An American in Berlin
9 April, 2021
Now is the winter of our discontent. Wait, have I used that one already? No matter. I’ve had it just about up to here with…well, with a lot of things. Why, just today it rained. And snowed. Andfucking hailed. It’s April, y’all. Double-you-tee-eff. Also, can Europe get its shit together vis-à-vis vaccines? And the answer, apparently, is no. Also, I’m 40. What the actual ice cold fuck? “I mean, when and how did that happen?” he asked rhetorically. OK, OK, enough kvetching. I think. How are you?
It’s obviously been a while since I’ve written, but I do have a good reason. Remember that book I was translating? From about the middle of December, I decided to make a concentrated push to get it done by the end of February. Which I did. Well, the translation anyway. Proofreading and editing ran into March, but that’s alright. Anyway, this concentrated push came at the expense of just about everything else. Music, Torah and, yes, blogue posts.
The good news is, all the actual work is done now. I have a fully translated book on my hands. And while I’m not totally in love with every single word of it, I’m generally pleased with the overall result. And it’s an accomplishment of sorts. Also, I’d like to think it helped my German. But I don’t actually think it has. I mean, sure, I picked up some new vocabulary. But my spoken German is withering in the face of the lockdown. More on that later.
Anyway, the author is supposed to come over on Sunday to finalize the, err, final details. So it shouldn’t be long now before the book is up on Amazon for all you lovelies to buy and read and line my pockets with the handful of pennies I’ll accrue on each sale.
Did I enjoy it? Was it fun? I’ve been asked these questions more than a few times. The answer is, it depends. At times it was fun. At times I enjoyed it. And I’m glad I did it. But as I mentioned, it came at the cost of putting aside a lot of other things that are dear to me. Still, it’s kinda cool to be able to add “translated an actual fucking book from German into English” to the list of shit I’ve done in – and I’m still not OK with this – my forty years on this Earth.
“But surely you must have other things going on?” you ask. Indeed I have. For example, apparently I teach Yiddish now. That was unexpected. Here’s what happened. Sometime after the new year, I went for a meeting with my boss. Since basically everything is online these days, I’m not in the school very often and so he wanted me to pop in for a chat, to talk about the upcoming schedule and just to catch up generally.
Anyway, at the end of this little rendezvous, he says, “You speak Yiddish, right?” “A bissel,” says I. “Can you teach it?” asked he? “On a beginner/intermediate level, I reckon I can. Who’s asking?” quoth I. “I am,” quoth he. Turns out he and and friend of his wanted me to give them Yiddish lessons. So we agreed on a price, and we’ve been doing it more-or-less once a week since then. And it’s been quite a lot of fun.
They both speak German, which is a helluva head start. And his friend can already read the alphabet, which is a plus. But he’s just learning to read himself. So every week, I prepare a list of words, each starting with a given letter. And we’re just working our way through the alef-beysand trying to build up some vocabulary in the process. And it’s fun on two counts. First of all, Yiddish is never not fun. But also, they’re cool people and it’s lovely to spend an hour or two with them.
I tellya what though, it’s weird teaching your boss a language. Especially when your boss speaks like four (or more?) languages fluently and runs a language school. But it’s been really nice to grow that relationship from something strictly professional into something more resembling a friendship. I mean, he’s still my boss, so on some level, it will always be in both our best interests to maintain a certain degree of distance. But that said, it’s been really nice.
As for his friend, she’s great. She’s an Australian expat and an artist. She also lived in Israel for a time. So she’s interesting and fun and funny and very enthusiastic about it all. And before you ask, she’s quite a bit older. So a shiduch min-hashamyim, it ain’t. Which is hardly the point. Just, I know somebody’s gonna ask is all. Anyway, her stated goal is to be able to read some Bashevis Singer.
Which brings me to my weekly Yiddish readings with Bartek. Fortunately, I’ve been able to maintain that through all of this translation work. Though I’ve had to step away from the family history book, which itself requires a great deal of translation work. So instead, we’ve been reading a short story by Bashevis Singer. And it’s wonderful. I mean, you can kinda see how this guy won a Nobel Prize for lit. But also, omg is it ever difficult!
I mean, just in terms of vocabulary it’s a beast. But beyond that, there are so many things that are just difficult to understand. So many little descriptions that I struggle to grasp the meaning of. The sort of things that, were one a native speaker, would present no problem. But when you’re not a native speaker, it’s just like, “Well, I could imagine this meaning any one of three things, and how do I know which is the right one?”
Every meeting with Bartek starts the same way. One of us will say something like, “Well, I found most of the words, but there were one or two I couldn’t find.” And then the other person will say, “Yeah, same. Hopefully you found the ones I couldn’t.” And then the first person will say, “Also, there were definitely a few things I couldn’t make sense of.” And then the other person will say, “Yeah, me too.” And then we’ll start reading.
The wonderful thing is, by the end of the session, by knocking our heads together, we can almost always solve almost all of our puzzles. Just by talking things through. Or even just hearing it read by someone else rather than reading it in your own head. And between our experiences – mine as a Jew, his as a Pole – we’re able to bring insights that the other lacked.
Now of course, it doesn’t require much imagination to see how being Jewish can shed light on a Yiddish text. But what I never could have imagined is, how being a native Polish speaker can equally illuminate the text. I mean, there are so many turns of phrases which, when you translate them in to English are completely opaque. And then Bartek will say, “If you translate this into Polish, it actually makes perfect sense. Like, we have this exact idiom in Polish and it means such-and-such.” All of this richness and nuance would be completely lost to me if I wasn’t reading with Bartek.
And so, every session also has the same ending. We’ll both say something like, “Wow, just reading this together, I understand so much more than I did when I read this alone.” Every time, without fail.
I’ve written many times before about how seemingly chance encounters have yielded such rich and unexpected friendships. How if I hadn’t been at a specific place at a specific time, I never would have met Joschka or Charlotte or Anne or Jan & Zibs or even landed the job that I have. Well, if I hadn’t gone to Weimar in 2019 on the week that I went, I never would have met Bartek. And we didn’t even really talk all that much at Weimar. And yet, here we are, almost two years later, reading Yiddish together every week. It boggles the mind.
Same with Akiva, my other friend from Weimar. We’ll chat a bit once a month, maybe every two months. But there’s this genuine affection there. And just this week he called me to talk about teaching English in Berlin. Who knows if he’ll actually wind up doing it. But it would sure be great to have him here. And we’re going to make an effort to do some reading together as well.
One more thing to put a bow on this Yiddish stuff. A couple of weeks ago, at our Yiddish lesson, my boss’ friend asks if we have any plans for Passover. Nobody did. So we decided to have a Seder. And that was fantastic. It was me, my boss, his partner (Austrian, not Jewish), his friend, her sister (via Zoom) and a friend of hers; a Sephardic Jew from Istanbul who lives in Heidelberg and is a doctor. And being a doctor, she brought a box of COVID tests, so we were able to have the Seder without masks.
And it was great, you know? Like, we had a four-language Seder. Prayers in Hebrew, obviously. But I found a Yiddish Haggadah, so I was able to add some poems and stories in Yiddish. And then other parts we did in German and/or English. And there was even supposed to be a French couple, which would have upped things to a five-language shindig; but in the end they couldn’t come.
Instead of brisket, there was lamb, which was delicious. And my boss’ friend made this chicken-liver pâté from scratch, which she was quite proud of. And I was like, “I’ll try it because you made it, but this is not my thing.” And she was like, “you don’t like pâté?” And I’m like, “Umm, I don’t really like my meat in spreadable form.” And she’s like, “And yet you eat foie gras.” Which, yes, sort of. If I’m in France, and it’s Christmas, and someone has made foie grasfrom scratch, I’ll eat it. I’ll even like it. But I still maintain that meat should not be spreadable. Anyway, it was a great time and I was very happy to be able to have a Seder her in Berlin.
Speaking of celebrations, did you know I recently turned 40.1 Joschka, bless his heart, had planned a special night for me. First of all, he organized a Zoom. Actually, two Zooms. One, with all our metal friends from around Germany. The second, with a bunch of people from home. That was really special. But it was also just the beginning.
See, he happens to be friends with this Japanese guy who owns a restaurant. And so, after the Zoom, the doorbell rings. And it’s his restaurant friend, with two bags of groceries. Mind you, I’ve never met this guy. So I’m like, what’s going on here? And he’s like, we’re making ramen. We’re making ramen! An actual from-Japan ramen chef shows up not just to makeramen, but to teach me howto make ramen. For my birthday. So I basically got to sous-chef for this guy and learn how to make actual ramen. You bet I took notes!
What a surprise though! I can’t say enough about it. Look, you know how some people are just good at gifts? I mean, I’m not. But some people just know the perfect thing. And like, Joschka’d been listening to me all along. Listening as I talked about experimenting with Japanese cooking, as I rambled on about my endless trips to the Asian market. And he’s just like, “Well, I know the perfect thing.” And it was perfect.
He also got me a cast-iron skillet. And again, I’d been talking about how that was something I needed to get, but for whatever reason I kept putting it off. So he’s like, I know you wanted this, here you go. I mean, damn.
So the night was me, Joschka, his new-ish girlfriend Jasmin, and Yosuke, the ramen chef. Couldn’t ask for a better birthday. He also bought a bottle of excellent scotch. And we basically spent the night cooking, eating, drinking and playing board games. Yeah, call that a win.
Sticking with Joschka, he’s friendly with the owner of this hipster bar not far from where he lives. I’ve been there a couple of times. Excellent cocktails and qaulity food. Anyway, this hipster bar owner happens to be a Korean woman, which I only mention because she decided to offer Zoom seminar on making kimchi. Kimchi, if it has somehow eluded you, is this Korean spicy, fermented cabbage. Well, technically, ‘kimchi’ refers to the fermentation process, so you can have kimchi cabbage or kimchi anything else. In that way, it’s kind of like the word ‘pickle’ in English. Technically, you can have pickled-anything. But when we say ‘pickles,’ we mean pickled cucumbers. Same thing, when we say ‘kimchi,’ we usually mean kimchi’d cabbage. Anyway, he signed us up for the seminar and now I’ve got three jars of kimchi fermenting in a drawer in my kitchen. It’s been going for about a week now, so I think it’s almost time I moved it to the fridge. In any case, I’m super excited to try it and see what I got.
I already love the shit out of making pickles. Now, that’s partly because it’s impossible to find proper pickles in this town. For some reason, all German pickles have sugar in them. Which just, eww. And so, before I learned how to make my own, I was always asking Polish students to bring me back real pickles whenever they went home. Which they did, bless their hearts. So yeah, being able to make my own is much more practical. But also, it’s just really gratifying. And now, if I can add kimchi to that? Hell yes, is what I’m trying to say.
Prometheus was a big deal because he introduced fire to men. And yes, fire is a big deal. But why do we not have a Prometheus of Fermentation? Because without fermentation, there is no kimchi, no pickles and, let’s be real, no alcohol. Blessed be the one who discovered fermentation, is the point.
Music. The good news is, the band is back in business. And by ‘business,’ I mean we’re practicing again. Who knows when we’ll be able to play out again. But at least we’re playing. And just being able to jam is good for the soul.
I recently asked Bibi if she’d be interested in trying to do a cover of Video Killed the Radio Star. It’s the first song I’ve asked to do, apart from the one Yiddish tune. She was down. So Tuesday we got together to try it out. It’s not there yet, and we still need to bring Ralph into it. But it definitely has potential. I think we might be able to do something nice with it. And if we can, that will definitely be a fun tune to add to the set. You know, if we can ever play out again.
As for my own music, I have to admit I’m in a bit of a rut. I’ve been working on the same song since like November already. Part of the reason it’s taking so long is because in the course of mixing this song, I’ve been learning a ton of new techniques. I’ve also been learning a lot more about what my tech can do. So trying to apply all this new knowledge has slowed the process. And I’m still learning.
Not just about mixing, but about ‘producing.’ Things like, how to get the chorus to sound fucking BIG, to give one example. On the upside, I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress, which is great. I mean, where I’m at now is night and day from where I was with my last track. (I think). But it also has the effect of continually moving the goal post. Like, what would have been good enough two months ago is no longer good enough. Which, again, is a good thing. In the long term. In the short term, I just can’t seem to finish the track.
Add to that, that I had to walk away from it while I was finishing the translation. And I’ve had a helluva time getting back in the groove since I finished. Part of the reason is, so much other shit piled up while I was doing the translation. And I want to get all that shit out of the way before I get back to work. I fell behind on my Torah readings, so I needed to get back up to speed there; which I only did this week. The apartment is a fucking disaster, and I also want to do a proper cleaning. So that when I do finally get back to work, I have a clean, comfortable work space with no distractions. These may be bullshit excuses, but that’s where my head’s at. Nothing I can do about that, except to take care of my shit. All in good time.
I want to take a moment here to talk about my support system, music-wise, and how thankful I am to have that. I’ve already written about how helpful my brother has been. And that continues to be true. We’re constantly trading links to YouTube tutorials and talking through things on the phone. I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing without him.
But I also want to take a moment and give a shoutout to my friend Rob here. Tangentially, a few months back, I sent some of my songs to some of the people back home. Specifically, to my friends who have kids; and Rob does not have kids. I should explain. So look, I feel like I’m building a pretty cool life for myself here. A job that I enjoy, wonderful friends, a band, all the rest of it. But one thing that really tears at me is the fact that my closest friends back home are having kids and I’m not there to watch these kids grow up.
One of the most beautiful things about those friendships is the fact that I know, no matter, what, we will be friends forever. Even if we don’t speak often, there’s a love there that’s life-long. I have zero worries that I will lose those people. But their kids? Their kids don’t know me. At best, it’s Uncle Dave who we see once or twice a year. But there’s no real relationship with the kids, and that’s fucking brutal, I ain’t gonna lie.
So I sent some of my songs to my friends with kids. The idea being that they could play them for the kids, and that would – in some very small way – give the kids a way to know me. More than just some guy who shows up once or twice a year, you know? And to their credit, they did play the songs for the kids, and they were all very receptive to the idea. Whether they still play them, whether the kids do actually ‘know’ me because of those songs – who knows? But it’s better than nothing.
Anyway, my first instinct was to not send the songs to Rob. Not out of any desire to hide things, not because I didn’t want to share what I was doing with him. But because Rob literally studied this shit; music production, I mean. And so, I felt that perhaps Rob would be listening with a different ‘ear,’ if that makes any sense. And I was hesitant to send what I felt was a work in progress.
But it also didn’t feel right to send my shit to the others and not to Rob. So I asked him if he would want to hear what I’d done so far, keeping in mind work-in-progress yadda yadda. And he was super enthusiastic. So I sent it. And he was – no surprise – great about it. Supportive, encouraging, enthusiastic. And that made me so happy. Honestly.
The point is, I’m really working in the dark here. It feels like everything I do is new, an experiment. And I definitely have my moments where I think, “Jeez, what am I doing? I suck at this and I’ll never achieve what I’m after.” And look, it’s not like I talk to Rob often about what I’m doing. But somewhere in the back of my head, I have this sense of, “Hey, Rob doesn’t think it’s a waste of time, what you’re doing here. And Rob actually knows what he’s talking about.” That’s not something you can put a price on. So Bobby, if you’re reading this, thank you for your support, pal. I hope you know how important it is to me.
Anne, meanwhile. So that bitch up and left. I’m kidding. Kinda. Nah, look. She’d been unhappy here for some time, and I knew that. She was done with Berlin. Well, whatchagonnado? So she and her boyfriend bought a house in Bretagne and that’s what she’s gonna do. And of course I’m happy for her. And I absolutely look forward to visiting her in France. But you bet I’m sad she’s gone. Yeah, I lost my drinking buddy and my dear friend. But it’s more than that. I feel like I’ve lost an arm, you know? Like, she was my expat friend. She was the one who knew what it’s like to be a stranger in this land. She was the one I could complain about Germans – and German culinary culture – with. And now she’s gone. We still do Skype meetings, which is great. But it’s not the same. Like I said, it’s what she wanted, and I can only be happy for her. But I’d be lying if I said I was happy for me. It’s tough. But you better believe we tied a few on before she split. Well, alright. Let’s look at it another way. I’ve already got family in the south of France via Charlotte. Now I’ve got family in the north of France via Anne. Silver linings and all that.2
Almost done here. Random other minutiae. I’m still, very slowly, working through my Latin textbook. In theory, I’m re-reading Le compte de Monte Cristo; Anne gifted me her own paperback copies (3 volumes) before she left; but finding the time? Ugh. I recently started a bit of Greek reading with a friend I know through Phil; we’re doing the Hymn to Demeter. I needGreek back in my life. The Islanders are hotthis year, and that has been so much fun. And baseball has started again, which is just good for the soul. Hopefully when it gets a little warmer, I can find somebody to throw the ball around with. Catch: the perfect social distancing sport.
A final thought. The war against the corona virus is like every major war America and Germany have ever fought. For America, the first 6-12 months are a disaster, as the country waffles on whether it even wants to be involved. And then, upon deciding to go all in, the country marshals all of its resources and becomes a world-beater. Germany: kicks everybody’s ass for the first 6-12 months and thinks its on the doorstep of becoming a world-beater. And then it looks around and realizes it has no natural resources and, oh, winter is coming. That’s been my experience, anyway.
Well, I guess that’s about all I’ve got. Time now to refocus. To return to my studies and – hopefully – take my music to the next level. And also, you know, deal with being fucking forty. Which probably deserves its own post. But that’s for another day. Until then…
זײַט זשע מיר אַלע געזונט
- #fml [↩]
- “Silver linings and all that.” It’s an imperfect analogy, but it serves as an example of what makes reading Bashevis so difficult. If you’re a native speaker – or just super fluent in English – then you’re familiar with the saying “every cloud has a silver lining.” But if you’re not a native speaker or super fluent? What kind of sentence is “silver linings and all that”? How can you possibly hope to make sense of that? Perhaps that gives an idea of the challenges of reading literary Yiddish. [↩]