An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
21 December, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

שמע ישראל אתה היום את הירדן

But when you break it down word for word, you’re stuck with something like: Hear(!7)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

זיי געסונט


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

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