An American in Berlin
24 November, 2022
This post is likely to be a bit scattershot and the writing of it spread out over several days, as opposed to the usual one long night and a bottle of wine. But there are some things to be updated, and I’ll try to tackle them as I can.
Cooking. I’ve been working on my Asian game of late. Two Fridays ago, I think it was, I took another stab at miso Ramen. It came out quite nice, I have to say. But the real lesson from that one was the pork belly. See, I did a quick stove-top braise, which I’d never done before. And also a new marinade. All this from some Japanese dude on YouTube by the way; I’m not taking any creative credit here.
The marinade was light soy sauce, sake and a touch of sesame oil with minced garlic and finely sliced ginger. OK, I’ll actually take a small bit of creative credit. The video called for some other kind of wine and sugar. But not having the wine, and knowing that sake has a sweetness to it, I subbed in the sake. Worked a treat. Anyway, fry that pork belly up in a bit of peanut oil on high heat, not more than two minutes a side. And had I stopped there, the taste would have been good, but the meat would have been chewy; this much I know form having worked with pork belly in the past. This is where the braise comes in; and here too, I kinda just followed my instincts. I added back some of the marinade to the pan and mixed in a bit of water. Just enough so the liquid came up about 1/3 the height of the pork belly. Covered, lowered the heat and let it go for ten minutes or so. And holy shit. Totally tenderized the meat. It wasn’t just tasty, but juicy, succulent. And while it’s a different cut, it had the exact flavor of the boneless ribs you get from the Chinese restaurants back home. This, friends, is a keeper.
That Sunday, Joschka came over and I shipped out from Japan across the sea to China. He sous-chef’d for me as I did a stir fry. Pork again, but the marinade was different this time. Light soy, shaoxing wine (Chinese cooking wine, similar to a dry sherry or marsala wine), corn starch to thicken and baking soda, which apparently ‘velvets’ (a term I learned on YouTube), i.e. tenderizes, the meat.
I’m learning something interesting about stir-fry technique. And that is, that it’s pretty much always the same. Just like western techniques, the principles and basics remain the same even as you change ingredients. So this is no longer about making a particular dish, but rather about developing my Chinese stir-fry game.
And my game is coming along nicely. So French cooking has its mirepoix: onions, carrots and celery which forms the foundation for everything else that’s gonna go in the pan. Well, the Chinese version of a mirepoix seems to green onions (the white part), ginger and (optionally) garlic. And here I gotta pause to say something. As a Western person, I grew up with the smell of onions frying in oil. And what a smell, right? It just announces that good food is on the way. I love that smell. But this smell of green onions and ginger going off in peanut oil? Oh man, do I love that! It’s totally new, but also…not entirely new; I’ve been eating Chinese food my whole life. But it’s a new smell in the kitchen and I’m officially obsessed.
I need a new wok. I mean, the wok I have is fine insofar as it’s a wok. It’s the right shape. But it’s cast iron, so it’s super heavy, which means you can’t move it, you can’t give it the ol’ flick of the wrist to get things moving. So I’m gonna have to get myself a carbon-steel wok at some point. But for now, she does the trick. Although she probably needs a name, like my cast iron Dutch oven (Dicke Bertha) and my cast iron skillet (Schwerer Gustav). I guess I need to research more German heavy artillery?
Anyway, you get the wok nice and hot and throw in your meat. Real quick, basically just to sear it. Then you take it out, at which point you gotta give the wok a quick rinse, because the marinade stuff will burn and get bitter otherwise. Then it’s in with the ginger and green onions. Shortly thereafter, you start adding your veggies in the order of how much time they need. For example, string beans and peppers first, cabbage last. Finally, the meat goes back in.
But this all happens fast. See, the point of stir fry is, you want all your veggies to have a nice crunch. So you gotta cook ‘em hot and fast. And you gotta be careful that you a) don’t “crowd the wok” and b) don’t let too much moisture collect at the bottom. Because if you do either (or both) of those things, you’ll wind up steaming your veggies, thereby robbing them of their crunch. So everything – every last thing – needs to be prepped before you ever turn on the stove.
OK, so now your stir fry is done, cooking-wise. But the last step is, you gotta hit it with just a touch of sesame oil and dark soy. I’ve always associated sesame oil with Asian cooking. But one thing I’ve learned is, you can’t cook with it. The smoke point is way too low. Rather, you add just a little at the end for flavor. And before I embarked on this, soy sauce was just soy sauce. But the difference between light and dark soy is huge; and important. Light soy has the consistency of water and the flavor is not overpowering. That’s what you use for the marinade. Dark soy is viscous and the flavor is quite strong indeed. A little goes a long way, and it’s all too easy to overdo it (I know, because I have); but again, just a tiny bit at the end for flavor and color.
Et voilà (or whatever the Chinese equivalent is). Fucking stir fry, baby! And let me tell you, that shit was good. Serve with a side of rice, which my rice cooker nails every time, and you’re golden. And that’s it. That’s the basic elements of stir fry as I understand them. You can change the veggies or your choice of meat, the principles are essentially the same. I haven’t mastered it yet, but I’m starting to get the hang of it. This week, I aim to have a go at pork fried rice. And I’ve got my eye on black pepper beef too.
[Quick follow up. I did the pork fried rice and it was…okay? I mean, it wasn’t amazing. But it tasted like pork fried rice, so that’s a start. Needs improvement though].
Now to be sure, I’ve got lots and lots to learn. I’ve yet to fuck with oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, chili oil. (There was chili oil in the miso ramen, but I’ve yet to use it in a stir-fry context). So there’s a long road ahead of me with this stuff. And that’s just talking about Chinese and Japanese cuisine. There’s a whole world of Vietnamese and Thai food out there. But those are for another day. For now, I’m just excited to be expanding my cooking game to China and Japan.
One last thought on this before I move on. I make a point of watching YouTube videos by people who are actually Chinese or Japanese, or of that descent. Not to say other people can’t do this stuff really well. But I’m after the “this is how my grandma does it” kinda stuff. And I want to do this right. I feel like there’s a lot of talk these days about cultural appropriation – and fairly so. I want to be careful not to do that. In doing all this, my goal is not just to broaden my cooking horizons, but to learn about other cultures, to appreciate the different ways things are done around the world, to share in the richness of it all. If I have anything like a role model in all this, it’s absolutely Anthony Bourdain, עליו השלום. Because he was the master of learning about other cultures, other ways of doing things all the while showing the utmost respect and appreciation. And also in sharing it. Which is why I loved making chicken katsu and miso soup for Charlotte, loved doing a stir fry with Joschka. There’s a whole world out there. Let’s not just enjoy it, let’s appreciate it. Together.
So much for cooking. Hebrew. My experience learning Torah with Akiva has reinvigorated my desire to get a handle on this Rabbinic Hebrew stuff. So I’ve finally cracked that book I bought and am beginning to (slowly and painfully) work my way through it. I mean, I’m only on chapter seven (of like, a million). But dude, this shit is hard.
It’s super dense and condensed. They just leave out words all over the place. It’s not just learning a new dialect with new vocab and slightly different grammar rules. The whole organization of ideas is different and, for me at this point, brutally opaque.
I’ll give an example from my book. ברב חכמה רב־כעס. You don’t need to be able to read Hebrew to see that this is just four words. To translate literally: “In the amount wisdom amount anger.” Um, okay. My own translation: “To the extent that one is wise, to that extent is one also angry.” You’ll note that’s a lot more than four words. The book gives: “With great wisdom comes great vexation.” Which is much nicer than what I said, but the same idea. But you can see how getting from A (the original Hebrew) to B (the general meaning) to C (a useful bit of knowledge) is a long fucking walk. But this is a “wise saying” and wise sayings are often pithy; difficult in any language. Think: “Two in the hand is worth one in the bush.” Now imagine you’re not a native English speaker. What exactly are you supposed to do with that?
So I beg the reader’s indulgence as I give one more, this time prosaic, example. יפה שעה אחת בתשובה ומעשים טובים בעולם הזה מכל חיי העולם הבא. Literally: “Beautiful hour one in repentance and good deeds in this world from all lives of the world to come.” What it actually means: “One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is more beautiful than life in the world to come.” Maybe it’s not so bad when you have the translation in front of you. But when you don’t? Man, that’s a long walk. For me, at least, it requires some real mental gymnastics at this point. Presumably, at some point this gets easier, you get used to this style of thought-organization. But right now? Woof.
So it’s a slog. But a fun slog. Like, I enjoy this shit. On the merits, but also because of what it is. I’m on my fifth turn through the Torah now. Torah has become part of the background music of my life. But you don’t stop there. It’s not enough to read Torah, you have to learn Torah. And to do that, you need this shit. I mean, yeah, I could Rashi and Talmud and whatever else in English. But that’s not how we roll. Not most of us anyway.
Here’s a funny thing. When I was younger, before my Bar Mitzvah, and going to Hebrew School, we were members of a ‘conservative’ synagogue. So were some of my friends. But others of my friends belonged to ‘reform’ synagogues. At the time, all that meant to me was that they had it easier. The reform crowd had less rules to follow, shit was generally less strict. And at the time, I was like, “Mutherfuckers have the right idea,” you know? I mean, what kid want’s more rules to follow?
But now I’m glad that we were rolling conservative. Part of that has to do with this memorial book Bartek and I are translating (there’s only about eight million pages to go, so we should be done sometime before moshiakh comes). I’m reading about what life was like in the shtetl, and those yidn didn’t fuck around. And when you know that’s where you come from, what your own family was doing back in the day, you feel a bit more inclined towards preserving at least some of that.
And in the old country, nobody was learning Rashi in Polish; nor even Yiddish. If they were doing it (and not everybody did, to be sure), they did it the right way. They learned this shit, this harder version of Hebrew; Aramaic where Talmud was concerned. That’s how we rolled. That’s how I wanna roll. I’m working on it. But it’s a bitch. Dollars to donuts, I’ll master the art of Chinese stir fry before I ever get properly good at this shit. But I’ll keep at it. And this time next year, I’ll be better at it than I am today.
Anyway, music. Remember when I was all, “Maybe I’ll work on one of my songs first, since it’s mostly done?” Ha. Well, yeah, it’s mostly done in that the recording part is all done. But I need to re-program the drums so they’re proper nice and not just loops. I spent a solid 90m the other night messing with the vocal EQ and I’m still not sure I’m happy with it. Yeah no, this song needs lots of work. I mean, it’s pretty good as is. I could play it for people as is. But it’s the last mile. Getting it from “good enough” to “actually good” – that’s gonna be some real work. And while I really want to get it done, I also need to get back to the stuff with Philippe and Paulina; because that’s time sensitive in a way that my own shit is not. So I’ve got my work cut out for me there…
Staying with music, I’ve been getting back into classical guitar again. Finally. And, um, I suck? No, that’s not a question. I’m objectively shite. Which is frustrating. Because I was playing quite a bit in Köpenick, and by the time I left that place, I had a pretty good repertoire going. Then I moved to Pankow and just kinda stopped playing. Classical, I mean. So now I’m trying to get my shit back together.
It’s slow going, but it’s coming back. So far, I’ve got two Carcassi studies more or less down plus the Prelude to Bach’s first cello suite. Also, when I say I’ve got them down, I do not mean that I’m playing them well. I am not. But I’ve relearned them, and now they just need a bunch of practice. Which I’m doing. But there are pieces I used to play (passably well) that I want to get back. Chief among them, Fernando Sor’s Variations on a Theme by Mozart and Gaspar Sanz’ Suite Española. And a bunch of other shit besides.
My feeling right now though is, I want to get these three pieces back up to a respectable level and then build out from there. Which probably means getting a few more Carcassi studies under my fingers. Because the whole point of those is to develop specific skill sets, whether it be right-hand picking skills or left-hand fingering skills. So if I can get a few more of those in shape, the rest should come easier. [Update, I’ve since added two more Carcassi studies].
Also fun (and by ‘fun,’ I mean ‘not fun’) has been having to re-learn to reading sheet music. Well, reading the music is easy. Knowing where the notes are on the neck of the guitar? That’s the hard part. It’s like, “Ah, yes, Mr. Johan Bach, I see you would like me to play an A…on the G string? Just give me thirty-seven seconds, please, whilst I figure out where that is…” It’s coming back, but slowly. Still though, glad to be doing it.
Was noch? This week is my last week with this current group of students. That’s kinda sad. I mean, I really like this bunch. I’ve said this before, but when you get a group like this, it’s barely work. It’s a job, but it ain’t work. We laugh a lot. More than that, we give each other shit. I recently gave a writing assignment. And one of the girls writes a sentence that starts with something like, “Sometimes I can be a know-it-all, but…” And I’m like, “Yeah, great sentence actually. Just one question. What do you mean sometimes?” And in answer, she just kinda scratches her nose with her middle finger. And I’m just like, “Yes, this. I am here for this.” It might sound weird, and I’m sure it’s not everybody’s teaching style, but I feel like I’ve been successful when I can give a student shit and they feel comfortable enough to flip me off in class. That’s the dynamic I’m going for. That’s what I want my classroom to be. And with one week to go, we got there. איך קוועל.
So yeah, Imma be a bit sad when I have to say goodbye to this lot. But then, that’s the nature of the beast, innit?
Been thinking a lot about what I want to do with the apartment. I think I need to paint it. I don’t want to. But it needs it. So I’ll have to figure that out. Also, I gotta start hanging my art. I’ve been putting that off, and the walls are empty, which ain’t great. So add that to the list. Art-wise, though, Joschka brought me this wonderful housewarming gift. It’s a wood panel, etched with a map of Third Age Middle Earth. It’s gorgeous, honestly. The question is, where to hang it.
Here’s what I’m thinking. My whole Tolkien library is back in the States. So I’m thinking I need to rebuild that library here. My current idea is, to build a second bookshelf, like the first but bigger, and custom size it to fit the yet-to-be-ordered Tolkien library. I’ll hang the shelf in my room, a bit lower than the first, and then hang the map above it. I think that’ll be nice. But it costs money to buy a bunch of books, and more to build a shelf. So that’ll take some time.
Moving right along, a most interest development occurred Saturday. So I do English lessons with this guy Carsten, whom I know through Bibi. Not really on the reg, but we’ll do a month or two at a time if he’s going to the States or needs to prepare for something work related. I think I’ve mentioned him before. Absolutely lovely guy, full of great stories. We pretty much hit it off from the get. He works in radio, I may have mentioned, which is pretty cool.
Anyway, he started a side gig ‘coaching.’ Yeah, everybody’s a coach these days. I don’t mean to diminish what he does, I hope it didn’t sound that way. Alex, who I alternate reading German and English with is also a coach. Well, Carsten landed himself a rather large, big-deal kinda client; you’ve likely heard of them. And in the course of things, he winds up recording a series of interviews with something like eight or nine of the big machers in the company. And they want to turn those interviews into a podcast; I think for internal consumption only, but I’m not entirely sure on that point.
Well, he sends me a message asking if I’d be interested in helping out on the audio production side of things. This because…well I forget how it came up actually. But for his audio work, he has Apple’s version of the software I used in my own studio. There’s four or five of these programs out there. The one I use is called Cubase, Apple’s version is called Logic Pro and the most famous one – maybe you’ve heard of it – is called ProTools. They’re all essentially the same, the main differences being what they name things within the software and where those things are located. Point being, he has Logic Pro, but he doesn’t really know too much beyond the basics about how to use it. So at some point, I’d offered to him that I could help in that regard should he ever need it.
It was with this in mind that he messaged me about helping out with this podcast project. So we had a short meeting Saturday for the purposes of discussing what exactly he had in mind. And he’s like, “Look, I know you offered to help teach me how to use the software. But honestly, it would take too long and anyway, I’m not actually all that interested. So basically what I’m asking you is, would you like to be my audio engineer? Because I guess you know you’re doing.”
Right, what with my extensive podcast producing experience and all. Yeah, I’m being a bit facetious here. But also, I mean, yeah, I’m pretty sure I can handle this without too much trouble. So hey, why not, amirite? If nothing else, it’ll just be good studio experience, good production experience and all that. But it’s not nothing else, because it’s a paying gig. He asked me to name a price. I did. He agreed. Which means I should have asked for more. Will I ever learn?
But I’m happy with the price, honestly. I mean, I’m pretty sure I’m undercharging? But on the other hand, I don’t actually have any experience with podcast production. And he’s either a friend, or at the very least a friend of a friend. And in any case, he came to me, so it’s all a bonus anyway. But as I said, I am actually happy with the price, insofar as rate-wise it’s now my highest paying gig. It’s a good deal higher than what I get for private lessons and triple what I make when I have to go through a school. So that’s fantastic, at least when looked at from that perspective.
The downside, to the extent that there is one, is that it’s limited to the eight or nine interviews/episodes he’s recorded. And once we hammer out the details in the first episode, all the others should go pretty quickly. So going forward, it probably won’t add up to a ton of work. But it’s a start.
The first episode, though, turned out to be a good deal of work. Partly just because it’s the first, right? So there was bound to be some back and forth in terms of “Is this what you wanted?” “Actually, could you do x, y and z?” Beyond that, though, there was some trouble with the source material, in that there’s three voices but they’re all on one track, which presents a host of problems. Going forward, he assured me that each voice will get its own track, which will significantly speed the process.
All to say, the first ep was be a fair bit of work. But once I knew what he wanted, it moved pretty quickly. Plus, a lot of the stuff that I needed to work out for this first episode was stuff I was able to save as presets or templates to be used in future, which wound up saving a fair bit of time. So in that sense, this wasn’t really a great windfall. More like, some properly nice pocket money. Or, if I’m wise, money I can just save or put towards investing or something more useful than just, I dunno, whiskey. Although, perhaps it wouldn’t be entirely out of order to celebrate this development with a bottle of nice whiskey…
But beyond whatever happens to land in my bank account, this is actually kind of a big deal. And here’s why. Although it’s coming in a way that was entirely unlooked for and entirely unexpected, it represents the first time I’m actually going to earn a bit of money from my studio. And that, in and of itself, is pretty damn cool. And kind of exciting, not for nothing.
And hopefully it will lead to more work. I get the impression that my boy Carsten might want to make this podcasting stuff, if not a regular part of his business, then at least a service he offers. And if I do a good job here, it could mean more work for me down the line. Beyond that, I’ll be able to add it to my own portfolio, add it to the list of services I can offer. Now that this project is finished though, I should (in theory) be able to advertise on the back of it. And that’s pretty cool.
Here’s a thing though, about me. I’m not looking at this as a way to earn more money. I’m looking at it as a way to work less. This one job won’t be enough, mind you. But in theory, if I can build out from here? The goal is to make the same money, but to work less for it. To have more free time to dedicate to study or music or whatever. I suspect most people don’t think that way. I suspect most people would be thinking about increasing their income. But that’s just not where I’m at. Well, all that’s for another day. Let’s see where it leads. But if I this goes well and I can pick up more of this kind of work, then I can teach less.
Not that I don’t love teaching, but the pay is shit. And it requires me being social, which is exhausting. I don’t think I’d ever give up teaching completely. But to not have to depend on it entirely? To be able to turn down teaching gigs because I’ve got extra income from audio production? That would be pretty sweet. But as I say, that’s for the future.
For now, I’m just happy that Carsten approached me with this. And not just approached me, but trusts me with it. Because there is a level of trust here, since it’s tied to his own business. He’s depending on me to do a good job for him, to not let him down. I’m confident I will and I won’t. [Update: he let me know today that he was indeed quite happy with my work and that the finished product was well received]. But it’s a good feeling that he trusts me. And that the trust comes entirely from our work together just doing English lessons. Because he hasn’t heard any of the music I’ve produced. That, too, is pretty cool. All of this is pretty cool. And I’m kinda pinching myself that I’m on the verge of earning a dime off my studio. Fuck yeah.
One last thought on this, now that the project has been completed. This was different than the other audio work I’ve been doing insofar as I didn’t have to wear the producer hat for this one. Just the audio engineer hat. The man tells me what he wants and I give it to him. Yes, I put my own stamp on it, in terms of, much of his directive was, “Make it sound good, please.” So it was up to me to do that based on my ears, intuition and experience. But it was kinda nice – easy – to not worry about ‘producing’ and just do some straight up audio work. And it was nice to be able to call on my experience and all I’ve learned so far and to able to wield that effectively to create a nice product. You just gain a little more confidence with each step, you know?
To that end, I had another conversation with Rob recently, just asking him to listen back to a couple of tracks and to give me his feedback. As always, he pointed out some things I hadn’t thought of, some things that could be better. But a lot of stuff, we were very much on the same page. That builds the confidence too. Since this last project, I’m thinking of setting up a LinkedIn page for this audio stuff. Who knows, maybe something will fall in my lap.
Esma had a little dinner get-together Saturday night. She starts by inviting me, Chris and Dženita in the group chat we’ve got going. And then, only after I say I’m in, she mentions, “Oh yeah, and two of my girlfriends will also be coming.” And I’m like, “Wait, what? Now I have to be social with strangers?” And she basically answered with the German version of – because this was all in German, “Fuck you, asshole. Nobody expects you to be social. Just fucking be there.” Fair enough.
Anyway, I show up an hour late, because Dave. Chris was already there, but not the strangers. And my first reaction was, “Wait, you mean I could have come even later?” Because Dave. Well, we ate, just me, her and Chris (Dženits is out of town). Which was great. Great because Esma is a fantastic cook and she always makes proper Turkish food. It’s Berlin, so Turkish food is kinda everywhere. But to get a homecooked Turkish meal? That’s just fantastic. For her part, she’s like, “Meh, I’m whatever with cooking. My mom though.” Well, yeah, we all feel that way about our moms’ cooking. Vinny pulls the same shit, and yet every time Vin cooks a meal, it’s out of this world. Same with Esma. Not for nothing, I pull the same shit too. Twice I’ve cooked my mom’s spaghetti and meatballs for the metal crew, and twice they’ve absolutely devoured that shit. Nicht gegessen doch gefressen. And of course I’m like, “Yeah, it’s not great. It’s about a million times better when my mom makes it.” So yeah, we’re all like that.
So far, so good. Eating good food, catching up and quatsching around with two of my very good friends over here. And we laugh a lot, right? Because we’re all wise-asses. It’s like, go ahead, try to tell a story. You’ll get through it. Eventually. But mostly you’re just gonna be interrupted with sarcasm and insults flying at you from all corners. To be clear, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Then, a bit later, her friends show up. And I’m like, “Great, strangers.” Now I’ve got to be social. And there’s no help to be had. By which I mean, no alcohol, The Great Social Lubricant. Chris straight up just doesn’t drink. Esma is an observant Muslim, so alcohol is right out for her. On top of which, it’s her home. I’d bring booze into her home just as soon as I’d bring pork fried rice to a kosher home, which is to say, it’s out of the question. So now, I don’t just need to be social, I need to do it – gasp – dry. #fml. Needless to say, it took me a while to warm up. And by a while, I mean several hours.
But warm up I did. And in the end, it was a great time. Needless to say, Esma’s friends were awesome. I mean, awesome people tend to have awesome friends, right? And of course they share her/our sense of humor. Which is to say, sarcastic af. Though they were, perhaps, more sparing in the flinging of insults and their use of curse words. Here would be a good place to add one of my favorite things about Esma. On the one hand, she this pious observant Muslim, right? And all that goes with that: kind, warmhearted, of charitable spirit, etc. On the other hand, she curses like a sailor. The words Fick dich (Fuck you) are never far from her lips. There’s a reason we’re friends is what I’m saying.
Chris too. I mean, he doesn’t really curse. And he’s probably one of the most German Germans I know, with all that entails. But he’s also sarcastic af, when he wants to be. And he’s always ready with a zinger, he can verbally zetz you in the schnoz with the best of them. But also like Esma, he’s got a big heart. And when he’s your friend, he takes that seriously.
Every now and then, not often, he’ll call me on the phone, just to catch up. And he knows I’m not a phone guy. He knows I’d never do that. But it’s important to him, because we’re friends. So, you know, I put up with it. Last time he called, I think we talked for almost two hours. And at the end, he was like, “This was hard for you, wasn’t it?” And I was like, “Yeah it fucking was. But I’m still glad you called.” Both of those statements were true.
The hardest thing about this dinner shindig, though, was not actually being soberly social with strangers; which was a big lift, if haven’t mentioned that. No, it was just speaking German the whole night. Because honestly, I’m not in a great place with that right now. Which is weird, because by any metric, this is the best my German has ever been. And Chris, entirely unsolicited, actually remarked that he noticed my German was much improved; then added that he was entirely serious. And the proof of this, if any were needed, was that we left the dinner together and walked as far as his train. And we spoke German the whole way. In the past, when the two of us would be left alone – even for just a couple of minutes – he’d usually switch to English with me. His English, I should add, is top notch. But that was always an indication of, “Your German is good enough for the group, but between us, it’s just more efficient to speak English.” So when he never bothered to switch on the way to the train, that was the first time I’ve ever felt with him, “Hey dude, your German is now good enough there’s really no point in switching.” That’s a feather in the cap of sorts.
Only, like I said, I’m not in a great place with my German right now, at least in my own head. און פארוואס? Well, I’ve got this new tandem (conversation exchange) going, in addition to my tandem with Alex. It’s with this girl from Hannover. So already, her Hanoverian German (i.e. standard textbook German) is weird to me and my Berlin-trained ears. Conversation-wise, though, I do alright. I mean, yeah, there are times when I have to ask her to repeat things. And there are times when she says things I’ve never heard before and have to ask what they mean. But that’s the whole point of this tandem business anyway. So I don’t feel too bad about that. And anyway, conversationally, my German is, if not quite to her level of English, at least hanging out in the same neighborhood. So if that’s all there was, I’d probs be feeling pretty good about myself.
The problem is, that’s not all there is. Because see, the last two times we’ve met, she presented me with newspaper articles to read. And oh my gods, the wheels just come off. I mean, I can’t believe how shit I am. Like, I’ve been living in this country for over six years. I have multiple relationships that exist entirely in German. And then it comes time to read a simple newspaper article and I’m almost completely lost. It’s like it’s a whole nother language entirely.
And we’re not talking high literature here. It’s not like we’re trying to read Goethe or something. It’s a fucking daily. And I got nothing. I mean, it’s absolutely brutal. So of course I start to feel super self-conscious. To the point that, every so often, I’ll just stop and be like, “I’m sorry, this has to be so boring for you.” And invariably, she’s like, “No, not at all, you’re doing fine.” Friends, I am not ‘doing fine.’ I am at the very limits of my ability and it’s embarrassing.
Maybe I wouldn’t feel so bad if I was a proper novice. But I’m not. In addition to having lived here 6+ years, in addition to having whole friendships entirely in German, I also have to negotiate my life in this language. I have to go to the doctor, the allergist, the dentist in German. I have to do my taxes in German. I have to call customer service lines in German. And I manage all of that. Oh, but a newspaper article? Haha, fuck you, noob.
It’s deflating. I feel like a fucking failure. And this girl, bless her, she’s so supportive and patient and encouraging. Maybe because I can give her something in return. I don’t mind saying at this point that I’m a pretty good English teacher. So I’m able to offer her quite a bit, even at her impressively advanced level. So I’m guessing she doesn’t feel like it’s a one-way street, which almost certainly helps. The point is, it’s not anything she says or does that makes me feel bad; if anything she should be making me feel better about things. But man. I do not.
So then, I show up to Esma’s already not feeling good about my German. And now I’ve got to do it with strangers? Ugh. I felt like I was tripping over my tongue the whole night. Felt like I was missing things the whole night. We played this card game. Lots of fun. But I feel like I needed to have shit explained to me like three times at least. Nobody else did, mind you. Just Dave, who’s not actually that good at German. Fuck me. At least nobody switched to English on me. At least there was that.
But what a strange fucking feeling. Rationally knowing that, by any metric, this is the best I’ve ever been at this משגע׳נע language. And at the same time, feeling like a complete fucking failure. Man, that was brutal. Like, already my inclination in a social situation with strangers (and without alcohol!) is just to keep my mouth shut. Now, every time I open it, feeling like I’m gonna fuck it up?
I’m focusing on the negative here, obviously. The dinner shindig was, language shit aside, a great time. It was great to see my friends, and the new people were a lot of fun. And whatever the state of my German, however I might be feeling about it, I did manage to get through the night without resorting to English, without anybody else resorting to English. I’m glad I went, is the point.
And to put a more positive spin on things, this – all this – is exactly what I need to be doing. I need to be putting myself in more social situations where the only language is German. I need to be challenging myself with actually reading this language (I hate reading it in equal measure with how much I love speaking it), and I’m lucky to have people that will hold my hand through it with a seemingly endless amount of patience. These are good things.
And the best way to stop feeling like a fucking failure is – no surprise here – to just get better at it. And the best way to get better at it is just to fucking do it. Well, I’ve got opportunities to do just that, don’t I?
So what can I do? I can keep doing it. I can accept that embarrassment and feeling like a failure at times are simply the cost of doing business. I can recognize that nobody else – at least, not the people who actually care about me – seem to be judging me, are in fact supporting me. And if I’m smart – an open question – I can learn to stop being so hard on myself. To take my own advice. If you want to get better at language, you’ve got put yourself out there. That inevitably means falling on your face sometimes. But it’s the only way. Because that’s how we learn. And I’m lucky enough that I’ve got people around me who are willing to help.
So next time I meet with tandem girl, we’ll try another article. And I’ll surely suck at it. But the goal is not to be awesome at it. The goal is to better than last week. And the next time somebody invites me to something with people I don’t know, I damn well better show up. Because that’s an opportunity. An opportunity to embarrass myself, but also an opportunity to learn something new, to get better at this shit.
Man, living in a foreign country is hard work sometimes…
I’ll probably have another update on the whole podcast thing in a later post, when all is said and done. But I feel good about it. I feel good about my own work here, and I feel good that he’s pleased with it. So this looks promising. It’s been fun and a good learning experience; different from working on music in some ways. Plus I’ll get a nice little paycheck out of it. And hopefully it will lead to more work.
He wants to pick up English lessons again in December for a bit, so I’m sure we’ll discuss this at length then. I’m looking forward to that as well. Oh, and one last really nice thing to come from all of this. Remember I said I know this cat through Bibi. Well, when I saw her at Knut’s birthday (before any of this podcast business), she was like, “Dude, you know Carsten fucking loves you, right?” And I’m like, “Um, yeah, I mean, we have a pretty good rapport, sure.” And she’s like, “No, he fucking loves you. He wants to get drinks next time he’s in Berlin. Are you down?” Ha, what a question. Am I down for drinks. “Yeah, sure! I’d love to meet him in person. Sounds like fun.” So presumably that’ll happen at some point. But, you know, that’s just nice to hear.