An American in Berlin
21 July, 2021
Oh hi. Yeah, I know, it’s been a while. Actually, I’ve written two posts since the last one went up, but I didn’t publish them. I wasn’t happy with them. Dunno why. So we’ll see how this one goes.
So, first things first. I just got my visa extended for another three years. It’s weird. I’m more relieved than happy about it. Last time around – my first extension – I was pretty psyched. This time though? I dunno, it just kinda feels like more of the same, you know? Like, it was this annoying formality that I needed to take care of to just keep doing what I’m doing. This at the same time as not only Anne has left, but also Jan and Zibs, who have just moved away to Flensburg. Fucking Flensburg? Whatever.
Anyway, I’m still processing. And also, when I said it was a formality, I still lost a lot of sleep over it. What if they don’t extend me? What if they’re not happy with my paperwork and I have to go gather a bunch of shit and come back? I don’t think there was any real danger of them kicking me out. But they could have made my life difficult had they wanted to. Thankfully, they didn’t want to.
So here I am, for another three years. Or at least, the freedom to stay another three years if that’s what I want. The thing is, how do I even know if that’s what I really want? This time two years ago, when I last extended, this was still something of a new experience. Now though, it’s a short horizon. Worry about tomorrow, but not much beyond that it.
I’m not complaining, mind you. It’s more just that I keep on keeping on. Things are steady, which is good. I’m settled, in my own apartment, which is something I’ve always wanted. But should I be dreaming bigger? Or is this just what happens when you get old?
I think, at this point, mostly what I want to do is just work on my music. Well, that and read dead languages. And drink with my friends. Not so much working though, which is something I guess every teacher goes through.
I mean, it’s the same thing, over and over. Look, I love teaching, in a lot of ways. I love the English language in all its manifold varieties and all the possibilities it contains. I love the human connection, when you work with the right people. But. But, but but.
There’s not a ton of room to grow in this field. I mean, sure, you’re always learning something new, always finding new ways of describing and explaining shit. But you’re a teacher, at the end of the day. It kinda ends there. You can grow up, but not out. What I mean is, you can establish yourself, build your reputation, grow your business, charge more for your services. That’s what I mean by ‘growing up.’ But that’s not terribly interesting to me. I don’t have a head (or a heart) for business. And I have, kinahura, enough money to live the life I want to live.
As for ‘growing out,’ well, like I said, you’re an English teacher. Unless I want to go back to school and get an advanced degree in this shit – and I don’t – this is basically the end of the line. If I was younger, I might want to pack my wares and try another country. But at 40, I’m not really feeling that. Not in the sense of, Teaching English is a universal passport and let’s use it to travel the world.
Which isn’t to say that I still don’t harbor dreams of one day living in Italy or France. You bet I do. Just not dreams of teaching English in those countries. Right now, it’s more like I want to retire in one (or somehow both) of those countries. Also, I might like to retire. Nowish. I can’t, obvi. But I might like to. You know, just do music and dead languages all day. Maybe pick up the odd private student for kicks. But not for aparnosah, not for a livelihood.
Anyway, that’s where my head is it right now. Not that it matters. Retirement is not yet an option. And every time I visit a doctor in this country, I’m reminded that I have a very compelling reason to stay here. So it is what it is. And honestly, it ain’t bad.
There was no metal festival this year, because the ‘rona. So instead, we rented a big ol’ country house in Brandenburg. Brandenburg, for any New Yorkers reading this, is basically to Berlin what Upstate is to the city. In all of the ways, really. Anyway, 13 of us rented this big ol’ house in the country for five days. Five days of drinking, loud metal and lots of food.
On the food front, somebody has to cook for the whole gang every night. So just like last year, I made my mom’s spaghetti and meatballs for the gang. Big hit. Especially since after the actual dinner, where all the meatballs were instantly devoured, we were left with a sizable amount of, well, spaghetti Bolognese at that point. Which meant that for the next 24 hours, there was always some drunk mutherfucker pulling a bowl of spaghetti out of the fridge. Hard to argue with that.
The weather was not great for the first few days. Hot, which is fine. But humid too, which I can’t abide. I mean, I’m just miserable in humidity. And cranky. Dave, cranky? Big fucking surprise, I know. Also, I got bit by a tick. So far, no signs of anything bad. But who needs that shit?
On the first night, at around 7am, Joschka and I crossed the lake in a little rowboat. I say ‘first night,’ because while it was 7am, we still hadn’t been to bed. And the house was on a little lake; and there was a rowboat. So we crossed the lake, climbed up the wooded embankment and stepped right into a rye field, chest high. Not that I know the difference between wheat and rye, but Joschka apparently does. It was a real Samwise Gamgee “I’ve never been this far from home” moment, if you take my meaning.
Also, the longer we were there – at the house, I mean – the clearer it became that hosting a group of metal heads was not the normal business model. No friends, this was a swinger pad. There was an old sign in the fire pit that read, “<– love tent, cuddle tent –>.” You could set the lights in the lounge to only red. I’m talking ‘brothel red,’ here. The sauna had a huge mattress on the floor next to the door. The sauna also had a Swedish name cut into a wooden sign above the door. And it just happens that one of our gang is Finnish, so he speaks Swedish. And he’s like, “Yeah, so the name of the sauna literally means fuck-wood.” Eww. It kinda made you try to avoid sitting on the furniture. Oh, and there was no hot water. So at least that added to the festival vibe?
But other than that how was the play Mrs. Lincoln? I mean, all that aside, it was a blast. An exhausting blast. And of course I did my drunken break out the guitar and make up songs in German thing. Naturally, I had to make a song about the house. Keeping in mind that there may be some errors in my German, the chorus of the song was:
Fick-Palace, Fick Palace
Leg sich nicht auf der Matratze
Morgen werden wir sich kratzen
Which roughly translates to:
Don’t lay down on the mattress,
Tomorrow we will be scratching
Like I said: Eww. Still though, not bad for some drunken composition. I think. What do I know? But like I said, for all that, it was a great time. It’s always great with that lot.
In other news, I officially love TikTok. Look, just like with any social media, you can find all kinds of terrible garbage there. Although, to be fair, I tend not to have much contact with that stuff. For the time being, I don’t follow anybody, so I’m just surfing the algorithm, as it were. But it seems to be a pretty good algorithm. It feeds me comedy, music, science, history and linguistics. It also feeds me shit in a variety of languages, which is a lot of fun. It’s actually turning out to be a great way to improve my colloquial German, which I’m really enjoying.
Also, it stands in direct contrast with Twitter, where I generally walk away feeling disgusted with humanity. Whereas with TikTok, I walk away feeling optimistic. I mean, it’s amazing how many smart, thoughtful, funny, creative and talented people are out there. It’s also great to see people putting their insecurities and self-issues on public display. Because they don’t do it in a woe-is-me kinda way, but rather in a this-is-who-I-am-and-that’s-OK kinda way. I imagine it helps a lot of people feel like they’re not alone, which is wonderful.
Tying all of that together, though, is perhaps the most important factor. So many of these smart, thoughtful, funny, creative, talented people are young. For all the terrible shit going on in the world, TikTok is a great place to go if you want to have any kind of hope for the future. That’s what I mean when I say I walk away feeling optimistic.
In other news, Bartek and I have gotten back to work on translating the memorial book for the town where Uncle Art’s dad came from. We had taken a bit of a break from that for a while. Partly to read something different for a change and partly because I needed a break from the work of translating. Hmm, I just said that we’reworking on the translation but also that Ineeded a break from the work of it. I should explain.
The process goes something like this. We’ll read the Yiddish together and translate as we go. Afterwards, I’ll type up a formal translation based on the work we did together, at which point I’ll send it to him for revision. So even though we translate it once together while we’re reading, actually typing it up is still a fair bit of work. I should also mention that Bartek does the work of identifying the places and geographical features (usually rivers) mentioned in the text, which is a tremendous help. But I’ll have more to say about all this when the whole thing is done; when that will be, who knows?
While we were taking a break from the memorial book, we read a story by Nobel laureate Bashevis Singer. Maybe I mentioned it at the time? It was pretty great. I mean, first of all, the guy is just such a good writer. And neither of us had read him before, so that was cool. But it was also super difficult. Almost certainly the most difficult text we’ve read to this point. The Shalom Asch story we read was maybe in the same ballpark level-wise, but it was much shorter.
Anyway, the reason I mention this is, having now read that text, I think we’re both much stronger readers now. Just more comfortable with the language overall. Which isn’t to say that we’re experts, or that we get everything right. I’m sure we still miss things. And we still find things that we have difficulty resolving. But compared to where we were a year ago, I’d say the progress is for sure noticeable. So that’s gratifying.
And also, crazy to think about it, but Weimar was two years ago this month. It’s weird to think that before Weimar, I had never spoken an actual Yiddish sentence and how do you like me now, bitches? Since then, for two years, I’ve been reading with Bartek on the reg. And I just found out that Akiva will be coming to Berlin in the fall for an internship, which last some eight months, I think. So I’m pretty excited about that, obvi.
Sticking with language for a bit longer. Justin is learning a bit of German with Duolingo, which is pretty cool in its own right. But it also shines a light on my own deficiencies in the language. I’ll come back to that in a sec. First though, an update on where my German is at these days.
Owing to the lockdown, I basically spoke almost no German for the past year and a half. That shit really nose-dived (nose-dove? Took a nose dive?), let me tell you. It got to the point where I was speaking so little German that I actually stopped caring. Like, I just didn’t want anything to do with it.
But now that shit is back in full swing. Regular band practice, seeing people again, the festival-gang getaway. I’m speaking plenty of German now, and indeed, I hesitate to say that perhaps this is the best it’s ever been. Which isn’t to say it’s actually good. No sir, it’s still a shit show. But I do think it’s better than before. I feel like I’m speaking more comfortably and fluidly. Usually. It gets worse when I’m tired, which is normal, but whatever.
Nevertheless, it’s a funny brand of German. At this point, 99% of what I know is copped from the people around me. So it’s a local brand, to the extent that it is actually German. Which, let’s be honest, it’s not always actually German. When I’m missing something, I tend to fill in the gaps with German words via English constructions. Other times when I’m missing something, I’ll just drop in some Yiddish and hope for the best. It usually passes, but not always.
Like at practice this week, I was complaining to Bibi about the weather. Particularly, sweating because of the humidity. The conversation went something like this.
D: Ich schwitz wie a chazir. (I’m sweating like a pig).
B: Wie ein Hase? (Like a rabbit?)
D: Neh, wie a chazir. (No, like a pig).
D: *sigh. Wie ein Schwein. (Like a pig).
B: Ach sooooo.
And my accent is a weird mix of Berlin and Yiddish. Fortunately, there is some overlap there. One example will suffice. The word for ‘none’ in German is kein, as it is in Yiddish.. But in both Berlin and Yiddish it’s pronounced keyn. It’s a bit funny when I think about it. When I was new here, I was making a conscious effort at this Berlin accent. I wrote about that gods know when. Now though, it’s kinda the only sound system I know. Or the dominant one, anyway. I hardly notice it anymore, except maybe when I speak with Joschka or the festival people. When I hear them speak – the non-Berliners – I realize, Hey, I don’t sound like you. Cool!
But I must be doing something right, because Bibi and Ralf don’t say anything anymore. There was probably a time early on where they would comment like, “Haha, you just said that like a Berliner.” But they don’t bat an eye these days. Hopefully they just think – if they think about it all – Yeah, Dave kinda sounds like us. You know, for a foreigner.
Anyway, Justin and his Duolingo. So he calls me up to ask about the pronunciation of a word. And he’s like, “If I want to say the movie theatre is on the right, should it sound like Das Kino rechts?” And I was like, “Well the word you’re asking about, you didn’t quite nail it. But also, that’s a weird way to say it. Like, I’d say Das Kino steht auf rechtsor Das Kino findet sich auf rechts.” And he’s like, “Oh, well, that’s what Duolingo had.”
And I was like, “Oh shit, maybe thatis actually realGerman.” Like, I only know what I hear around me. I have no idea what a student would learn in a class. Also, though, I could just be wrong, right? A very real possibility. But I don’t think I am on this one. I’ll have to ask around…
Torah. This past week marks the beginning of Dvorim, the book of Deuteronomy. I guess I’ve written about this before on some level, but it’s on my mind, so here you go (again). Reading Torah, on schedule, brings a certain rhythm to the year. It also brings memories. Like, I’ll always remember that the first time I read Jacob’s blessings for his sons, I was in Charlotte’s apartment in Nice. Which is a nice memory to have associated with a text you’re going to read every year.
You read Genesis in the fall, which lines up nicely with the school year. New beginnings all around, even as the calendar year is at the beginning of its end. But now we’re at Dvorim, and it’s brings a kind of weird melancholy with it.
On the one hand, you’re right in the middle of the summer, let the good times roll. But on the other hand, it’s the last of the five books. And you know when it ends. You’re starting this text and even as you’re beginning it, you know that when you finish it, summer will be over. It’s kinda the same melancholy you might get on a Sunday. Like, how can I enjoy Sunday when I know tomorrow is Monday?
I’m already mostly over this particular brand of melancholy. I mean, what am I gonna do, not enjoy the summer? But it definitely hit, when I turned to page one of book five. Like I said, reading Torah brings a weird rhythm to the year.
But it also ties in to the memorial book in a rather intimate kind of way. Let me see if I can organize my thoughts here. I think I mentioned that my goal for this year was to try and read Rashi (the great Torah commentator) along with the text. But for a number of reasons, that just never got off the ground. Hold that thought.
Meanwhile, I’m reading this memorial book, which is essentially a collection of memoirs about life in the old town. Now we’ve read quite a few memoirs now about what the education was like. And it does seem that, generally speaking, the first level of a (religious) Jewish education was to read Chumashmit Rashi(i.e. Torah with Rashi’s commentary). Like, that was just the normal thing.
And of course, basically all the memoirs end the same way. “That’s how it was then, but that world doesn’t exist anymore.” Hold that thought.
Recently my Aunt Cookie sent me a link to a running series of video lectures explaining (in English) various Torah commentators. One of the lecture series is this old New York (or possibly Jersey) Rabbi, now living in California. I kinda dig the dude. But I especially dig that he reads the Hebrew with a Yiddish accent (as opposed to the now standard Israeli accent) and he’s always sprinkling in little Yiddish phrases, jokes and stories (in Yiddish). So if nothing else, I’m kinda mining it for the Yiddish and using it to help me get my Hebrew pronunciation in line with my Yiddish. Which apparently is important to me now. Who knew? Anyway, turns out the lectures are also available as an audio podcast. Jackpot. So that’s worked its way into my regular pod-rotation. Nu?
Putting it all together now, there’s this weird synergy at work here. I wanted to read Rashi, couldn’t make it happen. In the Old World, you learned Chumash mit Rashi. And now I’m (very passively) learning Rashi via podcast. In a very strange way, it does make me feel connected somehow to this world I never knew, to a world that no longer exists, but a world that I have roots in, roots that I’m learning more and more about.
The weird thing – if indeed it is weird – is that, I’m still not actually a religious person. Not in the sense of believing in Hashem the way Jews are taught to believe in Hashem. But even that sentence is weird for me. Like, I’ve somehow grown uncomfortable writing the word big-G god. I mean, I’ll say goddammitall day long. But somehow, writing G-d (see, I can’t even do it here) in the context of the actual Jewish deity feels…what, blasphemous? Which is weird, I say, because again…I do not believe.
You know, Uncle Art used to say, “I’m not a good Jew. I’m a fraud.” Which at the time made no sense to me. The dude went to schul every single day before work. How can someone like that be a fraud. But you know what? The deeper I get into this shit, the more I think understand what he was saying.
Look, we’re all free, right? We can either embrace the religion we’re born into or we can walk away from it. Neither choice is right or wrong. Just right or wrong for you. And clearly, I’ve chosen to embrace mine (to a point). But even as I’m embracing it, I just can’t find any way to believe. And yet, I continue to read, continue to study, continue to learn. I don’t know if that makes me a fraud. I don’t actually know if Art believed in You Know Who, much less if he was a ‘fraud,’ as he said more than once. But yeah, I do think I’m beginning to understand what he meant.
One of the festival gang is this dude from Finland, Jori. And every year, he tries to engage me on this subject. He’s pretty anti-religion, so he’s always trying to understand where I’m coming from. The conversations are always very interesting and challenging. They also have a tendency to get heated.
Anyway, last year, he asks me, “OK, so you don’t believe in god. But then why is it so important to you to identify as Jewish. Why do you read the Torah?”1 And I just looked at him and said, “Let me ask you something, you Nordic mutherfucker. Why are you wearing a Thor’s Hammer necklace?” And he was just like, “Hey, you know what? I don’t know. That’s a really good point.”
This year we talked about ‘indoctrination’ and being born into shit. And we threw around the idea that, what if you could somehow grow up in a cultural vacuum (J: Not possible; D: Fuck you, I know, but for the sake of argument; J: Fine.) and at the age of 13 or whatever, you could pick any culture in the world. Would you actually pick your own? In the end, we both agreed that we probably would. But also, how could we really know? Because in the process of embracing our respective cultures – and believe me, Jori is pretty hot for Nordic culture – we spend our lives finding things we love about our cultures. And more cynically, finding things in our culture that we believe we do better. Even while admitting that our respective cultures certainly have their flaws.
But Jori also knows about my love of languages and Homer and my long ago trip to the North of Finland to meet the last living bard of the Kalevala, Finland’s oral-epic poem. So he asked me, “Would you put as much effort into reading the Kalevala as you do into read the Torah?” And I’m like, “Dude, if I could quit my job and put in the amount of time necessary to learn Finnish – and that would be an epic amount of time – you bet I would.”
And that’s no joke. Even though I only know two words and one phrase in Finnish, I think it’s one of the more beautiful languages out there. I could listen to it all day long. Nothing would make me happier than being able to devote the requites amount of time to learning Finnish and then studying the Kalevala. At that point we both agreed that whether it’s the Kalevala or Torah or Homer, there’s something very powerful about interacting with a text that people have been singing or reading for thousands of years. You become a link in a chain. You exist in the present, but also in the past, and somehow even into the future. OK, lemme stop before I go all galaxy-brain on this shit.
The two words I know in Finnish: kiitos(thank you) and kippis(cheers). And the one phrase? Haista vittu pirri huorra. Which apparently means, ‘fuck you, you fucking crack whore.’ That one I obviously learned from Jori. Also, don’t quote me on the spelling.
In other news, we’ve now had two gigs this summer with the band. I wasn’t thrilled with them, tbh, but everyone else seemed pretty happy. So maybe I’m just overly critical. Still though, it’s fun to be out playing again. And I have a goal this time around, vis-à-vis performing. I want to be more comfortable being up front, interacting with the crowd.
Believe it or not, I’m very shy and nervous in that department. It was easy in The Fury. Jared was the front man, and I could just let him deal with the audience. And I could hide behind my long hair and just headbang away.
In this group, Bibi is clearly the frontwoman. But I don’t have the long hair anymore and headbanging doesn’t really jive with this group. Also, I’m on the mic quite a bit. So I’m trying to force myself to actually look at people, maybe even make eye contact with a pretty girl and smile while I’m singing. Gods, that’s so fucking alien to me. Maybe I should do what so many others have done before me and invent an alternate personality for when I’m on stage, pretend I’m somebody else. Because right now, especially when I’m on the stick, all I want to do is hide. And forgetting about what I’m comfortable with or what I want, that’s just not good performance practice in a band setting. So I’m working on it. We’ll see how it goes.
Until the next time…
- The goyim always say ‘read the Torah.’ Jews always say ‘read Torah.’ I find that interesting. I’m guessing you do not. [↩]