An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
30 October, 2023

Well, here we are again.  Before getting into the usual stuff, I feel almost forced to acknowledge that there are some pretty terrible things going on in the world now.  Okay, there have been for quite some time.  But new bullshit in the last couple of weeks.  And I definitely do not want to use this space to talk about it, except in the most general terms.  So let me get that out of the way first.

Like a lot of people, I’m absolutely heartbroken to see the suffering that’s been unleashed.  I wish I could say that sorrow was my overriding emotion, but it’s not.  I find that I’m filled with a lot of rage.  More than that, I won’t say.  What I will say is that I’m very lucky to have my friend Nate.  Over the last week or so, we’ve engaged in a dialogue of sorts via email.  It’s been an outlet for both of us to share our emotions, our thoughts, our analyses, and so on.  To challenge our own assumptions and to refine our arguments.  It’s become a sort of safe space where we can say what’s on our mind without fear of judgement.  At the same time, and perhaps more importantly, it’s also a place to challenge each other, to have our opinions called out and criticized by a person we trust.  It’s definitely not an echo chamber.  I value having someone who’s not afraid to tell me when he thinks I’m wrong or if he feels I’ve stepped over some line.  I’m trying not to step over lines.  I’m trying to be rational and fair and compassionate.  But I’m very angry.  So I’m thankful to have Nate and the space we’ve created for ourselves.  Beyond being therapeutic, it’s helping me to hold on to my humanity.  More than this, I won’t say.

Moving on.  Last week was a good social week.  Anne was in town for work.  Accordingly, Annett made the trip up so the three of us could hang out.  This was on Tuesday last.  They came over to my place after work (Anne’s first time seeing the joint).  We hung out here for rather a while, just catching up.  Me and Anne drank a number of grogs (hot toddies); Annett’s not drinking alcohol.  It was great to get the ol’ gang back together, tell stories, laugh.  Later on, we went to bar on the next block. 

It’s a place I’ve been meaning to get to since I moved in.  It just looks cool from the outside, in that pretty much all the walls are lined with books.  There’s always people sitting in there working or reading or just hanging out.  Laidak, it’s called btw.  I don’t know why I’d never gone in before.  Probably some cross between not wanting to spend the money (not like it’s expensive) and not wanting to go in and publicly drink alone.  Neither of these are great reasons.  Well, I’m not arguing for going in and getting trashed by myself.  But bringing a book and going for one beer?  I mean, that could be a way to maybe meet new and interesting people.  But I digress.

So we go in, and the bar is just great.  I mean, it’s a bit smoky, so not for everyone.  But great.  A real classic Berlin joint.  The sort of oldschool anarchistic, counterculture, alternative kinda place this city is sorta known for.  Full of hipsters, artists, misfits and just regular folks.  Just a great vibe.  And cheap.  To me, it’s these kinda places that sorta exemplify the soul of Berlin.  Or, at least, the version of the soul of Berlin that attracts me to this place. 

I often tell people that Berlin ain’t pretty to look at.  It’s not like Paris or Rome where you walk around just agog at all the wonderful architecture and history.  The things that make Berlin really great can’t be seen.  They’re all kinda under the surface, subdermal if you will.  But it’s places like this, that exude a certain I-don’t-give-a-fuck-ness, where an eclectic mix of people just coexist, working, reading, drinking, chilling, conversing.  And it’s around the corner from me.  Fantastic.

So we hung out there for a while, continuing on with our drinks.  Well, me and Anne anyway.  Beers now, and Mexicaner shots.  The Mexicaner is basically a shot-version of a Bloody Mary.  Tomato juice, (presumably) vodka and pepper (or something else spicy).  Maybe they exist everywhere, but I’ve only seen/had them in Berlin.  And me and Anne developed a fondness for them long ago.  So we were happy to put back a couple of those with our beers. 

After that, we went for Döner and then I walked them to the train.  Just one night, but it was a good one.  Really great to get some time, the three of us.  I’d missed them both.  I miss them again now.  Kinda like I wrote about with Vin and Joschka, we have our group dynamic.  Annett is the mature one who loves us while being low-key offended by our antics.  Anne is the eccentric artist.  And I’m the clown/asshole.  Annett reminded of us of a story from years ago, possibly our first New Year’s together in Berlin.  I’d made some rude comment, to which Anne replied, “New year, same asshole.”  That pretty much sums us up.  I love those bitches.  Hopefully we’ll be able to get together again sooner than later. 

Maybe a month or two ago, I got an email from my buddy Aaron, in Maine.  I’m sure I’ve mentioned him, but he’s a friend from college.  From, uh, Maine.  As long as I was living in the States, I made a point of driving up there (at least, but usually just) once a year to visit him and his twin brother Adam.  We’ve been good friends for such a long time.  I was in both of their weddings, remember the births of their kids.  And most recently, they sent me some really nice housewarming gifts when I moved into the new joint.  It’s harder now to find the time to get up there since I’m living here, but I’ve managed to make the trip (I wanna say) twice.  And it’s always a grand time.

Anyway, Aaron emails me.  How would I feel about him and Nina (his wife) coming for a visit?  How would I feel?  I’d fucking love it!  We spent a few weeks back-and-forthing to hammer out the details, and in the end we settled on some dates.  For me, it would only be three days.  For them though, with travel time figured in, it was really a five-day trip.  I told them they were most welcome to stay longer, given it’s not a ton of time for all the travel involved.  But as they had to arrange care for their two kids and dog, this was the most practical arrangement for them.  Which, you can’t argue with that.

Well, they showed up bright and early Thursday morning.  It was kinda surreal to see them, just like walking into my courtyard.  But also, fucking great.  They’re just fantastic people.  I laid out a big breakfast for their arrival.  A sorta mix of Turkish and German.  Fish, pastirma (Turkish pastrami; quite different from what we think of as pastrami, but tasty), olives, hummus, baba ghanoush, a big ol’ Fladenbrodt (big huge round wheel of fluffy bread with sesame seeds) and some Börek (sorta filo-dough wrapped cylinders of either meat, spinach or cheese), and of course some pickled radish (which I love).  I think that was it.  I was pretty proud of it, tbh.  I mean, it looked good on the table.  But also, I guess kinda exotic from an American perspective.  And maybe not in a great way?  They ate some of it, other stuff they didn’t touch.  But they were tired and had eaten on the plane anyway.  Well, it’s the thought that counts.  Plus, it left me with a ton of food for myself that I’m still working through.

First day, the weather was gray and misty.  We mostly just walked around NK.  I took them over to THF, just so they could see it.  Then we stopped for tea/coffee in Schiller Kiez.  From there, we wandered up to the canal and made a kinda circle back home.  I’m not sure, but we may all have had a nap at that point.  We went for dinner at the Vietnamese joint around the corner, which was very nice. 

After that, we dropped Nina off as she was ready for bed.  Aaron, though, is a bit of a night owl, like me.  So after trying two around-the-corner-spots which turned out not have any available seating, we went back over to Schiller Kiez, to that hipster-ish cocktail bar I often go to with Joschka.  I wasn’t sure if his friend, Ross the bartender, would be working; and if he was, if he’d remember me.  But we walk in and there he is.  I go over to say hello, dreading the awkward encounter of him not remembering me.  But he just sticks out his hand and greets me warmly.  Then he says, “Classic Manhattan, straight up, right?”  Dude didn’t just remember me, he knew my drink!  I wasn’t expecting that for sure, but it was definitely a nice flex.  Like, “Hey, welcome to this bar where the bartender knows my fucking drink!”  Let’s say A-ron was not unimpressed.

We sat for two cocktails worth of time, whatever that is.  And we just talked.  First some catching up, and then onto some more serious stuff.  We talked all things homeownership.  The agita of buying, the stress of maintenance, all of it.  And then we had a most unexpected conversation.  A rather in depth discussion about gummy candies.  Turns out we’re both big fans.  We talked about what we value in a gummy, both in terms of chewiness and flavor.  We debated the best way to eat them.  (Two or three at a time, always with a mix of flavors).  I mean, this went on for rather a bit.  In the end, we concluded that it was substantively a meaningless conversation, and yet…we were both delighted to have had this (albeit trivial) meeting of the minds on a subject which we both thought we were the only ones to have ever considered in such detail.  I mean, this is the kinda shit real friendships are based on, ya know?

Then we came home.  And at that point, I’m a bit fuzzy on what happened next.  Either a) we just went to bed or b) we retired to my room and split a bottle of wine.  I’m pretty sure it was b).  Yes, I’m quite sure, now that I think about it.  And we just talked more, about life and all the rest of it. 

And honestly, what we have is one of these truly beautiful male friendships.  The sort where we pretty much don’t communicate at all when we’re apart.  But the value and status of the friendship is never questioned.  Like, whenever possible, I’ll make the effort to drive up to Maine, right?  And they know the effort involved in that.  So whenever I suggest a visit, they always rearrange their schedules and do whatever they have to just make it work.  I stay in their homes, play with their kids, spend some good one-to-one facetime with their wives (who are both awesome nfn).  And when we get together, it’s always just like old times.  I realized, when they were leaving, that it’s 2023; and we graduated in ’03.  In other words, we’ve kept this thing going for twenty years now after college.  And now Aaron and Nina were visiting me here in Berlin.  What a treasure.

Friday was cold and rainy.  Nina wanted to do some shopping so she could bring some gifts home for the kids.  So I took them up to Alex.  Which, under any other circumstances would be ridiculous.  But under these circumstances?  It was the right move.  So went to Alexa (the mall at Alexanderplatz) and Nina did her thing.  Meanwhile, Aaron and I found a candy store and bought a whole bunch of little bags of different gummy candies.  Bears, sharks, sweet-and-sour dolphins, maybe others.  Well, we had to!

From there, I led us over to Nikolaiviertel.  I feel like most people don’t much care for this spot, but personally I’m a big fan.  It’s the oldest part of the city.  Like, literally where the city itself was founded in, I wanna say, 1280.  As such, it’s got a sort of almost medieval vibe to it.  It’s the closest thing this city has to ‘old European,’ if that makes any sense.  It’s a bit artificial, it must be said.  Partly because it got all bombed out during the war and was only later reconstructed, partly because it’s just so not what Berlin is.  But to me, it’s just charming.  So we went over there and they also found it cute and charming.

We popped into a classic old-style German beer hall for lunch.  I got a little cup of goulash with some bread for dipping.  Nina got a Bockwurst with potato salad and Aaron and Bratwurst with potato salad.  Aaron and I had wheat beers.  Very German.  And the place was very German, kinda dark with wood paneling and so on.  Everyone was happy with their meal and I was glad to give them a little taste of ‘German’ culture.  Also – and I say this with no shade thrown towards my vegetarian and vegan friends – it was kinda nice to be with people who were just like, “Yeah, I’ll have a fucking sausage for lunch.” 

Then we headed back home and chilled for a bit.  Somehow, the subject of these stupid little videos I make for the Kollel came up and so they asked to see one.  I was a little reluctant since their pretty in-the-weeds Jewish.  But they wanted to see it; and Nina is a half-Yid, so I figured she might at least get some of the jokes.  I wasn’t really expecting Aaron to get much other than satisfying his curiosity as to what I’ve been up to.  But one thing we love is puns, and there are plenty of puns in the video I showed them.

So now Aaron is literally laughing out loud, I’m talking the side-splitting variety.  Which surprised me a bit.  But he was like, “Look, I don’t need to get the joke to appreciate good word play.”  Which, fair point.  And then Nina said something really sweet.  She was like, “You know, me and the kids always try to make him laugh.  But honestly, nobody can make him laugh the way you and Adam can.”  What a beautiful thing to say, right?

And that’s something I really appreciate about Nina.  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  I love Nina.  And she likes me plenty too.  Plenty of times I’ve visited them and Aaron had to work or go to the store or whatever, and I’d just chat with Nina at the kitchen table.  And I’ve universally enjoyed the shit out of those conversations.  Like, in another life, I think we’d have been friends regardless.  So she’s great on her own merits.  But one thing I really appreciate about her is, she really values me and Aaron’s friendship.  Like, she loves her husband, she sees how happy he is when we hang out, and because of that, she holds me in high regard.  I feel like not every wife can or does do that.  She’s a special person anyway, but I think that makes her more special.

I also cooked dinner that night.  I asked them if they preferred Italian or Asian.  Given we’d had Vietnamese the night before, they opted for the former.

Interpolation:  Aaron came with me to go grocery shopping.  Obviously we bought a bunch more gummy stuff.  When we’d told Nina about our gummy convo, she related that as a kid growing up in Norway (her dad’s Norwegian) she used to eat these salted black licorice gummies.  Apparently, they’re the only gummies she likes.  So in the gummy aisle (it’s Germany, of course there’s a gummy aisle), I found a bag of – get this – ‘salted herring gummies.’  Sounds gross, right?  It’s just black licorice gummies in the shape of fish and, you know, salted.  So I picked up a bag for her.  When I gave it to her, I was like, “Are these the ones?”  And she’s like, “Omg, yes!  Thank you so much!”  I asked if I could try one (she said yes) and honestly?  They’re not bad at all.  Like, I might have to add them to the rotation.  :End interpolation.

I decided to make pork saltimbocca, which I’d never made before.  It could probably have been better (I’ll always say that), but it was honestly pretty good.  I also made a cucumber-tomato salad with homemade croutons and (lactose free) feta.  They seemed plenty satisfied.  And of course, I was happy to cook for them.  Again.  We all know I love cooking for people.  And so, pretty much always, when I go to visit them, I’ll cook dinner for everybody up there. 

Last time, their daughter (11 now, so she must have been 8-9 at the time) sous-chef’d for me.  I think I made my mom’s spaghetti and meatballs (always a hit).  And she got right in there, kneading the ground beef with her bare (and of course pre-washed) hands.  All the while, she was asking me about all the herbs/spices we were putting in.  So each time, I took the cover off and had her smell.  Super smart kid, inquisitive, and totally fearless about getting her hands dirty.  It was a lot of fun.  Point being, it’s pretty much a tradition at this point that I’ll cook for them when I visit.  So of course I was gonna cook for them when they visited me.  Good times. 

I also introduced them to Machi Koro.  It’s a game that Joschka introduced me to.  I introduced it Justin the first time he visited and he loved it so much he bought a set for himself.  We all play it when I’m home.  So we played it here and they took to it pretty well.  And give them credit, the game is in German.  But they’re both super smart and I walked them through whatever German was needed.  So the language was no impediment in the end.  We got about halfway through the game before Nina was kaput.  Whereupon we let her go to bad, while me and A retired once more to my room, there to split another bottle+ of wine (and also feast upon our recently acquired cache of gummies).

One thing I always do, when people visit, is to straight off give them my extra keys.  Even if the whole reason for a visit is for us to spend time together, I’m cognizant of the fact that an apartment is a small place to be.  That we’re in a city – and an interesting neighborhood at that – which warrants exploration.  Plus, nobody wants to feel like their obligated to spend every minute with their host.  So I like to give people the option to come and go as they please.  Also, and this is not insignificant, I’m in no way capable of getting up early.  Welcome feast notwithstanding, I’m not really interested in “going out for breakfast.”  So I’m very happy to hand over the extra keys and let my guests go for coffee/breakfast/whatever before I ever get my ass out of bed.  This they did, both days after their arrival.  I’m not even sure I was fully conscious of the fact until I found empty to-go coffee cups in my garbage after they left.  But that made me happy.  I like the fact that they felt comfortable enough to just go out on their own accord.  I want people to feel as at home as possible when they visit me, and I feel like that’s one good sign of it.

Anyway, my ass was dragging more than usual Saturday morning, so not only did they go out for breakfast, they just full on got their day started without me.  As they absolutely should have.  So they went off and saw the Holocaust Memorial and the Topography of Terrors exhibit on their own.  Which, good, honestly.  I mean, of course I would have accompanied them if they’d wanted me to.  But I was glad not to have to.  I met up with them after that.  Beer in hand, naturally.  Because Berlin.  We walked down Unter den Linden to Museum Insel, me doing my tour guide shtick along the way.  At the end, we got the train at Alex and came back home.

At that point, we all napped.  Even after that, Nina was pretty beat.  According to their step counter thingamajigs, they’d walked some nine miles that day.  And never once complained about being tired or their feet hurting or anything at all really.  So you gotta respect that.  Anyway, me and Aaron went for dinner at the Azerbaijani joint on Hermannstraße, down by Leinestraße.

It was pretty funny.  It’s always the same waitress, and I’ve been there a bunch of times, but I don’t think she knows me from a hole in the wall.  Really nice lady though.  Anyway, along with our food (which was slammin’ as always), we ordered a bottle of red (Turkish) wine and some tea.  So the waitress, when she brings the wine, she puts down a candle.  And the bottle has that classic napkin necktie.  You know the one, so it’ll catch any stray drops, right?  Super classy.  Anyway, she lights the candle.  And in German, she’s like, “For a romantic mood.”  And then she’s like, “You’re two guys, with no women.  But it’s okay.  I’m here.”  She’s smiling and laughing.  Really sweet.  And honestly, I really don’t know if she thought we were on a date or if she was just having fun with us.  I decided not to say anything one way or the other.  When she left, I explained to Aaron what she’d said.  Though he’d had no trouble picking out the word romantisch

The food, as I said, was great.  It always is there.  We both got the grill platter.  It includes like a kofta meatball, some grilled lamb, a lamb chop, two little ribs and three little chicken wings.  Plus rice (almost like a thick couscous), red onions with parsley and a grilled hot pepper.  Comes with a tasty side salad.  And we got hummus as an app.  I mean, this place just does it right, no joke.  We had a good time of it, just continuing the general out-hanging.  At the end, we ordered a lentil soup to go for Nina, who was more herself when we got back.  (She loved the soup btw).  We then finished our game of Machi-Ko from the night before and then went to bed.  This time, no wine in my room.  They had to leave at 630 for their flight, so they just wanted to hit the hay.  Can’t argue with that.  We said our more formal goodbyes that night; just a quick hug and ‘get home safe/thanks for the hospitality’ under half-opened eyelids in the morning.

And that was that.  A great fucking visit and a great fucking time.  And honestly, it just made me really happy.  For all the obvious reasons, of course.  But also, apart from family, I don’t get a lot of visitors here from דער אַלטע היים (der alte heym, the old country), also for obvious reasons.  So to have some dear friends reach out to me, to initiate the idea, to go all through the hassle, to actually come visit.  Well yeah, that warmed my otherwise stony, icy heart. 

(A side note on די אַלטע היים.  Traditionally, this Yiddish term is used to refer to, as I said, ‘the old country.’  The shtetl, old Europe, whatever.  I don’t know if they say it in Israel or other places, but to me, it’s a decidedly American phrasing.  The sort of thing old people would say with a hint of nostalgia when they’d remark on the modern and more secular New World, or נײַע היים (new home).  Anyway, at one of our Yiddish schmoozes, I’m chatting at the end of the night with Jake and the two Reyza’s (all from NY/NJ).  And I was saying something about missing home (probably with respect to bagels), and I referred to NY as די אַלטער היים.  And they laughed at me, like, “Dude, that’s not what that means.”  Which, as you would learn the term in a Yiddish class, of course that’s not what it means.  But also?  I was talking about the home country with a tinge of nostalgia while bemoaning (probably) how you can’t get bagels in this new land where we’ve made our homes and our doing some version of prospering.  And I think that’s just fine.  Anyway, thanks for coming to my TED Talk).

Speaking of nostalgia: Homer.  Wait, what?  Okay, I’m assuming we all know what ‘nostalgia’ means in English.  But let’s go a step further and break that down; because it’s a compound word composed to two elements.  The first is νόϲτοϲ (nostos, homecoming); the second is ἄλγοϲ (algos, pain; which we might recognize in the medicinal word analgesic, ‘anti-pain’).  So nostalgia (or νοϲταλγία) literally means ‘the pain of homecoming,’ or perhaps better English-wise, ‘the pain of homesickness,’ or even just ‘homesickness.’  And this is the leitmotif of the Odyssey. 

We use the term ‘odyssey’ in English to basically mean ‘a (literally) epic journey.’  Which of course is what Odysseus undergoes.  But from a more (ancient at least) Greek perspective, the journey, the wandering, is simply what he must do.  The actual fucking point of it all is the nostos, the just trying to get fucking home.  (Oh, hi there, Quantum Leap.  Oh boy).  Anyway, I just wanted to use ‘nostalgia’ as a transition to talk about Homer.  This was a long way of explaining how that works.  Oh boy, indeed!

So I’m in a real Homer groove now.  Definitely the byproduct of my overall increased efforts at just reading Greek every day.  I finished that Xenophon I recently wrote about.  I’m now firmly into the Antigone with George.  And of course my regular Homer readings with the Homeridai on Sunday evenings.  Plus the NT. 

Right, so as I say, I’m in the groove now.  In the past, and more than once, I’ve written how a goal of mine is just to read a bit of Homer each night before bed.  Just ten lines would be enough.  Previously, I’d managed to do it for a couple of months here and there, but I always fell off the wagon.  And honestly, in those times, I wasn’t reading like I am now, so even ten lines felt like homework.  Fun homework, but still work.  No longer!

Lately, I’ve found myself reading a bit of Homer every night before bed.  And not just ten lines either, but often 25-30, sometimes 50, lines at a go.  And not because I feel like I should, but because I want to.  I’m enjoying it now more than at any time since Daitz עליו השלום.  And this being the case, I’ve set for myself a new goal.  Namely, to read the entire Odyssey and Iliad, in Greek.  I mean, I’ve read big chunks of them before, whether for grad school, with Daitz ז״ל or now with the Homeridai.  But never in their entirety.  Well, it’s fucking time.  By my reckoning, based on my current pace and factoring in life-getting-in-the-way shit, I figure I should be able to do this in about 1.5-2 years.  It’s a big project, but one I’m really excited about.  I mean, this one’s important to me.

How important.  Well, here’s how I see it.  I’m now into my seventh year of reading the Torah, reading each parsha in its turn.  It’s become a part of the fabric of my life.  That’s important to me, and if I’m honest, I’m not a little proud of the fact.  Well, that’s what I want for Homer.  Right now, I’m where I was in my first year of Torah.  In most cases, I’m reading each book for the first time, doing all the hard work of looking up the vocab, sorting out the grammar etc.  But once I’ve made it through, then I can be where I am with Torah.  That is to say, I’ll be able to just sit down and read a nice chunk of Homer each night (or most nights, let’s be honest), in that fabric-of-my-life kinda way.  Like, if I live long enough, I’d like for people to be able to say about me, “Well, yes.  New year, same asshole.  But also, this is an asshole who knows his Torah and his Homer.”  #lifegoals. 

(There is actually once last #lifegoal beyond this.  Once I’ve done the hard work of making it through all of Homer once, I’d like to then do all of Shakespeare.  I mean, read every word of Shakespeare once.  And then, as with Torah and Homer, just always be reading Shakespeare.  If I can be well-read in Homer, Torah and Shakespeare…well, that’s kinda everything somehow).

Speaking of ‘knowing my Torah,’ I got a rather nice compliment of sorts the other day.  Dutch Lievs, from the Kollel, reached out to me about the alumni Shabbaton we’ll be having Strasbourg in two weeks.  And she’s like, “We’re trying to figure out what people can do.  And we thought it would be great if you could lead a Torah session.”  That’s a nice little feather in the cap, that they think enough of where I’m at with this shit to ask me to do that.  (Alternatively, it’s like when the softball team asked me to pitch: “Well, you literally can’t do anything else, so…maybe try this?”  But I prefer my interpretation).

Speaking of reading; and then I’ll put an end to this.  Quite possibly my favorite thing about my last visit home (apart from spending time with my family yadda yadda) was just my first few days, before I started making plans with people I hadn’t seen in ages.  Each night, I’d crawl into bed with a book and one (heavy) glass of (good) scotch and just…read.  Just fucking read.  Fuck, you know, I used to be an absolutely voracious reader when I was younger.

And it’s not like I don’t read now.  All I do is fucking read.  But like, dead languages.  Greek and Hebrew.  I at least used to get plenty of French in before the pandemic, but once I stopped taking the train four days a week, that fell by the wayside.  And I don’t know if it’s cause I’m old, or the internet has ruined my attention span or what, but I just don’t read like I used to.  Like, just for fun without needing dictionaries and a fucking desk.  But then, when I was home, I rediscovered it.  Like, “Oh hi, old friend.  How you doin’?”  And it was glorious.  I read four books in like 2.5 weeks.  2.5 busy weeks of constantly seeing people and going hither and yon.  I loved it.

And yet, when I came back to Berlin, I just wasn’t able to recapture that.  Until just recently, that is.  Why’s that?  Well, I made a fucking effort, I guess.  I installed a little goose-neck nightlight onto my bedpost.  I bought a bottle of Glenfiddich 12.  And I grabbed a book.  To start with, it was this random Finnish book (translated into English, of course; G-d willing I live long enough to learn enough Finnish to actually be able to read the language).  Well, not totally random.  It’s a book that Finnish Markus gave me as a going-away present.  That is, his going-away; he moved back to Finland.  (Good for him, sad for me).  And honestly, I just loved it.  I mean, I loved the book.  Lotta fun, truly.  But also, just reading in bed with a glass of scotch.

And you know what?  When I took my last sip and put the book down, I just fell asleep.  No Netflix, oftentimes not even music.  I just closed my eyes and went to sleep.  The way people are fucking supposed to.  What a beautiful thing, that.

(Also, Markus inscribed the book to me.  Which, I love that so much.  I mean, I love books as gifts, full stop.  (When my friends have kids, the first gift I always get for the child is a book.  I learned that from my mom (Thanks, Ma!)).  But when a book is inscribed, it makes it special, unique.  What was once one example of thousands of pressings is now an entirely unique specimen, and in your honor.  I just think that’s a special thing). 

After that, I finally finished another gift-book (another inscribed one, too), which I’d read most of, and then put down for whatever reason.  Great book, too.  Fool on the Hill.  I highly recommend it.  Now I’ve gone back to the JV book I was reading and got sidetracked from.  And you know how much I love JV.  (More on this in a coming post; I have thoughts on this one in particular).  Next up, the Lovecraft book I’ve also gotten sidetracked from.  And then, back to Tolkien.  I’m low-key dying to read the Silmarillion again.  After that, I’ve got a little list.  Some Turkish (in English) book Esma gave me which I’ve been neglecting for too long; maybe some Grim fairy tales (in German; ugh).  I’ve got plans, is the point.  And honestly, it’s good just to be reading for fun again.  Also, scotch.

Well, that’s probably enough.  There’s more to say, of course.  It’s (finally, blessedly) hockey season again.  Music.  The Kollel.  Apparently our Skylarks (somehow) won the championship.  My long walks home from school, which are great in so many ways.  Other shit I’m probably forgetting.  But this is long enough.  So let me end here.

זײַ געזונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
25 September, 2023

So Apparently my thing now is, starting blogue posts, letting them sit for weeks and then coming back to them when they’re horribly out of date before finally publishing, all while adding little updates along the way.  Most of the following was written sometime around the end of August.  Oh, and happy new year btw. 

(Aug 29)

So Sunday before last was quite the interesting day.  See, I went to a baseball game with American Sam and Rabbi Jeremy.  Wait, what?  Yeah, you read that right.  An actual, honest to gods baseball game.  Right here in Berlin. 

Allow me to explain.  At some point during the Kollel, possibly at the Shabbaton, I got to talking with this American fella named Sam (hence, American Sam).  He’s an actor/director from California.  On paper, just the sort of person I came here to avoid.  Except he’s a lovely guy and we share a similar sense of humor.  Plus, you know, Jew-bonding.  Anyway, we got to talking and somehow baseball came up.  He’s not a huge fan, but he played Little League growing up and has been to his fair of Giants games. 

Side note: He’s like, “I’ve been to my share of Giants games.”  And me, without even thinking, was like, “The baseball Giants?”  As if he even knew or cared about the football Giants; nevermind the fact we were talking specifically about baseball.  Even though they left after the 1957 season, the NY papers continue to write about the “football Giants” like there’s still a distinction to be made.  Am I saying that I, along with a host of Boomer sports writers, am still salty about California stealing not one but two of our baseball teams?  I’m not not saying that.  Anyway, he looks at me curiously: “Um, yes, the baseball Giants.”

So we’re talking about baseball and he mentions that there’s a team that plays right here at Tempelhoferfeld.  Well now isn’t that interesting.  So we agreed to go the next game, which would be on August 27th.  (Apparently, they take off in the middle of the summer for summer vacation.  Yes, that’s right.  The baseball league literally takes a vacation during baseball season.  This country, I tellya).

Well, this conversation was like two months ago already.  Naturally, I forgot all about it until Thursday or Friday when American Sam texts me.  “Still up for the ballgame on Sunday?”  Huh?  That’s this Sunday?  Not like I had plans.  “Sure man, let’s do it!”

Then, when it came to organizing the plans, he created a Whatsapp group.  Which surprised me, insofar as I didn’t know anybody else was coming.  But it seems he invited Rabbi Jeremy.  Which was so much more appropriate than I even knew, which I’ll get to.  But even at the time, it made sense.  Jeremy is from NJ, likes baseball and is for reasons not worth getting into, somehow a Cleveland fan.  Cleveland?  Whatever, at least it’s not the Sox.

Sam got there in time for first pitch.  I was a couple of minutes late, so the visiting team already had a man on first by the time I showed up, top of the 1st.  Sparse crowd, just a handful of scattered people on the bleachers, none of them near us.  So American Sam is giving me the rundown.  The home team – our team, apparently – are the Berlin Skylarks.  Seems they used to be the Berlin Braves, but changed their name for obvious reasons.  As to Skylarks, apparently those are the birds that nest on the protected grounds of THF.  So I thought that was actually kinda nifty.  (Nifty?  What year is this?)

Next, he tells me the ballfield was built by American soldiers after the war.  Which tracks.  What made less sense was the fact that, while there was an oldschool electronic scoreboard just beyond the leftfield fence, it wasn’t working.  Or wasn’t being used.  Either way, that seemed like a loss.  If you’re not keeping a scorecard, it’s harder than you think to keep track of outs and innings, hell even the score, without a scoreboard.

From there, AS proceeds to tell me that our Skylarks are the cream of the league.  First place now, and – I think? – won the championship last year.  Which, honestly, was kinda hard to believe.  The level of pay was, shall we say, uninspiring.  Beyond the actual errors, of which there were many, they weren’t playing super heads-up ball.  Throwing to the wrong bag, not taking the extra base when they could have, running themselves into outs when they shouldn’t have.  That sorta thing.  By the time Jeremy showed up, they were already down a few, and most of the runs against were unearned. 

Now the other team, also from Berlin, were the Wizards.  Which, to me, that’s just baffling.  Like, if you’re a German team, why on earth would you choose an English name that starts with a ‘W’?  Um, Let’s go Vizrds!?  You see what I’m saying.  They weren’t great either, but they seemed a bit sharper in the field.  Plus their pitcher was wearing high socks and had a mustache, so he had the added virtue of actually looking like a ballplayer. 

Anyway, it’s just me and Sam for the first three innings or so.  So we’re chilling on the bleachers, kibbitzing, talking about kosher delis, baseball, random Jewish shit and who knows what else.  We were having a very chill and enjoyable time of things.  I got us beers between innings.  The sky was cloudy which meant it was pleasantly cool.  Just a great way to spend a Sunday.

And then Rabbi Jeremy shows up and omg you guys.  At Hillel, he’s this super friendly, warm, kind-hearted guy.  Very professional, always trying to make everybody feel welcome and all that.  This was not the guy who showed up to the ballgame.  I’m telling you, the Jersey boy came right out.  Man, was he ever loud.

But, I hasten to add, in the best of ways.  There was no trash talk.  He wasn’t getting on the other team.  It was all root, root, root for the home team.  He was so into it.  Which got me more into it. 

And that’s when I learned RJ played some pretty serious high school ball.  By his own account, he wasn’t much of a runner or a fielder, didn’t have a great arm.  But he says he could really hit back in the day.  Now, of course I can’t vouch for that.  But it was immediately clear that he knew the game.  He brought a player’s eye to the proceedings.  Just all the details he was catching. 

Now me, I never really played.  My career pretty much ended at T-ball.  So I don’t bring that level of expertise to the game.  But I’ve watched hundreds of games, listened to hundreds more on the radio.  One of my best friends in college played baseball and he taught me even more.  (We actually played on a softball team together.  I was the pitcher because I was completely useless at literally every other position.  We won the championship though, so I couldn’t have been that bad).

So RJ, in between cheering, is making comments and observations to me.  At first, I couldn’t tell if he just needed to tell these things to literally anybody and I happened to be sitting next to him, or if he had a feeling that I’d understand what he was saying.  But I did understand.  Mostly, I was just agreeing though.  But I got his attention once or twice.

At one point, with two strikes, our pitcher threw a high one, way up.  And I’m like, “It’s alright.  Just expanding the zone.”  I mean, I don’t think he was intentionally throwing high to expand the zone, he didn’t seem to have that level of control.  But strategically, that’s what a pro pitcher might have done in that spot.  So I say that, and he turns and gives me a look like, “Oh shit, you actually know what you’re talking about!”

The other time, after a pitching change, the Wizards had a lefty on the mound, the Skylarks a man on first.  The southpaw executes a pretty decent pickoff move, although the runner got back in time.  So I’m like, “Nice lefty pickoff move right there.”  And RJ’s like, “Yeah, that was actually pretty good.”  And I’m like, “Little Andy Pettitte action.”  And he looks at me with big eyes, like, “Damn dude, I was not expecting that!” 

At one point, this little oldy lady happens by and sits down in front of us on the bleachers.  Classic German, this woman didn’t even know what game she was looking at.  So we had to explain that it was baseball and also that it’s an American game.  All the while, RJ is doing his Jersey fan thing.  Then, at one point, the lady turns around and looks at him, and she’s like, “Honestly, you’re the real attraction here.”  She wasn’t wrong.

After a while, she leaves.  But then this young father sits down next to us with a little baby girl on his lap and a Milwaukee Brewers cap on his head.  Which, that’s not something you see every day over here.  The Brewers hat I mean.  Anyway, RJ is doing his thing, cheering loudly, encouraging the players and all that.  And the little baby girl, she just looks at him with her giant blue baby eyes, totally bewildered.  She didn’t cry, didn’t seem bothered.  Just this look of, “What in the world I am I witnessing?  Never in all my months on this earth have I seen the like of this.”  I paraphrase. 

So RJ, with two little girls of his own at home, looks at her and explains in German that he’s Der Schreier, the shouter.  That one has to yell at a ballgame.  Which only confused the kid even more, I’m sure.  But the dad was like, “Hey man, you do you.  This is great.”  By this time, we the bleachers were pretty well filled.  Only then did we notice that everybody around us was wearing Wizards gear.  Which, this being Europe, meant we were in the wrong section.  Apparently the home bleachers were behind the plate.  But nobody seemed to mind the noise we were making.  So we stayed put, agreeing that if we go to another game, we’ll sit behind the plate with the home fans. 

Incidentally, I asked this German dude how he wound up having a Brewers hat.  And his answer was basically, “Ja, well, Brewers.  I mean, it’s pretty perfect for a German.”  Hard to argue with that logic. 

Anyway, the Larks managed to tie it up somehow.  I say ‘somehow.’  But honestly, I’m pretty sure Jeremy’s antics put a much needed jolt into them.  They picked up their play once he started cheering and rooting.  It was supposed to be a seven inning affair, but it was all tied up after seven, so on we went into extra innings.  Every time the Wizards would score, the Larks would tack on the same number of runs in the bottom of the frame.  In the end, it wound up going 9 or 10.  Finally, the Larks scratched across the winning run. 

It was a lot fun, lemme tellya.  Like, yes, the quality of play was nothing special.  But it was nice just to be at a ballgame.  And honestly, the way baseball is supposed to be.  Nothing fancy, no $12 beers, no pretentious food (Sam got brats with mustard for me and him; not Kosher, so RJ didn’t partake), no plush seats.  No advertisements, no hundreds of millions of dollars.  Just green grass and baseball.  And with two actual Americans who appreciate the game.  Just fantastic. 

We brought gloves so we could have a bit of a catch afterwards.  Not long, just ten or fifteen minutes.  As we walked away from the field to find a patch of grass, several of the Skylarks came over to Jeremy and thanked him for his support.  Which was kinda cool and also a bit funny.

Less funny was the game of catch.  Holy fuck, I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.  I mean, look, I never had a great arm.  But I used to be able to have a solid game of catch.  Used to be, if you held up your glove, I could hit it most of the time.  But Sunday?  Yeesh.  You’d think I’d never picked up a baseball before in my life.  I don’t know what the hell was wrong with me.  I was either too short or else just throwing way off to the right.  It was honestly embarrassing.  I don’t even know how to diagnose what I was doing wrong.  The worst part is, how do you even practice?  You kinda can’t alone.  I mean, unless I want to buy a tennis ball and start winging it down my hallway.  Actually, though?  Maybe I should.  I mean, this was bad, you guys.  Not that it wasn’t fun.  It was.  But yikes.  I gotta get my arm right.

We left after that.  Me and Jeremy walked most of the way home together; he also lives in the neighborhood.  We talked some Hillel, some other random stuff.  And then, somehow, started talking about Mike and the Mad Dog.  And he’s like, “This is kinda amazing.  I can’t believe I’m talking about Mike and the Mad Dog in Berlin.”  And I’m like, “Yeah, dude, I am here for this.”  Nice way to end the day.

So that was Sunday.  I don’t know how many games are left in the season, but hopefully we can get to one or two more.  That would be nice.

Moving on.  When we were in Bamberg, I stopped into this excellent used book store.  They had a Classics shelf in the back, of which two whole rows were actual Greek texts.  I picked out two books, which my mom insisted on paying for (thanks, Ma!).  One was a volume of Pindar poetry which I’ve yet to crack  The other was a volume of Xenophon (a historian) containing several of his shorter works, amongst which his version of Socrates’ Apology, or his ‘defense’ at his trial.  Plato also wrote an account of this, and his version is the more famous.  I read the Plato version years ago on my own, sometime after grad school. 

Anyway, the Xenophon version is pretty short, clocking in at just nine pages.  So I figured this would be a good little test to see if my Greek really has improved with all the reading I’ve been doing lately.  And it’s a pretty good test in that regard.  On the one hand, it’s ‘real’ Greek, by which I mean classical Athenian prose.  Harder than Homer (if you’ve been reading Homer for the better part of 15 years, as I have) and a far sight more complex than the Dr. Seuss Greek of the NT.  At the same time, it’s not exactly Final Boss level shit.

In fact, traditionally, Xenophon was the first ‘real’ author students of Greek would be introduced to upon completing their introductory level courses.  (In my case, it was – thankfully – Herodotus; so I’ve never ready any Xenophon before).  Reason being, he’s considered a serious writer, a fine example of the afore mentioned classical Athenian prose, but also not over the top hard like my boy Thucydides.  All to say, Big X seemed like a good way to check my pulse, and this text in particular an interesting and not too long one.

I started a couple of days ago.  And off the bat, it was like, “Uh-oh, this is harder than I thought.”  Now some of that, to be sure, is just the New Author Effect I wrote about recently.  There’s always an adjustment period as you get used to the new dude’s style and vocab.  But also, it’s been ages since I’d read just straight up Attic prose. 

For years, it’s been mostly Homer.  Since I started reading with George two or three years ago, we’ve read the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, some Pindar and a Sophoclean tragedy.  That’s three different styles with a mix of dialects, but all poetry, which is just a different ballgame.  So I was a bit daunted at the outset. 

But I’m happy to report that by the second day, shit started falling into place.  Which isn’t to say it’s easy necessarily.  This is not subway reading.  I have to sit at my desk and constantly consult dictionaries as well as a rather unfaithful translation to check my work.  But it’s coming faster and faster now.  I’m starting to get a feel for his style and syntax.  Which, ‘getting a feel for it’ is not the same as ‘getting the hang of it.’  It’s a step down, I’d say.  But maybe I’ll progress from ‘feel for’ to ‘hang of’ before the end. 

The hardest part is the vocab actually.  Which kinda surprised me.  I mean, vocab is just words.  Generally, when you’re dealing with Greek, that’s the least of your problems.  But in this case, it’s a real challenge.  Reason being, it’s not about the words I don’t know.  It’s about the words that don’t mean what I expect them to mean.

See, what’s happening is, the author is recounting Socrates’ defense speech from his trial, as I mentioned.  So there’s a lot of legal vocab.  The thing is, this legal vocab is not a collection of unique terms, but rather words which have specialized legal definitions as their third, fourth or fifth dictionary entries.  Sometimes it’s words I know from other contexts, other times it’s words I’ve never seen but when I look at them, I think, “Ok, based on the parts of the word and what I know if Greek, it looks like it should mean this.  But somehow this doesn’t seem to make sense.”  So I look in the dictionary.  And sure enough, the word can indeed mean what I guessed it should mean.  Just, you know, not here.  Here, it doesn’t mean this, it means that.  Well, fuck me, I guess?

I’ll give one example, and pretend that any of you care.  But you don’t, so probably just skip the next two paragraphs.  Anyway, the example word: ἀνατίθημι (anatithēmi).  So I start by recognizing that this is the verb τίθημι (put, place) combined with prepositional prefix ἀνα- (up, along, throughout).  So logically, you start with the simplest possible meaning, something like ‘put up,’ which logically extends to something like ‘set up,’ say of a monument, for example.  But this doesn’t work in the sentence.  Because when you try to read it that way, you get something like, “Those setting up for the birds the power of god.”  Well, you don’t need the context of the story or any knowledge of Greek to see that this is clearly gibberish.

And when your understanding yields gibberish, it means you’re missing something.  Time to check the dictionary.  And sure enough, ἀνατίθημι can absolutely mean ‘set up’ (a monument or whatever).  But what’s this?  It can also mean ‘to attribute something to somebody.’  So let’s plug that in.  “Those attributing the power of god to the birds [understand ‘of omen’].”  Well now, that actually makes sense.  And once you have that, you can kinda see it.  Your understanding of what this word can do just got a little bit broader.  But that’s real work.  That’s what I’m dealing with.  That’s what I mean when I say it’s not subway reading.

But it’s fun.  And I do feel like I’m maybe handling it better now than I would have in the past, before I started all this extra reading.  I’m curious to see how I’ll feel by the end of it.  I’ll report back in the next post.

[Update, early September: I finished it tonight; took me about a week and a half to get through it.  I think I can say I was ‘getting the hang of it’ by the end.  Mostly.  Even by the end, there were a couple of spots that gave me a bit of trouble.  And one – precisely one – sentence which, while I was able to get the meaning of it, I was never able to resolve grammatically to my satisfaction.  This annoys me greatly.  All in all though, I feel like I did pretty well with it and that all this extra reading really is paying off.  Also though, Greek – proper Greek – is fucking hard, you guys].

The last thing I want to talk about is something that occurred a couple of months ago actually.  In fact, I mentioned it in passing at the end of the last post.  So earlier this year, I had this student, a woman from India.  The first and only Indian student I’ve had over here, if I’m not mistaken.  And beyond just being a very cool person, she was perhaps one of the most interesting students I’ve ever had.  Interesting as a person, sure, but truly interesting as a student.

A bit about her.  She was a journalist back in India.  Her native language is Urdu, but she’s fluent in Hindi, the language she did journalism in.  And her English was already really quite good when she joined the class.  Now here’s the thing.  English is widely spoken, and at a very high level at that, in India.  But it’s not a version of the language I’m at all familiar with.  Obviously my strength is American English.  But I did a semester in London, have watched lots of British TV, have listened to countless hours of BBC news.  So in broad terms, I know enough about British English to be able to comment on the differences and offer at least some possible variants on ways to express things in British English.  Ditto, but less so, for Australian.  But Indian English?  I got bupkis. 

Anyway, early on in the course, she’d be talking and she’d say something that sounded a bit off to my ear.  So I’d gently correct her.  Like, “It’s very clear what you mean, but it might be a bit nicer if you said it this way,” or “I think you’d more likely hear it this way from a native speaker.”  That kinda thing.  But then she’d say, “Oh, I see.  Just, in India, that’s what we’d say.” 

And after hearing that a couple of times, I decided I had no business correcting her.  Instead, I’d say, “Oh interesting, okay, so that’s how you’d say that in India.  And if that’s how they say it in India, than it’s absolutely valid.  For you, there’s no reason to change it.  Just be aware, you’d be more likely to hear it this way from an American or perhaps this way from a British person.  And insofar as you’re preparing for a standardized test, you should know that the test will expect this or that for an answer.  But don’t let anybody tell you that your way is ‘wrong,’ because it absolutely is not.” 

I mean, that’s a long spiel, so I didn’t say it every time.  Usually a shorter version.  But I loved working with her because it allowed me to see a version of my own language I’d otherwise have no contact with.  One of my favorite things is when, even though you’re the teacher, your students are teaching you new shit.

One quick anecdote.  As I mentioned, she’s a native Urdu speaker, an Indo-European language [i.e. related to English, German, French, etc.] but with a shit-ton of Arabic loan words.  Also in that class was this ethnically Turkish German dude.  He’s first gen, so if I have it right, he understands Turkish quite well but isn’t native-speaker fluent.  But he’s also a rather religious Muslim, so he’s got a strong working knowledge of Arabic, though I don’t know quite how far it extends.

Anyway.  One day, for whatever reason, I’m telling my story about the time I got locked in a cemetery over here.  And my dude is like, “Wait, sorry, what is a cemetery?”  And before I can answer, homegirl jumps in and says, “Does it help if I say kabristan?”  And he’s like, “Oh yeah, of course!”  And then I’m like, “Oh yeah, of course!  Land of the graves!”  And they’re like, “How do you know that?”  And I’m like, “Well, the Hebrew word for grave is keyver, so it’s pretty clear.”  And the three of just looked at each other like, “Oh damn, this is lit!  We just understood a word across three different languages at the same time!”  And all the Germans in the class were looking at us like, “What are you people talking about?”  Oh, not much.  Just how awesome we are.  Don’t worry about it.

Right.  So not long after she finished the course, she invited me and some others over for dinner, including my dude from above.  In the end, it wound being just me and this very German dude from the class.  Lovely guy.  Now, part of the reason for the dinner was just to be social.  But part of it was also to show off their new home.  Her and her husband had just bought a brand new apartment down in Alt Glienicke.  And as she loves to cook, we talked a lot in class about the customized kitchen they were putting in.  So as much as showing off the apartment, it was also about showing off the kitchen and her cooking.

And let me tell you, homegirl can cook.  She made a lamb curry and a chicken curry and both were just delicious.  And also not as hot as I expected.  I forget how it came up, maybe I asked, but she said normally it would be hotter, however she wasn’t sure what we (read ‘white people’) could handle.  I told her I could handle anything she could.  Because I’m a man and that’s what we do.  Act the fool.  She offered to roast some chilis for me to add in, but I told her not to unless she was going to do the same for herself.  In the end, she didn’t, but agreed that if we ever did this again, she wouldn’t pull any spice-punches.  Didn’t matter though, that shit was slammin’ as-is (as-was?). 

After dinner, I asked her if she wouldn’t mind showing me her spice collection.  Which, does that sound like an innuendo?  Nevermind.  Well, we spent the next ten minutes or so standing in front of her cabinets as she pulled out one spice after another, telling me where she got it, taking the lids off so I could smell them, telling me what sort of dishes they were used in and to what effect.  Some I’d heard of, many I never even knew existed.  It was fascinating.  Also, I’ve pretty much forgotten all of it.  But I really enjoyed the hell out of it.  Just so interesting.  And so cool to get an inside look at a home cook’s kitchen, to learn a tiny bit about this food that I love but know so little about.

When she got done, I thanked her for sharing all that with me.  And she was like, “Are you kidding?  It makes me really happy that you’re interested.  I love sharing this.”  Or something like that.  So I asked her, if we ever did this again and it wouldn’t be an inconvenience, could I maybe come early and watch her cook and just sorta learn.  And she’s like, “Yeah, dude, of course!” 

I don’t know if we actually will do it again.  I haven’t spoken to her since then, although I’ll probably reach out soon-ish.  But I know I’d love to.  She’s just good people.

I mentioned they live in Alt Glienicke, which is about halfway between the SE corner of the Ring-Bahn and the airport.  On top of which, it was a good 15-20m walk from the train station to their place.  The other guy who came drove.  So I asked him if he wouldn’t mind driving me to the station.  He wound up just driving me home.

And we had a very interesting conversation.  Like I said, he’s very German.  But I guess his wife is from Africa, somewhere.  And they’re thinking about moving to the States.  So he wanted my opinion.  I told him I had no idea why they’d want to.  Start with health care and guns, nevermind all the other mishigas.  And he’s like, “I kinda get that.  But honestly, we’re tired of dealing all the racism in Germany.”  And you want to go to America??  Dude, your wife is African.  “Yeah, but that’s my point.  She’s African.  She’s not a Black American.”  Oh, you poor, sweet, innocent boy.  Nobody’s gonna stop to ask where she’s from before they decide to treat her a certain way.  So it was an interesting, and intense, conversation. 

Intense, but not heated.  He’s a real interesting cat, this guy.  He’s got very strong opinions and he’s not shy about expressing them.  But he’s so German, he’s unfailingly civil and polite about it.  Also, they’re not awful opinions.  Just different than my own, in some cases.  We also agreed on plenty of things.  But it was honestly refreshing to have an intense conversation with someone you sometimes disagree with and walk away from it still respecting the person.  To just be like, “Yeah, okay, so we don’t agree on some things.  But we can debate those things like human beings.”  That’s in short supply these days.

I saw Oppenheimer last week with Chris and Esma.  Good flick, go see it.  But I’m not here to do movie reviews.  Two things from the picture.  One.  Oppy is at a party and he’s quoting some German philosopher to a girl.  And she’s like, “You’re saying that, but I believe he actually said this.”  And our boy RJO is like, “What do I know from how it goes in English.  I’ve only read it in the original German.”  And it was at that moment that I thought, “Wait a second, am I an insufferable asshole?  Or…am I fucking awesome?  I honestly can’t tell.”  Leave your comments below.

Two.  He brings some other girl (or possibly the same girl, who can keep track) home, and she spots a volume of Vedic texts on his bookshelf.  Taking down the book, she opens it to find it’s all written in Sanskrit.  And she’s like, “You can read this?”  And he’s like, “Duh.  I taught myself.  Because who wouldn’t?”  And she’s like, “Tell me what it says.”  Also, she made him tell her what it said while she was banging him.  Which, no kink-shaming here.  And it was at that moment that I thought, “Wait a second, should I have studied Sanskrit?”

No, but really.  So I’m reading Greek with George a few nights ago.  And Sanskrit came up.  As it does.  And I’m like, “You know, Sanskrit has never been higher than number five on my list of languages I want to learn before I die.  But then I was watching Oppenheimer.  And look, I get that he’s like a genius and shit.  And clearly I’ll never understand the physics.  But I kinda feel like, if this asshole can teach himself Sanskrit on the side, I should be able to do it.”  And George is like, “Oh yeah, no hope on the physics.  But fucking Sanskrit?  Of course you can.”  Pause.  He continues.  “Wait a second, are we insufferable assholes?  Or…are we fucking awesome.  I honestly can’t tell.”  Leave your comments below.

Quick follow-up on Greek.  So I’d emailed Phil to ask if he had any thoughts or insights on the Xenophon.  Reason being, he specializes in Plato.  And if I’m not mistaken, he used to teach Plato’s Apology of Socrates to his second year students; maybe he still does, for all I know.  He didn’t with us though.  He’s the one who did Herodotus with us, bc our first year teacher ended the year by having us read the very beginning of that author’s History.  Anyway, I figured, what the hell?  Maybe Phil has something to say here.

Well, for a few days I didn’t get a response.  Then, the other day, he writes back.  Just a couple of short thoughts in the body of the email.  But then, he also attached three articles on the subject, two of them like 40 pages long.  Which, just, how fucking cool is that?  I started reading the first one that night over dinner. 

And can I tell you?  It felt so good to be reading academic lit again.  And on Greek too.  Here and there I’ve read a couple of French articles dealing with how the Hebrew Bible interacted with the Greek world, all of which were quite interesting.  But that stuff was interdisciplinary at best, or else more geared towards, what should I call it, religious studies?  This though, this was proper Classics shit.  The kinda garbage I hold a (useless fucking) Master’s in.  So yeah, I’m enjoying reading this bullshit very much. 

Beyond that, George and I finally finished working through his and Phil’s Frogs and Mice stuff.  What a great project.  To (once again) borrow from my old boss, “I enjoyed myself immensely.”  He said Phil was very pleased with our work and that I’ll get a big thank you in the acknowledgements.  So that, along with the couple of Roman inscriptions I edited in grad school, will likely be the only published evidence of my existence on this earth.  Which hey, not bad for a fucking dilettante, right?

We – George and me – have agreed that we’ll read the Antigone next.  I’ll have more to say on that once we get going.  For now, I’m just waiting for my book to arrive.  I ordered it over a week ago, but it’s coming from England, so who knows how long that will take.  #thanksbrexit  Very much looking forward to that though.  In the meantime, we’re just reading Homer.  Which is never the wrong move.

[Update: My book arrived and we started on the Antigone this week.  We’ve just started, but of course it’s great.  Sophocles is just a boss.  George has this thing where he simply doesn’t like Shakespeare.  Which, I mean, you can love a person and still think they have one opinion that’s absolutely bonkers, right?  Anyway, he’s always like, “Sophocles is so much better than Shakespeare.”  And I’m like, “Dude, maybe read more Shakespeare.”  But Sophocles is a fucking boss, no two ways about it]. 

In other news, I finally – finally! – started painting my living room.  My approach is, just do one wall at a time.  Which is to say, one wall per weekend.  Nevermind if those weekends will wind up being consecutive.  But my goodness, what a bitch of a job!  And it’s not like I don’t have professional painting experience either.  Well, I mean, I painted precisely two friends’ apartments in the city and they paid me.  But like, that’s the definition of professional, isn’t it?

Thing is, those apartments didn’t have high ceilings.  And they weren’t pre-war buildings.  This place though, the ceiling in the living room is like seventeen feet high (okay, more like twelve, but whatever).  And this building was built in 1905, I wanna say.  So weird shit is happening in all the corners.  Also down by the baseboard.  Plus the walls are covered in this weird textured wallpaper, which a) is a horrifying job if you actually want to strip it (so I’m not) and b) just makes it that much harder to paint.

But paint I did, this one wall.  One coat done today, I’ll put a second coat on tomorrow.  Once that’s done, I can hang some art on that wall, and the room will feel a little more…היימיש.  Looking forward to that.  The real trick will be finding the energy/motivation to keep this going, to do the remaining walls in the coming weekends.  Cos I know me.  And it’s gonna be so easy to say, “Well, Davey, you did one wall.  You’ve got some art up.  That was a pain in the ass and you deserve a break.”  I’ll try not to let that get the better of me.  Stay tuned. 

[Update: I did indeed finish the first wall and have hung the art I wanted to hang.  So now it’s just down to the remaining walls.  Update on the update: I started prepping another wall this evening and will hopefully paint it tomorrow.  Also, I have ideas about the ceiling, but that’s for another post].

We had our regular Yiddish schmooze last week.  Fucking fantastic.  This time, we were meeting at a place that has a piano.  So one guy – Jake, the dude who organizes everything – brought a songbook.  This girl Luise writes in the group chat that she’s gonna bring her fiddle.  I respond that I’ll bring my guitar.  Another guy, Ben, brings a harmonica.  Next thing I know, we’ve got a makeshift klezmer band, and we’re playing songs while the others are singing along.  Brilliant.

On top of that, when were in Vienna – ground zero for classical music – my dad and brother went into a sheet music store.  I don’t know why I didn’t go with them.  Probably I was doing my grumpy thing.  I’d like to say, “I was on the grump.”  “Grumping out?”  Can we make one of those a thing please?  Anyway, when they come out, my dad hands me this book (Thanks, Dad!).  The Jewish Songbook.  It’s got all kinds of Jewish music, but it’s got one dedicated section for Yiddish-language songs and another for Klezmer instrumental music.  Fantastic.  So I brought that along as well, and we wound up playing a bunch of songs out of that too.

Man, let me tell you.  The Yiddish schmooze is quite probably my favorite thing that I do here.  Which, that’s saying a lot.  Cos I’ve got my Yiddish reading with Bartek, Greek with George, Homer with the Homeridai, I read Yiddish poetry with Yael once a week, plus my German tandem with Alex.  Now baseball.  The Kollel.  Music.  I’m fucking busy, you guys.  But kinda nothing makes me happier than going to these Yiddish schmoozes.

It’s largely about the language, and to a lesser extent the music.  Clearly the people are awesome, otherwise none of it would matter.  But one thing I really love about it is, nobody cares who the fuck you are.  (And yes, this is very much about the people).  But we’ve got gay people, straight people, Americans, Germans, Israelis, Poles, more probably.  Hell, Luise the fiddle player ain’t even Jewish (and her Yiddish is excellent).  Just, nobody cares.  There’s no identity politics.  It’s like, “Oh, you’re here cos you love Yiddish?  זײַ באַגריסט! (Welcome!)”  It’s refreshing. 

My favorite, though, is always the end of the evening, when it gets down to just a handful of people.  (Because we all know how well I do in groups).  Sometimes it’s very chill.  There was that time we mostly just told jokes.  Last time, as it often is, it was just me, Jake (from NJ) and this other girl from BK.  And it’s funny.  If I was together with (omg “together with”?  That’s so fucking German!) – If I was [just] with two other Yanks and we were all speaking German together, it would be fucking absurd.  But to be with them, speaking Yiddish, it’s not absurd at all.  It just feels right.  I just feel so at home with those clowns.  Or, instead of ‘clowns,’ how about an equivalent Yiddish word: נאַראָנים (naronim). 

We all had various degrees of a serious religious upbringing, though I think me the least of all.  But at one point, we were discussing a common prayer, the עלינו (aleynu).  And the girl was saying how in her community, certain lines were not used.  Sorta random, only kinda interesting.  But I just had this feeling like, who else could I ever have this conversation with?  And we’re having it in Yiddish.  I know I keep saying it, but I just always feel like, “Yes, these are my people.

At one point, earlier in the evening, this woman is asking me where I’m from.  So I give her the whole spiel.  But she asks where in BK was I born.  So I’m like, “Maimonides Hospital.”  And my boy Jake is like, “The Rambam!”  Because Maimonides is the Greek version of this Jewish scholar’s name.  But to us, he’s known by his Jewish acronym: Rambam.  Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, yields רמב״ם (Rambam).  Whereas Maimonides, as I’ve said, is Greek; simply: Son of Maimon.  Just as Agamemnon is often simply called Atreïdēs: Son of Atreus. 

These “son of” endings, btw, are what are known as ‘patronymics,’ another Greek word which just means, ‘named for the father.’  Russian does this too.  For example, “Davidovitch” just means “son of David,” or בן דוד (ben david) in Hebrew.  So, –ides, –ovitch, ben-…they all just mean “son of.”  And if you’re wondering, yes, Hebrew/Yiddish can do “son of a bitch.”  That would be בן זונה (ben zoynah); although, more literally, that yields something like ‘son of a whore.’ 

The BK girl I mentioned, she also lives in NK.  So we often wind up taking the train home together.  And this time, we wound up having quite an interesting discussion.  In broad strokes, it was about…well, you know what?  This post is already long enough.  And that discussion warrants a fuller recounting.  So perhaps I’ll get to it next time. 

(Sept 24)

I know this post is pretty long already, but I haven’t written in a while, so there’s lots to catch up on.  Two more things.

First, Rosh HaShanah.  The BK girl from the Yiddish schmooze had a couple of us over Friday night, erev, to ‘celebrate.’  This time, it wasn’t so much about speaking Yiddish but rather, just to be able to spend this big-deal holiday with some fellow Yids.  It was very nice.  Five of us in all.  Me, the hostess, this other woman (also somehow from BK), Harmonica-Ben and his Polish (and presumably goyish) bf.  We had a great time.  At one point, the fellas left, so it was just Team NY.  We told stories and jokes, laughed a lot and probably had a bit of serious discussion as well.

The weirdest thing.  So the woman – and I forget how it even came up – but she uses this word, “padoodle.”  And then she’s like, “But you guys probably don’t know what that is.”  And I’m like, “Um, is it a car with one headlight out?”  And she’s like, “How the fuck do you know that??”  And I’m like, “I went to school upstate.  Where it was called a ‘padiddle,’ btw.  How the fuck do you know that??”  And she’s like, “I went to school in Michigan.”  I guess the word has currency above a certain latitude.  So that was weird and surprising and hilarious.  We wound up researching the word and apparently it goes back to the ‘40s.  Also, there were games.  Like, if you saw one, you would yell “Padoodle/Padiddle” and then punch your friend.  Unless your friend was a girl, in which case she had to kiss you.  (Oh, Patriarchy).  Though if she spotted one, she gets to land a punch.  In one of the old stories we read, one poor lad was like, “This girl hit like Joe Louis!”  Which, just, what a sentence.  So that was a good night.

Next day, Saturday afternoon and the first full day of Rosh HaShanah, Yael had me (and a bunch of others) over for lunch.  Lovely as always.  She’s not doing the Kollel this semester.  She’s moved on to a proper hardcore Talmud class.  Which kinda breaks my heart, to lose my Khavrusa.  But it’s the right move for her.  And I’m really excited for her.  It’s a big time commitment though.  So it’s gonna be hard for us to find time to keep reading Yiddish poetry.  Hopefully we can find a way.  I know it’s important to both of us. 

The other thing.  So about a week ago or so, Jake (Yiddish schmooze organizer) sends a message to the group chat saying that some Ukrainian group is making some sort of film and that they’re looking for Yiddish speakers to read some dialogue.  Interesting, sure, but I hardly thought I was qualified.  I mean, if you were to sort of divide the people who come to the schmooze into groups of ‘advanced’ and ‘not advanced,’ I’d put myself in the advanced group.  But I’d also say that I’m probably the weakest of that bunch.  Just an observation for context.

But then Jake sends the same message to me directly, albeit without any extra commentary.  So then I figure, well, Jake knows my level as well as anybody.  If he’s sending this to me direct, he must think I’m up to it.  So why not?  So I reached out to the contact person and offered my services.  She invited me down last Sunday to read.

It was just a short paragraph, plus two lines of dialogue.  I asked the girl if she could send me the text in advance so I could practice; she did.  And so when I got there, I was well enough prepared.  I recorded my lines in a few takes.  In the course of that, she gave me some feedback.  She’s Ukrainian and she had a Russian (or possibly Ukrainian) translation, meaning that even though she didn’t speak Yiddish, she could gauge the emotional tenor of my reading.  She asked me to try it a couple of different ways until she got what she wanted.  In the end, she was pleased with my work.  And I have to say, I was satisfied myself.  Maybe not ‘proud.’  I don’t think I did an amazing job.  But solid.  I’d say solid. 

Anyway, she sends it off to the director.  A few minutes later, she comes back to me and is like, “So the director actually really liked your reading and would like to know if you’d be willing to read another text as well.”  I mean, sure, why not?  After all, this is a pretty cool project.  She showed me some clips from the film.  It’s a claymation, stop-motion affair, which I totally fucking love.  So I’m thinking it’s actually kinda cool to be a part of this.

Then she shows me the text.  Now it’s like a whole page.  Which, fine.  But also, it’s a super religious text.  And not just religious, but like crazy kabbalistic.  What this means, as a practical  matter, is that it’s full of Hebrew and Aramaic words I’ve never seen before.  Some of them I can kinda figure out what they mean.  Others I have no idea.  But almost all of them, I have zero idea how to pronounce.  So this is now way above my pay-grade. 

This is in Neukölln, btw.  Maybe a 15m walk from my place.  So I ask if I can go home and grab my dictionary, as there’s no way I can do this cold.  She says that’s fine, so I do.  When I get back, I’m sitting at her kitchen table with the text and my dictionary painstakingly digging up each of these obscure terms.  It’s going slow.  Finally, I’m like, “Is there any way I can come back tomorrow?  There’s just no way I can give you what you need on the spot like this.”  She speaks to her sound guy and we all agree I can come back Monday afternoon.

In the meantime, they send me an actual recording of the text.  If I understand it right, they’d actually had a native speaker record it, but weren’t super pleased with it.  When I heard it, I could understand why.  He spoke it like a native speaker.  Fast and mushed together, hard to understand.  I could understand it, but I was ambivalent about it.  Like, sure, it might not fit with their artistic vision, but how much sense could it make to replace a native speaker with some rando who needs a dictionary just to figure out what he’s saying?

On top of which, it wasn’t just some random native speaker.  It was a proper Yiddishist.  I’m not gonna name him, but he often writes for the Forward among many other things.  So he’s kind of a big deal in Yiddish circles.  And I’m supposed to replace his recording?  I was ambivalent.  But that’s what they wanted for their film, so I agreed.

So I went home and practiced as best I could.  Went back the next day and read as best I could.  In the end, I gave them two full takes of the text.  They seemed pleased with it in the end.  I don’t know how I feel about it.  I can’t say I’m proud of it.  If I thought the first text was solid, the best I can say about this one is that – hopefully – it’s passable.  But I sorta worry that if any Yiddish speaker worth their salt were to hear my work on this second text, they might think, “Yeesh, where did they find this guy?”  Maybe I’m being too hard on myself.  But it was a bear of a text, and I feel like it took all my effort just to read it straight, nevermind actually making it sound believable. 

In the course of all this, nobody ever asked me my full name.  So I was sorta curious as to whether I would be credited for my work.  After the first text, I kinda hoped I would be.  It’s a pretty cool project, looks like it’s gonna be a pretty cool film.  Could be neat to have my name attached to that.  But after the second text, I was reconsidering.  Like, maybe it’s for the best if it’s just anonymous, you know?  Nevermind not wanting to embarrass myself, I don’t really need to be the guy that replaced the actual native speaker and didn’t do an amazing job on top of that. 

But just the other day, the girl messaged me asking me if I’d like to be credited and if so, how.  So I just told her, “Only if the other Yiddish speakers are also being credited; and if so, here’s my full name.”  I didn’t hear back from her, so I guess we’ll find out sooner or later.  I’m curious.  Mostly curious to see the film itself.  Apart from the claymation stop-motion stuff, which looked really fucking great, she also told me it’s multilingual: Russian, Ukrainian, Yiddish and Polish.  I think that’s really fucking cool.  I’m kinda excited to see the final product actually.  I’ll hold off on being embarrassed until I do.  I mean, maybe it’ll work out quite well in the end.  Or it won’t.  Either way, it was a pretty cool experience.  I’m glad I got to be a part of it.  Interesting things just keep falling into my lap.  ברוך השם, I guess.  Anyway, that’s well past enough for one post. 

Until next time…

זײַ געזונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
17 August, 2023

So at the end of my last post, I mentioned wanting to talk about Shanghai noodles, and that that was somehow important to me.  Well, alright.  Let’s get into it.  Pre-first of all, apparently it was not Shanghai noodles but rather Hong Kong noodles.  So there’s that.

First, Chinatown.  I loved living in Chinatown.  Jared less so, it must be said.  But I loved it.  I’ve written plenty about the location, how it afforded me an easy walk over the Williamsburg bridge to my favorite metal bar, Duffs; or to Niki’s place.  How I could walk pretty much anywhere in Manhattan from there, and usually did.  But also central to the Chinatown experience was just the food. 

So much great food.  Congee, a sort of rice porridge, in the winter or when I was sick.  These fried, log-shaped donuts which were great for breakfast or for dipping into congee.  Hand-pulled noodle soup of any number of varieties.  Five-for-a-dollar dumplings from Prosperity Dumpling (while they lasted).  And so much more.

There was this place, I forget the name now, directly across the street from our apartment on the SW corner of Orchard and Hester.  Last time I was home, I discovered that they’d gone out of business, which kind of broke my heart.  Anyway, that was pretty much my spot for everything apart from hand-pulled noodles and dumplings (neither of which they did).  It was the place I did my most adventurous eating, trying things I’d never had and never heard of before.  Although the truth is, I was never as adventurous as I would have liked to have been; or should have been, for that matter. 

In any case, the food was a revelation.  Even the dishes which were not new to me tasted different.  The flavors were more intense, more nuanced.  I feel like I want to say it was more ‘authentic.’  But a) that’s snobby and b) what the hell do I know from authentic?  What I do know is, it was a Chinatown spot for Chinese people.  Most of the customers in there were Chinese.  The menu was Chinese first, English an afterthought.

The point is, it kinda spoiled me for Chinese food for ever after.  Now, on LI or even just non-Chinatown parts of the city, Chinese food tastes either bland or overly sweet, generally devoid of nuance.  In Berlin?  Well, actually, there’s a place on Kantstraße that does it right.  But apart from that, good luck.  In any case, ‘white-people Chinese food’ just doesn’t hit the spot anymore (though of course I’ll gladly eat it and I still love me a bowl of wonton soup).  And again, I have no idea what relation this food bears to that which is actually eaten in Mainland China (or perhaps Hong Kong?).  But to go back to that troubling word ‘authentic,’ it is at least authentic to Chinatown.  And I miss it all the damn time. 

Fast forward to the present, where I’m constantly trying to learn about and experiment with (ugh) ‘authentic’ Chinese cooking.  I’m learning, albeit very slowly.  And I don’t know if I’ll ever really get it ‘right.’  But am I at least turning out some tasty dishes. 

Now as many of you know, my standard day-to-day lunch is a bowl of miso soup.  This is Japanese, of course, but it’s the same part of the world at any rate.  And as I’ve probably written, I load up my soup with a bunch of veggies.  Almost always some kind of cabbage and then some mix of mushrooms, radish, zucchini, whatever happens to look good/fresh on the day I’m shopping.  And for a long time, I’d whisk up an egg (with chopsticks, not an actual whisk) and drizzle that into the soup, rendering it a miso-egg drop affair.  Which I just love.

But lately, I’ve taken a break from the egg.  See, what I had been doing for the longest was, having a little side-bowl of rice with kimchi.  I did that every day for a long time.  And then I kinda got tired of it.  So I decided to swap out the egg for noodles.  The only thing was, trying to find the right kind of noodle.  I started out using Japanese ramen noodles.  But these tended to be more expensive, come in smaller packages and generally seemed to be more high maintenance.

So then I started experimenting with other noodles.  Now look, I can’t read any Asian language.  But I fancy myself as being able to tell the difference between Japanese, Chinese and Korean scripts when I see them.  (Telling the difference between Vietnamese and Thai, on the other hand, is beyond me).  With that in mind, I started experimenting with noodles whose packaging seemed to me to be written in Chinese.

The first ones I tried were too thick.  And because they were too thick, they were also too starchy.  Now, in theory, the solution to this – and not even the solution, but just the right way to do things – is to cook the noodles in a separate pot, strain them, rinse them and then drop them in your soup.  But like, this is my everyday lunch.  I can’t be bothered.

So I went back to the Asian market and tried a different variety of noodle from the same brand, but this time a bit thinner.  Better, for sure.  But still too thick, still too starchy.  So the search continued.

Next time at the Asian market, I spotted this altogether different package.  The noodles were super thin, which is exactly what I was looking for.  But while they were in the general noodle section, they were sorta next to the Chinese noodles rather than with them.  And I notice that the name on the package includes the word ‘Viet,’ although the Asian text appears to be Chinese.  Also, these noodles were more yellowish in color, like an egg-noodle, rather than the bone-white of the previous two I’d tried.  So I figured, what the hell?  I bought a package and brought them home. 

Made my soup and just dropped ‘em right in at the end.  They’re so thin, they cook in like a minute.  And when I say thin, I mean like angel-hair pasta for example, or maybe even thinner.  And they’re just…fucking perfect!  Not only were they the right thinness, they weren’t starchy either.  And the taste?  So good.  But also…wait, what’s this?  Super familiar?  What’s happening?

Rewind to Chinatown.  So we’ve all had Chinese noodles, right?  I imagine most of us are thinking of our favorite Lo Mein right about now.  And you could get lo mein in Chinatown.  But if you ordered a noodle soup, that’s not the kinda noodle you’d get.

Stop.  I gotta talk about the concept of noodle soup.  Noodle soup is quite possibly my most favorite thing ever.  And it doesn’t matter what kind, right?  My mom’s Ashkenazi chicken noodle soup.  Or just a can of fucking Campbell’s chicken noodle.  Or the chicken noodle you get at any diner.  Or Vietnamese Pho, which is a rice noodle.  Or Japanese Ramen.  I live for fucking noodle soup.  And year round, too.  It’s never too hot for a bowl of good noodle soup.  It’s just so comforting, so soothing.  Plus, slurping noodles off a pair of chopsticks is just plain old fun. 

Though apparently there’s science behind that.  Because let’s be honest.  In western culture, we’re taught that slurping is bad manners.  But apparently in many Asian cultures, you pick some noodles out of the soup with your chopsticks and slurp them up into your mouth.  Manners don’t enter into it.  The science is simply, when you do this, you’re cooling them off as you eat.  You know, so you don’t burn your mouth.  It’s fun and practical!

Anyway, early in my Chinatown experience, I see that my spot’s got what they’re calling ‘noodle soup’ on the menu.  Plain noodle soup.  Wonton noodle soup.  A half-dozen other kinds of noodle soup.  So I order one.  Because of course I do.  And I’m expecting…I dunno what I’m expecting.  I guess something familiar.  A normal size portion of soup, just, you know, with noodles in it.  But that ain’t what it is.

These things are huge.  Massive.  If you get it in the restaurant, you get a bowl that’s no joke double the size of whatever ‘normal’ bowl you’re thinking of.  If you get it to take home, you get a quart (or whichever is the ‘big’ size container) of the soup itself, plus the noodles on the side (so they don’t get soggy).  And this is meant for one person!  But also, the noodles are these super thin noodles like I’ve never had before.  And they’re delicious.  They just taste different.  I can’t explain it.

But you see where I’m going with this?  These noodles I found are exactly the same noodles I used to get in my Chinatown noodle soups.  That was a fucking revelation, let me tell you.  And now, that’s my go-to.  Every day, into my miso soup goes a portion of these wonderful noodles.  At some point, I suppose I’ll start going back and forth between egg-drop and noodle, for variety’s sake.  But while this is still new (or old and new again), it’s noodles every day.  Couldn’t be happier about this. 

So then what about this question of Shanghai noodles versus Hong Kong noodles?  First, we need to go back to my old spot across the street in Chinatown.  They had this thing on the menu called Hong Kong Beef Stew.  I’ll never forget the first time I saw that.  Well, actually, I’ve completely forgotten the first time.  But I know the impact it had on me and so I’m re-creating the memory according to what it ‘must have been,’ Thucydides style.[1]  I saw that and was like, “Well, I fucking love beef stew.  So while I have no idea what this is, I’m definitely gonna order it.”  Turns out it wasn’t ‘beef stew’ in the way I had imagined.  The broth, such as it was, was actually rather thin.  The beef in question was, I’m pretty sure, tendon.  As such, even in a stew, it could be kinda chewy.  I feel like there were also carrots, maybe radish or some other veggies.  And of course, these very same noodles.

Well, I fucking fell in love with that.  It was probably the thing I ordered more than anything else at that place.  I would often get it before going out to build a solid foundation (Grundlage) in my stomach in anticipation of a night of drinking.  (Though I’d often also get something rice based, the idea being that the rice would (theoretically/scientifically?) absorb a bunch of the alcohol).  The point is, I fucking loved it and central to it were those noodles.

I also tried to persuade other people as to the merits of this particular dish.  I persuaded no one.  To a person, everybody found the meat too chewy and just overall not so nice.  (If memory serves, I feel like Charlotte would always get this omelet over rice thing with some kind of rich, dark brown sauce I was never able to identify.  C, you remember what I’m talking about?)  I fucking loved living in Chinatown.  Clearly it wasn’t for everybody.  In any case, aside from being central to this Hong Kong Beef Stew (of blessed memory; where will I ever find that again?), it was also in the noodle soups.

Fast forward again to now.  And I find this video on TikTok for something the content creator is calling Hong Kong Noodles.  She’s pitching it as this really easy meal you can make in 15m.  Which you can.  It’s essentially a stir fry.  But there’s no meat or hearty veggies, so it’s easy prep and fast work.  It’s just noodles, green onions, bean sprouts, garlic and the sauce.  The sauce is water, light & dark soy, oyster sauce and sugar.  It’s delicious and easy.  You just gotta be careful not to overdo it with the sauce, which is easier to do than it might sound.  It’s gotta be subtle.  Anyway, I love it.  And key to it all, of course, is these very same noodles. 

So now I’ve got them in my soup and in this stir fry.  And the taste, the texture, the mouth feel, all of it…it’s like being back in Chinatown.  I mean, I don’t claim for a second to make it as good as you can get there, let’s be clear.  But it’s pretty close.  Close enough to make me super happy and to bring back a lot of good memories.  To say nothing of filling the ol’ belly in a very satisfying way. 

Tonight, I decided to improvise a bit.  I’ve lately been playing with a ‘Chinese style’ braised pork belly.  I was gonna write about how I make that, but apparently I did that already back in November.  So, moving on.  Next up, normal stir fry routine.  Tonight, I just used a non-stick pan (too lazy for the wok).  Now the pan’s got all the drippings from the (braised and removed) pork belly.  Tremendous.  Throw in the white parts of some green onions, ginger and garlic.  Then I added some white (daikon) radish and mushrooms. 

While this is going, cook up two portions of these glorious noodles.  Remember, they go quick.  Drain, rinse and toss them into the pan.  Toss back in your pork belly.  Add in the chopped up green parts of the green onions.  Add in your sauce at the very end, not too much.  Stir/toss and you’re good to go.  And let me tell you, fucking fantastic.  Again, I don’t know if it would pass muster with a person trained in the Chinese culinary arts.  But I feel like pretty much anybody else (who eats pork) would be more than satisfied.  I sure as shit was.  But the key, of course, is these fucking noodles.  I can’t stress how happy they make me.

There is, of course, a next logical step to all this.  Namely, to try my hand at my long-lost and still-beloved Hong Kong beef stew.  I’ve googled some recipes.  Apparently there’s a particular sauce I need, but I’m pretty sure I can get it at ye olde Asian market.  And the beef tendon, which will be harder to secure.  I may have to compromise there.  But that’s the next culinary undertaking and I’m quite looking forward to it.  Last post I made a big deal about how finding a community of Yiddish speakers makes me feel at home.  Well, strangely perhaps, so do these fucking noodles. 

Speaking of my love of soup, I was talking to my tandem partner the other day.  And she asked me if I’m still eating soup every day.  I told her I was.  Then she asked, “Even in summer?”  And I’m like, “Of course!  I love soup in any weather!”  (If I’m using Gen-Z slang correctly, I believe “I’m in my noodle-soup era”).  And she’s like, “You’re a real Suppen-Kaspar.”  Um, okay.  Wait, what?

Then she explains that Suppen-Kaspar is the main character/title of this old German nursery rhyme.  And while she couldn’t remember the nursery rhyme itself, she clearly remembered the name.  And just by the sound of it, she figured it was a fitting epithet for a Suppen-fresser such as myself. 

Later, naturally, I decided to look the thing up.  I found it easily enough.  Sure enough, it’s a sort of nursery rhyme out of the Struwwelpeter collection of ‘children’s’ stories.  (They’re fucking horrific and often end in the death of the child in a given story as a way of teaching the listening children a lesson).  Anyway, I find it.  It’s short, just four strophes of 8, 6, 6 and 4 lines, all rhyming couplets.  Turns out, the putative protagonist, the eponymous Suppen-Kaspar, in fact does not want to eat his soup.  Indeed each strophe ends with his adamant refusal to eat his soup.  And of course, this coming from the Struwwelpeter, he gets thinner and thinner until, in the last line, he straight up dies.  Huh, okay.  It seems, if anything, I’m the anti-Suppen-Kaspar.  Who knew?

I went to Chris’ today.  I had talked him and Esma into watching Spaceballs with me and so today was the day.  He cooked us a really nice lunch of goulash to start with, which was pretty great.  Then we watched the movie.  At first, Chris was like, “Are we watching in German?”  And was like, “Are you kidding?  You guys need to see this in the original!” 

(Basically as long as I’ve known him, me and Joschka have been talking about watching Spaceballs together twice, once in English and once in German.  Seems he grew up with the movie too.  But neither of us have ever seen it in the other language.  So that’s been a goal for over ten years at this point.  Still waiting.  Anyway, apparently I’d told Chris about this, which is why he thought I’d want to watch it in German.  But no, it was critical that they see it in the original).

Anyway, Esma asked if we could still watch it with English subtitles.  Why not?  That turned out to be worth it even for me.  There were a couple of throwaway lines I’d never noticed before until I saw them written out.  In any case, it was fun.  That movie never gets old and they seemed to like it, though the things that made Esma laugh were not necessarily the things that made Chris laugh and vise-versa.  Me?  I love the whole damn thing.  Normally, I’m not a huge fan of getting together to watch movies.  They (along with Dženita) have been doing it for quite a while, but I never go.  This one was worth it though.  Maybe I can talk them into more Mel Brooks somewhere down the line.  We’ll see. 

Chris also came by on Wednesday to help me bring home a ladder from the Baumarkt.  Since the day I moved in, I knew I needed a ladder.  But I just kept putting it off.  Then, earlier this week, the light bulb in my living room died and I had no way of reaching it to change it.  The ladder couldn’t be put off any longer.  My idea was basically that we’d carry the ladder home together, one person at each end.  Not so much because it would be heavy, but because it would be unwieldy.  Like, you might turn and accidentally knock over seven people.

In the event, it turned out to be super fucking light – I don’t know if it’s aluminum or what.  So Chris just grabs it and throws it under his arm and is like, “I’ll just carry it.”  Neat, thanks, my dude.  I offered a couple of times to take over, but he was all, “I got this.”  Who am I to argue.  Anyway, it was super helpful.

I sometimes joke about him being like the ‘most German’ German I know.  And in a lot of ways, he so is, bless him.  But in this way too, he’s super German, and it’s not a way that has made it into any of our American stereotypes.  He’s a guy who will often say, “Listen, if you ever need any help with the apartment, bringing stuff home from the store, whatever, just let me know.  I’m happy to help.”  But like, it’s not pro-forma with him.  He really means it.  So then when I texted him to ask if he wouldn’t mind helping with the ladder, he’s just like, “Yup, no problem.  How about tomorrow?”  He was the same way when I moved out of Köpenick.  Just a stand-up dude.

Guitar-wise, the Suite Española is coming together nicely.  I’m up to the fifth movement already.  Not that I’ve mastered the first four.  I’m sorta working on them together.  But it’s coming back to me.  Starting to sound like real music in places.  Still a ways to go before I get to the Canarios, which  is the final movement of the work.  But it’s fun.  I just like the piece.  And the Bach 999 is getting to be fairly solid as well.  Also, I’m starting to get the cello suite prelude under my fingers and even memorized, though there remain a few trouble spots.  I don’t practice as much as I’d like to, but even so, I’m pretty happy with where things are at in that department.  Just gotta keep doing it. 

Greek.  I finally reached out to Josh about doing a bit of bible study.  I’ve written down several questions about things I don’t quite understand that I’d like to discuss.  He still seemed quite open to the idea.  In theory, we’ll do that next week, but we haven’t settled on a time yet.  So I’m quite looking forward to that. 

Also, it’s weird how much of this shit is just in our language.  Okay, not our language, in the NY Jew department.  But like, general English apparently.  So today, I was listening to an interview with the author Barbara Kingsolver.  And she said two things that were direct quotes from the NT (weird to hear them in English having only read them in Greek).  I forget what one of them was, but the other was in relation to her becoming an author, how she needed to put her work out into the world.  And she said something like, “I’m not supposed to/don’t want to ‘hide my light under a bushel.’” 

Now, if I’d heard that a few months ago, my reaction would have been, “Pretty sure I know what you mean, but that’s like a weird way to say it.”  Thing is, I’d just read – and puzzled over – exactly that phrase in Luke (and once previously in either Matthew or Mark; I forget).  It was one of those, “Well, the language is clear, but what does it mean?” kinda things.  Exactly the sort of thing I’m hoping to discuss with Josh.  But now, hearing it context, I was like, “Oh shit!  That’s what that’s about?  Neat.” 

Which was sorta gratifying, honestly.  I mean, back when I started reading this book, one of my stated goals was just to familiarize myself with this text that is so central to Western (goyish) culture.  To just learn a little bit more about the way many of the people around me see and understand the world.  And just like that, boom, something new.  Something I’d either never heard before, or else heard and paid no mind to.  But now it’s like I’m in on the secret.  Not that it’s like a great secret or anything.  Just cool to have added that layer of understanding. 

I’ve written before that one of the things I love about Jules Verne is, every time I go back to him it’s like putting on a pair of comfy slippers.  Like, you read enough of the guy and you just get comfortable and familiar with his style, his voice.  And I’ve read over a dozen of his books by now, so I feel like I know his style pretty well.  But anytime I read a new author in a foreign language, there’s always a warmup period.  A period where I have to get used to the person’s style and vocab.  Which usually means, the first few pages (or even chapters) kinda go by with me not fully grasping all of the finer points.  And then, eventually, I get into the flow of it and it’s fine.

It’s been this way with the NT fellas as well.  Switching to Mark after Matthew, it was like, whoa hang on, what?  It’s the same language, but also…not the same?  To give one example, Mark seems not to like using names when he can avoid it.  Even Jesus’ name.  He’ll just go super heavy on the pronouns.  It’s a whole lot of “And he said to him” or “They said to them” kinda stuff, without actually introducing by name who any of these He’s and Him’s and They’s and Them’s are.  (I’m sorta curious how that gets translated, since it would make for really convoluted English).  It took me a while to get a feel for it, but after a time, I just did.

Now with Luke, it’s a whole new ballgame.  While still well within the confines of what George calls “Dr. Seuss Greek,” I just got the feeling straightaway that his style was more ‘literary.’  Which I guess is another way of saying more grammatically complicated.  It took me longer to get a feel for his style, but I’m mostly pretty good with it now.  Every now and then he’ll write something that I’ll feel the need to check up on in the English, but like 99% of the time, I turn out to be right.  Still though, there’s plenty of times where I’ll need to read a sentence two or three times before it clicks.  Other times I’ll wait til the next day to re-read an episode I wasn’t sure about.  For whatever reason, sleeping on it usually does the trick.

There continues to be strong evidence, however, that reading this shit every day (combined with my weekly Homer readings plus whatever I’m reading with George) is going a long way to just making me much better at reading this language.  I want to give an example, but it’s gonna be way down in the weeds and since I’m pretty sure nobody reading this has studied any Greek it’s gonna be a waste of time.  So I’ll try to keep it short.  But do feel free to skip this next paragraph.

So Luke does this really neat thing that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before and am therefore wondering if it’s specific to Koine (or even just to him) or if I’ve just missed it previously.  But he’ll use the preposition ἐν with a dative articular infinitive and an accusative subject to introduce a temporal clause at the beginning of a sentence.  Or the same thing but with a genitive to introduce a purpose clause.  It’s pretty neat.  But also, I’m pretty pleased with myself in that I figured it out on my own.  Assuming I’m right and I’ve never actually seen these constructions before, I just sorta rolled with it.  The first time I saw it, I was like, OK, it kinda has to mean this, doesn’t it?  But that’s weird.  And as it kept coming back, I was sorta reaffirmed in my reading as it seemed to work the same way every time.  Eventually, I looked at some translations to check my work, and sure enough, it was doing exactly what I suspected.  So to put it another way, it seems my Greek is at such a place right now where I can be confronted with an entirely new grammatical construction and just get it.  That’s a pretty good feeling.  Anyway.

All of the foregoing was written between July 9-13.  A couple of things to catch up on.  First, I had my first bible study with Josh.  We scheduled an hour, and it just flew by.  We had so much fun and both agreed we really want to do it again.  I fucking love Josh.  In advance of our reading, I emailed him a bunch of questions I had that I thought would make for good discussion.  I figured he’d just sorta read the verses I’d singled out and show up with his general knowledge.  (His dad was a preacher, so he kinda grew up with this stuff.  It’s not his personal area of expertise, but it’s kinda in his bones).  Anyway, he actually went a researched a bunch of things.  Dude, came correct. 

I definitely learned a lot from him, though I’ll spare the details.  He also confirmed some of my suspicions, amongst which, Luke is definitely considered the most ‘lyrical’ (his word) of the…what do we call them, gospelists?  I could go on about this, but this post is already quite long.  Suffice it to say, we had a blast and I can’t wait to do it again.

Two other things, both relating to the family vacation.  Because I just got done with this epic family vacay.  Vienna, Prague, Nuremburg, Bamberg, Berlin.  It was great.  Great to spend time with the fam, great to see new places, we even made new friends.  Really it deserves its own post, which I may or may not get around to writing.  But as I say, two things from the vacay that make sense to mention here.

One.  So we’re in the gift shop of the Alt-Neu Synagogue in Prague; the one where legend holds there’s a golem sleeping in the attic.  Anyway, we’re in the gift shop.  And I’m standing in this narrow space between a shelf and the counter.  And this Hasidic dude squeezes in behind me.  Why?  I dunno.  At first I thought maybe he was trying to get past me to another shelf or maybe even behind the counter.  But he just kinda stops behind me and says, “Shalom.”  Um, ok.  “Shalom.”  And then I tried to move out of his way.  But he just kinda stands there and looks at me.  “Ivrit?” he asks.  ([Do you speak] Hebrew?).  “No, English?”  He shakes his head and for a moment says nothing.  Then he looks at me and says, “Yiddish?”  I have no idea why he thought to ask that.  How Jewish do I look, anyway?  But ask he did.  So I’m like, “Yeah, Yiddish!”  Next thing I know, I’m schmoozing with this random Hasidic dude in Prague.  A real native speaker, with an accent I wasn’t used to, there were a couple of spots where I had to ask him to repeat himself.  But overall, I managed pretty well.  I introduced him to my parents, upon which he made a point of telling them they had a voyler zon, ‘a good son.’  (Though ווויל is quite a bit more nuanced than simply ‘good,’ but whatever.  The point was, it was high Jewish praise, albeit formulaic praise).  Turns out he’s a soyfer, a religious scribe.  So by the end, he was naturally trying to sell me a mezuzah, trying to get me to tell my parents what he does in case they wanted to buy anything.  I mean, may as well play to type, right?  I asked him if he had a card, but he didn’t.  So he gave me his number, but like, without a country code.  Honestly, I could do with another mezuzah, and given the backstory, I’d be happy to buy one off him if the price isn’t insane.  So when I have time, I’ll see if I can actually get a hold of the dude.  But all that’s beside the point.  The point is, I randomly wound up chatting in Yiddish with a native speaker in Prague.  That was pretty fucking cool.  For sure a personal highlight of the whole damn trip.

Two.  Saturday night, I went with my parents and brother to the above mentioned Chinese place on Kantstraße, i.e. the only place in town where you can get ‘real’ Chinese food.  I’d been there before.  With the fam, and also with J&Z and Anne on my birthday just before everything shut down for the pandemic.  We chose to have dinner there to show solidarity with our Chinese neighbors, given all the shit they were getting for Corona.  A couple of other times as well.  Previously, I’d always gotten a pork belly noodle soup, which…just amazing.  But this time I noticed – I don’t know how I never noticed it before – they had something on the menu that they were calling a Cantonese noodle soup ‘goulash.’  Goulash.  Beef stew.  Could it be?  Could this be the Hong Kong Beef Stew I’ve been dreaming about for nigh-on a decade now? 

Omg, you guys, it was!  The sauce, the beef tendon, the fucking noodles!  All of it.  It was perfect.  And so fucking good.  Maybe even better than in Chinatown, in that a) it was a proper noodle soup and b) the beef was better braised, so more tender; and the fat…just wow.  I was so fucking happy.  So that’s it then.  That’s my go-to Chinese joint, and my go-to dish.  Just too bad it’s on the other side of town.  For the record, everybody else loved their dishes.  They all agreed it was better than anything back home (on LI, anyway).  Like I said above, more delicate, more nuanced.  So that was a real win right there.

And I guess the last thing – since this is primarily a Berlin focused blogue – last night, the last night before everybody went home, I had everybody over for dinner.  The parents and Justin, but also my aunt Margaret and her friend Renate.  Renate is this Austrian woman who lives in Vienna, but who used to teach with Mag in Brooklyn.  She was kind of our tour guide in Vienna and then came with us to Prague.  We liked her so much, we asked her to meet us in Berlin, which she did.  She’s one of the ‘new friends’ I mentioned above.  Anyway, we were six for dinner.

My first real dinner party in the new apartment.  It went really well.  I was in the kitchen working for most of the first two hours or so.  So people were just chilling in the garden/courtyard, chatting and drinking wine.  Apparently they’re big fans of the garden.  I think Mag and Renate felt a little bad that I was working while they were chilling, but my mom explained that that’s how I wanted things.  And I was glad not to socialize for a bit.  I like cooking for people because I like sharing my cooking, but also because while I’m cooking I get to be left the fuck alone. 

I made bruschetta and caprese for apps.  Tried something new.  I pre-salted the tomatoes and onions for about fifteen minutes and then gave them a rinse.  The idea being that the salt would draw out the excess water and give the tomatoes a more intense flavor.  Unfortunately, I didn’t do a control set of unsalted tomatoes, so I couldn’t really compare.  But it was pretty tasty and everybody seemed happy, so this might be the way going forward. 

For the main dish, I made my zucchini lasagna.  I’d originally planned on doing a saltimbocca, until I realized I didn’t know where to get proper prosciutto.  But this zucchini lasagna always makes a ton of food, easily feeds me for eight nights.  So I figured that would be good to satisfy six people.  I guess it was pretty good, bc that shit got housed.  Everybody had seconds and some even had thirds.  All that was left at the end was a tiny little square. 

It’s a weird dish, in that it’s in no way complicated but also kinda labor intensive.  You’ve got to cook up a big pot of ragu (in this case, tomato sauce with ground beef, onions, carrots and mushrooms.  Brown the beef first and remove.  Then do the sofrito, which is the Italian version of a mir-poix; the mushrooms I just dumped in once the sauce was properly going).  Meantime, you’ve got to slice the zucchini into strips.  And all the while, you’re soaking the lasagna pasta so it’s nice and soft by the time it goes into the pan.  But also, you’ve got to periodically check in on it and make sure the noodles are sticking together.  And in this case, I was prepping the apps while the ragu was doing its thang. 

To put it another way, it’s one of things I love about Italian cooking.  Minimal ingredients, though they’ve got to be fresh.  It doesn’t require a high degree of skill or training, but it does require a lot of attention and ‘love.’  You’ve got to be stirring, tasting, keeping an eye on things.  But it pays off in the end.  I’m always gonna think whatever I cook could somehow be improved upon.  But I was pretty happy with this one.  And based on how everybody else ate, I guess they were too.  Beyond that, just as a dinner party, I felt like it worked out pretty well.  So that kinda gives me some confidence to be doing more of these.

OK, last thing.  Sunday night, we went to this Azerbaijani joint in my neighborhood.  We discovered it basically by accident last time my folks were in, in January.  We were coming back from a concert and we walked by this place which had a picture of lamb chops on the sign outside.  Lamb chops are my mom’s favorite dish, so we decided to try it.  When she got her lamb chops, and tasted them, she was so happy she literally stomped her feet like a little kid with excitement.  Super cute.  So based on that, I figured we ought to go back. 

And we did.  The six of us, plus Esma.  It was great.  Everybody loved what they got.  I mean, this place is really fucking good.  Plus, Esma is chatting up the wait staff in Turkish, which was fun.  She fit right in, too.  Like, sometimes she’ll be giving me the business in German.  And my dad, while he can’t understand what she’s saying, knows exactly what she’s doing.  And he’s basically like, anybody who’s gonna tell this punk to shut up is always welcome at our table.  (He might describe that differently, but that’s the general idea). 

Anyway, it’s a great spot and just one more thing that makes me love my neighborhood.  We did a bit of NK that day.  We strolled through THF and we had cocktails in Schillerkiez at this place me and Joschka like to go to.  We people-watched the hipsters.  We got a lovely bit of Azerbaijani-Turkish culture at the restaurant.  Renate commented that you would never see garbage on the sidewalk in Vienna the way you do in NK but also that it was clearly a place where everybody could just be themselves without fear of judgement.  In other words, I feel like my peeps got a warts-and-all look at my ‘hood.  And I liked that.  Because I love this ‘hood.  Yeah, it’s got warts for sure.  But it’s got personality too.  And as I’ve said countless times, more than anywhere else in this city, it’s the place that feels most like home.  So I’m glad to they got to share in that.

To finish back at the resto.  Everybody loved their food.  Justin got this mixed-meat platter which included chicken wings; he said they might be the best non-Inn Between ז׳׳ל wings he’s ever had.  My mom, of course, loved her lamb chops.  And at the end, she declared that it was official.  This place now needs to be a required part of every visit going forward.  How can you not love that?

Right, well I guess that’s as good a place to stop as any.

זײַ געזונט

[1] Thucydides, 1.22.  He talks about his process for recording ‘speeches.’  He tells us that, since it’s super hard to recall word-for-word what was said (they didn’t have tape recorders after all), he does his best to write what ‘must have been said’ given the context (τὰ δέοντα, lit. ‘the necessary things’).  This was kinda central to my whole Master’s thesis, which is why I’m writing about it here.

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
6 July, 2023

Haven’t had much luck lately in the blogue department.  Started a couple of posts that went nowhere.  I don’t think they’ll be any cut&paste this time.  Lemme try to start fresh.  [Update: I originally drafted this on June 22nd.  Any further updates will come as this one did, in brackets].

For starters, I’ve got a houseguest this week.  Which is weird, b/c I don’t really know the guy.  I mean, I know him a little, he’s from the Kollel.  But he lives in Barcelona and came in for the Shabbaton (on more which later).  Anyway, he decided to stick around for a week.  Anyway, I get a message from him a couple weeks ago saying, basically, Akiva had suggested to him I might be able to put him up.  (Thanks, Kivele).  Well, I’m not gonna turn away a Yid.  I mean, we’re not allowed.  It’s right there in the Protocols of the Elders of…

And look, he’s a nice guy and a perfectly fine houseguest.  Just not, like, my kinda guy.  Hippie vegan etc.  And also, he’s from Boulder CO, so everything is always ‘amazing,’ he’s always smiling and he talks suuuuper slow.

No, but he’s a sweet kid.  I gave him my extra keys so he can come and go as he pleases, and he’s turned out to be quite self-sufficient, which is critical.  The first night, he took me out for dinner as a thank you.  Which I appreciated.  Other than that, I had the feeling we wouldn’t be spending much time together.  So in an effort at civility, I suggested that if he had time, we could find a point to learn some Torah together.  We did this the other day.  I wasn’t sure what to expect as I’d never really worked with him in the Kollel.  But it worked out well.  Turns out he’s pretty sharp and we had some nice discussion over a bit of parsha.  So that was very nice.  He’s a good dude.  But I’m looking forward to having the place back to myself.  I mean, I feel like four days is a long time to have to wear pants in your own home, you know?

The Kollel wrapped this past weekend, and we had a Shabbaton to celebrate.  A Shabbaton is basically just a two day party; Friday through Saturday, as the name implies.  It’s a mixture of the obligatory religious stuff, plus a bunch of wine and food and just hanging out.  Unfortunately, I could only be there for Friday night and Saturday afternoon as Joschka was throwing a big bash on Saturday night.  I’ll come back to that.

Anyway, the Shabbaton was a lot of fun.  It was cool to meet some of the people I’d only met online to that point.  Of particular note were the two dames who organize the Kollel along with Rabbi Jeremy.  One of them, Dutch Lievnath (lives in Amsterdam), somehow speaks perfect (and basically unaccented English).  Huge heart and a functioning sense of humor; she’s fantastic.  The other was French Sophie, who lives in Paris.  Very dry sense of humor, sarcastic, can banter like a champ.  And she can handle her wine.  For dinner on Friday, I wound up sitting at a table with both of them, and I just felt like I had the best table.  Also, French Sophie and I were drinking wine at roughly the same pace, so I sorta had my drinking buddy for a large portion of the evening. 

And of course Yael was there.  I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with her as she was seated at a different table.  But that’s alright.  She’s my khavrusa and we’re proper friends now.  (She told me so.  On Saturday afternoon, she was like, “Ah, Dahvid!  When am I going to see you without the Kollel?”  And I’m like, “What, so we can’t be friends?”  And she’s like, “We are friends!”  Then she gave me a hug.  Which she’d never done before.  Until that moment, I wasn’t even sure she was allowed to hug men, being frum and married and all).  Anyway, even though I didn’t get to spend much time with her, I was happy just knowing she was there.

[Update: Now that Kollel is on break, Yael and I have decided to continue meeting on Monday mornings over Zoom.  Only now, instead of studying Talmud, we’re reading Yiddish poetry.  Tremendous.  She’s got a great way of looking at poetry.  I’ll be like, “I can imagine maybe the author means this.”  And she’s like, “Maybe.  I think it can mean a lot of things.  I don’t think a poem has one meaning.  I think a poem is a possibility.”  She’s such a fucking champ].

At the last Kollel session before the Shabbaton, I was assigned to lead the parsha section.  I wound up taking that rather seriously and put in a fair bit of work.  I wound up exploring how some passages in our parsha echoed passages from Genesis and how that served as foreshadowing for ‘the careful reader.’  Citations, comparisons of language, the whole nine.  It wasn’t a big thing, but I worked hard on it.  And I was proud of my work.  It felt like a real bit of academic writing and research, which I both love and miss.  So I really enjoyed that.  Got some nice positive feedback on it too, which was cool. 

The other assignment was that we had to write a ‘commentary’ on the bit of Talmud we were reading this semester.  Naturally, my commentary took the form of a dialogue between two grumpy old Jews arguing about the law.  As far as being a commentary goes, I think it was pretty on point.  Also, I was able to work in a bit of comedy.  I was pretty happy with my work here as well.  And I got some nice feedback.  French Sophie drew the short straw in terms of having to read my draft and give me feedback.  She really liked it.  To the point where she told me I had her laughing out loud on the train while she was reading it.  Nice.  And at the Kollel, this other woman (whom I don’t really know that well) made a point of telling me how good she thought it was.  “Dave, it was so funny.  But also, just genuinely good.  Like, publishable good.  You’re a really good writer.”  Well, I don’t know who died and made her literary critic, but that was certainly nice to hear.  Who doesn’t like a good ego-stroking every now and again, I ask you.

Then something awful happened.  Apparently, on Sunday afternoon, two people from the Kollel (I’m leaving their names out to respect their privacy) were having coffee on the sidewalk outside some café in the neighborhood.  And some Nazi bitch came up to them and started yelling at them to speak English.  Then this c*nt threw an ashtray at them and hit one of the poor characters in the head.  What the actual fuck?  The only silver lining (and I use the term generously) was that they’re not easily identifiable as Jewish.  So this was just a wretched example of xenophobia and not outright antisemitism.  Still fucking horrendous any way you cut it.

How do I even know about this?  Well, late Sunday afternoon (or perhaps early Sunday evening), I get a phone call from one of them.  (We’re all together in a Kollel Whatsapp group, so everybody basically has everybody else’s number).  Which confused me.  I mean, we got along well during the Kollel and had fun together on Friday night, but like, this person doesn’t really know me.  It’s not like we’re proper ‘friends.’  So yeah, I was confused. 

Anyway, I pick up and they tell me all about what happened.  And they’re like, “I think what I really need is to just have a few glasses of wine and I kinda figured you’d be a good person for that.”  Well, technically they’re not wrong.  I mean, I did yeoman’s work on a couple of bottles of red that Friday night, right?  So I agreed to meet this person at the Hillel at 9. 

As soon as I got off the phone with the one, I called the other to see how they were doing.  They sounded pretty normal.  Said they’d been pretty shaken up, but then had filed a police report and after doing so, felt much better.  What a fucking trooper, honestly.  (Also, the fact that they filed a police report is the only reason I’m writing about this shit at all.  I feel like it’s a matter of public record now.  I hope that’s alright).  Anyway, I was just happy they were okay.

Well, around 9, I roll over to the Hillel.  The person in question lets me in and says there’s a bunch of leftover wine from the Shabbaton, so why don’t we just stay there.  Which we did.  There’s a nice garden/backyard which served the purpose.  It was a nice time, under the circumstances.  They were even joking about the incident already.  So we just talked and joked and laughed and had some serious conversation and of course wine.  By the end of it, maybe an hour and a half, they were feeling better.  Which is all that really mattered, let’s be honest.

As it turned out, though, I didn’t drink much wine.  In fact, I just nursed one single glass the whole time.  Reason being, I was hungover af from Joschka’s party, from which I got home at 10am.  Besides Joschka, his friends from his hometown were there, plus a couple of Bavarians, to say nothing of Finnish Markus.  It was a lot of fun.  Me and Finnish Markus stayed up til 9 or so, drinking and talking politics.  He’s so smart and super astute.  Plus, he’s very open minded while at the same time very capable of taking apart an argument.  He’s a pleasure to talk to, every damn time.  Unfortunately, he quit his job and will be moving back to Helsinki in the fall.  I’m gonna miss the big lug. 

In other news, I got a message from Carsten today, asking if I was ready for more podcast work.  He said he had one more non-profit project (i.e. lower paying) and then in July, we’ll ‘work for money.’  That’s a little cryptic, I think.  I have no idea if he has anything firm for July or just he wants to look for the next (well paying) project.  Either way though, this is good.  Very good.

I’ve got a new one-to-one at the school.  Well, not exactly new.  It’s this Polish woman who was actually in my class when the pandemic hit.  And now she wants private lessons.  Real sweetheart of a lady.  Anyway, Knut calls me up and asks me if I wouldn’t mind coming in just to meet the new student.  Of course he didn’t say anything about who it was.  So I’m doing my Dave thing where I’m like, “Great, new people I need to pretend to care about, blah, I’m so grumpy, blah.” 

Then I get there and the secretary tells me they’re waiting for me in one of the classrooms.  So I go in, expecting not much of anything.  And there’s the Polish lady.  And I’m just like, “Hey, I know you!”  And she was all smiles.  Seems Knut was playing a little trick on me there, bless him.  Anyway, he leaves us alone to get reacquainted.  Which was nice.  You know, I’m asking about her life, the kids, all that.  And I’m just like, “This is gonna be fun.  I’m glad you’re back.”  And she’s like, “Yeah, well, I told Knut I only wanted to work with you.”  Man, that’s nice to hear, you know? 

Anyway, we’re just once a week for three hours.  But its’ really nice.  She’s not at a super high level and she’s super rusty.  I mean, it’s been three years since she was in the class.  But working with her is great, because you just see how smart she is, how fast she absorbs shit.  And she works hard.  Plus, she’s helping me with my Polish here and there, which is a nice added bonus.  So I’m enjoying that.

Polish with Bartek is proceeding nicely too.  Every week I get a little better.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m still totally fucking useless.  But I’m noticing improvement.  And it’s neat to finally be getting this little window into Slavic languages.  Learning new languages is fun in general, but I dig this whole stepping out of my linguistic comfort zone thing.  I think I’m getting to the point where I’m gonna need to by a grammar book though.  DuoLingo is shit at actually explaining things and Polish is too complex for the way that app works.  It’s useful and worthwhile, but it needs to be supplemented.  Not yet, but soon.

Finally made it back to the Yiddish schmooze last week.  Which obviously was just the best.  Yael was even there for a little while.  But there was this dude there I’d never met before, from Philly.  Nice enough chap.  Anyway, we’re talking and the conversation goes the way literally every conversation goes with a Yiddish speaker you’ve just met.  Where’s your family from?

So I’m like, “Ukraine on my dad’s side.  On my mom’s side, the shtetl is in Belarus today, but it would have been Poland at the time.”  And he’s like, “Belarus?  What region?”  What region?  What is this?  Like when I say I’m from New York and you want to know what neighborhood?  The Pale of Settlement was big, son.  So I shrug, and I’m like, “What do I know from regions?  I guess I could tell you the name of the shtetl though, for all the good that will do.”  So of course he wants to know.  And I’m like, “Oshmana.”  And get this.  Part of his family comes from there!  What are the fucking odds?  So now we’re talking about last names and the memorial book and did maybe some of our ancestors know each other.  That last bit was impossible to determine.

But it turns out the guy’s big on genealogy and has done all kinds of research on his family history including the genetic testing shit.  So we discussed my sending him some scans from the memorial book and maybe we’ll read some of that together.  But how’s that for a small fucking world? 

[Update: Since I started writing this, I went to another Yiddish meetup.  Just a fucking joy with these people.  By the end, we were five.  I was probably the oldest, but we were more or less in the same demographic; pushing either end of the Millenial spectrum I suppose.  Me, two girls from NY, a dude from Jersey and another girl from Berlin (all Jews except the German).  Everybody is at a high level.  I was probably the weakest speaker, but not prohibitively so; and I understood everything that was said. 

Anyway, we’re just sitting in this café, schmoozing and kibbutzing around.  And we get to a point where we all start telling jokes in Yiddish.  I heard some really great ones.  Plus I told a couple myself, which got their share of laughs, which was nice.  The thing is, I just felt so comfortable with these people.  No, ‘comfortable’ isn’t even the word.  ‘At home.’  Truly.  I’ve said this more than once, but there’s something very comforting to me in the sound of Yiddish.  The language is different, but the music of it, the rise and fall, the melody, the words that are stressed: this is how my dad speaks English.  Listening to them speak Yiddish feels like listening to my dad speak English.  Or to put it another way, even though my dad speaks English, the music of his speech is Yiddish.

Beyond that, there’s just the feeling of belonging, of (finally) being able to say shit that’s not just for you but which you know other people will understand.  A brief example.  So Jewish New Yorkers of my parents’ generation all have these stories of family vacations to the Catskills.  There, they’d attend some standup routines.  And they talk about how the whole joke would be told in English.  Until the punchline, which would come in Yiddish.  Their parents would all laugh uproariously, but the kids – my parents’ dor – would be completely lost.

Anyway, I’m telling this joke in Yiddish (though I’d heard it originally in English).  But the punchline must be in Hebrew (of course with the Yiddish pronunciation).  Because the punchline is actually the kaddish, the mourner’s prayer.  I won’t write the joke out here because it’s too long and anybody reading this who might get it has already heard it.  But the point is, I’m telling this Yiddish joke with a Hebrew punchline and it just landed.  It killed.  And there’s literally nowhere else in this city that I could tell that joke.  Simply impossible.  But here?  Finally people I could share this with!  ס׳איז געווען א מחיה.] 

New project with George.  I probably mentioned last year that he and Phil are putting together a scholarly edition of the epic Greek poem Frogs and Mice.  It’s basically a three hundred line (i.e. very short) epic that describes a battle between – you guessed it – frogs and mice.  It’s a fun little piece.  And last year, they asked me to do a proofread of their work.  Mostly just checking for obvious errors with the chance to offer feedback where I thought it appropriate.  They even paid me for it, which was pretty sweet.

Anyway, when we finished the Ajax, G and I were deciding what to read next.  We settled on more Sophocles; this time, the Antigone.  I’d read it in 9th grade English class (it’s often presented as a sort of proto-feminist work, which it kinda is), and it’s kind of a big deal.  So I was pretty excited about that choice.  But then he says, “Actually, Phil wants us to go through the Frogs and Mice together.  Line by line.  Really do a close reading of the translation, the footnotes, the commentary, all of it.”  It’s a big job, but rewarding.  It’s nice to contribute, even in a miniscule way.  And not for nothing, it’s pretty great that they trust me – trust my Greek – enough to do this.

I mean, yes, I did an MA in classics.  But that was ten years ago already.  And yes, I’ve been keeping up my Greek this whole time.  But I’ve been doing it on my own, at least until G and I started reading together about two years ago.  In any case, I’ve had no formal guidance for a long time.  Point being, this scholarly edition they’re working on, that’s gonna go out with Phil’s name in top billing.  That’s not nothing.  And look, I’m not the only third party they have working on this.  But the fact that he trusts me to work on this (twice now), well yeah, I’m pretty proud of that.  I have no idea how much, if any, of my input will make its way into the final edition.  But even if none of it does, it’s still a pretty good feeling. 

Let’s keep going with Greek.  NT now.  Yeah, this is gonna keep coming up.  So I’ve now read all of Matthew and Mark and have just started on Luke.  Each writer has their own style, their own voice.  So it always takes a bit of time to readjust.  Already Luke is different.  He’s got ‘songs’ and prophecies in verse.  And poetry is always harder, right?  But it’s not that hard.  This shit ain’t Theocritus is what I’m saying. 

But I have to say, the further I get into this book, the more I’m enjoying it.  For one thing, I’m just getting more and more comfortable with the Greek.  And let’s be honest, I kinda have a love affair with Ancient Greek.  Not that this high art or anything.  But it is fun.  Like, I’m reading it on the subway and I just can’t put it down.

In my previous posts, I’ve written about how fucking weird it is, with all the exorcisms and shit.  How weird of a dude Jesus is, with his parables and whatever else.  This time I want to try and be a bit more positive.  The truth is, it’s a good story.  Not, like, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” or anything.  But it’s a good story.  And like, when you get to the end – the end of Jesus, I mean – it is actually pretty moving.  Like, he does become this really sympathetic character, when people are all spitting on him and rubbing wine in his wounds and shit.  He might be more sympathetic if he wasn’t all, “No, it’s fine, because My Father probably knows what he’s doing and anyway I’m all like focused on the Kingdom of Heaven and shit.”  (I paraphrase).  So he’s not like a guy I’d want to be friends with.  But it’s pretty pathetic.  No, literally pathetic, as in: full of pathos.  It’s a good read.

So it works on a story level.  And even though I’ve just started with Luke, I feel pretty confident in saying he’s the best storyteller so far.  But it’s also super interesting on an academic level.  Well, I don’t know if ‘academic’ is the right word.  What I mean is this.  Jesus didn’t know he was a Christian.  Neither did Matthew, Mark or Luke.  They were just mixed up Yids.  (I gather John gets pretty antisemitic, but I haven’t got that far yet). 

What I’m trying to say is, there’s a certain freedom that comes with reading this as a non-Christian.  Like, I don’t believe that Jesus was moshiakh, much less the son of G-d.  This isn’t my holy scripture.  So I’m not concerned with reading it – here’s a fancy word – diachronically.  That is to say, I’m not (terribly) interested in reading this in terms of how it affects us today, how it informs the Christian faith through time and all that jazz. 

Rather, I’m much more interested in reading it – fancy word alert – synchronically.  That is to say, how it was understood in its own time.  Because at least so far as the ‘synoptic’ gospels go (MM&L), this is a story that’s written for Jews by Jews.  And when you read it that way, it’s super fascinating.  Like, there’s a lot we can learn about late Second Temple Era Judaism from this.  Which isn’t to say we (Jews, I mean) need to agree with it.  Just that we can learn something from it.

Let me give an example.  I don’t know about you, but growing up in, let’s say, a generally ‘western’ culture (interpret that as you will), I’ve heard the terms ‘Pharisees’ and ‘Sadducees’ bandied about.  Mind you, I never knew what those terms actually referred to.  But those were words that were not alien to me.

Well, I’ve since learned something about them.   Not from the NT, mind you, where they mostly just get shit on.  But basically it’s something like this.  The Sadducees were essentially the ‘priestly class.’  They ran the Temple, they had power, honor, prestige.  Also, depending on your point of view, they’d grown fat and happy by this point and were somewhat out of touch.  The Pharisees, on the other hand, were the forerunners of today’s rabbis.  When we think of Judaism today, what we really mean is ‘Rabbinic Judaism.’  When the Temple was destroyed, the Sadducees were basically out of a job.  The Pharisees (i.e. eventual rabbis) were the ones who kept the religion going by basically turning it into a life of study and adherence to laws (laws which they often prescribed themselves) as opposed to a culture based around bringing sacrifices to the Temple.  That’s a quick and dirty oversimplification, but it will serve the purpose. 

Anyway, Big J is often at odds with the Pharisees, calling them out on what he sees as their going off the path.  Maybe he has a point, maybe he doesn’t.  More likely, he sometimes has a point and sometimes is just off his rocker.  Who’s right and who’s wrong is, at times, beside the point.

The point is, if you read the NT not as ‘gospel,’ but as a version of history, you get this really neat window into the Judaism of the time.  From people who are, essentially, arguing about what it means to be Jewish.  Right?  I mean, it’s usually when J is arguing with the P’s that he cites Moses or other Tanakhic scripture.  “Moses taught us this and y’all are fucking it up.”  Are they?  I don’t even care.  The point is, Jesus is doing what any good Jew always does.  He questions and he argues.

And I think we can learn from that.  I think it’s kind of silly, honestly, that as Jews we’re perfectly happy to be ignorant of the NT.  I’m not saying we should study it the way we study Talmud.  חס ושלום.  But why shouldn’t we be well versed in the conflicts that were engulfing our people at this critical moment in time?  (And by ‘critical,’ I don’t mean the birth of Christianity, I mean the transition from Temple-focused life to study-focused life, rebellion against the Romans, loss of a homeland and diaspora, all that). 

Let me end this particular ramble with this thought.  Once during the Kollel, Jesus came up.  I no longer remember the context.  But it just so happens that my houseguest, The Ever-Positive, made some comment like, “Well, I think he was just a good teacher.”  And I thought was interesting, ‘teacher.’  Right, because Jesus gets referred to as lots of things.  And I’m willing to bet that, maybe, for most people ‘teacher’ is not the first word that comes to mind.  Yet (at least in M&M), whenever people address J, they universally address him either in Greek, as Διδἀσκαλε (Didaskale) or in Hebrew, as ῤαββί (rabbi); both of these words mean ‘teacher.’  And while I don’t personally think it’s his message we need to be learning as Jews, still I think we can learn something from him.  ABL, baby.  Always be learning.

Now, Taxi.  No, not taxis.  I hate riding in taxis.  I find it socially awkward, being stuck in a car with a complete stranger.  Same reason I hate going to barbers.  Nothing worse than being stuck in a chair with some rando holding scissors over your head.  Your choices are either awkward silence or awkward conversation.  In Chinatown, I always went to this little basement spot where they didn’t speak a word of English.  That was tolerable.  Also, it cost four bucks.  Here?  I just decided, Fuck it, I’ll cut my own hair.  As for taxis, beyond the social hell, I’m paying for a monthly subway ticket.  Every time I get in a cab, my next train ride is that much more expensive.  Plus, I’ve got two legs.  Usually I’d rather walk.

Yikes, that was a tangent.  Anyway, Taxi.  The TV show.  I’ve been working my way through the whole series over the last few months.  Man, what a great show.  What a great cast!  It’s amazing to me that Danny DeVito has had this second round of fame and acclaim playing Frank Reynolds on Always Sunny.  And fairly so.  He’s fucking brilliant.  But also, there’s not a lot of daylight between Frank and Louie DePalma, his character on Taxi.  And it’s just like, holy shit, this guy has been a fucking treasure for literally my entire life. 

Also, I just love listening to these people talk.  Many of them are NY/NJ natives – the actual actors, I mean.  And they sound like it.  Living in a foreign country, there’s something super comforting about listening to genuine, old-school NY accents.  Like, t’ank gawd for real fuckin’ English! 

Comforting.  I’m borrowing this word from Jared.  Because when I told him I was watching Taxi, that’s the exact word he used to describe it.  Said that when he was a kid, when he was feeling down or whatever, he’d curl up in his parents room and watch Taxi reruns and it just made him feel better.  Which I 100% get.  There is something very comforting about it. 

Maybe even moreso now than when we were kids.  I mean, today’s world…everything has to be fucking ‘artisanal’ or ‘curated.’  Everything has to be a big fucking deal.  Nothing can just be.  (Yes, I know.  ‘Old Man Shakes Fist at Cloud’).  But there is something oddly comforting about dingy old New York.  That run-down, late 70’s-early 80’s, Abe Beam-Ed Koch, Bronx is Burning Big Apple.  Like yeah, getting mugged on the subway was pretty much a fact of life.  But also, dive bars and unpretentious pizza still existed.  George Steinbrenner ran the Yankees (first to championships and then into the ground) like a fucking madman as opposed to the billionaire corporate overlords that ‘invest’ in teams today.  Also, my parents never drove me the 15 minutes to Coney Island when I was kid because that’s where people ‘did and sold drugs.’  So maybe it wasn’t always a גן עדן.

Also, can we talk for just a second about the absolute smokeshow that was late 70’s-early 80’s Marilu Henner?  Oh my god.  I didn’t even know they made women that hot back then.  Every time she comes on the screen, it’s just…wow.  Homegirl can rock a pair of jeans like no other.  Am I saying I’m totally crushing on a broad who was a knockout before I was even born?  I mean, I’m not not saying that…

[Note: This paragraph is mostly for Esma, who at dinner the other night, after declaring that Trevor Noah was basically the perfect man, asked me what broad I thought was ‘beautiful’ (or whatever word she used).  Well, here’s your answer]. 

Also, what must it have been like to watch Tony Danza play a character named Tony and not immediately think, “Can this guy literally only play characters named Tony?”  Oh, and also hot?  Carol Kane.  She fucking slayed in Kimmy Schmidt.  I mean, absolutely brilliant.  So fucking funny, you don’t even know.  In Kimmy Schmidt, though, she’s an old lady already.  But I’m watching that, and I’m like, “Wait a second, was Carol Kane hot when she was young?”  Well, having watched her in Taxi now, I can confirm: Yes, yes she was.  Just not, like, Marilu Henner hot.  I can’t even.

And lest we forget Christopher Lloyd.  My generation has this love affair with Back to the Future, right?  I mean, we just do.  We love those movies hard.  And we love – and absolutely root for – Michael J. Fox.  But we love us some Doc Brown, Christopher Lloyd.  We’re too young for Taxi to have that be the thing we know him from.  But he’s so great, Reverend Jim.  Just fucking brilliant.

So much more to say.  I guess that’s what happens when you take more than a month between posts.  Like, I gotta talk about Shanghai noodles.  That’s very important to me, believe it or not.  Yael invited me over to Shabbos a couple of weeks back and I may want to talk about that too.  On top of which, a former student – this Indian dame – invited me to a housewarming dinner (her and her husband just bought a place) along with one of her classmates.  That was a great night and there’s lots to say about that too.  Plus music.

And I guess that’s as good a place to stop as any…

זײַ געזונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
1 June, 2023

Originally written in early-mid May…

Hi.  First of all, how is it fucking May already?  Banana pants.  Anyway, here I am back in Berlin after five weeks of being, well, elsewhere.  Let’s see, I covered Paris in the last post.  Straight from Paris, I went home for two weeks, which was pretty great.  Generally, I don’t like to write to much about my stateside adventures, as that doesn’t really fit the ‘American in Berlin’ vibe.  Having said that, it was an excellent visit; the only downside being not having enough time and not getting to see all the people I wanted to see. 

After a brief 2.5 days back in Berlin, it was off to Italy.  I fucking love Italy, as you know from the last post.  What I don’t love is missing my flight, which happened.  What should have been three hours of travel turned into 13.  I don’t want to talk about it. 

Anyway, to start off, I had an evening in Rome to myself.  I was staying at an Airbnb hotel right off the central train station.  Clean, comfortable and with a strong wifi connection, I was able to teach my classes in the mornings, which was good.  Anyway, first night, I went in quest of dinner.  The goal, pasta all’ Amatriciana (or, in the Roman dialect apparently, just ‘Matriciana).  There was a list of recommended restaurants in my room, one of which was noted for its Matriciana; naturally I decided to go and find it.

But when I got there, there was a line around the block.  Hard pass.  Fortunately, on the way there, I had passed by a cozy looking place which marked Matriciana as one of their specialties on the chalkboard outside.  So I headed back to that place for dinner.  It was late by that point, so it was fairly empty.  Lovely little joint, friendly staff.

The food was excellent.  And cheap.  I got my pasta, an appetizer (fried zucchini flowers, yum), a glass of wine and a bottle of water, plus a grappa at the end, all for 33 bucks.  I was very happy.  Went back and read for a bit before bed. 

Next day, Joschka and Vinny arrived.  I had to work in the morning and Joschka had to work in the afternoon.  So I met Vin when I got done and we walked over to the Forum and the Coliseum.  I gave him a bit of Roman history, but he didn’t seem terribly interested.  Mostly we just talked about food, cooking, sports and politics.  All while trapsing around the Eternal City.  Obviously it was cool to be in Rome, but honestly, we could have been anywhere.  It was just good to catch up.

Once we’d seen everything there was to see – the above mentioned, plus a walk through ye olde Circus Maximus (now a park), we settled into some sidewalk joint for the obligatory Aperol Spritz.  As we were finishing our drinks, Joschka showed up, so of course we got another round.  From there, we made our way to a restaurant Joschka had found on some app.  The place looked amazing.  In the end, it was just alright and a bit over-priced.  But the atmosphere was nice and it was good to have a dinner out with the lads.

And it was good just to have the three of us together again.  For all the time we used to spend together in NY, and then later at the festivals, it’d actually been quite a while since the three of us were in the same place at the same time.  We fell into our usual shtick pretty much straightaway.  And we do have a shtick.  Vinny is the social misfit, I’m the clown, and Joschka is the proverbial ‘adult in the room.’  We laugh a lot. 

After dinner, we walked back to their hotel (they were splitting a room at a fancier joint) and had a beer at the bar.  Technically, the bar was closed.  But the dude at reception opened the fridge for us.  We chilled for a bit, but everybody was pretty tired, so we soon called it a night.

Next day, same routine: work in the morning for me, work in the afternoon for Joschka.  Vin wanted to see the Vatican, so we decided to hoof it.  I asked him if he cared which way we went; he said he didn’t.  So I took us on an out of the way ‘scenic route,’ in order to avoid crowds and tourists.  Had we gone in a more direct route, we could have got there in about 45 minutes.  In the event, it took two hours.  So of course Vinny had to bust my balls about that for the rest of the trip.

I didn’t care though, and neither did he in the end.  It was a beautiful day and a good walk.  We got to see a part of the city that was a bit off the beaten path and did indeed escape the crowds and tourists for a while.  Along the way, we stopped at a little café for the Aperol Spritz.  When we finally got to the Vatican, we just kinda hung out in the plaza (or piazza, I guess) in front of St. Peter’s.  Vin didn’t seem particularly impressed.  I guess he’s not much for architecture or history.  Didn’t matter.  As with the day before, it was good just to hang out and shoot the shit.

We had dinner reservations at some joint that’s apparently known for its carbonara.  For weeks leading up to this, me and Vin had been sending each other videos and recipes for various takes on this famous roman dish, so we were pretty pumped about it.  However, we got to the general area of the restaurant a bit early, so we sat down outside at yet another café for yet another Aperol.  As with the night before, Joschka showed up as we were finishing our drinks, so we snuck in another round before dinner.

Dinner also went about the same as the previous night.  The food was good, but overrated.  Vinny was clearly disappointed.  And again, it was probably overpriced.  But of course the point was just to have dinner out in Rome and hang with the lads.  So in that sense, mission accomplished.  After dinner, we had a nice long walk back to our hotels, more shtick included.

I forget which day, but me and Vin had lunch near the Trevi Fountain.  We got porchetta sandwiches which were honestly out of this world.  Crispy crunchy skin on the outside, succulent meat inside with delicious herbs wrapped into it.  Plus the bread was incredible.  The fat from the meat kinda cooked itself into the bread resulting in just the richest, tastiest stuff you can imagine.  Me and Vin (and later, me and Charlotte) just always marvel at Italian food, the way it’s so simple.  Just a few ingredients, but good quality, always fresh, and prepared with great care.  A little goes such a long fucking way in Italian cuisine.

If you’re not a philistine, that is.  See, what happened was, this American couple – in their 50s or 60s I’d guess – sits down at the table next to us, at the porchetta joint.  We didn’t interact with them, just, you could hear they’re American.  I’m sure they’re lovely people, whatever.  Anyway, at one point, the man goes inside.  When he returned to his seat, he must have said something to his wife, though I didn’t hear it.  But Vinny had this look of absolute horror on his face.  “Did you fucking hear that?” he whispers.  “Hear what?” I ask.  “This fucking guy just told his wife that they don’t put mayo on the sandwiches!  Can you believe that?  He fucking asked for mayo on her porchetta sandwich!”  Good grief, no wonder the world thinks we’re a stupid people!  Needless to say, we were shocked, outraged and more than anything, embarrassed.  Like, “Um, we’re not with them.”  I mean, I just got done telling you about this perfect sandwich, what the bread was like…and these clowns are asking for mayo.  I felt shame.

I can only hope that this was perhaps their first time in Italy.  I hope that when they finally got their sandwiches and tasted that culinary work of art, they looked at each other and said, “Oh yeah, now I see why they don’t do mayo.”  In which case, all is forgiven.  We all have to learn, right?  There’s no shame in that.  But if they bit into those sandwiches and said, “Yeah, it’s nice, but it’d be better with a bit of mayo…”  I shudder.

Anyway, that was it for the Vinny and Joschka portion of the trip.  It was short.  Too short, I dare say.  And yet totally worth it.  I wish the three of us could get together more often.  But getting together for a couple of days in Rome?  It could be worse.

I had one more day in Rome after they left.  Unfortunately, something I’d eaten the day before was playing the devil with my stomach and so I wound up just laying in bed all day, which is regrettable.  Silver lining-wise, I was able to get a fair bit of reading done, which I’ll come back to actually.

So that was Friday.  Saturday, I took an early train to Bari, where I was meeting Charlotte.  It was a four-hour ride, and for whatever reason, upgrading to first class was only an extra ten bucks.  Needless to say, I jumped all over that.  And it was so worth it.  First of all, the seats were mega comfortable.  Beyond that, the first class cars are organized with two seats on one side and only one seat on the other.  Naturally, I reserved myself one of those single seats.  In other words, I had a window seat and an aisle seat, all at the same time!  Plus, free tea/coffee/snacks.  Talk about riding in style.

So I met C in Bari, which was cool.  Just getting off a train in a foreign city and, oh hey, there’s my bestie.  We had about an hour to kill before our train to Lecce, our ultimate destination.  So we hung out on a park bench and she told me about her ferry ride, which she loved.  But whereas I did my ferry ride on the cheap, sleeping out in the open on deck with the friends I’d made on board, C had gotten herself an actual cabin.  It sounded like she enjoyed the hell out of the experience and had even made a friend of her own.  That made me happy, both for her to have that experience and also for me insofar as I’d recommended the ferry ride in the first place.

We get to Lecce and walk to our Airbnb, which we’d rented for the week.  It was a proper two-bedroom apartment, and it was just so nice.  Nice old fashioned, wooden furniture, clean, with a full fridge, kitchen and dishes.  We knew right away it would be a great place to spend a week.  We could cook, hang out, play dice, drink wine, work (good wifi again) but also have our own space.  Big win, that place.

And across the street was ‘our’ supermarket.  The name on the sign read “Mr. Mart.”  Cute, right?  Just a little grocery store really.  But like, a real mom-and-pop operation, had a real family-owned vibe to it.  And the people there were just so nice and friendly.  We were in there every day for something.  Sometimes just for some fresh bread or a bottle of wine, sometimes to get whatever we needed to cook dinner.  But we just loved going in there, loved interacting with the people in there.  Just good vibes. 

And our Italian got better by the day.  First day, we just muddled through in English as best we could.  But I immediately got to work on DuoLingo.  Plus, C had taken like three years of Italian in HS.  On top of which, it’s Italian, so it’s not that far off from Spanish or even French.  To be sure, Charlotte was much better with the language than me.  She could really manage things, whether with “the Marts” (as we called them) or with people at the train station or whatever.  But by the end, I was able to mangle some very basic phrases and ask for things without resorting to English.  I’m talking shit like, “One bread please” or “Do you have grappa?”  But hey, that’s more than I could do when I first showed up.

The first day, we just kinda explored Lecce.  The old town is cute, small, beautiful in the way that Italian towns are beautiful, with all the old stone buildings and gorgeous churches and whatnot.  We had an afternoon Aperol at a café sporting a pride rainbow in the window.  Everybody that worked there just looked cool.  Cool haircuts, cool dress, cool tattoos (not that I care for tattoos, but it fit their vibe; and the vibe was good).  Dinner continued the streak, in that we found a well-rated restaurant, but decided that the food was perfectly fine though nothing special and again overpriced.  But again, nice to have a dinner out on the town. 

From there, I get a little fuzzy on the chronology.  We made two day trips, one to the hilltop, walled town of Ostuni, the other to the coastal town of Otranto, which sports a castle/fort as its centerpiece.  I just don’t remember which days we went where. 

Ostuni was really cool.  We walked from the train station to the town itself, which was all uphill, so it was a bit of a hike, though an easy one.  The town itself was gorgeous, because Italy.  Another Aperol Spritz, if you’re keeping score.  And you know what, it’s fun to explore these little towns, to see new places, to say “Let’s go down that street,” just because it looks interesting or mysterious. 

In Ostuni, we stopped into a little gourmet shop.  I forget what we’d originally intended to purchase.  No wait, I do.  The one classic roman dish I didn’t get to eat in Rome was cacio e pepe, so I’d decided I wanted to cook that for us in Lecce.  So we went in to this little gourmet shop ostensibly to get pecorino and fresh pasta.  But once we were in there, we kinda couldn’t help ourselves.  In the end, we got the pasta, but also a little tin of local olive oil, some tomatoes, a jar of tapenade (I don’t know if that’s the Italian name, maybe it’s Spanish?  Anyway, olive paste/spread), some locally made capocollo (gabagool!) and some cheese.  The only thing was, they didn’t have fresh pecorino, so we had to settle for a bag of pre-grated stuff; which in the end was perfectly fine for the cacio e pepe.  But it was a fun experience.  We were like, “OK, so we just need x.  But actually, can we get some y?  Oooh, and z looks good, let’s have some of that too please.”  Tremendous.

And the lady in the shop was a doll, with pretty good English to boot.  At one point, we were like, “Can we please get some cherry tomatoes?”  She looks at her business partner (and possibly husband?) who shakes his head and says something in Italian.  And she’s like, “Actually, no you can’t.  See, tomorrow is a big holiday and there’s like a festival.  And we’re going to need all the cherry tomatoes for tomorrow, so we actually can’t sell you any today.”  Huh.  Unexpected, but fair enough.  “Well, alright, how about some of these other tomatoes?”  Again, she looks at Mr. Man who again shakes his head and say something in Italian.  And she’s like, “Well, we can sell you three.”  Huh.  Well, you’ve got a business to run, fair dues.  “Very well then, we’ll take three of your finest other tomatoes.”  Which she gladly gave us.  But then she asked if we were planning on coming to the festival.  And that was nice.  Because it didn’t feel like she was asking in a banal small-talky kind of way.  It had the feel of, “We’re proud of our festival and we’d be happy to share it with you, you’d love it.”  Which was super sweet.  But of course, we weren’t actually staying in Ostuni and so, sadly no, we wouldn’t be there to partake of the festivities.  But we’re sure as fuck looking forward to making an on-point apéro with this gabagool and cheese and whatnot.  Ten, maybe fifteen minutes in that little shop, but what a lovely vignette, ya know?

I don’t remember what we did the next day.  Perhaps we did some more exploring around Lecce?  In any case, I made the cacio e pepe.  Never made it before, but it came out pretty well.  From the videos I’d watched, I guess it could have been ‘creamier’?  No matter, it was delish.  And C declared that the pasta was cooked to perfection.  Not only that, but her skinny ass went back for a full bowl of seconds, so that was all the affirmation I needed. 

Such a simple dish, I will be adding it to my rotation going forward.  Simple, but not necessarily easy.  It’s sort of the epitome of what I mentioned before, in that it has literally three ingredients: Spaghetti, pecorino, pepper.  OK, salt and olive oil, but we don’t count those.  And when I say ‘not necessarily easy,’ what I mean is, it requires attention and care.  First things first, get your water going because you need your pasta cooking while you work.  Meantime, crack some fresh pepper[1] into the pan with a bit of OO to toast it up nice-like.  Next step, you’d be grating your pecorino, though as mentioned, in this case, it was pre-grated.  By now, your pasta should be almost but not quite al-dente. 

Pasta water is your friend, never forget that.  So reserve yourself a nice bowl of that starchy goodness before you drain the spaghetti.  Next, spaghetti into the pan, where it will continue to cook.  Now all you have to do is sprinkle in your grated cheese and spoonfuls of pasta water; this is your sauce.  But you can’t just dump it all in at once.  In that sense, it’s kind of like risotto.  You add a bit of cheese, a bit of water; stir, flip, however you roll.  A bit more cheese, a bit more water.  Rinse, repeat, capisce?  And feel free to add more pepper as you’re working.  Use your eyes, but also taste your work. 

Simple, easy.  But your full attention is required.  I said three ingredients, but really it’s four.  The fourth ingredient is – say it with me now – love.  You gotta be standing over the stove, constantly mixing in, watching the balance, tasting the result.  But in the end, you get there.  And when you do?  Mama mia!  We ate well that night, is the point.

Otranto is super fucking pretty.  You know that turquoise kinda blue you see on postcards from the Caribbean?  Well, that was the color of the water in the harbor of Otranto.  What a sight.  And the rest of it was, well, Italian.  Beautiful churches.  Holy fuck (erm, no pun intended).  We went into this church with an out of this world mosaic floor.  Like the whole fucking floor is just mosaics of bible shit.  And then the ceiling?  Just, wow.  I don’t know how to describe it so, um, follow me on insta?  I posted a long-angle shot from inside the church which, for me, the point of it was the mosaic floor.  But my cousin Fanny (who’s Italian nfn), was like “That ceiling tho!”  She ain’t wrong. 

There was also a chapel.  Lots of churches have little chapels in the corners.  (lol @ ‘corners,’ like that’s an architectural term.  Situated off the nave?  Under a flying buttress?  Parallel to a transept?  I know some words.  It’s possible I don’t know what said words mean).  Anyway, in one of these chapels, the wall panels are glass.  And what’s behind the glass?  Oh, you know, just skulls and bones and shit.  The technical term may or may not be ossuaries.  But it’s like, “Oh hey, what’s up statue of Mary standing atop an altar…in front of literally two dozen human skulls and a shit-ton of other human bones…just chillin’…behind glass…because…Jesus?”  But as a Yid, you kinda gotta feel like, “Eep, that’s gonna be awkward when Moshiakh comes.”  And then you remember that פאַר די גוים, he’s already come.  And also went?  And is coming back?  My head hurts.

The trip back from Otranto was…a trip.  So C looks at the train schedule and is like, “Shit, bruh, we gotta hurry.”[2]  Fair enough; nobody wants to miss the last train outta Dodge.  So we jog/power-walk (uphill) to the train station, where we still need to buy our tickets.  But due to our hustle, we arrive with minutes to spare.  How many minutes?  Depends who you ask.  When I tell the story, it was eight minutes.  When she tells it, it was four.[3]  So realistically, we had six minutes to spare.  And as she’s buying the tickets, homegirl is all, “Go to the platform!  Make sure the train doesn’t leave without us!”  To which I’m like, “Bitch, we got 8 minutes, what’s the rush?”  To which, she’s all, “Four minutes, asshole, tick-fucking-tock!”  Six minutes was plenty of time, is my point.  This from the guy who missed his flight.  Ain’t nobody perfect, is what I’m saying.

Anyway, we get on the train (with plenty of time to spare, thank you very much).  And as we pull out of the station, Dave does what Dave does.  Dave falls asleep.  Because when you put Dave in a moving vehicle, he falls asleep just as surely as a body will fall to earth at a rate of 9.8 m/s2 .  (Assuming said body is not a fucking feather anyway).  Anyway, Dave wakes up with maybe ten or fifteen minutes to go before arriving back home in Lecce.  And he wakes up to a rather disgruntled Charlotte, who is all, “This has been the worst train ride ever.  You have no idea, Dave!  First of all, this train is so slow!  Second of all, we’ve stopped at literally every station along the way!  And on top of that, when we stop, we stay at each station for like ten minutes!”  Well, she was right about one thing.  Dave had no idea.  Dave was sleeping.  For Dave, it was a most pleasant ride upon the railroad. 

I cooked one more dinner.  Maybe it was the next night, I’m not sure.  I don’t even remember what the main course was.  I just remember I’d done some kind of fried zucchini something as an app.  But C was hangry.  She was all standing over my shoulder and shit while I was trying to cook.  Being generally impatient and grumpy.  So that was interesting.  Because I was thinking, “Oh, we’ll have a nice night in and I’ll cook and we’ll eat and just enjoy being in Italy.”  And I guess, from her perspective, it was more along the lines of, “Me hungry!  Me want food!  Now!”  Which, hey, we’ve all been there.  #hangry

And that was perhaps not my very most favorite part of my week in Italy with my dear friend Charlotte.  But also, I’m gonna let this bother me?  Come on, I’m in fucking Italy!  So my attitude was, this is vaguely annoying, but also, Charlotte’s gonna Charlotte.  Whadya gonna do?  The nice thing was this.  After she got some food in her, Hangry Charlotte reverted to Normal Charlotte.  And she said something like, “That was not super nice of me.  But I’ll tell you what I appreciate.  I feel like with a lot of people, that would have escalated.  And you just let it be, and nothing negative came of it.  And that’s thanks to you.”  So that was nice to hear. 

But really, I know how I am.  I know the ways that I act out, the ways I get super grumpy and bitchy when I’m in a mood, be it from hunger or allergies or just my general impatience with all things.  I know what I put people through: the people who love me and care about me.  The shit I make them put up with.  My parents, my brother.  And invariably, they’re always like, “Well, yeah, you were kind of an asshole.  But also, we know you’re kind of an asshole in general, so we don’t take it personally.  Also, thanks for dinner.”  So I mean, come on.  If the people who love me are gonna be patient with me when I’m in a mood, that teaches me to be patient with the people I love when they’re in a mood.

Changing gears: Greek.  So I’m reading three Greek texts at the moment.  Ajax with George,[4] which he pointed out we started in “4Q21,” in other words, a year and a half ago.  I’m also reading the Odyssey with the Homeridai.  And most recently, the NT. 

Now here’s an interesting thing.  The NT, because of its (comparatively) low level of difficulty, combined with the way my edition is organized, is rather easy to read.  During my travels, I was reading it on trains and planes as well just sitting in bed.  Which means I’d gotten into the habit of reading a little bit every day, much the same way I used to read French every day when I had a regular commute to work. 

And I think it’s making me much better at Greek overall, even though (as George says) it’s just “Dr. Seuss Greek.”  But we all read Dr. Suess before we read Shakespeare right?  Except in Classics, where after two years of elementary study, they drop you straight into Xenophon or Herodotus (think Dickens or the like) or Lysias (think maybe JFK’s inaugural).  Like, what?  Maybe we should spend a year or two reading children’s books, just like in real life.  I mean, even when you learn a modern language, there’s a stage of progressing through graded readers and mid-level stuff before you get into proper literature.

Anyway, I feel like my Greek is suddenly much better.  Like, when I’m reading Sophocles with George…well, it’s still hard as fuck, and we need to look up many of the words.  But in terms of understanding how shit fits together, how thoughts are organized, I’ve noticed just in the last month or two that all of a sudden, shit is just clicking, coming to me more easily.  And that’s such a good feeling.  Honestly, I feel like this may be the best I’ve ever been at this language.  Praise Jesus?  Okay, that was weird to write.  But also, maybe a little.  Or at least, Matthew and Mark.  Anyway, it’s a small sample size, so let’s see if it holds up.

What I do know is this.  After blunt-forcing my way through Le Comte de Monte Cristo (which basically took an entire school year), I came out the other side just being able to read high level classic French lit and think nothing of reading that shit on the subway now.  Now, Greek is much harder than French.  But if after working my way through the whole NT (and this could also take a whole school year, even reading every day), wouldn’t it be something if my Greek hit some version of that level?  We’ll see.  But at the moment, I feel like I’m in a pretty good place with it.

As for the NT itself, some of this stuff is just plain weird.  First of all, there’s an awful lot of exorcism.  Did you know that?  I didn’t know that.  It seems like every time Jesus stops into a new town he’s exorcising demons from people.  Literally.  Which raises questions historical context-wise.  Like, did people in Roman Judea just take it for granted that demonic possession was a part of life?  Because none of these people in the NT seem to think it’s weird that they or their loved ones are possessed.  They’re just generally sorta annoyed by it.  And then Jesus shows up and they’re all, “Hey, so I heard you might able to do something about my daughter’s ‘situation’?”  And he’s like, “Well, I am the son of man.”

Which is also weird for me.  Isn’t he supposed to be the son of G-d?  He certainly refers to G-d as ‘my father.’  Here it’s worth noting that Greek has (at least) two words that can be translated as ‘man.’  One is ἀνήρ (anēr), which is literally ‘male-person,’ and whence we get the ‘andro-‘ prefix.  The other is ἄνθρωποϲ (anthrōpos), which is gender-neutral and is more accurately translated as ‘human.’  Anyway, Big J is always referring to himself as ὁ υἱοϲ τοῦ άνθρώπου – ‘the son of man’ colloquially, but perhaps more literally, ‘the son of humanity.’  I’m really not sure.  So I asked Josh about it (he knows about these things) and he said it may have something to do with being ‘god made human flesh.’  Well, alright. 

There’s one episode that showed up in Matthew and now again in Mark that I find particularly strange.  So the Pharisees (who it seems are the forerunners of our modern rabbis) ask him, “Hey, what’s up with your apostles?  How come y’all don’t wash your hands before you eat, as it is commanded.”  And it is commanded.  There’s definitely halakhas on washing your hands before meals. 

And Jesus’ answer seems to be just to play what-about-isms.  Like, “Well how come you guys take sacrifices which should be going to people’s parents?  Isn’t it also a commandment to honor your mother and father?”  Weird answer.  But it gets weirder.  Cos then Jesus is like, “It’s not what goes into your body that will make you impure.  Rather you should worry about the bad shit that’s in your heart that comes out of your body, because that’s what really makes you impure.”  I’m paraphrasing, obviously, but that’s essentially the argument. 

Also, the word I’m translating as ‘make impure’ is κοινόω (koinoō).  My book translates this as ‘make unclean.’  My actual dictionary gives ‘defile, make profane.’  Just to be clear on that, whatever it’s worth.  But anyway, what?  First of all, I don’t know about defiling or making profane, but the shit you put in your body can absolutely make you sick.  Even without germ theory, they must have known that, no? 

But more to the point, how are these things mutually exclusive?  Like, what does not talking shit have to do with washing your hands before you eat?  You can have both, is what I’m saying.  Like, is disavowing hygiene the hill you want to die on?  And the answer is apparently ‘no.’  I guess Golgotha is the hill he wanted to die on.  But you know what I mean.  Anyway, I just think it’s very strange. 

Anyway, when I was home, I was talking about this NT mishigas generally with Josh, who has a background in the stuff.  He said he’d be happy to do a little Zoom bible study here and there.  So I’ve been writing down some questions and observations.  When I have enough, I’ll reach out to him and see if we can have a chat. 

Because what I’m realizing is, I’m just reading this text on its own, as if it were any other book.  But of course these texts don’t stand alone.  There’s millennia of theology, dogma and exegesis that’s grown up around them, an entire context and world-view in which they’re understood by those who consider them holy.  I mean, it’s the same with our Jewish texts, right?  We don’t just have the Torah.  If you want to understand the Torah, you need the Mishnah, the Gemora and a whole host of commentaries.  Same with this shit.  So I’d be fascinated to discuss all this with someone who has the background, who has the context.  How is this shit understood by the people who consider it sacred?  That’s very interesting to me. 

Started work on Carsten’s new podcast project this week.  Such an easy guy to work with and he’s said more than once he genuinely likes working with me.  So this is a good thing.  When we had our prelim meeting to discuss the project, he mentioned (again) that at some point down the road, he’d like to make this whole podcasting thing his primary focus.  I took that as an opportunity to tell him that beyond working with him personally, I really quite like the work itself and would be very interested in going down that road with him.  He sounded glad of that and indicated that I could be his regular sound guy.  Obviously there’s quite a ways to go between here and there, but it would be pretty great if this were turn into something more regular and I could start replacing some of my English work.  Beyond simply paying better, in some ways I enjoy it much more than the repetitive grind of teaching. 

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’d ever want to give up teaching completely.  But if teaching could be the side gig and audio work the primary, that’d be pretty sweet I think.  Plus, it just fits my lifestyle better.  I took a late evening nap tonight, made a late dinner and got to work around 130am.  For me, that’s a helluva lot better than starting work at nine or even ten in the morning, right? 

Anyway, we’ll see where it all goes.  But for now, I’m just glad to have this work at the moment, since everything else teaching-wise is super fucking slow.  It’s kinda gonna save my ass this month.  After this month?  That’s a problem for future Dave…

Addendum, 1 June, 2023

Finished the podcast work.  Carsten seemed quite pleased with it.  An interesting project.  Without getting into too much detail, he went down to Africa (I want to say Kenya, but I don’t quite remember) to conduct a series of interviews.  Each episode consists of monologues from the people he interviewed interspersed with his own narration/commentary which he did himself in studio, back in Germany.

What made it interesting work was, each person he spoke with was in a different environment.  Sometimes outside on a city street, other times in a crowded room or hall, still another in a taxi.  There was even some excerpts captured from a radio broadcast; but not like a direct line from the radio, just out of the speaker in a living room.  On top of that, the interviewees were a mix of men and women, some with super low bassy voices, others rather high pitched. 

(All of them very pretty, I’d like to add.  I know it’s pretty ignorant to speak of ‘the African accent.’  Obviously there’s a host of African accents, each colored by the native language of the speaker; or if they’re native English speakers, then colored by their native culture/environment.  That said, if I may speak of an ‘African accent’ broadly, it’s one that I’m quite a fan of.  There’s just something very musical about it.  It made working with these voices a lot of fun).

Anyway, it made for really interesting work.  Particularly managing the environments.  For me, the trick was to eliminate as much ‘noise’ as possible while maintaining the ‘atmosphere,’ or what most people would think of as ‘noise.’  For me, ‘noise’ means things like hiss and hum and whatnot.  But there was a lot of ‘noise’ that was important to Carsten in terms of atmosphere: motorcycles passing by, glasses clinking, rain falling, birds chirping, etc.  So cutting as much noise as possible while maintaining the atmosphere all while getting the voices to shine, that was my job.  A fun challenge.  But I think I was pretty successful, in that Carsten seemed quite pleased.  “You can hear the voices so much better now!”  Or something to that effect. 

I also had the job of finding the appropriate (rights-free) music, which I then had to cut and stitch together to create an intro, outro, music to fit under his narrative bits, plus what he in his radio jargon calls a ‘stinger’ and a ‘drop.’  That was easy enough, if a bit time consuming.  But he seemed happy with that as well.  The only thing that didn’t really work out was, he asked for some kind of ‘wooshing’ sound effect, which I tried to create manually.  I didn’t love it.  (A Foley artist I ain’t).  I guess he didn’t either.  He never said anything negative, but in the end, I don’t think he wound up using it.  So that’s a skill I need to work on, creating sound effects. 

All in all though, a fun project.  Some good challenges too.  Really enjoyed it.  And I do think he was pleased with my work.  The only thing is, he said we should wait another week or so in case the client requests any changes.  But hopefully this is another step towards us collaborating again in the future.  Time will tell.

One last thing to cover.  I know, it’s a long post already.  But I haven’t written in a while, and it’s been a busy couple of months.  Anyway, my friend (and I’m pretty sure we’re proper friends at this point) and khavrusa partner, Yael, invited me to spend Shavous with her family.  That was pretty cool, and actually meant a lot to me.  I mean, Deb had me over for Passover a couple of years back, which was pretty great.  And Akiva, while he was here, had hosted some stuff.  But this felt a little different.  More serious.  I guess cos Yael and her fam are pretty frum.  So this was serious business for them and she wanted to include me.  Nice.

Anyway, to start with, she gave me the wrong address, and of course her phone was off, because Shavous.  So I tried different permutations (if that’s the right word) of the house building number she gave me until I found it.  But find it I did.  When I finally showed up, she was so happy.  “Ah, Dahvid! [her Italian accent, you know?]  I thought you maybe weren’t coming!”  And I’m like, “Girl, you gave me the wrong address.”  And she’s like, “Oh no!”  So we had a laugh about that.

So when I finally showed up, three of the four other guests were already there.  Three young ladies, in their twenties I guess.  One I’d met through Akiva in passing.  Another I vaguely know from the Kollel.  The third, I gather, was the gf of the second.  All nice enough.  The last guest was a young feller, apparently the boyfriend of the first girl.  A med student and also super-frum, he was an interesting cat.  Anyway, he showed up with Yael’s husband; they’d been at shul.  Once they arrived, we had dinner.  Dinner was very nice.  Good food.  They even had fish, which was nice surprise.  (Everybody’s so vegan these days, I just got used to expecting there not being meat of any kind).  After dinner, the two girls who were a couple departed.

Now, apparently, a tradition for Shavous is to stay up all night ‘learning.’  I didn’t know that until Yael told me a couple of days before and asked me to bring ‘something interesting,’ whatever that meant.  I did my ignorant best.  I’ll come back to it.

First up was the dude.  He wanted to discuss Song of Songs, which I’d never read.  Still haven’t.  Turns out the point was not to read it, but to discuss the particular aspects of it that he wanted to discuss.  I’m not complaining.  That was the point.  Just, I didn’t quite know that going in.  Anyway, it was the text itself and an associated page of Talmud, what he brought.

Next up was Yael’s husband, who also had a page of Talmud.  He wanted to discuss Song of Songs in connection with מתן תורה, the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  He also had some excerpts from Spinoza (in German) in connection with this. 

I want to say they were both interesting.  And to the extent that I understood what was going on, they were.  But both their presentations/discussions were in German, and at a very high academic level of German.  I was in over my head.  But I need that.  They asked if I’d prefer to do it in English, but I flatly refused.  I’ll never get better at German that way.  And I didn’t move here to do this shit in English.  So I just did my best to keep up.  But it was a struggle and a lot of shit just went over my head.  Well that’s how it goes.  The only way I’ll ever get myself up to that level is to just keep doing shit like this.

I was up next.  What I brought was not nearly so erudite.  I brought a passage of Josephus (a the Jewish-Roman historian from the 1st century AD), in which he talks about the sacrifices that Jews were bringing to the Temple on Shavous in his time and then contrasted that with what’s called for in the Torah; plus a bit of associated Mishnah.  Pretty sure I didn’t come off as an intellectual heavyweight, but at least it fit the spirit of things.  Plus it accorded in nicely with a discussion from earlier in the evening about traditions and how they change over time.  I felt a little self-conscious that what I brought was not up to the level of the shit the other two guys had brought.  But to their credit, they showed enough grace to take me seriously and treat me and my texts with dignity.  Like, even if I was clearly the lightweight at the table, they were careful not to make feel like it.  I really appreciated that.

The two fellas left shortly after 4:00 AM to go to Shul (again) and with them, the young man’s gf (to go home, I guess).  So then it was just me and Yael.  Which was nice, as it gave us a chance to catch up.  And when it was just the two of us, I felt much more comfortable.  Maybe because we were talking in English.  But also because she’s my (new) friend.  We talked about the Kollel (and she went out her way to say how much she likes learning with me; the feeling is mutual, I made it clear).  We also talked about Greek and Latin (did I mention she’s a Latin teacher and studied Greek in school?) and even theatre (apparently she’s done directing in the past; I told her about my experience as well).  We have so many shared interest and get along so well.  And we have the same ‘sensibility’ (her word).  I’m just so happy I found her.  She’s a special one.  I stayed for maybe another half hour or so before I finally left. 

A word on Yael’s husband.  I guess he’s ‘modern orthodox.’  I don’t know if he’d describe himself that way, but that was my read.  Anyway, just a lovely guy.  Warm, smart, funny, super learned.  But what I really appreciated was, he made me feel welcome in his home.  I mean, he’d never met me.  I was there on Yael’s invitation.  But he never made me feel like, “Well, I’ll make my own judgment about you.”  Right from the get, I had the feeling of, “Yael invited you and that’s good enough for me.  Glad to meet you.  Glad you’re here.”  When he left, I thanked him for including me and he was like, “Of course.  I hope you’ll join us again.”  Said I would be very happy to.  Which is obviously true.

Thanked Yael too, when I left, for inviting me.  And though she phrased it differently, the sense of her response was basically, “Are you fucking kidding me?  Obviously.”  Love it.

Apart from the end of the evening, when it was just me and Yael, it’s hard for me to say I felt like I was in my element.  It wasn’t necessarily an easy night.  But it was certainly כדאי, certainly worth it.  Learned a lot.  And just to be welcomed into someone’s home like that, it’s a good feeling.  Like when I visit C in France, or the peeps in Bavaria.  It’s not just visiting my friend, it’s visiting a whole family and being made to feel welcome.  Why this shit keeps happening to me, I have no idea.  Grateful, obvi.

The walk home was nice.  Y lives just down the main avenue from Joschka (and kind of around the block from Deb), so it was the usual 90m, 2-beer walk home.  Lovey weather, but this time of year, I had sunshine most of the way, which is just weird.  I’m not complaining.  Just a different experience.  I’m getting the hang of these walks though.  I know where I can get a beer at 4-5am.  I know the route that takes me past a (clean and free) public restroom just about halfway.  And at the end of it, Neukölln.  Civilization.  Such a simple thing, but I do love these long, late-night walks. 

And I guess that’s as good a place to end as any.  Stay tuned…
*Oh shit, you guys!  I just realized.  This is officially my 100th American in Berlin post!  Ain’t that some shit?!

זײַ געזונט

[1] Oh right, we also bought black pepper powder at the gourmet.  Ideally, you’d want full pepper corns that you’d grind at the time of cooking.  That said, the powdered stuff was top notch.  C commented that, despite being pre-ground, you could easily tell this was good fucking pepper.

[2] She probably did not call me “Bruh.” #poeticlicense

[3] And we did tell the story, to her friend Magalie, who joined us in Lecce on my last full day.

[4] Actually, we finally finished the Ajax this week!  I’ll talk more about our next project in a future post.

The Adventures of Col. Starrkin (ret.)

The Adventures of Col. Starrkin (ret.) #X
A Vaguely Star-Wars-ish Kinda Thing
Mostly for Dale

“Terribly sorry, Ma’am, but I’m afraid your security clearance is expired.”  The Imperial officer on duty, and thus presently in charge of checkpoint security, spoke confidently if politely to the woman whose uniform indicated the rank of Captain. 

“I’m sorry,” she said confidently if a bit arrogantly.  “And who are you?”

“I’m the officer on duty and thus in charge of checkpoint security,” answered the officer mechanically.  And then, snapping a salute, “Ma’am.”

“I can see that…Lieutenant.  I mean, what’s your name.”

“Moog, Ma’am.  Lieutenant Arthur Moog.” 

“Arthur?” repeated the woman.  “A strange name indeed.  What system do you hail from?”

“From the Kardoff system, Ma’am.  Third planet, tropical moon, to be precise, Ma’am.”

“Kardoff system,” repeated the woman.  “Never heard of it.”

“Respectfully, Ma’am, everybody’s gotta come from somewhere.  Ma’am.”

“Aren’t you a bit pale to be coming from a tropical moon, soldier?” asked the woman, considering the lieutenant’s skin tone.

“I’m from the Northern Temperate Zone, Ma’am,” replied the lieutenant crisply.

“I thought you said it was a tropical moon?”

“Sixty-two percent, Ma’am.  But as you surely know, according regulation 354651A, paragraph 27c, subparagraph 41f: ‘All planets and moons under Imperial jurisdiction are to be classified according to their dominant climatic zone.’  It’s in the handbook, Ma’am.”  The ‘handbook,’ which was 34 volumes in its most recent publication, was required reading at the Academy.

“I see you know your regulations, soldier,” observed the woman. 

“Yes, Ma’am,” declared the soldier proudly.  “Therefore, I trust you understand why I must not allow you entry given your expired clearance codes.  Regulation 887563 – “

“Don’t quote me regulations, Lieutenant!”  The woman glowered at the man of lower rank with the confidence afforded only to those who had earned the privilege of wearing the Imperial riding pants. 

“Yes, Captain,” acknowledged the lieutenant.  “Yet the captain must know that I am required to quote regulations.  Regulation 2348657R, paragraph 93j, subparagraph 4c clearly states – “

“I said, don’t quote regulations at me, lieutenant!” 

“Ma’am, yes Ma’am!” saluted the junior officer.  “Respectfully, Ma’am, I thought the captain was testing me.  Ma’am.” 

“Now listen good, soldier,” intoned the woman.  “I’m here an official business.  I bear strictly classified intelligence regarding the whereabouts of highly sought after Rebel scum.”

“Insurrectionist bastards, Ma’am.”

“That’s right,” agreed the woman, her tone softening somewhat slightly while her arrogance remained intact.  “Now suppose we were take this up with your commanding officer.  Or the commander of this entire base.  Do you suppose he’d approve of your denying entry to an officer of my rank bearing highly classified intelligence?”

She, Ma’am,” corrected the guard.  “Or has the captain forgotten that this base is under the command of Colonel Jayssin Blixnort?”

“And Jayssin is…a woman?”  For the first time, the captain with expired security clearance seemed somewhat unsure of herself.

“She prefers the pronouns she and her, Ma’am.  It was announced in last month’s Imperial Officers’ Circular along with her promotion.  Ma’am.”

“Yes, well,” replied the woman, regaining some measure of composure, “while you’re twiddling your thumbs reading the Imperial Circular, solider, I’m out in the field collecting intelligence on Rebel scum.  What do you say to that?”

“It’s not what I say, Ma’am,” answered the guard calmly.  “Regulation 354685R, paragraph 3554 – “

“What did I say about quoting regulations?” 

“Apologies, Ma’am.”

“As I was saying,” continued the woman.  “Do you really want to risk your commanding officer’s displeasure by denying entry to an officer of my rank bearing highly classified intelligence?”

“Certainly not, Ma’am,” replied the soldier.

“Then you’ll let me through?” 

“Of course, Ma’am,” nodded the guard.  “Naturally, I’ll have to report it.”

“You’ll do no such thing!  That would risk the security of the very intelligence I bear.  Now let me through!”

“Yes, Ma’am!”  The soldier snapped off another crisp salute before keying in the code which allowed the blast doors to open. 

As the woman began to step through those very blast doors, she froze.  In fact, the entire scene froze. 

“Don’t let the Rebels make a monkey out of you,” declared the narrator of the educational film.  “They are devious and will devise any number of absurd backstories to justify their nefarious misdeeds.  An Entire Death Star has been lost to less egregious negligence of duty.  Don’t let the Rebels make a monkey out of you!”

The lights came up, dimming the frozen image on the screen.  Colonel Starrkin moved to the front of the room and addressed the audience.

“Do you know why we’ve just watched this film?”

“No, sir,” answered Reg.  “Though I suppose it’s to do with a regulation?” 

“What doesn’t have to do with regulations in this Empire?” groused Nick under his breath.

“Too right,” nodded Mick, sitting beside him.

“Security has grown lax on this base, Gentleman,” declared Starrkin, choosing to ignore the soldiers’ grousing.  “Why, just the other day, I discovered a pizza delivery man in Ops.  How could something like that happen?”

“I reckon Ops had probably ordered a pizza, sir,” opined Nick.

“You reckon,” repeated the colonel icily.  “And what if it had been a ploy?  All pizza delivery persons are to be detained at Exterior Reception where the pizza in question is to be picked up by the ordering party.  I trust I don’t need to quote the regulation?”

“654324681S, paragraph 46Y, subparagraph 7d,” intoned Nick, Reg and Mick mechanically.

“Well, that’s marginally reassuring anyway,” mumbled Starrkin to himself.  “But if you know that, why was the man granted entry?”

“Well, sir, it was mainly the weather,” replied Mick.  “It was raining outside.  Acid rain, sir.  And well, it just didn’t seem to fit the spirit of Imperial Dignity to make him wait out in the elements.  And once inside, I suppose I…I mean, whoever was on duty…I suppose he just figured the boys in Ops would appreciate getting their pizza while it was still hot.  Sir.”

“And if that pizza had been a bomb?” asked Starrkin.

“Ops is heavily shielded, sir,” suggested Nick.  “The damage would have been locally contained.  Secondary Ops would have taken over and the galaxy would be minus one Rebel scum.  Sir.”

“I feel like you’re missing the point,” sighed the colonel.

“Respectfully, sir, what is the point?” asked Reg timidly.  “I mean, regulations aside – “

“This is the Galactic Empire, soldier!” hissed Starrkin. “Regulations are never aside.”

“Granted, sir,” continued Reg.  “But regulations…momentarily on hold…suppose it wasn’t a bomb.  Supposing it was just a pizza.  Sir.”

“And what if the pizza were just a means of ingress?”  The colonel was losing his patience.  “What if he was a spy?  What if he saw The Big Board?  Even now, he could be reporting his findings to Rebel High Command.” 

“Oh, I wouldn’t be too worried about that, sir,” offered Reg.  “Ever since the Death Star Incident, we’ve done away with exhaust ports entirely.  All waste material – solid, liquid or gas – is now recycled on-base.  In addition to removing the infinitely small and yet somehow regularly dooming security risk, it’s a more sustainable model.  The Empire is stronger, and greener, for it.  Sir.”

“Still.”  Colonel Starrkin was reaching his limits.  “He might have obtained the locations of our fleets.”

“Respectfully, sir,” countered Reg.  “Those are easily obtainable with the naked eye.  Hard to hide a Star Destroyer, innit?”

Colonel Starrkin grabbed at the flares of his riding pants in frustration.  He appreciated the reasoning abilities of the men under his command.  He really did.  But why couldn’t they follow regulations?  After all, what was the Empire without regulations?  The answer, of course, was Bureaucracy.  Glacial, sclerotic, suffocating Bureaucracy.  That was what the Empire was founded on.  But it was regulations that allowed the bureaucratic machinery to function at its glacial, sclerotic, suffocating pace.  If only they could see that.

“Let’s just watch the rest of the film, shall we?”  With that, Colonel Starrkin dimmed the lights once more.  The scene cut to an Imperial holding cell.  There sat the same woman, still in her uniform, upon a bench, her head in her hands.  A moment later, the blast doors wooshed open.  The security guard, Lieutenant Moog, entered.  He was wearing the perfectly pressed, Hugo Boss inspired, all-black uniform of Imperial Intelligence.  He was also wearing a smirk.

“Well, Captain,” he announced, hands folded behind his back.  “You said you’d like to take this up with my commanding officer.  It seems now you’ll have your chance.”

Just then, the doors wooshed open again.  A new man entered the scene.  The insignia on his grey uniform indicated that he was a Good Moff, one rank junior to that of the galactically feared Grand Moff.  Good Moffs, it should be noted, were feared mostly on a system-by-system basis.  Unfortunately for the captive, she had the misfortune of being in this particular Good Moff’s system.  She dutifully shuddered.

“So,” said the Moff coldly.  “This is the woman who tried to gain entry on expired security clearance?”

“Yes, sir,” replied the guard stoically.

“And she suggested that you take the matter up with me, your commanding officer?  Implied that I would be most unhappy with you if you detained her?  On account of the highly classified intelligence which she purported to bear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You did well to inform me, lieutenant.”

“Yes, sir.  Thank you, sir.”

“Now then,” smiled the Good Moff, turning his attention to the prisoner.  “You say you have highly classified intelligence regarding the whereabouts of certain Rebel scum?”

“FLVEO,” declared the woman, meeting the Moff’s intense glare.

“For Lord Vader’s Eyes Only,” repeated the Moff.  “How convenient.  Yet Lord Vader has not been aboard this base in eight months.  Strange that you should bring it here.”

“Those were my orders,” shrugged the woman.

“The very same orders that provided you with outdated security codes?  I find that hard to believe.”

“They um…,” the woman gulped, searching for an answer.  “They – my superiors, I mean – they feared lest I be captured with current codes…they might fall into Rebel hands.” 

“And just who are your superiors?”

“I don’t know them by name.  That’s not how our Division work.  We operate by a series of dead-drops and – “

“I’ve heard enough,” declared the Good Moff.  “Lieutenant, your firearm.”

“Sir?” hesitated the lieutenant.

“Your blaster, son.”

“Sir.”  The soldier handed his weapon to his superior.

The Moff accepted the blaster from his junior and leveled it at his prisoner.  Without hesitation or preamble, he fired, shooting her instantly dead.  The body slumped over and fell to the floor.  The Moff’s nostrils flared at the scent of burning flesh as he handed the weapon back to its owner.

“I’ll see that you receive a commendation for this, lieutenant.”

“Sir?” queried the soldier as he re-holstered his sidearm.

“You followed regulations to the letter, my boy,” smiled the Moff.  “An unknown person sought entry to this base by means of expired security codes.  She then attempted to frighten you by threatening to bring the matter to your superior officer.  You called her bluff.  This is a good day for the Empire.”

“Thank you, sir.”  The lieutenant neither saluted nor sought dismissal.

“Is there something else, lieutenant?”

“Permission to speak freely, sir?”

“You’ve earned it,” nodded the Good Moff.  “Go ahead.”

“Sir, regulations and procedures were correctly followed, as you have stated.  Yet her claims to be bearing intelligence were never investigated.  How do we know that we have acted correctly?”

“How old are you, soldier?”

“Twenty-two, sir.”

“That young,” nodded the Moff.  “Not an unfair question from one your age.  Simply put, we know that we have acted correctly because we have followed regulations.  It’s really that simple.  Yet, if it will make you feel better, you may search the body.”

“Sir, yes sir,” saluted the lieutenant.  Then, in a way that demonstrated utmost respect for the dead woman’s corpse, he performed a thorough search according to Imperial Regulations.  When he reached her final pocket, he paused.

“What is it, lieutenant?” asked the Moff.

“Sir,” he said, rising to his feet.  “It’s a data stick.”  He handed the device to his superior.

“And you fear that this might be the intelligence she spoke of?”

“The thought had crossed my mind, sir,” nodded the soldier.

“Yet it may also be a virus, with which to bring down our defenses.  Nevertheless, I shall personally bring it to Lord Vader.  He’ll know what to do.”

“To…Lord…Vader?”  The young man gulped.

“Well, she did it claim it was FLVEO, did she not?”

“Still, sir,” offered the lieutenant timidly.  “Lord Vader is most…unforgiving.”

“By which you surely mean, most…exacting in the following of Regulations,” corrected the Moff.  “And I shall pretend that that is what I heard you say.”

“Thank you, sir,” whispered the terrified young man.

The scene froze again before wiping to a new one.  Now the Good Moff was standing at attention in Darth Vader’s personal chamber upon his personal Super Star Destroyer.  The Moff’s hands were clasped behind his back, clutching the data stick.  The flares of his riding pants flared proudly at his hips.  As for Lord Vader himself, he swiveled in his throne to face the Systemarch.

“I have read your report,” breathed the Sith Lord menacingly.  “You have done well.  You have followed Imperial Regulations expertly.  The lieutenant under your command has likewise acted with distinction.  This speaks well of your command.  You and your men are a credit to the Empire and all for which it stands.”

The Moff stiffened his back proudly.  For a moment, he considered correcting Vader’s comment regarding the ‘men’ under his command.  For he was one of the more progressive Moffs in the Empire.  Not only did men serve under his command, but so too did women, the gender neutral, the transsexual, the altogether non-human.  Indeed, he counted himself among the few who were actively agitating for the recognition of Droidal Rights in light of their – to him – obvious sentience.  Yet Lord Vader’s archaic conservatism – his strict adherence to ‘the old ways’ as he called it – was well known to all.  And so the Moff simply nodded, silently.

“As to the claims made by your now – correctly – deceased prisoner,” intoned Vader, “we shall soon to their veracity.  I trust you have brought the data stick you recovered?”

“Of course, m’Lord,” replied the Moff, raising his right fist.  “It’s right here.”

“You may approach,” declared the Dark One.

“Respectfully, Lord Vader,” gulped the Moff.

“Yes?  Speak.”

“My Lord, in an effort to save you time and, er, effort…”  The Moff was suddenly terrifyingly unsure of himself.

“Go on, Good Moff,” hissed Vader mechanically.

“For your convenience, Lord Vader,” gulped the Moff.  “I have taken the liberty of reviewing the data myself and it seems – “

“You what?”  The lights on Vader’s breastplate flashed from green to red.  Long a topic of Imperial scuttlebutt, nobody was quite sure what those lights were meant to indicate.  Yet it was generally agreed by all throughout the Empire that, when one was granted an audience with the presumed Last Jedi, red lights were not a good sign.

“Well, m’Lord.”  The Moff grasped helplessly at the flares of his riding pants.  Then he pulled at his collar.  Could it be that he was having trouble breathing?  He knew that Lord Vader was quick to anger, but he tried to tell himself it was just nerves.  After all, his master had not raised his black-gloved hand, let alone made the mortal sign of touhing his robotic index finger to his mechanical thumb.

“Speak,” intoned His Impatientness.

“Lord Vader,” whispered the Moff, trying anew.  “I know that thou hast much upon thy sithly plate, what with the Rebellion and the hunting of the Jedi and – “

“You wrote in your report that the captive claimed her intelligence was FLVEO, did you not?”  Strangely, disconcertingly, there was not a hint of anger or wrath in the mechanical voice.

“I did, Lord Vader.  But sensing a Rebel plot, I simply – “

“Went over my helmet,” concluded the Sith Lord.

“More to the side?” tried the Moff, using all his strength not to wipe away the sweat of his brow that was now irritatingly dripping into his eyes. 

“Most strange,” mused Vader almost to himself.  “Given the repute of your command for the impeccable following of Imperial Regulations, I would never have supposed that you might dare look upon information coded as FLVEO.  I trust you are familiar with Imperial Order Number Four?”

“All information coded as FLVEO is for Lord Vader’s Eyes only,” quoted the Moff, whose training had not, even in this dire moment, failed him.

“Very good!” exclaimed Vader in a voice that, for him, nearly passed as joyful.

“But if my Lord will permit me,” begged the Moff.

“Your Lord permits it.”

“If it had been a Rebel plot, the coding would have been fallacious.  In which case, no regulation would have been transgressed.”

“This is true,” mused Vader.  “Yet, I deem you have taken a great risk.  For if it had not been a plot, if she really were an agent of Imperial Intelligence, you would have seen that which is forbidden to you.  And that carries a most weighty penalty indeed.”

“Respectfully, Lord Vader, I would have stopped reading at the first indication of – “

“You miss my point, Good Moff.”  Vader was waxing philosophical now.  “You are a risk taker.  And the Empire is no place for risk takers.  The Empire is a place for rule followers.  Regulations are imperative.  Regulations are what allow the Bureaucracy of Empire to function in the glacial, sclerotic and Byzantine way in which we have brought the entire Galactic Galaxy to heel.”

“Byzantine?”  Did not Imperial Dogma clearly state ‘glacial, sclerotic and suffocating

“It is a word of my own device,” declared Vader.  He might have shrugged, but if he did, it was lost in the folds of his cape.

“A fine word, my Lord,” genuflected the Moff.

“And one of the last which you will ever hear, I’m afraid.”  With that, Vader raised his black-gloved hand, touching his robotic index finger to his mechanical thumb. 

The Good Moff gasped.  He reached for his collar, tugging at it helplessly.

“And now you will pay the price for your insolence,” declared the Sith Lord.

“I…I was only…trying…to be helpful…”

These were the dying words of the Good Moff as he collapsed to the floor.

“You can be helpful,” hissed Vader, “by following the Imperial Regulations!”

Then, to the surprise of all watching, Vader turned to face the camera and, in so doing, broke the fourth wall.

“You too can be helpful.”  His words took on a soothing quality.  “All you have to do is follow Imperial Regulations.  Help the Empire!  Follow Regulations!”

The screen faded to black.  A moment later, the lights came up and Colonel Starrkin was once more standing at the front of the room.

“Any questions?”

“Just one,” said Nick, raising his hand.  “Was the data really intelligence or was it actually a Rebel plot?”

“You’re missing the point, mate,” hissed Mick, elbowing him in the ribs.

“More to the point,” continued Starrkin through gritted teeth.  “What have we learned from this educational film?”

Reg raised his hand.


“Not to let the pizza bloke onto the base?”

“I mean, yes,” exhaled Starrkin, closing his eyes.  “Anything else?”

“That we’re to unthinkingly follow Imperial Regulations in every instance, no matter how counter-productive it might seem in the moment?” 

“Thank you, Nick,” exhaled the colonel.  “Yes, that was the lesson of this film.  Dismissed!”  With that, Starrkin exited the briefing room, visibly exhausted.

“Tell ya what I think, mate,” said Mick softly as the men filed out.

“What’s that, Micky?” asked Reg.

“Probably best if we just don’t order any pizzas for a while, innit?”

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
25 February, 2023
American in Paris Edition

Welp, I’m off to Italy in a few hours.  It’s just after 3am and I have to leave here sometime around 530 for any early flight.  At this point, it doesn’t really make sense to sleep, so I figured I’d catch up on a bit of writing.

A while back, when Jan and Zibs were visiting me in Berlin, we hatched a plan to all meet up in Paris, and to try and rope Anne in on the deal.  Well, we did that at the beginning of April.  It was a short visit, only three days for me.  But it was a good time.  I mean, fucking Paris, right? 

J&Z found themselves a hotel in the neighborhood of Les Batignolles, which I want to say is the 17th arrondissement (but I’m too lazy to look it up).  In any case, it’s in the NW quadrant of the central city, not too far from Montmartre.  I’m not entirely sure as to how they settled on that particular part of town, but I figured it made sense for us to all be in the same general area.  With that in mind, I booked myself a little Airbnb apartment not far from where they were staying.

The first night, we decided to just walk around and look for a restaurant that seemed nice.  Which was not too hard to find.  Because fucking Paris, right?  Anyway, the first place we stopped into was full, so we kept moving.  The second place, though, had a table for us despite not having reservations.  Name of the joint: Comme chez Mama [Just like at Mom’s]. 

Anyway, we step inside and of course J&Z are expecting me to do all the talking.  Because apparently I can French, right?  Well, alright, I’ll do my best and hope I don’t embarrass myself in front of my friends.  So, we go in and I’m asking the waiter if he has room for three, no we don’t have reservations, this table will be fine thanks; all in French right?  I’m helping them with the menu.  And in the end, I wind up doing all the ordering for the table; again, in French.  At this point, Jan is like, “Damn, Dave, I’m impressed.  You can actually do this whole French thing for real.  Points to you.”  And I’m like, “Are you fucking with me?”  Because while, yes, I’d just done all that, I did sort of feel like I was speaking at a fourth grade level.  I was getting by, no doubt, but ideally I’d like to a do a little better than ‘just getting by.’  But no, he was serious.  So that was kinda cool.

And now, an unexpected detour into the world of professional wrestling.  It doesn’t really exist so much anymore, but in the old days of regional feds and before national television, there was an aspect of professional wrestling called Kayfabe.  Kayfabe basically meant, whatever your character was inside the ring, that’s how you were supposed to act outside the ring.  Reason being, to maintain the illusion of reality.  For example, if you played a heel (bad guy) in the ring, then you would be mean to the children asking for your autograph, so that they would believe you really were a bad guy.  In those simpler times, it lent an air of credibility and excitement to the experience.  Like, wow, that guy really is a bastard!  Boo! 

As such, the last thing a wrestler wanted to do in those day was to ‘break kayfabe,’ to show themselves in real life to be different from their in-ring personae.  Because if you broke kayfabe, the whole illusion shatters, right?  How can you boo the guy who’s being nice to children or having a pleasant evening out with the family at a restaurant?  And wrestlers took this really seriously back in the day.  Like, one of the worst things you could do as a professional wrestler was to break kayfabe. 

Think of André the Giant.  Later, of course, we would learn that he was an extremely kind, gentle and generous man.  But for most of his wrestling career, there was no daylight between the invincible monster he played in the ring and the man you saw outside the ring.  The guy was so big and so strong, nobody was ever really sure if he’d go along with taking a loss; nobody could force him to, after all.  And he totally played into that mythology.  In real life, he was too decent a man to go against an agreed outcome.  But he played the role in such a way that nobody could ever really be sure.  André did not break kayfabe.

So why am I talking about kayfabe in the middle of recounting this tale of dinner at a Parisian restaurant?  Well, I walk in and start speaking French to the waiter.  Of course he knows I’m not French, between my accent and just general shitty grammar, syntax and usage of idioms.  Maybe he spots me as an English speaker, or maybe he just spots me as some kind non-native speaker in general.  But the point is, I walk in playing the character of a person who speaks French.  And for his part, he plays along.  He only speaks to me in French.  Maybe he doesn’t speak English.  Maybe he figures, hell, it’s my country, why shouldn’t we be speaking French if this clown can halfway manage it?  Maybe he doesn’t think about it all.  But again, the point is, he’s playing the character of a waiter who doesn’t need to speak anything but French.  Fine.

But of course, at the table, the three of us are mostly speaking English.  And it’s a small room, the waiter is everywhere.  He surely overhears us.  And at some point, Ziba is like, “You know, I think this guy speaks English.  I’m pretty sure I saw him smiling at that last funny thing we said.”  So she decides to test it.  She waves him over and orders water or something in English.  And straightaway, the guy is just talking to her in English.  So it turns out he could English all along.  Not only that, his English is, if not better than my French, certainly more confident and comfortable.  Great.

So just like that, Zibs broke my kayfabe.  And his kayfabe.  Kayfabe was broken.  From that point on, it felt silly to try and speak French with the man.  We’d outed ourselves as English speaking tourists and outed him as a perfectly competent English speaker.  The illusion was shattered.  I wanted to tell her, “Good job, Zibs.  You broke kayfabe.”  But she wouldn’t have known what the hell I was talking about and I didn’t want to explain it.  So I let it go.  Anyway, yeah.  Kayfabe.

In any case, dinner was excellent.  Because of course it was.  Because fucking Paris.  Me and Jan split something like a French porterhouse.  Côte de beouf, I guess.  Gorgeous.  For an appetizer, we got this ham-wrapped asparagus in an avocado sauce that was out of this world.  We had a bottle of wine.  I got a glass of Armagnac for desert.  It was one of those places with a tiny little menu.  But because there’s so little on offer, you know each dish is just gonna be slammin’.  And everything we had was indeed slammin’.  And this was just some random restaurant we happened to walk into.  Fucking, and I cannot stress this enough, Paris.

The next day, we met up with Anne.  We had lunch at a Chinese joint called The Dancing Noodles.  Well, it had a French name, but I forget it.  That was also excellent.  From there, we walked around Montmartre, stopping at a café for afternoon drinks on the sidewalk.  This before going back downtown to a bar for more drinks, where Anne’s bestie and also her boyfriend met up with us.  Then we finished up at a sort of chain, casual restaurant.  Beouf bourguignon for me; yum.  And of course more drinks.  We talked, we laughed.  Good times were had by all.  And it was great to have the old gang back together for an evening.  These are, as you know, three of my very most favorite people.

Day three, and it’s just me, J&Z again.  Mostly a sightseeing day.  We walked around the grounds of the Louvre, strolled the island whereon sits Notre Dame and just generally promenaded about.  I wound up assuming the role of quasi-tour guide, on account of their never having been there before.  And by now, I kinda now my way around the heart of the city in a very general kind of way.  So I was able to do a bit of, “Let’s turn left here; we’ll get a nice view of x if we take this street; down that way you can see y.” 

Again, Jan was seemingly impressed.  “Damn, Dave, you really know your way around Paris.”  I played it cool.  “Meh, I’m a man of the world, squire.”  You know how it is.  But of course, it was just last spring that I’d met the Morgensterns and Monica in Paris and had done quite a bit of walking around and exploring on my own.  In other words, the memories were still fresh.  So I was able to make it look like I knew what the fuck I was talking about and whither I was leading us.  Still though, it was kinda cool to be able to show my friends around Paris a little bit and make it look good, you know? 

Anyway, by early afternoon, those two were feeling pretty tired and wanted to take a train back up to our neck of the woods.  Walking would have meant another half-hour or so.  And we’d been walking all day.  Personally, I’d have been very happy to hoof it.  But I forget that most people don’t like to – or aren’t used to – walking the way I do/am. 

One example to illustrate that point.  Sometimes people ask me if the school where I work is far from my apartment.  I tell them it’s actually pretty close.  In the morning, I’ll take the train and it’s barely 20m.  In the afternoon, if it’s not raining or snowing, I’ll walk home.  After all, it’s ‘only’ 90m.  Which, for me, is nothing.  I’ve got music, I’ve got podcasts.  Plus, it’s Berlin, so probably I’ve also got a beer.  What could be better than a 90m walk home?  Is how I see it.  But when I tell that to people, they’re always kinda shocked.  “Ninety minutes?  That’s a short walk for you?”  Well, maybe not short.  But certainly easy, pleasant, something to be enjoyed; looked forward to, even.  I guess that’s just me.

And I forget that sometimes.  So when J&Z were like, “Our feet hurt, let’s get a train,” my first reaction was, “What on earth for?”  And then I was like, “Oh, right.  Yeah, okay, let’s do it.”  We got dinner at some South American restaurant of all places (I forget which country).  Didn’t matter, food was still great.  And that was that.  That was Paris.  Tremendous.  And just, I kinda love living in Europe.  Where you can just call up your friends and say, “Hey, you guys wanna fuck off to Paris for a few days?”  “Sure, let’s do it!”  That’s the life, brother.

And in a few short hours, I’ll be fucking off to Rome.  Fucking Rome, you guys.  Originally, I was just supposed to be meeting Joschka and Vinny for a couple of days.  And indeed, I’m kinda excited about meeting Vinny in his ‘old country,’ you know?  We’ve been discussing the carbonara we’re gonna eat for weeks now.  Unfortunately, the three of us will only be together for two days, which is not nearly enough.  But I’m sure we’ll make the most of it. 

On my end though, it seems kinda silly to fly down there for only two days.  I mean, fucking Rome, right?  The last time I was there was in 2003, when I was doing my semester in England.  And let me tell you, it was a pretty transformative experience.  That was my first time travelling alone in a foreign country, for one thing. 

But it also jumpstarted my love affair with modern languages.  At that point, I’d only just been introduced to the Greek texts (in English) that made me want to learn that language.  But I hadn’t even taken my first steps in that direction yet.  I’d taken years of Spanish in middle and high school and didn’t enjoy it all.  But when I got to Italy, that was the first time I fell in love with a foreign language.  I wanted to learn Italian so badly.  It was musical, mysterious, exotic, exciting.  All the things a language should be, right?  For the first time in my life, I wanted to learn a foreign language.

Meanwhile, here I am, exactly twenty years later.  French, German, Yiddish, Greek, Hebrew, some bullshit smatterings of Latin and Aramaic.  And still, Italian eludes me.  Che cazzo, is what I’m saying.  And possibly porca miseria.  And that, right there, is fifty percent of my Italian.  ‘What the fuck?’ and ‘Miserable swine.’  But I can also say ‘thank you’ (grazie) and ‘excuse me’ (scuzi).  I guess it’s a start.

Anyway, two days is not enough for the eternal city, so I’m going to go down a day ahead of them and stay a day after.  That’ll give me at least a little time to enjoy the city on my own, which’ll be nice.  And that would have been it.  Just a short visit.  Except for one thing.  Fucking Charlotte.

See, it seems homegirl is, even now, making her way back to France from the Orient, or South Pacific, or wherever the fuck she’s been for the better part of the last six months.  And it just so happens, she’ll be sailing into Italy just as Joschka and Vinny are leaving.  And I do mean sailing.  Or steaming.  Or Dieseling.  Whatever.  The point is, she’s taking a ferry over from Greece to Bari.  Which was actually my suggestion, as I’d made the same journey in reverse back in 2010 when I myself visited Greece.  I told her it was a great experience and a fun way to travel, so she signed up for it.  I’m looking forward to hearing about it.

Anyway, we decided to rent an Airbnb in southern Italy for a week, because why not, right?  We’ll be in a town called Lecce, in the region of Puglia, which is the heel of the boot so to speak.  I don’t know anything about the place other than the pictures I googled, but it looks just lovely.  So I’m looking forward to that, it goes without saying. 

Plus, traveling with C is always a good time.  We had that Great Western Roadtrip.  We’ve been to Brussels, Prague, Saxony, Copenhagen, all over the south of France, plus Berlin and New York together.  We travel well together, which is not something one should ever take for granted.  So yeah, I’m expecting a nice relaxing week, full of good food and wine and just good times in general.  And then, it’s back to Berlin and real life.  But by the time I get back, it will be properly Spring.  Time to start skating at THF.  Time to get back to some carpentry projects for the apartment.  Time to get back to music and all the rest of it.  But first, fucking Italy.  Fucking Europe.  This is the life, brother.

זײַ געזונט

An American in Berlin

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,

זײַ געזונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
29 December, 2022

Ho, ho, ho.  I mean…hi, hi, hi?  Actually, just, hi.  How’s it going?  So I started this post on the 24th, which is one the bulk of it was written.  But towards the end, there are a couple of updates vis-à-vis a new song I’m working on.  Those will be dated accordingly.  Just so we’re on the same page here…

Original Post (24 December):

Well, it finally happened.  After nearly three years of dodging the bullet, I finally got covid.  And all I can say is, thank gods I got it now.  What I mean is, it was basically just a flu.  Whatever variant I caught, there doesn’t seem to be any apparent respiratory ramifications.  Which, as an asthmatic, was always my biggest fear, right?  So all things considered, this was kinda best case if I had to get it.

The funny thing is, I think I’m generally more careful than most people these days.  I’m pretty religious about masking up on mass transit and whenever I go into the supermarket or shops with more than one or two people in them.  I’d say the majority of people are going maskless in shops these days, and even on the train (where it’s still mandated), you find a number of maskless folks in every car.  At the same time, I’m living my life, ya know?

So last Friday, I met my tandem partner per the usz…usj…yuzh?  (How are we abbreviating ‘usual’ anyway?).  Then, later in the evening, another former student joined us.  And it was a lot of fun.  I mean, me and the tandem girl always have a good time of things.  But this other former student – the two of them met in my class – this was my first time meeting her irl.  This lady, she’s like 53, I wanna say.  Born in NW Germany, she’s spent upwards of the last 30 years in East Berlin, where her dad is from.  Very cool lady. 

Anyway, she shows up with two little paper gift bags for me and Miss Tandem.  And she’s like – as we’re opening the bags – “I baked you guys cookies.”  How nice, right?  And sure enough, there are cookies in the bag.  But also in the bag are other cookies, star-shaped, wrapped in plastic.  What’s with the plastic?  “Oh, those are weed cookies,” she says nonchalantly.  Now, I’m like, I know what I heard, but that can’t be right.  So I’m all, “Did you say wheat cookies?”  Thinking, you know, that’s a choice.  And she’s all, “No, weed cookies.”  I see. 

But like, who does that?  I mean, on the one hand, it’s not like we’re strangers.  She was in my class for a solid three months.  (Although three months, but just twice a week).  But it’s not like drugs is a topic we discuss in class, you know?  So it’s not like, “Oh, I know how much you guys like pot.”  Which, for the record, is not exactly my jam.  So this was just her being friendly.  And to be clear, when I say “who does that?”, I’m not offended.  I don’t think it was inappropriate or anything like that.  Just surprised.  Because, who does that?  Anyway, like I said, she’s a very cool lady.

Now here’s a thing.  My tandem partner is from Hannover.  And as any German will tell you, the Hannover dialect/accent is the “purest” form of German.  All that means is, when they were unifying the country and the language along with it, the Hannover dialect was chosen as the standard.  Much in the way that the Florentine dialect was chosen as the standard in Italy amongst the multitude of regional dialects.  Had I learned German in school, it’s a safe bet that the Hanoverian version is what I’d have gotten. 

The thing is, I didn’t learn German in school, so it’s a bit alien to me.  Now, this doesn’t mean I have trouble understanding my tandem partner.  It just means I have to concentrate more, it takes up more mental bandwidth.  It’s more work, to put it shortly.  The more I hear her, the easier it gets.  But it’s work.  And then Miss Weed-Cookie rolls up, rocking her heavy East Berlin accent.  And right away, my brain just relaxes.  Like, this is home base, you know?  Like with Bibi or Alex, it’s just easy.  So that was fun.

Although when the two of them were talking to each other, my brain had to track the two accents simultaneously, and it’s like, gaah!  I mean, I can do it.  I did it.  But it was a bit of a lift.  Fun though.  We had a good time. 

Funny thing, though.  We had our tandem again Friday, and she told me this little story.  The day before we all met up, the two of them had their end of course test in the school.  So they went out after.  And at one point, Miss Tandem calls me up to make plans.  And she just calls me up and talks in her normal German.  No problem, right?  And after she hangs up, Miss Weed-Cookie was like, “Who was that?”  And Miss Tandem was like, “Dave.”  And Miss Weed-Cookie was like, “But you were just talking regular real German.”  And she’s like, “Yeah…Dave’s German is pretty good.”  Which apparently shocked Miss Weed-Cookie.  Three months in my class, and she had no idea I can actually German.

But I didn’t know any of this when I’d met her.  She just rolled up and started talking her normal East Berlin shit.  She didn’t seem surprised.  If anything, I felt like she found my version of Berlinisch more than credible, all things considered.  So that was pretty cool.  Sometimes you have bad days with this language shit and sometimes you have good ones.  I guess that was a good one.

Anyway, that was Friday a week ago.  Sunday, Miss Tandem texts me and is all, “Hey, just a heads up, I have covid.  Miss Weed-Cookie has it too.”  Crikey.  So Monday, I did a home test.  Well, actually, first I went to two separate doctors to get some scrips refilled.  Of course I wore a mask.  But when I got home, I did the test.  And sure enough, it was positive.  The funny thing was, I felt totally fine.  Until about 8 that night.  That’s when I started to feel like something was up.

That was a rough night.  Fever, some minor aches and pains.  Not fun.  And yet, hardly the worst I’ve ever been.  If I didn’t know better, I’d have just guessed it was the flu.  And like I said, not even the worst flu I’ve ever had.  Fever broke by the next morning.  After that, it was mostly just fatigue, some minor aches.  By Friday, I was feeling pretty much back to normal.  Now I’m just waiting to test negative again.

Technically, you’re supposed to quarantine.  But I did have to go to the drug store to pick up my scrips.  Other than that, stuck at home.  And I learned something about what’s possible delivery-wise in this city.  There are a number of options, but I went with one called Flaschenpost, which would translate as ‘bottle-mail.’  Primarily, they deliver things in bottles.  Water, juice, beer, liquor, whatever.  But they also do groceries. 

And this was a revelation.  First off, just for the bottles.  Normally, when I go to the supermarket, if I want to buy seltzer or beer, I’m limited by what I can carry.  But these guys, they deliver crates of beer (1 crate = 20 bottles) and crates of seltzer (1 crate = 12 bottles).  Why would I ever schlep bottles from the supermarket again?  But I also decided I wanted to make myself chicken soup.  So I hit up their grocery department as well, and was able to get everything I needed.  And they deliver same day, too.  They give you a two-hour window, and sure enough, the guy shows up right smack in the middle of it. 

Now, I don’t know how often I’ll use this for groceries.  The selection is limited, to some degree.  And also, sometimes you just get inspired when you’re at the supermarket.  You walk in not sure what you’re gonna cook, and then suddenly, the leeks look good and you get an idea.  And then of course there’s the special stuff that only the Turkish or Asian markets carry, so those are never going away.  But, I do hate going to the supermarket more than pretty much anything.  So knowing that I have the option of cutting out at least some of those trips?  Huge win.  The chicken soup came out pretty well.  Never as good as my mom’s though.  But that’s the nature of these things.

Was noch?  Oh, I wrote a new song.  You guys, this is gonna be a banger.  I mean, it slaps.  I’d had elements of it laying around for a while, but I couldn’t quite figure out what to do with them.  Then, Thursday before last, I had to do a bit of running around.  So I used my phone to record some of the chord changes with a bit of a melody “la-di-da’d” over top.  And I just kept playing it back over and over while I was walking around.  And it just sorta came together. 

I started recording it over last weekend.  Originally, I was going to do it in that 50’s rock/do-wop style that I love.  I mean, this song has a lot of Buddy Holly in it.  So I laid down a rough version with three-part harmonies.  And it was sounding pretty good.

Before I go on, let me interrupt myself here for a second.  For the first time, I did this song right.  As always, I started with a scratch track.  A scratch track is the simplest version of the song: Just me and my acoustic guitar played against a click track.  The sole purpose of the scratch track is to lay out the structure, in time.  It’s basically a reference against which you can start building the actual song.  So I found the right tempo and got the scratch down.

But this is what I mean when I say, for the first time, I did this right.  The first thing I did was to build the drum track.  No loops, no pre-programmed grooves.  I built a proper drum track from the ground up.  I’ve written before that this the way to go, but that I’d never yet actually done so.  Well, now I have.  And it’s paying off.  Also, while I’m not a master at this drum stuff by any stretch, I think I did solid work here.

On top of that, I did some research on how to “humanize” the drums.  Because see, when you program drums, by default, every hit goes in precisely on time and each at the exact same velocity, or volume.  The result is that it sounds too ‘perfect.’  Because no human, no matter how good, is machine precise 100% of the time.  Nor would you want that.  There’s no feel. 

But my software has all these great capabilities.  It can randomize the velocity of the hits within whatever parameters you set.  Likewise, it can randomize in timing ‘errors,’ some hits coming in milliseconds late or milliseconds early, again within whatever parameters you specify.  If you set the parameters too wide, it will sound sloppy or just flat-out wrong.  Too narrow, and you won’t hear the difference.  But if you do it right, you get something sounding a bit more human.  Which, without buying an electric kit and then actually learning to play drums, is the best that can be done.  All to say, I think I’ve got a pretty credible drum track for this song.  And instead of filling it in after the fact when it’s too late, I did it first and now it’s the foundation for the whole tune.  This is real progress, is what I’m saying.

Anyway, by the end of the weekend, I’ve got a solid rough draft of this song.  The backing harmonies were pretty on point.  I’d just need get good takes on the lead vocal and the guitar solo.  But as I was listening to it, I heard something.  This song has crazy potential to be a real pop-punk rocker.  Think Green Day or Blink 182. 

So I got to work redoing it in that style.  Heavy guitars, bigger drums, more aggressive bass.  Gone are the do-wop harmonies.  In as a more aggressive lead vocal.  I said before that the writing just sorta came together.  Well so did the arrangement.  Like, my guitar arrangements just worked.  Tight on the verses and then suddenly huge on the chorus. 

All those years of playing in metal bands, all those guitar mags containing interviews with the lads from AC/DC and Metallica.  Combined with the little I’ve learned about building a drum track.  And holy shit.  The chorus just explodes.  What did I learn from those AC/DC interviews?  Use power chords on the verse and open chords on the chorus.  Even if you do nothing else, the chorus is already gonna sound big.  And boy, does it ever.  What have I learned about drums?  Go steady on the closed hi-hat during the verse and switch to a ride on the chorus.  It brightens the whole feel.  Such a tiny thing, but the difference is night and day.

On top of that, there are no harmonies on the verse, apart from the odd accented word.  But then, on the build to the chorus, there’s this ascending three-part harmony, the voices coming in one at a time, the last on a high A.  Tension, drama.  It all just fucking works.  And it works big. 

And yet, I thought it could be bigger.  So I listened to All The Small Things by Blink 182.  They’re a 3 piece, one guitar.  And yet, the chorus on that song sounds huge.  Why?  How?  I discovered that there’s an extra guitar added on the chorus that’s playing some power chords way up the neck.  It’s not in your face.  You don’t know it’s there if you’re not looking for it.  The harmonic overtones blend so well with the vocals, you could be forgiven for not noticing it.  But it’s there.  So I’m like, lemme try that. 

Which I did.  And wow.  Subtle, right?  Just in the right speaker, low in the mix.  But definitely there.  And it just fills out the sound.  Then I had another idea.  I set up a guitar track with a heavy 1/4 note delay.  Now on the left side, still low in the mix.  So low it’s hard to properly identify even what it is.  But it just adds this vibrancy, this pulsing energy to it. 

Seriously, I feel like it’s all coming together on this song.  Arrangement, production, vocal ability, and not for nothing, a pretty solid hook.  Now to be sure, there’s still a lot of work to do.  I’ve got to get this thing to the finish line sounding like a professional product.  And that’s gonna be the hardest part, no doubt.  But all the elements are in place.  Very soon, it’s going to be time to see what I’ve really learned as a producer.  I hope I’ll be able to have something that will allow you all to hear what I’m hearing.  Because I’m pretty proud of this one, I’m not gonna lie. 

Other than that, there’s not a whole lot going on.  Stephan, from Bavaria, was up a couple of weeks ago.  So that was a weekend filled with beer, whiskey, good times and good people.  Par for the course, in other words.  And the rest of the Bavarians will be up for Joschka’s NYE party.  So that should be great.

I’m supposed to go Flensburg next week to see Jan and Zibs for a couple of days between Xmas and NYE.  But that’s on hold because covid.  But we’re supposed to talk Sunday and we’ll make a call on it then.  Hopefully it works out. 

And I guess that’s all for now.

Update 1 (28th December):

A couple of updates since I started this post.  Flensburg is off.  I’m still testing positive, so there’s just no way.  We’re going to reschedule, but I don’t know yet for when. 

As for the song, lots of progress, and then…brick fucking wall.  Recorded the last of the vocals today.  Put together the final comps for the rhythm guitars as well as all the vocals, lead and backing.  Bass and drums have been done for a while.  As is the first half of the guitar solo (I’m pretty sure).  So recording-wise, I either need to re-record the second half the solo or else figure out how to get it sounding better.  But other than that, all the recording is done, comped and ready for use.  Which is big.

(“Comped,” btw, is short for “compilation” or “compiled.”  Basically what you do is, you record two or three takes of a guitar track, for example.  And you do this knowing that you’re bound to have at least a couple of tiny mistakes in there somewhere in each take.  Then what you do is, just knit together the best parts of each take to create a unified whole free of mistakes).

So what’s the problem?  Well, I had the feeling that the whole thing was sounding a bit thin.  Just how thin though, I wasn’t prepared for.  I loaded up a reference track today.  A reference track is what the name implies.  It’s a professionally produced track that you think you kinda want your song to sound like.  Not ‘sound like’ as in having the same melody or anything like that.  But ‘sound like’ in terms of production values.  And you use that as a reference to see what you want your mix to be doing.  Ideally, when you’re done, you should be able to play them back to back and not notice a drop-off in quality or general ‘sound.’

Anyway, the song I chose for a reference is Blink 182’s All  The Small Things.  And omg they’re not even in the same ballpark.  Everything in that mix sounds absolutely huge.  And nothing in mine does. 

Well, it’s good to have that reference obviously.  It’s shown me where my problems are and what I’m aiming for.  And yet, I’m completely stuck on how to get there.  The balance seems right. In other words, the levels of all the instruments and voices relative to each other is broadly where I want it. 

But as things stand, I’m already pushing the meter.  Any more and I’m absolutely in the red and it’s gonna sound like shit.  So how do I make the guitars sound big without blowing out the mix?  I suspect the answer lies somewhere in finding the right balance between the gain of the input signal, the output on the amp emulators and the slider on the mixing board.  But every combination I try seems to be worse than the last and I have no idea what to try next.  I suppose I’m gonna have to dive into some YouTube tutorials and hopefully find my answer there.  I’m having a similar issues with the vocals, though to a lesser degree.  Still, I’m pretty stuck right now and that’s very frustrating.

I feel like I’m real close with this song.  It’s a good song.  The arrangement is on point.  The performances are solid.  And yet, it’s this last mile, as it were.  Right now it sounds like a garage recording and I need to get it sounding like a studio recording.  It’s absolutely possible.  Just, how?  It’s gonna take a lot of work, research and experimentation.  But I need to be able to do this.  Because if I can’t, then what the fuck am I even doing here?  I’ve got my work cut out for me, is all I can say. 

Update 2 (29th December):

Got a lot of good work done on the song today.  I’m calling it Can You See; at least for now.  But it’s getting close now, and I feel a lot better about it than I did yesterday.  Got some good feedback from Justin, some of which I’ve already put into effect.  Sent my last mix of the night off to Rob for his input (at around 430am, my time). 

On the whole, I think there’s a lot of good stuff happening.  Overall, the mix might still sound a little thin.  I may want to beef it up in the midrange on the mix bus.  I’m not totally in love with the guitar sound.  I don’t know if that’s purely a function of using emulators rather than proper amps, or if I’m just not using the emulators well enough.  Nevertheless, they sound a far sight better than yesterday, and that’s owing to a trick I learned on YouTube.

And it’s a simple trick too.  Here’s how it works.  You’ve got two rhythm guitars, one panned left and one panned right.  Then what you do is, you send each guitar to a reverb channel, but you pan the reverbs opposite to the guitars.  In other words, you’ve got the reverb for the left guitar coming through the right speaker and vice versa.  And holy shit does it fill out the sound.  I was so happy with the effect that I wound up doing the same thing with the vocal harmonies on the chorus.  It’s makes everything so much bigger and warmer.  Such a simple fucking thing.  Love it.

I also started messing around with some mastering software.  For the moment, I’m just letting it create a ‘smart’ master on its own.  You feed it your reference track as well as your own mix and then the algorithms work up a master processing chain.  It’s pretty slick.  For now, this is an experiment, to get a feel for what the algorithms do.  Ultimately, once I feel I’ve got a handle on that, I’ll either modify it or build up my own mastering chain from scratch.  But I need to learn a bit more about it all before I can do that.

As for the reference track, I’m now using two, and I’ve created unique ‘smart’ masters based on each.  One, as mentioned, is All The Small Things.  The other is Black Sabbath’s Neon Knights.  Reason being, it’s tight and clean and has the virtue of having been produced by (imo) the greatest metal producer of all time, Martin Birch.  He did all the Deep Purple albums, the Rainbow albums with Dio, the Sabbath albums with Dio and all but one of the Maiden albums from the 80’s.  His work is exemplary.  It’s also quite a bit different from Blink.  In the end, I suppose I’m hoping to land somewhere in between in the two.

As for the overall sound, Justin made some observations that I’m really happy about it, because they all point to me being on the right track here.  For starters, he didn’t know the direction the song was taking.  The last time he’d heard it, it was just me and my acoustic.  And when you hear it that way, it sounds like a Buddy Holly song.  That was my intention at the time, and his observation as well.  But he didn’t know I was taking it heavy.

Anyway, upon hearing this new mix, he had two observations.  Just from the opening chords, he said, “It kinda sounds like the Ramones.”  Which is great, because what are the Ramones, after all, but a stripped down and sped up version of Buddy Holly, right?  So far, so good.  Then, as the song goes on, he says, “You know, it’s got this early 2000’s pop-punk kinda vibe.”  And I’m like, Yes!  I’ve been listening to the first Blink 182 album basically non-stop since the summer.  And that’s absolutely the vibe I was going for with this song.  So the fact that he heard both of those things with no prompting means I’m doing at least something right here.  Very happy about that.

So there’s a couple of things yet that I want to tweak, plus whatever Rob’s feedback puts me on to.  But this song is nearly there.  And I’m pretty excited about it.  Hopefully I’ll be able to share it in the next couple of days, a week at the outside.  Stay tuned.

Oh, I guess there’s one last minor update worth mentioning.  Maybe I’ve already mentioned it in passing.  But Akiva mentioned to me that the local Hillel group (which meets a seven minute walk from here) was starting a Torah reading group on Saturday afternoons.  So of course I signed up.  We’ve only met two or three times so far, but it’s been great.  It’s a small group, max five or six people.  But the girl who runs it is great.  She’s gotta be in her early 20’s, but she’s ‘wicked smaht’ and well learned.  She does a great job of bringing down classic commentary as well as modern perspectives.  And everybody is encouraged to offer their input, opinions, observations.  It’s a good vibe.  

Interpolation: Speaking of Akiva, he was in town two weeks ago.  He organized a dinner outing which I of course attended.  It was fine.  Nice.  You know, another social situation with limited alcohol.  I managed.  Anyway, dude’s like, “So um, would it be possible for me to crash with you for a night?”  Gimme a break, tatele.  Of course!  So he did, and it was great.  We drank a bunch of wine.  Discussed Torah and also Love, since apparently he was attending some conference on the latter and had to give a short speech thereon.  Point is, we had a great time and I was all too happy to put him for a night.  I love that kid so much.  A proper גוטע נשמה, a gute neshuma.  We agreed, again, that it’s just a beautiful thing, how we randomly met at the Yiddish course in Weimar and have managed to remain friends since.  ברוך השם.  :End Interpolation.

What we do (in the Torah group, he added resumptively) is, we read the weekly parsha in German and discuss (in German) as we go.  This has advantages and disadvantages.  The advantage – for me – is that it’s great German practice.  A guaranteed extra couple hours a week of just German.  The disadvantages are twofold.  First, I’m obviously less comfortable discussing the finer points of Torah in a foreign language.  Second, it wouldn’t matter if it was German or English, we’re not dealing directly with the Hebrew.  That would obviously be ideal.  But you have to respect that not everybody has the Hebrew to do that.  Even with my Hebrew, it would be a lift.  So I get it.  Nevertheless, when it comes to key words or passages, we will dig out the Hebrew and break it down.  So it’s there.  Just not front and center.

Still, it’s a pretty great thing and I’m really happy to be doing it.  In a way – a very small way – it fills a void that’s been there since Daitz died.  What do I mean, “in a small way”?  Well, it ain’t Greek and it ain’t Homer.  Also, there’s no Daitz.  And as I said, even though it’s Torah, it’s minimal Hebrew.  Still, the idea of meeting with a regular group to do scholarly shit on a Saturday, that’s been missing from my life.  I’m glad to have that back.  Plus, where with Daitz we’d meet at 10am, this group meets at 3pm; which makes my life a bit easier.

Speaking of Daitz.  I got a surprise email from ol’ Nat this week.  Oh, Nat.  Me and him were the two constants in all my years reading with Daitz.  Five years I read with that man, every Saturday morning, rain or shine or hangover.  People would come and go.  But Nat, he was there on my very first day, my very last, and every day in between.  An older gentleman even then, he taught (still teaches) at a private school.  But he had deep interests in gemology and architecture and gods know what else.  And by Zeus did that man know his Greek.  He’d just show up and sight read that shit cold and it was masterful.  As my friend Miranda once put it, he would absolutely ‘beast through’ the Greek.

My relationship with the man was a curious one.  We weren’t close.  And even to say we were ‘friends’ would be a stretch, insofar as we didn’t really talk outside of the reading group.  And yet we were bonded through Daitz.  There was a mutual respect and, I dare say, admiration there.  Me for his sheer ability with the language, and him for my reading/performance skills.  (In his email, he said: “You and Alexander [another from the group] are the best rhapsodes around, though I’m no slouch either”).  I can think of the man with nothing but fondness.

Anyway, out of the blue – and after many years of living here – I get an email from ol’ Nat this week.  He starts just by saying that Mimi (Daitz’ wife) wanted to get in touch with me but had lost my email address.  But then he tells me that the Homeridai (the name of our group) are still going strong, mentioning the name of some current members.  Those that I remembered, I remember as high school students from back in the day.  They must be college grads by now.  And קודם כל, it just warmed my heart to know that Nat is well and that the Homeridai are still a going concern.  Beyond that, just to know that Daitz’ teachings are still being carried on is a wonderful thing. 

You know, all this time, I’ve felt like a wandering exile who’s lost his master, carrying around these traditions and this knowledge, not knowing what to do with it beyond the simple business of making sure I don’t forget it.  It’s a burden I’m proud to bear, but a burden all the same.  Like, I’m supposed to be doing something with this gift, you know?  Which, I’ll be able to do, when it comes time to record the text of Frogs and Mice for George and Phil; assuming that happens.  But apart from that, it’s mostly just been making sure the flame doesn’t go out, as it were.

And now I learn that Nat has been – and is still – shepherding the Homeridai.  And the burden is a little lighter.  It’s all a touch less lonely.  And if that’s all it was, that would be huge.  But wait, there’s more.

So in his email, Nat tells me that they now meet by Zoom.  I don’t know if that started as a covid thing or what.  I don’t know if the members have scattered, geographically.  The point is, they meet by Zoom now.  And so, Nat asked me if I’d be interested in (re-)joining.  וואָס פאַר אַ פראַגע!  Of course I’d be interested!

I told him as much, asking him to have one of his ‘minions’ get in touch with me about the Zoom deets (he’s not super tech-savvy himself).  And now I’m waiting.  No email from Mimi as yet.  Nor any response from Nat, though I suppose they’re taking a holiday break.  But I sincerely hope this is gonna work out.  It might not be easy with the time diff.  And I sure as shit hope it’s not gonna wind up conflicting with the Torah group.  Maybe I won’t be able to do it every single week.  But it would kinda make my world if I can somehow get back to that. 

Reading with Daitz and Nat, that was a central part of my life for five years.  More than that, it was – and remains – a part of my soul.  When I think about the things I’ve had to give up in coming here, there are the things that would be obvious to anybody, obvious for anybody in my position: family and friends, being a part of the lives of my friends’ children as they grow up.  But for me specifically, I’ve had to sacrifice two other things in coming here that are terribly dear to me.  One, of course, is ice hockey.  The other, reading Homer with Nat and the Homeridai, which continued even after Daitz died.  If I can get that back?  I can’t even.

So we’ll see.  Like I said, I haven’t heard back from the man yet.  But if there’s a way to make this happen, I’ll fucking bend over backwards and you can take that to the bank.  In the meantime, I wish you all a happy, safe and healthy new year.  See you bitches in ’23…

זײַ געזונד

Am American in Berlin

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.

זײַ געזונט