An American in Berlin
30 March, 2023
Hi. Is it too late to say Happy New Year? Yeah, it’s been a little minute since I’ve
written published. The truth is I’ve started at least three posts since the calendar flipped and I haven’t been happy with any of them. So, starting over fresh here. I’m gonna err more on the side of the superficial this time, in the hopes of just getting this done.
I just got back from a weekend in Frankfurt. Frankfurt? That’s random, no? Yes. Yes it is. Here’s what happened. Years ago when I was “paralegal,” figure ’07-’09 or so, I worked with this dude Anthony. We didn’t hang out much outside of work, but we were proper work buddies. Talking baseball, politics, work. Oh, and also sneaking around to conference rooms after meetings to snap up any of the leftover sandwiches. Genuinely a good guy, despite being a Red Sox fan.
Anyway, we’ve stayed in touch over the years. Mostly sending each other ridiculous NY Post headlines, bitching about politics and talking baseball. Well, about a month ago, he sends me a text. “Me and the fam are coming to Frankfurt to visit family friends. You’re in Germany. Are you close to Frankfurt?” Um, I’m in Berlin. I’m close to everything. In point of fact, by high-speed rail, I’m a four-hour no-transfer train ride from Frankfurt. So I figure, if the dude is willing to shlep his whole family (two young kids included) all the way to Europe and he’s actually reaching out, the least I can do is fuck off to Frankfurt for a weekend.
I didn’t expect much from Frankfurt. Most people I’ve spoken to tend to be rather dismissive of the city, which is apparently the financial capital of Germany (and therefore Europe, I guess). Maybe it’s because my expectations were so low, but honestly, I was pretty impressed. The central train station is borderline magnificent, if a rather a bit run down. They’ve got a cluster of cute little skyscrapers. They’ve got a decent sized river (the Main) with a series of respectable, if small, bridges.
Most of all, though, their food game is on point. I’ve bitched and moaned more than a bit how, for all it’s got going for it, Germany is not a great food country. And like, it’s not. But Frankfurt makes a solid showing. My first day, I found a place that serves actual Buffalo wings. Like, wings that would be good Buffalo wings even in The States. Then for dinner, I found this neat little Japanese joint. And like, proper Japanese. Not a sushi place that calls itself Japanese and then serves Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Sushi, none of it good; which is mostly what you find in Berlin. I had Tonkatsu with a side of shaved radish. Excellent. And this shaved radish, wow. It was like, shaved ice…but white radish, and with little baby mushrooms. Super tasty. And when I listened to what was going on around me, I heard people speaking actual Japanese at a few of the tables. Fantastic. So that was Friday, which was a day just for me.
Saturday, I met up with Anthony and the whole gang. The whole gang was him, his wife and two kids, aged 7 and two-ish; plus their friends, an American couple with two boys aged 7 and five-ish. All the grownups had that look of exhaustion that parents of young children always seem to have. Anyway, I met them for lunch in the old city. From there, we walked around a bit before going to an art museum. I thought that was pretty cool, that these parents bring/have their kids in Europe and take them to an art museum. After that, we did a bit more walking around before going to dinner. I asked for a recommendation from the hotel, specifically for something traditionally German, figuring that the Americans could get anything else just as easily back home. The guy at reception gave me a solid rec, which I passed along, and the wife-half of the friends made the reservation. Food was excellent. We drank a local drink called Apfelwein (Apple-wine), which was basically this super-sour cider. Not bad. Wine with dinner. And after we ate, I ordered a round of Himbeergeist (raspberry schnapps) for the lads, being pretty sure Anthony had never had the like of it. He hadn’t, and he was fairly blown away by it, so that was nice. The waiter said the restaurant made it themselves, and honestly, it was superb. After dinner, we said our goodbyes and that was that. Chilled at the hotel, just reading; I was pretty tired at that point. Came back on Sunday.
So it was a fun little getaway. The main point, of course, was that it was just great to see Anthony. I mean, it had been at least a decade since we’d last seen each other. Great to meet the kids, and their friends were super nice; their kids were f’ing adorable. But yeah, just to hang out and catch up and shoot the shit with Anthony was excellent. I mean, we picked up exactly where we left off, as if no time had passed. He’s just a smart, kind, funny guy. But like, with just enough cynicism to keep him interesting without being actually bitter. My kind of person, in other words. I never doubted it. And it was absolutely worth the trip to see him. I’m super happy it worked out as it did.
Once or twice, between lunch and dinner, he made a point of saying I didn’t need to stick around and deal with the kids. He had this look a lot of parents have. You know the one. “I love my kids, but this is exhausting and I don’t know why anyone would subject themselves to this willingly if they don’t have to.” But the truth is, I really enjoyed being around the kids. They were fun, cute and smart. And for me, it was only one day. So I told him, “Dude, I love this. None of my friends here have kids, so for me this is tops.” Meant it too.
So yeah, that was Anthony and Frankfurt. Nice to see my friend after all these years, nice to have a day with kids, nice to get out of the city and get away from everything. Nice to spend a couple of nights in a decent hotel and explore a new city.
First night at the hotel, I went down to the bar just before closing; brought a book with me. I was the only guest there. So I ordered myself a fancy scotch. The bartender looks at me with narrowed eyes. “Wollen Sie Eis damit?” (You want ice with that?). “Nein.” “Gott sei Dank.“ (Thank God). He literally said that. Anyway, he starts chatting with me. Um, okay, I guess I’ll close my book. In any case, I chatted with the bartender until he closed up shop. It was nice actually. Felt like a grownup, you know? Sitting at the hotel bar, by myself, sipping a scotch and chatting with the bartender in German. Good scotch, too. So yeah, all in all, quite a good weekend.
I said I did a bit of reading. I brought two books with me. One is the new Jules Verne I’m currently reading, Hector Servadac. It’s fun, as JV always is. Plus, good to be reading some French again. But also, I’m rusty. I mean, I can still read French at the same level, but I feel like I’m reading slower right now, like it takes more processing power, I get tired faster. That’s just rust, but it tells me I gotta be putting in more of an effort in that department. But JV is a good way back in. Besides always just being fun, I’ve read over a dozen of his books by now, so I’m very comfortable with his style. Like a comfy old pair of shoes, you know?
As for the other book, well, get this. It seems I’m reading The Bible now. Not Torah, that’s old news (pun intended?); but actually the New Testament. Or as my brother calls it, Christian fan-fiction. Right about now, you might be wondering, “Um, that’s weird. Why are you reading the NT?”
Well, two reasons I guess. The first – and primary reason – is that I was looking for some easy Greek to read. Because obviously I’m reading it in Greek, i.e. the language it was originally written in. See, now I’ve got Greek twice a week, right? Sophocles with George and then Homer with the gang. So my Greek motor is running in a way it kinda hasn’t been since grad school. And that had me feeling like I wanted to branch out, up my game, read even more Greek. But also, something not too taxing, something I can read without needing a 500 page commentary and all of the dictionaries.
With that in mind, I figured something in the κοινή (koinē) dialect would be in order. This is not the highly stylized literary dialect of classical Athens, but rather the simplified, systematized, streamlined version of the language which served as a lingua-franca throughout the Hellenized/Romanized world.
I wasn’t immediately thinking NT, but as I was googling around, I stumbled on a pretty neat edition. First of all, it’s all Greek; no translations to be found within its covers. That said, it’s organized to be very readable. At the bottom of each page are vocab and grammar notes for all words appearing < 30 times in the text; there’s a glossary in the back for all words appearing > 30 times. And the language/grammar/syntax itself is really quite easy (George calls it “Dr. Suess Greek”). The result is, you can kinda just read it as is. So it’s normally in my bathroom. I was reading it on the train and in bed in my hotel room. It’s still Greek, so ‘easy for Greek’ is still not exactly easy. But it’s easy enough. Some passages require some imagination and concentration, and often a second or third read through, before they fall into place. But I can pretty much always get there on my own.
Occasionally, I’ll check my work against a translation when shit seems really weird. But then, when I read the English, I’m invariably like, “Oh, it does say what I thought it says. It’s just fucking weird.” Like this time Jesus exorcised some possessed people by casting their demons out of them and into – get this – pigs? Yes, pigs. Then the pigs run into the river. Because why not? And then when the townsfolk find out what he did, they kick him out of their town. Because why wouldn’t they? I’m saying it’s weird sometimes.
So mostly this was just about finding some easy Greek to read. But also, I realized I don’t actually know basically anything that’s in the NT. And since it’s pretty foundational to Western Civilization and all, I kinda figured it’s one of those books I should probably read at least once in my life, you know? So in that regard, it’s been quite interesting.
But also – and I mean absolutely no offense by this – but Jesus is like, kind of a weird dude. First of all yes, there’s a lot of ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘love thy neighbor’ stuff. He’s often preaching a positive message. Often, but not always. Like, at one point, he has something to say about divorce. According to him, you can’t divorce your wife unless she’s committed adultery. And if you marry a divorced woman, you cause her to commit adultery. Obviously women have no agency in any of this. And it’s like, oh yeah, Jesus was a frummer yid, I forgot.
And then he’s always parable-izing. (Is there a word for that?). To the point where some dude literally says to him, “Dude, what’s with all the parables?” And he’s like, “Well, let me put it this way. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed.” Um, if you say so, chief. And then he’s always ending his parables with his little catchphrase: “Those who have ears, let them hear.” Which I guess is Ancient-Speak for “Can you dig it?” (And somewhere, Pontius Pilate is clinking three empty beer bottles together saying, “Christians…come out to play-ay.” Suddenly this just became The Warriors). So yeah, the NT. Weird shit. But interesting.
Staying with the theme of, what, Bible Study? So I signed up for this Torah-Talmud study course, called ze Kollel. It’s at the Hillel around the corner; Akiva put me on to it. Basically, we meet every Monday from 9-1. It’s part in person, part in Zoom. Most of the people in Berlin show up in person, though some Zoom in. But there’s also people joining from Amsterdam and Paris.
About 60-90m of it is the whole group together, discussing stuff. But mostly, you’re paired with a learning partner, your khevrusa. Basically, you read and discuss the assigned passage of Torah or Talmud together, reading (and trying to make sense of) the commentaries and then trying to add your own understanding to it. I’m over-simplifying and I’ll do a deeper dive on this in a later post, but for now, it’s enough to say that’s the general idea.
Anyway, the last couple of weeks I’ve been paired with (my khevrusa is) this woman Yael. She lives in Berlin, but she always zooms in. She’s got three kids, so I guess she’s got her hands full. She’s Italian and pretty religious. She’s also very smart and super nice. More to the point, we work well together. Like, we just seem to understand each other rather well and we have fun working on this shit together. At some point soon, they’re going to assign us permanent khevrusas; I hope we’re paired together for the duration. She’s just great, you know?
But wait, there’s more. So as people are working in their various Zoom groups, the rabbi who runs/organizes the whole thing (Jeremy) will pop in just to see how things are going. So he pops into our Zoom the first time and we chat with him for a bit. And then he says, “I know something you guys don’t know. You both speak Yiddish.” Wait, what? So after he left, we’re both like, “Wait, you speak Yiddish?” From there, we spent like the next 15 minutes just schmoozing, which was so fucking great.
Then Yael tells me that she’s a part of this Yiddish group that meets twice a month in a café just to schmooze and would I like to be added to the group. Um, yes please! So she adds me to the Whatsapp group and minutes later, I get a message from the guy who organizes it, welcoming me to the group and inviting me to the next schmooze. Obviously I said I’d be there, no doubt about it.
Meanwhile, Yael asked me last time if I’d be interested in Zooming with her once a week or once every two weeks just to schmooze a bit or maybe to do a bit of reading in Yiddish. I told her I’d fucking love to. Hasn’t happened yet, but I would surely be happy if it does.
Meanwhile meanwhile, last Thursday was the café meetup. And not to put too fine a point on it, but this was kinda the greatest thing ever. Or, at least since Weimar. There were about seven of us. My Yiddish was on the weaker side comparatively, but still plenty strong enough to take part and not feel like an idiot. In fact, I understood 99% of what was being said around me. I just don’t have a lot of opportunities to speak, so I wasn’t as sharp as some of the others and there was more German-creep than I’d like. Still though, I felt perfectly at home.
And I did feel at home. Everybody was so nice and friendly and welcoming. They made me feel like a part of the group right away and before the end, they were already inviting me back for next time plus other various events/get-togethers that they have going on. At one point, this older woman at the table (who apparently runs the children’s program at the Jewish Museum) was like, “I hope you’ll be coming back?” And I’m like, “You can’t get rid of me!”
There were moments though, where it was kinda surreal. Like, just sitting around in a café, in public, a bunch of people just talking Yiddish. In Berlin. But then also, it kinda felt like the most normal thing in the world. And also, in a way, like the expat community I either a) didn’t know I was looking for or b) have been avoiding this whole time.
Because I do make it a habit of avoiding expats, right? Like, I didn’t come here to hang out with Americans or to speak English. I’m trying to make my way in, and be a part of, the culture where I live; not to hide out in a transplanted version of the culture I left. But this was not that, this was different.
Even though there were two Americans there, ballpark my age though a bit younger. A dude from Jersey and a girl from Brooklyn. So we could kvetch about not being able to get good bagels over here. But like, we kvetched about it in Yiddish. Which just felt right, you know?
Anyway, me and those two stayed until closing. (I was there for almost five hours!). And then, since we all live pretty much in the same ‘hood, we all took the bus home together. So there we were, chatting in Yiddish on a midnight bus in Berlin. I couldn’t have been happier. Anyway, I’m sure I’ll have lots more to say about this going forward. But for the first encounter, I think that’s enough. Except to say, even though I’ve got amazing friends here, this is maybe the first time I felt like I’d found my people.
And they were my people. To this point, all of my Yiddish encounters – even Weimar to a large extent – had been focused on ‘Yiddishism,’ i.e. the study of the Yiddish language, its literature and history, etc. But very little of it has been “Jewish.” Not so with these people. Nobody at the table was frum, nobody was super religious. But we all seemed to come from similar backgrounds and upbringings, all seem to have roughly similar relationships to Judaism. Like, they were talking about getting together to celebrate holidays and even trying to have a sedar in Yiddish. And that was super refreshing. I was with people who didn’t just love Yiddish, who weren’t just damned good at it too, but with people who were also navigating their own relationships with Judaism in much the way that I am. One more reason I felt really at home with this bunch. So we’ll see where it goes, where it takes me. But I’m super excited about it. Maybe the most excited I’ve been about anything since I’ve been here.
One last language thing. Polish finally seems to be getting off the ground. All it needed, turns out, was a little push. So in this memorial book Bartek and I translating, we came across a handwritten journal entry. Only thing, it was written in Polish, not Yiddish. So of course Bartek translated it for our ever-ongoing translation project.
But then I asked him if he wouldn’t mind helping me to read it phonetically. Because if you’ve ever seen even the least bit of written Polish, you know that to our English/French/German reading eyes it’s a total trainwreck of consonants, right? I mean, take for example a certain bridge in NY. The Kosciuszko Bridge. Ask ten different New Yorkers how that should be pronounced and you’ll get ten different answers; and quite possibly none of them will be ‘correct’ to a Polish speaker. (The answer, something like: Ko-schyu-shko). Anyway, he was only too happy to help me sound out the journal entry phonetically. And then, he asked me if I’d like to do a bit more. I mean, this is a guy who’s genuinely excited to share his language, you know? Bless him.
Obviously I said yes. So the next week, he found a short article about some Jewish organizations in Warsaw that are helping Jewish refugees from Ukraine. We’d start by him reading a sentence or two and then me trying to read it back, him correcting my pronunciation along the way. Then he’d sort of walk me through translating it, filling in the vocab and adding grammar notes as we go. It’s a challenge, but it’s fun and of course interesting as hell, just shedding the slightest bit of light, finally, on a Slavic language; and the one that has a direct impact on the Yiddish text we’re reading on top of it.
So that’s part of our process now. We begin our meetings by reading a bit of Polish together. And in the meantime, I’ve started up with Duolingo, doing a bit of Polish every day. Baby steps, right? I mean, I’m very much at the “The boy is eating an apple” stage of things. But it’s a start. And I’m glad I’m doing it. Glad I’m doing it with Bartek too. Partly because he knows what’s in my toolbox, knows how I think. Partly because he’s a language whiz, so he can explain things really well. And partly, like I said, just because he’s so happy to be sharing his language. So that’s been kinda great. At some point, I’m gonna have to up my game and buy a proper book on the subject. But this is a good start. And I’m kind of excited about this too.
Music. Lots to say here, but I’m gonna have to give it the superficial treatment if I have any hope of actually finishing/publishing this post. Just after the New Year, I finished my most recent song; meaning, of my own songs, the one’s I’ve written. I’m really happy with the end result. In pretty much every way that matters, it’s easily my best work yet. Writing-wise, production-wise, performance-wise. As always, Rob was a huge help in fine tuning the end product, for which I’m always grateful.
Got a lot of positive feedback on it too. People said it reminded them of the Ramones, Blink, Buddy Holly and early 2000’s pop-punk/rock in general. Which was great to hear, as those were very clearly my biggest influences for this track. So if people are hearing that, it means I’m doing something right. I also heard some versions of “Who’s the girl singing the high parts?” or “Wow, all the voices sound great together, who is that?” Lol. It’s all me, bruh. But that was also gratifying. I could be wrong of course, but what that tells me is, it sounds credible to people, people are ready to believe it’s actually a band and not just one dude in his apartment. I’ll call that a win.
The best feedback of all, though, came from Finnish Markus. Markus has a producer’s ear for this shit. He actually does his own stuff, electronic music, and it’s quite good; not that I know anything about electronic music. But he’s very critical, in a good way mind you. But he won’t pull punches. He’ll tell you if hears something that’s not working or could be better or whatever. Anyway, I played him this track, and his head’s nodding along as he’s listening. Then, when it’s done, he turns to me and says, “It sounds ready.” That’s it, nothing else. Just, “It sounds ready.” And that’s pretty much the highest praise I can ask for from this guy who’s opinion I hold in very high regard on this subject. Like, finally, after 2.5 years of learning how to do this shit from the ground up, I’ve written, recorded and produced a track that’s “ready” to go out into the world. Now I just need to get my next 5-6 songs up to the same level and I’ll be ready to put something like an album up on Bandcamp or Spotify or whatever. That’s a shit-ton of work ahead of me, but I feel really good about it. All I need now is time.
None of this is to say, of course, that I’m done learning or growing. This is only the beginning. But kinda for the first time, I’m feeling like I’ve moved on from the novice-learning-self-study phase to actually being able to do this shit in a way that people who don’t know me might listen to this and not find it out of place with the other shit they’re listening to. It’s a good place to be.
Still working on songs for Philippe and Pauline. Finished one last month, which they seemed pretty happy with. It’s the first song I added bass and drums to for them. They didn’t ask for that, nor did I tell them I’d be doing it. So I was curious how that would be received. But they both seemed to like it. So that was good. Now I’m working on the next one. It’s coming along, but for some reason, I’m finding it to be more of a challenge. I’ve asked Justin to add an organ accompaniment, which I think will be a big help. So I’m waiting on that while trying to get the vocals just right. We did too many takes – no, that’s not right. We did the right number of takes to get Pauline to do what she needed to do. But I kept all of them, which was a mistake. It meant many tedious hours of sifting through take after take, phrase after phrase, to find the best ones. I could have saved myself a lot of work if I’d just deleted the earlier takes I knew we were never going to use. Well, it is what it is. But it’s coming along and I’m really hoping to have something for them by the end of the week.
This year was me and Charlotte’s ten year friendiversary (or as she called it, in French, our amiversaire, which is so much nicer). On Valentine’s Day, of all days. That’s when we first met, for our language exchange back in 2013. We’d been in contact before that, but because I had jury duty, we’d had to postpone our first meeting, and it just happened that Feb 14 was the day. Anyway, as an amiversaire gift, I wanted to send her one of the songs we’d recorded while she was here.
I’d originally wanted to do Dream Lover (Bobby Darin), since that was kinda the first song that we actually started singing together. But that turned out to be a bigger project than I thought it would be. So instead, I turned to Buffalo Jimmy. (Which is not the real name of the song (by Moriarty), but since I don’t actually know the name of the song, that’s what I call it). Anyway, I was able to send her a mostly finished version. By which I mean, everything was done and finished except my harmonies. For reasons that still elude me, I’m having a helluva time finding the right harmonies for the last chorus. So I wound just having to send her a version with only her vocals. But with drums and bass and properly mixed and everything, so it does sound like a real song, you know?
Anyway, she was largely pleased with the result and thought it was the perfect amiversaire gift, which was great. I say ‘largely pleased.’ There are some spots where she’s not in love with her vocals. And she’s not wrong, either. There are a couple of spots that could be better. But really, that’s on me. I was surprised to find, when I went back to do the mixing, that we’d only done one complete vocal take. Which is not like me. Normally, I want at least three takes of anything, just in case. But for whatever reason, I only had the one. So that’s my fault for not giving her the chance to improve the couple of spots that could be better.
Having said that, though, I think she sounds great. I mean, I think she’s just got a properly pretty voice. And very different from Pauline, or Bibi for that matter. But like, Pauline has this very smokey quality to her voice. Charlotte is more like a clear, shimmery kind of sound. I mean, this is a voice I think anybody would be happy to listen to, you know?
Some time ago, I’d written that I was looking forward to ‘getting my hands on her voice.’ Well, I finally did. And I think I did nice work with it. To be clear, the point is not “to make her sound good.” The point is to make her sound like she sounds. In other words, the microphone doesn’t hear things the way our ears do. So part of the job is just to get across the natural quality of her voice. The rest is just adding a bit of sparkle and getting it to sit right in the mix. Which I think I did. I think, or hope, I’ve given her something she can be proud of, something she can share with her friends and family and say, “Yeah, bitches, look what I can do.” Now I just gotta find time to finish my harmonies, and oh yeah, also finish the other songs we recorded. Not enough hours in the fucking day, I tellya. Not enough days in the fucking week either, while we’re on the subject.
Well, I think that’s more than enough. I feel like all of the subjects covered need a deeper dive, but that will all have to wait. In the meantime,