An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
29 August, 2016

Sometimes, shit just falls in your lap, you know?  Like last year, when I got back from Berlin and had no idea what I would do next.  Out of nowhere, my friend tells me her momz needs some help around the house, as she’s remodeling.  $100 a day to go hang out with my friend’s mom and move boxes around.  And I love my friend’s mom.  I mean, they’ve had me over as a guest for their family’s Christmas dinner every year since 2010.  Anyway, this work essentially paid for my Great Western Roadtrip which I otherwise would probably not have been able to afford.

Only, when I got back, I still had no idea what I was going to do.  Enter Keith, who was then principal at a Yeshiva for special needs kids in the Five Towns.  He said they had an opening and thought I’d be a good fit.  So he set up an interview with one of the APs and I landed the job on the spot. ((I later asked him how much he had to do with my actual hiring.  Almost nothing, was the answer.  Obviously he had recommended me, but really it was up to the AP.  “I’m your friend, I can’t hire you.  Conflict of interest.”  So while he got me in the door, apparently I scored the gig on my own merits.  Which is what you want, obviously.))  At the interview, I told the woman I’d probably be leaving around February to go back to Berlin.  She said that was fine.  Obviously, I finished out the year.  I mean, I got attached to my kids.  Added bonus to that, I keep on getting paid through the summer.  So now I’m in Berlin, and so far, I’ve still had a steady paycheck.

Only, what to do now that I’m here?  Back around the turn of the New Year, Charlotte encouraged me to sign up to this free website called Superprof.  Basically, you post a profile as a teacher and wait for potential students to contact you.  I had precisely zero requests until around the beginning of July.  Then, I get a message from a student in Paris.  She’s a very nice girl from Sicily and is currently studying in France.  But she’s going to do a semester (or a year?) in California, so she wants to improve her conversational skills.

The point is, I get paid 20€ an hour to Skype with her and basically just chat.  All I have to do is correct her grammar, occasionally explain some constructions and teach her a bit of slang. ((For example, “You’re going to California, so you need to learn the word hella.”))  We get on quite well, meeting once or twice a week for an hour each time.  And just like that, I’ve got some walking around money.

Meanwhile, while I was in Italy, I was contacted by a French bloke on behalf of a language school dans l’Hexagone.  He was looking for an English teacher to do remote 1-to-1 one lessons, primarily focusing on “business English.” ((Business English, btw, was more or less the focus of my CELTA training, as that what’s the school where I took the class focuses on.))  Anyway, we had a couple of Skype interviews, at the conclusion of which he basically offered me a job.  That was at the beginning of August.  However, I didn’t want to put any eggs in that basket yet, at least not until I had a formal contract in front of me.  He said this would happen probably around the end of August/beginning of September.  Nothing to do but wait.

Well, here we are at the end of August.  And this week, it’s all finally begun.  To start, he set me up with three students.  I had my first lesson with two of them this week and I’ll start with the other on Tuesday.  The engagement with each student is for ten hours, 20€/hour. ((20€/hour was the price I had listed on my Superprof page.  However, I’m stuck wondering if I could have got more, because he agreed to that rate quite readily.))  To put it another way, that’s 600€ in a city where you can easily find rent for under 400€.  And that’s only three students.  Last we spoke, he said he’s got perhaps another ten lined up for me.  Again, I’ll count those chickens when the contracts hatch, but it’s encouraging anyway.

As for the work itself, well, it’s almost laughably easy.  At least so far.  I asked my first two students what their objectives were and they basically said it comes down to wanting to improve their conversation skills for work; to feel more confident on conference calls, giving and/or listening to presentations.  So basically, we just chat on the phone ((Or Whatsapp or Skype or Viber or whatever.)) for 30-60 minutes and I correct their grammar, fix their idioms and pronunciation, teach them some new words.  All from the comfort of home.

To be fair, there’s a bit more work on the back-end.  I need to find study materials for them in between lessons, and I need to do some admin stuff vis-à-vis attendance and progress.  But this is hardly intensive labor.  And maybe I just got lucky with my first two students, but they’re both lovely guys, easy to talk to, and – at first impression, anyway – motivated and interested.  And really, this is the sort of job I can do from anywhere, so long as there’s a decent internet or phone connection.  In other words, I could theoretically fuck off to Prague for a week and not miss a day’s work.  Though obviously I’d want to be quite a bit more established with the company before I start doing that sort of thing.

So this gig has a lot of advantages.  But there is a slight tradeoff.  On the one hand, it’s very nice to work 1-to-1.  You can more easily build relationships, you can tailor each session to the particular student’s needs.  On the other hand, you lose the performance aspect of running a class.  And I know from experience, I can have a lot of fun running a class.  I mean, that’s where you get to do comedy, you know?  Still though, this is a pretty solid gig.

The only question is, is it enough to keep me here?  The company is, after all, based in France, not Germany.  Now, the original plan was to get a work permit that would allow me stay in Berlin indefinitely.  And that may still be possible, if any of the language schools I applied to decide to get back to me.  But there are, apparently, two other options.  The first is a one-off six-month permit that allows me to stay here and look for work. ((Though not actually to work.  But presumably this is good enough to get a job offer, and once you do, I gather it’s no big deal to change over to the work permit.))  The other is, from what I can tell, a sort of residency permit that’s not based around having a German job.  If I understand aright – always a question with German bureaucracy – you simply need to have either enough money in the bank or enough money coming in.  I’m hoping that if I can show a dozen or so contracts, plus maybe a letter from the company saying they intend to give me more, that this will be enough for either the six-monther or a general residency thing.  My 90 days are up at the end of September so I’ll have to make an appointment with the relevant Amt in the next 7-10 days.  I’m trying to be optimistic without getting my hopes up.  But at least it’s feeling more attainable than at any point prior to now.  But enough of this.  I’m superstitious enough to worry about jinxing it all right here and now.

Not that I don’t love being here, but things have been a little off lately.  I mean, I’ve been a little off lately.  I was trying to remember earlier what they told us before we went away for our semester in London.  They warned us that a depression or a homesickness or something of the sort was likely to set in around…well, this is the part I can’t remember.  Was it two months?  Whatever it was, in London, it happened right on cue.  For all of us.  And then it passed.

But that’s kind of where I’m at now.  Not depressed.  Not homesick.  But something.  Some kind of malaise.  I’m not getting out of the house as much as I should.  I’m not making enough of an effort to see the few friends I have.  I stay up very late studying or writing, so that my day rarely ever gets going before noon.  My German, which for quite a while felt like it was improving, now seems to be stagnating.

Maybe it’s the two-month blues.  Maybe it’s because I have no real routine or anything to keep me properly busy.  Maybe that’s all about to change as I start getting busy with work.  To combat this, I try to walk wherever I need to go.  The other day, I finally bought new sneakers.  So rather than take a 15-minute train ride to Alexanderplatz – which people here apparently simply call ‘Alex’ but which I like to call ‘Aliplatz’ – I opted for the hour+ walk.  It’s good exercise and its good podcast time, if nothing else.  But more than anything, it gets me out of the house for a few hours.

Today I went for a four hour walk.  This time, the goal was Treptower park, which is just lovely.  This journey took me to some places I’d not yet seen, including a section of the Berlin Wall which is now a canvass for all sorts of public art/graffiti.  I wasn’t able to determine, however, if this was actually a bit of in situ Mauer, or if it had been reassembled there for the purposes of being an art exhibit.  I shall have to do some research on this.

Either way, this kind of stuff is what makes Berlin so great.  Along the way, I passed by or through several parks.  I came across at least three live music acts.  And everywhere, you just see people out enjoying life and the city.  It’s got a great spirit, this place.

Anja, too, has been helpful.  She’s always pointing me to events via facebook, telling me about historical sights I should see or just slipping the odd flyer under my door for something she thinks I’ll dig.  I just haven’t done a great job (yet) of following up on this stuff.  And Mischa, bless him, is always leaving food for me on my shelf in the fridge.

I should say that I’ll be here again until the end of the month.  My original intention was to find a new place for September.  I mean, if I’m to stay here beyond 90 days, I really need to get my own place.  I can’t just stay on as a Gast indefinitely.  But really, it’s quite expensive here.  Which is not to say it’s overpriced.  In fact, I think it’s a great value, given the quality of the apartment, the people, all the extra perks and so on.  It’s just not really in my price range.  It’s fine when I’m on vacation, but if I’m going to live here as an employed person, I shall have to live within my means.

Be that as it may, I wasn’t able to find anything satisfactory for September.  And they, originally, weren’t going to rent the room, as they are going to Turkey for part of the month.  But when I asked if the room was free, they thought about it and said I was welcome to stay, because they know me by now.  Which, I mean, is just so solid.  So here I am for another month, and perfectly happy about it.

Oh, remember when I said I wasn’t homesick?  I mean, that’s essentially true.  But lately I’ve found myself dying for some properly good Chinese food.  I’ve yet to find a real-deal hand-pulled noodle soup, never mind soup dumplings.  Mind you, I had the same problem on Long Island.  It’s all “white people Chinese food.”  I mean, where’s the tripe?  Where’s the tendon?  Where are the ducks hanging in the window?  Not to say it doesn’t exist here, just that I haven’t found It yet.  Does Berlin have an actual Chinatown?  If so, can somebody please tell me where it is?  And also pizza.  My kingdom for a New York slice.  So maybe I’m just a touch homesick.

Going to sleep has been a different kind of adventure.  For most of my life, I’d always fallen asleep with music on.  But a few years ago, after all the Star Treks had come onto Netflix, I started falling asleep to that.  It was basically a kind of music.  I mean, I’d seen them all so many times, I basically knew them by heart.  I wouldn’t even watch them.  I’d just listen, and usually I’d be asleep before the opening credits kicked in.

But when I got here, I discovered that Star Trek wasn’t on German Netflix.  So I need to find something else.  This usually took the form of some David Attenborough narrated nature documentary.  That worked well enough.  Or there was baseball.  Yankee games start at 1am here, which is fine if I’m in bed before four.  I can always fall asleep to baseball.

Even nicer, though, are the nights when I do stay up til four.  I mean, sure I miss the Yanks, but the West Coast games are just getting underway.  This means the Dodgers.  Which means Vin Scully.  And there may not be anything better on the radio than Vin Scully calling a Dodgers game.  So that’s a guaranteed win, if I’m up late enough.

And now, finally, Star Trek is here.  For now, it’s just the original series.  But I believe the rest will soon follow.  Reason being, it seems Netflix will carry the new Trek series over here, when it debuts next year.  So I guess they got their hands on the old stuff to drum up interest.  Whatever the case, I can finally put some Star Trek on at bedtime, and this makes me quite happy indeed.

Well, that’s it for now, I suppose.  The next couple of weeks should prove quite interesting, and quite determinative as well.  And that’s not even talking about whatever travels I’m able to make in the month of September.  Surely there will be a few.  But that’s for another day.  Until then.

זיי געסונט

A brief note on the ol’ sei gesund.  I finally asked a real German person if this is a thing that anybody says in German.  She said no, you’re more likely to hear bleib gesund.  Different verb, same essential meaning.  So although the Yiddish version would be instantly understandable to any German, it would nevertheless sound a bit off.  But obviously Imma keep saying it.  Incidentally, I mentioned my blog to this same person, and she said, “Oh, what’s it called, Ein Ami in Deutschland?”  Heh, close enough.

Silly Fairy Tale, Part the Second

Silly Fairy Tale
Part the Second

(Part the First can be read here)

 The Story Continued…


Needless to say, the sassy black lady wasn’t about to teach Sylvana how to read, no matter how much she pitied the poor child.  I mean, ain’t nobody got time for that!  And so the girl left the Royal Department of Human Resources, full of hope and full of despair.  Full of hope, because she now clutched in her hand a list of names and addresses for all the woodsmen in the king’s service.  Full of despair, because she didn’t know how to read it.  Not knowing what else to do, she went back to the castle, whereupon did she bound right up the spiral staircase, run into her room, slam the door and crawl into bed.  And she started to sob.

This being a castle, however, and she being a pre-princess, there was no such thing as privacy.  Indeed, her very favorite lady-in-waiting was already in her room.  Waiting, obviously.  And when she saw the girl in such a state, she approached her and asked what was wrong.  The girl then told her the whole story.  When she’d finished, the lady-in-waiting smiled sweetly at her and patted her cheek.

“Be of good cheer, child,” she said.  “Though the hour seemeth dark, there is yet hope.  For I am a woman of letters, old crone though I be.  And t’would be my honor to serve thee in thy quest for thy father.  Ye have but to put yon parchment in my grasp, and lo, I shall be thy guide.  I shall be as thine eyes.  Such is my love for thee.”

“Oh my god!” cried the girl, throwing herself face-down into her pillow.  “You know I don’t understand you when you talk like that.  God, speak English!”  Whereupon did the lady-in-waiting roll her eyes.  Twice.  Then she facepalmed herself.

“I said,” she said, “don’t get down, girlfriend.  I know shit be lookin’ bad right now, but it’s all’a work out.  I mean, I know how to read, hun.  Even though I’m old.  And I’m tryin’a say, I’d be happy to help you look for your pops.  All you gotta do is gimme that there list, and I’ll take care of the rest.  You dig?”

“I dig,” said the girl, drying her eyes.  Then she threw her arms around the lady-in-waiting’s neck.  “I love you Brangien (that was her name), you’re the best!”  And Brangien hugged her back.  “But wait,” said the girl.  “You really know how to read?  I mean, you’re…a woman.”

“Of course I do, sweety.  Back in my country, I have a – “

“Lemme guess.  A PhD, right?  Apparently that’s a thing now.”

Anyway, they soon got started.  Led by the noble Brangien, Sylvana visited one woodsman after another.  But none of them were her father.  Wouldn’t you know it, but they even visited her father’s flat.  Only he wasn’t home at the time.  Madison answered the door.  He was very surprised to see Brangien.  Sylvana was even more surprised when the two of them kissed each other passionately on the lips.

“You guys know each other?” asked the girl, clearly astonished.

“Oh yes,” said Madison.  “We were at school together back in the old country.  We even dated for a bit.”

“What happened?” asked the girl.

“The war,” they said together.

“We were both taken prisoners,” said Madison.  “And we never saw each other again after that.”  Then he looked at his old flame.  “I had no idea you were here,” he said softly.

“I had no idea you were still alive,” she whispered.

“Well, here we all are now, happy together again,” said the girl impatiently.  “But more important, I’m looking for my father.  Have you seen him?  He’s a woodsman in the king’s service.”

“I see,” said Madison.  “And what’s his name.”

“Oh my god, why do people keep asking me that?!”  The girl was clearly annoyed.  “I’ve only ever called him father.  I don’t know his name.”

“Well, what does he look like?”

“I don’t know.  He looks like a man.  With a beard.  He has big strong forearms, stout legs and a barrel chest.  He usually likes to wear plaid flannel and a knit cap.”

“So, you’re saying he looks like a woodsman.”

“I guess, yeah, I mean, like, I don’t know what other woodsmen look like.  I just know that’s what he looks like.”

“Right.”  Madison pondered this for a moment.  “Well, look.  My roommate is a woodsman, and he fits the description.  But he’s never said anything about having a daughter.  Not that we talk much.  Honestly, he’s kind of a xenophobe.  I mean, I don’t hold it against up.  He lived his whole life in the woods, probably.  Never met anybody from anywhere else.  I suppose it’s only natural.  Point is, we don’t talk much.  So maybe he has a daughter, but what do I know?”

“So there’s nothing to indicate that he has an important person in his life?” pressed Brangien.

“Now that you mention it, he keeps this little square wooden frame next to his bed.  I once asked him what the deal with that was.  He said it was a ‘picture frame,’ whatever that is.  But I think it’s meant to symbolize somebody that matters a great deal to him.”

“Like a daughter?” asked Brangien.

“Yeah, maybe.  Or a wife.  Or a mother.  Or a dog.  I’m not really a fan of hypotheticals.”

“Please mister,” whined Sylvana.  “This is important!  Like, très important.”  And somewhere, the sassy black lady was all, Oh, you know how to use très in a sentence, but you didn’t get my clou joke?  Shiiiit.

“Tell you what, child,” said Madison.  “Why don’t you come back tomorrow around supper-time and you can meet my roommate.  Maybe he’s your daddy, maybe not.  But there’s only one way to find out.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!” cried the girl.  And she gave him a big hug.  Then she turned to her lady-in-waiting.  “OK, Brangie, let’s go.”

“Actually,” she said slowly, “I think I’m gonna stay for a bit.  Madison and I have…a lot of catching up to do.”

“Oh, you mean like telling stories about all that’s happened in your lives since you were separated by the war?  Sure, sure.  I get it.”

“Umm, yeeeahhh, that,” said Brangien and Madison together.

Whereupon did Sylvana take her leave and headed back to the castle.  And she strolled the city streets, she wondered to herself, what kind of hipster name is Madison?

Anyway, to make a long story short – or rather, to cut out the bits that arent’ really relevant – the next night, Sylvana returned to chez Madison around supper time.  The woodsman wasn’t home yet, so she just sat on the couch and drank tea with upwardly mobile emancipated slave.  At last, the doorknob turned, the door opened, and there stood the woodsman.  He looked at the girl.  She looked at him.

“Hey, chief,” said Madison.  “Homegirl here thinks she might be – “

“My daughter!”  And they raced to each other and were soon locked in a warm embrace.  And when they had broken off their hug, the woodsman looked once more upon his daughter’s face.  “What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Looking for you, silly!”

“No, I mean, what are you doing in the city?  Do you live here now?”

“Oh my god, I didn’t even tell you!  I’m engaged to the prince!” she squeeed.

“What wonderful news!” exclaimed the woodsman.

“Say what?” blurted Madison.

“Yeah,” she started.  “He, like, just found me in the woods one day and wanted to marry me!  Can you imagine?  Marry a prince?  So obvi, I was all, ‘yes,’ and shit.  And here I am!”

“Ain’t that some shit,” muttered Madison to himself.  “Here I am, with a PhD in advanced mathematics, and I’m bustin’ my ass, just to get emancipated.  Ten years working in the Royal Office of Accounting, and all I got to show for it is this lousy flat and a xenophobic roommate.  Meanwhile, homegirl here get’s to marry into royalty, because why?  Because she’s pretty?  Homegirl can’t even read.  Ain’t that some shit.”  But the girl and the woodsman heard none of this.

“Daddy, I’m going to bring you to live with me in the castle.  It’s going to be uh-mazing!”

And that’s just what she did.  I suppose I could end the story here.  I suppose I could just say that she married the prince, her dad moved into the castle and they all lived happily ever after.  Which is basically – Spoiler Alert – what happened.  But why not tell the story the right way?

OK, so the woodsman moved into the castle.  And for two months, father and daughter were delighted to be together again.  I mean, it was a little awkward.  After all, there was indeed a rather high degree of class-bias at court.  Everybody sort of looked down on the woodsman, with his beard and his flannel.  And while there was plenty of talk behind his back, everybody saw how happy the soon-to-be princess was and so they basically just put up with him.

Well, after two months, it was time for the wedding.  There was, of course, a royal wedding planner.  She took care of renting the hall.  Or rather, reserving the hall.  The hall, of course, belonged to the king, so they didn’t have to rent it so much as just raise taxes for a few weeks to cover expenses.  Obviously not a big hit with the locals, but it’s not like they could vote the king out.  So what can you do?

Anyway, the royal wedding planner had hired (read: conscripted) a decorator for the event.  Only, nobody was really happy with him.  I mean, he was very good.  But his style was rather rococo.  A bit over the top.  It didn’t really fit with the hippy girl from the woods.  That’s when the woodsman had an idea.

“You know,” he said at a wedding planning meeting, to the prince, and his daughter and the wedding planner, “my old roommate is actually a great decorator.  He was always doing the loveliest things with flowers and drapes and…doilies?  Is doilies a word?  Why don’t we see if he can help us?  I’m sure he’d do a great job.”

“Hmm, yes” said the wedding planner, trying to be polite.  “But this is a royal wedding.  Isn’t your ex-roommate a…slave?”

“An emancipated slave,” said the woodsman proudly.  “And he has a PhD in advanced mathematics.”

“Typical,” said the wedding planner with disgust.  “All these immigrants with their advanced degrees.  How are we citizens supposed to compete for jobs anymore?  And anyway, advanced mathematics is not decorating.”

“I’m telling you he’s good,” insisted the woodsman.

“We want to give him a chance,” added Sylvana.  “Don’t we, honey?” she said, squeezing the prince’s hand.

“Anything for the little lady,” said the prince, displaying no trace of independent thought.  “Make it so.”

“As you wish,” said the wedding planner.

An hour later, the four of them were knocking on Madison’s door.  And they explained their proposition to him.  And when they’d said their piece, he looked confused.

“I mean, I appreciate you guys thinking of me, honestly,” he said.  “But, you know I’m not a decorator.  I’m just gay.”

“You mean…” said the woodsman.

“I like men, yes.”

“But what about Brangien?” asked Sylvana.  “You said you guys used to date.”

“Girl, it’s a spectrum,” answered Madison, waving her off.

“I don’t know about this,” said the royal wedding planner.  “A gay, decorating the royal wedding?”

“I don’t know about this,” echoed the woodsman.  “A gay, decorating my daughter’s wedding?”

“Oh, daddy,” said the girl, gripping her father’s epically massive forearm.  “Don’t be like that.  Madison is allowed to love whoever he wants.  Who are we to judge him?  And anyway, it’s not like he’s a Jew.”

“Jesus Christ,” said Madison, facepalming.

“See?!” exclaimed Sylvana.

“You will, of course, be paid quite handsomely,” said the royal wedding planner.

“Money, I got,” said Madison somewhat indignantly.  “If y’all want me to decorate this shindig, you’re gonna have to do better than just a big fat check.”

“A what?” asked the royal wedding planner.

“Gold coins, whatever.”

“What’s your price?” asked the prince.

“I want a transfer out of the Royal Office of Accounting.  I want a position at the Royal Institute of Mathematics.”

“You want a RIM job?!” asked the prince incredulously.  “You.  An ex-slave.”

“That’s right, and I won’t settle for anything less.

“Oh, let him have it, honey,” pleaded the girl.  “It’ll be so worth it.”

“Very well,” said the prince.  “I will personally see to your RIM job.  On the sole condition that my bride is satisfied with your services.”  Whereupon did Madison extend his hand to the prince.  Whereupon did the prince look skeptically upon the ex-slave-hand before him.  But, after a quick elbow to the ribs from his fiancée, they shook on it.

Well, needless to say, the wedding went off without a hitch.  The decorations were beyond fabulous.  Everybody had a great time.  And when it was all over, the prince took his literally criminally underage bride up to his royal quarters and there did what all medieval princes do with their more-often-than-not criminally underage brides.  It wasn’t long before she got preggers, and the whole kingdom was rejoicing at the news of it.

So now the girl-princess, the royal-by-marriage woodsman and the prince were all living together happily in the castle, enjoying life with their children/grandchildren and basically making a story-book existence of it all.

Not that there weren’t rough patches.  The princess opened up a little menagerie on the castle grounds, where she brought her bear and squirrel friends from the woods to live with her.  And for most of them, this was great.  There was a never ending supply of nuts in the castle, and fresh fish every day.

But one of the squirrels soon became a little too enamored with life at the royal court.  It wasn’t long before he started hanging out with the wrong crowd, spending way too much time with the idle, foppish dilettantes who clung to the king.  And being of the aristocracy, they were very free with spending their fathers’ money.  You know the type.  Anyway, this particular squirrel soon developed a nasty coke habit.  I mean, you think regular squirrels are fast.  You should’ve seen this guy go after a couple of lines.

It got to the point that the princess – to say nothing of the other squirrels – was really starting to worry about him.  But she figured it was his business, and she didn’t want to intrude.  But he made it personal when he stole one of her pearl necklaces and sold it for two ounces of coke and a bag of chestnuts.  The princess, bless her heart, wasn’t so much angry as hurt.

So she, and the other squirrels, staged a little intervention.  And they told him that if he didn’t “straighten up and fly right,” they’d kick him out of the castle and send him back to the woods.  It was hard, at first.  It always is.  But eventually, the squirrel got his shit together, and he’s been clean ever since.

And so that brings us to the end of our story.  The princess and the prince were a happy couple.  The woodsman and the girl were happy to be reunited.  The animals were living it up.  Even the courtiers had begun to accept the woodsman, as he was often carving little trinkets for them.  Oh, and Madison got his job at the Royal Institute of Mathematics.  Not only that, but he and Brangien got back together, only this time, it was in the form of a poly relationship that included the village blacksmith.  As for the sassy black lady, well, the princess never forgot how she’d helped her.  So she saw to it that a proper window was installed in the Royal Department of Human Resources.  To which, SBL said, “Oh, thank you, child.  You’re a sweet thing,” before adding under her breath, “Ex-slave gets a RIM job and all I get is a stupid-ass window.  Shiiit.”

And they all lived happily ever after.

Silly Fairy Tale, Part the First

Silly Fairy Tale
Part the First


            Not wanting to do another actual blog post, and having completed my Hebrew studies for the night, I find myself still wanting to write.  To write something.  And so I am remembered of a game Charlotte and I used to play.  The game goes like this.  Charlotte asks me to tell her a story.  Whereupon do I proceed to invent a fairy tale out of thin air.  What follows is the sort of story which I’d usually make for her.  In fact, I think it’s probably based on one I’ve already told.  But it’s also different.  I made this up, just now.  For fun.  I hope you have as much fun reading it as I did writing it…

The Story So Far…

Once upon a time, there was a woodsman, who lived in…well, he lived in the woods, obviously.  His job, basically, was to chop wood for the king.  You see, the king lived in a big old palace.  And in the winter, it would get very cold inside those drafty stone walls.  So the king always need firewood.  And so it was that he contracted with several of the local woodsmen to provide the royal kindling.

I say “contracted,” but this was really a feudal sort of arrangement.  Because fairy tales almost always take place in feudal times.  And this might sound romantic, because fairy tales are always romantic.  But it was not romantic.  It was a raw deal, not to put too fine a point on it.  See, the woodsman worked the king’s land, but most of his labor-product wound up in the castle.  He had very little left to himself at the end of the day.

And the woodsman was, perhaps, peripherally aware of all this.  But he was not an educated man.  Neither was he a revolutionary.  He was just a guy that chopped wood for a living.  And it wasn’t a very good living.  Still though, at least he had a little cabin in the woods.  So it was better than working in the salt mines.

Of course the salt mines were in Africa.  Salt was brought into the kingdom by Arab traders.  So really, the salt mines were an abstraction.  But there were rumors.  And the rumors made the salt mines sound pretty terrible.  All this to say, the woodsman was not entirely chagrined by his lot in life.

And anyway, he had a daughter.  Now, the woodsman loved his daughter very much.  She was the apple of his eye.  Or, at least, she would have been, if he’d ever seen an apple.  But all fresh fruit went directly to the castle.  So he probably had some other metaphor that he used to describe his daughter.  Something lumberjacky.  But if he did, it does not come down to us.

The point is, he loved his daughter very much.  There was nothing he wouldn’t do to make her happy.  You see, it was just the two of them.  I know what you’re thinking.  The mother died, right?  Maybe even in childbirth?  Because that’s how it goes in fairy tales.  Well, not this time.  This time, the girl’s mother was this weird hippy chick that lived in the woods.  She was really into prancing around the forest naked, but it was all PG because her hair was so long, you couldn’t see anything anyway.

Well, years back, the woodsman and the hippy girl shacked up for a bit.  Neither of them were really happy.  See, she was all “Why do you break your back for The Man, maaaan?”  And he was all, “Why can’t you settle down and get a job?”  So they didn’t really have a lot in common.  It was more just that they were the only two people within miles, and they did what people do in those situations.

It was only a matter of time before the hippy girl got preggers.  But of course, she was all “I refuse to be pigeon-holed by gender stereotypes.  Just because I’m a woman, how come I have to be the mother?”  And he was all, “Ugh, fine, but coat-hangers haven’t even been invented yet, so what do you want to do about it?”  And she was all, “What’s a coat-hanger?”  And he was all, “I literally have no idea.”

Anyway, what happened was, she carried the baby to term.  Somehow, in that age before medicine and real doctors, she even managed to survive childbirth.  But once that baby was out, so was she.  That very night she was splitsville, never to be seen again.  Although even now, there are rumors of a crazy hippy lady dancing naked in those very same woods.  The police even tried to find her a few years back, but all they came up with were a couple of teenagers smoking pot.  But never mind about that.

So she had the baby, and it was a little girl.  And the woodsman couldn’t be happier.  He’d always wanted a daughter, and now he’d got one.  He named her Sylvana because she was a child of the woods.  But she never liked this name, and so she took to calling herself Cinderella.  Unfortunately, she soon received an anachronistic cease-and-desist letter from the not yet incorporated Walt Disney Corporation, whereupon will she have had to let it go.  So she took to calling herself Winter, because she was sad in her heart.  Sad that she would’snt be allowed to go by Cinderella, and also sad because she never knew her mother.  Needless to say, the woodsman thought this was all ridiculous teenage melodrama and so continued to call her Sylvana.

But enough of this.  One day, a knight-errant, on a mission from the king, came to see the woodsman.  “Stout yeoman,” said the knight, “the king requires your services in the castle.  Wherefore must you pack your things and come with me.”

“But what about my daughter?” asked the woodsman.  “Surely I can bring her with me?”

“I’m afraid not,” said the knight.  “Tax revenues this year were pretty low, to be honest, and the king can’t afford to put up whole families.  You’ll have to come alone.”

“Well what am I supposed to do with her, then?” asked the woodsman.

“Not my problem,” said the knight.

And so the woodsman explained the situation to his daughter.  He was worried that she’d start crying, but she actually took it quite well.

“Why are you taking this so well?” he asked.

“Because while you’ve been out chopping wood, father, I’ve been studying.  The squirrels have taught me how to gather nuts.  The bears have taught me how to take apart a deer carcass and how to fish.  And the owls have taught me how to catch mice, though now that I say that last part out loud, it doesn’t sound so useful.”

“And what will you do for clothing?” he pressed.  “You know nothing of tanning leather or weaving wool.  Not there are any sheep in the woods, so I guess that’s a moot point.  Still, though.”

“Who needs clothes?” she guffawed.  “I’m going to be like my mother now.  I’ll dance naked in the woods under the starlight.”

“I never should have told you about that,” said the woodsman, rolling his eyes.

“Honestly, father, I’ll be fine.  Go serve the king.  Make me proud.”  And she smiled the sort of wild-eyed smile her hippy mother used to smile.  Whereupon did the woodsman kiss her tenderly upon the forehead before departing with the knight.

So.  Whose life do you want to hear about first?  The woodsman or the girl?  Let’s do the woodsman.  Right, so the king – or rather the Royal Department of Human Resources – set him up in a small flat.  It wasn’t in the best neighborhood, but at least it was within the city walls.  It was a tiny little two-bedroom, and he shared it with an upwardly mobile emancipated slave, who had been captured during the last war with the neighboring province.  His name was Madison.

“What kind of hipster name is that?” asked the woodsman when he moved in.

“It’s not a hipster name,” said the ex-slave.  “I’ll have you know, James Madison will be the father of the American constitution one day.  It’s a very noble name.”

“Father of the what?”  The woodsman was confused.

“The American constitution.  You know, as in America?  As in, the New World?”

“New World?” asked the woodsman.   “What are you talking about?  There’s just the world.”

“Yeah, here there’s just the world.  But what do you think is on the other side of Ocean?”

“I never thought about it,” said the woodsman slowly.  “I guess I just always assumed that when you get to the end of Ocean, you fall off the edge of the world.”

“You know, in my country, I have a PhD,” said the ex-slave, facepalming himself.

“Why do immigrants always have to say in my country?” retorted the woodsman.

So no, they weren’t off to the best start.  But they figured it out, after a while.  Anyway, the woodsman soon found that his new gig wasn’t so bad after all.  Instead of simply chopping firewood, as he’d done in the forest, he was now apprenticed to the master carpenter.  And soon, he was turning out work of expert craftsmanship.  Indeed, it is said that the king’s very favorite chair was made by the woodsman in those days.

Also, the pay was a little better.  He actually had spending money in his pocket.  He could buy his own bread and cheese and wine now, so he was feeling pretty good.  He could even afford a ticket to the yearly jousting tournament.  And the jousting tournament was the highlight of the year.  Not because of the sport.  No, the woodsman viewed that as barbaric.  But the tournament attracted food vendors from all over the world.  His favorite was the chinaman, who made these things called ‘dumplings.’  They were like pierogies, but more savory.  They were like knishes, but lighter, and also untainted by Jew-hands, polluted with the blood of Christian babies.  Yeah, I know how that sounds.  But fairy tales always take place in the middle ages, and you know what they were like back then.

Anyway, the woodsman was living a pretty good life, there in the city.  Except for one thing.  He missed his daughter.  Terribly.  Every day, he woke up thinking about her and every night, he went to sleep thinking about her.  And she was all he thought about as he toiled away in the carpenter’s shop.  Hell, he even kept an empty picture frame next to his bed.  “As soon as they invent photography,” he’d say to himself, “I’m going to put a picture of her in there.”

But what about the girl herself?  Well, in the beginning, she was pretty happy.  You know how teenage girls are when it comes to their independence.  She’d spend her days gathering nuts with the squirrels or fishing with the bears.  At night, owls would bring her dead mice, but that got old fast.  And in between her hunter-gatherer routine, she’d dance naked in the woods, like nobody was watching.

Only somebody was watching.  Not in a creepy, pervy way, mind you.  More in the, you can’t really ignore the naked girl dancing in the woods kind of way.  But it wasn’t just anybody who was watching her.  It was the king’s son.  The bloody prince, he was.  He was 22 and she was 16.  And by today’s standards, this gets all kinds of wrong in a hurry.  But back then, it was all kosher.  Though they didn’t use the word kosher, because anti-Semitism.  And anyway, she’d grown her hair out, just like her mom, so you couldn’t see anything anyway.

Well, one day, he rides up to her on his white shining horse.  And he gives her the whole fairy tale prince routine. You’ve heard it before.  “You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.  Come live with me in the castle.  Come be my bride.  Yadda yadda.”

And she thought about this offer.  As she saw it, this whole woodsy-hippy thing was getting old.  And winter was coming.  She didn’t know how to chop wood to make a fire.  She didn’t have any clothes.  She’d always supposed she’d just hibernate like her bear friends.  But really, she’d never thought it through.  Anyway, this was a better offer.  Of course, between the age difference and the royal-v-peasant dynamic, it wasn’t really a fair offer.  Not that the prince was some kind of medieval Roger Ailes, of course.  Far from it.  It’s just, well, they weren’t really on level ground.

But this is where she differed from her mother, whom she never knew, but about whom she’d heard an awful lot.  Her mom was the sort of feminist that would reject the proposed arrangement on the grounds that she didn’t need any man to make her happy.  The girl, on the other hand, viewed herself as being rather empowered, and had no qualms about marrying a freaking prince to advance her station in life.

Also, she really missed her father.  Every day, she woke up thinking about him and every night, she went to sleep thinking about him.  She would have kept an empty picture frame next to her bed, but she lacked the perspicacity to envision the invention of photography.  And anyway, she didn’t have the carpentry skills to make a picture frame.  So instead, she’d gotten into the habit of carving the word father into tree trunks.  Only, she didn’t know how to write, so it was always just an odd assemblage of random angular scratch marks.  But it said father to her, and that was all that mattered.

In any event, she agreed to go with the young (albeit older than her) prince, and to be his wife.  Also, she reasoned secretly with herself, if she moved to the castle, she might get to see her father again.  But she didn’t mention this part to the prince, whom she suspected was possessed of a certain degree of class-bias and might frown upon her familial relations.

So they moved into the castle.  And life was, well, it was boring.  It was a whole lot of sitting at court.  She had all these ladies-in-waiting, but all they ever wanted to to do was gossip and bathe her.  And having grown up in the woods, she was not a really a big fan of baths.  The prince, it should be noted, was a perfect gentleman.  He never once laid a hand on her, as they were not yet married.

If anything, he was kind of boring.  He’d read her love poetry or show off for her in archery.  Which sounds nice, except the Prince had this awful lisp, and so she had a helluva time trying not to laugh at his recitations.  And as for archery, well, he was pretty second rate.  What I’m trying to say is, nice guy though he was, the prince was not exactly a winning argument for hereditary monarchy.

Anyway, one day, the prince was out hunting.  By which I mean, the prince was out riding with professional hunters whose job it was to make the prince look like he knew how to hunt.  Never one to waste an opportunity, the girl decided to use this alone-time to try and find her father.  And so it was that she gave her ladies-in-waiting the slip, and made her way to the Royal Department of Human Resources.

“Can I help you?” asked the large, disinterested black lady behind the desk.

“Wait a second,” said the girl, with a hint of confusion.  “Aren’t you a bit early for this trope?”

“Girl, who you callin’ a trope?” said the large black lady sassily.

“I’m sorry,” said the girl hastily.  “I didn’t mean anything by that.”

“Mmmhmm,” hummed the black lady.  “Typical.  White girl walks in here like she own the place, throwin’ around fancy white people words like ‘trope.’  Meanwhile, I’m stuck behind this desk, butsin’ my ass for the man, sunrise to sunset.  Shiiiit.”

“Look, I said I was sorry,” pleaded the girl.  “But, I mean, I am engaged to the prince.”

“Uh-huh, and I’m Malcolm X.”


“Never mind, child.”  And the sassy black lady smiled a half-sweet, half-condescending smile.  “Now what can I do for her royal highness.”

“Well, I’m not a royal highness yet.  We’re only engaged.”  The sassy black lady shook her head.

“Girl, there’s a nail shop down the street.  Go buy a clou.”

“I’m sorry?”  The girl was totally lost.

“Honey, that’s a bilingual pun.  Didn’t they teach you French in fancy white people school?”

“I never went to school,” said the girl, blushing with shame.

“You know, I have a PhD back in my country,” mumbled the sassy black lady.  “Fine, what can I do for you today?”

“I’m looking for my father,” said the girl proudly.  “He’s a woodsman, in the king’s service.”

“Oh, well you’re in luck!  We only have one of those in the whole kingdom!  Why, that must be your father!”

“What a relief!” cried the girl.  “Where can I find him?”

“Honey,” said SBL, shaking her head, “were you born yesterday?”

“I’m sixteen, going on seventeen,” said the girl proudly.  SBL facepalmed.

“Look, child, there’s a great many woodsmen in the king’s service.  If you want me to find your father, you’re gonna have to give me some information.  For starters, what’s his name?”  The girl thought about this for a moment.

Father,” she said confidently.  “His name is father.”

“So lemme get this straight,” moaned SBL.  “You’re looking for a woodsman in the king’s service, by the name of father?”

“That’s right,” said the girl.  “Can you tell me where to find him?”

“Lemme ask you something, child.  You gotta name?”

“Sylvana,” said Sylvana.

“Right.  So, in other words, your name ain’t daughter.  What I’m sayin’ to you is, your father probably has his own name too.  And it probably ain’t father.  You feel me?”

“I haven’t even touched you,” said the girl, slightly horrified.

“It’s a figure of – oh, never mind.”  And the sassy black lady looked out the window.  Or rather, where the window would have been, if there had been a window.  The Royal Department of Human Resources was underfunded, so windows simply weren’t in the budget.

“Look, can you help me or not?” asked the girl, unable to hide her frustration.

“Oh, sure.  Tell you what, how about I just print out a list of all the woodsmen in the king’s service.  And you can just go down the list until you find your daddy.  How does that sound?”

“That would be amazing!” cried the girl.  “Thank you so much!”

“OK, so I’m just gonna ask you to have a seat and wait patiently until they invent moveable type.  I mean, it’s first come-first serve, so you’ll have to wait while we then knock out a couple thousand Gutenberg Bibles.  But you’re next in line after that.  You should have your list in time for the Reformation.”

“But I don’t care about the Reformation, whatever that is – “

“Whatever that will be, you mean – “

“Whatever whatever!” cried the girl.  I just want to find my father.  And as she said this, she slumped down into a chair and started to sob.  This, it seems, melted the sassiness of the token black lady’s heart.  Whereupon did she take pity on the girl.  And so it was that she wrote out, by hand, a list of all the woodsmen in the king’s service.  And when she’d finished, she handed it to the girl.

“Here you go, child,” she said sweetly.  “Now, will there be anything else?”

“Yeah, one thing, actually,” said the girl under a furrowed brow.

“And what’s that?” asked SBL.

“Can you teach me how to read?

“Oh, child.”


End Part I.  Tune in next time for the conclusion of this very silly fairy tale.



An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
23 August, 2016

Having just banged out three (rather long) pieces vis-à-vis my last trip, I suspect it’s probably too soon for another post.  On the other hand, it’s early (12:40am) and I’m bored.  I mean, I just took care of my weekly Yankee post and edited another of my colleague’s posts as well.  More on this in a sec.  That leaves me with a couple of choices for this Monday evening.  I could get back to work on Hebrew, but I’m too tired.  I could read some Homer, but I’m too lazy.  I could do some work related stuff, but I’m too lazy for that as well.  Or I could watch some Netflix.  But I’m not really in the mood to just lay around watching TV.  I want to do something.  I guess I’ll write.

So the Yankee blog.  Earlier this year, in February I think, I was approached about writing a weekly blog on New York’s AL baseball club.  The details are tedious, but suffice it to say, I was recommended by a friend. ((My buddy – and kindred spirit – Nate, from Grad School.))  There was no talk of money.  This was purely a labor of love.  But I looked at it as an opportunity to keep writing, and to write on a subject I don’t normally deal with, however much I may care about it.

Well, here we are at the end of August, and I’ve been churning out one piece a week.  And it’s been a lot of fun.  Somewhere along the line, we joined our fledgling group to an already established site, with an established readership:  Our original group had mixed feelings about this.  Our initial site was our baby, our project.  In joining Page2, we’d be giving up our identity, our independence.  But not, apparently, our autonomy.  We were promised the freedom to continue writing, and that’s exactly what we got.  Zero complaints.

But quite recently, and rather abruptly, the guy who got us all together in the first place, left for greener pastures.  I think.  I don’t actually know the details of why he left.  But leave he did, and that put the rest of us in an interesting spot.  On the baseball side, there were only four of us.  And in truth, I’m delighted with where we’re at.

Somewhere along the line, our Founder established Nate and myself as the baseball editors.  He gave us the freedom, not only to write what we wanted to write, but also to mold our two staff writers as we saw fit.  Nate and I viewed this as a truly exciting opportunity.  After all, we had a shared vision of what our baseball writing was supposed to offer.

The idea was this.  You can go any- and everywhere for baseball coverage.  In other words, you can get stats and recaps and journalistic ((Or journal-esqe)) analysis all over the net.  We realized early on that, if our site was to have any merit, it would have to offer something unique.  But since none of us are accredited journalists or professional statisticians or experienced baseball scouts, the only thing unique we had to offer was our passion as fans.

With this in mind, we cobbled together a framework wherein we and our writers would publish pieces that came straight from the hearts of real fans.  Passion, we told our guys, was the only thing that mattered.  Form and style were up to them.  And so we have one guy who is just plain funny.  I love reading his stuff, even though I disagree with him half the time.  Because he makes me laugh.  And his passion for the game shines through.  You can – and if you’re a baseball fan, should – read his work here.

The other guy is not funny.  He doesn’t write comedy.  He’s totally different than Matt, linked above.  But he writes with stoical passion for the game and with an eye to detail.  When he first started, his writing was not particularly polished.  But he eagerly absorbed all the constructive criticisms that Nate and I sent his way, and he’s really grown as a writer.  It’s been lovely to watch, and I genuinely enjoy reading his work now.  You can too, here.

Nate, my co-editor and fellow CUNY Grad Center alumnus, ostensibly writes about the Mets.  But as their season has trended downwards, he’s branched out into writing about broader baseball themes.  He did a multi-part series asking whether home-field advantage makes a difference in the World Series.  He’s now running a multi-part series wherein he picks a “face of the franchise” player for each team.  His work shows a marked fondness for clever wordplay and, again, a passion for the game.  But perhaps the thing I enjoy most about his work, is that whenever I read one of his pieces, I know I’m reading Nate.  People talk about writers having a “voice.”  Nate has this.  And it’s a good one.  You can read him here.

As for me, well, I’m not going to toot my own horn.  If you read this blog with any kind of regularity, you know what my writing is like.  I take the same approach to Page2.  And where our other three writers have branched out into broader baseball themes, ((As opposed to the individual teams they were originally assigned to cover.)) I’ve continued to write exclusively about the Yankees.  It’s been a lot of fun.  And I’ve had the freedom to write however I see fit.  I’ve done things full of classical references, likening the Yankees to the ancient Romans.  I’ve also done mock dialogues, satyr plays (if you will), showing what goes on behind closed doors in the Yankee kingdom.  I can’t say that every thing I’ve written there has been the best thing I’ve ever done, but I’m proud of my work.  You can read it here.

It’s also been a welcome connection to my life back home, my life as a New Yorker, my life as a baseball fan.  Coming to Berlin, for however wonderful it’s been, has necessitated leaving behind certain things.  Baseball is one of them.  I simply can’t afford the digital package that would allow me to watch games online.  But I do subscribe to the package that gives me access to all the radio broadcasts.  Which is great.  But you have to remember, east coast games start at 1am here.  I might put one on as I’m going to bed, falling asleep to the dulcet tones of John Sterling and the familiar whine of Suzyn Waldman.  But it’s a rare thing that I catch all nine innings.  Writing about the Yankees gives me a way to stay connected.

There are other things I miss from home.  To say I miss my family and friends is so obvious as to be redundant.  So I’ll just say I miss them, and assume we all have roughly the same human experience, such that this requires no further expoundation. ((Which is probably not a word, except, why not?))  But there are two other things which I miss immensely, and which I’ve been wanting to comment on for a while; howsobeit, until now there have always been more pressing things to talk about.

The first is hockey.  I’d found myself a regular weekly gig playing goal for a group of older guys in the Spring and Fall the last few years.  I’d been playing with them long before that, of course.  But always on a “we need a goalie, are you free?” basis.  Somewhere along the line, though, this turned into the regular gig.  Depending on who showed up, it could be a truly exhilarating game, or rather kind of a bore.  But either way, it was a regular game, and it was a good group of guys.

And I fucking love hockey.  I love being on the ice.  I love the exercise.  I love the challenge of playing goal, of testing myself against skilled guys, against impossible situations.  And I don’t have that now.  I miss it.  Dearly.  And apart from the game itself, there’s that moment when you first step out onto the freshly cut ice, and you just fly.  The bite of the cold air, the ease, the speed.  There’s a freedom to that, and I haven’t found it anywhere else.

Funny thing about the group of guys I play with.  They all belong to a country club.  That’s the group.  In the winter, they play outdoors on the ice at their club.  And let me tell, you playing hockey outside, at night, under the lights, in the frigid cold of winter, it’s poetry.  No wonder Canadians are so nice.  If you grew up with this in your soul, you’d be happy all the damned time too.

But the guys, that was the point.  I mean, with the exception of one or two of the fellas, I have zero in common with them.  They’re wealthy.  They work in money-making fields.  They’re generally right-leaning in their politics.  We don’t live the same lives.  But none of that matters when we get on the ice.  We have one thing in common, and that’s that we love hockey down to our bones.  And while I don’t think any one of them would ever consider having me over for dinner or meeting me out for a drink, I know they respect me as a hockey player.  They respect me as a guy who loves the game, as a guy who shows up every week ready to play and ready to leave it all on the ice.  And I feel the same way about them.  And in a strange way, I miss these guys, who aren’t really my friends, but who aren’t strangers either.

Which is not to say we don’t get along.  They are, to a man, gracious to me and welcoming and friendly.  And they’ll chat me up in the locker room.  They’ll celebrate with me on the ice.  And when I make a really nice save, I don’t know who’s going to congratulate me first: the guy I just robbed, or my own teammates.  But that’s about as far as it goes, all of what I’ve just said.

In fairness to them, though, many of the walls in these relationships I put up myself.  This comes from being a goalie.  I’d be blowing smoke up your ass if I said something like, “I don’t like to talk in the locker room because I’m mentally preparing for the game.”  I mean, it’s true on some level, but that’s not why I have a hard time interacting.

The truth is, I feel like an outsider.  Which I am.  So it’s very important to me that I come across as being serious about the game.  Let me try to put it another way.  They don’t invite me down to play because I’m their friend, they invite me down because they need a goaltender, and they trust that I will deliver.  You have to understand, not matter how gratifying it is to score a goal, these guys would rather play a 2-1 game and feel challenged and stymied than play a 15-14 game, hat tricks all around, but feel like their goalies aren’t up to the challenge.

I know this, so I take it seriously.  I’m there to do a job.  The social fun comes from playing with their country club buddies.  The hockey fun comes from having a goalie who is on point.  I say all this, because I want you to understand how I feel when I step into the locker room.  I don’t ever want to appear lax or easy going or like I’m not taking things seriously.  I don’t want to joke around and be one of the guys, because I’m terrified that if I do, I’ll go out there and stink it up.  And if I do that, they’ll see me as a guy who doesn’t take the game seriously.  That they’ll go find somebody else who does a better job getting in front of the rubber.

So I go in and try to be serious and business-like.  I try to send the message, “I appreciate you guys choosing me to play goal for you tonight, and I won’t let you down.”  Maybe that’s silly.  But it’s the only way I know how to be.  And it works, I guess.  Because they keep having me back and we enjoy playing together.

And although there are one or two guys with whom I’ll speak freely (always after the game, never before), if there’s a real exception to this rule, it’s the other goaltender, whoever that might be on a given night.  With the other goalie, I can talk shop, let loose a little bit.  And I always root for the other goalie.  I love to see the other guy have a great night.  We, at least, are in the same fraternity.

But I’m going on and on.  The point of all this is simply to say that, for all that Berlin is amazing, for all that my travels have been full of wonder, there’s a price on it.  And that price is I don’t get to play hockey here.  And I miss the shit out of it.

The last thing I’ll say on the subject is this.  When I played my last game, back in June, the guys were really great to me.  And the one thing they kept saying was, “Dave, I hope everything works out in Germany.  But I also hope it doesn’t, because we want you back here.”  Whatever the dynamic of our relationship, that about it sums it up.

OK, I was going to move on to the second thing I miss.  But as I was writing about hockey, it brought to mind an experience I had with this group, and I really want to say something about it.  To a man, we have all of us done things in our life, or acted in a way, that we are embarrassed by or ashamed of.  This happened to me, several years ago, when I was in grad school.  And it happened with these guys.

There’s one guy in the bunch whose job it is to secure the goalie for any given game.  For the majority of my time with this group, it was a guy named Andy.  First off, he’s a lovely guy.  But he’s a gorgeous hockey player too.  Not because he’s particularly good.  In fact, he’s not.  But there’s no quit in him.  He never stops moving his legs. ((This, I think, is the greatest compliment you can ever give to a hockey player.))  And while he rarely scores a goal, he also rarely makes a mistake.  He’s exceedingly responsible, at both ends of the ice.  If he’s on my team, I always feel good when he’s out there.  My private nickname for him is, “the waterbug.”  Because he just goes about his business, tirelessly, and there’s no stopping him.  It’s a cliché to say he plays the game “the right way.”  But he really does. ((By contrast, there’s another guy (whose name I won’t mention), whom I feel plays the game “the wrong way.”  He’s got a crazy skill set, but I always feel like he’s lazy, selfish, and doesn’t respect his opponents or the game.  And when he’s on my team, I never feel good when he’s on the ice.))

Anyway, Andy.  When I was in the throes of grad school, and living in the city, ((All our games are on Long Island.)) he’d regularly text me, asking if I wanted to play.  And I was always torn.  On the one hand, I absolutely wanted to play.  On the other hand, I was drowning in school work.  And playing meant two hours on the train, plus 90 minutes on the ice, plus dressing and undressing, plus waiting for the train itself.  It was basically a whole day gone.  So I was torn, as I said.  But rather than answer honestly, rather than saying, no, I was too busy, I’d put it off.  “Aaagh, lemme think about it.  I can’t decide now!”

And it got to the point where I simply stopped answering his texts altogether.  Which was just plain rude, no two ways about it.  Here was a guy offering me free ice time, again and again, and I didn’t even have the decency to reply.  And I knew it was wrong, but I was so far up my own ass at that point, I couldn’t do a damn thing about it.

Well, one day, I finally get down to the club.  Somebody else – not Andy – had called me, and for whatever reason, I felt I was free enough to play.  And so there I was.  And there was Andy.  And he wouldn’t even make eye contact with me.  He wasn’t rude.  He didn’t reprimand me.  He didn’t tell me I was an ingrate.  All things he fairly could have done.  He just didn’t make eye contact with me.  And that hurt more than any words.

So I approached him.  And I apologized, hat (or helmet) in hand.  I told him I was wrong, that it was disrespectful of me, that I should have been grateful for every opportunity he offered me, and that I was sorry for the way I’d acted.  That he didn’t deserve that.  Not easy to do that.  Especially in front of a locker room full of guys you don’t know very well.  And he could have told me to go fuck myself.  But he didn’t.  I remember him saying that it was OK, and that – I remember this – “I just thought you didn’t to play anymore.”  And he looked hurt when he said that.  I mean, I don’t know if he was.  Maybe I’m projecting.  But he was so gracious in that moment, because that’s the kind of man he is.

I tell this story because it’s Andy who decided to have me as the regular goalie for their Spring and Fall sessions.  It’s Andy who looked past all that, accepted my apology, and gave me a second chance.  So when I say that I miss hockey, when I say I miss my regular game, it’s also to say that I’m grateful to Andy for giving me that second chance and for welcoming me back into the group with literally zero hard feelings.  I could have seriously jeopardized, indeed forfeited, something that means so much to me.  But because of one decent man, I got to keep playing the game that is most dear to my heart.  In other words, thank you, Andy.

I said there were two things I miss.  The other is my Homeric Reading Group.  As many of you should already know, I spent five years reading Homer with a retired professor in his living room on the Upper West Side.  Every Saturday, 10-12, with summer breaks.  It was a fixture in my life.  Which isn’t to say it was easy.  I mean, what late-20’s/early 30’s dude wants to get up at 830, every Saturday, to go read Greek with old people?  Well, I did.  It was one of the joys of my life.  Then I took a break to take a French class.  Then Daitz died.  And it was over.

But then, this spring, Nat emailed me.  Nat, I should say, was the other mainstay of the group.  An elder gentleman, he teaches Latin and Greek at a private school just north of the city; though he lives on the UWS.  Anyway, Nat emailed me saying he had two or three other interested people and would I like to restart the HRG?  Of course I would!  More than anything.  And this with me living on the Island.  In other words, three hours of travel for 2-3 hours of Greek.  Didn’t matter.  I was in.

So we started up again, with Iliad 24, the last chapter of the epic.  Nat, bless him, is just a fountain of knowledge.  There’s hardly a word that goes by that he doesn’t have some kind of insight on.  One of the most knowledgeable people I’ve ever known.  But more than that, it was just great to read with him again.  I’d have to write a whole separate post on what this means to me and what reading with him is like.  But here, I’ll just say it’s a joy.

And I have an odd relationship with Nat.  When we’re together – whether it be in the old Daitz group, or the newly formed version – we get on great and genuinely enjoy each other’s company; to say nothing of the mutual respect that flows in both directions, though I’m always a bit embarrassed that he lowers himself to considering me on his level.  And I think that had we been the same age, had we been in school together, we would have been very close.  I get the sense that our alcohol habits are/were similar, to say nothing of our love of, and opinions on, Greek.

But he’s always been hard to get to know outside of the group.  He doesn’t really respond to emails, or does so but sparingly.  And he’s never shown any interest in spending time together outside the group.  Which is fine.  It’s just that it doesn’t seem to jive – at least to me – with our in-group dynamic.  But that’s Nat, and I accept it and love the shit out of him unconditionally.

Anyway, he makes this move to restart the HRG and I am all hands on deck. ((Can I say that?  Does “all hands on deck” not imply a crew of people, rather than just one person?  I guess, metaphorically, I was “all hands on deck” with respect to myself.  Maybe “body and soul” would better.  But I like this.  Maybe because I keep reading Jules Verne, with his Nautilus and Albatross and Africa-crossing-balloon and whatever else.))  And within five minutes of our first meeting, I knew.  I knew I needed this.  It was missing from my life.  Homer had been missing from my life since Daitz died.  But so had Nat.  So had the discussions, the arguments, the opportunity to show off arcane knowledge that didn’t mean anything in the real world but was more valuable than gold here, with these people.  There couldn’t be anything more inconvenient than trekking out from Long Island to the UWS on a Saturday morning, and yet, there was no way I was not going to be there.

There was another guy in our group, David.  He’s a Judaics Studies professor at Brooklyn College.  His Greek is more than alright, but his background is biblical, not classical.  It didn’t matter.  He came to Homer with a passion.  It was just his passion, not ours.  And this was great, because he was bringing entirely new points of view – on language, on poetry, on history, on all sorts of things.  And he’d give these mini-lectures on Hebrew and Jewish history and regional history and whatever else.  And we’d just sit there with rapt attention.

And this was an added bonus for me, as I was – and continue to be – in the process of studying Hebrew.  And Nat too had, years ago, studied some Hebrew.  So we were attentive students.  And then, when Nat and I would talk about Greek, he was the attentive student.  It was a new dynamic.  This group was taking on its own life, its own shape and form.  And I was loving every minute of it.

In fact, David had me back to his place twice after our HRG to read some Torah.  At first I was worried that I wasn’t far enough along in my studies to make it worth his effort, but he said I’d be fine.  And I was.  When I didn’t know something, he’d walk me through it.  And next thing I knew, we were reading Genesis, trading off verses.  And I felt like I belonged.  It was wonderful.  And then it was over.  Because that’s when I left for Berlin.

So not only do I miss reading Homer with Nat now, but I miss this inchoative reading of Hebrew.  I would have loved for that to continue.  I learned so much in those two sessions, and gained so much confidence.  And David is so knowledgeable.  It was like auditing a class, with the attention of a private lesson.  I regret losing that, before I ever really even had it.

But the big loss, the thing I really miss – which was supposed to be the point of all this rambling – is reading Homer.  Particularly with Nat.  It felt like home.  That was my intellectual safe-house, my nerdy security blanket.  And there was a bitter-sweet melancholy to it too.  Because at least a couple of times per session, Nat and I would look at each other – after reading a bit of Greek – and one of us would say to the other, “Now, Daitz would say X about this…”  And that was a connection that’s hard to explain.  Orphans?  Exiles?  Evangelists?  I don’t know what the word is.  Were we saying it to each other, to remind ourselves of the Words of the Master?  Were we saying to the new guys, as stewards of a proud tradition?  I don’t know.  Maybe both.

But it was very intimate, in a way.  Because, we could look at a bit of Greek, right?  And one of us could say, “Well, here, Daitz would say…”, and the other person could finish the thought.  We’d spent so many years reading at the foot of the master, we both knew his teachings inside and out.  And when that would happen, there’d be this moment, where we’d miss the man, and miss those times.  And then we’d realize that those days were gone.  That this was our group now.  And so we’d turn to the group and explain that which to us needed no explanation.  And that’s how it goes, I guess.  The disciples – that’s the word I was looking for – need to keep the teachings alive.

So Daitz was dead.  But this new version of the Homeric Reading Group was my way – and Nat’s way, I think I’m allowed to say – of keeping him alive.  I’ll be forever grateful for all he taught me, for all the time and patience he gave me.  But if I’m to honor that, I need to pay it forward.  The new version of the HRG allowed me to do that.

But that’s “noble” philosophical bullshit.  The truth is, I simply loved reading Homer.  And I loved reading him with Nat.  And I soon loved reading him with David.  And now that is gone from me too.  It’s the other thing I truly miss, while I’m here in Europe, living some other kind of dream.

And now for some housekeeping.  Charlotte pointed out to me some errors that I’d made in my France/Spain Saga posts.  And while I could have simply published them as comments to the relevant blogs, they would have then been rather a bit ex post facto, and I doubt anyone would have seen them anyway.  So I’ll address them here.

  • The interlude ruins everything. (This was her comment vis-à-vis my paratactic discourse on wrestling).
    • Well, that wasn’t for you, dear. So kindly fuck off.  I love you.
  • Paragraph 3 after the “interlude”: that’s funny you mention how much you loved that chocolate sorbet. It was raspberries. And why was it so? Because you fucking love raspberries, OK! Banane!
    • Yeah, she’s totally right. It was raspberry sorbet.  And it was glorious.  And I do love the shit out of raspberries.  Remember the fresh ones I bought in the market at Prades?  The chocolate sorbet actually happened at the refuge, up in the mountains.  Also glorious.  Btw, if you’re wondering, banane (the French word for banana) is apparently a mild insult in French.
  • I wish these posts were public
    • I’m publishing them here. Jeez, get off my back, femme maudite!
  • Paragraph 12 after the “interlude”: I know you visited both France and Spain during this trip. Therefore, I’m not sure where you stand regarding the ownership of Cataluña. Judging by how you spelt the guy’s name, I have my idea… but guess what? The genius who built that fort was FRENCH and was called VAUBAN [vobɑ̃], not VUABAN [vwaban]. No matter how Spanish you’re trying to make it sound!
    • This was a typo on my part.  I guess I spelled it Vuaban, instead of Vauban.  I told her this, but I guess I missed the point.  Seems she knew it was a typo and was just “being clever.”  I mean, not what I’d call clever.  But what can you do?
  • Still paragraph 12 after the “interlude”, and following quote (paragraph 14) : MILLE is invariable. ;p
    • This is a bit of French grammar, with respect to the “thousand steps” or “mille marches.” ((Or, as I apparently spelled it, milles marches.)) The idea is this.  Some words you don’t pluralize.  “Information” in English, would be an example.  You don’t say, “I have a lot of informations for you.”  That’s nonsense.  Same with mille (which means 1,000).  It’s always just mille.  No plural “s.”  But maybe you begin to see why, in her capacity as French teacher, I call her Madame casse-couilles. ((Which translates as, Madame ball-breaker.))
  • And finally – though this didn’t come by way of blogue comments – I erroneously stated that the village where G&J were borrowing the apartment, where we slept on Sunday night, was Los Masos. It was not.  The name of the village was, in fact, Vernet-Les-Bains.  So there’s that, too.

So much for that.  The next 2-3 weeks should prove interesting.  It’s in this time that I’ll be able to determine whether I’m staying in Germany past the end of September or not.  I don’t want to get into details, because I’m fearful of jinxing things, but I am, at least, hopeful.  With any luck, I’ll have more to report soon.  There’s also the question of where I’m going to lay my head next month.  And that too suddenly became more interesting.  But for the same reasons, I shall refrain from speaking further until I know more.  Until then.

זיי געסונט


An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
20, August 2016

Welp, I guess this is Part III. ((Parts I and II can be found here & here.))  This marks the third time in three nights that I’ve sat down to blogue, ((As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in the past, I’ve invented – or at least adopted – the spelling “blogue” (as opposed to the usual “blog’), as it seems kind of Frenchish, and therefore more sophisticated. )) and all this about one particular road trip.  I think I mentioned in an earlier post that I used to be in the habit, back in the days when I travelled solo, of journaling by hand at the end of each day.  It’s not something I’ve been able to do these last few years, for various reasons.  So in a way, I’m treating these three posts as my journal for the trip, in a way that I don’t normally use my blogue.  In reading over the first two parts of this saga, I’ve found I’ve given myself to more detail and more storytelling than has been customary for my American in Berlin series.  I can do nothing but beg your indulgence on the matter, and hope that you have derived some enjoyment in the reading of it.  And so, without further ado…

I did not have the best night’s sleep in Los Masos.  Sure, I passed out promptly, exhausted from the day’s adventures.  But after about four hours, I woke up scarcely able to breathe through my nose.  Whether this owed to the environmental conditions of the apartment, the locality in general, or something else entirely, I cannot say.  All I know is, I woke up in great discomfort and had a hell of a time getting back to sleep.  Several hours – and many podcasts later – I finally passed out again, with the aid of a nasal spray and the rearrangement of some pillows.  In the end, I guess, I slept “enough.”  But it was a rough night.

This is Monday now, and the plan was for Charlotte and I to take our leave of Gaëlle and Jerome ((And, of course, little Nino.  But how do you say goodbye to a two-week old proto-human?  Well, I did it something like this: “Goodbye, tatela.  Now, stay out of trouble, OK?  Listen to your mom.  Don’t drink, don’t smoke, and don’t bring girls home after 11.”  I’m not saying I win father of the year.  But G seemed to appreciate the effort, and that ain’t nuthin’.)) and thereafter to drive to the city of Montpellier.  There’s nothing particularly stand-out-ish about this city per se, but it’s where Charlotte went to school.  She’d spent a few years there and so, for her, it was imbued with a certain significance.  This was enough for me, on two levels.  One, I’m always up for seeing new places, simple as that.  Two, for as along as I’ve known the girl, she’s been talking about this place.  So I was, in fact, rather excited to see this town, to walk the streets that she’d walked, to see the sights that she’d seen, to share in her past and her experiences.

I mention this because it was entirely out of my way.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but it was in the complete opposite direction of where I needed to end up, i.e. Barcelona.  But so what?  You’ve got to seize these opportunities, and if it builds a bit of inconvenience into your travel plans, you just deal.  The gain is worth the hassle.  Though in the end, there was no inconvenience or hassle, because the carshare I took from Montpellier to Barcelona turned out to be a huge fucking win.  But more on that later.

To say that we had “half a day” in Montpellier, stretches the semantic value of “half a day.”  We got there around 115pm and Charlotte’s carshare was due to leave around 5.  So we had enough time for her to show me where(s) ((Yeah, that’s me trying to pluralize a preposition.  Because she lived in more than one place.  So she didn’t show me “the where” she lived, but rather, “the wheres.”  This one of the things I love about English.  Breaking rules.  Come at me, bitches.  No, but seriously, in a way, it reminds me of the Music Theory class I took in high school.  Our teacher, Mr. Dolgan, would talk to us about Bach.  Bach, who you must already know, was boss, fire, dank, and any other contemporary baller epithet you can think of, broke all the rules.  But, we were taught, you need to know the rules before you can break them.  So when I pluralize a preposition – which is definitely not a thing – I do it knowing the rules.  Which is not to say I’m so bold as to consider myself the Bach of English, but, well, that’s the idea.  Also, I’m considering now just deleting this whole footnote.  But Imma leave it; as témoignage to how my brain works.  #sorrynotsorry)) she used to live and to have a drink.  And I’m glad we did this.

Look, I’m not gonna lie.  Montpellier is not the greatest place I’ve ever been to.  It’s not the greatest French place I’ve ever been to.  It’s not even the greatest South-of-France place I’ve ever been to.  It has much to recommend it, to be sure.  But if you don’ have an actual reason to go, don’t rush to put it in your Top-Five is what I’m saying.  But all this is beside the point.

The point is, when you care about somebody, you want to share in their life.  And not just their life where it is today.  You want to share in the whole thing.  You want to know where they came from, you want to feel, as much as possible, what they felt.  And so, for me, this was the real gold.  Seeing Montpellier brought me closer to my friend.  If you ask me what the best part of going there was, it was probably this.

That said, I don’t mean to give the impression that this is a second rate town with nothing to offer.  Far from it.  The cathedral is stunning, and entirely unique, with two stone towers rising before the main doors, joined by an arching bridge of stone.  The old town is marked by narrow winding streets and old stone structures.  In this way it’s like Eus or Villefranche, only it feels more like a city than a village, though don’t ask me to put into words what that means.

There is also this odd, weird, beautiful, modernist, Greek influenced area.  I don’t even know how to explain this shit.  It’s like people in the sixties used modern technology to build Greek-ish type shit.  I think the area was called Antigone.  And there are streets named after Zeus and (probably) Apollo.  There are statues, which are copies of ancient statues.  And there are columns, which are modernist interpretations of the classical orders.  Fuck me.  I don’t have the training or the vocabulary to describe this accurately.  But, hey, there’s Google, right?  Point is, it was impressive.

I visited this part, though, after Charlotte had left, but while I still had a few hours to kill.  After I’d seen it, and was on my way back to the old town, some old dame stopped me and asked, in French, if shit was still open, if there was anything going on.  I tried to answer her in French, but she wasn’t having it and switched to English.  #davefail.  Not my finest moment.

When I got back to the old town, I found I still had about two hours to kill before meeting my carshare.  So I stopped into the café where Charlotte and I had earlier shared a drink.  It just so happened that C’s first apartment in Montpellier bordered on this square.  This imbued it with an extra sense of specialness.

I suppose I could have done anything there, as I sipped my pastis.  I could have read my book (Jules Verne’s Robur le Conquérant), or read the paper on my phone.  But I opted to break out the Yiddish book, which I’d bought in Berlin back when I’d first arrived.  Up til now, I’d engaged the book on a pretty casual level.  What I mean is, I’d tried to read it as if it were a German book written in a different alphabet, without really diving into the particulars.

But now I had time.  And a dedicated notebook.  So I got to work, I and my pipe and my pastis.  So in the back of my notebook, I began jotting down quite basic vocabulary items.  On one side of the page I’d give the Yiddish word, and on the other, the corresponding German word.  But in the front of the book, I began to confront questions of grammar and syntax.  In other words, I was making an active effort to understand how Yiddish works, as opposed to simply trying to read it passively as a sort of odd German.  It was a beautiful way to pass the time.

Straight up, I’m pretty drunk right now.  And yeah, I’m always a bit tipsy when I write these posts, as there is always a bottle of wine at hand.  But this is something else.  I went out around 730 to go read in the park.  After that, I hit the supermarket to pick up a bottle of wine and a bar of dark chocolate with orange.  When I came home, sometime after nine, I found A&M and the pretty girl from upstairs sitting around the kitchen table.

I joined them.  Whereupon Mischa did his Mischa thing, which was to start pouring me wine and never letting my glass go empty.  But of course simply doing that fails to meet his baseline level of graciousness.  So he he offered me a Schnaps, in this case Johnny Red.  And, of course, this glass wasn’t allowed to go empty either.

The funny thing is, he doesn’t even like scotch; has no need for it in the house.  But he’s like, “Well, Dave’s coming, he’ll drink it.”  And so he just keeps my glass full.  Both glasses.  The wine glass and the whiskey glass.  Mind you, I didn’t ask for any of this.  It’s just what he does.  But, I mean, I’m not gonna say no, am I?  Which is how I got to where I am.

 Around 750ish, I met my carshare people.  OK, so I’ve been putting this off. I now need to explain carsharing.  Basically, it’s like Airbnb, but with cars.  The idea is this.  Somebody has a car and is driving a long distance.  They want to defray the cost.  So they agree to take on complete strangers as passengers, for a fee.  On the flip side, as a wayfarer, you have the opportunity of traveling long distances for a fraction of the cost of a bus or train.

And although Charlotte had vouched for this system, having done it many times herself, I was still a bit skeptical.  Anyway, I met my ride at a nearby tram station.  It was a Spanish couple.  The other two passengers were a quiet French bloke and a leggy blonde girl.  Both were taller than me, which meant I was getting stuck in the middle seat.  Well, fuck.  Still though, it was far cheaper and faster than the bus.

We all politely introduced ourselves in the beginning, but on the first leg of the trip, nobody really spoke to anybody.  I mean, the couple spoke to each other.  But they didn’t speak to us.  And we didn’t speak to each other.  It was only when we made a pit stop for some food that things got interesting.

As we got out of the car, our hosts starting asking us where we were from.  Jacque McSilenttype said he was from France.  Suzy McLeggsfordays said she was from Germany.  That was enough for me.  Straight away I started talking to her in German.  And what a fucking relief, you guys.  After four days of struggling to keep up in French, of fighting for every word that came out of my mouth, I was suddenly freed.  All of a sudden I was talking in German and the words just flowed.  I was unchained.

And look, I don’t want to give the wrong impression.  This sort of shit is easy now.  The “where are you from” or “what do you do” and so on.  That’s the easy stuff.  When you move into real conversation, the wheels come off pretty fast.  But this, this was easy.  And it wasn’t easy in French.  Just introducing myself in French feels like a boxing match.  But in German?  A walk in the park.  It was like a vacation inside a vacation.

But enough of this bullshit.  There’s a bigger picture.  And the bigger picture was that we soon realized that everybody in the car was, at least on some level, some kind of bilingual, if not more.  English and German and even a bit of French for me.  German and English for Legs.  French and English for Jacques. ((Who’s actual name was Hugo.))  Spanish and Catalan and English for our driving couple, named Maria and Angel, btw.

And so all of a sudden, we had some kind of weird bond.  Next thing I know, I’m talking to Angel about Catalan history and language and culture.  And he’s all, “I can’t believe you, an American, knows anything about any of this!”  And I’m all, “people from New York know shit, son.”  Though in truth, I was impressing him with Catalan history I’d only just learned in Villefranche and Fort Libéria.

Still though, what should have been a 30m rest stop turned into over an hour of just hanging out and chatting.  It was a genuinely great time.  The only thing was, I was due in at an Airbnb, and the later we hung out, the later I would get there.  Which, if I already had keys, would be no problem.  But this would be first night, so Oscar (my host) would have to be up to let me in.  And at this rate, I was due in well past midnight.  Also, Oscar barely spoke a word of English.

Here, Maria (the carshare host(ess)) stepped up and offered to communicate in Spanish with Oscar on my behalf.  What a doll.  In the end, I got there past 1230, but it was no problem thanks to Maria’s help.  The room was a tiny little thing with no windows.  But it was clean, and there as a fan, and I slept great.  It was also smack dab in the middle of town.  So for one night, it was perfect.

Next day, Tuesday, was the last day of my trip.  I didn’t really do any research on Barcelona, so I just sort of wandered around, schlepping my backpack.  I figured I could do this until it was time to head to the airport.  But in the end, I didn’t have to.

See, we had all gotten on so well in the carshare that Maria texted me asked if I’d like to meet her and Angel for a coffee.  Not only that, but they had to pass by the airport on their way home, so would I like a ride?  What?  Of course!

I mean, this is where you just get lucky.  You sign up for a carshare, and basically just hope you can tolerate each other while you get from A to B.  But instead, I actually made friends.  People who the day before were ready to charge me money for a ride, were now offering to meet up for a coffee and drive me to the airport, no charge!

But I want to be clear, these guys were awesome.  Angel has an interest in history and very much likes to chat.  Maria is just a doll, one of the sweetest people you could ever meet.  Together, they’re adorable.  At first though, I was all like, fuck these people.  I mean, the whole drive, he’s holding her hand, kissing her hand, touching her knee, all the lovey-dovey shit.  And in my middle seat, I have an unobstructed view of all this.  And I’m thinking the same thing I always think when I see PDA’s: “Happy cunts, I hate you all.”

In the end though, they were really quite sweet.  And as we sat having our coffees (OK, tea for me), I got to know them more as people and as a couple.  And they’re the sort of couple where the guy does all the talking and the girl rolls her eyes a lot, but you can just tell that they adore each other, and that’s, well, it’s adorable; hatred of happy cunts notwithstanding.

So at one point I said to them, “You know what I like about talking to you guys?  I get to hear what you think,” I said, looking at Angel.  “But I get to see what you think,” I said nodding to Maria.  And that’s just how they are.  And they’re lovely.  Most likely, I’ll never see them again.  Yet if they ever come to Berlin (or New York) I would be absolutely delighted to spend more time with those fuckers.  A-plus fucking people, those two.

Cleary the thing that bonded us was language.  Maria is a student of language, while Angel is a student of history.  But they both, I think, see themselves more as Catalan than Spanish.  So there’s a crossroads there, where everything sort of comes together.  And I found myself talking to Angel about Catalan history while asking Maria about Catalan grammar.

And I was going to write a whole thing about Catalan grammar.  In fact, I did write it.  Then I read it.  And that’s when I realized, there’s a reason I have no friends.  So I’ll forgoe my observations on Catalan grammar, except to say that it’s mostly pretty easy but for they use auxiliary verbs in the past tense in a way that would strike the rest of us as totally backwards.  And when I brought this to Maria, she 100% agreed, noting that this odd reversal gave her more than a bit of trouble when she studied French.

If there’s a larger point here – and I’m not sure there is – it’s that my two favorite subjects (language and history) allowed me to make new friends where I least expected it.  I say “friends,” though I really don’t know if I’ll ever see them again.  But I sure as shit hope I will.

Barcelona was cool.  I mean, I mostly just wandered around, which was great.  You know they have Columbus Circle there?  No, seriously.  They have a roundabout, at the center of which stands a giant column with Columbus at the top.  In New York, Columbus Circle makes sense.  After all, motherfucker “discovered” the New World.  But why should Spain give a flying one? ((I’m kidding, of course.))

I stopped at a café for lunch.  I ordered patatas braves, which Maria had recommended to me.  It’s meant to be fried potatoes with some kind of hot sauce; sometimes tomato based, sometimes mayo based.  I was hoping for the former, but got the latter.  It wasn’t nearly as spicy as I’d hoped, but it was still nice.  I closed with a glass of red vermouth, served over ice with a slice of orange.  Apparently, it’s quite Spanish?  It was tasty, anyway.

The truth is, I don’t have much to say about Barcelona.  It mostly felt like any other European city.  Except for Gaudi.  This guy is obviously a big deal, as most people well know.  And I know I’m supposed to go on about how amazing his work is.  But in truth, I wasn’t feeling it.  My take was, here was a guy who dropped a shit-ton of acid and then set himself to designing a bunch of gingerbread houses.  That was my feeling for the Sagrada Familia as well as Park Guëll.  I mean, I’m glad I saw it.  Life experience, and all that.  But if you want to look backwards, give me Rome.  And if you want to look forward, give me New York.  Only if you want to get high and listen to Pink Floyd and jerk off to architecture, well, only then, give me Gaudi.  If that makes me a Philistine, so be it.  Still though, glad I saw it.

So I had a lovely time meeting up with M&A for coffee.  And it made my life so much easier that they drove me to the airport.   But that was the end of Barcelona.  Soon enough, I was on the plane.  Which is not to be confused with, “soon enough, I was on my way.”  Because I wasn’t.  There was a one-hour-plus delay.  After we were on the plane.

I had an aisle seat, and the across from me, on the other aisle seat, was some German broad who wasted no time asking about compensation for our delay.  Ugh.  Can’t we just sit here in silence?  Apparently not.

I’m listening to the Black Sabbath album Heaven and Hell as I write this.  What a magical album.  And it’s magic no matter how or when you listen to it.  But I think we have a tendency to listen to this album diachronically.  In other words, we listen to this album as we hear it today.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  I mean, Dio, Iommi, Geezer.  And produced by Martin Birch.  It’s magic.

But what I love, is tying to hear it synchronically, in its own time.  Listen to the last two Ozzy Sabbath albums; Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die.  They’re slow and stodgy and not very good.  And then, out of nowhere, Dio comes along breathes new life into the band.  And it’s like, it’s like you’ve had weeks of rain and all of a sudden the sun comes out.  Like, you resigned yourself to living in a grey, dreary world, and then, why would you do that?  Life is free and fun and beautiful.  It’s spring, after the worst winter you’ve ever lived through.  Fresh air in your lungs.  A smile on your lips.  How could you ever be sad when there’s such joy in the world?  That’s Heaven and Hell.

And it makes me so happy to listen to this record.  And it makes me so sad too.  I don’t get attached to rock stars, I don’t idolize them.  I don’t have any interest in meeting my heroes.  But there’s something about Dio.  He was different somehow.  He meant something, and when I listen to his music I feel shit in my heart.  And he’s gone now, and it makes me sad.  And there’s lots of dead rock stars that I adore.  Bon Scott, Freddie Mercury, Phil Lynott.  I connect with their music, and I can’t imagine my life without it.  But it’s still an abstraction, it’s far away, it doesn’t really touch my day-to-day life.

With Dio, I don’t know.  It’s different.  It’s personal.  Sometimes I listen to Rainbow and I just get sad, sad that he’s gone.  Even now, as I’m listening to Heaven and Hell, I have tears in my eyes.  And I shouldn’t, because I have such joy in my heart.  But I miss you, Dio.  And I don’t generally miss dead people.  There’s three, and three only that I miss.  I miss my grandpa, and I miss Daitz, and I miss Dio.  And everyone else can fuck off, is how I’m going to end this interlude, because I’m tired now of dealing with my emotions.

 Well, we finally got back to Berlin, well past midnight.  To get home, I needed to catch a bus to a train, and at this hour, they were probably the last bus/trains that were running that night.  Anyway, who do I find when I get to the airport bus stop, but that girl from the flight, who wanted to know how we’d be compensated for our delay.

At first, my reaction was, oh no, now I have to talk to Type-A German girl?  I just wanted to get home.  But in fact, she turned out to be quite nice.  And we had the same route; her U-Bahn stop was two after mine.  So we wound up chatting while we waited for the bus, and then on the bus, and then on the train.  It was quite nice, actually.  If nothing else, it passed the time.

On the train, we traded fb info so that we might later meet up again.  Whether we do or not, I have no idea.  But the truth is, I don’t know that many people here.  So if she winds up being somebody I can grab a drink with here and there, so much the better.  And if not, well, it made my ride home much easier than it otherwise would have been.

Right, well, I guess that’s the end of this particular adventure.  I never meant for my accounting of it to go on this long, but what can you do?  Of course I have much more to talk about, whether it be my Hebrew studies, my job hunt, or just life in Berlin.  But all that can wait for another post.  This story, at least, has reached its end.  Until the next time…

זיי געסונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
19 August, 2016

I’m just going to pick up where I left off yesterday, since this is basically Part II anyway.  You can read Part I here.  So where was I?  Right, Charlotte and I bounced on outta Villefranche and headed to the picturesque mountainside village of Eus for dinner.  Not so much because we had heard great things about their restaurants, ((In fact, we’d heard exactly no things.)) but because this would be our only chance to visit, and we wanted to get there while the sun was still up.

This place was beautiful from afar.  It’s set into the side of a mountain, rising to its peak.  The church is at the top, so the spire rises higher than anything else.  OK, so I’ve made the decision not include pictures in my blogues.  It’s poor form, I know.  But I think we’re all old enough to read longform text without photos, right?  That said, I don’t have the requisite thousand words to spare for each bit of scenery.  Yet some of this stuff is really worth seeing.  So I’m going to cheat a bit and link you to my Instagram account.  There you can find shots of at least the highlights.

So we drove up the winding mountain road into the village.  We found parking towards the bottom, but considered walking all the way up to be sheer folly.  Whereupon did we drive higher and higher.  Until we turned down a road that became so narrow, I wasn’t entirely sure we could pass.  Neither was it clear that a) the road even led anywhere nor b) that we could safely back up.

It was at this point that a middle-aged gentleman approached our car.  We rolled down the window and he began speaking in some kind of oddly accented French.  We guessed, from the accent, but also from his leisurely style of dress, that he had to be English.  He soon suspected that “we” were American.  So he switched to English, and yes, he was a Brit.  In any case, he told us we could definitely fit; he’d done it many times with a larger car and that, anyway, trying to back out would be daft.

This established, he guided us through the narrowest bit of the passage whereupon did he disappear into his home.  I don’t think I could have done it without his help.  Indeed, I was ready to try my luck backing out.  But thanks to him, it all worked out.  “God bless the English,” I said to Charlotte.  And cheers to you, anonymous Englishman, I say now.  This done, we easily found a parking spot and began our quest for dinner.

We’d asked Tommy ((Students of history will know that Tommy is a generic demonym for the English, just as Yankee is (or, at least, used to be) a generic demonym for Americans.)) if there was anywhere good to eat.  He told us that the main restaurant was out of the question on account of they were holding a jazz concert that evening.  But he assured as that there was a very nice café where we could get “a salad or something.”  So we started to climb the rising village streets in search of said café.

Look, I don’t know how to describe this village, right?  What I mean is, for Charlotte, this was nothing new.  Sure, the village itself was something new.  But in its abstract, the small French village was something she’d grown up with.  Because she’s French.  They have these things.  We, however, do not.  All I can say is, it feels like you’re in a fairy tale, in the middle ages.  The streets are narrow and winding.  Everything is built of stone.  It’s hard to shake the feeling that this wasn’t real, that real people actually really lived there.  And while Villefranche had a certain touristy vibe to it, Eus did not.  They say the past is a foreign country that you can never visit.  This, I think, is about as close as you can get.

But enough of this.  We soon found the café.  It was set into a little square, one side of which looked out over the valley and mountains.  We decided that it was probably the most beautiful place we’d yet eaten at.  But then the menu.  Every last thing had something in it I couldn’t eat, usually some kind of cheese.  The only exception was a charcuterie plate.  But I’d been eating charcuterie since I’d got to France, and I didn’t want it again.  I was starting to feel a bit annoyed.  Especially since we’d passed up so many fine looking restaurants in Villefranche.

I want to say something here in my defense, because as you’ll see in a moment, this led to a short bit of tension between Charlotte and I.  I’m well aware of my dietary restrictions.  No dairy and no shellfish.  But I normally take pride in not burdening my companions with this.  After all, this is my problem, not theirs.  I’m always very quick to tell people to order whatever they want and not to worry about me.  I can always find something.  And however inconvenient it may be for me, I never complain.  It’s just the way it is, and there’s no use crying about it.

But this time, I was finding literally nothing that I wanted.  I still didn’t complain, but there was no way to hide my chagrin.  I didn’t want to put this on Charlotte, but I couldn’t hide it from her either.  This in turn, annoyed her.  Here we were in this beautiful place, and from where she was sitting, I was being a total drag, harshing her mellow, whatever you want to say.  So now she was annoyed.  And not generally annoyed, as I was, but specifically annoyed.  With me.  This, then, annoyed me.  After all, she could eat any thing she damned well pleased.  What did she have to be annoyed about?

She voiced her displeasure.  At first, I denied my irritation.  But she pressed, so I admitted that, yeah, I was a bit peeved.  She expounded upon her displeasure.  In my head, I made the same defense of myself which I’ve just written above.  But in typical male fashion, I had no desire for an argument, so I just “OK’d” her. ((#menbeingmen))  Making matters worse, in her opinion, was the fact that I wasn’t ordering any alcohol.  Normally, I would never do this.  But I knew I would have to maneuver our car back out through that same narrow passage, only this time in the dark.  I knew I’d have to drive us back up to the cabin, up the winding, unlit, mountain roads, again in the dark.  I’d drink all the wine in the world once we got home, but until then, I didn’t want anything to do with alcohol.  In typical female fashion, she was dismissive of this logic ((#braodsbeingbroads)) and maintained her annoyance at my momentary sobriety.

So we sat in a bit of rather tense silence until her wine and my Perrier came.  With the waiter (or possibly waitress; I’ve now forgotten) departed, I raised my glass to her, in toast.  And on my face was what I can only assume was a “shit-eating” grin.  We both broke out laughing at the stupidity of this little “argument” and clinked glasses.  Whereupon we each said something along the lines of “Fuck you” to each other with a laugh and a smile.

Look, Charlotte and I do quite a bit of travelling together. ((There was the Great Western Roadtrip (Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah); Montréal; Maine; Brussels; my last trip to France.  And more to come, surely.))  And it’s very often the sort of travelling that has us together in close quarters for long periods of time.  99% of the time we go along in perfect harmony.  But every now and then, we’ll run into something like this.  I suppose it’s only natural.  At the time, it’s frustrating.  But it always passes pretty quickly, and is often laughably stupid anyway.  Well, that was our headbutt for this trip.  And once it was over, it was over.

I always write in the kitchen when I’m staying here.  Because that’s the room where I’m allowed to smoke my pipe.  Anyway, as I’m sitting here writing, Mischa comes in and pulls a bottle out of the fridge.  “Willst du einen Schnaps?” he asks.  “Do you want a drink?” ((But a Schnaps is always a shot of something.  In other words, a glass of wine or a beer is not a Schnapps.))  “Natürlich!” I answered.  “Of course!”  He explained that this drink, called Kümmel, is ganz deutsch.  It’s very German.  So we clinked glasses and shared a drink.  I’d never heard of this before, but he explained that this particular version was made in Berlin by a many-hundreds-year-old distiller.  I don’t know how to describe the flavor other than to say that I found it quite “herbal.” ((My dictionary tells me it is distilled from infused with (Thanks, Dale!) caraway.))  It was very nice, in any case.

This is one of the perks/beauties of staying here.  Anja and Mischa are very free with sharing their Schnaps.  And Mischa, who is a wonderful cook, more often than not makes enough for me, even if I’m not eating with them.  It’s not at all uncommon, as he did tonight, for him to stick a portion in the fridge for me for later.  This is not the sort of thing you can ever hope to expect from an Airbnb, and yet they treat it as totally normal.  I don’t know if they do this for everybody; we have built a nice relationship, after all.  But they do this for me, and it’s simply wonderful.  Hell, they were in Riga (Latvia) the last four days, and they brought me back some lovely caramels.  As luck would have it, I found a book about cats that made me think of them ((They have two cats, as I’m sure I wrote about last year.)) at an antique shop.  So we both had gifts to exchange.  It was pretty perfect.  The point is, I really lucked out, being able to stay with here for four months these last two visits.

So in the end, I ordered a salad and asked them to prepare it sans fromage.  And when I say “I,” I mean Charlotte.  She did the ordering.  It was just lettuce, tomato, cucumber, olives and prosciutto with some kind of sesame dressing.  But it was slammin’.  It all worked out in the end.  And as I said before, what a gorgeous fucking place to have a meal. ((“What a gorgeous fucking place to have a meal.”  It’s hard to be poetic with a New York accent.  I remember talking to Charlotte about this when we were out West, amidst natural beauties such as I’d never seen.  The English, with their silly accents, get to sound poetic all the damned time.  Read this with an English accent: “My, but these mountains are stunning.  See how the sun glistens upon the peaks.  Such beauty I have never yet beheld.”  Now try reading that again with a New York accent.  Sound idiotic, right?  So I find myself stuck replacing fancy words with expletives.  “Holy shit, would you look that?  That’s some fucking shit, huh?  I mean, fucking wow.  Fucking mountains, man.  Fuck.”))

After dinner, we went exploring for a bit.  It was, by then, dark, so that the village took on an entirely different feel.  We made our way up to the church, which was fantastic.  We meandered the winding streets, with no particular destination in mind.  We went down a few dark alleyways.  And as we walked, Charlotte wondered aloud whether she could ever live in a place like this.  She was leaning towards the negative, as this was nowhere near the water and there really wasn’t much going on.  There also wasn’t much in the way of greenery.  Then we passed by a stone house, with a stone wall around the property.  The gate in the wall was open, and as we looked inside, we saw an older gentleman sitting at a picnic table in his courtyard, reading something and smoking a cigarette.  It was the picture of the easy life.  “Yeah, OK,” she admitted, “I could live here.”  It wasn’t hard for me either, to imagine myself smoking my pipe in the courtyard, studying Greek or Hebrew in such a setting.  Yeah, ça marcherait.

Eventually, we found our way back to the car.  I felt a bit of anxiety while trying to pilot the old girl back through that narrow passage – mere inches to spare on either side – but I got through it without a scratch.  And soon we were back at the cabin.  Gaëlle and Jerome were waiting for us, and we hung out for quite a while, just chatting and drinking.  By which I mean, they chatted and drank and I just drank.

But at one point, both Jerome and I went outside to smoke while the girls remained inside.  We sat down with our drinks, he with his cigarette and me with my pipe.  And we chatted for a while.  In French!  He was able to modify his speech just enough for me to be able to follow.  And feeling freed from the constraints of swift-moving group conversation, I was able to finally express myself dans la langue française, albeit haltingly.  Anyway, we had a very nice chat.  He told me how he’d built the cabin himself, in three months.  We talked about travelling and other things besides.  It was the first time on this trip that I felt I was able to pull my own weight French-wise, and it was both a relief and a joy.

As the hours passed, it became apparent that it was now too late for G&J to go back down to Los Masos with the baby.  So they elected to stay there, and of course, had first dibs on the cabin.  This meant that Charlotte and I would spend the night in another camper, also located on their grounds.  This they referred to as le camion de Clem, which translate as “Clem’s Truck.”  Only, when French people speak, the de gets attached to the preceding word, and the e isn’t even vocalized.  So it sounds more like le camion’d Clem.  Except my ear simply isn’t tuned well enough to French yet, so that all I heard was le camion Clem.  Which had me thinking the camper’s name was Clem.  So at one point, I said to Charlotte, “So, we’re staying in The Clem tonight?”  And she started laughing.  “What’s so funny?” I asked.  And she explained to me the foregoing.  See, the camper belonged to their friend Clémence.  Only she wasn’t around, so we were able to use it for the night.

It was cozy, it was comfortable, the bed was big.  It was great.  I didn’t sleep as well as the night before, but probably because I wasn’t as exhausted as the night before.  But that didn’t matter.  We had to be up earlier anyway, as we had another long day ahead of us.  J knocked on our door around 9ish, I want to say.  Not long after, we were all back at the cabin having breakfast.  Or, they were having breakfast, anyway. ((I often tend to avoid breakfast when I’m travelling, because I never really know what it’s going to do to my stomach.  Though I didn’t used to.  I’m only saying this because I was thinking about it the other day.  Back in 2007 when I was traipsing around England and Ireland, I stayed at a couple of BnB’s.  Full English/Irish breakfasts included.  Fried Eggs, fried tomatoes, bacon, sausage, and then depending on which country, sautéed mushrooms, white & black pudding, and toast.  And of course tea.  The point is, I was thinking how back then, I loved every bite of it.  But now, I’d be too scared to eat that and then hit the road.))

The day’s plan was to head up a different mountain to where C&G’s friend ran a little restaurant, a refuge, was the French word.  There was only one hiccup.  They were bringing the baby.  And so here’s a thing I didn’t know.  Apparently, when you’re bringing a baby up to such elevations, you need to make periodic stops to allow the child’s ears to adjust to the new levels of air pressure.  It seems like a minor point, I know.  But it’s relevant only because of what happened next.

What happened next was, somebody – I don’t’ remember if it was C or G – asked me if I wanted to hold the baby.  Well, of course I fucking did!  But I daren’t ask.  See, my feeling was, I was there only by their grace and as Charlotte’s guest.  I was neither friend nor family.  I was grateful that they had welcomed me into their home.  The idea of asking to hold the two-week-old proto-human struck me as presumptuous bordering on impudent.  But when it was offered?  God yes, give me the child.

Next thing I know, I’m holding this tiny, squirming, arm-waving, cooing pre-person in my arms.  I’ve never held such a young thing before.  It’s incredible.  I mean, it’s incredible for me.  For the baby, Nino, well, what does he fucking know?  No, seriously.  What does he fucking know?  Surely he knows who his mother is, maybe his father.  But beyond that, does it make a godsdamned bit of difference to him?  This is a serious question.  What goes through a baby’s mind when a total fucking stranger has it in it’s grasp? ((I say “it” and not “him.”  A bit of linguistic exegesis here.  Greek has a word for child, παῖϲ, stem: παίδ- (pais, paid-); whence all the child related words – pediatrician, pedophile, pedagogy, etc.  Anyway, as with any Indo-European language, Greek nouns have gender.  And παῖϲ is neutral.  The Greeks used it for kids up to age 5.  In other words, up to age five, a child was an “it.”  Only after five was it a “he” (υἰόϲ (huios) for a son) or a “she” (θυγάτηρ (thugater) for a daughter.  Whence my use of “it” to describe the child above.))  Does it think, “who is this motherfucker who’s got me now?”  Or is it just thinking, “I’m hungry, feed me bitches.”

So I’m holding this child, this infant.  And I’m faced with the same wracking dilemma I get at strip clubs, during a lap dance.  Yeah, I know, totes inapropes.  But bear with me.  I don’t really care for strip clubs.  And I definitely don’t enjoy paying for lap dances.  But I’ve been to a couple of bachelor parties.  And I’ve had friends buy me lap dances, because, well, I don’t know why, but they did.  Honestly.  And now I’ve got some strange, albeit hot, girl dancing on me in just her underwear.  And I don’t know what to say or do.  “So, are you in college?”  “Do you have kids?”  “Did you wash out of Julliard Dance?”  Look, I’m not saying I’m popular among strippers.  I’m saying, you’re now in an intimate setting with a total stranger and what the hell do you say?

Right, so I realize normally people don’t have “conversations” with the girl who is giving them a lap dance.  I’ve also noticed that people don’t generally have conversations with the newborn infants they happen to be holding.  But I’m awkward.  I’m awkward with strippers and I’m awkward with babies.    So I had to do me.  And doing me meant chatting up little Nino.  It went something like this:

Dave: Hey, tate-sheyna, ((In accordance with my project of doing my part to keep some kind of ancestral Yiddish – particularly the Yiddish I grew up with – alive, I now make an effort to address boy-children as “tatela” or “tata-sheyna.”)) how’s your day going?  Good?  Good.  So listen, today we’re going to go up into the mountains.  Hmm, mountains.  OK, to understand mountains, you need to understand a bit about plate tectonics and/or volcanism.  On the other hand, you also need to know what a rock is.  Actually, you know what?  Forget it.  The point is, we’re going to go ‘up.’  And you’re going to have to stop periodically, so your ears can adjust to the changes in air pressure.  Know what I mean?

Nino:  Coo.

D: Right.  OK, so air.  This is what you breathe, you know when you…well, breathe.  And you can’t see it or feel it, so you probably don’t even know it’s a thing yet.  But it is.  It’s pretty important actually.  Anyway, the point is, air has weight.  Obviously you can’t feel it now, because our bodies are designed to operate at this level of air pressure.  So you don’t even notice it.  But the higher you go, the less air there is on top of you, which means it’s pressing down on you less.  Stop me if you have any questions, OK?

N: Coo.

D: So the thing is, your ears, believe it or not, have some very delicate machinery in there.  (And I gently caressed his ear).  They’re very sensitive to air pressure.  I mean, this is what allows you to stand up straight.  It’s what allows you to walk without falling over.  Wait, what am I saying?  You don’t stand or walk yet.  But surely you see the gronwups doing this.  Nevermind.  What I’m trying to tell you is, as we go up the mountain – the big giant rock – the air pressure will change on you and it won’t feel good.  So mommy and daddy are going to have to stop periodically, so your ear-machines can adjust.

N: Wah.  (Not, “waaaaaagh,” mind you. Just, “wah”).

D: Oh, no, no, no, tatela.  It’s nothing to worry about.  You’re gonna be fine.  And we’re gonna have a very nice time when we get where we’re going.  You’re gonna love it.  Honest.

N: Waaaaagh.

Meanwhile, this whole time, unbeknownst to me, G was taping this whole exchange.  She does speak a decent bit of English, but I’m fairly certain she couldn’t follow this nonsense.  Yet she was taping it all the same.  And in fact, my sense was, this was the best way I could connect with her.  I mean, we could only communicate directly on a very limited level; in bad French or bad English.  But here I was, being affectionate ((Well, for me, anyway.)) with her baby.  And I got the sense that she really appreciated this.  Like, “I don’t know this asshole, and I have no idea what the fuck he’s talking about, but he’s being (some weird kind of) sweet with my child, and that’s A-OK in my book.”  That was my read anyway.  And I hope I’m right on that.  I mean, they were so gracious in letting me stay with them, I wanted to be able to give something back.  And I couldn’t give anything by way of conversation.  And I couldn’t give anything by way of music, because we didn’t have a guitar.  So this was all I had to give, mad as it was.

Anyway, little Nino was starting to get his cry on, so G soon took him back.  And out came the tit, because apparently this kid is just hungry all damned the time.  Or, alternatively, all babies are hungry all the damned time.  But this is the only baby I have any experience with, so I don’t want to generalize.  The point is, he calmed right down for lunch.  Well, we all get hangry, ((Hangry – a portmanteau of hungry and angry.)) don’t we.

Soon thereafter, we departed for the refuge.  The drive took us through some more lovely scenery as we wound our way up the mountains.  I had no idea where we were going, we were simply following G&J.  At one point, they pulled over.  It was the first pause they needed to take for Nino.  We realized then that it made no sense for C & I to make these pauses as well, and so we agreed to meet up for a coffee at the (yet again) walled village of Mont Louis.  So C & I proceeded apace, arriving in advance of our travelling companions.  We had enough time to explore the village a bit before G&J arrived.  Not much to say here, after Villefranche and Eus.  More of the same basically, which is to say, it was lovely.

Eventually, the young family joined us and we sat down in a little diner. ((“Diners” aren’t really a thing in France, but given the setup of the joint, “diner” is the best word for it.))  This time everybody else ordered some kind of coffee, while I went for a pastis.  It was a nice little break and Jerome generously picked up the tab.  Then it was back on the road.

Finally, we reached the parking area of the mountain(s) where was located the refuge, which was run by C&G’s friend.  From where we parked, we had about an hour’s hike ahead of us.  The scenery was, again, stunning.  We were really up in the Pyrenees now.  The view in every direction was spectacular.  Along the way, we passed a herd of cattle, which made their own sort of symphony from the bells around their necks.

At some point along the way, G&J needed to take a break.  Apparently, carrying a fucking baby up a godsdamned mountain is not all that easy.  Well, OK.  So C & I, went ahead until we reached the refuge.  I keep saying refuge, because that’s what it’s called in French.  But really the English word ‘refuge’ has nothing to do with it.  It was, essentially, a little stone cottage way up the mountain.  As a practical matter, it was a restaurant.  Most of the cottage was a dining room, with a small kitchen off to the side.  And of course, there was outdoor seating out in front.  Needless to say, the view was, again, spectacular.

As I said, the place was run by Charlotte’s friend Claire, who was the chef, along with her boyfriend.  Just the two of them.  C&C had a happy reunion and soon the four of us were sitting around drinking beer while we waited for GJ&N to show up.  When they did, it was lunch time.  I mean, it was past lunch time.  It was a late lunch, is what I’m saying.

Well, another menu covered in cheese.  But with Clarie being the chef, she was able to knock something together for me that I could eat.  And it was amazing.  Seriously.  Just a chapati sandwhich thing, but it was one of the tastiest things I had the whole trip.  Thanks, Claire!  So yeah, it was a great time.  Just hanging out up in the mountains, beautiful view, great food, beer.  I should also mention that Jerome once again picked up the tab, without consulting us.  Whereupon did C & I resolve to take them out to dinner, whatever that would be.

Look, this whole Berlin experiment may well end up being a failure, in terms of finding a job and being able to stay here.  I honestly don’t know.  But simply in terms of the adventures I’ve had, simply in terms of the things I’ve been able to see, the experiences I’ve been able to share, well, what a fucking win.

Our lunch being a late one, by the time we finished, it was time to close up shop.  So Claire’s bf drove the new family down to the parking lot in their van, while C,C & I hiked our way back.  Claire took us on a shortcut, which was barely a path through the wilderness.  I felt a bit like we were taking the One Ring to Mordor.  Not in the bad sense, mind you.  Not the post-Moria shitshow.  No, this was the happy bit, on the way to Rivendell. ((Point of interest: How the fuck does the MS Word spellchecker know the word “Rivendell,” yet underlines “Mordor” as being misspelled?  And yes, I know it’s an imperfect analogy.  Even on the way to Rivendell, the hobbits were beset by Black Riders.  But still.))   I mean, there was mud and flies, but it was still beautiful.

Right, so at the end of it, our party was separated, yet we were all thinking about dinner.  Stop.  When I say “our party,” I mean, me and Charlotte and la p’tite famille; we said our goodbyes to Claire and her bf in the mountains.  Anyway, we considered trying to meet up in Villefranche, but decided this was impractical.  We opted to meet in Los Masos instead.  Only there were less options there.

OK, we need to stop here for a second.  As a New Yorker, the idea that shit closes, like, ever, is just…I mean, what the fuck?  What do you mean, “shit closes?”  “This is France, Dave.  Things close.”  Well, that’s f’ing bullshit.  No?  No, of course not.  I’m being provincial.   Nevertheless, the idea that you can’t find a place to eat because, what?, it’s late?  What is that?  Well, it’s Europe, is what it is, I guess.

I say this because there we were in Los Masos, ordering drinks, and we have the waiter telling us the kitchen is closed.  Double-you.  Tee.  Eff.   But we had locals on our side, so something would work out.  And indeed it did.  Somebody – possibly Jerome? – found a hotel that was still serving dinner.  So we made for it.  Only when we got there, the waiter told us there was no menu now.  The only choice was a plate of a fish with vegetables.   I scoped out the table to the right of us and saw plates dancing with shellfish.  Uh-oh.  But no, that was something else.  We would get some kind of whitefish.  Relief.

Did we want drinks, the waiter asked.  Would I have to move the car, I asked.  No, I was told.  Then bring wine.  Bring a carafe.  A big one.  They did.  I was happy.  Then the fish came.  I was happier.  I forget now the type of fish it was, but it was some kind of whitefish.  The whole thing.  Head to tail.  Scales, eyes, the whole nine.  Jerome, bless him, showed us how to attack it.  How to peel back the scales, how to get the meat off the bones without getting a mouthful of bones.  Bless him.  It was, oh my god you guys, it was fucking delicious.  Quite possibly the best meal I had the whole trip.  The fish was slammin’, the veggies were a delight and the wine was spot on.

I made a mess of my plate, tearing that fish apart.  When I was done, it looked like a hurricane had torn through it.  Then I looked over to Gálou’s plate.  Man, she did a number on that.  In one corner was piled the head and tial, and that was it!  The rest of the plate was spotless.  I don’t know how she did it, but it was damned impressive.  So we went from not knowing where we’d eat to having a first class fucking meal.  This time, according to plan, C & I picked up the bill.  The very least we could do.

By this time, it was too late to head back up to the cabin, so we all crashed at the flat in Los Masos.  And that, I think, is where I have to leave it.  I didn’t expect this post to go this long, and there are still two days left to my trip.  If you’ve stuck with this to the end, I thank you.  So I guess I’ll pick up from here next time I sit down to write.  Until then…

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An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
18 August, 2016

I may have to change the name of this blog, for all the time I’m spending in not-Berlin.  Most recently it was France and Spain.  In a way, it almost feels like two separate trips.  There was the trip I took with Charlotte, and the travelling I did by myself.  I’ve been going over with myself whether it’s best to tale the tell – strike that, reverse it – chronologically, or to treat the accounting of it as two separate trips.  Survey says?  Just tell as it as it happened.

Right.  So on Friday, I had a 7am flight to Barcelona.  That meant, airport at six, which meant leave the apartment at 445.  So what I should have done was get a good night’s sleep.  What I did instead was take a late nap (around nine), because I was stressed from packing.  This meant, of course, that a good night’s sleep was out of the question, and so I stayed up til 2am doing Hebrew.  Well, I could sleep on the plane.  Which is what I did.

Once in Barcelona, I had time only to hustle to the bus station by way of metro and catch my ride ((The bus ride was quite pleasant, much better than the Chinatown buses I’m so used to.  I could charge my phone, the seats were comfortable, the driver was professional.  We made one pit stop along the way.  Most people ate, I had a Spanish beer.  At the border, the police checked our passports and looked for bombs.  Obviously, there were no problems.)) to the French (little) city of Perpignan, at the feet of the Pyrenees mountains.  That’s where I was meeting Charlotte and also picking up the rental car.  Only she wouldn’t arrive for another few hours.  So I walked around the city a bit.  I didn’t do any research on the place, so I didn’t know any sights to see.  I just wandered, comme habitude, as they say.

Then Charlotte informed that her carshare ((More on carsharing later.)) had hit traffic and that she would be late.  It would be a good idea, she told me, if I could do some food shopping and take care of the car.  So after my wandering, I stopped at a café for the obligatory glass of pastis. ((Have I written about pastis before?  It’s an anise flavored liquor, basically the French version of Greek ouzo or Turkish raki.  It’s served – about a shot’s worth – over ice and with a side of water.  You then add the water to your glass, however much you want.  Without the water, it has a thick gray, almost greenish, color.  With the water, it clouds up to look like, well, a cloud, actually.  Anyway, it’s fucking delicious and refreshing as all get-out.  It’s no coincidence all these hot Mediterranean lands have some version of it.  The point is, I love the shit out of it, and it’s my go-to drink when in the south of France.  I even used to buy bottles of it during the summer in New York.))

This done, I returned to the train/bus station to get the car sorted.  I booked through an agency called Europcar, and got a discount through my EasyJet flight.  The lady there was very nice.  J’ai réservé une voiture, sous le nom Starr, I said in quite passable (I think) French – I’ve reserved a car under the name Starr.  She answered me in French and pulled up the details.  Then she asked, in French, if I wanted to proceed in French or English.  I took this as a sign that my French was good enough that she was ready to believe I really could manage this in her language.  And perhaps I well could have.  But with so much money on the line, I decided English would be safer.  Anyway, the car was a four-door Seat hatchback.  I’d never heard of Seat before, but when I got to the vehicle, I was surprised to see that I’d been upgraded.  You see, when I booked online, the car was meant to be a manual.  Furthermore, GPS was offered as not-free add-on; this I declined since we both had GPS on our phones.  But when I got to the car, I saw that it was an automatic and had a GPS built-in.  Here I must confess that I was a bit disappointed, with regard to the transmission.  I knew we would be driving narrow mountain roads, and I was quite looking forward to having some fun.  After my adventures in Italy with that big old van, I was ready to do some real driving.  And yeah, also, I wanted to show off a bit for Charlotte.  Well, I wasn’t very well going to go back in and complain about being upgraded, was I?

With the car taken care of, ((If any of my classicist friends should chance to read this, I would here like to express my love for the genitive (Greek) or ablative (Latin) absolute.  We just don’t have an equivalent in English.  For everybody else, I shan’t bother to explain because a) it will take too long and b) I’m sure you don’t care.  If somehow you do, there’s a the hyperlink…)) I found a supermarket in the train/bus station and did a bit of French grocery shopping.  In other words: baguette, charcuterie, cheese, tomatoes and, of course, wine.  Whereupon did I stash this bounty in the car, got out my book ((Jules Verne’s Robur le Conquérant.  I love Jules Verne, period.  But I especially love JV when I’m travelling.  I mean, so many of his stories are adventures about seeing the world, or even, other worlds: Le Tour du Monde, Cinq Semaines en Ballon, Voyage au Centre de la Terre, De la Terre à la Lune, Autour de la Lune, and so on.  This one takes place in an airship that travels the globe.  Reading this stuff while you’re travelling is the most perfect thing ever.  The only book that matches this, for feel, is Washington Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., most of which takes place all over England.  This I read during my semester in London, and believe you me, I devoured every word of it.  Fuck.  Washington Irving is the first true American author, and he’s bloody gorgeous.  This is also the book, by the way, that contains the stories of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Rip van Winkle and The Spectre Bridegroom, all found, purportedly, amongst the papers of that revered Dutchman Diedrich Knickerbocker.)) and waited for Charlotte.  When she arrived, there was the happy reunion and then we hit the road.  The closest thing to our destination on the map was the village of Los Masos.  However, we would be staying with her friends – the ones from last time, who’d just had the baby.  But they didn’t live in the village itself.  They had a small cabin up the mountains a bit.

As we drove, Charlotte explained to me that they were a bit off the grid.  They owned the land they were on, but the cabin they’d built wasn’t quite legal.  So I didn’t know what to expect.  What I found when we got there was a cozy little one room cabin attached to a camper-trailer.  Jerome, the father, had built it himself.  It was adorable.  It also didn’t have running water; there was a cozy little outhouse though.

Once again, they were very happy to see us.  They were also, once again, very kind and welcoming to me, the guy they’d only ever met once and who barely speaks any French.  We hung out for a bit outside, in a clearing centered around a sort of picnic table and with a magnificent view of the valley and the mountains rising across the other side.

Before long, several of their hippy friends arrived, appearing out of the woods like hobbits.  There was a couple with two kids, a girl (I’m guessing 12ish) and a boy (I’m guessing 9ish), as well as some other guy.  Everybody was very nice, but I had a hell of a time keeping up, as the French they spoke was fast and slangy and not very well enunciated.  Or rather, I should say, I couldn’t keep up and soon stopped trying.  In fact, it was the kids who I could understand best.

At one point, I went for a bit of a walk around the property, partly to get away from the crowd and partly just to enjoy the scenery.  A bit later, Gaëlle – Charlotte’s friend, the mother – gave us a tour.  She showed us all the vegetables they were growing; squash, melons and many others I’m forgetting.  She also showed us their chicken coup – seven hens and a rooster.  All very impressive, though in a bit of a state of disrepair as they’d been away/busy with the whole baby thing.  There were also, apparently, wild horses.  We came across two white ones just chilling on the mountainside.  It was pretty fantastic.

After a while, the hobbit people left and we went inside for dinner.  This was delicious.  It appeared to be zucchini – OK, I guess they also grew zucchini? – stuffed with some kind of ground meat, which I think was turkey.  We hung out and drank for a bit.  Around midnight, I guess, G&J left for their apartment ((Technically not their apartment; I guess a friend was letting them use it.)) down in Los Masos.  Being bereft of guitars, and being tipsy and tired from a (very) long day, Charlotte and I went to bed.  In the trailer part of the cabin, there was a lovely bed set up.  We promptly passed out and slept like babies.

The next morning, I was awoken by the crowing of the rooster.  Did you catch that?  I was actually woken up by a fucking rooster.  Where the shit was I?  Oh, and speaking of animal sounds, the night before there was this incessant “aaaaaahing” of some unseen goat.  I’d never heard this before.  I mean, it just sounded like some guy yelling out “aaaaaahhh” in a flat, even monotone.  It was weird.  But I tuned it out pretty quickly, and it was done with its spiel by the time we went to bed anyway.

The next day’s adventure was to visit the walled village of Villefranche.  It’s just what it sounds like.  It’s a walled medieval village in a valley between some mountains.  OMG was it ever fucking gorgeous.

Oh but wait, I forgot, earlier in the morning we went into the nearby village of Prades to hit the market. ((In the states, I’d say “farmers’ market.”  And it was.  But my impression was, here in France, in these small villages, it’s just “the market,” like it was in olden times.))  It was a very small market and utterly adorable.  There we met with G’s mother, Martine.  Also, I bought a thing of fresh raspberries.  Because I fucking love raspberries, OK?  After this, we headed back to the cabin for lunch.  M rode with us.  As I drove, she and Charlotte chatted away, and for the first time, I felt like I was listening to people I could actually understand.  I don’t know if it was because M was a “grownup” or what, but her French was quite clear, if tinged with some kind of accent, possibly southern.  And Charlotte, being a bloody French teacher already, speaks quite clearly.  Which is not to say I was able to follow the conversation.  The roads up the mountain are quite tricky and required my full attention.

At one point, Charlotte asked me in French if I was understanding any of the conversation, and I didn’t even know she was talking to me.  So I could hear enough to know this was followable French for me, but I couldn’t pay it the requisite attention.  Well, that’s how it goes.

Lunch back at the cabin consisted of what C & I had bought the day before plus whatever the various members of the crew had picked up at the market.  We had a pleasant time of it, no doubt.  This being France, however, it was only a matter of time before people started asking why I couldn’t eat cheese.  Whereupon did have to explain – in French – how lactose intolerance works.  Believe it or not, I actually did a passable job of this. ((The next question is always, “so what happens if you eat dairy?”  When, on the last trip, Charlotte’s dad had asked me this, I answered with a bit of French slang, which I’d learned from Charlotte: “Chiasse d’un autre monde.”  Which more or less translates as “the shits from another world.”  Not the sort of thing I’d ever normally say, but the French seem to love this sort of talk (cf. Monty Python’s Holy Grail where John Cleese-as-Frenchman uses all sorts of bodily function-based insults).  Anyway, Charlotte seems to find this hilarious, and keeps wanting me to use it to tell every last person who asks what happens when I have dairy.  But I’m way to embarrassed…))  So lunch was very nice.  And it was after this that we made for Villefranche.

As I’m writing this, I have a group G-chat going on on the side with the lads from home.  And Rob is talking to me about some insane wrestling match.  And as we’re talking about it, I’m remembering how much I love good wrestling. ((So yeah, this interlude will be about wrestling, and feel free to skip it, non-wrestling fans.))  He’s telling me about this ridiculous cruiserweight match, and cruiserweight wrestling is of course the best.  That’s where you get the high-flying stuff, the great mat-work, the artistry, the energy.  And he’s telling me about the mix of styles – Japanese, Lucha and so on.  And I’m just remembering all the times we used to watch wrestling growing up.  And I’m remembering all the times Jared and I would drunkenly watch old WCW or old Bret Hart matches in our apartment.  How we would marvel at literally anything Dean “Eyes of Ice” Malenko would do in the ring, how he could take literally anybody and make them a star for fifteen minutes, based solely on his mastery of the craft.  And so now I’m feeling a bit nostalgic for those times.  For me, there was no better time for wrestling than the Golden Age of WCW’s cruiserweight division – not matter how poorly it may have been managed.  The young Chris Jericho, the young Billy Kidman, the new Rey Mysterio, the veteran and glorious Dean Malenko, and yes, the young Chris Benoit, who was probably the greatest of them all, whatever tragic fate was spun for him.  And of course, any match Bret “the Hitman” ever took part in.  My God, was Hart “the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be.”  If Malenko was a technician par excellence, Hart was an artiste.  Everything he did was perfect, every move pure magic.  He was, not to put too fine a point on it, “the excellence of execution.”  I mean, there was this match against Ricky Steamboat – Hart wasn’t even wearing pink yet – and, just, wow.

I read Hart’s autobiography, which Jared had in the apartment.  Even for non-wrestling fans, it’s well worth the read.  It’s touching, poignant, tragic, and in the end – sadly – a bit bitter.  But in there, he talks about Tom Billington, “the Dynamite Kid.”  And he talks this guy up – a guy I’d never heard of before, let alone seen – as being the greatest talent he’d ever witnessed.  So just now, as I’m going down memory lane here, I pulled up a highlight reel of the Dynmaite Kid, and oh my god, you guys.  I’ve never seen anything like this.  He had the impact and the artistry of Hart, the intensity of Benoit, the fluidity and speed of Mysterio and the technical mastery of Malenko, all in one.  I’m talking to Jared now, and he says that for all that, he was still missing something.  And that may well be true.  Watching a highlight reel, you can’t get any sense of his ability to tell a story in the ring – and nobody was better at storytelling than Hart.  But the tragedy of Tom Billington – who threw his life and career away on drugs and/or alcohol – is that we never got to see him develop.  We’ll never know what he might have been.  Well.  So much for wrasslin’.

So, Villefranche.  As I said, it’s a medieval walled village, and so you enter through the old gate.  As I recall, the old, heavy wooden doors are there, but are now fixed open.  The portcullis is gone, though the rusted chains are still in place.  It’s a bit of an odd place, in that it’s kind of touristy down the main drag.  Lots of shops selling tourstiy memorabilia, that kind of thing.  But it’s beautiful and charming, and off the main drag, actual people live there actual lives there.

This was actually a bit of a surprise to me.  I mean, it’s hard to explain.  The place had an almost Disney-esque feel to it.  What I mean is, it felt a bit like a reconstruction of what a medieval village was supposed to be.  So I asked Charlotte if people really live here, or does it just shut down at midnight and everybody goes home?  Sure enough, she told me, this is a real, actual, functioning village.  Yes, it’s a bit touristy in the center, but regular people really do just live here.  And once you’re out of the touristy bit, it’s much as it must have been back in the day.  Only the streets aren’t covered in horse shit.

We all hung out together for a short bit.  Everybody else bought some ice cream.  I bought a chocolate sorbet.  Probably not worth mentioning, except that it was delicious.  Also, I haven’t had ice cream in probably fifteen years, and this was the closest I can ever come.  Man, did I love that!  After this, G, J & M left while Charlotte and I ascended the overhanging mountain to check out the 17th century Fort Libéria.

This is where I got my first bit of history on the region.  See, this was all once part of Cataluña (Catalonia), which, I suspect, we all assume is a part of Spain.  Certainly I assumed that.  But in fact, Cataluña was it’s own ‘nation’ (for lack of a better word) which straddled the Pyrenees long ago.  It even had (has, even) its own language – Catalan.  But as is always the case with small and weak nations, it got fucked over by the larger France and Spain.  Ultimately, it was divided between the two, along the borders that we all now know.  The part that is now in Spain is still called Catalonia.  In France, the region is Roussillon. ((I digress into this brief history, only because it will become relevant when I come to my carshare experience in Spain.))

Anyway, the fort was very cool.  It’s largely much as it was when it was in use.  You can still walk the parapets, still traverse the interior halls.  The views from the walls are stunning.  Below, you can see Villefranche and the mountains behind it.  And as you peer through the meurtrières, you’re met with a stiff, refreshing breeze – a most pleasant contrast to the Mediterranean sun shining overhead.  There is also a small dungeon, called the “women’s prison.”  I’m a bit sketchy on the details, but basically several dames form the French royal court were exiled there, at least one of which for “witchcraft.”  The two most tenured inmates spent 36 and 44 years in that awful cell.  How nice it is to think we’ve advanced far beyond that sort of treatment, eh?

After our tour, Charlotte and I paused for a drink at the café which lies in the central courtyard of the fort.  Homegirl had a rosé while I, naturally, opted for a pastis.  As we sat, a small bird landed upon a nearby wall.  Story time.

“You know the story of the birds here, right?” I asked.  And she smiled that smile.  The one that says, “Oh, you’re going to tell me a story now?”  “Not a story,” I have to remind her.  “A history.  This is true!  Though not a lot of people know it.  And don’t bother looking it up, because you won’t find it.”  “OK,” she smiles.  “Tell me the history.”

Right.  So you know how there were two woman imprisoned here, who were accused of witchcraft?  Well, they were actually witches.  And after spending 36 and 44 years in their cell, they knew that death was upon them.  Now, you know that one single window, high up in the wall of the cell?  Well, birds would always land there.  And as the end drew closer, and they knew they were about to die, they used their witchcraft to transfer their souls to those birds.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  Does one of those birds right there on the wall have the soul of one of those prisoners?  No.  Of course not!  This was over two hundred years go, after all.  The birds they transferred their souls to have long since died.  But these birds are their decedents.  And even now, they have something of the spirit of their ancestor’s hosts in them.  And so, even today, the local people think that sometimes they hear the birds that fly around the fort laughing and crying.  Laughing because they are free from their imprisonment, and yet crying because their spirits are bound to this place and they cannot leave it.

“Really?” she asked.  “Then how come nobody ever told me about this?  I mean, Gaëlle’s friend works in the village.  We were in her shop earlier.  How come she didn’t say anything about this?”  “Well,” I answered, “did you ask her?  I mean, you were too busy shopping.  You didn’t ask about local lore.  And anyway, she probably knows how crazy it sounds.  So you can’t expect her to volunteer this sort of information.”

“Well, I don’t hear them laughing or crying,” she tried again.  “Of course you don’t,” I answered, as if it were obvious.  “This only happens at night, when the moon is shining.  You can’t expect this sort of thing during the day.  That’s simply not how it works.”  Whether she was satisfied with this, or was simply tired of my bullshit, I cannot say.  But she pressed the issue no further.  And anyway, it was time to leave.

Now, we had ascended the mountain by way of a winding path which crisscrossed the rocky flank up to the fort.  But the way down would be different.  You see, although the fort had been built in the 18th century by some dude named Vuaban, ((Who, apparently, is some kind of big deal.)) it had been modified in the years since.  Such that now, there was a stairwell down to the village which cut straight through the mountain itself.  This is called the Milles Marches – the thousand steps.  Now, you don’t get to call something the thousand steps without expecting people to count the bloody steps.

And this is just what we did.  In the beginning, we busied ourselves with trying to determine whether each flight simply had the same number of steps.  It was soon apparent that they did not.  So we quickly moved to just trying to keep count.  At first, we would pause at every landing, to see if our counts matched.  Since they did, we left that nonsense behind and began stopping at every hundred steps, checking to see if we agreed that this was 300 or 400 or 500.  But by five hundred, we had begun to deviate in our respective numerations.

Now here’s where it get’s sticky.  As I remember it, when we finally reached the bottom, our counts were roughly 10-15 steps apart.  But we could at least agree that the staircase held approximately 850 steps – give our take 10-15.  Only the next day, Charlotte was insistent the number was not 850 but 750.  For my part, I maintain that it was indeed circa 850.  Even now, we disagree.  The point is, however, that whatever the true number, it sure as shit wasn’t 1000.  But what can you do?  It’s much easier – and much nicer – to call that interminable decent Les Milles Marches than Les Huit/Sept-Cent-Cinquante Marches.  It just doesn’t have the same ring, does it?

Anyway, we did eventually reach the bottom, whereupon we collected our car and headed back to the cabin.  Only, no we didn’t.  We had to get dinner first.  Now, there were more than a few restaurants in Villefranche which not only looked great, but also smelled delightful.  But we remembered that we had seen, from the road, a beautiful little village set into the mountainside.

Earlier, Charlotte had asked Martine, if she knew anything about it.  Eus, it was called, she told us, and yes, it was fucking gorgeous.  And so forsaking the culinary delights that were before us, we embarked upon visiting Eus, there to eat and explore.

But it is now 4:22 in the morning, and this piece is super fucking long.  Also, I have nearly exhausted my liter of wine. ((Back in Berlin, I went grocery shopping today.  For 11 & change, I got a loaf of bread, a package of bratwursts and loads of fresh veggies.  I love Berlin, and I love my ‘hood, Neukölln.))  And so, I shall resume next time with our adventure in Eus, and all that followed.  Until then.

זיי געסונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
10 August, 2016

Junk food.  It’s the worst, amirite?  It’s also the best, amialsorite?  Full disclosure, I’ve been working on a liter of wine for a while now, and I just finished a Yankee blog post.  This may or may not be the best time to do a personal blog post.  Well, as my old mom likes to say, “fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.”

So, junk food.  It comes in all manner of shapes and sizes and colors and flavors; almost none of them natural.  I generally resist buying junk food.  The reason I resist, is because I know I’ll eat it.  Especially if it’s salty.  Anybody who knows me, knows I don’t have much of a sweet tooth.  Which is not to say I’m above buying a bag of Gummy Bears.  I mean, Haribo, it’s a German company.  Gummy Bears are as German as apple strudel.  Or Bratwurst.  The point is, who doesn’t like a little nosh?

So I’ve made a decision.  I’m allowing myself precisely one item of junk food in the house per week.  If I eat it all in one day, then no junk food ‘til next week.  If I can stretch it out, so much the better.  I bring this up because I have exactly one bag of chips, from which I’ve just deducted roughly one fistful moments ago.  I’m rationalizing, clearly.

And rationalizing is something we do when we know we have a problem, but don’t want to admit it.  So maybe, just maybe, I have a problem with junk food.  But it’s under control.  I have a system in place.  It’s working.

Oh, hello, pink elephant in the room.  Yes, I’m talking to you, liter of white wine which cost me 1.99 Euro.  No, I won’t rationalize you.  If I did, that would be indicative of a problem.  And that, friends, I do not have.  I say this, because what follows is going to sound like a rationalization.  I assure you, it is not.

Over the last year, I’ve not felt very good when I drink too much.  Too many mornings waking up feeling…well, fine actually.  The bad news usually comes in the afternoon when I’d feel sluggish, nauseous, lethargic.  Days would be wasted in bed.  I’d throw up more often than I’d care to.  It got me thinking that I’m 35 and my body was sending me a message.  The message?  Slow down, Jim!  (What does a yellow light mean?)  Slow down, Jim!  (und so weiter).

Anyway, the point is, I seem to be past that.  A night spent blogging or studying Hebrew with a bottle of wine has yet to result in feeling shit the next day.  This is what I mean by, “it’s going to sound like the rationalization of an alcoholic, but I’m (reasonably) sure it’s not.”  Maybe wine is easier on the body.  Maybe it’s as simple as not mixing alcohols.  In any case, I’m drinking far less beer, far less whiskey, much more wine and I feel much better for it.

I apologize to my parents who are surely alternating between cringing, worrying and eye-rolling at the above.  But this blog doesn’t happen without the fruit of the vine, so henceforth I leave the rationalizing to you.  Love ya!

Saturday, I had a mini-reunion with three of my CELTA classmates.  One of the girls was in from Kölln (which is how you say Cologne in German), so that made it extra nice.  We had a great time, catching up, telling stories, making each other laugh.  Absolutely lovely to see them all.  We formed some kind of bond going through that intensive month-long training, and that’s not easily broken.  If not for that, we might have nothing to do with each other.  And yet, when we’re together, it still feels like we’re a team.  In fact, we named our Whatsapp group chat “The Dream Team.”  Well, we are.

There was the aforementioned girl form Cologne as well as the girl form Iran whom I mentioned in my last posting.  There was also the girl from England, whom I’m sure I spoke of last year.  Absent was our other colleague form the States, who is still there.  Also absent was our colleague from Australia, who now lives in Germany with his partner and foster son.

I love this bloke for many reasons, not least of which was that I could make every sort of dirty joke under the sun with him.  In the crucible of a month-long 9-5 intensive course, this was a godsend.  In fact, I met him for coffee maybe two weeks ago, and it was absolutely lovely.  There was the requisite catching up and professional trade chat.  There was also the requisite dirty-joking.  Sadly, he couldn’t make our mini-reunion as he was travelling.  When he announced this in the Whatsapp group, I responded with “wtf.”  He asked what that meant, and so I explained.

His response was, “Dave, how dare you use fuck as an adjective to me.  Now, as a verb would be another matter.”  How can you not love this guy?!  The best response I could muster was, “How about I meet you halfway on an adverb, as in: I fucking love you.”  If you can’t have homoerotic banter with your mates, who can you?

Yesterday, I did the hard work of finalizing my German résumé ((Shout out out to Joschka for correcting my shitty German into proper German.)) and cobbling together what I can only hope is a passable cover letter.  Whereupon did I apply to two German-based jobs.  I also began my hunt for an apartment.

Now, to be clear, I love where I’m staying.  And I’ve written at length about it, so I don’t think there’s any need here to further glorify how much I love where I am.  But where I am is still an Aribnb.  Ich bin immer noch Gast.  I’m still just a guest.  If I’m to stay in Berlin, I’m going to need a proper place of my own.  So the game is afoot.

Today, I went for a four-hour (or so) walk in Tempelhofer Feld.  I’ve written about this last year, of course.  But THF used to be the central airport in Berlin.  It was, at first, designed by the Nazis, and by gods, it’s written all over the architecture.  But it was also the central hub of the Luftbrücke, ((Luftbrücke literally means “air bridge.”)) the Berlin Airlift.  And so, in some sense, and despite its origins, it is viewed as a symbol of freedom.

Well, nowadays, it’s been converted to a park.  Fittingly, the park is named Tempelhofer Freiheit – Freedom Tempelhof.  Anyway, it’s wonderful.  Smack in the middle of Berlin, it’s got everything.  People ride their bikes or windsurf on the old runways.  They bbq on the grassy spots.  There are art and gardening exhibits.  It’s brilliant.  Anyway, today I walked most of the circumference and both runways.  As I said, it took more than a few hours.

One thing that strikes you about it is the sheer magnitude.  It’s so open and flat and wide.  You walk and walk and walk and you feel like you haven’t gone anywhere.  Yet it’s also beautiful.  Parts of the field are roped off from pedestrians and picnickers as that’s where certain birds do their nesting.  It reminds me of the NASA complex Florida a bit, which is part rocket launching site, part nature preserve.  Only this place is retired as an active airport.

The thing I love most about it, though, is that Berliners were given a choice on the matter.  Here’s this huge property in a prime location.  As a New Yorker, you know there are riches connes, dying to get their hands on it, dying to develop it, dying to make a dime on this barren real estate.  But Berliners decided, by way of referendum, no, fuck you, this is ours, and we want to enjoy it.  And so they do.  And so do I.  Never in New York.  I don’t know if I want to marry you, Berlin, but I sure as shit love you.

Sunday, I finally went back to open mic night at Madame Claude in Kreuzberg.  How I managed to go 5+ weeks without returning is beyond me.  Except to say that for more than half of my available Sundays I was out of town or just coming back from being out of town.  Still, that’s no excuse.  And this Sunday I would have found an excuse again, were it not for a friend of mine.

This is a girl I met at a conversation meetup last year.  We went once together last year as performers, and she also came with me the first time, when only I performed.  Anyway, there’s nerves and all the other bullshit that goes with playing in front of people.  So it’s really great to have somebody there supporting you.

But she’s much braver than I am.  See, I have my guitar.  I can hide behind something.  She doesn’t do music.  She does poetry.  And for the record, she’s quite good with wordplay.  Her poetry is largely bilingual, English and German.  But she also mixes in a bit of French and Latin.  Anyway, point is, she goes up there with no instrument, no music, no nothing.  She just goes up to the microphone and does her poetry.  And you have to realize, this isn’t just speaking poetry into a microphone in front of a room full of people with no backup, it’s her poetry, that she’s written.  That, my friends, takes balls.  You see that, and you realize it ain’t no thang to get up there and sing a couple of songs behind a guitar.

Still, I was nervous.  It’d been a year.  And I cocked up the lyrics to my first song.  The second one went better, as I was starting to find my groove.  And the groove, of course, is the thing.  Look, most people get up there and play “singer/songwriter” stuff.  We all know what that means, right?  Slow, melodic, heartfelt, blah blah blah.  It doesn’t make you tap your foot.

And this is where I come out of the AC/DC school.  “Oh,” says the interviewer, “that’s a nice song you wrote.  ‘You Shook Me All Night Long,’ it’s sold many millions of copies.  Well done.”  “Yeah,” says one of the AC/DC guitarists, taking a drag off a cigarette, “it’s a real toe-tapper.”  As if being a “toe-tapper” is the only thing that matters; record sales by the millions be damned.  Thing is, they mean that.  That’s the most important thing in the world of AC/DC.  Does it make you tap your foot?  Then it’s rock’n’roll.  Mission accomplished.  And that’s my mission.  If I see people swaying, or tapping their feet, then I’ve done what I set out to do.  Were there any such people at this open mic?  Yeah, there were a few.  Well, aright.

OK, so, that’s basically where I’m at.  I’ve got my flight booked to Barcelona for this weekend.  Charlotte and I just finalized a car rental.  We’ll visit her friends in the Pyrenees for a bit.  We’ll do a bit of driving around.  Should be grand.  And then I’ll have about a day or so to myself in Barcelona at the end of it.  I’ll be spending more money than I’m comfortable with, but hey, this time in your life only comes around once.  Take advantage.  And anyway, I’ve never even been to Spain!

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
5 August, 2016

The weather has been pretty lousy all week.  Gray skies, cooler temps, on-&-off-again rain.  Not very conducive to long exploratory walks or reading in the park.  So there’s been a fair amount of Netflixage.  I tried reading in bed today, but I couldn’t get it going.  I love Jules Verne to death, but something about sitting inside just didn’t click.  I need to be in my secret garden with a beer.  Or at least a Radler.

Radlers are wonderful.  We don’t really have them in the states.  When you buy them in a bottle, it’s like a beer with some lemon going on.  When you buy them at a bar, it’s a beer with either sprite or lemonade added.  It’s a lower alcohol content and probably the most refreshing thing ever.  This really hasn’t been the week for them, but generally speaking, it’s the prefect summer drink.  And it’s Berlin, so you can take them anywhere!

The other day, I met with one of my old CELTA classmates.  She’s probably one of the most impressive people I know. ((I’m wondering now if I wrote about her last year.  I apologize if this is repetitive.))  She’s from Iran, and for political reasons, she can’t go back.  More to the point, she was engaged in political activity and that is the reason she can’t go back.  She never volunteers information about this stuff, but she’ll answer questions up to a point if you ask.  The thing with her is, you know she’s had experiences – difficult experiences – that you can’t even imagine.  So the bullshit day to day stuff that we – OK, I – like to gripe about, it doesn’t even register on her radar.  In my experiences with her, she’s utterly unflappable.

She’s also very smart and very cool.  And funny.  And married, because I know you’re already asking yourself.  Anyway, we met for lunch the other day.  Absolutely great to catch up and just hang out and chat.  She’s fantastic.  One of my favorite people.  Then she took me to a pretty sweet bookstore in the middle of Berlin.  There I spent more money than I should have on a book called Herodot und Thukydides – Herodotus and Thucydides.  I mean, the two fathers of history.  I did my 2nd year Greek term paper on Herodotus and my Master’s thesis on Thucydides.  A book about the two of them?  Had to have it.  Also reading it will help my German.  Also it’s gonna look sexy on the shelf.  Which is never a reason to buy a book, but always a lovely bonus.

So with the weather being shite and with Joshcka out of town, I’ve spent my late nights this week hitting the books, Hebrew style.  The funny thing is, Hebrew was way way down my list of languages to learn. ((Anglo-Saxon and Finnish were at the top of the list, followed by Italian and then in a rather sort of hypothetical way, Japanese and Chinese.  As for Chinese, I don’t specify a dialect, because the part of me that lived in Chinatown is interested in Cantonese.  The part of me that entertains notions of teaching English in China knows Mandarin is more practical.))  But then I got a job in a Jewish school and everything changed.  Being around it all day, knowing my kids were interacting with it every day, well, it became a priority.  So that’s why I started with it.  HaShem knows it ain’t because it sounds pretty.

Anyway, there was a woman I worked with, the occupational therapist.  I was having trouble translating a Torah passage from my book and so on whim, I asked her, “Hey, how’s your biblical Hebrew?”  “Not bad,” she said, “a bit rusty.”  Anyway, she agreed to take a look and solved my problem for me on the spot.  At the end of the year, I took her email address with the idea of being able to hit her up with more questions as I progressed in my studies.  She happily obliged.

Warning: This next bit is going to be about specific Hebrew shit, so feel free to skip it.  OK, you are warned.

So here I was this week, stuck on another passage.  I give it here:

וְלֹא יָמוּת מִכָּל-לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, דָּבָר

Forget for a second that you don’t read Hebrew.  And don’t worry about what it sounds like. ((I promise you, it’s not nice.))  I’ll do the heavy lifting.  I was able to translate thusly: And nothing that belongs to all the sons of Israel will die. ((For context, this is from Exodus.  It’s to do with the plagues.  Basically, the Big Man is saying he’s going to pox all the Egyptian cattle and whatnot, but anything owned by the Israelites will survive.))  Well OK, that sounds like a complete sentence, right?  The problem is, I didn’t translate the very last word, davar. ((Davar does a lot of heavy lifting in Hebrew.  It’s got a huge semantic range.  Literally, it simply means “word.”  In this way, it’s like the Greek word λόγοϲ, which also means ‘word.’  Later, though, it takes on a huge range of meaning, especially in philosophy.  So far, from what I can tell, davar doesn’t branch out in quite the same way.  The proper analogue seems to be πρᾶγμα, which literally means “thing,” but comes to mean matter, affair, situation, something of importanceDavar seems to do this as well.  And yeah, I realize this footnote is interesting to literally nobody but me, but it’s helpful for me to put all this down.))  The sentence totally works without this word.  So what’s this word doing there?

Anyway, I dropped her an email with the sentence in question, my translation attempt and a very polite “so what the fuck is this word doing anyway?”  She responded in less than 24 hours with the accepted translation and an explanation of how it was working.  For anybody still reading this (and I can’t imagine anybody is), the translation goes “and there shall not die from all that belongs to the sons of Israel, anything.”  So davar is an emphatic “anything,” tacked on to the end.  It’s there to drive the point home. ((Following on the previous footnote, this was not a usage of davar that I’d yet encountered.))  She also reassured me that the word is indeed redundant and that this was a very sound question to be asking.

So sound, indeed, that it seems actual Rabbis have puzzled over it.  She brought my question to her husband, who added the following rabbinical explanation:

When the Jews were in Egypt, one of the ten plagues was that the egyptian owned animals died. G-d foretold that only Egyptian animals would be affected and killed while no animals belonging to the Jews would be subject to the plague and killed. This seeming redundancy of the word “davar” comes to teach us that even an animal that was in the jurisdiction of an egyptian upon which there was a claim from a Jew; even that animal was spared and not killed.

First and foremost, I simply want to express my gratitude.  I asked this woman for help solving a little grammatical puzzle, and she not only answered the bell but added a scholarly exegesis to boot.  That gives you feels, ya know?  She didn’t have to do any of that.

On a personal level, this fascinated me.  I mean, my own reaction to reading this fascinated me.  Because when you take the rabbinical explanation on its own, it’s just the sort of thing I rebelled against in Hebrew school.  It’s the sort of thing that they would teach and upon which I would promptly call bullshit.  And, tbh, I still have that reaction.  I mean, come on.  Look, I’m agnostic, right?  I don’t rule out the existence of some kind of universe creating god.  But I do rule out any kind of god who takes an interest in human affairs, especially to the point of meddling in them.  Like, you either were boss enough to create the whole freaking universe and the laws of physics to govern it.  Or, you made a mess of things and constantly feel the need to tweak.  And if you’re tweaking, I don’t really need to pray to you.  That’s where I’m at with this stuff anyway.  Everybody is free to believe what they want.  The point is, these rabbinical explanations tend to “go up my ass sideways,” as my old dad likes to say.  </endrant> ((Did I do that right?  I don’t know anything about html.))

So much for religious belief.  But back to that bit of rabbinical exegesis.  As a language guy, as a person who did an MA in ancient Greek, as a person who always wants to understand what language is doing, well, the process of generating this bit of religious explanation is downright fascinating.  I mean, think about it.  Before you get to your beliefs, the simple fact of the matter is, you’re confronted with an imperfect bit of text.  There’s a word there that doesn’t quite fit, that’s really quite unnecessary.  And yet somebody decided to put it there.  Somebody thought it added something.  Emphasis?  Flavor?  Clarity?  OK, probably not clarity.

But, I mean, I deal with this in Homer all the time.  That’s one of the beauties of my Homeric reading group.  You get to sit around with other people who know their shit and ask these kinds of questions.  “What’s this word doing here?”  “Does it mean this or that?”  “Is it just for flavor?”  “Is just stuck in to make the meter work?”  Well, the rabbis are dealing with the same questions.  Only they’re coming at it from a totally different perspective.  For them, this is the sacred text, the word of God.  Hellenists have a saying.  “Even Homer nods.”  It means, even Homer makes mistakes.  I’m pretty sure no rabbi has ever said, “Even HaShem nods.”  So there’s the added imperative of “knowing” that the text is perfect, and simply having to figure out what the Old Man means by it.

The point is, I may not love the solution to the problem.  I can’t really empathize with religious motivating factor.  But the problem itself?  We’re both dealing with the same thing.  We’re both dealing with imperfect texts, struggling to make sense of them.  On a semi-serious level, this kind of thing makes me wonder if this is why so many of us are lawyers.  Is there something ingrained in us that drives us to parse text, to get to the meaning of every last word?  This doesn’t explain why so many of us are doctors though.  So I’ll drop that line of inquiry.

But for me though, I do wonder if there’s something in the DNA.  I’m not religious, and reading biblical text as sacred text does nothing for me.  But I bring the same process – that rabbinical desire to understand every word, every nuance – to the texts that are sacred to me.  This is how I read Homer.  It’s how I read Thucydides.  It’s how I read.  Period.

Maybe I’m making too much of this.  But when I’m confronted with a bit of Hebrew that I can’t quite sort, and I attack it the same way I attack Greek, and then I discover that this is how Jewish scholars have been attacking Jewish texts for thousands of years, well, I dunno, I write a run-on sentence to try and say that I feel like I’ve come home.  Or maybe better, I’ve been home all along and didn’t know it.

Well, I could probably write literally anything here since I’m pretty sure every last one one of you must have checked out by now.  But I generally like to end by looking forward.  To that end, I may or may not have a trip to the Pyrenees coming up in another week or so.  I also may or may not have some job stuff breaking my way.  But all that is for another day.  More to come, friends.

Oh, and this really the last thing.  Going forward, I’m going to start closing with a little Yiddishism.  זיי געסונט.  Sei Gesunt.  It literally means “be healthy.”  Which, I mean, is like the most Jewish thing ever.  Right?  All we ever say when bad things happen is, “Meh, you have your health.”  Usage-wise, though, it just means “goodbye.”  It’s the standard.  Fuck, I remember my Grandma saying it to us in the nursing home when she didn’t know who the fuck ¾ of us were.  It’s just what you say.

The only reason I knew what she was saying, though, was, because it is literally German. ((Yiddish, after all, is essentially a dialect of German.))  The funny thing is, I’ve never heard a German say it.  I’ve said it to Germans.  They understand it, clearly.  And while I haven’t questioned anybody on it yet, I suspect it reads a bit as, “Yeah, that’s not a thing.  Keep working, Dave.”  Still though, I think it’s a nice way to close, a nice way to say goodbye.  So?
זיי געסונט

An American in Berlin

An America in Berlin
2 August, 2016

Not a whole lot happened last week.  I had dinner over at Joshcka’s place on Monday, where I did the cooking, as he had a lot of work to get done.  He’s become very interested in cooking lately (as well as baking his own bread), so I did a chicken braise and taught him a bit about the process and theory.  It was all very nice and the food came out quite well, if I do say so myself.  After dinner, we stayed up all night listening to metal, drinking and playing chess. ((I lost both games :())  I think I got home around 7am.  Good times indeed.  Wednesday, he left for the States, so I’ve been down a Berlin-based friend since.

Thursday evening I went to go see my old roommate Lisa perform with her amateur choir at a bar across the street.  They’re not perfect, pitch-wise, but they’re a good time and you can see they’re having fun which is really all that matters.  Anyway, it was nice to see some live music and even nicer to catch up with Lisa for a bit.

Later that night, I was finally able to get back to work on my Hebrew, as my lovely parents were kind enough to ship me my books.  The first half-hour or so was slow going as I hadn’t looked at it in about a month.  But it wasn’t long before I felt I’d got back to where I left off.  In the end, I stayed up until 4am working.  It felt good to be back at it.  My goal was – and still is – by September 2017 to be good enough to start reading the Torah at Rosh HaShanah (the Jewish New Year) and be able to keep pace with the weekly readings.  No reason I shouldn’t be able to do that.

I have mixed feelings about Hebrew, the לאשן קו׳דש, ((That’s the/a Yiddish spelling, anyway.)) the sacred tongue.  On the one hand, I find it, on a phonetic level, to be rather displeasing.  And on a grammatical level, I find it, speaking as an avowed Hellenist, to be frustratingly imprecise.  On the other hand, it is the language of my people, my cultural birthright, if that’s not too obnoxious a term.  Furthermore, so much of Western culture is rooted in the bible, that I simply wish to be able to read it in the original.  Taken all together, however, it’s a fun process, getting to know it.  And at the end of the day, I’m a “language guy,” so if nothing else, it’s a never ending source of fascination on that level.  So much for Hebrew.

This weekend, I went to France, to visit Charlotte and to take a little roadtrip.  I flew into Nice, where she and her dad picked me up at the airport.  He dropped us at her mom’s house, where we spent Friday night.  We hung out for a bit with her mom and her younger sister, the latter of whom I was meeting for the first time.  Her mom I’d met on my last visit, back in 2013.  I don’t know her mom well, but she’s always very sweet with me.  She speaks no English, so it’s a bit of being thrown into the fire, in that I have to do my best in French off the bat.  Her mom seems to appreciate the effort, however bad I may be.

Though in fairness to myself, Charlotte told me she was rather impressed with my French, such as it is.  Apparently my accent is more than passable and I do the little things right as far as elisions and what not, which give me the appearance of not being a total stranger to the language.  For example, textbook French would say “je ne pense pas…” for “I don’t think…”  But a real French person would simply say, “j’pense pas….  I know enough to speak in this manner, at least, which, I guess, is endearing.

Which is not to say that I was fluent, or that I even had an easy time of mustering the little bit of French that I could.  A big part of the problem for me was simply that I’ve spent the better part of the last month in Germany, trying to speak German.  The upshot being that it took me forever to locate the right French word, as I always seemed to have the German equivalent on the tip of my tongue.  And even then, when I finally did find a French word, it often seemed to be an overly formal one.  Example: When I wanted to say that a French language school found me on the internet, I couldn’t for the life of me remember the word for “find.”  So I used “discover” instead.  Judging from people’s reactions, I guess it read as “cute.”  In any case, I was able to participate in conversation and to express myself well enough to get by.  In other words, it was fun.

The original plan called for Charlotte and I to rent a car and take a little roadtrip somewhere.  This was soon thrown into disarray.  First, there was concern as to whether I’d be able to rent a car without an international driver’s license, despite having just driven all over the south of Italy.  Second, Charlotte’s friend was supposed to give birth the week before.  However, the baby was late, and so her only chance to visit was the weekend of my visit.  So we now had to build our roadtrip around a stop just outside of Aix-en-Provence.

The first problem was solved by dragooning her dad into joining us and also being our driver.  At which point we invited her sister along for good measure.  The second problem was solved by choosing a vacation-location on the way to Aix and then getting an Airbnb outside the city.  Of course everything worked out.  After all, we live dans le meilleur des mondes possibles, the best of all possible worlds, as Pangloss would say.

The vacay-locay we chose was Les Calanques de Cassis, a sort of inlet on the Mediterranean just outside the little town of Cassis.  How to describe it?  It was sort of a tiny tiny fjord, I guess.  Turquoise blue water.  We had to hike a bit to get there.  For Les Niçoises in our party, it was perhaps not worth the trouble, as they said it wasn’t too different from what they could get at home.  But I thought it was beautiful, and the swimming was fantastic.  Yes, maybe the hike was a bit much for the payoff.  But my attitude is, I don’t mind spending a little extra – be it effort or money – to see something I’ve never seen before; especially if it’s something I’d never know to go look for on my own.  It was also there that the legend of the “water-peanut” was born.  But that is a story for another day.

After les calanques, we went to go meet her friend in the hospital.  This was a beautiful experience, but also a touch awkward for me.  First of all, this was, I think, the newest I’d ever seen a baby in my life.  If I’ve ever seen a newborn mere days after its birth, still in the hospital, I have no memory of it.  The parents were absolutely lovely as well.  They were nothing short of gracious with me, who, let’s face it, really had no business being there other than circumstance.

Anyway, when I say it was a touch awkward, I don’t mean that I felt out of place or that I wasn’t welcome or anything like that.  Far from it.  Everybody was so welcoming.  In fact, the mother, clearly tired though she was, took the time to chat with me a bit in English.  No, the awkwardness was simply one of language.  Not only was everybody speaking French, but they were speaking in hushed tones and whispers so that it was even harder to follow than usual.  You can imagine trying to speak with somebody in English in such a setting, and how hard that would be when you actually know the language.  Well, that gives you some idea.

And then, there was this other thing, which made such an impression on me that I feel I must put it down.  Two or three times while we were there, the mother decided she needed to breast feed the baby.  Which of course is totally appropriate.  It’s just that I’d never been around the process before.  In America, even amongst your friends, it’s treated with a certain degree of privacy.  And of course, there’s the controversy around doing it in public, which personally I’m fine with, but which I mention only for the purpose of observing that enough people aren’t fine with it that there is a controversy.

In any case, this is France, where bear breasts are readily seen in advertisements and on the covers of magazines.  So why should I have been surprised?  Still, seeing a stranger reach into her shirt and pulling out her breast to feed her baby, well, it’s not something I’m used to.  And I’m thinking, do I look away because she deserves privacy?  So I looked around the room and saw that everybody was watching.  Clearly this was just a part of visiting a new mother and her child.  So you have to put your inhibitions or your own cultural norms aside and just go with it.  When in Rome, so to speak.  But you get used to it fast, and pretty soon you’re too busy being amazed with the wonder and beauty of childbirth (or rather, safely-clean post-childbirth) to worry about anything else.  Hey, just cos I’m 35 doesn’t mean I can’t grow as a person, amirite?

So that was that, and a very nice visit it was.  True, it wasn’t what I’d signed up for when I booked my ticket.  But when you travel, you have to open yourself to whatever adventure presents itself.  There’s a whole world out there, and if your eyes are closed, you’re ain’t gonna see a thing.

After we left the hospital, we went food shopping, as our plan was to cook dinner when we got back to the Airbnb.  On some level, I had grand designs of doing up some kind of French-style braise with which to impress my traveling companions.  But it quickly became clear that ain’t nobody had time for that.  So I did up a pasta with mushrooms and a store-bought red sauce.  Given what I had to work with, I was pretty pleased.  The French gang took care of the apéro: wine, cheese, sausage.  What can you say but, Vive la France!

Charlotte’s dad brought a guitar, so we spent most of the night playing music and drinking, which was just wonderful.  I ran through many of the songs that Charlotte and I normally do together.  I also broke out Ray Charles’ What’d I say.  This was particularly awesome because when I got to the call and response bit, they three sang along without any prompting whatsoever.  That was proper good fun.  We had also intended to play some cards or Yatzee, but by the time we’d finished with the music, it was already midnight and we were out of wine.  Wisely, I think, we decided to call it a night.

The next morning, Charlotte got a call from her friend – the new mother – that she needed to see her, in private.  So we went back to the hospital.  While Charlotte was inside, I hung out with her dad and sister.  We chatted in (mostly) French about music, and soon her dad and I were talking about Trust and AC/DC.  It was very cool.  We were fighting through the language barrier and just having a good time chilling.  Charlotte’s uncle – her dad’s brother – plays in a number of bands, one of which is a Judas Priest tribute band and another of which is a straight up thrash metal act.  So he showed me some videos on the Youtube while we were waiting.  And I have to say, both band were really good.  The Priest band was properly on point, and I told him sincerely that if they were ever playing when I’m in Nice, I’d love to go.  And the other band was properly good thrash metal.

Once we’d finished at the hospital, ((Of course whatever passed between Charlotte and the mother is private, but for anybody who is worried, both baby and mama are healthy.)) we didn’t have time for anything but to head back to Nice, as I had to catch my flight.  Contrary to my usual habits, I was able to stay awake during the car ride, and this was well worth it, as the scenery was gorgeous.  The south of France is not so dissimilar from Italy in terms of landscape, but it’s not entirely the same either.  In any case, there are worse things you could look at out of a car window.

On the way back, we plugged my phone in to the stereo.  After a bit of Cranberries, I put on Trust’s Antisocial for me and Charlotte’s dad.  This, not to put to fine a point on it, was kind of a dream come true.  I was in France, blasting Trust through a car stereo, rocking out to Antisocial with an actual French Trust fan.  Cross that one off the bucket list.  After that I switched to some AC/DC.  Of course her dad actually knew the songs; added bonus.

Sometimes, the best part of roundtrips is the music you listen to.  This was true of the roadtrip Charlotte and I took out west, as well as when we went up to Maine.  In fact, we built ourselves a playlist of our favorite songs from those trips – some which we play with the guitar, some which are just so f*cking good you have to have them. ((I’m thinking of Queen’s Don’t Stop me Now.))   In fact, we listened to this very playlist on the way to les calanques.  This is also true of when Joschka, Vinny and I make our yearly pilgrimage to Rock Harz.  And it was true again now.

I should add that I found Charlotte’s sister to be very cool.  And although I’d never met her before, I was glad she came along.  She really doesn’t speak more than a few words of English, so communication wasn’t always easy.  But we still found a way to make it work, and she gave me a little playlist of music to check out as well.

So I’ve spoken about Charlotte’s dad and Charlotte’s sister.  But what of the girl herself?  Of course it was great to see her.  This is the nice thing about Europe.  You can be in different countries but it’s still easy to see your friends.  We had a great time.  We never don’t.  And there’s always something new.  This time it was the “water peanut.”  Since I’ve known her, I’ve always invented little stories, little histories for her.  Sometimes they’re just fairy-tales, made up on the fly.  Sometimes they’re faux histories, passed off as “definitely true,” though unknown but to me.

This time it was the “water peanut.”  At les calanques, I found a little pockmarked green rock, ((I think it was a rock?  Or some kind of mineral deposit?)) roughly the shape and size of a peanut.  So I put it into her hand and told her it was a very special “water peanut.”  I told her they’re very rare, and only found inside of crabs, the way pearls are found inside of oysters.  The story goes, I said, that in the old days, whalers would give them to their wives, to keep upon the mantelpiece.  When the sun would strike them at the right time of day, they would light up the room.  The sunlight would reflect out of the pockmarks like light off a disco ball.  In this way, the mariners’ wives would know their husbands were safe at sea.

The most famous water peanut, the story goes, was given by a whaling captain to his wife.  For many years, the water peanut went disco ball all over the sitting room, and she knew he was safe.  But one day, it stopped.  And it never went disco ball again.  And she knew he had died at sea.  “Well that’s depressing,” said Charlotte.  “Yeah, I said, but you need to hear the end of the story.”  This I was able to manufacture an hour or so later.

About a month after the water peanut stopped going disco ball, it started to crack.  And it kept cracking until one day, the outer shell fell away revealing the inner water peanut.  And this inner water peanut glowed brighter and shone farther than it ever had before.  And on the same day that the new water peanut was born, the mariner’s wife learned that she was pregnant, with her dead husband’s baby.  “And do you know who that baby grew up to be?” I asked.  “Who?” she demanded.  “George Washington,” I said.  “Seriously?!” she cried.  “Yeah, well I mean, not that George Washington.  But, yeah, the baby’s name was George Washington.  That was just his name.  Still though, how about that, eh?”  She had a good laugh at that.

See, the thing is, I can only do this with her.  I can always tell just from looking at her how the story should go.  A smile, a laugh, a roll of the eyes, even a look of boredom.  I can tell what’s working and what’s not.  I can tell what I’m supposed to invent next.  Her face is like a roadmap for my stories.  I amuse her, I think, but in the end, she’s the Muse.

Well, now it’s on to the next adventure…