shouldn’t be capitalized.  And also I have this problem where I can’t turn off being an English teacher. []
  6. Or possibly a kindergarten.  A school for small children, is the fucking point already. []
  7. Look, if God is such a big deal, you’d think he could have devised a slightly less horrifically opaque morphology for his chosen people’s verbal system.  #justsaying []
  8. Update: I drafted this post on Saturday (well, like Sunday morning, after I got home from dinner w/ Z&J).  Anyway, I gutted out this last bit of the workbook Sunday afternoon/night, finishing up around 3am.  So I’m officially finished! #yay []
  9. Zibs asked me if I had a Bar Mitzvah.  No, I told her.  But I was Bar Mitzvahed.  Yeah, we’re an odd folk. []
  10. Efficient.  Precise.  Clever, even.  But not elegant. []
  11. For whatever reason, I seem to trip over Brötchen – a little roll of bread.  Fortunately, in Berlin, you can say Schrippe instead. []
  12. More accurately, I looked at what it cost to do the CELTA in Paris and in Berlin.  But this, of course, was a reflection on the cost of living. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
Birthday Edition

Right, so either Berlin hasn’t yet figured out that #davestheworst or else friends, colleagues and students are trolling me.  How else to explain all the nice things that have befallen me here with regards to my 36th at-this-age-it-doesn’t-matter-anymore birthday?  And that’s with a number of people being out of town.

OK, so my actual birthday was Friday the 10th, and tbh, that was kinda depressing.  The original plan called for Zibs and Jan to come over for dinner and drinks.  Only Zibs texted me the day before asking if we could move it to Saturday, since they’d both be tired after working all day.  Of course, I obliged.  I mean, it’s a fair point.  Or, well, it’s a fair point for people who don’t go home, nap til 8, eat Chinese food at 9 and then show up at 11:30 for a party that started at 7.

And so while I did get a lovely (albeit tipsy) birthday phone call from Charlotte on Thursday afternoon, for whom in Australia it was already my birthday, my actual German birthday was a bit of a drag.  I bought myself a bottle of whiskey and drank rather a lot of it.  I did some Hebrew, watched some Netflix and started writing another silly fairy tale, which I may or may not finish at some point.

No one else was around.  Joschka was in the Caribbean with Cindy; Annett is out of town on an internship; the roommates were on their honeymoon; Christian the ex-roommate was hosting a friend from out of town; Anne the French language partner was in Paris; and I already mentioned Zibs and Jan.  But at least I wasn’t drinking Absinthe at 3am on a weeknight, like I was when I turned 30.  I suspect Jared remembers more about that night than I ever will.

Be that as it may,1 Saturday turned out to be pretty great.  Z&J met me out here in K-nick, where we went for dinner at a cute little Italian joint in the Altstadt.  We had a grand old time of it.  I ordered what was basically a (very tasty) filet mignon and we all shared a bottle of wine.  All of which set me back a whole 25€.2

After that, we stopped by the supermarket for beer and then headed back to the apartment for more drinking.  When we got there, Z&J presented me with a birthday present.  This turned out to be a bottle of Glenfiddich 12.  Which, I mean, is just glorious.  And it was no coincidence, either.  Jan and I often talk about whiskey, as he’s quite interested in it, but doesn’t have a whole lot of experience in that department.  Somewhere along the line, I said something about the Glenfiddich 12 being quite nice and not bank-breakingly expensive either.

So when I expressed my heartfelt gratitude and added that I happen to love this particular scotch, they were like, “Yeah, dude, we know.”  I mean, that’s pretty fucking great.  As was the rest of the night.  Jan and I put a nice dent in the bottle.  Zibs tried to learn how to smoke a pipe.  She needs more practice, but it was fun.  And with all that, just the usual good conversation, good laughs and general good times that always ensues with those two.  And when they left at the end of the night, I had two thoughts.  The first was, “You know, I’ve got some pretty good friends here.  I’m very lucky.”  The other was, “Fuck, I’m pretty drunk.  I hope my bed will stop spinning long enough for my ass to climb into it.”  It did and I did.  Happy birthday, Davey, and good night.

Now as I said, the roommates were away on their honeymoon.  But they returned Monday afternoon.  Which was surprising, as I was expecting them on Tuesday.  Look, I’m just happy I was wearing pants when they came home.  Anyway, I was already planning on cooking dinner, and I had plenty of food, so I asked them if they wanted to join.  They were happy too.

I made not the best braised chicken I’ve ever made, but it was good enough.  Nevertheless, we had a very nice evening, and it was good to catch up.  They’re really both very sweet.  And the more time I spend with them, the better my German gets, which is an added bonus.  Not just that, but they’re also very patient; always happy to explain things; and very much appreciate good (and bad) puns.  It’s a nice situation, is what I’m trying to say.

After dinner, I asked if they wanted a bit of nice scotch.  Lucie didn’t, but Marco was happy to dive in.  Whereupon did we proceed to put another serious dent in the bottle.  It’s funny.  Had I bought the bottle myself, I probably wouldn’t have broken it out.  But since it was a gift, I account it as not being properly mine anyway, and as something that’s meant to be shared.  So on the one hand, it’s not going to last nearly as long as I thought it might.  But on the other hand, it’s already brought me many hours of good times.  Really, there aren’t many things better than good scotch.

Anyway, as we were drinking, I mentioned that it was a birthday gift.  And they were both like, “Wtf dude, you didn’t tell us it was your birthday!  When was it?”  I told them it was Friday and since they were out of town, it hardly seemed worth mentioning.  They seemed to accept this in that way that you accept things you can’t change from simple-minded idiots.  That is to say, with a smile and a shake of the head.  Little did I know, they were plotting.

For yesterday afternoon, I got a text from Marco saying that Lucie would be cooking that night, so they hoped I didn’t have plans.  I still didn’t put together that this was a birthday thing though.  But of course it was.  And it was delish.  Lucie made a pork shoulder in a tasty sauce with mushrooms and broccoli.  Obviously there was wine.  But the best part was the brownies.

Which is a weird thing for me to say.  Not that I don’t like brownies, I surely do.  But I don’t have much of a sweet tooth.  So desert usually ranks third, after the main dish and whatever there is to drink.  And taste wise, the dinner was definitely better.  But here’s the thing.  I tasted the brownie, and I was like, “Does this have like an orange flavor to it?”  And she was like, “Yup.”  And I was like, “Dude, I fucking love chocolate with orange flavor!”  And she was like, “Yeah, I know.”  What?  How?

Apparently, she remembered that around Christmas – three fucking months ago already – I had bought some orange flavored dark chocolate.  I mean, come on, that’s pretty impressive.  Anyway, I was pretty impressed.  Well done, Lucie.  My hat is off to you.

Meanwhile, I had a private lesson at my “Friday school” yesterday.  Anyway, I walk into the office, there to print some worksheets for the lesson.  And my boss and the two ladies who work in the office are standing there, and my boss is holding a little wrapped package.  “Happy Birthday, Dave!”  And again, I’m expressing heartfelt gratitude.  But I also said it was hardly necessary.

And, come on, it’s not at all necessary.  I’ve only been working there since September.  And technically I only work one day a week.  Here and there I cover a class when they need me and I do the private lessons sometimes.  But when I said it wasn’t necessary, my boss says, “No, it wasn’t.  But it was our pleasure to.”  And I’m just like, you people are fucking fantastic.

Then I go in for the lesson.  I work with this lady who is in her early 50’s.  But she’s mad cool.  You can tell she was a good time when she was younger.  And her husband sounds like an awesome and fascinating dude.  And her kid sounds really cool too.  Anyway, she’s mostly there to improve her conversation skills.  Sometimes we do little grammar lessons.  But often as not, we just chat for 90 minutes and I correct her grammar/vocab as we go.

She’s got lots of great stories, and a wealth of knowledge about Berlin.  So half the time that I’m teaching her, she’s actually teaching me about Germany, the culture, the language, the history, and Berlin.  Good sense of humor too, so on top of all that, we have plenty of good laughs.  Anyway, she comes in today, and says, “I hope you don’t mind, but I prepared something for today’s lesson.”  Mind?  Why would I mind?  If you’re doing the prep work, this job just got even easier!  So I’m thinking she has some emails or maybe some other writing she wants to go over or work on.  Or maybe she’s got some kind of conversation scenario she wants to play out.  Wrong.

“So I was thinking,” she said, “it sounds like you don’t really get to West Berlin very much.”  Which is true.  I’ve never really been west of Tiergarten, and even then, I rarely make it west of Tempelhofer Feld.  “So I made a list of things you should check out in the West.  Some walking routes, some sights and some restaurants.”  Omg, for real?  That’s fantastic!  “Also, I have a map, so maybe we can go over it all together?”  Umm, yes please!

So she unfolds this big old ADAC map.  Now the ADAC is the German version of AAA, so it’s really a road map of Berlin.  But this means it’s highly detailed and has every street in the blessed city.  So we start going over the list, and she’s marking up the map.  “Wait, hang on, I want to get a picture of this little area.”  To which she explains, I don’t have to, the map is for me.  It’s mine now.  This was her first map when she first moved to Berlin, and she’s giving it to me.  How sweet is that?  And keep in mind, we’ve only been meeting since December!

So we spent the rest of the lesson going over her list and the map and just talking about Berlin.  And they fucking pay me for this!  Then, at the end of the lesson, she says, “Wait, I have something else for you.”  Whereupon she pulls out a little wrapped package from her bag.  “Something for your flight.”  Wow.  I’m so touched.  More heartfelt gratitude.  But I told her I’d open it on the plane, so I still don’t know what it is.  I mean, it’s clearly a book.  But I don’t know what it is.

As for the present from the school, that was also a book.  This I opened when I got home.  It’s called “Hitler’s Berlin: Abused City.”  OK guys, that’s pretty fucking perfect.  A history book about Nazi Times and specifically about Berlin?  Come on.  How can they possibly know me that well?  So I’m pretty excited to get going on that.

And that about does it for my first birthday in Berlin.  Pretty f’ing fantastic.  But like I said when I started this post, these people either haven’t yet figured out that #davestheworst, or else their trolling me.  Because there’s no way I deserve this.  Is there?

So much for the birthday.  But there’s3 one or two other vignettes I want to put down before I end this post.  You know how in New York, on the subway, you get these mariachi guys or other assorted musicians that come into your car and interrupt your sweet self-in-a-bubble time with their busking?  Well, they’ve got that here too.  And the other day, this full on four or five-piece band gets on, with fucking brass horns.  And I’m just like, “Holy shit, fuck me, why?”

But then the strangest thing happened.  The band is to my left.  So naturally I look to my right.  And what do I see, but a whole kindergarten class, filling up all the seats in the middle of the car.  They had to be something like 4-5 years old.  Point is, the band starts playing, and rather loudly.  And again, I’m thinking, “Fuck you, god(s), why?”

Only when I turn to look at the kids again, they’re all looking on wide-eyed with big ol’ smiles on their faces.  And some of them are even up out of their seats and bopping around in the aisle.  Which made me smile.  I mean, it was fucking adorable and the like the sweetest thing I’ve seen in weeks.

What a strange mix of emotions, you know?  Every time I looked left, I hated everything.  But every time I looked right, I was just, “How can you not love this shit?  This is what life’s all about, amirite?”  So yeah, Berlin.

I thought I had another little story to tell, but it escapes me now, so I’ll just leave it be.  And tomorrow (well, today, technically), I fly home.  Really looking forward to it.  But it’s also quite surreal.  I was walking home from work today, just like I always do, and somehow I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that I wouldn’t be doing this tomorrow; that tomorrow I’d be back in the States.  It doesn’t seem real.  And it was a reminder that my life, at least now, is very much here.  Shit has a way of sneaking up on you sometimes.

One minor disappointment.  Back around New Year’s, I’d very much hoped that I’d be able to finish my Hebrew course book before my flight.  But then I got sick, and that set me back a bit.  So that’s not going to happen.  But I’m close.  Tonight I finished the chapter I was working on.  And now there’s only three left.  It might take another two or three weeks, but the finish line is very much in sight.  Hard not to be happy about that.

Well, that’s enough for this post.  I mean, I still need to pack.4  Although I’m very seriously considering putting that off until morning.  I figure, if I make a mental checklist tonight, that should be sufficient.  Right?  Sure.  Welp.  See you on the other side!

זיי געסונט

  1. Election is Friday, right Dad & Justin? []
  2. Sometimes I love this city.  Imagine that in Gotham! []
  3. Heard this really interesting observation from Ben Zimmer, WSJ language columnist (inter alia), about “There’s.”  So clearly “There is” is for singulars and “There are” is for plurals.  For example, “There is a dog.”  Or, “There are three slices of pizza left.”  But we naturally contract these to “There’s” and “There’re.”  Only, “There’re” is awkward to pronounce.  So it seems people have just started using “There’s” for singular and plural.  And the more I thought about it, the more I realized I think I must do this also, without even noticing.  I mean, it’s perfectly logical.  After all, one is much easier to say than the other.  Anyway, I thought that was fascinating. []
  4. #fml []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
Family Edition
7th March, 2017

So my roommates got married today.  Which caps off an interesting week.  Which itself caps off an interesting couple of weeks.  So many interesting things.  Do I start from now and go backwards?  Or do I start in the past and go forwards to today?  And what is “time” anyway, when you get right down to it?  Fine, let’s start from the beginning.  By which I mean roughly more or less where my last post ended.

Week before last I came down with a nasty case of bronchitis.  Which led me to my first experience with the German health care system.  And you guys, I gotta tell ya, it’s brilliant.  So there I was, sick as a dog.  Fever, cough, the whole nine.  I gave it a weekend, to see if it would take care of itself.  And when it didn’t, I had to give in and see a doctor.

I found one via a sort of medical Yelp which Joschka had recommended to me.  Whereupon did I show up to this guy’s office, no appointment.  They take my health insurance card1 and less than an hour later, I’m in with the doc.  He checks me out, tells me I have bronchitis and prescribes some antibiotics as well a bit of cough syrup.  And while I’m there, I ask him if he wouldn’t mind writing me a scrip for a new inhaler.  He was only too happy to oblige.

Anyway, the visit itself cost me zilch.  No copay, no nothing.  And then, three prescriptions totaled all of 15€.  I mean, how fucking fantastic is that?  When that’s my experience, it makes me wonder why I should ever go back to the States.  Hell, I almost feel like I should throw myself in front of a bus.  Just cos I can!

Well, I’m all better now.  Which is the point.  Well, the second point, anyway.  The first point is, I’m still not over how easy and cheap it was to get medical care here.  I mean, this is how it’s supposed to work.  And btw, my monthly cost is directly related to my income.  It’s progressive.  You pay what they determine you can afford.  It’s a beautiful thing.  Honestly.

So much for that.  Work has been good.  I’ve been busy enough.  And I continue to enjoy what I do.  Last Friday, my boss asked me if I’d be interested in taking on another two days a week.  I told him I absolutely would.  Because this is the place, remember, where the job isn’t based on a set number of hours per course, but rather just goes on indefinitely.  If I had three guaranteed days a week at this place, all my expenses would be covered.  And I’d have some walking around money.  And then, if I could just add one more day from the other school, I’d be on easy street.

But I don’t want to count those chickens before they hatch.  His idea was for this to start when I get back from the States, meaning April.  Meaning, in other words, a month from now.  And a lot of things can change in a month.  So we’ll see.  But I’m hopeful.  Oh, and also, if it works out, the days I’d be working would be Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.  And I’ve still got my Wednesday class until some time in May.  So I’d be looking at three-day weekends too.  How sick would that be?!

Well, we’ll see.  But as I say, work continues to be cool.  I recently did a lesson on poetry; meter and rhyme.  That was a lot of fun.  And we read some Mark Twain, which was also really cool.  Well, for me, anyway.  Comedy is hard in a second language.  So I’m not sure to what extent they got it.  But it’s good for them to read a bit of actual literature here and there, I think.

The last two weekends I met up with Zibs and Jan, the political friends.  I love them.  Each time, we met for dinner and then wound up drinking for like six hours.  They’re honestly fantastic.  We hit on this idea of a group writing project.  The idea is, that we would start writing about our experiences here in Berlin, but specifically with an eye to the times we live in; the political shitshow that is engulfing us all.  We feel like it’s important to put down some kind of record of what it’s like to live in these times on a sort of day-to-day basis.  Not so much big picture stuff, but just what life is like, what we see happening around us.

I’m not sure how exactly we’re going to go about this.  Jan thinks a blog is the way to go.  Zibs thinks it would make for a cool book.  I think both have merit.  Maybe start it as a blog so that at least one of us always writing.  And then we can try to organize it into a book later.  I dunno.  Meanwhile, we haven’t started yet.  So for the moment, it’s only an idea.  But I think it’s an interesting one.  I think it has legs, as Jared used to say.  So again, we’ll see.

So at the turn of the month, Christian, my drinking buddy/roommate/philosophical-intellectual conversation partner moved out.  That was sad.  But he’s staying in Berlin, at least for the next three months.  So we’ll still see each other.  And in fact, he came over Saturday for dinner, which was great.  You know, especially since he cooked.

And then, after he moved out, Marco (Lucie’s boyfriend; Lucie being my other roommate) moved in.  Which was “fun.”  Saturday he showed up with a big ol’ van full of furniture and all his stuff.  So we spent maybe two hours moving him in, and now my arms and shoulders are sore.  Because apparently I’m old and a giant pussy now.  But he and Lucie provided chili and beer for lunch afterwards, so I’ll count that as a solid fucking win.

Oh, and as of today, it’s no longer appropriate to call him Lucie’s boyfriend.  See, they got married this afternoon.  It was a very small affair.  I think it was just a handful of the closest friends and parents at City Hall.2  I wasn’t there.  But when I came home, L&M and the bridesmaid and best man were chilling in the kitchen.

Tbh, I was pretty tired and was planning on a nap.  But when Lucie asked me if I wanted a glass of Sekt (sparkling wine), I had no choice but to accept.  After all, it would be rude not to.  Wouldn’t it?  Then, at some point, it became clear that everybody was hungry, as nobody had eaten since lunch.  And Marco sort of half-jokingly (I think) asked me if I wanted to cook something.3  I asked if he was serious, and he basically said, “Sure, why not?”

Well, I was happy to do it.  I mean, I hadn’t got them a wedding gift or anything.  So I scoured around the kitchen for a few minutes and threw something together with whatever was at hand.  And you know what?  It actually turned into quite a nice meal.

The main dish was chicken and bratwurst sautéed with carrots, tomatoes and onions in a white wine sauce.  For sides I did my standard seasoned roasted potatoes and string beans sautéed in butter with salt and lemon juice.  The latter I usually prefer to do with bacon grease, but not having any at hand, butter was a decent enough substitute.  The sides were perfectly fine.  But to be perfectly honest, I was really pleased with how the main came together.  I feel like I really nailed the sauce.  And everybody was clearly very happy with it.

Which, tbh, meant a lot to me.  Because the truth is, I was really happy to be able to contribute something nice to their wedding.  I mean, we don’t know each other that long4 or that well.  So I can’t really say that we’re close.  But we are roommates.  And we do get on quite well together.  And in the end, I think it’s nicer to give a nice meal than a bottle of wine or some equally generic gift.  And I even allowed myself to think, you know, it’d be pretty nice if, years from now when we’ve all lost touch, if they remember back to their wedding night and say, “Hey, remember when our roommate cooked us a lovely dinner for our wedding?”  Yeah, it’s a bit solipsistic, I know.  But every once in a while, I think it’s OK to feel pretty good about yourself, or at least, something you’ve done for somebody else.

But enough of that.  The weather was stunning on Saturday.  Over 60 degrees, I think.  So while I was waiting for Marco to show up with the van, I sat out on the balcony and enjoyed some tea and toast in the sunshine.  This I followed up with a pipe and some Washington Irving, who omg you guys, is brilliant and hilarious and wonderful and entirely underrated.  And I’m already thinking how great it’s going to be to spend the summer here.

But the summer is still months away.  Of much more immediate interest is the fact that I’m going home in ten days.  And I’m really looking forward to seeing my friends and family.  Indeed, my calendar is already filling up.  But more than that…no, that’s wrong.  Not more than that.  But as much as anything, I think I can say, I’m every day thinking about what I’m going to eat when I get home.  Man, I’ve got a list.

Pizza.  Bagels.  Soup dumplings from Joe’s Shanghai.  Wo Hop.  Hong Kong Beef Stew from my old corner spot on Hester and Allen.  Some actual proper fucking Pho – and I’m talking with tripe and tendon – from Pho Grand.  A pastrami on rye with a lip-puckering sour pickle on the side.  A burger from the diner.  Wings from the Inn Between.  And my mom’s spaghetti and meatballs.  Oh, and if we can throw some skirt steaks on the grill, then so much the better.  There’s not an hour that goes by that I’m not thinking about this.

Friday night we did our monthly Stammtisch (happy hour, for lack of a better word) with some people from my Friday school.  Me and another teacher as well as some past and present students.  As I say, we do this once a month and it’s always a good time.  It’s nice to hang out with these people in a social setting, and it’s a good opportunity to learn some cool German slang as well.  So yeah, I quite enjoyed that.

But afterwards, one of the girls suggested we stop by a “really great” pizza spot in the area.  But, you know, it was Berlin “pizza.”  And, I mean, I’m sure it was great.  And I had every intention of getting some for myself.  But when I looked at it, all I could think was, “Come on, this isn’t pizza.  I’ll be home in less than two weeks.  I can wait.”  So I passed on the pizza.  Which was fine.

Because when I got home, I had some leftover shepherd’s pie.  Well, cottage pie, anyway.  Apparently it’s impossible to find ground lamb in this neighborhood.5  Anyway, I made this cottage pie for the flat on Thursday.  M&L had been working really hard preparing the room, so I thought it would be nice to cook dinner for them.  It must’ve been OK, as everybody had seconds.  Fortunately, there was still a little left for me when I came home tipsy from the Stammtisch.

I said they’d been working hard preparing the room, and they had.  They spent a few days last week stripping the shitty finish off the actual proper wood floor.  And I do mean stripping it.  They had an industrial sander in there.  The funny thing was, they were worried that the noise would disturb me.  And make no mistake, that shit was loud.

But I gotta tell ya.  It was music to me.  I came home from work ready for a nap.  And they were sanding away in there, on the other side of the wall.  And I passed right the fuck out.  Not only that, I had the absolute best nap I’ve had in months.  I tried to explain this to them the next day.  In absolutely terrible German, I said something to the effect of, “You guys had that sander going and I slept like a fucking baby.  For the first time since I got here, I felt like I was back home in New York.”

And it’s true.  It’s so fucking quiet here.  It’s disturbing.  It was like that scene in My Cousin Vinny.  You know, where he can’t fall asleep in the cabin in the woods.  And the owl hoots and he runs outside with a fucking shotgun.  And then finally, he spends a night in prison.  And with a fucking riot going on around him, he sleeps like a fucking baby.  That’s exactly what it was.  And they laughed at me, like, what the fuck is wrong with this guy.  But it was absolutely beautiful, I swear.

Another side effect of this moving sitch was, I inherited an actual proper bookshelf.  On the one hand, it’s not that nice.  On the other hand, it’s wood, it’s stained, and it’s a proper fucking bookshelf.  It’s perfect for this room, and it’s perfect for me.  The only problem is, now I need more books!

But I think it’s also going to double as a liquor cabinet.  Because if this job thing works out, and I find myself with some actual disposable income, I fully intend to build up a little bar for myself.  I’m talking, at a minimum, cocktail shaker, gin, rye, sweet & dry vermouth, bitters, maybe a nice bottle of rum.  And of course, some actual, honest to god, single malt scotch.  I mean, yeah, I’ll still drink my dollar wine on a day-to-day basis.  But wouldn’t it be nice to class this joint up a bit too?

Getting sick put a dent in my studies.  For the week I was sick, I scarcely got out of bed.  But in addition to that, I was pretty well exhausted for a fortnight or so before I fell ill.  Endeffekt, I didn’t get much Hebrew done for a solid three weeks.  If my original goal was to finish my course book by Spring, then I’m still on target.  But for a while there, I thought I might even finish before I went home.  That’s now out of the question.  Still, I’m not in bad shape there; even if I’m not in as good shape as I’d hoped.

On the other hand, I’ve started trying to get my classical guitar skills back in order.  I mean, I’ve really slipped in that department.  Once I got comfortable singing and playing at the same time, that became my focus.  Irish folk, rock and roll, the odd French or German tune, plus my own stuff.  That’s really been my focus for literally years now.  And somewhere along the line, I kinda stopped bothering with classical.  Which is a shame.

So I’ve started trying to get that back.  I’m now pretty solid again with the Bach Lute Prelude, BWV 999.  The Canarios is in good shape too.  What’s not in good shape, though, is my ability to read sheet music.  I really want to get my hands back around the Bach prelude to the first Cello Suite.6  Only the sheet music is killing me.  The bass notes are like 37 ledger lines below the staff and I’m just like, “Uh, hello?”  So that’s gonna need like just dedicating a fucking Sunday to re-teaching myself how to read music.

But yeah, it feels good to be playing classical music again.  It feels good to be using those skills too; the finger picking, the unusual chords shapes.  And also, I mean, come on…Bach!  I fucking love this guy.  He’s like the Homer of music.  Every time you come back to it, you find something new.  And it admits of such wide and varied interpretation.  There’s a hundred different ways to play Bach “right.”  Just as there are a hundred different ways to read Homer “right.”7

He’s not like those Romantic fucks, Bach, who tell you at exactly what tempo and volume the music must be played.  He’s just like, “Look, bitches, all my notes are perfect.  Do what you want.  You can’t fuck this shit up.  It’s perfect.  It exists outside of your reality.  Fast, slow, loud, soft, IDGAF.  I got you.”

And in this way, he’s also like the fucking Thucydides of music.  See, imo, Thucydides is the best prose that’s ever been written in any language.  You read him, and you just feel like every single word has a purpose.  Every single word is carefully chosen and carefully placed exactly as it should be.  And it’s not always easy to understand.  But if you can’t understand it, that’s on you.  Because he knew what he was doing.  And I think Bach is also like that.  There’s not a note out of place.  There’s not one note that’s casually placed just because a note is needed.  Each and every single one has a purpose, each and every single one serves the greater whole.

Bach.  Homer.  Thucydides.  Perfection.  Only, now I feel a bit guilty because I’ve said nothing about Beethoven.  But Beethoven has no parallel, no equal.  I mean, there’s a bit of Homer in Beethoven, and a bit of Bach too.  And maybe there’s something to be said along the lines of Mozart is like Virgil (perfect in every way and totally capable of kicking ass, and yet also, often kind of boring) while Beethoven is like Homer (more organic, more emotional, and giving zero fucks for your “rules”).

But this digression is now becoming silly.  I shall end it by pointing out, not for the last time, that we should also never forget that AC/DC is the ultimate Platonic perfection of the “form” of Rock and Roll.  Limited by its very nature, perhaps.  But perhaps nothing is more perfect in the narrowest sense of its own existence than AC/DC.  And here too there is a parallel with Beethoven.

By which I mean, after Beethoven, they had to throw out the book and start over.  He had literally perfected everything that everyone had been doing to that point.  The piano sonatas, the symphonies, the string quartets.8  He dropped the mic on “classical.”  So everybody threw up their hands and said, “Fuck it.  I guess we’ll just do ‘romantic’ now, whatever the fuck that means.”  And you know what?  Romantic was shit.  Things didn’t get interesting again until Gershwin showed up and was like, “Shit needs to swing, bitches.”9

Same for AC/DC.  In 1977 the released Let There Be Rock and followed up the next year with Powerage.  And lo, the form was perfected.  Nothing left to say.  After that, rock could be fun.  But it couldn’t be new.  And it sure as shit couldn’t be better.  Like, they made Back in Black.  And, you know, it’s fine.  Well, Beethoven nearly wrote a tenth symphony.  And I’m sure that would have been fine too.

Meanwhile, somewhere my brother and father are saying, “But Brahms!  But Chopin!”  And all I’m saying is, of course I listen to Back in Black.  Doesn’t mean everything worth saying hasn’t already been said.  And somewhere my brother is saying, “You’re a real asshole, you know that?”  Yes.  Yes, I do.

Oh fuck.  I’ve been having so many thoughts lately about “the East” here, in Berlin and in Germany.  So many thoughts about the DDR and even the Nazi times, and how they’ve shaped this city and this country; especially in the East.

Last post I mentioned that I was working with a student who was doing research on memory and the DDR.  And we read many articles together on the subject.  I learned so much.  And it’s really re-shaped my thinking on this city, on this neighborhood, on the people here, on everything really.

And now I’m working with a student, a woman in her mid-50s who grew up in the DDR.  And man, she hates it.  She’s got so many negative feelings and emotions about East Germany.  It’s fascinating.  But I don’t want to get started in on that subject now.  This post is long enough.  So maybe I’ll tackle that next time.  Because it really is fascinating.  I mean, this city is so fascinating.  It’s history.  It’s present.  It’s future.  And how that history affects the present and the future.  I just look out the window when I’m riding the train or the tram, and my mind starts spinning in a hundred different directions.

But as I say, I’ll tackle that another day.  Until then…

זיי געסונט

  1. I’m paying something like 177€/month. []
  2. Berlin doesn’t have one “City Hall.”  You know how, in New York, the five boroughs used to be five independent cities?  Well, it’s kind of the same in Berlin.  Except that, instead of a mere five cities, “greater” Berlin is made up of dozens of smaller towns and cities that were all incorporated as one sometime around the 20’s.  And each one of these has it’s own Rathaus or City Hall.  So they did their wedding at the Köpenick Rathaus, in the Altstadt, the Old City. []
  3. At the risk of tooting my own horn, everybody knows by now that I quite like to cook and also that I’m pretty decent at it. []
  4. I only moved in in December, remember. []
  5. #nomuslimshere []
  6. I forget the BWV.  But you know it when you hear it. []
  7. Here, I always think of the totally completely different ways Daitz and I would read Hera.  He always read her as a sort of clucking cuckold bitch of a wife.  And I would read her as a strong, proud, independent woman.  And the best part is, Daitz completely accepted that.  “Well, Dave,” he’d say.  “That’s not how I read it.  But you bring your own interpretation to it, and that’s what reading Homer is all about.”  I fucking miss that guy so much. []
  8. OK, he fell down in the Opera department.  But honestly, fuck opera anyway, emirate? []
  9. Not a direct quote. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
13 February, 2017

It’s been a while since my last posting.  I’ve been busy.  Sometimes it feels like I’ve been too busy.  In fact, I’m feeling a bit exhausted lately.  The last couple of weeks have seen more than their fare share of social activity and less than their fare share of sleep.  And of course, there’s work too.  Oh, and the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket.

Let’s talk about work first, because I’ve really been enjoying it of late, and I really haven’t written very much about it to this point.  On Tuesdays, I work one-to-one with a woman who is doing research on memory and the DDR (East Germany).  She’s a pretty cool cat.  I don’t know her whole story, but here’s what I gather.  She’s late 40’s/early 50’s.  I don’t know what she was doing before, but it seems she’s gone back to school.  Why?  Because she’s passionate about the subject; she wants to research it and write about it.  Mad respect.

So every week, I bring an article having something to do with the DDR.  We work for three hours, mostly reading and discussing while also doing the odd bit of grammar.  It’s fascinating.  I’m learning a lot, and she is as well.  One of the things we’re working on is critical reading skills.  In other words, reading something in your second language and learning how to draw out the salient facts while not getting bogged down in words you don’t know.  She’s making great progress and it’s quite rewarding to see.

She’s now the third one-to-one student I’ve had like this.  I mean, yes, I’ve been doing one-to-one phone lessons with the French company since August.  But that’s different.  Those lessons are either 30 or 60 minutes and it’s either general conversation or just English grammar.  And don’t get me wrong, I enjoy it.  But it’s not what I’d call intellectually gratifying.

Then this school comes along and starts offering me 1:1 classes that last three or five hours.  And on paper, that’s actually a bit terrifying.  I mean, it’s just you and one student, stuck in a room for hours at a time.  What do you do?  What do you talk about?  But in each case, I’ve been fortunate to get really smart and interesting people.  The first guy was a video game designer.  The second was a physicist who works in renewable energy.  And now this dame.

But my absolute favorite, though, is my advanced class, which I teach on Fridays.  It’s five hours with no course structure and no syllabus.  The students come from the (un)employment office.  What this means, on a practical level, is that people are always coming and going.  The class just goes on forever with no start or end.1

This was also a bit terrifying in the beginning.  I mean, how do you fill five hours when you have no syllabus, no course structure, to refer to?  But the beauty of it is, I get to make of it what I want.  And I’m getting more and more comfortable with this.  I’m making it my own.  I get to make it the intellectual playground I want it to be.  And yes, of course we do plenty of “English class” kinda stuff.  Lots of grammar, exercises, practice, etc.  But I always get to work in something that goes to who I am as a person and as a teacher.  I’ll give two examples from the last two weeks.

Last Friday, we were talking about the different ways English uses the word “get.”2  So I asked one student, “How do you get over a disappointment?”  And he gave whatever answer he gave.  Then another student says, “Well, you can repress it.”  Laughs all around.  But when I asked a follow up question about the word “repress,” her answer had something to do with Archimedes.

–Interpolation: The king asks Archimedes to determine if his crown is made of solid gold or just lead with gold plating.  And Archimedes puzzles over this, unable to find an answer.  Then, one day, he settles into his bathtub, and as he does so, he notices the water rise around him.  “Eureka!” he shouts.  He’s discovered displacement, and its relationship to mass/density.  He now knows that a gold crown will displace a different amount of water than a lead one.  Problem solved.
End Interpolation–

So, as we see, the English word for the principal of physics that Archimedes discovered is “displacement.”  But apparently, in German, it’s something that can be translated as “repression.”  Anyway, this leads to a brief discussion of the above story about Archimedes.  And also Galileo, because apparently she learned that it was he who said “Eureka!”  Which he might have, I don’t know.  But if he did, he was referencing Archimedes.  Anyway.

Anyway, what a great opportunity to talk about Greek!  “What tense is eureka?” I ask.  Confusion.  “Well,” I explain, “eureka literally means ‘I have found it’.  What tense is that?”  Present perfect, comes the answer from my most excellent students.  “That’s right!” I say.  “The verb itself is εὑρίϲκειν (heuriskein) – to find.  And the perfect, first person singular is εὕρηκα (heureka) – I have found.”  And I’m so happy to be talking about Greek.  But I need to bring this back to English.  “But the point is, Eureka is not simply an exclamation we say at the moment of discovery, it actually means something.  It literally means, I have found it!”  I love my job.

Now I’m feeling good.  This is interesting stuff, and my students seem genuinely interested.  Let’s go on!  “What did Caesar say when he crossed the Rubicon?” I ask.  *Crickets*  So I explain the backstory of Caesar at the Rubicon and the whole “die is cast” spiel.  And one of my blessedly learned students blurts out in German, “Ach, Die Würfel sind Gefallen!“ Which is the German version of “the die is cast.”  Good, so now they’ve got context.

So, again, bringing it back to English.  “OK then, so in English, we say ‘the die is cast.’  But this really isn’t a good translation.  Suetonius tells us that Caesar said, alea iacta est.  And again, like eureka, this is perfect tense.  ‘The die has been cast.’  Which is not unimportant.  Because the perfect tense tells us that the action is complete, you can’t take it back.  But it has an impact on the present.  That’s much more powerful than simply saying ‘the die is cast.’  And they’re nodding in understanding.  And they don’t look bored either!  So let’s go a step further.

“Of course,” I continue, leaning back in my chair and wishing I had my pipe, “Plutarch tells us that Caesar said the words in Greek.  According to Plutarch, he said ἀνερρίφθω κύβοϲ (anneriphtho kybos), which is a third person imperative, meaning, ‘let the die be cast.’  Which again is totally different again.”  I pause to make sure everybody is still with me.  They seem to be.  “But then you have to remember that Suetonius is writing many years after the fact, and Plutarch is writing many years after that.  So we have to ask, Did Caesar ever say anything like this at all?  I don’t know.”

Then a student asks, “So the English again is?”  “The die is cast,” I say as she writes it down in her notebook.  “And it should be?”  “The die has been cast, or Let the die be cast.”  And she writes that down.  And I’m just, fuck, I love my job.

So that was last week.  Then today,3 half my class is out sick.  I had a whole thing planned, but I didn’t really want to use it, because I didn’t want half the class to miss it.  So I kinda winged it.  But at the end of the day, I still had 40 minutes to kill.  And I see that yesterday’s teacher4 had given them a short story to read.  Well, they’ve already read it, so there’s not much I can do there.  But then I notice that at the beginning of the story, there’s three lines of quoted poetry.  The story is in parallel text, btw: German on one side of the page, English on the other.  It’s originally German.  The poetry quote is from Göthe.  And it turns out, they had ignored this little quote.  Her (the other teacher’s) lesson was about the story itself.  Fantastic!

So I write the German and the English poems on the board.  And then I mark out the scansion.  And we break it down.  The meter and the rhyming scheme match.  So I engage them on the subject of translation theory.  The meter and the rhyme match exactly.  But at what cost?  There’s a loss of precision, right?  Words are missing, subjects are different, verbs are used differently.  It’s not quite a “perfect” translation.  Or is it?  What’s more important – capturing the ‘feel’ or the ‘meaning’?  And bless their little hearts, they batted it around and we talked about it and didn’t really come to a conclusion, because how can you?  There’s no “right” or “wrong.”  But again, I’m just like, holy shit, I love my job.5

Or do I?  I talk about this with Charlotte sometimes.  And when I tell here these types of stories, she says something along the lines of, “Sounds like you’d rather be teaching a university class.”  Hmm.  Wouldn’t I though?  And yes, on some level.  Like, it’s this shit where I get really jazzed about my job.  This, and historical linguistics, and Greek and Latin and Shakespeare (did I mention we did a Shakespeare sonnet one week?) and so on.  But I do love English, the grammar, the slang, the living language.

But this is where things get difficult for me too.  I had to cover a beginner class this week.  And you can’t do any of this stuff with beginners.  They’re nowhere near ready for it, even if they would be interested.  And, oh gods, it’s dull!  For me, I mean.  I’ve discussed this too with Charlotte, as well as my colleagues here.  And they have lovely things to say about working with beginners.

They say things like, “They’re so interested!  And you can see their progress every day!  You can see them doing things they didn’t used to be able to do, and that’s because of you!”  And I, like, I don’t care.  It’s boring.  I mean, they’re fun people, and we have a good time.  But, come on!  And then I start to have heretical thoughts.

Thoughts like, “You know what?  I don’t really care if you say things the right way.  What does that even mean?  Can you express yourself?  Can you make yourself understood?  That’s what matters.  I mean, you’re probably going to be talking to people for whom English also isn’t their native tongue.  Do I honestly give a fuck if you use the past simple instead of the present perfect?  I know I should, but like, it doesn’t matter.”

Because if you want to write an academic paper or study literature, sure, it’s important.  But if you want to communicate?  Let it ride.  That’s what I say.  And I think that makes me a terrible English teacher in many ways.  So I don’t know.  It’s confusing.  There are days when I love my job and I think I’m bloody good at it and I wouldn’t want to do anything else.  But those are the days I get to work with advanced students.  Other days though…

Changing gears.  Thursday before last, I stopped by the supermarket on my way home.  Had my headphones in when somebody tapped me on the shoulder.  It was one of my roommates.  “Oh, hey!”  And because, well, I don’t know why: “Do you have time for a drink when we get home?”  So he bought a bottle of wine and I bought a bottle6 of wine and we walked home together and settled into the Wohnküche, ostensibly to drink one – maybe two – glasses of wine and just catch up.

Well, next thing I know, we’d each drank a whole bottle.  So then we drunkenly cooked dinner, by which time our other roommate had come home, and so obviously we sat her down to eat with us.  Plenty of food, after all.  But of course, we couldn’t stop there.  Not after discussing how neither of us had yet been to a local bar since we’d moved in.

So we went to local bar.  Just the two of us, me and the bloke from the supermarket.  Next thing I know, I’m chatting in German with total strangers.  Next next thing I know, I’m belting out Whiskey in the Jar and Dirty Old Town with one of these strangers.  Next next next thing I know, I’m hungover af at work on Friday.  Incidentally, this was the Archimedes/Caesar Friday, so I guess I rallied.

Well, it made Friday a bitch.  But honestly, it was great to hang out and drink and then go out with my roommate and have a bit of bonding.  And getting a bit of local flavor didn’t hurt either.  Nonetheless, I was, in the wake of this, looking forward to a quiet weekend.  This, I’m afraid, was not in the cards.

Zibs and Jan – the political friends – asked me if I wanted to meet them at a market on Saturday afternoon.  Well, of course I did.  This started out as lunch and a couple of beers at the market.  It then proceeded to dinner and more beers, followed by Sambuca, at a Persian restaurant in hip(ster) Kreuzberg.  Only, I had to be home by 8ish, as my other roommate (i.e. not the one from the bar) was cooking dinner, and I’d agreed to bring wine.

So I get home just in time, and the four of us – that is, the two roommates plus the boyfriend of the other roommate proceed to eat (wonderful food, btw, and drink…three bottles of wine.  Why I am doing this to myself?! I ask as I fetch the third bottle of wine from my room.7

But OK, I think to myself.  I can still at least go to bed at a reasonable hour.  Which was nearly true.  The problem was, the other roommate…stop.  I should give them names already.  The one from the supermarket/bar, that’s Christian.  The other is Lucie.  And her boyfriend is Marco.  So the problem was, Lucie and Marco had plans to go to a club, and now they wanted us to come with them.  I protested.  They insisted.  We went.

And it was great.  I mean, I think it was great.  Many of the parts I remember were great.  The place we went to had many floors and rooms, one of which was actually a metal room; so that was cool for me.  At (at least) one point, Christian thought Jäger shots would be a good idea.  Remember, this is in addition to the three bottles of wine, the afternoon beers and Sambuca, and also the beer on the train.  But I’m a gentleman, and it would have been rude to refuse.

I do remember singing along rather loudly to the The Proclaimers ‘500 Miles’ at one point.  And also being in a techno room, which I didn’t much care for.  Eventually, it got to the point where I had to do my usual Dave thing.  Which is, to find one person I know, and tell them I’m leaving because I’ve had enough.  I do know that I left first.  And I also know that I did ultimately get to the train station.

What I’m less clear on, is how Christian was already at the train station when I got there.  So obviously we had to stop for döners.  And somehow, by the time we got home, Marco and Lucie were already back.  To this day, nobody seems entirely clear on how any of this was possible.

What I do know, is that Sunday became a wasted day.  Which is a shame, because I had big plans for Sunday.  I was going to do big things.  Things like laundry, and taking out the garbage and maybe a bit of Hebrew.  Instead, I just stayed in bed watching DS9 and this comedian Iliza Shlessinger whom I’d never heard of, but she seemed cute so why not?  Actually, she turned out to be really smart and had some excellent word play, so that was rather a bit of a win.  Also DS9, as I’ve said many times, is the best of all the Treks.

But I’m old now, and these days it takes a solid 24 hours to recover from a full night of drinking.  Which is tough.  Because, in media res, I can still party pretty good.  I can still drink plenty and find my way home at 530am.  Really the only thing missing is WoHop.8  But man, the next day?  I feel like a succubus had visited me and drained me of all my life force.  Only minus the presumably at least momentary fun of a sexual encounter with a she-demon in the moonlight.

No, but really.  It’s weird.  Because I didn’t have a headache and I didn’t feel sick.  I was just…drained.  Just getting up to refill my water bottle seemed an inhuman burden.  And yet, I had this feeling.  How cool is it that we had a roommates’ night out together?  Nevermind that it was a roommates’ night out for roommates who are 25, not 35.  But still.  It’s a good feeling.

This Friday, I had no plans.  I was looking forward to a quiet night in, doing a bit of overdue blogging.  Only, around midnight, I heard Christian come out of his room.  “Oh, Christian’s up!” thought I.  So I texted him and asked if he wanted to have a quick drink in the Wohnküche.  Of course he did.  Whereupon did I enter the kitchen with a bottle of whiskey and he with a glass of wine.  Whereupon did he, seeing me with my “heavy artillery” (his words), replace said wine with a bottle of vodka.

From there, we embarked on an intellectual conversation of sorts.  He’s doing a PhD in social economics.  I know almost nothing about this subject, but he’s super fucking bright and really good at explaining things.  So I started asking him all sorts of questions about his work and the field in general.  Because when I meet people who have expertise in subject matters of which I’m ignorant, I make it a point to learn from them as much as possible.

Anyway, we talked and drank.  Drank and talked.  And next thing I know, we’re back at the local bar, having a beer.  And then possibly also Jameson.  Well, as you can imagine, that wrecked my Saturday.  Worth it though.  Totally worth it.  And at least today, Sunday, I was able to take it easy.  I made stock.  I cleaned the bathroom.  I did laundry.  Got a bit of Hebrew done, watched some DS9 and even had a video chat with Niki, which was bloody fantastic.

And I have to say, it’s pretty great to have this technology.  It’s not always easy to be away from your friends and family.  But in the last few weeks, I’ve had video chats with Niki, Amber and Vinny.  Charlotte and I talk by internet phone once every week or two.  It may not seem like much, but it goes a long way.

I had intended to say something about the whole political shitshow that’s going on at home; and here too, not for nothing.  But this is long enough, and I don’t want to get into it now.  So I’ll save it for next time.  Oh, and I also wanted to talk about the Room Escape me and Joschka did a few weeks ago.  That was great fun.  It was us, his girlfriend, and one of her colleagues.  This also turned into an all-night-and-next-day affair.  It was exhausting, but it was absolutely a blast.

So yeah, things are good.  Now if only I can find a few more hours for sleep…

זיי געסונט

  1. Which is gorgeous from a stability standpoint.  It means I have this class in perpetuity.  As opposed to my other classes which are all for a fixed number of hours and need to be replaced with new work when they’ve finished. []
  2. The primary definition of “get” is “receive.”  But what about: get over, get on, get off, get out, get in, get on with, &c. &c. &c. []
  3. By which I mean Friday, when I originally started writing this. []
  4. One guy teaches the class Mon-Wed.  There’s a different teacher on Thursdays.  And I have them on Fridays. []
  5. So I’ve just re-read this proofreading purposes, and it comes to my attention that I may be an insufferably pretentious ass.  To which I can only respond by pushing my glasses higher up on my nose and puffing my pipe here in the candlelight.  #doubledown []
  6. OK, a box.  But only one liter! []
  7. This bottle was a Xmas gift from the roommate and her bf.  And I’d sat on it, hoping that we could all share it together at some point.  That point turned out to be the Saturday in question. []
  8. WoHop, I miss you so much.  Wanton soup, Seschaun chicken, crispy noodles and ducksauce, and endless cups of tea at 5am.  Truly one of the joys of life. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
19 January, 2017

So I was talking to Charlotte yesterday, and she was all, “What’s up with your blog?  How come you haven’t written in a while?  Well, you know what?  She’s right.  I haven’t written in a while.  It’s not that I haven’t wanted to, it’s just that I’ve been allocating my energies elsewhere.  It’s been full steam ahead on Project Hebrew, leaving little time for other ventures.  Not that I’m complaining.  In fact, I’m feeling pretty good about it.  That’s just the way things have been lately.

That, and writing takes a long time and requires rather a bit more alcohol than the ol’ language studies.  And since I, you know, work now, I’m not exactly keen to stumble into bed half-drunk at 3:30 in the morning.  Which is how this blogging thing often works, if you must know.

But yeah, anyway, I figured – after a bit of a reminder – that I probably should knock something out, even if it’s short.  That said, this will be a bit of a hodgepodge; trying to catch up on the last few weeks in one go while also trying to achieve Bed at a reasonable (for me) hour.

So a while back, I mentioned to Jared that I was feeling a bit “tight” lately, a bit stressed.  This may have been in the midst of the whole visa-Anmeldung-bank-health insurance saga.1  Anyway, he says to me, and I paraphrase, “Dude, why don’t you read some fucking Aurelius?”2  This was a mighty fine suggestion.  After all, the down-to-earth thoughts of the down-to-earth Philosopher King have often helped to calm me down in the past, and to keep things in perspective.

I first encountered Aurelius in a survey of Western lit3 during my senior year of college.  Indeed, so taken was I with this text that it became one of the three great motivating factors behind my desire to learn Greek, coming in third behind Homer and the great Thucydides.  The one brought me to Daitz and remains at the center of everything Dave.  On the other, I wrote my Master’s thesis.

But to this day, Aurelius – in Greek4 – has eluded me.  Which isn’t to say that Aurelius has eluded me.  Years and years ago I had an English copy of the text, which I shared with Jared.  He too was taken with it.  And, I think, this is how he knows it in the first place.  Anyway, he was right to suggest it.  The only thing was, I was determined that the next time I read this thing, it would be in Greek.

And there’s the rub.  I never took any classes on Stoicism, and as a result, I’m not familiar with the vocabulary.  To give but one example: In Greek, the word δύναμιϲ (dynamis) means first ability (as in, the ability to do something), and then, by extension, power.  From this we get all sorts of cool English words, like “dynamo,” “dynamic,” and “dynasty.”  But it seems that in a Stoic context, it takes on a new meaning of something like “arts” and/or “faculties (mental or otherwise).”  What I mean to say is, the hard part is not so much the words you’ve never seen before, but rather the words you already know but which now mean something totally new.  Δύναμιϲ is one example, but others abound.

So there’s that.  And then there’s the fact that MA draws heavily on the slave5 -philosopher Epictetus.  Owing, then, to these two factors, I decided that as much as I might want to read Aurelius, really the place to start was with Epictetus.  Fortunately, I already had the text, albeit in the cheater’s Loeb edition.  By which I mean, all the left-side pages are the original Greek, but all the right-side pages are an English translation; hence “cheater’s” edition.

Normally, I’m not a fan of using Loeb’s.  In fact, I had a professor once who wouldn’t allow them in his classroom.6  But in this case, the Loeb is what I had, and so that’s what I decided to use.  But returning to the question of vocabulary, having the English crutch has been quite helpful insofar as it’s a fast and accurate way to understand how Epictetus is repurposing older words.

But alright, let me be honest.  After three years of reading basically nothing but Homer, my skill-set as pertains to reading philosophy-prose is somewhat atrophied.  Yes, I could fight my way through it.  But having the English (and my iPhone Great Scott app) allows me to work through the text on the subway; which has really cut into my French reading-time; but that’s a whole ‘nother story.7

Right, the point was, so I’ve started reading Epictetus.  And you know what, Jared?  It’s really helping.  In more ways than you anticipated.  Obviously the philosophy is generally helping me to calm my shit down.  Which was the point.  But the funny thing is, just reading Greek puts me in a very calm state.  Even though it’s hard.  Even though it’s slow going at times.  But when I’m reading Greek, I enter this very chill and happy place.  Even in the midst of a crowded subway car where – and I cannot for the life of me understand this – people don’t know to take their backpacks off!  I mean, what the actual fuck people?! How did you not get this memo??  In a crowded subway car, take off your big-ass backpack and put it between your feet.  Also, move all the way into the car!  Do I need to teach you everything??  So you see, I can benefit from a bit of calming down.  And as I say, when I’m reading Greek, I don’t even notice this bullshit.

In this way, and others, it’s served to remind me how much I fucking love Greek.  It really is my fucking favorite.  As beautiful as French is, as fascinating as German is, as illuminating as Hebrew is, Greek is just the best.  It’s so precise.  So perfect.  And yet, so free.

So much for Epictetus; though surely more to come in future posts.  I mentioned French, and how I’m reading less of it.  As I indicated, I normally read French on the subway.  Sure, in the summer, I might take my boy Jules Verne to the park.  But in this arschkalt weather, it’s subway or bust.  And so, if I’m reading Greek, I’m not reading French.  Which is kind of not OK.  Because I do kinda love French, even if not as much as the Hellenic tongue.

Fortunately, just as I’m finding less time for la langue française in book form, I seem to have found a new conversation partner.  I may have, in the past, mentioned my friends Annett and Jan, who are just fantastic and who have done so much to help me get settled here.  In fact, it’s probably not an exaggeration to say I likely wouldn’t have been able to score my visa without their help.

They are also my “artist” friends.  In the past, I’ve spoken of my friends Zibs and Jan and how they are my “political” friends.  But Annett and (her) Jan are my artist friends.  Annett does (or did?  And will do again?) open mics with me.  Their friends are artists too.  So when we all hang out, it’s very much an artist crowd, which is very cool.

Now, Annett and Jan are German, as are most of their friends.  But when I met them, my German wasn’t at a great level.  So I know them as English speakers, and when it’s just the three of us, we mostly speak English.  But one thing I love about them, is when there’s a party, they don’t do the whole “Dave’s here, I guess we need to speak English” thing.  It’s sink or swim.  And lately I’ve been swimming.  Like, I actually go to parties where people only speak German and I speak (admittedly quite flawed) German with them.  It’s fantastic.

Anyway, they’ve got this friend, who is French, and obviously an artist.  Anyway, she is the first person I’ve met here for whom German is her second language but also doesn’t really speak a lot of English.  In other words, she’s the only person I know here where we only talk to each other in our second language.  Because normally, I’m either talking to native English speakers or native German speakers, right?

Well, we were drunkenly chatting at Annett’s birthday party and we hit upon the idea that we should meet up for a French-English conversation exchange.  Especially since her English and my French seem to be in roughly the same ballpark.  So that’s what we did on Monday afternoon.  And it was kinda funny.  We meet up at Potzdamer Platz for convenience, but not knowing where to actually go.  Whereupon we proceeded to decide on a café in German, because I can’t walk and talk French at the same time and likewise her with English.  Quickly – because it was so cold – we settled on the nearest bar/restaurant/café thingy.

I have to admit, I was a bit nervous.  I hadn’t done a proper French conversation exchange since I first met Charlotte, which was February of 2013.  And she’s not shy about telling me that I was pretty useless back then.  My only other experiences, then, with spoken French had been when visiting Charlotte in France and my two courses at the Alliance Française in New York.  I didn’t want to embarrass myself.  It’s not that I cared about making mistakes; that would be unavoidable.  But I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to hold a conversation or understand what was being said to me.  I mean, as well as I can read French – and I can read it pretty well, I think – I have a very hard time hearing the language.

Well, I’m please to report that I did quite well, actually.  I had no problem holding a conversation, and I was able to understand her quite well.  Not to say I didn’t make a ton of mistakes, or make long pauses while I searched for a word.  Not to say I didn’t have to ask her to repeat things from time to time or occasionally ask what a word meant.  But the fact is, we chatted together in French for a solid 45+ minutes.  I ain’t gonna lie, I was pretty pleased with myself.

Then we switched to English and did that for another 45+ minutes.  And you know what?  Her English was also full of mistakes.  But she expressed herself just fine.  So I don’t actually think it’s a stretch to say we’re more or less at the same level with each other’s language.  Which is really nice.  Because I know what it feels like when your partner is great at English and you suck at German or French.  But when you’re at the same place, it takes away a lot of the pressure.

Two other funny things from this I want to mention.  With German speakers, when I need a word, I’m very used to asking for the English.  For example, “Wie sagt man rude” – how do you say “rude?”  But here, when either of us needed a word, we’d turn to the German.  “Comment on dit einladen?” for example; How do you say “invite.”  Of course, the French word for “invite” is “inviter.”  And she did the same.  But the funny thing was, if I didn’t know a French word, or she didn’t know an English one, and we’d ask in German how to say it, and it always turned out to be the same word in English or French, like invite/inviter.

The other funny thing was – OK, I don’t know if it’s funny, ὠϲ ἔποϲ εἱπεῖν.  But when we were speaking French, she was totally at ease, totally herself, confident, in command.  And the moment we switched to English, her entire demeanor changed.  She became a bit shy, and her body language was much less confident.  She got better as we went along.  But there was this instantaneous change, where she almost became a different person.  It was fascinating to watch.  But it also made me think, what must I have looked like?  Who was I when I was struggling along in French?  Who did I become when we switched to English?  And who were we both when we were speaking German?  “Fascinating,” he said, raising a Spokean eyebrow.  All told, the plan is to meet up again next Monday.  Which I’m quite happy about.  It’s nice to have some actual French in my life.

So much for that.  But speaking of Potsdamer Platz, the Sunday before last, I went to go see Rogue One with my old CELTA mate Paul and his partner Lars, of whom I’d heard much but never actually met.  Rogue One.  Star Wars.  Gah!  So much to say!  Look, Star Wars was my absolute favorite movie growing up.  I still adore it.  But the prequels took a lot of the wind out of my sails.  And Episode VII was so disappointing that I’d resolved to just be done with the new movies and hereafter only ever watch the original three.

But Paul asked me if I wanted to go see Rogue One in IMAX 3D, and well, did I really have a good reason not to?  And oh my gawd you guys, I fucking loved it!  Star Wars is back, bitches!  I mean, I loved everything about it.  The characters, the story, the darkness.  And I know not everybody feels this way, but holy shit did I love the CG Peter Cushing Grand Moff Tarkin!  I mean, out of all of Star Wars, he is hands down one of the best characters they ever had.  And I loved seeing him again.  And, for me, he was spot-fucking-on.  Also, after watching three seasons of Hannibal,8 I now officially adore Mads Mikkelson.9  And he killed it!

And look, it’s not like everything was perfect.  For instance, why does Vader live in Mordor?  By which I mean, a) why did they poach the Mordor aesthetic but also b) why would a guy whose physical deformities result from being dropped into a volcano wish to live in a volcanic hellscape?  And it also left me feeling like, “Hang on, what exactly is Vader’s job anyway?”  Like, how do they justify this guy’s salary in the Imperial ledger?  And even if he doesn’t take a salary per se, what’s the line item on his Tower of Mordor or his Bacta tank?  And where does he fit in the Imperial org-chart?  Also, for that matter, what’s a Moff, much less a Grand Moff?  And are there other Grand Moffs?  And what’s Tarkin’s backstory anyway?  I’m sure it’s hella interesting.  I’d much rather watch that movie than The Han Solo Story: The Great Disney Moneygrab, tbh.

But all that is secondary.  The movie was so much FUN.  Which episodes I-III, VII definitely were not.  It captured the feel of the original SW.  Even if there was no Screen Crawl.  Even if the music wasn’t John Williams.  It felt right.  And oh my god, you guys, who came up with the idea of the Force Monks?  That was fucking brilliant.  They were fucking brilliant.

And they got the aesthetics right.  Everything looked like it should have.  Everything sounded like it should have.  And yet – apart from the Force homeworld of “Jeddah” – all the easter-eggy references where there, but never too on the nose.  None of this JJ Abrams fanboy shit.  This movie really brought me back to my childhood and my deep-down love for Star Wars.

One last thing about the movie I want to mention, and it’s another thing I know not everybody agrees with me on.  But I have to say, that scene where Vader just demolished everybody in his path was…do we even have words for how badass-amazing this was?  I could have untied my shoelaces with my bottom teeth, so wide open was my jaw during this scene.

I spoke to my brother about this, and he wasn’t feeling it.  He was all, “I dunno, man, it seemed kinda out of character for him.  We never saw Vader move like that.  And he shouldn’t need to.  It was almost like the stupid shit they did with Yoda in the prequels (which I agree was travestic, btw).”  And look, those aren’t unfair points.  And maybe I just wanted to justify it because I loved it so much.  But my attitude was this.

Vader needed to get those plans back, by any means necessary.  If that meant busting out every last one of his Force powers and going balls-out, so be it.  The reason we never saw it before is because Vader never needed to move like that before.  This was the most extenuating of circumstances.  “But in Ep.IV,” he said, “he had the stormtroopers board the ship first and do the dirty work.  He had the stormtroopers search for the plans.”  True, but at that point, they had the ship in their hold.  It wasn’t going anywhere.10  Whereas here, he had to get those plans before the Corellian Corvette could escape.  And we could go on.  But my point is, I thought that scene was incredible, and watching Darth Vader go medieval was breathtaking.

One thing I do regret, in hindsight, is that we didn’t get any Vader/Tarkin interactions in this movie.  I didn’t notice it at the time.  But of course I had to talk to Dale about the movie after the fact, because Dale is the biggest Star Wars fan I know.  And he pointed out that one thing which worked so well in the original film was the way in which Tarkin and Vader humanized each other with their banter.  And he’s right.  I can’t help but feel like that was a missed opportunity in Rogue One.  But that’s as may be.  When all is said and done, I adored this movie.  It made me love Star Wars again.

I honestly don’t know if I’ll bother with the other movies that are to come.  I really don’t hold out much hope for Episodes VIII & IX.  And the Han Solo movie does feel like little more than a moneygrab.  But I do know this.  I will watch Rogue One over and over.  And I’ll watch it together with the originals.  Where it belongs.

Welp, that’s all for now.
זיי געסונט

  1. Oh yeah, I have health insurance now.  And if they gut Obama care, I may be forced to stay here.  Forever. []
  2. That’d be the Roman Emperor/Philosopher King Marcus Aurelius, who wrote a journal that we call “Meditations” but which he simply called “τῶν εἰϲ ἑαυτόν” or “To Himself.”  Anyway, it’s essentially a tract of Stoic philosophy, which among other things, has been known to lie at the bedsides of some of our best presidents. []
  3. In the course of an Ancient History class, actually.  And credit where credit is due, Professor Hunt probably did more than anybody else to point me on my current path, not that he’d know.  In fact, I don’t think he’d remember me, even if I won a Nobel prize.  But he was certainly one of the most influential teachers I’ve ever had. []
  4. Despite being a Roman emperor, he wrote this work in Greek, which for the Romans was the language of learning, philosophy and scholarship.  As it well fucking ought to be.  And probably would be, if not for a) The Catholic Church and b) the fact that it’s a far sight harder than Latin. []
  5. There was this phenomenon in Rome where it was very common to have Greek slaves.  But the Greek slaves could well be more educated than their masters.  And in the case of Epictetus, they could be full-on philosophers. []
  6. Jacob Stern, rockin’ it old school! []
  7. Two semicola in the same sentence?  That can’t be good form.  And yet… []
  8. Have you watched it?  No?  Go watch it!  Now! []
  9. Forget Anthony Hopkins, this man is fucking Hannibal.  (Clearly “fucking” is adverbial, modifying Hannibal and not joined with “is” which would be a very strange present progressive.  Hashtag sorry I’m an English teacher now. []
  10. Though obviously he never considered the escape pods, which I mean, yeah, that’s a yuuuge oversight from a guy who just moments ago said “tear this ship apart.”  But I’m sure the officer who decided not to fire on the escape pod got a nice choking for his non-efforts.  Anyway. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
31 December, 2016
New Year’s Edition

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions.  Maybe because I know I’m not the sort of person to keep them.  Or maybe because, when I look at my life, I don’t see anything I wish to drastically change overnight.  Or maybe I’m just lazy.  Who knows?  That said, I do have some goals for the coming year, things I wish to accomplish.  So in the interest of accountability, I’m going to set them down here.  If I fail to achieve them, you’re welcome to come find me this time next year and say, “Good job, asshole.”

The first goal is one I mentioned many times before.  When the Jewish new year rolls around in September, I’d like to have my Hebrew up to a level where I can keep up with the weekly Torah readings.  I’d like to make it through all five books, on schedule.  The good news is, I’m ahead of schedule.  I’ve been hitting the books pretty hard of late, and I now see no reason why I shouldn’t finish my course book by March or April.

Of course, this won’t make me a Hebrew scholar by any means.  But it should give me all the necessary tools to work through the Torah well enough to know what’s going on.  And part of me imagines that this will become for me like Homer.1  Something that I read over and over for the rest of my life.

Which isn’t to say I’m finding “religion” (so to speak) in my Hebrew studies.  Far from it.  Indeed, all the things that turned me off to the religious side of Judaism when I was in Hebrew school still piss me off.  The blind devotion to a god.  The fact that that god generally seems to be lacking in self confidence and also kind of a dick.  The whole “chosen people” shtick.

On the other hand, it’s such a part of my heritage.  And it’s so much a part of western culture.  And the fact that the ambiguities of the text – and of the language itself – bear reading and re-reading.  In a very strange and unexpected way, I can see reading Torah as being a part of my life going forward.

In the meantime, however, I still need to finish my “first year Hebrew.”  And as I said, that should happen around springtime.  So what to do between that and Rosh HaShanah?  Well, to that end, my dear Aunt Cookie has promised to give me the chumash that Uncle Art once gave to her.  So I’m thinking I may take a crack at the Book of Esther to keep my skills up.  After all, the Purim story is a good yarn, no?

The next goal is to get back to Greek.  Before I left, my Homeric reading group had relaunched, albeit without the eminent Daitz.  It was the highlight of any given week.  But since I got here – and partly since I have nobody to read with – I’ve really done precious little.  And frankly, that’s unacceptable.

So in the new year, I’ve got to get back to Homer.  I’ve got to get back to reading a little bit each week.  But I’ve also got to make an effort to expand my Greek horizons.  Since I finished grad school, the only Greek I’ve really read has been Homer.  Which, one the one hand, I mean, if you can only read one thing, it should be The Blind Bard.  But on the other hand, who says I can only read one thing?

Last year I got back to Herodotus for a bit, and a few years ago I re-read Oedipus Tyrannus.  With respect to the latter, my original plan was to start with Oedipus (which I’d already read in grad school) and then proceed to the rest of the cycle – Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone.  But I got sidetracked “live tweeting” the first play and never got beyond it; though that was an admittedly fun project.

Oh, and there was the time me and my old friend Sam tried doing up a modern translation of Euripides’ Helen.  But Sam started a new life as a real-estate broker and the project subsequently died.  I never finished reading the play.  But being that one of the books I inherited from Daitz was his very own hand-annotated edition of the Helen, I will surely one day return to it.

But back to broadening my horizons.  One of the casualties of a virtually entirely Homer based reading diet is that my vocabulary has dwindled.  And my ability to read different styles has atrophied.  I didn’t spend all those years2 to become a Homer-only reading dilettante.  I did all that to become a Greek reading dilettante.  So in addition to getting back to The Poet, I also need to start back up with some prose and/or tragedy.  The obvious starting point is Herodotus; nearest in vocabulary to Homer and more or less straightforward in style.  I have goals beyond that, to be sure.  But that’s enough to start.

And then there’s a French translation project I’ve had on the back burner for a few years now.  During the back end of 2013 and the front end of 2104, I wrote something like a book.  Or rather, a series of loosely connected stories.  One of those stories takes place in France.  So I’d really like to try my hand translating that into French, in the style and language of Bedier’s rendition of Tristan et Iseult.  Whatever I come up with is sure to be chock-full of errors.  To that end, I’ve discussed (many times) with Charlotte enlisting her help with the project.  But I’d very much like to at least knock together a first draft on my own.

It will no doubt be a long and tedious project.  So long, in fact, that I don’t set for myself the goal of finishing it next year.  Simply getting started and making good progress will be enough.  But I really don’t know what I’m in for.  It may be over-ambitious.  My French is certainly good enough to read Jules Verne on the subway.  But writing in French, c’est une autre chose entièrement.  That said, I think there’s no better way to improve one’s skills at a language than to become proficient in the writing of it; short of teaching it anyway,3 which I’m clearly not qualified to do.

Finally – lest I set too many goals – is my Federalist project.  This is something that’s been kicking around in my brain for I don’t even know how long.  By way of preamble, the Federalist papers were a series of essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay (though mostly H&M) to the state of New York in an effort to persuade them to ratify the new constitution.  To this day, they remain some of the most in depth writings by our founders giving us an insight as to how they viewed the new document and what sort of country we would have.

Every student at least learns about the Federalist papers in social studies.  But few, if any, of us have ever read any of them in full, much less the whole body of work.  Every now and then, one of them comes up in the news.  Most recently, Federalist 68, which is about the electoral college.  But even then, we only get cherry picked passages that suit the purpose of whatever news organization we subscribe to.

Anyway,4 my idea for this “Federalist project” is to read through them, one by one.  And then to do a blog post on each of them.  Some kind of “in depth” reading and reaction; how I understand it in a historical as well as a modern context.  It’s not the sort of thing I expect many people to be interested in, to be sure.  But it’s still something I’d like to do.  And I’m not sure when I can start.  But if I can get it started sometime in 2017 I’ll be happy.  And even if I do one a month, or even one every two months, it will be worthwhile.  It will take years to complete, no doubt.  But what’s the rush.5  Anyway, add it to the list of sacred texts – Homer, Torah – that I would like to constantly be in the background of my life.

Right, so those are the goals I’m setting for the new year.  Read Hebrew.  Read Greek.  Write French.  Study the Federalist.  That should keep me plenty busy.  Oh, and while not a goal per se, I assume I’ll do another year of blogging about the Yankees.  At some point I’ll have to sit down and talk about this with Nate – my partner in crime when it comes to sports blogging – but we had such a good time of it last season, I see no reason not to do it again.

And then of course, there’s Berlin; and in a narrower sense, Köpenick.  I spoke about this in my last post, so need to dive deep here.  But obviously I intend to do a good bit of exploring this year; do a good bit of getting to know this place that is for now my home.  And with that, obviously, I include improving my German.  I don’t file these under goals, so much as necessities.  But I suppose they fit with the nature of this post.

So much for goals.  And the nature of this post.  There’s one other thing I want to talk about before I end, however, and it’s got nothing to do with goals for the New Year.  Rather, it’s about Hebrew.6

One of the things that I like about my course book is that the exercises in the accompanying workbook are passages taken directly from biblical texts.  In other words, they don’t make up lower level “fake” Hebrew; they give you the real thing.  Anyway, up til now, it’s all been stuff that has no special meaning to me.  A bunch of stuff from Genesis and Exodus, plus as many ways as you can think of to say “God’s kind of a big deal.”  But today, I came across something unexpected, something I didn’t just know, but knew what it sounded like; something I could sing the melody to.  It’s the prayer they sing when they take the Torah scrolls out of the ark:

כי מציונ תצא תורה ודבר–יחוח מירושלם

And now, I’ll transliterate it, because I think anybody who spent more than a few boring Saturday mornings in Schul will recognize it instantly.

Kee mitziyon taytzey torah, u-divar adonayh meerushilayim.

Apparently it’s from the the book of Isiah, 2:3.  Like you, I suspect, I had no idea where it came from, much less what it means.  But unlike most of the prayers we’re forced to recite during Shabbat services, at least this one has some context.  The sound of these words, and the melody that goes with them is synonymous with opening the ark.  As opposed to the other stuff, when you hear this, you know what’s about to happen.

And it sticks with me, not because of the words, but because of the melody.  It’s so solemn, so haunting.  The music sets it apart.  The music tells you, “Hey, wake up asshole,7 this is a big deal now.”  And don’t get me wrong.  I’m not a fan of the ceremony.  I never liked the part where you’re supposed to touch your siddur to the scroll and then kiss it.  That sort of reverence for anything of any kind strikes me as over the top.  But the music gets you.  Or it gets me, anyway.

But it also gets to the heart of one of my major problems with my Jewish education, and one I discussed many times with one of my colleagues during my time working for a Jewish school last year.8  Namely that they teach you to learn this shit by rote, but nobody ever bothers to tell you what the words mean.

So anyway, I come across these words in my workbook, and as part of a longer passage mind you.  And if it were9 anything else, I’d simply file it under the “God is kind of a big deal” heading.  But it’s not anything else.  It’s these words I’ve been hearing my whole life, this lingering melody that pulls the whole congregation together for the big moment.

I should pause for a second and explain what I mean by “pulls the congregation together.”  One of the things I admire about a Jewish service is the, well, democratic, nature of it.  I’ll see if I can get this into words.  You see, you’ve got the Rabbi, who leads the whole spiel.  But he mostly just lets you know what bit you’re up to.  Then it’s largely up to you to do the praying on your own.  So you look around, and you see people – let’s be honest, mostly the olds – swaying and rocking (davening) at their own pace, doing their own thing.  For the most part, it’s a rather private affair; just one that you have to do with other people.  There are only a handful of prayers/songs that we all do out loud and together.  But for the most part, if you’re serious – and I clearly was/am not – you hide out under your talis and do your own thing.  This is what I mean by democratic.

Anyway, this opening the ark, this is something that’s done together.  So it’s a kind of a big deal.  And at the risk of being repetitive, it has context.  Unlike Aleynu or Ashrei, for example, you know what this is about, even if you don’t understand the words.  But now, finally, I do.  And in a way, it’s a bit of a let down.  All it means is, “For the law (or Torah) shall go forth from [Mt.] Zion, and the word of God [shall go forth] from Jerusalem.”  Like I said, file it under “God is kind of a big deal.”  So in that sense, it’s kind of a disappointment.

And yet, it hit me pretty hard.  It was a kind of “holy shit” moment, no pun intended.  This thing I’d been hearing forever, this melody that I kinda love, I finally know what it means!  Ironically, then, the meaning itself doesn’t really matter so much.  It’s more that the veil has been lifted.  The secret has been discovered.  It was a powerful moment, to read those words, and to understand them.  Not religiously, maybe not even spiritually.  Or maybe spiritually, I don’t know.  All I can say is, I caught some feels from it.

There’s one other thing from Shul, one other prayer, that has context, even when you don’t know what the words mean.  Though in this case, it’s not because of the music, but rather the lack thereof.  I’m talking, of course, about the kaddish, the prayer for the dead.  And for this, I still don’t know what the words mean.  But it’s solemn, and you know what’s going on when it happens.  But in contrast to the last bit, which everybody is supposed to sing, the kaddish is said only by those grieving for someone they lost in the last 30 days/11 months and then again on the yearly anniversary.

In other words, it takes something that, in mind, is very private, and makes it very very public.  Which, if you want to be optimistic, is a rather beautiful thing.  It’s a way of saying the whole community is here for you in your time of suffering.  And indeed, the only word that the rest of the congregation will say is “amen.”10

Which is the reason I bring it up.  My uncle Michael, my dad’s brother, recently lost his seven year battle with cancer.11  Until now, I’ve avoided talking about this here.  I’ve wanted to keep it private.  But I know that anybody who reads this is here for me, so it’s in the spirit of the kaddish that I make it public.  Though I won’t go into much details now.  But I will say that it has been difficult for me to be away during that time.  My last memory of him is when the whole family Skyped in from Rosh HaShanah at my brother’s house.  I was in Saxony at the time, with Charlotte.  I got to have a little chat with everybody, but I’ll always remember it because it was the last time I spoke with Michael.  And he looked pretty good at the time; obviously he was doing well enough to travel out to the Island from BK.

I remember chatting with Charlotte that night about why I’ve always loved family gatherings with my dad’s side.  It’s always been an informal affair; even if it was more formal when I was kid.  But formality, for this clan, simply meant sitting at the same table and punning.  But there was no dressing up, nothing fancy.  People did what they wanted, hung out with who they wanted.12  One of my fondest memories is when the guitar-minded people would peel off to a different area and just play.  This was usually me, my brother, Michael and my other uncle Richard.  Maybe my dad would pop in, maybe a cousin or two.  For a few years, me and Richard were working on some duets.

But I loved this, because it was a very free and easygoing time.  You’d sit and listen to somebody play, then they’d pass the guitar to the next person.  Somebody would always compliment somebody else’s playing, but not because you were supposed to.  You’d only offer a compliment if you had actual admiration for a certain skill, or for a way they handled a certain piece.  But there’s certain music I’ll always associate with those gatherings.  The Canarios.  Sor’s variations.  Richard always plays in the traditional classical style, with one foot elevated.  But Michael didn’t do that.  He always played like a folk player, with the guitar just resting across his leg.  It’s funny.  I’d forgotten about that til just now.

There’s going to be a memorial service next weekend.  I won’t be there.  Which I hate.  But my mother has been on me to write something for the service.  And honestly, I don’t know where to start or what to say.  And I think that’s the reason I’ve written this last bit.  As a way to get some ideas down, to point me in a direction.  Because I want to say something.  Our family has had to deal with too many of these.  There aren’t enough of us left, and I need to find a way to be a part of this family.  It was important before.  It’s more important now.

But who the hell wants to end on a down note?  My boss at one of my language schools – my first boss, actually; the first guy to give me a shot in this town – gave me a €50 euro “Christmas” bonus.  He’s Jewish, actually.  I don’t know if he knows I’m Jewish though.  I’d like him to know that, but I don’t know how to bring that up in a not-awkward way.  But that’s beside the point.  He gave me a very nice bonus.  And so I decided to use it for what it was, a holiday gift.

So first, I bought myself a new pipe, which I’m very happy with.  And then today, I bought a “Heisenberg” hat.13  I tried on a black one in the store and posted it to Instagram asking for feedback.  I was worried it looked too…Hasidic.  Or alternatively, ex-clown-turned-depression-era-hobo.  Anyway, Dale – who can always be counted on for these sorts of things – suggested I go for “charcoal” instead of black.  I put “charcoal” in quotes, because that was his word, whereas I would have simply said “grey.”  But that’s why you can count on Dale for these sorts of things.  In the event, though, they only had black, so it was a moot point.

Anyway, I went back to the store today and not only did they suddenly14 have one in grey/charcoal, but they’d also marked it down.  So that’s what I bought.  And I love it.  It’s very me.  Or at least, that’s what Instagram had to say about the black one.15  But I do think it’s me.  And being grey/charcoal, it has the advantage of being rather less Hasidic; even if also a touch less Heisenberg-y.  Still though, I can rock it.  So if nothing else, I’ll enter 2017 looking rather distinguished.  I think.

זיי געסוט
Please.

  1. On more which later. []
  2. And all that money. []
  3. It’s amazing how much I’m learning about the nuts and bolts of English by teaching it. []
  4. My dear dear friend Ashley recently pointed out to me that I may overuse this word.  I’ll accept that, with the caveat that it’s part of my “style.” []
  5. He says, assuming our country will survive a Trump administration. []
  6. I know what you’re thinking.  “Oy vey.” []
  7. Because obviously you were nodding off. []
  8. These were always interesting discussions, and ones which I valued very much.  My colleague – friend even – grew up in an orthodox home; had a Hebrew name; wore a kippah.  He very clearly, and happily, identified as Jewish.  But for all his orthodoxness, his education mirrored mine, at least in this respect: He also couldn’t read Hebrew; he was also frustrated that this shit was forced on him in a rote fashion without sufficient explanation of the text.  And we griped often that this was not a way to make people love their faith. []
  9. Subjunctive, bitches!  Sorry, I just taught this. []
  10. Which is a Hebrew word, btw, for all you goyim who are always saying it. []
  11. #fuckcancer []
  12. At this last gathering, my brother sent me a picture of the whole family together in his living room.  For most families, this would mean a picture of everybody together, smiling.  And they are smiling.  But they’re also all flipping me the bird.  Which is the most Starr family thing ever.  It’s one of my favorite pictures that I have. []
  13. cf. Breaking Bad. []
  14. Or did I not notice it before? []
  15. Though I did receive the following comments: “Bonus points for looking like Rabbi Starr”; “You look like Krusty’s dad”; “Oy…where’s your peyos! Im gonna plotz.” []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
28 December, 2016
Holiday Edition

So, Christmas in Berlin.  I didn’t have a plan.  Or, if I did, my plan was to go see Star Wars and eat Chinese food.  In other words, try for a “Jewish Christmas.”  But then I got invited to a party on Friday night.  Cindy, Joschka’s girlfriend, was having a Christmas dinner party and was kind enough to ask me along.  Obviously, I wasn’t about to turn that down.

Getting there was easy enough.  Her apartment is also in the East, so I was actually able to just ride the tram there, which was quite nice.  I have very mixed feelings about the tram, the Straßenbahn.  On the one hand, I find it charming and romantic.  It’s delightfully oldschool.  It even makes me think of Brooklyn-that-was, though not any Brooklyn that I ever knew.  After all, the baseball team was originally called the Trolley Dodgers; only later shortened to Dodgers.1  Also, the Straßenbahn is primarily associated with East Berlin.  I don’t have the full history, but I gather it’s something along the lines of: The Soviets left antiquated infrastructure in place, while in the West, most of the tracks were torn up in the name of “progress.”  That’s my impression anyway.

On the other hand, however, the cars are very narrow and were clearly designed for a smaller population.  So if you try using it during the day, it can be pretty hellish.  And obviously, depending on the track situation,2 they can suffer the caprices of traffic; though not as bad as buses.  Though once, I did get stuck behind a parked garbage truck and we just sat for like 10 minutes.

Putting aside the philosophical pros & cons, though, it’s very often the best way to get around in this part of town.  While I do live fairly close to an S-Bahn station, everything out here sort of points towards “the city” so that there’s not a great subway network connecting the various ‘hoods in Köpenick.  In any case, I took the tram to the party.  And since it was late enough, it was a perfectly lovely ride.

The party itself was lovely.  Cindy has got a really nice apartment way up on the 19th floor with a lovely view of the surrounding area.  OK, there’s not much to see, but it’s still nice, all the way up there.  The flat itself is also just really nice – the furniture, the kitchen, the bookshelves, etc.  Great place to spend an evening, even if it wasn’t Christmas dinner.

But it was Christmas dinner, and of course, my first in Germany.  The meal, I’m told, was traditional German.  Roast duck, Rotkohl (red cabbage) and either Knödeln or Klöße.  The latter are a sort of boiled potato dumpling, though they’re not stuffed with anything; just a sort of solid – albeit soft and fluffy – potato.  Maybe like a Matzah ball made out of potato.  As for the name, I guess either is valid, though the first is easier for me to pronounce.  The point is, the food was fantastic.  And there was so much wine.

The group consisted of myself, Joschka and Cindy, plus two of her friends; a gay Italian fellow whose German was impressively good and lady who, if I had to guess, was probably 8-10 years older than me.  Both of them studied Medieval lit, so we hit it off right away.  Plenty to talk about, which besides just being nice, was also a relief.  You know, since the whole night was in German.    

As far as that goes, I did pretty well.  I was able to function, participate and even land a few jokes for the majority of the evening.  Only towards the very end, when things got drunkenly slurred and slangy was I forced to kind of check out.  But by that point, I’d already taken a little nap, so that if I was going to be judged for anything, it probably wasn’t going to be my language skills.  But more on that later.

I wish I could say that my (comparative) language success at the party was some kind of positive progress indicator of my overall functionality with the language.  And, I guess, on some level it is.  I don’t think I’d have fared so well a few months ago.  But it also doesn’t seem to translate to my wider life here.

What I mean is, everybody at the party was of the highly educated variety.  They all speak a rather clear and grammatically “correct” version of the language.  Which is not something you can say about most people, in any language.  It’s certainly not how I speak English, even though I’m perfectly capable of code-switching into that register.

The point is, being able to pull off a passing show at the party with that crowd didn’t stop me from having a misunderstanding at the grocery store cash register today.  It doesn’t make it any easier to understand one of my roommates, who, by the way is a truly lovely chap, but whose speech is often hard for me to discern.

But whatever, the party was a great time.  I landed a few jokes, which was great.  And by landed, I mean, got them off in time, and they were funny enough to make people laugh.  No small feat, as far as I’m concerned.  And I had my nap.

My friends at home know that it’s basically impossible for me to go to a party and not fall asleep somewhere at some point.  It’s just a fact of life.  Part of that has to do with people always starting their parties so damn early.  If they would just open the doors at 11:30, I’d have no problem.  I’d have napped at home.  But no, people always seem to want to start around six or seven.

This, by the way, is one of the things I love about Jared’s dad.  For years now, when there would be a party at their place, we’d eat well, drink better and invariably Paul would find some comfy chair, I’d find another, and we’d both be out.  The other side of this coin, btw, is that I wake up refreshed and full of energy so that I’m always the last to leave; probably staying later than my hosts would like.

And so it was at this party.  Last to leave, I mean.  I don’t think I overstayed.  In fact, I’m fairly confident that I made a good (enough) impression on my hostess.  Which, of course, matters to me on two levels.  One, I’m there as Joschka’s friend – even though she invited me3 – so I don’t want to reflect poorly on him.  But also, these are new people.  I don’t have all that many friends here.  You want to make a good impression.

In the end, nobody seemed bothered by my nap.  And I tried to explain that falling asleep was the best compliment I could give, because it meant I felt comfortable enough to do so.  And I did mean that.  I’ve been here just shy of six months, and it’s the first time I’ve fallen asleep in a social setting; the first time I’ve felt comfortable enough to do so.  That might be a strange thing for most people to say, but it’s about the most Dave thing that there is, party-wise.

The next day, I woke up with a mild hangover and a craving for noodle soup.  Though to be fair, I crave noodle soup most days.  Only problem, fucking everything in my neighborhood was closed.  So I wound up taking the tram (that tram again!) two neighborhoods over to Friedrichshagen.  I’d never been there before, and it was absolutely adorable.  Although I was at first annoyed that my regular spot was closed, in the end I was glad I got to see a new part of town.

Once there, the place which Yelp told me was open, was also closed.  Fortunately, there was a Japanese place next door that was still open.  So I had my lunch there.  They didn’t have noodle soup though, so I had to “settle” for miso soup and chicken teriyaki, which seemed to have a tempura like shell.  It was really good.  And the salad that came with it was also delicious.  I kinda loved this little spot and I had it all to myself.  I think I’ll have to go back there.

In the end, that wound up being my “Chinese” “Jewish Christmas” dinner.  I didn’t make it out of the house on Christmas day, but that’s OK.  I’m pretty happy with the way it all worked out.  And as a side note, this is one of the joys of finally having an unlimited metro card.  In the past, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere requiring a train ride, as it would have meant adding an extra fiver onto the cost of my meal.  But now?  Let’s go!

I had this whole plan for Monday, the 26th.  My roommates were all gone for the holidays.  So I was going to go shopping and pick up a bunch of stuff for the house.  Soap, sponges, laundry detergent, toilet paper.  You know, show I know how to be a decent roommate.  I also wanted to go food shopping.  For some reason4 I really wanted to braise up some big ol’ chicken legs.

Only problem, fucking everything – everything – was closed.  On Monday, the 26th.  Come on people, work with me here.  Yelp told me there was a supermarket open several tram stops away, so I figured I might as well go.  Of course they were closed.  But it wasn’t a wasted trip.

One of the benefits of all these incidental tram rides is that they’re letting me discover more of the area.  And this area is beautiful.  Apparently it’s known as the Green Lungs of Berlin; maybe I mentioned that before.  Anyway, there’s water and parks and old buildings and it’s all very very pretty.  I really can’t wait for the weather to turn so I can start enjoying all this part of the city has to offer.

The funny thing is, in many ways, it doesn’t really feel like Berlin out here.  Or, at least, not the things people think of when they think of Berlin.  It’s got a very outer-borough feel to it.  I’ve already begun referring to central Berlin as “the city.”  As in, “I’m going to go into the city this weekend,” or “I work in the city.”  Certainly it’s not the arrangement I had in mind when I decided to try my luck in this town.

And indeed, most people seem to find it a bit odd.  When I tell people where I live, their first reaction is, invariably, “Shit, that’s far!”  And their first question is, invariably, “Why?”  Followed by some sort of “How long do you plan on staying there?”  And they’re right, in a sense.  It is fucking far.  It basically takes an hour to get anywhere; though if transfers weren’t such a hassle, you could shave anywhere from 10-20 minutes, depending on where you’re headed.

As to the “why” question, well, the truth is, this is the first place – after months of searching – that actually offered to take me.  I simply didn’t want to wait any longer.  Though, if I’m honest, I didn’t quite realize how far it was at the time.

But the truth is, I really like it here.  I like my roommates.  I love my room.  And I can’t wait to live in this area when the Spring rolls around.  Really, though, it goes deeper than that.  My last few years in New York, I was getting very tired of the city, of the bullshit.  And yes, part of that was just the fucking cost of it; nobody can afford to live in New York.  That, at least, is not a problem here.

But I’d begun to tire of the whole “city” thing.  And yet, suburbs clearly are not for me.  I can’t live somewhere where you need to get in the car just to get a beer or a snack.  And all of a sudden, this seems like the best of both worlds.  It’s still a part of the “city,” but it’s also outside it.  Yet it’s not a suburb; there’s great mass transit.  Maybe one day I’ll want to end up in the country, in New England maybe.  Or maybe I’ll want to end up somewhere in Brooklyn, somewhere far enough from, but also close enough to, the city.  For now, at least, Köpenick fits the bill pretty well.  Strange as it may seem to my friends who live “in the city.”

I love my fucking enameled cast-iron braising pot.  I fucking love it.  Last week I cooked dinner for the roommates.  I did up a salad with a honey-mustard/cider vinegar dressing, which was alright, but probably too hard on the mustard.  The highlight, though, was a braised pork loin with apples and leeks (and of course my chicken stock!).  Made in my braising pan, obvi.  Came out great, and we had a very nice night, just chilling in the Wohnküche and drinking wine.

And today, I finally got around to making those braised chicken legs.  A few weeks ago, before I bought the pan, I had roasted some chicken legs.  And they tasted pretty darn good, if I do say so meself.  But the thing I’ve always hated about roasted chicken legs is that they’re simply too much work.  You’re always fighting to get the meat off the bones.  These braised ones though, man, they were great.  I did the classic mirepoix of course, and did the braise with a mix of my stock and white wine.  The flavor was a treat.  But more than that, the meat just slid off the bone.  And all I could think was, “Enameled cast-iron braising pan, I love you so much.”  It’s a deep dark blue.  It’s beautiful.  I love it.  Maybe Imma name it.

Oh, one last Christmas story.  Every year since 2010, I’ve spent Christmas with my dear friend Flare (aka Jen), whom I’ve known since high school, and her family.  Howsoever it started, it’s by now become an actual tradition.  And it was strange not to be there this year.  But thanks to the magic of Internet, she FaceTimed me in yesterday.  Man, it was great to see her.  I got to see her mom, with whom I got closer this past year as she had me over doing work around her house when I was unemployed.  I also got to see Hassel (aka Jess), who went to school with Flare and whom I’ve also known forever.  But even the rest of the family jumped on the FaceTime and were genuinely happy to see me and have a quick hello.  It was a really warm feeling.

It was also great just to catch up.  After the round of hellos and well-wishes, Flare and Hassel brought the phone into the kitchen, and we just chatted for a while.  I love those people; have loved them for more than half my life already.  It was so great to see them.  And it was nice to be a part of Christmas with them – to which I’ve actually become quite accustomed – even if only for a few minutes.  I dunno, it’s one things when your friends feel like family.  But when your friends’ families make you feel like family too, that’s pretty damn special.

Well, I’m sure there’s more to say.  I haven’t really spoken about my job at all.  And there was that bombing thing.  But I’m feeling pretty writer’s-blocked lately; the words are fighting me.  It’s easier just to work through my Hebrew course book and watch Deep Space Nine.5  So I think I’ll stop here and pick up again another time.  Til then…

זיי געסונט

  1. OK, originally called the Brooklyn Superbas or whatever, but whatever. []
  2. In some places, the tracks are separated from the street/traffic; in other places, they’re very much in the middle of it. []
  3. I don’t know, but my guess is she asked him to ask me along.  I don’t think he asked her if he could bring me, in other words. []
  4. OK, I needed more bones for stock. []
  5. #BestOfTheTreks []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
21 December, 2016

I have to admit, for the longest time, it’s felt like two steps forward, one step back over here.  Oh, you found a job?  Great, go a get a visa before you can work.  Oh, you got your visa?  Great, go get your Anmeldung before you can get a bank account.  Oh, you got your bank account?  Great, wait for you debit card to come in the mail before you can buy a yearly metro ticket.  Oh, you got your debit card?  Well, now you get to wait until your PIN comes in the mail before you can use it.  Wait, can’t I just go to the bank and ask for a new PIN?  Hahaha, fuck you, no.

Today, I’m happy to say it’s finally…fucking finally…coming together.  Today was a hugely productive day.  Maybe not so much in real terms, but certainly in terms of starting to feel like a regular joe who just lives in Berlin with no headaches beyond the usual.  Funnily enough, the day started somewhat inauspiciously.

I was scheduled to have a full day one-to-one lesson with an advanced level student.  It’s only fair to say, I quite like working with this guy.  He’s very chatty, very smart, very curious.  We work 1:1 from 9-2 – which is a long time to spend with one student – but honestly, it really flies by.  Anyway, last week, he mentioned that he would probably take Tuesday or Wednesday off to spend time with his family.1  I was secretly hoping he’d take Wednesday off, so I wouldn’t lose the day’s pay.  But obviously, I couldn’t say that to him; that’d be an unfair pressure to put on the guy.

Anyway, as I didn’t hear from him or the school, I naturally assumed he’d decided on Wednesday.  And then he never showed up.  So around 9:45, I called the school and asked what was up.  And the answer was glorious.  He’d actually cancelled today’s lesson, but since nobody told me, I would get the full day’s pay.  Cha-ching. Best of both worlds, honestly.

Which apparently is what we all – freelance English teachers, I mean – think.  So I popped into the office to drop off the attendance sheet, and there was K sitting at S’s desk.  Or, rather, sitting at K’s desk.  S is the guy that hired me, on the recommendation of my CELTA mates Paul and Alice.  Only, S’s last day was Friday.  Which I only learned on Thursday.  Quite a shock, considering S was my contact for literally everything at this job.  Which was great, because S is an absolutely lovely guy.  And also gay.  Which meant we could have slightly flirtatious but entirely non-threatening banter.  But now K is the new S.  And K is tall and British and super cute.  Which means we can’t have any kind of flirtatious banter because now that’s inappropes and also Trump has officially ruined innocuous, flirtatious office banter for everybody.

Oh, but the point was, I dropped off the attendance card, and K asked how I was doing.  So I told her about the cancellation and tried to sound professionally and appropriately disappointed about it.  To which she literally responded, “Cha-ching.”  To which I responded in the millennial, uptalk-high-pitch, ironic-whisper-voice, “yeeaah, I didn’t want to saaaaay that, buuuut…”  To which she responded, “We all think it.”  To which I responded…literally nothing.  Because Trump has ruined innocuous, flirtatious office banter for literally everybody.

Anyway, don’t get me wrong.  I like my job, and I like working with this student.  But if you give me the choice of a day off with full day’s pay or a full day’s work with a full day’s pay, well, which one do you think I’m going to choose?  And this, friends, was my gateway to a fully productive day.  Because, see, if I knew in advance of the cancellation, I’d have slept late and had a lazy day.

But here I was, up, awake and out.  Time to get shit done.  First thing I did was go to the train station and – finally – buy my yearly train ticket.  I guess in February I’m going to get some official ticket in the mail.  But on the spot, the gave me a paper ticket that’s good until the end of January.  But what a fucking win.  No more buying single ride tickets like a schnook tourist.  Now I can ride the metro as much as I damn well please without a second thought.  Berliner achievement unlocked.  I’m becoming more and more a jelly donut by the day.2

Next thing, I went to TK Max3 and bought an enameled cast-iron braising pan I’ve had my eye on.  €40.  Not exactly le crueset, but my my visa is only for two years.  I expect it will last that long.  When I go back to the states, my roommates can gladly have it.  So now, finally, I can braise things again.  Man, I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed braising things.

Speaking of things I’ve been desperately missing, cooking-wise, I also made chicken stock today.  First time I’ve made stock since I’ve been here.4  This whole time I’ve been here, I’ve been working in other people’s kitchens.  And granted, Anja and Mischa have a very nice and well stocked kitchen.  But it wasn’t my home.  I wasn’t keeping bags of bones and veggie scraps in the freezer, much less Tupperwares of stock in the fridge.

But now – finally – I have my own kitchen; where I can work, where I can do my thing.  And it just felt right to be in the kitchen, a pot of stock brewing on the stove.  It felt right walking in there and just smelling that chicken soup smell.  I don’t know if that counts as Berliner achievement unlocked, but it certainly counts as feel like your own fucking person again achievement unlocked.5

Speaking of things that just smell right, also my room.  Owing to the balcony/abundance of windows/cool roommates, I can once again smoke my pipe in my room.  This, of course, is a huge win.  As many of you know, I work much better when I have my pipe.  So whether it’s doing a lesson plan, or a blog post, or studying Hebrew, or whatever, I can do this now in the comfort of my own room; and I can have my pipe.  There aren’t words for what a difference this makes.

But beyond that, as I said, it’s also about the smell.  You know how any time you go to somebody’s house, their house has its own unique smell?  Well my room on Orchard Street had its own smell, and that smell was “pipe.”  The very last time Niki was over, she remarked that she was going to miss the smell of my room there.  And all the memories that went with it, good and bad.  It’s that Proustian thing, right?

Anyway, my room here now has that pipe smell to it.  And it’s so comforting.  When I open the door and step inside, it finally feels like I’m home.  It’s more than two years since I’ve had that.  I’ve missed it.  Let me tell you, it goes such a long way towards making me feel like I have a place here, like I belong, like my days of Airbnb’ing it, of being a guest, a visitor, are over.

Which isn’t to say that my room is finished.  It’s not.  I still need to buy some candle holders, so I can – finally – get back to working by candle light instead of overhead bulb.  I still need to get some art for my walls.  (I’m thinking a big NYC Subway map would be nice).  So it’s still a work in progress.  But I can report that it definitely – finally – does feel a bit like home.

But back to my productive day.  I had some old stale bits of baguette laying around, so while the stock was going, I chopped them up and made croutons.6  And of course I crushed up all the leftover “sawdust” and tiny bits and made breadcrumbs.  Yes, I’m making my mark on this kitchen, and I’m quite pleased about it.

At this point, I probably would have taken a nap.  But I didn’t want to go to sleep with the stock going, so I used the time to do some Hebrew work.  I haven’t touched it since I left A&M’s, back in the beginning of November; and honestly, I don’t think I did much, if any, the last month or so that I was there.  But in the last week or so, I’ve gotten back to work, which has been really nice.

Since I started working, and with all the moving around, most of my downtime has been spent in front of the Netflix.  But now that I’m starting to – finally – feel settled again, I’ve been hitting the books.  It’s refreshing.  Besides the fact that it simply feels good to be getting work done, it also just helps me feel like myself.  And it’s got me back on track for my goal of being able to keep up with the weekly Torah readings when the New Year starts in September.

That said, Hebrew is fucking weird.  I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but the Hellenist in me finds Hebrew to be frustratingly imprecise.  I mean, I was looking at sentence today that was just, I mean, I had no idea who the fucking subject was.  In English, it would have been easy.  It’s your standard, “Hear, O Israel, blah blah blah.”  But Hebrew doesn’t have a vocative case, word order can be iffy and there’s no punctuation.  In לושן קדש you have:

שמע ישראל אתה היום את הירדן

But when you break it down word for word, you’re stuck with something like: Hear(!7).Israel.you.is/are-crossing.the-day.the-Jordan.

So does it mean, “Listen, you (as subject), Israel, are crossing the Jordan today”?  Does it mean, “Listen, you (as object), Israel (as subject of indirect discourse) is crossing the Jordan today”?  Does it mean something else?  And this whole “the day” meaning “today” isn’t even that bad.  I recently came across something along the lines of, “the wife asked her husband everyday…”  But “every day” was simply יום יום – literally, “day day.”  So, “the wife asked her husband day day if he would…”  And OK, it doesn’t require a great deal of imagination to figure out that that means something like “everyday” or “from day to day” or even more metaphorically just “continually” or even almost “naggingly.”  But all you get is “day day.”  That’s an example of what I mean by imprecise.

Anyway, you do enough of it and you start to get a feel for it.  You start to get a feel for the way the language likes to express itself.  But it’s also a dead language, right?  I mean, modern native-speaking Israelis can’t naturally read this shit.8  So your “feel” can only go so far.

Here’s another example, from Deuteronomy, 29:4.9  I’ll spare you the Hebrew, but it’s usually translated something like, “And God did not give you you a mind to know, or eyes to see or ears to hear.”  Only that word “mind” is לב ,which your textbook glossary tells you means “heart.”  So does this mean the Israelites considered the heart to be the seat of knowledge (instead of the head)?  Can we handle this word the same way we handle θῦμοϲ in Greek?  And should we simply translate it as “heart”?  After all, we have no problem saying in English, albeit metaphorically, “I know this in my heart.”10  And anyway, if God is so smart, and if he invented human fucking beings already, shouldn’t he know that we know things with our brains and not our hearts?  Like, if he’s such a big deal, can we not reasonably expect to him to have even a rudimentary grasp of the functions of the nervous and cardio-vascular systems?  Or maybe Moses, when he was writing this shit down, had to filter it all through what he learned of human anatomy from the Egyptian priests and their mummification rituals and procedures.  Atheists have it easy, I tellya.

Anwyay, I guess that more or less covers my productive day.  Otherwise, things are going well here at home.  I’m getting on well with the roommates.  We mostly speak German, which I need.  Though one of the guys is quite good at English, so that’s a bit of a safety net.  Tonight we just hung out in the Wohnküche for a bit, chatting and drinking tea, which was just lovely.  Wohnküche, by the way, is a word we don’t have in English.  It literally means “livingkitchen.”  Like, when your kitchen is also your living room.  Our apartment is a three-bedroom plus a bathroom and kitchen.  But the kitchen, being a full-sized room, is also the living room.  A little couch, a small table and a comfy chair.  Yeah, Wohnküche.

I’ll do a full rundown of the roomies another time, but suffice it to say, they’re lovely folks and everybody gets on quite well.  I’m to cook dinner for everybody tomorrow.  No pressure.  But I’m kinda looking forward to it.

On Saturday I went to one of the Weihnachtsmarkts – Christmas markets – with Joschka and his girlfriend.  It was my first Weihnachtsmarkt, which I only mention because apparently that’s a big deal here.  They have one in just about every neighborhood.11  It was a very nice evening.  At the market, we drank a bunch of Glühwein, which is just mulled wine, but I guess it’s a special thing for Christmas here.  After that, we went to a cocktail bar, on more which later.

Joschka’s girlfriend – Cindy12 – is very nice.  She also speaks very little English, though she says she understands it well enough.  But this meant we spent the whole night speaking German.  Which was honestly great.  I almost feel like I passed some kind of (admittedly low-level) test.  Of course it helps that both Joschka and Cindy speak a very clear German; or at least they did with me.  But I got through it with very little hand-holding and I do feel I came across rather functionally; though by no means anywhere near fluently.  But it was certainly the most German I think I’ve ever spoken with Joschka, and the least dependent on him I’ve felt, language-wise.  So it was a good confidence booster.  To a point.  I’m still hopeless the minute people get slangy or start running their words together.  But it’s progress.

Anyway, it was a fun night.  The cocktail place was cool, though expensive, which always seems to happen with this guy.  But here’s a nice change.  I can – finally – afford to do this now.  Not every week, mind you.  But to have one pricey outing a month, let’s say, I can handle it.  A big reason is, I restructured my student loans.

For the longest, I’ve been paying a very high monthly rate, with the goal of paying them off as soon – and with as little interest – as possible.  But last month, I finally gave that up.  Freelance English teaching pays bupkis.  And also, it’s freelance, so it’s hard to plan more than a month or so in advance.  So I applied for an income-based repayment schedule.  I didn’t ask for a number, I just asked for income-based, and they gave me a number.  So instead of paying nearly $500 a month, I’m now paying less than $50.  And rent is so cheap here.  So for the first time since I quit the paralegal job, I finally have some walking-around money.  To put it another way, if I still have to watch every dollar, at least I don’t have to watch every penny.  That’s a huge amount of stress that’s just vanished into thin air.

Also at the cocktail bar, we met a very nice Norwegian couple, who I wound up drunkenly chatting with for rather a while.  Lovely people, but damn, those fucking Scandinavians and their perfect fucking English.  I don’t know how they do it.  Good times though.

I’m sure I have more to say, but I’m tired13 and I have to get up early for another all day 1:1 tomorrow.  How early?  6:50 I guess.  I do like this neighborhood, Köpenick.  And I’ll say more about it next time.  But for now, all I can say is, it takes fucking forever to get anywhere from here.  I mean, this is some serious outer-fucking-borough shit right here.  But that’s for another day.  Until then…

זיי געסונט

 

  1. I only have him on Tuesdays and Thursdays. []
  2. Ich bin ein Berliner.  #lookitup []
  3. It’s TJ Max.  But for some reason, in Germany, it’s TK Max. []
  4. Not counting the time I showed Joschka how to make stock over at his place.  But I’m not counting that, because a) it was his stock and b) I didn’t make it in my own kitchen. []
  5. Which is rather long for a hashtag, innit? []
  6. Not my best work, but I’m still getting the hang of these weird European electric, Celsius ovens. []
  7. This, at least, you can identify as a second person singular Qal imperative construct.  Or, at least, you can if your text has vowels, which my textbook does but the Torah does not.  So if you’re reading from The Book, it’s even more complicatd. []
  8. I’ve asked. []
  9. Though 29:3 in Hebrew; I don’t yet know why there’s this discrepancy in verse numbering. []
  10. Though this leaves you translating the first element of the tricolon metaphorically and the next two literally, which, I don’t mind telling you, I don’t like. []
  11. The one we went to was not the one which was attacked last night. []
  12. Hi, Mom! []
  13. Did I mention no nap today? []