An American in Berlin
27 September, 2017
Oh, hey. Yeah, I’ve been meaning to write for a while, but I’ve been busy. More on that later. I had actually written up a post just after Charlottesville. Which, yikes, that was already like six weeks ago. And feels like a million years ago. But anyway, I wrote up a post shortly after Charlottesville which veered into the political at one point. And I didn’t want to publish it night-off, as I wanted to give it a fresh (i.e. sober) read the next day. Only, then I got sidetracked and never got back to it. So this post is going to be a bit of what’s going on now, but also I’ll probably cannibalize that last post a bit. Though I haven’t decided yet if I want do the political this time around. I mean, I rather enjoy keeping politics out of this. Mal schauen. Anyway.
The parents were in town ten days ago or so. It was pretty great to see them, especially here, even if the whole thing was a bit rushed. And depressing. I mean, not seeing them. The activities. I’ll get to it.
[Sorry, I’m feeling a bit disorganized in my thoughts right now and I fear that’s being reflected in this piece. I hope y’all can deal with it].
No, so the first day, I pick them up at the airport. I thought I would be all cool and Berlinery, so I bought them subway tickets in advance. Naturally they wanted to take a cab. Well done, Davey. Then we get to the hotel. Which was properly nice. I mean, really properly nice. To the point where I was like, “Who are you people?” But I guess they’d been saving for a while, so it wasn’t a problem.
We went to dinner at this German joint a friend recommended to me. That was quite nice. And they seemed to really like the food. So that was a win. On the way back to the hotel, I introduced them to the Stolpersteine. These are little bronze, square plaques built into the Berlin sidewalks. They all say something like “Here lived so-and-so, born on such-and-such date, murdered at such-on-such camp, on such-and-such date.” A bit of foreshadowing for the next day.
And the next day started out innocently enough. A walk through the Tiergarten to the Brandenburger Tor, with a quick stop by the Reichstag. But from there, it got depressing. We visited the Holocaust Memorial. And then the Topographie des Terrors, which is basically a timeline of Berlin in the 20th century. Oh, and it’s built into what used to the basement of the Gestapo HQ. And across the street from the former Reich Air Ministry (now Finance Ministry).
And from there it was off to the Jewish Museum. Which is not, I hasten to add, a Holocaust museum. It’s the whole history of Jews in Germany. But, like, you know how it ends. And don’t get me wrong. It’s an amazing museum. But it’s a lot for one day. Like, a lot a lot. Worth it. Glad we did it. But it was draining, is all I’m saying.
Two things I want to make especial mention of from that day though. One nice, one…something else. So at the Holocaust Memorial, we talked about what we thought it was supposed to be, what it was supposed to represent and all that. Among the things we came up with, is that people just “disappear” into it; my dad’s word. Also that you have no idea of the scope and scale of thing (memorial/actual Holocaust) until you get down into it. But we also thought that each of the concrete blocks were like tombstones. So we decided to find little stones on the ground and place them atop one of the blocks. Which, if you’re Jewish, you get. And if you’re not, well, we don’t leave flowers at graves. We leave pebbles on top of the tombstones. Anyway, we put them on top of one of the taller blocks, so they wouldn’t be easily knocked off.
The other thing I wanted to mention, well, it still gives me the creeps. There was one point when we were all standing together. I honestly don’t remember whether it was the Memorial, or the TdT or the Holocausty part of the museum. But we were just standing together. And I was hit by this awful feeling. Like, here we are, a Jewish family in Berlin. And it was just this feeling of total helplessness. Because you know there was a time when that meant nothing. They’d come for one of you, or they’d come for all of you. But they’d come. And there was nothing you could do.
I don’t know. Like, I could actually see that last moment when you get off the train. Right before they send you off to one line and send them off to another line. And maybe it’s the last time you see each other. And it was just too real. It made me shiver. Still does. It didn’t last long either. It was just a moment. But I’ve never felt so powerless. I didn’t say anything about it either. So when they read this, it will be the first they hear of it. And I’m not really interested in talking about it again. But I had to put it down, for the record of things.
But enough of that. We went to a classical concert that night, which was pretty great. Killer organ player. Tore up the Bach toccata in Dm. Man, to hear that live, on an organ, just fucking wow. We had Chinese for dinner, which was also top notch. And then I crashed with them at the hotel.
That morning, they had made arrangements with the front desk to be upgraded to a room with a cot. The hotel was supposed to take care of everything; even move our bags. Only they didn’t. And when my dad asked the guy at the desk about it, he had no idea. And it was clear he was at the limits of his English. At which point, my dad was like, “Umm, can you help?” So I had to use my best/poor German to explain the situation. In the end, we got it sorted. But of course, my mom got all teary-eyed and did the whole, “I’m so proud of you” shtick. Hashtag moms, I guess. What can you do, right?
And that was basically it. Oh, and I stopped us by a Spati so they could experience drinking a beer on the street. And obviously we had Currywurst for lunch, because how can you not? And yeah, that was basically it. But it was great to have them here, even if it was short. Hopefully they can come back.
Moving right along. The roommates were out of town around the middle of August. So I took advantage of having the place to myself to host what can fairly be called my first grownup dinner party. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for quite a while. And while I’ve had people over for dinner at my parents’ house, I mean, if it’s at your folks’ abode, you can’t really call it a “grownup” dinner party, can you? And obviously in Chinatown, just like, where would you put anybody?
So this was it. My own (albeit shared) place. And I went the whole nine. Appetizer hour (Apéro!) with Hungarian sausage, Spreewald pickles, prosciutto, tomatoes, three types of cheese, bread and seasoned olive oil. The main was an Italian style “Sunday gravy,” but with a German twist. Ham hocks, bratwurst and stew-beef cooked for 4-5 hours in a homemade tomato sauce; the sauce which then went with the pasta. Chocolate for dessert. And of course, plenty of wine.
I invited Joschka and Cindy, Annett and Jan, and Anne. It was a little cramped, sure. And I didn’t know how the mixing of people would work. But in the end, everybody got on quite well. Joschka had actually brought a couple of board games in case things went dead, but we never needed them. The food was good. The wine was good. The company was good. I’m prepared to call that a success.
It was a lot of work, but I really enjoyed doing it. I mean, I like cooking and I like cooking for people even more. It’s definitely something I’d like to do more regularly, if I can manage to get the place to myself again. Because six was people was the upward limit, and it’d be tough to do with the roommates home. Partly because you can’t exclude them, obviously. And partly because, even if they decided to stay out of the way, the house would still feel that much more crowded. So we’ll see. But good times.
Last post [whenever that was], I wrote that I needed to start getting Homer back into my life, and that the way to do that was probably to just read 10-15 lines every day. Well, I’m happy to report that I’ve gotten that off the ground. So far, I’ve read Iliad 24, the last book. And now I’ve started over at the beginning, so I’m about halfway through Book 1. When I began, I was doing maybe 10-20 lines a night. Now I’m averaging around 40. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, because I only started about two months ago. But this can’t be a for-now thing. It needs to be an every-day-forever thing. And I’m glad I’m doing it. It feels right. Also, I know Daitz would be pleased; which matters to me.
But it has become a part of my nightly routine. I almost can’t go to bed without reading a bit of Homer. And I just love it. So here’s hoping I can keep it going. Forever. As a tack-on to this, I would love to one day get to the point where I can quote Homer the way bible-thumpers quote the bible, or the way the English professor who ran my London program could quote Shakespeare. Or, presumably, the way Daitz could quote Homer. Call that a life goal, I guess.
Speaking of keeping things going, the Hebrew has slowed down a bit. As I’ve written previously, I finished the Megillah, but I needed something to keep me busy until the new year came around. So I figured why not tackle one (or more) of the haftaras? Well, let me tell you, I’m bored out of my mind. It’s just a whole lot of “God is great, he’s going to do this to your enemies, he’s going to take care of you the chosen people, God is a big deal, etc.” Like, yeah, I get it.
And this is where I run into my inner conflict with this stuff. Because on the one hand, I’m interested in the “history,” the stories. And I’m very much interested in connecting with my heritage; with understanding our sacred text; with being able to read it in its own words. But man, let me tell you how much I don’t care about the whole “God” angle. I mean, he basically says, “Listen, go get circumcised and I’ll take care of the rest.” Fun fact, the word bris (ברית) literally means “covenant.” So whenever he’s talking about the covenant, that’s what’s going on.
So yeah, anyway, “Go get circumcised and I’ll take care of the rest.” Except, it’s mostly just a lot of “Oh hey, remember that time I brought you out of Egypt?” Talk about resting on your laurels. Because after that, apart from some random victories at Jericho etc. and some near misses at Chanukah and Purim, it’s been mostly 2500 years of down-trodden anti-Semitism. Yes, yes, I know that’s a terribly cynical way to read it. But that’s where I’m at with it at the moment.
Anyway, Rosh HaShanah has come and gone. I got through two of those dreadful haftaras, which is plenty enough for now. Next week begins “Operation Read the Whole Fucking Torah in a Year.” And you know, I’m really looking forward to it. Time to get this show on the road. In the beginning, bitches. In the beginning.
So a little while back, I was reading about the Tram system in Berlin. And I came across this little factoid which said that one of the lines out by me was apparently rated one of the ten best tram lines in the world by National Geographic. So obvi I had to check that out.
And it was great. You head progressively Southeast until next thing you know, you’re in the middle of the woods. I stayed on til the end, which was a small town. There, I popped into a gas station to pick up a couple of beers. Because Berlin. And then I got to walking.
It was gorgeous. It’s basically a path through the woods that runs along the biggest lake in Berlin, the Müggelsee. The crazy thing was, because of the types of trees and the particular layout of the place, I felt like I just as easily could have been in upstate New York or Maine. It did make me a touch homesick, if I’m honest. But it was also pretty wonderful.
It has to be counted among the unique benefits of living in this part of town. And remember, this part of town is JWD, ADW (very far away, basically). So most of the time, it’s inconvenient. But the nature is what makes up for it, especially this time of year. And this tram line stops around the corner from me. So it’s pretty great. I’ll definitely be going back. Maybe next time I’ll bring my guitar or some Homer. And beer, natch.
That was around the beginning of August. I haven’t yet been back to that particular spot. But I did take a tram to the other side of the Müggelsee and had another nice, long, beer-walk. And again, just fucking gorgeous. And now, this was in September already. So it was pretty empty of people. Peaceful and quiet. So to all the folks who give me a hard time about living out in the sticks…the sticks are beautiful, y’all. Come visit.
Teaching has been interesting. For three weeks in August/September, some of the teachers went on vacay, so I was covering extra shifts. Working five full days a week. Which is a lot. I know, it doesn’t sound like a lot. It sounds normal. But it’s tough. Mostly because it was all at the one school, where – remember – there’s no curriculum; so I have to come up with everything myself.
It was three days a week with the beginners and two with the advanced. Well, I do two days a week with the advanced anyway, so that was nbd. But three days a week with the beginners, that was tough. Especially at first. But I started to get into a groove.
And at some point, I looked at it as an opportunity. As an opportunity to mold them into the students I wanted them to be. To set them up with the skills I know I’d want them to have if they stick around long enough to get to the advanced class. And even though now I’m back to one day a week with them, I think I’m making some serious inroads.
See, before, it was very much, “Well, I guess we’ll do this today.” But now I’m starting to knit the lessons together, to build one on top of another. And by George, I think they’re getting it! Well, most of them, anyway. So just at the moment, I’m feeling pretty good about it. Which is nice, because normally it’s the beginners that give me the most angst.
Teaching is funny. There are days when I walk out of there feeling like I must not be very good at this. Especially with the beginners. But lately, I’m feeling very much like I know what I’m doing. I guess it’s always going to be a bit of up-and-down. But for the first time, I really feel like I’m working with a plan for both my classes, and that’s quite a nice thing. Teaching is funny.
Two more things about teaching. One, my boss offered me another full-time day. So that’s quite nice. Cha-ching. But better, I had an awesome lesson with my advanced class last week. See, I’m always teaching them that “rules” are mutable and that languages are constantly changing. As an example, I always ask, “OK, you know what the ‘rules’ of German are today. But your language has changed quite a lot too. For example, could you just sit down and read the Nibelungenlied?” And of course, they’re always like, “How the fuck should I know. I’ve never seen it.” Well, I decided it was finally time to take a look.
So I gathered an example of Middle English and Middle High German. And then an example of Old English and Old High German. Chaucer and Nibelungenlied for the Middles; the Lord’s Prayer and Beowulf for the Olds. And for all four examples, I walked them through the changes, showed them how spellings have mutated, how the grammar has morphed, but in the end, how it was still recognizably their language.
Because, in the case of the German, at least, it is. Granted, I’m not an expert on any of this. But I have enough tools to walk them through it. And even the Chaucer, we could all keep up. Only the Beowulf was unreadable. But even there, we had no problem picking out words; some English, some German.
Anyway, they got a real kick out of it. Like, you could see it in their faces. You could even hear it. There were actual audible gasps and exclamations when they figured something out. Man, yeah, that was fucking cool. And that’s got to be the best thing about this particular job. Since there’s no curriculum, no book, I can just do that. Probably my favorite lesson to date.
I think last time I mentioned that I’d started in on the Oedipus at Colonus. That’s going slowly, but it’s going. Tragedy is a bitch, though, Greekly speaking. I mean, the vocabulary is tough. Lots of hapax legomenoi (words used only once) and lots of variation in spelling. Although, I have to say, after reading Aristotle’s Poetics, it all makes a lot more sense. He had some things to say about word variation and alternate spellings, and now I’m seeing it work in ways I never saw before. So that’s kind of cool.
But then there’s the choruses. And they’re just tough, man. First of all, the dialect changes. So that right there is a barrier. But they’re also much more poetic, metaphoric. Like sometimes, even after you work out what a passage means, you still don’t know what it “means.” But I ordered a hardcore commentary that has shed a lot of light on things, so that’s been a huge help.
That said, I’m about a third of the way through the play. And… dunno. Not my fav. Like, nothing happens. The OT – sorry, Oidpous Tyrannos (Oedipus Rex) – is gangbusters. But this one. Well, let’s just say I’m looking forward to finishing it and getting on with some nice prose history. Though I haven’t yet decided if I’m going to go with Herodotus or Thucydides. A decision for another day.
Baseball continues to be a godsend. Most games start at 1am here, which means I’m usually falling asleep to the radio. I’m sure I’ve written about this before. But it doesn’t get old. And I always look forward to the emails from my Greek professor. Glorious puns and good baseball banter. Even in Germany, baseball might be the best thing about summer.
Speaking of Greek professors, I reached out to my first year prof, Markus, who now teaches in Berlin. We’re going to try and meet up soon. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing him again. It’s probably been seven years. That said, I’m a bit nervous. I guess I shouldn’t be. And I can’t really put words to it. Maybe something about justifying where I’m at, post-Masters. I dunno. We’ll see. I’m sure it’ll be fine. I mean, that was the most fun – and most influential class – I’ve ever taken. And by most influential, I mean, he’s probably the teacher I most model my own style on. But I can get more into that whenever I do the write-up of the meet-up. Anyway, as I said, I’m sure it’ll be fine.
One last thing. After Steve died, I had a rather odd dream. And for whatever reason, I felt compelled to write that dream into a story. I just finished it this week; well the first draft, anyway. Took me two and half months or so. And honestly, that’s the reason I haven’t posted anything. All my free writing time has been consumed with that project. Every night where I didn’t have to work the next day (and didn’t have plans to go out) was a dedicated writing night. I’d start around 11 or 12 and finish anywhere between 3 and 5.
For the better part of nine weeks, it was all consuming. I was living in that story. And now it’s over. I mean, I still need to edit it. But I’m out of it now. And I’ve got the same feeling I had when I finished my thesis. I don’t to relinquish the momentum. I want to keep working. But I also don’t have any new story ideas. So maybe that means more regular blogging. Mal schauen.
Anyway, It’s a bit weird; the story, I mean. There’s definitely some Lovecraft that’s crept into it…
…That’s something I’ve always been guilty of. Having my style influenced to a degree by whatever the last thing I read was. I mean, it’s still me. It’s still my voice, my style. But it’s probably a very different story if I hadn’t just read a bunch of Lovecraft. Anyway…
…So it’s a bit weird, but I hope it manages to be a bit moving at times as well. We’ll see. That’ll be for other people to judge, I guess. Though I’m not sure I’ll want to show it to anybody. (Then why bring it up, David?). But that’s been occupying a lot (OK, all) of my creative time and energy lately, so it seemed worth mentioning.
One other last thing. Lately, I’ve been trying to reconnect with the classical guitar. See, once I’d finally taught myself to sing and play at the same time, I really kinda let the classical stuff fall by the wayside. For years. Honestly, it’s embarrassing. I mean, I used to handle the Prelude to the first Bach Cello/Lute suite pretty well. Now I’ve simply forgotten it.
But I’ve got myself all the way through the Sor Variations. I’m not saying well. But I can play the whole thing. Which I could never do before. And it’s super fucking cool. It’s just a hot piece. I mean, smokin’. Also demanding. And man, are my finger-picking skills in a state. The colder weather ain’t helping either. Doesn’t matter. It’s nice to be getting this back a bit. We’ll see how far I can take it.
Right, well surely that’s enough. Ooh, and politics avoided. Maybe I’ll tackle that next time. Or maybe not. In any case,