An American in Berlin
27 May, 2017
I must confess to feeling a bit burned out these last few days. Two roadtrips in two weekends will do that to you. The first trip was up north to the Ostsee, the Baltic sea. Last weekend was down south to Bavaria. Two totally different experiences that were, in fact, not all that different in the end.
The trip to the Ostsee, that was with Jan and Zibs and Zibs’ friend Marianne, from Norway. I was the driver on this trip, as we rented the car under my credit card. It was, in all likelihood, my last time renting a car in this country. Apparently, after living in Germany for six months, one is required to get an actual German license; you can no longer legally drive on a foreign one. I learned this fact accidentally, when I made the mistake1 of updating my address information with the rental agency. Fortunately, I came in just under the wire, as I was a week short of the six-month mark according to my Anmeldung.2
So we pile into the car, the four of us, and off we go. Me, two close friends and a complete stranger who was about to get thrown head-first into my awful jokes, my worse advances, and just general Dave-ness. The poor thing. Or so I thought. But we’ll come back to that later.
The drive was more or less uneventful, if pleasant. It’s always nice to take roadtrips, to just hit the open road and go. Plus, I mean, Germany. Autobahn. No speed limit. Which isn’t to say that I drove recklessly; I didn’t. But you can definitely go. The countryside was pretty, albeit mostly flat and covered in fields of rapeseed, which has its own unique smell. Ah, rapeseed. There’s a name for you. We’ll come back to that too.
Anyway, we finally got to our little cottage, quite literally in the middle of nowhere. In fact, it hardly seemed as if anybody actually lived in the area. It seemed to be entirely composed of rental vacation homes. My old dad sometimes talks about how they used to go to a “bungalow colony” when he was a kid. To this day, I have no idea what the actual fuck a “bungalow colony” is,3 but I imagine it must not be too far off from this.
The house itself was adorbs, being all wood everything on the inside. The first night, we went shopping for the essentials. You know, beer & wine. But also food. I cooked us a late-evening meal of beef stew, in which, for lack of mushrooms, I added an eggplant. Never did that before, but it added a really nice flavor, I thought. Anyway, everybody seemed quite happy with it, as there were no leftovers.
After that, the drinks started flowing. Jan and I both brought our guitars, so we had a nice little jam sesh. Beyond that, it was just the usual good-times hanging out stuff. I quickly became a fan of the new girl. She was very quiet in the car, so I really didn’t get to know her until this point. Turns out she’s got a razor-sharp wit and gives as good as she gets. “Impressed” wouldn’t be too strong a word. In fact, she even succeeded in leaving me speechless with some of her well-timed, whip-smart comebacks.
I don’t know how to describe her exactly. She’s Norwegian, yes, but also Nordic, if that means anything. In other words, she doesn’t say much. But when she does speak, it’s always very soft, as few words as possible. But she can make those words cut like a knife. And funny as hell. So she was a good fit, for sure. I’m glad she was there.
I’m also glad she was there because without her, I would have been a third wheel. I hang out with J&Z all the time, and they never make me feel third-wheely. But for a whole weekend? That could have been different. In any case, that potential problem was neatly avoided by the addition of their diminutive Norse friend.
The second day, we took a trip to the nearby vacation/resort town of Boltenhagen.4 Absolutely gorgeous and right on the water. It was a lovely place to walk around. I even made up a little fairy tale there, just based on the random things we were seeing. It started at the end of a long pier. Over the railing, was a shorter wooden post sticking out of the water, with a copper plate on top. On that plate were two dozen or so pennies that people had thrown. That was the starting point for the story. I’ll give a short version here, because why not?
There once was a king in these parts, and he had a daughter of surpassing beauty. Every man in the kingdom wanted to marry her. So the king offered a challenge. Any man who could toss a penny from the end of the pier and land it on the copper plate could marry his daughter. Only, as evidenced by all the pennies, the challenge wasn’t nearly hard enough.
Whereupon did he contract the local witch to add some danger to it all. Now, anybody who failed to land a penny on the copper plate would be turned to stone. Proof of this, all the stone statues scattered throughout the area. But if they did manage to land the penny, they would first be turned into a swan. Proof of this, all the swans in the area. In the end, only a man with true love in his heart, who also managed to land the penny, would be able to marry the princess.
So every day, the princess would go down to the pier and await her true love. But many years passed and she grew tired of waiting. Still, she did not wish to forsake hope. Yet neither did she wish to grow old in her waiting. So at last, she asked the witch to turn her to stone until her true love should appear. Proof of this, the stone statue of a young woman at the foot of the pier. And so, she waits to this day.
Maybe one day I’ll sit down and write that out into a proper story. But for an on-the-fly story, made up on the spot, I thought it was pretty nice. The others thought it was alright, I guess. But it made me think for a moment of Charlotte, who always loves this sort of silliness.
After this, we sat down for lunch. We got Fischbrötchen, fish rolls, which is apparently the thing to do at the German seaside. It’s basically a piece of whitefish, breaded and fried, inside a roll, with some kind of tartar sauce I guess. It was pretty perfect, to be honest. So after we’d all enjoyed our lunches, I collected the empty plates to throw them out. Marianne said something along the lines of, “Oh, that’s very nice of you.” To which I replied, “Honestly, it’s just an honor for me to touch anything where your mouth has been.”5 To which she then replied in perfect Nordic deadpan, “Wow. That’s like 30% creepy…but 70% charming.” Which may well be the nicest thing any girl has ever said to me.
On the way back, we hit the supermarket again, as our plan for the evening was to make a little BBQ. The house had a grill, after all. And this being Germany, we were obliged to buy at least two different kinds of sausages as well as potatoes and probably something green. No wait, definitely something green. We bought asparagus, which we proceeded to wrap in bacon. And also salad. Jan worked the grill, while I did some variant of my oven roasted potatoes. The girls took care of the salad. Oh, and we also bought a bottle of whiskey, because Jan wanted whiskey sours. To which I wondered, why spoil perfectly good whiskey?6
So dinner was fantastic. Apart from the obligatory bratwurst, we also had Krakauer sausage, which basically tasted like the American version of kielbasa. It was a gorgeous feast. Jan was a master on the grill. Everything was delicious. Not least, for me, because I insisted on the spiciest mustard we could find. It was funny to watch all their faces go red as they tried it, while I put it away effortlessly.
Upon which, I shared with them the story of my family’s Passovers vis-à-vis horseradish. Because, as you know – or should know – mustard isn’t spicy like peppers. It doesn’t burn in your mouth. It goes straight up to your sinuses with a bomb strapped to its chest. So I told them how Uncle Art and Uncle Don usually make their own horseradish; how I usually bring a jar from The Pickle Guys; how all the men pass it around the table, testing themselves in the most macho way Jewish men are able, namely to just eat straight horseradish and try to handle it with as much dignity as you can mustard muster. In other words, it was a very long way of saying, “Y’all are pussies for not being able to handle your mustard.” I think they appreciated the story, if not the sentiment. But after the first bite, they steered pretty clear of that yellow fire, while I devoured it.
After dinner, we moved to the living room for drinks and music. First, we jammed out for a bit, which was obvi a good time. But then they wanted to watch Eurovision. This, apparently, is Europe’s version of American Idol. Which is an incredibly arrogant and Americo-centric way of describing it, since, apparently, it’s been around forever. But I didn’t know that, and I’m guessing you didn’t either. It reminded me of back in the day, back when Amanda was still hosting Wednesday Night Dinners, and we’d retire to the living room to watch American Idol. Yeah, I didn’t love it then, either.
Two short remembrances from this Eurovision experience. First. Each country had a representative video in to deliver their countries votes. And invariably, each representative would say a word or two in Ukrainian, as that’s where the show was being held. But it was always something generic, like, “Greetings!” Then the Israeli guy gets on, and speaks like a paragraph of flawless Ukrainian. And you just know that, somewhere, his mother was kvelling.
Second. It was fascinating to see English function, in real-time, as a lingua franca. What I mean is, everything was conducted in English. And yet, outside of Australia, England and maybe Ireland, English was the native language of none of these countries. Nevertheless, that was the standard. And at first, it was super interesting to watch. To observe the type of English they used, to see how they used it. Because it was full of “mistakes.” None of which mattered, of course, to the people speaking it or hearing it.
By this time, I was hitting the whiskey pretty hard. And at some point, this went from fascinating to frustrating. Because they were saying things where I felt, “Wait, was that a passive-aggressive insult, or is that just a function of your un-nuanced use of the language?” I suppose I could have just let it go. But it’s hard for me to turn my brain off with this stuff. I can’t hear it passively. I’m constantly analyzing it. And it became exhausting. So eventually I went outside to have a pipe and just sit in the grass and look at the dark night sky. Which was very serene and just what I needed.
I want to clarify my remarks on English for a moment, because I’m not sure how they read. Under no circumstances do I take a parochial view of my language. I don’t think it “belongs” to native speakers. Nor am I a prescriptivist. I take a dim view of the words “right” and “wrong” with respect to English. In fact, I love the myriad ways non-native speakers use the language, and how that usage reflects their own language and culture.
My point is simply this. It’s so completely fascinating that I often can’t hear the forest for the trees, so to speak. I get so focused on the little things, that I lose sight of the actual content. Every odd turn of phrase, every “misplaced” adverb, raises a question. Add to that a fair helping of scotch, and it becomes exhausting. That’s all I meant.
If Sunday taught me anything, it’s that I handle my spicy mustard better than I handle my whiskey these days. I woke up around three, and I was not feeling well. The plan was to return to Boltenhagen for dinner. Technically, only I was allowed to drive, as the car was under my name, and we didn’t sign up for a second driver. But Jan was sufficiently worried to the point that he offered to drive.
But I was fine. Or would be. I just needed to puke, and I’d be better. I knew that from experience. Γνῶθι ϲεάυτον – know thyself. I’ve done this enough times by now to know. So I went and had a very lovely throw-up and I was good to go. I hope that doesn’t read as a brag. It’s rather a bit embarrassing, actually. But, you know, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
So we went to a nice Italian joint in Boltenhagen. It was great. My state solved the problem of being the designated driver. The day before, it had struck me as an awful proposition. But in the moment, I was happy to do it. So I had an Apfelschörler – apple juice with seltzer – with my meal, and it was perfect. After dinner, we went back out to the pier for sunset, which was lovely. And then back to the house.
There we had more music and more drinks; I had, by this point, returned to myself. But we all took it pretty easy, as Monday was a travel day. On the way back home, we stopped into the city of Schwerin. It was gorgeous. Had a castle and everything. In fact, the local government conducts all its business in the castle. It’s functionally their city hall. You have to admit, that’s pretty cool. So we spent a few hours wandering the castle gardens before having lunch. And then it was back to Berlin.
Funny thing. The reason we rented the car on my credit card, was because my card provides free auto-rental insurance. But when it came time to making the reservation, I could tell that Jan was a bit nervous about not taking the actual insurance offered by the rental agency. So I said, fuck it, let’s just do it. Because, the way I see, if you’re going to be worrying about something, then you’re not actually on vacation.
Well, this proved a wise choice. Because about 15 minutes from Berlin, a little stone got kicked up by a truck in front of us and smacked into our windshield, leaving a nice little crater. Now, maybe my cc insurance would have covered this anyway. But it would have been a process. Now, we were simply covered. No worries. So that worked out just fine.
And so, yeah, 15 minutes later, we were back at the airport, dropping off our car. And that was the end of our trip. Personally, I thought it was a success. I had a blast. It’s always hard to know, though, right? And maybe this is just me being self-conscious. But you never know how other people see it. I mean, I’m a very “sleep-til-whenever, we don’t need a plan” kind of guy. And not everybody is that way. So maybe they walked away thinking, “Geez, let’s not travel with a guy who doesn’t have his shit together again.” I dunno. But for me, I had a great time. And there was some talk of making a trip to visit M in Norway. Which, I would fucking love to do. I mean, FJORDS, you guys. Fucking fjords. So we’ll see.
OK, so that went longer than I thought. I’m not about to now start in the whole Bavaria trip. That will have to be another post. Instead, I want to take a few minutes to ruminate about German. More specifically, my German.
What does it mean to make a language your own? What does it mean to speak a language your way? Certainly I have my own way of speaking English. I definitely have my English. As does every native speaker. But German is not my native language. And so, yeah, of course I have my German, my own way of speaking the language. And obviously, some of that is just down to the routine mistakes that I make. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
You can learn the “textbook” version of a language. And this is good for writing. But nobody speaks this way. Everybody has their own idiosyncrasies. Some of that is down to word choice and phrasing. Some of it is down to dialect and regionalisms. But what does that mean for me as a non-native speaker? What is “affectation” and what is “real”? What do I choose and what happens naturally?
The question of “what do I choose” is what interests me. Because I’m reaching the stage now where I find that I’m making choices. By which I mean, I’m consciously suppressing things I naturally do/say in favor of things I choose to do/say. At the moment, this manifests itself in two ways.
The first is what I call “Berlinese.” There is, in fact, a Berlin dialect and a Berlin accent. In terms of dialect, there are slangy things that Berliners say that don’t show up in textbook Hochdeutsch, never mind the rest of the country. I’ll give one example, out of many. In German, when something is far away, you can simply say that it is weit weg: literally, “far away.” But in Berlin – and apparently only Berlin (& Brandenburg) – you can say that something is JWD (pronounced: Yod-Weh-Deh), an acronym which stands for Janz Weit Draußen. I try to use this whenever possible.
But already this gets complicated. Because, much like New York, most of the people that live here aren’t actually from here. So it’s entirely possible that when you say JWD to somebody, be they German but from somewhere else or simply from another country, they won’t understand you. And the point, after all, is to be understood, isn’t it? So on a practical level, it may not serve me that well. It’d be like, if you were from, I dunno, Pakistan, and showing up in New York you asked for directions to “toity toid ‘n’ toid.” Yeah, you can find people that speak this way. But most people don’t. And your cab driver from Gana might have no idea what you mean. It’s an affectation. An attempt to be “authentic,” whatever that means.
So that’s on the level of idiom. But it also operates on the level of accent, or dialect. Born Berliners tend to pronounce their “g”s as “j”s (or “y”s to our ears). Take the above example. JWD. As I said, the acronym stands for Janz Weit Draußen. “Janz” is how Berliners pronounce “ganz.” So they take their pronunciation, and create an acronym not from the actual words but from how they say those words. Which I love, by the way.
Anyway, I find myself making an effort to change all the “g”s I learned into “j”s. I find myself making an effort to say “schlaff jut” instead of “shlaff gut” – sleep well. Or “jut jemacht” instead of “gut gemacht” – well done. And I know it’s an affectation. But my question is, is not the totality of my German an affectation? Aren’t I always trying to mimic something? If the answer is yes, then why not try to mimic the speech patterns of the place that I live, as opposed to the speech patters of some generic “neutral” German? For me, I think, it’s all a part of trying to make this place my home, of trying to be a part of this place. Maybe it’s bullshit. But at the moment, I tend to think it’s no less bullshit than anything else.
I said there were two ways I was making choices. The first is the adoption of at least some elements of Berinese, as just discussed. But the second, and more complicated, is the conscious effort to sprinkle in Yiddishisms. And the reason it’s complicated, is because while the vast majority of the Yiddish lexicon is German, the words don’t always have the same meaning.
Let’s take the word verbissene, for example; which we might spell farbissine in Yinglish. Having learned this word from my mother, it seems the perfect way to describe the sour, grumpy old lady who lives downstairs, who knocks on the door when my music is too loud. But in German, verbissene, simply means somebody who is super-dedicated and hardworking. The root is the verb bissen, which means “to bite.” In German, this goes in one direction: somebody who bites down hard and gets to work, and doesn’t “unbite,” so to speak, until they finish the task at hand. In Yiddish, it goes in another direction. It’s somebody who maybe is always biting their lower lip out of frustration or annoyance. I mean, you can picture it.
So, in German, I often want to refer to “Die verbissene drunter” – the sour, grumpy old lady who lives downstairs. And yet, if I say that, people raise an eyebrow. “Wait, what?” And I need to explain. Same goes for the word “menschlich.” In Yiddish, this means basically, ‘decent,’ ‘kind,’ ‘good.’ For example, you bring your sick friend a bowl of chicken soup. The response is, “Thank you, that’s very menschlich.” But in modern German, it simply seems to denote something of human – as opposed to animal – quality. So when I say, “Danke schön, das war sehr menschlich” – Thank you, that was extraordinarily decent of you,” well, the heartfeltness of it tends to get lost.
One more example, one that is more day-to-day. German has two words for “remember.” There’s gedenken and there’s erinnern. Now, it’s been my observation – and it’s always important to remember that I don’t speak the language, I just know words and phrases – it’s been my observation, I say, that Yiddish uses gedenken exclusively. Whereas in German, there’s a distinction. Erinnern is your everyday “remember,” but gedenken is reserved for serious matters, as in “Let us remember those who have fallen in the war,” as opposed to “I don’t remember where I left my keys.”
So on a very basic level, I can use these Yiddishisms. They will, if only after a question or two, be understood. But they will sound off, there’s no two ways about it. So does it make sense to use them? Does it make sense to choose to use them? Some words, like verbissene or menschlich I would use even in English. But others, like gedenken, only function – for me – as “German” words.
So the question, again, is, does it make sense to use them? Does it make sense to go out of my way to use them, to make a conscious decision to choose the Yiddish word over the German word? I don’t know. Clearly, in some way, it’s a manifestation of my trying to assert my own identity over the language. Fair enough. We all assert our own identities over whatever language we speak. I just wonder, if it’s more conscious and less organic, is that OK? Is that less “authentic,” for lack of a better word? And is it practical? Just some of the things that have been on my mind as I continue my journey – and hopefully progress – with the German language.
Right, so that’s enough for tonight. Next time, Bavaria.
- I say “mistake,” because I wonder, had I just let them run with my New York address, could I keep renting indefinitely? [↩]
- Remember that thing? It just keeps coming back. [↩]
- Let alone a bungalow; apart from it’s being a silly looking and sounding word. [↩]
- The “town” where we were staying, Zierow, had literally nothing in it. Even my German spell-checker has never heard of it. [↩]
- #davestheworst [↩]
- It was not perfectly good whiskey. It was cheap scotch. But I stand by my question. [↩]