An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
23 February, 2020

Careful readers of this blog, such as may be, have perhaps noticed a reduction in output over the last six months; maybe a year.  This owes not so much to a lack of desire, I think, as a lack of material.  There’s simply not that much newgoing on.

I go to work.  I hang out with my friends.  I ‘study’ Torah, meet Bartek to read Yiddish.  Jam with Bibi and Ralf on Fridays; play a gig once a month.1  There’s not a whole lot else, generally speaking.  Or if there is, it doesn’t scream to be written about.

I go for less walks than I used to.  Part of that is the weather, at least at the moment.  Or so I tell myself.  But if I’m honest, I remember some very lovely winter walks in Köpenick.  Really, what I think is happening, is I’ve undergone a transition.  Somewhere along the line, this stopped being some grand adventure and just sorta became my life.

I didn’t notice it until I was home for a wedding last fall.  At this wedding, I was chatting with a rather pretty girl.  And we seemed to be getting on pretty well.  So it occurred to me.  We were getting to the point where I’d normally ask for her phone number. Except what would be the point? And that’s when I realized.  My life is over therenow.

I wasn’t on some short term jaunt, some exciting let’s-roll-the-dice-and-see-what-happens adventure.  I actually livein Germany.  And even if I don’t know for how long – I could call it quits this year, when my lease is up or next year when my visa is up – it is nevertheless my current reality.  

And that has robbed this experience of some of its wonder, the feeling that every day will bring something new and unexpected.  Which isn’t all bad, mind you.  There are advantages to this as well.  I feel settled in some respects, which is nice.  I have my own place, my routines, my circle of friends.  I have my ‘intellectual’ pursuits and my outlet for musical expression, such as it is.  But it is less adventure and more quotidian.  

And it’s hard to write about the quotidian.  That’s why I didn’t really keep a regular blog in the States, although that’s where I started.  But when I first got here, I was writing a post every week or two.  Because every week – hell, every day – was packed with new experiences; new sights, new sounds, new words, new people, new places.

It’s not like that anymore. Now, to be sure, I do have new experiences.  Nice and Paris for the holidays.  Leipzig for Annett’s birthday last month.  Our first gig, also last month.  A new apartment, and with it, a new neighborhood.  But the new things are fewer and farther between.  

Even the job has grown repetitive.  Yes, occasionally I get new questions.  I try to look at things in new ways.  But really, it’s the people who are new.  I mostly just keep on doing the same shtick.  

But maybe I’m also dealing with a bit of writer’s block.  I struggle with creative writing these days.  Time was, I used to write stories.  Good stories, I like to think.  Fantasies, fairy tales, Star Wars send-ups.  Now, the muse seems to have abandoned me.  I have no ideas.

Back in the day, Charlotte would say, “Tell me a story.”  And I’d just make something up, on the spot.  She used to wonder at my ability to do that, if wonderis not too strong a word.  Now I can think of nothing.  And there’s nobody here who asks me for a story.  

Does that mean my time here has run its course?  I don’t know. I’m settled.  But also, I kinda like being settled.  At least some of the time.  I’ll be 39 next month.  Do I really want to move to another country and start all over again from zero?  To go somewhere where I don’t know a single soul? It would certainly re-introduce the wonder, the excitement.  But it would bring with it upheaval, uncertainty, insecurity.  There are days where I hear the siren song.  But mostly, I don’t feel up to it.

I’m not sure that I would say that things are often great here.  Things are great, but rarely. Things are often good, though, and that ain’t nothing.  Among the myriad goods – and myriad, which in Greek literally means 10,000, is the right word here – among the myriad goods, there is but one thing missing.  And if that should be found…

Books.  Books are good.  I recently finished Poe’s Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym, which I gather is his only serious ‘novel.’  It is a novel, I don’t know why I put that in quotes.  It’s not something I would normally have chosen, but for two tie-ins.  Lovecraft tied his mythology into this story, which I only discovered by accident, when I read At the Mountains of Madness.  And Le Sphinx des Glaces, by my boy JV, is quite literally a sequel to Poe’s tome, in every sense of the word.

It’s really for the latter that I read the Poe; so I could read the Verne afterwards.  Well, the Poe was fine.  Better than fine.  In fact, you see why Verne chose to write a sequel to it.  It really reads like a JV adventure, but tinged with Poe’s trademark darkness and mystery.  I wouldn’t recommend it to everybody, but if you like Verne and you like Poe, it’s worth it.

The real story here is, of course, the Verne; which I’m not quite halfway through at the moment.  And I just love Jules Verne; you all know that. But having read over a dozen of his books by now, it’s more than just the stories that I love.  It’s his style too.  It’s familiar, it’s easy, it’s comfortable.  It’s like sitting down with an old friend.

Strangely, perhaps, I find that I enjoy the beginnings of his stories more than the ends.  Because, with him, the mystery comes up front.  When he sets you up, when he introduces the characters, lays out the first steps of the adventure.  I say the beginning is where the mystery comes, because if I have one knock on JV, it’s that there’s always a happy ending.  Even if you don’t know the details of how things will turn out, you know it’s not gonna be Hamlet, with Fortinbras surveying a field of corpses.  

Which, for me, is a shame. Because JV’s at his best when he’s working dark.  And based on what I know of the man, and what comes through in his stories, I get the feeling that he was dark and cynical by nature.  If I understand correctly, it was his editor who pushed him to these happy endings.  Well, that’s not always so fun.  

And maybe I’m working too hard to draw a parallel here.  But his stories are kind of like my time here.  In the beginning, it’s new a cast of characters, new places, new mysteries to be solved.  But as things progress, the characters become familiar, mysteries get resolved, things get comfortable.  

One thing I like about this book – Le Sphinx des Glaces – is that it’s told in the first person, which is usually not the case with JV.  What I like about this is, it it allows the narration a more cynical tack,2 because it’s the characterwho is cynical, not the author. Ostensibly.  

One feature of JV stories is the attention to detail, the effort to get the science right.  You appreciate this, but you don’t always love it.  I’ll give an example.  In this story, they are currently traipsing around the Antarctic circle.  And so we get the exact latitudes and longitudes of various islands, their geographical features, their flora and fauna.  It can be a bit of a slog at times.  And even if I were reading this in English, I wouldn’t know half the birds or plants he’s talking about.  

But it’s important to him, and like I said, you appreciate the effort and attention to detail.  But it got me thinking.  He’s writing in a time where most people don’t have the opportunity to travel the world.  There are no airplanes.  There are no David Attenborough-narrated HD documentaries.  There aren’t even color photographs.  

So you couldn’t see these places, much less visit them.  How exciting must that have been for the contemporary reader, how transportative? That’s a feeling which I think the modern reader must be entirely incapable of recapturing.  

In any case, I’m enjoying the hell out of it, encyclopaedic descriptions notwithstanding.  And although I’m not quite halfway through, I have the feeling that this is one of the better ones.  Or, at least, accords better with my own tastes.  

Also, the book is dedicated to mes amis d’Amérique– my American friends. That’s pretty fucking cool. Because even though the man’s been dead for well over a hundred years, I feel like he’s including mein that group.  He wrote this for me. I’m one of Jules Verne’s American friends!

The Yiddish story I just finished with Bartek was a beast in every sense of the words.  The language itself was a real challenge.  Much harder than the Shalom Aleichem or Itzik Manger we’d previously read.  But more than that, it was very powerful; moving, tragic.  It’s called איו א קארנעוואל נאכט – On a Carnival Night, by Shalom Ash.  

The first three chapters take place in Rome, probably during the late 1800’s (it’s not specified),and tell of the humiliation suffered by the Jews of the Roman Ghetto during Carnival.  It’s heartbreaking.  These women are weaving a tapestry to be hung on the Arch of Titus during the festivities. And the Italian overseer comes and accuses them of using not their best material, of trying to cheat the Romans. And so each woman goes to her room and digs out her wedding dress, using them as the material for the tapestry.

The next chapter details how eight old Jewish men were made to run, almost naked, through the streets, chased by Romans on horseback, while the citizenry laughs them on from the sidelines.  At the finish line is the Pope, laughing along with everybody else.

In the next chapter, Jesus comes down from the cross and finds the (Jewish) Messiah, chained to a wall. Whereupon does he ask, at length, how people could do such things in his name.  But he Messiah is silent.  In the end, Jesus sits down beside the Messiah, and he too is silent.  

In the final chapter, we leave Rome behind and are transported to the Ukrainian shtetlof Troyanav.  This place is neither random nor fictional.  It was chosen because it would have been on the mind of Ash’s readers at the time.  In 1905 (the story is written in 1909), the Jews of another shtetl received word of an impending pogrom.  Five young Jews left for another town, there to join some kind of self-defense league.

On the way, the stopped in Troyanav.  There, the Ukrainians got word of what the five young men were trying to do.  They ordered the Jews of Troyanav to turn over the five or else face a pogrom of their own.  Tragically, they were turned over and promptly executed.  Ash takes it for granted that the reader would know all this.

Bartek and I did not know this however, and struggled for quite a while to make sense of the narrative. Until, finally, Bartek found the above story buried in the pages of some ancient book, preserved online by The Mighty Frenemy, Google.

In any case, the final chapter of the story tells how the matriarch Rachel comes from her grave on the road to Bethlehem to solemnly weave a death shroud for the five.  She weaves it from torn up ספרי טורות (Torah scrolls), from torn up טליתים (prayer shawls), from torn up פרוכת׳ער (the curtains which hang before the ארון קדש, the most holy space in a synagogue, the closet where the Torah scrolls are kept).

She is then joined by Miriam (i.e. Mary, the mother of Jesus).  And Miriam wants only to help her weave the death shrouds, because her son too was murdered.  And she could have been happy at the time of his death, because he was a קרבן, an offering, a sacrifice.  He was murdered, yes, but he died for the sins of man. And that is a death worth dying. Only, look what his followers have done in his name.  This she cannot bear.  And so she wants to help Rachel, her “mother,”3 weave her death shrouds.  This they do, and the story ends with them laying the death shrouds over the corpses of the five.

The story was quite controversial at the time.  In 1905, with pogroms still very much a real and current thing, Jews had little sympathy for Jesus, Mister נישט געשטויגען נישט געפלויגען.4  In a way, it was very head of its time.  After all, today, most Jews are comfortable saying things like, “Jesus himself wasn’t a bad guy.”  Or “Jesus’ teachings were on point, it’s the people who twist his teachings into an excuse for war or murder who are the problem.”  In that way, it’s startlingly modern.  But as I say, at the time, it caused quite a stir.

Anyway, reading it was extremely challenging; therefore extremely rewarding.  And as with previous texts, neither of us could have done this on our own.  We each solved problems for the other, so that by the end, we (think we) understood nearly everything.

But the process was so much fun too.  We’d get on skype, and spend three or for hours getting though just two or three pages. Grammatical discussions were the easy part.  Quasi-Talmudic debates on the meaningof various passages were invigorating.  Add to this, tangents on Slavic linguistics, English idioms, modern Hebrew and Arabic usages, connotations of certain vocabulary with respect to their use in the Torah.  It’s only the two of us, but it’s the sort of hifalutin “intellectual” reading group a dilettante like me dreams of having.

Next we’re going to tackle something more personal.  At first, I wasn’t sure Bartek would be interested in it, since it’s not properly “literature.” But when I told him about, he was quite excited.  Exactly the kind of thing he loves, he said.  Well, fantastic.  Because I should be very glad of his help, when it comes to this particular text.

So, one line of my family – the line that goes back through my Uncle Art, עליב השלום– comes from a small city in Lithuania, name Oshmoneh.  Now, our family, ברוך חשם, came to America well before the war.  I’m lucky to be able to say, I have no close relations who perished in the holocaust.

All the same, the Jews of Oshmoneh suffered the same fate as so many others in Europe.  The Jewish community of Oshmoneh was annihilated during the war.  But after the war, the survivors and expats had a book made.  And this book is history of the Jewish community of that city. What it was like before the war and what happened there during the war.  And even though I know of no direct relations from that place, have never been there, just knowing that that’s where we’re from, it makes this book very special, very personal.  I don’t know how many copies of this book exist.  But because it was made by those people for those people, the number can’t be a big one.

Funny thing, I never knew about this book.  I suspect nobody in our family did.  It was found amongst Art’s things after he died.5  I suppose not everybody has a deep interest in family history.  But for those who do, this book is surely an אוצר, a treasure.  Or it would be, if anybody could read it.  See, the book is written in two languages: Yiddish and Modern Hebrew. I don’t believe anybody alive today in my family is fluent in either of these languages.  My ability with Yiddish, such as it is, probably comes closest.

So this is the thing I’m going to read next with Bartek.  And honestly, I couldn’t be happier at his genuine interest.  I mean, I would soon be making an effort to read this anyway.  But already I’ve seen how many of my mistakes he catches.  Already I’ve seen the insights he can bring, insights which fly right past me when I’m reading alone.  So yeah, I’m kinda over the moon that we’re going to tackle this text together. Or, at least, parts of it.  I mean, the book is fucking huge.  But anything we can do will be a win.

In any case, I’ve se the goal for myself of translating it into English.  Not for me, but for the family.  Because I want to believe I’m not the only one who’s interested in its contents.  And even if I should be the only one currently interested, I have to hope that one of the young cousins will grow up to be interested.  And if not them, then some child yet unborn.  Whatever the case, there’s a story worth telling in there. And if I can get that into English – imperfect as it might be – well, that will be an achievement.  

Lastly, on books.  The great Roger Kahn has just died.  Kahn, a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, covered the Jackie Robinson Dodgers in 1951, 1952 for the long defunct Herald Tribune.  His greatest claim to fame, among many, though, is his beloved Boys of Summer.  This I’m now re-reading for at least the third time.  

And what a beautiful book it is.  I mean, the man was the poet fucking laureate of baseball.  When I say it’s a beautiful book, it’s not hyperbole.  Yes, he’s a master of the English language; it’s poetry in prose.  But it’s a book about fathers and sons, a book about youth, about becoming a man, about leaving youth behind, the cold realities of adulthood, aging.  

And the backdrop to all of this: perhaps the most wondrous, the most beloved of any baseball team of any time, Dem Bums, The Brooklyn Dodgers.   A team of players we know by first names and nicknames.  Jackie, Pee Wee, Skoonj, Campy, Shotgun Shuba, Preacher Roe, Oisk.  The magical mystical glove of Billy Cox.  Hell, even the bad guys are known by their nicknames: Sal ‘The Barber,’ Leo ‘The Lip.’ You don’t have to be a baseball fan to love – not like, love– this book.

Reading it has got me in a Dodger mood.  I found two Dodger games on Youtube, called by the great Red Barber.  You read stories about Red Barber.  People talk about him like he was the greatest mouth to ever sit behind a mic in the history of baseball.  These days, that accolade is more likely attributed to Vin Scully.  Scully is famous for calling Dodger games after they moved to LA.6  But Scully is a New Yorker too, and his career started in Brooklyn.  It was Red Barber who taught him the craft.  For a short time, they called Dodger games together. The torch was passed.

Anyway, I found two Dodger games on YouTube, with the Ol’ Redhead on the mic.  And the beauty of them is, they’re nothing games.  Spring games.  Two random games, each from a different season, each a season of 154 such games.  And that’s what makes them special.  It’s not the World Series.  They’re just any old game, what any Brooklyn fan would have heard on the radio, one sunny afternoon in the early 1950’s.  There’s magic in that.

You know those questions. The ones about, if you could have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who would you choose?  Or, if you could go anywhere at anytime in the history of the world, where would you go?  

The former question is not relevant here, but I’ll answer it anyway.  I’m not inviting Jesus to dinner, or Julius Caesar.  No, sir.  Just my dad, my grandpa and Bubbi.  The men, to talk with.  About anything.  To listento them talk.  Bubbi?  You can have Jesus, if you like.  I’d give anything צו האלטן א שמועז מיט דער באבע, to just chat in Yiddish with my great grandmother.  

But the relevant question, where and when would you go?  That’s easy. New York, the early fifties, summer. A Dodgers-Giants game at Ebbets field in the afternoon and a game at Yankee stadium at night.  Willie, Mickey and the Duke.  Yogi and Campy.  Pee Wee and The Scooter.  The Chairmen of the Board.  Jackie fucking Robinson.  And if pocket transistor radios were a thing – and I don’t know if they were yet – but I’d have one of those with me.  Just so I could hear Red Barber in the afternoon and Mel Allen at night.  I mean, it’s the only possible answer to such a question.

Well, I suppose that’s enough for now.  The Islanders are going through a bit of a rough patch at the mo, although they won tonight.  Still though, the hockey is exciting right now.  And boy, do I love hockey.  I don’t have words for how much I miss playing.  But I’ve got enough to keep me busy here.  And so what if things aren’t greatevery day?  Most things are goodmost days.  And that ain’t nuthin’…

זײַ געזונט

  1. This month will be our second.  Hmm, you know, I should probably write about the first… []
  2. Pun intended.  It is a sea-faring adventure, after all. []
  3. In a non-literal sense, Rachel isthe mother of Mary.  The latter is directly descended from the former.  Both are members of the Davidic line, from whence we are taught meshiachwill arise. Christians, obviously, believe Jesus wasthe messiah.  We are still waiting.  But the genealogy checks out. []
  4. Nisht geshtoygen, nisht gefloygen. Not arisen, not flown (to heaven). This is how Jesus is (or was) often referred to in Yiddish. []
  5. Actually, I found an inscription in the back cover from my great aunt Pearl, Art’s sister. Written in 1969, it’s to her father.  So knowledge of the book certainly went backwards from Art’s generation, but seemingly not forward. Until now, that is. []
  6. Hashtag crime of the century. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
15 February, 2020

Mishpucha Edition

The following was mostly written on January 4th, with only a few additions since then.  For whatever reason, I’ve held off on posting it until now.  זײַ מיר מוחל.

Well, Happy New Year. Here we are.  2020.  Time just keeps on moving, don’t it?  But more on that later, perhaps.  So my boss says to me, “Did you have a relaxing holiday?”  He’s British, so when he says ‘holiday,’ he means vacation. “No,” says I.  “Well, did you at least have a nice holiday?” he asks, pushing the issue.  “Yes,” says I.  “Very good,” quoth he.  “And now I shall leave you alone.  I know how you hate to talk in the morning.”  I could hug that man.  If I were capable of displaying emotion.

In any case, both of my answers were truthful.  It was not a relaxing vacation.  But it sure was nice.  I was in Nice from the 24thto the 28th, getting home sometime around 10:30pm.  Then up at 6:30 and it was off to Paris.  Came back on the 31stand went straight to Joschka’s for New Year’s Eve. Got home around 6:30-7:00am.  So yeah, it was not ‘relaxing.’  But it sure was nice.

One of the things I like about going to France, obviously, is the opportunity to, you know, speak some French.  Boy, that was hit or miss, I tellya.  Usually, it takes me a couple of days to get locked in.  And it always seems that I’m just starting to get the hang of things on my last day.  Then, boom, time to leave.  This time was no different.

The first night, Christmas Eve, I show up at Charlotte’s place.  Well, her mom’s place.  Well, it used to be her mom’s place.  Now it’s her sister’s place.  Anyway, I show up on Christmas Eve, and I’m the last one there.  It’s already 8:30, nine o’clock.  So I walk into the kitchen, and it’s Charlotte’s mom, dad, sister, friend and obviously the Big C herself.  And natch, they’re all talking French.

Group situations are always hard.  Socially, yeah.  But linguistically is what I mean here.  It’s always easier to talk one-on-one, when the only person you’re talking to is giving you their full attention, when things can go at your pace, when things are tailored more or less to your level. But in groups, people talk among themselves.  They talk faster.  They use more slang.  They’re not so careful about their pronunciation.  And they don’t slow the whole thing down just for little old you. Which is as it should me, mind you.

And certainly I’ve been in situations where the group will switch to English for little old you. Which you know I hate.  But that’s not even an option with this group, because the English just isn’t there for most of them.  Which I love, in general.  But it’s a hard thing to get dropped in the middle of.  I’m doing my best just to keep up, in terms of following what’s going on around me.  But I’m way too slow at that point to actually join in.  So I just sorta sit there and smile and nod and eat and drink. I mean, could be worse.

But there was a lot of this. Because as you may or may not know, Charlotte is living in Ecuador at the moment, teaching French there.  So she’s only in for the holidays.  Got in the day before I did and left the same day as me.  So now, it’s not just the normal sitch, but it’s actually her first opportunity to catch up with friends and family in person in, gosh, over a year, at least. So they’ve got even more than usual to talk about.  And less that includes me, in many ways.  Again, as it should be.  But it was a challenge.

And believe it or not, the fact that Charlotte is fluent in English actually makes things harder for me in some ways.  No doubt it’s very helpful at times.  But it’s a crutch, for everybody.  For her, if she wants to tell me something, English is the easiest way.  For the others, if they want to communicate something, it’s easier to do it through her.  And for me, if I have a question, I can just go through her as well.  So it sort of disincentivizes everybody to make that effort, you know?

Which isn’t to say I wasn’t involved or didn’t speak any French or that nobody spoke to me in French. Just that it was a touch overwhelming, language-wise, and less French for me as might be expected.  

That said, there’s a lot of love in that room.  Her mom gave me a big old hug when I arrived.  Her dad is always super sweet with me.  Her sister too.  Even her friend, whom I’ve met several times now, is always very nice to me, always makes an effort to chat with me a bit in French.  So I didn’t feel at all like an outsider or less a part of the group. Just that there was a language barrier.

And so it went.  The next day was more of the same, this time with her dad’s family.  The French was a little better than the day before, but my head was still spinning. I did eat fois gras though.  That was a first.  Morally ambiguous at best, but certainly delicious.  And hey, I’m in France, right?

The next night we went out for drinks with her friends.  And that was a bit tougher for me.  I mean, I’ve met these friends.  I like all of them.  They like me.  But again, Charlotte hadn’t been home in over a year, so this was their first chance to all hang out together in quite a while.  Lot of catching up to do.  In that kind of situation, even in English, I’d be a bit left out.  After all, these girls had grown up together.  So it’s catching up on what’s new, but it’s also retelling old stories.  And again, all that’s as should be.  But it did leave me a bit on the outside.  Then add the language barrier on top of that, and I did feel a bit left out.

Not that I’m complaining. I still had a good time.  Just maybe not a great time.  Add to that, by that point I’d now encountered several setbacks with the language. To me, these were embarrassing, though Charlotte the French Teacher assured me I had nothing to feel bad about. But several times that day I’d tried to say say some very basic things, only to not be understood.

That very morning, for example, I was sitting in the kitchen alone, reading the paper on my phone. Her mom (Karine) and her sister (Marion) come in.  Karine asks me what I’m doing.  Je lis (I’m reading).  Quoi tu lis? (What are you reading?).  Le journal (the newspaper).  Quoi?  Le journal. Quoi?  Le…journal.  Quoi?  The…newspaper?  Aaaah, le journal! (Karine).  Aaaah, le jooouuurnal! (Marion).  Oui! Le journal! (me).  What the fuck did I say?1

Then, later, at a café with Charlotte, I tried to order a cup of tea and the waiter had no idea what I was saying.  Finally, that night, out with the girls, I tried to order a glass of grappa and the waitress looked at me like I had three heads.  In both cases, I needed Charlotte to order for me.  I was less than pleased with myself.

Anyway, the first couple of days, I’m having a little trouble getting acclimated.  Only after all this, at the end of the second night, I think, do we finally get to sit down, just the two of us, and play some music. Finally.  And that was great.  Just like old times.  

But really, the next day is when things started coming together.  Charlotte again met some of her friends for coffee.  But instead of staying with them, this time I went for a walk in the old town.  And this was really the first time I was getting any time to myself, which was great in itself.  But also, Nice is fucking gorgeous and the weather was wunder-fucking-schön. Or, err, magni-putain de-fique?.  

In the course of this, I do what I always do in these situations and just started turning down whatever street looked interesting.  This led me up the mountain and, eventually, to the Jewish cemetery. This was not planned; I hadn’t even considered that there might be a Jewish cemetery, though it’s hardly surprising.

Anyway, I’m glad I found it. Very peaceful, very beautiful, it’s up on the mountain overlooking the sea.  It’s a great, if melancholy, spot.  Also rather interesting.  Because as you would expect, most of the stones were in French.  But there was also a decent number in strictly Hebrew, and still others in Polish, in Russian and even in English.  There were also a couple of holocaust memorials, which were quite touching.  

Anyway, the last night was the best.  We did apéro at her dad’s place.  Just me, her, Karine, Marion and Philippe, her dad.  And it was great.  We all played music together and laughed and ate and drank and just had a good time.  I’ll come back to this later.  But for now, it’s enough to say, that was the best night.  Finally, I was feeling at ease, and there was just a lot of love in that room.  

And the best part was, as I said, we all played music together.  This new song that C and I worked up has a whistling section.  So Karine and Marion were whistling, Philippe was playing his bongo drum, I had the guitar and C & I were singing. Everybody was in on it.  And it was great, man.  I mean, I don’t think anybody is buying this record, but we had a blast.

The next day, it was time to go already.  C left early in the morning and so had her parents.  They were all off to Turkey to see her other sister, Chloe.  Chloe, see, is married to a Turkish fella and they live in Istanbul.  And she’s just had a baby.  So they were all off to meet the niece/grandchild.  Which meant that by the time I got up, it was just me and Marion. 

A bit slow going at first, but by the end, we were getting on like a house on fire.  See, she doesn’t really speak English, so we had to get by on only French.  But now, with nobody else around and no safety net, I finally found my feet (or, my tongue?).  So we chatted for a few hours, and it was just fun, you know?

Also, she was shopping for flutes online. I asked her if she played, and she said she used to a bit. But the reason she was shopping was, she had so much fun the night before, but she wished she could have contributed more to the music, wished she could have been more a part of it, beyond just the whistling.

Which itself was kinda funny.  Because I told her C was the same way, back in the beginning.  When we first met, she didn’t sing at all.  She just sat and listened to me sing and play.  But eventually, she got to the point where she wanted to participate as well.  Only then did she start singing with me.  And the rest is history.  Anyway, there was Marion, just like her sister.

And it would be really great if the next time we’re all together, we can have a little bit of flute with our music too.  So here’s hoping that will come to pass.  We also agreed that it would be good for both of us to have more practice with the language. I gather she knows more English than she lets on and that it’s more of a confidence thing.  So we exchanged emails with the hope of maybe doing a bit of language exchange over Skype or whatever.  We’ll see if that actually happens.  But it would be nice, for sure.

And that was Nice.  I hardly got any sleep when I got back to Berlin. It was the seventh night of Chanukah when I got back, so I lit the candles.  Only they kept going until like 3:30am (talk about your Chanukah miracles), and I obvi didn’t want to fall asleep with them still lit.  So yeah, I went to Paris on like three hours of sleep.

Paris.  Yeah, that was great.  But mostly because it was great to see everybody.  Jared, Josh, Amanda, the baby, the parents, Monica.  We ate like kings and drank like idiots.  Or I did, anyway.  To the point where I was laid up the whole second day with a terrible hangover.  That was kind of a waste.  But I did use the opportunity to watch some Jackie Mason on the Youtube.  Which was great in itself, but also, I was able to mine it for all kinds of little Yiddishisms, which was fantastic.  Things that in the past would have gone right past me, now I totally understood.  It not only enriched the comedy, but also my own usable Yiddish.  Hard to argue with that.

The last day, Carol, Paul, Amanda and Sabine flew home.  So it was just me, Jared, Josh and Monica.  We went out for lunch.  At which point, I asked, “Hey, can I buy you guys a drink?  I haven’t paid for a goddamn thing since I’ve been here.” Which was true.  So they agreed.  

We went to a very nice wine bar, whereupon they ordered a not cheap bottle of champagne, plus some extra glasses of wine.  I swallowed hard when the bill came.  “Well guys, thanks for having me along on this trip,” I said.  “This is the least I can do to say thank you.  Well, I don’t know if it’s the least I can do.  But it’s certainly the most I can do.”  

I was joking, of course. I mean, it was expensive.  But when you consider where we were staying and the restaurants we went to, well, it really was the least I could do.  And anyway, I work.  I can afford it.  

We were staying in five star hotels, btw, Place Vendome.  Monica got me a cot in her room, which was great.  Because we just stayed up late each night, drinking wine and talking about how most people are idiots.  I mean, other stuff to.  But that’s usually the main theme.  Anyway, it’s good times.

And then it was back to Berlin.  There was a major transit strike going on in Paris at the time, so I wound up taking a cab to the airport.  And this, my last experience in France, was a win.  Because I get in the car, and start chatting in French with the cabbie.  In fact, we chatted the whole way to the airport, the better part of an hour.  And so, as usual, my last experience, on my last day, and finally – finally– I feel like, yes, I can actually speak French.

And then it was over, and I was back in Berlin.

Joschka and I have a New Year’s tradition of sorts.  We watch this 15-minute film, an old b/w number, called Dinner for One.  Actually, watching this film on NYE is a tradition in this country generally.  But in the course of the film, the main character must drink four glasses each of white wine, champagne, port and sherry.  Thus, our tradition is to have one glass each of those drinks, as the little film unfolds. This year was year four of that tradition.  

We also cook a nice dinner. This year was steak, roasted cauliflower, parsnip purée and a meatball appetizer.   Sometimes we go out after, sometime the party just carries on at his apartment.  

This year, though, Joschel wasn’t feeling so well.  So the drinks were smaller, and after the movie it was just a bottle of champagne between the two of us.  We stayed up til six playing board games and drinking nothing but tea, once the champagne ran out.  I guess some people actually live this way.  Go fig.2

Anyway, I titled this post Mishpucha Edition. ‘Mishpucha,’ as many of you know, is the Hebrew word for ‘family.’   And even as a Yid, I know that Christmas is a time for family.  Now, it goes without saying that one of the hardest things – perhaps the hardest thing – about living in a foreign country is being far away from your family.

Well, Christmas was never a big deal in our house, obvi.  The big family holidays were always Passover (with my mom’s mishpucha) and Thanksgiving (with my dad’s mishpucha).  But my last few years in New York, I started spending Christmas with Flare’s family.  And that was always really special.  And then, when I got to Berlin, well, you notice it, when everybody else is with their families and you’re kind of alone.

Except in Berlin, I’ve never really been alone on Christmas.  My first year here, Cindy invited me to her Xmas party, at which she cooked a duck.  The next year, I was in Nice with Charlotte and her family.  Last year, I was invited to spend the holiday with Margit and her family.  This year, again in Nice, followed by that little jaunt to Paris with Jared and his mishpucha.

I know I’ve written about this before, but it never ceases to amaze me, the way people take me in and make me a part of their family.  I’m always touched, filled with wonder, and yeah, even surprised.  I mean, you just can’t take these things for granted, you know?

Look, I’ve known Jared and the whole clan since I’m, what, fifteen?  We grew up together.  But not just me and Jared.  All of us. I’ve watched Amanda graduate college, get jobs, be very successful professionally, and now, have a baby. When I met them, Carol was still walking around on her own.  Now I push her wheelchair and help her with her drinks.  I’ve been enjoying steaks and sipping fine scotch and now cognac with Paul, having those man-to-man conversations in New York steakhouses, on his roof deck, in Italy and in France.  In fact, sitting in Paul’s hotel room and sipping Armagnac, just the two of us, was one of the highlights of this short trip.

Jared and I lived together for ten years.  And in the course of those ten years, we walked – sometimes drunkenly stumbled – from boyhood to become men.  I think that for each of us, who we are now has in some way been shaped by the other. And now last year I was at his wedding. 

They say you choose your friends but you don’t get to choose your family.  Well, maybe we chose to be friends, long ago.  But we’re family now.  And that won’t change any more than it could with my own blood relations.

But if I’ve known the Morgensterns for nigh on 25 years, the situation with Charlotte and her family is quite the opposite.  We only met in in 2013.  I met her parents that same year.  Philippe, when he visited her in NY, Karine when I visited C in Nice for the first time that summer.

Now obviously, C and I are very close.  At the moment, it’s the sort of close where you talk on the phone for two hours once every couple of months, but when you see each other you pick up exactly where you left off.  But there’s no less love there, for all that.

Though, that’s not the whole story either. Cos see, she reads every one of these posts; leaves a comment on most of them. In a way, we communicate through this blog. She once said to me, “I read you.” She didn’t say, “I read your blog.” She said, “I read you.” And every time I sit down to write, some small part of it is for her. So even if we only talk every couple of months, we’re more connected than that.

>> Interpolation: It’s worth mentioning here just how much C herself makes me feel like family, the level of trust, comfort, whatever you want to call it, that exists between us. As mentioned, my time in Nice overlapped almost entirely with hers.  Basically the whole time she was there, I was there too.  And I maybe felt a little guilty about that, even though we had coordinated the dates together.

After all, this was her first chance in a long time to catch up with friends and family.  Who would want to be burdened with a guest the entirety of that time?  So I apologized, if that’s the right word.  I said something like, “I hope I’m not in your way too much,” or “I’m sorry if I’m a burden on you here, taking up all of your time.”  Something like that.

To which she replied, something along the lines of, “Don’t be ridiculous.  I’m happy you’re here.  I want you here.  You are in no way a burden.”   And she meant that.  That’s where our friendship is at.  She has a finite time with her childhood friends and family, and she wants me there for all of it, to share in it, to be a part of it.

Every minute I get with my family now, every minute I get with my friends from home now, it’s precious. And every minute I get with Charlotte, it’s no less precious.  And it’s that way for her too.  What can I say?  I love that bitch.  End Interpolation: <<

And while I’ve grown up with Jared’s family, I can count the number of times I’ve spent time with C’s family one two hands; maybe one.  And yet they treat me as if I’ve been there all along.  There’s just so much love.  

I can try to describe all this, but I know I’ll fail to capture it.  Better would be to give an example.  This trip to Nice was only the third time I’ve ever met Marion.  The first was on a roadtrip we did, back in 2016, I think – Me, C, Philippe and Marion.  The second time was Xmas, two years ago.  And we’ve never spoken outside of these two encounters.  

Anyway, like I said, my last morning in Nice this year, it was just the two of us, me and M.  And like I said, it was slow going at first. But I think we bonded a bit.  We talked about how we’re both uncomfortable in group settings, how we can both find it difficult to talk to people in groups. How we’re both much better one-on-one. We also talked about language, about France, made plenty of jokes, and so on.  It was a good time.

The point is, like I said, it was only the third time we’d met; and the parents, not many more times than that.  Anyway, we’re at the door, saying our goodbyes.  And I say, Merci pour tout, thanks for everything. And she says, De rien?, you’re welcome?  It was definitely a question.  Mais, pour quoi?, But, for what?, she added.  Pour l’hospitalité, pour le lit, pour…tout, for the hospitality, for the bed, for…everything. And she just sorta looks at me like I have three heads.  So I say, On dit merci, non?, One says ‘thank you,’ no?  To which she just sorta rolls her eyes and says, Ouais, mais pas avec famille.  Yeah, but not with family.  

Well, what can you say to that?

It’s hard being so far away from your family.  But it’s a little bit easier when you’ve got families on this side of the ocean too. Who could ask for a better Christmas (or Chanukah) gift?

זײַ געזונט

  1. It reminded me of Abbot and Costello’s Who’s on First.  C: I throw the ball to who?  A: Naturally.  C: Now you ask me.  A: You throw the ball to Who?  C: Naturally. A: That’s it.  C: SAME AS YOU!  SAME AS YOU!  (If you don’t know Who’s on First, a) have you been living under a rock? and b) go watch it, now. []
  2. Although I gotta say, waking up on January first without a hangover ain’t the worst thing in the world. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
24 December, 2019
Lech Li’cha Edition

Oh hey.  It’s been a while.  Yeah, I don’t even know when the last time I posted was.  But I moved into the new apartment the last weekend of October, and tbh it’s been kind of a whirlwind since then.  The first three weeks, I felt like I was buying something new almost every day.  Which was kinda draining, I ain’t gonna lie.

See, it’s a funny thing, living with roommates.  Well, obviously.  But I mean, when you move in with roommates who are already living in the apartment, there’s a lot of stuff that’s just there, you know?  Like all the stuff in the kitchen, for example.  But also, little things, that you might not even be aware of until, oh shit, where’s the whosie-whatsit?

So like, I had to stock the kitchen.  With food, yeah.  But also, pots and pans.  And cutlery. And paper towels.  And a French press, because when people come over, apparently they like to drink coffee, and all I had was my one cup stove-top espresso maker. And spices.  All the spices.  And not just spices, but salt and pepper mills.  

Then, you want to hang something and you realize you ain’t got no hammer.  Or you buy something from Ikea and you realize you ain’t got no screwdriver.  Nor a toilet brush.  Or something to hold your toothbrush.  And garbage cans.1

Anyway, for like three weeks, it felt like I was stopping off somewhere every day on my way home to pick something up.  Sometimes it was something biggish, like a stock pot.  Other days, nothing more than a mason jar at the dollar store.  But every day, man.  It was kinda exhausting, really.

And does it ever end? This week, after receiving two bottles of wine as gifts, I realized I now had five bottles of wine just taking up space on my kitchen counter.  So off I went to the hardware store, to buy a wine rack.  Although I have to say, I do feel rather adulty, having a (albeit half-filled) wine rack.2

But at least the place is starting to feel a little Dave-d up.  I hung a print of the Brooklyn Bridge going into lower Manhattan, the old neighborhood.  I’ve got my desk set up the way I like it.  Got the kitchen the way I want it.  I even hung a mezuzah on the doorframe which leads to the living room.  So it’s coming together.

Changing gears now, German. I’ve written plenty before about how I’ve never formally studied the language, how I learn from my friends and the city in general.  How that’s largely by design.  How my goal is to be able to communicate with – and sound like – my friends.  Well, that’s been largely theoretical until now. Then, a few weeks ago, it hit me in the face.

What happened was, I finally made an appointment to see an allergist.  They ran some tests, after which they said, “Holy shit, you’re super allergic to like everything.”  Yes, thanks, I know.  So they put me on a shot regimen.  Only, instead of showing up every few weeks for shots, I have to take a pill.  Every blessed day.  For like three years.3

Oh, and btw, the appointments (there were three) cost me nothing out of pocket.  The first 30 days of pills cost me nine (9) euros.  The next ninety days of pills cost me nothing. Zero.  Zilch.  Nada.4  Even if I want to leave this country, I don’t know how I can.  But that’s for another day.

Anyway, German, was the point.  Nobody in the office really speaks English.  Not the actual allergist and not the three nurses.  Which can be a bit tricky, when you’re dealing with medical vocabulary, but I managed.  

Right, so at the first appointment, I was given the allergy test by one of the nurses, a young girl in her early twenties, I’d wager.  Very nice. But see, she spoke with this very formal, very polished hochdeutsch.  In other words, the formal language as it’s taught in schools and used in workplace environments.  Which is to say, very much not the German I use in my every day life.

So she speaks fancy-pants German, though in fairness, rather slowly and very clearly.  And at one point, she asks me a question that I don’t understand.  So I say, “Sorry, I don’t understand.  What do you mean?”  And she just looked at me with this disappointed face, and with a voice full of pity says, “Oh, du sprichst nicht so gut deutsch?”  Well, I thought I did, thank you very much!  But now I’m just fucking ashamed.  So thanks for that.  At which point she re-worded the question as if she were talking to a fucking child. Yeah, OK, now I got it. Thanks.  And also, let’s not even bother with the rest of the test, since I’m just gonna jump in front of a bus when I get outta here anyway.

Well, obviously I didn’t jump in front of a bus.  And two days later, I was back, to discuss the results of the test and to learn about my new med regimen.  But this time, I got a different nurse.  A dude, roughly my age.  And this guy speaks with a pretty serious Berlin accent.  I mean, this is the Berlin equivalent of our Vinny Bagadonuts, you know?  So he’s talking slang, he’s mushing his words together, he’s talking a million miles an hour. And I’m just like, Oh, thank gods. Somebody I can understand!

But really!  Like he spent about 20 minutes explaining all the rules of this new medication to me.  When I can take it, with what, time of day, eating and drinking rules, circumstances under which I shouldn’t take it, what to do if I have an adverse reaction, the whole nine.  And in mittendrinnen, he’s asking me about New York, what do I think of Berlin, what do I do, all that.  And I’m asking him where he grew up, what he thinks of Berlin.  I mean, we’re even cracking jokes.  Like, I was just totally at home talking to this guy.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.  After all, I teach English.  I’m always explaining the difference between formal and informal, the difference between the written language and the spoken language, between registers.  I know that this is a thing.

I’ve even experienced it on some level with French.  I’m very comfortable with the formal written language, but struggle with the spoken language.  But when the formal language I know also happens to be 150 years old, you tend to feel the difference in age more than register.  And since formal spoken French hews closer to what I read, I’m more at home with formal spoken French anyway.

So even though this should have been no surprise to me in theory, it was actually quite shocking. To discover firsthand how different formal and informal German are.  How different is the language I speak with my friends from that which you hear from an educated medical professional.

And it was a bit of a comeuppance, too, you know?  Like, let’s be honest.  On the one hand, I’ve always sort of looked down my nose at the formal, regulated, “artificial” (by my lights) hochdeutsch.  And on the other hand, I’ve been taking a sort of perverse pride in how far I’ve come with this language on my own, with no formal training or education.  Like, I’m probably guilty of puffing out my chest a bit, when I say, “Nah, I’ve never taken any classes.  I just keep my ears open and learn from my surroundings.” 

Haha, well fuck you, Davey boy. That’s all well and good, until you go to the doctor, and the nurse looks at like you like you’re a fucking idiot. Guess I had that coming, didn’t I?

But from a linguistic perspective, it’s genuinely fascinating.  Like, they really are two distinct languages – or, at least dialects. And there’s an upside to this too. Namely, it probably makes me a better teacher.  Or, at least, a more empathetic one.  

I was talking with a couple of my more advanced students a little while back.  And they’re doing quite well in class.  They’re really mastering the grammar, improving their vocab and just generally getting better at speaking and understanding the language.

And they were telling me that they watched a TED Talk with Paul, the other teacher.  And that they felt like they could barely understand it. It was a real setback for them, or so they felt.  Like, they were under the impression that they were really making progress.  And then they watched this lecture, and it was almost like back to square one.  

So I told them this story, about what happened at the allergist.  And they were genuinely relieved.  They were like, “Wait, this happens to you to?”  Fuck yeah, it happens to me.  And they didn’t feel so bad anymore.  So that ain’t nothing, I guess.

In other language news, the Yiddish reading with Bartek continues.  And it continues to be great.  We’ve moved on from the Itzik Manger poetry and we’re now reading our second short story by Shalom Aleichem.  Which itself is real progress.  Because I remember that before this summer’s Yiddish class, I tried taking a look at some of his stuff.  And I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.  Even though I could listen to that radio program or read the Forvarts, Shalom Aleichem’s literature, was a bridge to far.

And now we’re reading it. To be sure, I absolutely need a dictionary.  And I think I speak for both of us when I say, I don’t think I could manage it alone. There’s a lot of stuff that only becomes clear when we talk it through together.  But be that as it may, here I am, reading Shalom Aleichem.  And enjoying the shit out of it, btw.  I mean, he’s great.  Great story teller, great sense of humor.  

Added bonus of doing this with Bartek is, he’s Polish.  So a lot of the Slavic words, and especially the Polish ones, he brings insights that I just don’t have access to.  Added sub-bonus to this, I have a couple of Polish students in my beginner class now. So rarely – very rarely – I drop a Polish word here and there.  Which always seems to impress.  “How do you know that?”  “Meh, I know things.”  It’s fun, you guys.

So I said I hung a mezuzah, as part of the Dave-ing up process.  Which is perhaps a weird thing to say.  After all, I’ve never hung a mezuzah before.  Not when I lived with Jared, but also, we never had one in my parents’ house either.  But it seems more important here.  Part of that whole “schlepping goles” thing, I guess.  

But I like knowing it’s there.  Just seeing it hanging in the doorway makes me feel (oddly) contented.  Even though I don’t “use” it.  What I mean is, every time you enter the room, you’re supposed to “kiss” the thing.  Actually what you’re supposed to do is, kiss your fingers and then touch your fingers to it. I don’t do that.  Because I’m not “religious.”  Ich bin nisht keyn gleybiker, ich bin a weltlicher. I’m not a believer, I’m secular. But somehow that doesn’t matter.  This is something we’re supposed to do, hanging the mezuzah.  So I did it. I even said the bruchahwhen I hung it.  But that’s the end of it.  It’s there, and I’m happier for it.

My boss took us all out for dinner, as a sort of thank-you slash holiday celebration.  We went to a very nice Italian joint.  The food was great, as was the night out.  I mean, everybody I work with is great, but we don’t usually socialize outside of work.  This was a nice chance to do that.  

Apart from that, he said some very nice things to me.  “You know, Dave, sometimes I think you think I don’t appreciate you.  But you’re really a wonderful teacher.  I heard it again today.”  From some students, he meant.  Because we also had a holiday party in the school, and he made his rounds.  But the way he said it, it was very genuine, from the heart.  It was really nice to here.  Also, he got me one of those fancy rabbit-looking corkscrews and a bottle of wine. Because he knows me.  And he wished me a happy Chanukah.  He’s not religious either, but we both appreciate having another member of the tribe around, and that ain’t no joke.

In other news, Joschka and I went to his hometown the first weekend of December.  There’s a big Xmas market there every year and the whole festival gang turns out.  His hometown crew, but also the Bavarians.  The Xmas market is whatever, but you can’t pass up an opportunity to get everybody together in one place.

Naturally, it was a good drunken time.  But really, I love those clowns.  And that’s the word.  I’ve said it before, but there’s so much love in the room with those people.  Ich hob gefunen an oytzer af der velt.  I’ve found a treasure in the world, would be a fair translation.  

So that’s where things are at, more or less.  To be sure, there’s more to say.  But it’ll have to wait until next year.  That said, I started a post shortly after I moved in to my new digs.  Only, I never finished it.  So I’m going to append it here.  What follows was written sometime around the beginning of November…

>> Welp, here I am, writing from my new room in my new apartment.  Kind of a big deal, you guys.  And I gotta say, living alone kinda suits me.  No surprise there, I guess.  But also, this is myplace.  I mean, I get to make it my own.  Set the kitchen up the way I want it.  Decorate according to my own style.  And it’s coming along.  Still a few things I need to pick up, still a few things that need taking care of.  But all in all, I’d say I’m settling in nicely. 

The move was surprisingly easy and, even more surprisingly, quite fast.  I had three friends help me, plus Marco and Lucy helped bring things downstairs on the Köpenick side.  It was Esma, Chris and Linda who did the helping.  And Linda’s dad has a pickup truck.  Linda’s dad, btw, whom I’d never met before, was just like, “Yeah, no problem, we’ll make as many trips as you need.”  Pretty amazing.  

In the end, we only needed one trip, as everything I had fit on the truck in one go.  Well, I say that, but actually Linda came by twice before the move with her car and helped me shuttle some stuff over.  Not a ton of stuff, but it certainly made a difference. Anyway, one hour to get everything down and onto the truck.  One hour to get everything off the truck and up & in.  So two hours total work, plus maybe half an hour of travel.  I was expecting much worse, tbh.  And they were all total troopers about everything.  So tomorrow I’m taking them out to dinner as a thank you.

But I did notice what I took to be two cultural differences in the course of this.  The first was people’s readiness to help.  These three (and others) were offering to help well before I’d even considered asking.  Whereas, in the States, I feel like people would help if asked, but sort of grudgingly.  I mentioned this to Joschka (who had offered to help, but wound up being Stateside on the actual moving day).  And he said this was totally normal for Germany. Everybody moves, so everybody knows what it’s like.  And so everybody is always ready and willing to help.  That this extended so far as Linda’s dad, who didn’t know me from Adam, is still surprising to me.  But obviously I’m beyond grateful.  

The other thing was the approach to the work.  I said they were troopers, and they absolutely were.  But in a way that was different from my own approach.  See, I’ve been through enough of my own moves, and helped enough on others, that I know how I like to work.  That is, start early, work hard, work fast, and take breaks only when absolutely necessary.  It’s not a time for joking around or fun.  It’s work.  

But with these guys, it was much more, “What’s the rush?  We have all day.”  And they meant that.  They would have stayed for however long was necessary.  And like I said, the dad was ready to make multiple trips, at a half-hour each way.  I got the impression that for them, it was more like, “Hey, yeah, we gotta work, but also, this is a chance to hang out and have a good time.”  

I wasn’t expecting that. I mean, I was already feeling guilty for leaning on them in the first place, no matter how happy and eager they were to help.  So I wanted to get them outa here as fast as possible.  To release them, if I can say that, with as much of the day left to them as possible.  Which resulted in Chris saying, more than once, “Dave, slow down.  It’s really OK.”  So that was new for me.

One other thing about Linda’s dad.  Dude speaks with a super hardcore Berlin-Brandenburg accent, with tons of slang. He also has a super dry sense of humor, and he spent a lot of time playfully giving Linda and Chris the business. So when he was talking in the car, I was like, this is amazing.  I would love to listen to this guy talk for hours.  I mean, it’s like a free course on the local dialect right?  

But also, I was kinda terrified every time he talked to me.  Cos then I’m like, what if he says something I don’t understand?  What if I smile-&-nod at the wrong thing?  I could come off as ungrateful, which would be awful.  Or what if he turned that sense of humor on me, and the joke went over my head.  Then I’d either look like I can’t take a joke, or just look like an asshole.  So it was kinda like, “Omg, thank you so much for helping me like this, but also I’m gonna go hide now, so I don’t make an ass of myself.  But also, you know, please keep talking to other people, cos the way you speak is so cool!”

Anyway, point is, the move went a thousand times smoother than I could have hoped, and that’s all down to my friends.  Thanks, gang!

As I mentioned in the last post, one of the many advantages of the new place is, I’m close to a lot of people now.  J-Dawg lives like 15 minutes away by foot.  So my first night here, we went out for dinner and drinks, which was great. And Joschka lives 20 minutes away (by Tram,5 if you’re Dave) or 10 minutes away (by Taxi, if you’re Joschka).

So Joschka’s already been over like three times.  Which is great, but also dangerous.  Because he always shows up with a bottle of something and we’re both night owls.  So it’s not so easy to know when to call it a night, even when I have work the next day.  But it’s pretty great when you send a text saying, “Wanna hang tonight?” And that can go down with like zero planning.

The other nice thing there is, it’s allowed to me to share a bit of my cooking.  I mean, obviously I would cook for the roommates in the old place. But those were always planned events, as it were.  Yet, my normal cooking, that was always just for me.  Which, of course, was fine.  But many were the times when I’d throw something together that I was rather proud of, only to have nobody to share it with.  And that would make me just a little sad sometimes.  

But since Joschel and I are on similar schedules, he’s also a late eater.  So he’ll come over around 9 or 10, and I’ll be just starting or finishing dinner.  And now I get to share a bit of my cooking sometimes.  And that’s nice.  Last time he was here, he thanked me for sharing my food.  Yes, to be polite, but also because he knows I normally cook in big batches, for the week ahead.  So he knows that’s one less dinner I’ll have for myself later.  And of course, I’m happy to do that.  But it’s nice that he recognizes it.  

Anyway, he says thanks for sharing your food, and I’m like, “Dude, I’ve been eating your food for literally years.”  Which is true, right?  I mean, we’ve done so much cooking over there.  And when we go to the supermarket, we’ll share the cost.  But we don’t always go to the supermarket.  Plenty of times we’ve cooked with just whatever he’s had in the house.  Like, “Hey, I’ve got this really nice salmon.  Let’s use that.”  No thought given to what it cost or that he won’t have it for himself later.

So yeah, “Dude, I’ve been eating your food for literally years.”  To which he replies, well, I forget the exact words, but something to the effect of, “Dude, we don’t keep score.”  Like, there was never an expectation of being paid back, was the point. And of course.  I obviously didn’t mean it in a transactional way.  Just a different way of saying what he said.  This is what friends do.  You come over, you get fed.  My booze is your booze.  That’s how we roll.  

I got good people here, ya know?

So I called this post, “Lech Li’chaEdition,” which I’ll explain shortly.  But by way of introduction, last month [October] saw the start of this year’s Torah reading cycle.  Year three, for me.  And rather coincidentally, it lined up almost perfectly with the move.  So I actually began reading this year in the new apartment. Genesis, the cosmogony, Adam and Even, Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel.  A new year, a new apartment.

Anyway, the name of each parsha– the weekly reading – is taken from the opening phrase of said reading.  The first is B’raeshis– “In the beginning.” The second is Noach– “Noah.”  And the third is Lech Li’cha– roughly translated as “Take yourself and go.”  It’s what God says to Abraham when he tells him to forsake his ancestral homeland and schlep west to Canaan.  And you’d better believe this is a big-deal theme in the history of our people.

Sometimes it’s positive, like when God said it to Abraham.  Although even there, it’s bittersweet, because it meant leaving his land, his friends and his family.  Or when Jews started leaving Europe for Palestine and later Israel.  Time to go back to the homeland.  Lech Li’cha.  

But more often it’s negative.  It’s “Get out of your own land and go somewhere else.”  Or worse, when said by whatever host nation, “Get out of ourland and go somewhere else.”  Often as not, it kinda walks hand in hand with schlepping goles.  I mean, it’s what the people of Anatevka say at the end of “Fiddler” when they’re forced from their shtetl

So when it finally came time to leave Köpenick, there was a bit of Lech Li’chain that too.  Time to take yourself and go, Dave.  Time to be independent.  But also, time to leave your first real home in this country.  Time to leave the people you’ve been living with for three years. It’s a good thing, but there’s a bittersweetness to that too.

And looking at things from this perspective, coming to Germany itself was also a kind of Lech Li’cha.  Take yourself and go, make your own way, your own future.  But yes, also, leave your land, your friends, your family. Thankfully, it wasn’t something that was forced on me from the outside.  But it was something I felt I needed to do.  

People often ask me, “Why did you come to Germany?”  And I never love my answer.  I needed a change.  I wanted to experience living in another country.  I wanted to learn a new language.  Having affordable health care is nice.  Berlin is cheap.  And so on. But really, the best answer I can give is a two-worder: Lech Li’cha.  Try explaining that to a goy though, amirite?

In the midst of this realization, something else occurred to me, as I was reading Torah.  Up til now, I’ve only ever read Torah in the old apartment. I mean, yes, I’d brought my Chumash with me on vacations.  So I’ve read at my parents’ house.  I’ve read in Nice.  But until now, Köpenick is the only homeI’ve ever read Torah in.

And now I’m reading it in my new home.  And I realized, “Shit, this is what we do, isn’t it?”  Like, it doesn’t matter where we live.  Until (arguably) America and then the modern state of Israel, we have two thousand years of history of never feeling permanently settled, no matter how hard we try.  Of knowing that the only thing that keeps us who we are in the midst of constant upheaval is this book we carry around with us.

And so now, for the first time, I’m playing my part in that story, sharing in that tradition.  A new apartment, a new neighborhood.  An unforced move, to be sure.  And a happy one.  But still a move.  Same book, though.  That’s what we do. <<

So much for that. Tuesday, it’s off to Nice. Charlotte’s dad is flying her in from South America for Xmas and I’m invited.  Fuck yeah, bitches!  Seriously though.  I mean, it’s enough just to get out of Berlin for a few days.  And obviously, I had such a great time when I did Xmas down there two years ago.  So I’m really looking forward to the sequel.  But more than all that, I’m just looking forward to seeing my friend again. It’s been too long.

So I’m in Nice for four days, and then it’s back to Berlin for a night.  Because the next day I’m off to Paris.  You may have noticed there was no annual Morgenstern trip to Italy this summer.  That’s because Paul is turning 70 this year, and they’ve decided to celebrate in the City of Lights.  And I’m invited.  Ain’t no way I’m turning that down.  So obviously I’m super excited for that as well.  Plus, Anne will be there, so I’m looking forward to seeing her in France for a change.  Plus plus, with any luck, I’ll be able to introduce her to Jared and Josh and Amanda.  I shall be well pleased if I can connect those worlds, you know?

And then it’s back to Berlin on New Year’s Eve.  I should land just in time for the, well, not “ball drop.”  For the (literal) fireworks, I guess.  Joschka and I have our “Dinner for One” tradition to uphold. And who knows what will follow on the heels of that.  But I can report on those festivities in 2020.  

And so, consider this my last post of 2019 and, jeez, of the 2010’s in general.  Wow, that happened fast.  That probably calls for some reflection.  But that’ll have to wait until next year as well.  In the meantime, merry merry and happy happy.  

איך ווינטש אײַך א געזונטע א פרייליכע און א געבענטשטע יאר

זײַט געזונט

  1. One Yiddish word for ‘garbage cans’ is apparently mistkestlech, which I kinda love. []
  2. Interesting side-note.  I sent a picture of said wine rack to my mom, and she’s like “That’s the first wine rack I ever had!”  Small world, eh? []
  3. If I even stay that long. []
  4. My friend Chris – who recommended this allergist to me – later told me that 90 days of pills (or possibly the whole course, but either way) would cost between one and two thousandeuros, if I didn’t have insurance.  I mean, Deutschland über Alles, or what? []
  5. The M1, which stops literally in front of Joschka’s door, stops a block and half from my new place.  #gamechanger []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
29 September, 2019

So, books.  Last time I said anything about what I was reading, it was that Rue des Voleurs.  The ending was not quite what I expected, but it was a great read overall.  As I said at the time, it was fun to read a more modern, colloquial French.  Learned plenty of new vocab.  But the story itself was quite riveting.  One episode included a rather gruesome suicide scene.  Edge of your seat kinda stuff, even if you knew what was coming. Anyway, it was a good read, and it gave Esma and me stuff to talk about for weeks after.  

Speaking of Esma, she just read 1984.1  I imagine we’ll have quite a bit to talk about there as well, but we haven’t had a chance yet.  I re-read that again earlier this year as well.  I go back to it every four-five years or so, it seems.  And it scares the shit outa me every time.  Really, it never gets old.  Gets the wheels turning, you know?  Plus, reading the Principles of Newspeak epilogue now as an English teacher…I mean, shit.  That’s a whole different kind of scary.

The last thing I read was Thomas Picketty’s Le Capital au XXIe Siècle, Capital in the 21stCentury.  Picketty is a left-leaning French “celebrity” economist.  Well, “celebré” was the word Anne used (of course she knows who he is), though I’m not sure ‘celebrity’ is the best translation.  Anyway, he’s kind of a big deal, is the point.  And this book, which came out in 2013, made a pretty big splash at the time. I mean, I remember he was doing interviews on NPR and shit.

Anyway, fascinating book. The first three-quarters are basically a history of western economies from around 1800 or so to the present. The last quarter is his prescription for how we ought to be thinking about capitalism going forward in the current century.  

From the history part, there were several interesting takeaways.  The most shocking was this.  We have all grown up thinking that the post-war world was some kind of new normal. That each generation should do better than the one before, that socio-economic climbing is naturally possible for all, and all that.  And basically, he shows that this period is an anomaly in human history.  That it was the result of two world wars and a depression and the subsequent policies put in place to deal with that 31 year period of constant catastrophe.  

In other words, the wars and the depression so shook up the old order of things, that we could – and more importantly, chose to – reinvent ourselves.  Inflation, which he shows was virtually non-existent before 1914, coupled with the physical and economic destruction of the wars, broke the back of the old aristocracies.  At the same time, a conscious decision was made to create what is often called The Welfare State, but which he calls The Social State.

Obviously I’m simplifying. And I’m not going to get into the economics of it.  But things like high marginal tax rates, and more importantly – or at least, just as importantly – increased spending on universal education and healthcare (the latter, in Europe, anyway), paved the way for what we grew up thinking of as the normal economic mobility of the 20thcentury.  But also, just as importantly, the neo-liberalism of the 70’s and 80’s were also conscious choices, but which threaten to return us to an older order of static classes and self-perpetuating extreme wealth.

“Scientifically” – and I put the word in quotes, because Picketty himself is the first to say that this is not and cannot be a “hard science” – but, “scientifically,” he demonstrates that the inescapable factor at work is that capital grows at a greater rate than the general economy/population.  And that bigger piles of capital grow faster than smaller piles.  So that the super-rich get richer without having to do any actual work.  Couple that with negligible inheritance taxes, and you have a recipe for generationally self-perpetuating wealth.

Couple that again with decreased public spending on education and job training, higher private costs of education, etc. and it becomes increasingly harder for those not already in the wealthiest classes to break into that level.

His proposal then, in simplest terms, is to institute a small tax on capital, something starting at 1% for sums over one million euros and progressing from there, but probably not going higher than 5%.2  Critical, though, is that this exist on a global – or at least, regional – level. Regional being, North America or Europe, but not smaller than that.  The idea being, to eliminate “fiscal paradises” where people hide their money to avoid taxes.

He makes a good case. Obviously people will disagree. And Picketty is the first to say there’s more than one way to deal with this problem, and those ways are not mutually exclusive.  But it’s a good starting point, I think.

Anyway, it was super fascinating, and honestly, a real page-turner, if such a thing can be said of a social-science-economics treatise.  Really, I couldn’t put it down.  That said, it took me months to get through, bc that bitch was literally 950 pages long.  The French itself was pretty easy, very straightforward.  But the economic stuff sometimes required being read two or three times before I got it.  Still though, it’s a book I would recommend to anybody who’s interested in these sorts of things.  And of course it’s been translated into English, German and who knows what else.

After that, I read a couple of Lovecraft short stories.  He’s always fun.  Dark, creepy, imaginative, thought provoking.  Next up is a French book about a guy who gets shipwrecked alone on an island.  Anne recommended it, so I’m sure it’ll be good.  We have quite similar tastes most of the time.  But I haven’t started it yet.3

Very much on the side, I’m also working through a series of short Yiddish poems by Itzik Manger. They’re collectively titled Chumash Lider, which translates roughly as Torah Poems.  Each one is about some or other episode from the Torah.  One was about Eve giving Adam the apple.  Another was about Abraham getting on Lot’s case for being a drunk. They’re really good.  I mean, there’s excellent word play, good imagery, good story telling, humor.  They’re also super difficult, as some of the vocabulary is quite obscure.

Anyway, I’m reading these with Bartek, which is a pleasure.  Partly because he’s just such a swell guy and we get to talk some Yiddish while we work.  But also because he’s super smart and helps me see things I wouldn’t see on my own. And in fairness to myself, it’s a two-way street.  We end every reading, both of us, with the feeling of, “Man, that was great, I understand this so much more than I did when I’d read it alone.”  We even got Akiva to join us once, which only made the experience that much richer.

But of course, it’s slow going.  We’ve only got through three poems so far.  And it’s very much based on being able to match up our schedules for a Skype meeting.  So that’s ongoing.  But I did finally get two very nice Yiddish dictionaries, which should be a big help. Both are published by an institution in Paris.  So actually, one dictionary is a Yiddish-French.  It’s been translated into Yiddish-English.  But the French version was the original, so I figured that was better.  That may have been an overreach though.  I guess we’ll see.  The other is super helpful.  It’s a Yiddish-Loshen Koydesh dictionary.  In other words, it’s specifically for all the Hebrew and Aramaic words, which it just translates into “Yiddish,” i.e. the Germanic (or occasionally Slavic) variants of those same words.  It’s a great resource.  OK, I’m done nerding out now.

Music-wise I’ve been working on three things, basically.  One is, I’m trying to incorporate a couple of Yiddish songs into my repertoire.  I’ve got two down so far.  So that’s fun.  Another is the ongoing jam sessions with Bibi and Ralph.  There’s some talk about maybe trying to score some kind of gig in December, but I have my doubts as to whether we’d actually be ready by then. We’ll see.  And on the classical front, I’m still plugging away at those Carcassi studies.

But here’s the thing that’s really cool about that.  The sheet music I’m using is from my uncle Mike, who passed away a few years ago.  I wound up with a bunch of his sheet music, as I guess I’m the only one currently “studying” classical guitar.  Anyway, it’s got his own handwritten notes all over it. Which is super helpful.

Like, I’ll be trying to work out some passage or other and it’s not coming together.  And then I’ll see he’s got some note there.  Like, use your second finger, or play this on the third string, or go up to the seventh fret, or whatever.  And then boom, yeah, that’s so much easier, thanks!  

So it’s almost like I’m having a conversation with him.  Like he’s there with me, you know?  “Oh, you’re playing it thatway?  I was doing it thisway.  Try that. See?  Much better, right?”  It’s a bit surreal at times.  But it’s also oddly reassuring.  Comforting even.  Like, being over here in Germany, I don’t get to see my family very often.  I’ll never see him again.  But we still get to chill and play guitar together.

You know, in the old days, when the family would get together for Thanksgiving or whatever, the guitar players would invariably disappear off to another room.  Me, Justin, uncles Mike and Rich, cousin Jay (Mike’s son); and anybody else who wanted to listen.  We’d go around playing whatever piece we happened to be working on at the moment.  We’d trade guitars around and try out each other’s instruments.  Hell, uncle Rich builthis own guitars, so we were always trying out his latest masterwork.  Me and him would often try to bang out some or other duet.  Me and Justin might try to hack through a Bach invention together.

Unfortunately, those days are pretty much gone.  But somehow, alone in my room in Germany, I still get to jam with my uncle Mike a bit. That’s pretty fucking cool.

In other news, by way of burying the lede, I got an apartment!  That’s right, my very own apartment.  I am well pleased, you guys.  I won’t be properly moving in until towards the end of October,4 although I picked up the keys this very day. By which I mean Friday.  It’s a pretty decent size, something like 48 sq/m, which probably means as much to y’all in America as it does to me.  

It’s two rooms plus a kitchen and a bathroom.  The kitchen is well nice, plenty of space to do some proper cooking with room for a table to sit four people…cozily.  The living room has plenty of space.  I’ll actually finally be able to give people a place to crash, which is fantastic.  

The area is pretty solid. Much closer to the city, a lot more going on.  The tradeoff, of course, is less nature and no water.  But I’ll be able to ride to work directly, no transfers.  I mean, that’s a fucking life changing right there. Plus, there’s three trains total, not to mention trams and buses.  So transportation options in general are much improved.

It’s not perfect. There’s no balcony, which, as a New Yorker, who the fuck ever expects a balcony.  But they’re more common than not here, believe it or not.  And there’s no bath tub, just a tiny little shower. But, I mean, fine.  

And much like just about literally everything else that’s come my way in this town, it basically fell into my lap.  See, the owner is Bibi’s husband.  And he’s super chill.  He’s like, “Yeah, I don’t need any paperwork or credit checks, I don’t need a security deposit.  Just give it back the way you found it.”  Wow.  I mean, yeah, of course!

Turns out he owns a couple of apartments in the building; his daughter lives upstairs of me.  Or, better to say, I’ll live downstairs from her. I met her today when I picked up the keys.  Very nice kid.  It’ll be nice to have a friendly face in the building.  Also, he (his name is Uli) and Bibi live like ten minutes away walking; so we’ll be able to jam that much more.  Added bonus.  

In addition to all that, I’ll be much closer to most of my friends.  I’ll be 25 minutes from Anne and probably about the same from Joschka; as opposed to an hour now.  J-Dawg apparently lives basically around the corner.  Esma won’t be far either.  Oh, and halfway between me and Joschka is a kick-ass whiskey bar.  The bonuses just keep on coming.  So yeah, I’m pretty psyched.

But there’s a bittersweet note to all of this also.  I’m kinda sad that I won’t be near water anymore.  I mean, until now, I’ve lived my whole life on islands.  Being near water is really kinda key for me.  But more than that, I had to break the news to Lucy and Marco.  They were of course very happy for me.  Bu also, actually kinda sad.  I’ll come back to that point in a minute.

First, let me say again, as I’ve said many times, they’re wonderful roommates.  We have a great relationship.  We still eat together, and lately we’ve even started playing board games together.  And look, I’m not an easy person to live with.  I sleep for hours in the afternoon and I’m up all hours of the night.  I’m often anti-social slash grumpy.  And they don’t care a whit.  They just let me be, let me keep to my ways, and like me for who I am.  And I would never leave here to go live with different people; no matter how nice or practical a given apartment might be.  If I have to have roommates, I would choose them every time.

I say all that, because, man, living with roommates has really started to take its toll on me in the last year.  I mean, I’m 38.  I just want to be alone.  I’m tired of hearing the dogs barking every time I come home.  I’m tired of sharing a kitchen.  Tired of sharing a bathroom.  Of everything, really.  Like, I have days where I Just think, “Gods, I need to get out of here.”  Which is very much about me and not about them. But that doesn’t make it any less real.

Which is why their being sad is so fascinating to me.  Like, we’re clearly different people.  What I mean is, it’s not strange to me that they like me generally.  It’s not strange to me that they find this living arrangement workable.  Or, as I do, the best possible outcome in a world where we have tohave roommates.  What I can’t really fathom is, why, as a married couple, would they actively chooseto have a third person, unknown to them before I moved in, living with them?

And it is a choice at this point.  I don’t think they’re going to rent the room out again after I go.  So, while I’m sure the extra money makes their lives easier, it doesn’t appear to be an out-and-out necessity.  It was actually kinda funny.  Marco was like, “Yeah, well, we’re getting old, we don’t know if we want to start over again with a new roommate.”  And yet, by all appearances, I could have stayed just as long as I would have liked.

And we’re not super close, either.  I mean, sure, we talk at length when we eat together.  We have a great time when we play board games.  And obviously we get along wonderfully.  But we don’t talk at length most days.  We’re not usually going to each other with our problems. We never go out together.  So “close” is not a word I would use, necessarily. 

Which is not to say I won’t miss them.  Of course I will.  And I certainly intend to have them over regularly, whether to eat or play games or both.  Like, I don’t see this as the end of the relationship in any way.  I’m glad I know them, and I want them to continue to be a part of my life here.

But am I sad to be leaving them?  No. And because that’s how I am, it’s hard for me to grasp how they can be different, you know?  But they are.  And they are undeniably a bit sad that I’m going.  Which, as I said, is curious.  But you know what else it is?  It’s also really fucking sweet.  That’s they kind of people they are.  I got super fucking lucky with them.  But it’s time for the next chapter of this whole Berlin story.  

I’ll obviously have more to say about this in the coming weeks.  But for now, I think I’m gonna stop here.  Which I guess makes this an unusually (refreshingly?) short post. But I don’t really have anything else I want to talk about at the moment, so why force it?

So let me just say this. Summer appears to be over.  Which is a bit of a shame.  Or it would be, if hockey season wasn’t starting up.  Let’s go Islanders!!!

זײַ געזונט

  1. In English.  Good on you, girl.  []
  2. Though he stresses that the numbers themselves must be the choices of democratically elected governments. Ultimately the people must decide for themselves what they deem appropriate. []
  3. Or rather, I hadn’t, when I first started this post.  I’m about 50 pages in now.  Pretty good so far, but the vocab can be a beast at times. []
  4. October – which I nearly spelled with ‘k,’ hashtag I’ve been in this country too long. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
2 September, 2019
(Originally written 28 June, 2019)

Oh, hi.  I mentioned in my last post that I’ve got a couple of un-edited posts backing up. This is one of them; originally drafted towards the end of June.  So some of it may be a bit out of date, and some of it may have been covered in subsequent posts.  But it seemed best to me to just put it up as is…

OK, so listen to this. I’m leaving school the other day. And as I pass the second landing on my way down the stairs, I hear a door open behind me, followed by footsteps. One of those super awkward things where you know somebody is like two steps behind you but you don’t turn around cos that’s weird.  But you kinda want to speed up, because the distance between you is uncomfortably close. Except you don’t, because, wait, is that rude?  So you just deal with it till you get all the way down.  At that point, I open the door and stand aside with the universal gesture of, “After you, good sir.”  

Except Good Sir was all, “No, no, after you, good sir.”  And I’m like, come on man, I’m holding the door here, just go.  And he’s all like, but you were here first.  At which point it crossed my mind that good manners get you increasingly nowhere.  

Anyway, I gave up and went first.  Thinking – nay, hoping – that would be the end of it.  But of course Good Sir is walking to the train, same as me. Because of course he is.  And now he wants to chat.  “You live here?  Oh, you work here?  What do you do?  Where are you from?  Did you study German?  Your German is very good.”  Oh gods. 

And in the course of this forced and somewhat awkward conversation, I learn that Good Sir is from Syria, he’s Christian, lives in a sort of refugee hostel in the same building as my school1 and is studying German, having been in the country for three years now.  So yeah, lovely fellow, if a bit socially awkward.  And not at all tuned in to subtle social cues, because I was trying to politely show – without saying – that the last thing I wanted to be doing was having a conversation with a complete stranger after working all day. I think I tried to put my earphones in like three times on the way to the train…

So we get down to the platform.  Now normally, I walk all the way to the end.  Because that lines me up with the stairs at the station where I get off. But he stops towards the front of the platform.  At which point, I say, “Welp, I gotta go down to that end.”  Which apparently he took as an invitation to accompany me.  Ugh.

We keep talking.  The train comes.  We get on and continue the conversation.  Look, it wasn’t not interesting.  For work, he repairs iPhones, a skill which he taught himself by watching Youtube tutorials.  I mean, that’s impressive.

Anyway, he asks me where I’m from.  I tell him and ask if he’s ever been to the States.  He says no, he’s not allowed.  Because he’s from Syria; i.e. one of Trump’s Muslim banned countries.  “Ah, because of Trump?” I ask.  “Yeah,” he says.  “Er ist ein Arschloch,” says I.  (He’s an asshole).  “Doch,” says he.  (Nuh-uh). “Excuse me?” quoth I.  

And that’s when it started. “No, Trump is great!  I like Trump!”  He actually said that.  What the ice-cold fuck?2  I mean, I had to ask, right?  At which point I received my dose of Fox/RT/White House propaganda for the year. Trump is strong on the economy. China manipulates its currency. Europe is protectionist, that’s why you can’t find American products in Europe.3

“Okaaaaay,” I say slowly. “But, like, you know he’s a racist, right?  He plays people against each other.  He riles up hatred.  He’s corrupt and as criminal as you can be without being judged guilty in a court of law.”

To which he answered, “But there’s always been hatred and racism in America.”  I mean, yes.  But you can fight against that, or you can manipulate it and heat it up for your own personal gain.

“But he’s good for Syria. He’s on the right side in the civil war.”  Is what Good Sir said next.  And look, I wasn’t about to tell this guy his own business about his own country. (Even though he was pretty happy to tell me my business about my own country).  But also, to the extent that that’s true, wasn’t Trump continuing Obama’s policies there?  Until he wasn’t.  At which point, didn’t SecDef Mattis resign because Trump decided to basically pull out of Syria?

Anyway, I was only too happy when I could finally say, “Hey, isn’t this your stop?”  I breathed a sigh of relief when he got off the train, I ain’t gonna lie.  And look, he was a decent enough chap, right?  I mean, he was clearly a nice guy.  Thoughtful.  Intelligent, even.  Because you can be smart, and still be wrong.  Or you can be entitled to your own point of view based on your personal life experiences, which in this case are so tremendously different than my own. I mean, let me just thank all of the gods right now that I’m here in Germany because, well, I feel like it, and not because I’m fleeing a civil fucking war.

And on another level, it was refreshing in a way.  What I mean is, when was the last time you were able to have a political discussion with someone you didn’t agree with?  When you were both able to express your opinions politely and without judgment? To be more specific, when was the last time you were able to talk politics with a Trump supporter and notwalk away thinking the person was a racist, a Nazi, a raging idiot, or some combination thereof?  That’s what I mean, when I say it was refreshing.  But also, what the ice-cold fuck, you guys?

In the same vain, I was party to a conversation a little while back.  And by “party to,” I more mean “witness to.”  Because really, this was a conversation between two other people; middle aged Germans, it’s worth mentioning.  And one of them was expressing the “Why are we taking all these refugees when we already have homeless German people?  Why are we paying such high taxes to support these people? And don’t we have a housing crunch without taking in even more people?”  And look, I know this person.  This cat is my friend.  So I was pretty sad to be hearing this stuff from the mouth of a friend.  

But I get it.  I mean, up to a point.  And when I say “I get it,” I do not mean that I agree in any way, shape or form.  I just mean, I get people’s anxiety.  Because that’s how people are.  When you’re already worried about your own housing sitch, or your own job, or when you feel like you’re being pinched tax-wise, well, it’s human nature to look askance at the “competition.”  And when the competition is “other,” however that’s defined in any given scenario, the askance-ness gets magnified.  It sucks, but that’s how it is.

But also, that’s what we’ve got to fight against.  And then I had this thought.  This poor person.  Fuck, this is how the AfD gets voters.  The AfD don’t talk like Nazis, right?  They’re not openly racist.  Well, not usually.  They just play on people’s fears.  They let decent people think, “Hey, I’m not racist.  I’m just trying to take care of myself.”

Also, I should state clearly, I have no idea how my friend votes.  I mean, I have no actual reason to think this cat would ever vote AfD. All I mean is, the views being expressed, they were coming in the language used by right-wing nationalist parties.  Or rather, I should say, right wing nationalist parties have coöpted the language people use to express their fears in order to make their own heinous views more acceptable in polite company.

And I have to say, man, I was embarrassed by how I handled this at first.  Because like I said, this cat is my friend.  So I was trying to be somewhat conciliatory.  You know, things like, “Well, yeah, I know what you mean. I don’t like to see my money disappear in taxes either.  And gods know I’m living this housing crunch, having been trying (and failing) to find my own apartment for nigh on seven months now.”  And only after all that was I able to muster some “buts.”  But these people need help.  But they’re feeling a civil fucking war.  But the homeless problem here isn’t half as bad as in NY or SF. But healthcare in the US is fucked, don’t these people deserve medical care?  But you don’t know how good you have it.  

It was weak tea though. And I’m embarrassed, straight up. I should have been stronger on my principles.  Which brings me to…

Thank gods for my other friend.  She wasn’t having any of it.  She was on top of it from the get.  “You think their taking our housing?  You think they have it nice?  They’re living in corrugated metal shacks.”4  “Homeless problem?  Yeah we have homeless people.  We also have a lot of Germanpeople who just don’t want to work because they’re only too happy to collect social welfare.”5

I forget what her other arguments were now.  But the point is, she was on top of shit, and she wasn’t having any of this nativist bullshit.  But also, she had the credibility to take that stand.  She was able to express these things on a level that I just can’t with my German.  No, that’s not quite right.  I could have got those points across.  But it would have soundeddifferent.  And that’s not nothing.

Because I noticed something super fucking fascinating as this conversation progressed, as they each took to defending their views with increasing vigor.6  Their accents shifted.  Their Berlin accents became more pronounced.  And it certainly wasn’t intentional.  It wasn’t even conscious, I’m quite sure.  Just, they were getting their emotions up, and the pretenses were falling to the wayside.  

I mean, from a purely linguistic standpoint this was just amazing to watch.  But that’s what I mean by ‘credibility.’  They weren’t just talking to each other as friends, or even as ‘Germans.’  They were talking to each other as ‘Berliners.’  That’s what I mean, when I say I wouldn’t have been able to express myself with myGerman on their level.  I open my mouth, and it’s instantly clear that I’m not a Berliner, not the way they are.

None of this is meant as an excuse, by the way.  It’s absolutely no excuse for not being stronger on my principles at the outset. Just that, the same arguments carried more weight coming out my friend’s mouth than my own.  That perhaps my native Berliner friend was more ‘entitled’ – for lack of a better word – to make them than a transitory Yank.

Anyway, hearing my friend say the things I should have been saying woke me up, snapped me out of my shit. It was like, “Oh, shit, yeah, that’s who I am.  That’s what I stand for.”  And again, I’m embarrassed that I even needed that.  Hopefully it can be a learning experience, and I’ll be better prepared next time I find myself party to such a conversation.  

So when I heard my friend speak up, I spoke up too.  And I was pretty forceful, I think, doing the best I could with my German.  Among other things, I said, “Hey, you know, I came here from another country too, you know.  And not for nothing, when my people came to America, they didn’t speak the language.”  Like, come on.  You don’t have a problem with me, because I’m your friend.  But I contribute to the housing crunch.  I came here not really speaking the language.  I’m a part of the gentrification that’s going on around us. I said other things too, and the conversation continued on for a while.  In the end, we sort of agreed to disagree.

But there were a couple of takeaways from all that.  First and foremost, I need to be stronger in expressing my views.  Yes, it’s important to be able to have these discussions in a civil way; to be able to disagree with people without being an asshole. But I don’t have to be conciliatory, I don’t have to give ground just because I like somebody, because they’re my friend.  That’s the most important lesson here.

Also, though, I was super proud of my other friend.  I’d never really talked politics with her before, so I really had no idea where she was on any of this.  And the way she just stepped up to the plate, the way she was just “Nope.  I love you, but I’m not buying what you’re selling, and here’s why.”  I mean, that was fantastic.  I was just so proud of her.  And I was like, “Take notes, Davey.  That’s what we wanna be like.”

As for the first friend, the one with whom I disagreed.  Yeah, that made me sad.  But it was also a good case study.  It was a chance to listen to somebody you care about, to listen to their fears and concerns and try to get at what makes them tick.  To recognize that you can disagree with someone and still care about them, still likethem.  To not just fucking judgepeople.

Oh, and there’s one last thing about this which struck me as rather interesting.  One of these cats is a Wessie(a West German) and one is an Ossie(an East German).  In other words, the Wessie grew up in the ‘Free West,’ if we can say that, with connections to America and all the rest.  And the Ossie grew up behind the Iron Curtain.  And it was the Ossie who shared my views.  It was the Wessie who was on the other side.  Which is weird, because it’s in the East where the AfD has its base.  And we think of the West as leaning liberal.  Yet here it was reversed.  I don’t know what that means.  Just, I found it interesting.

In other news, Torah. I’ve written a bit before on what reading Torah means to me on a spiritual level and on an intellectual level. About how it relates to my Jewish identity, about how reading Torah in a foreign country with no other Jews around keeps me “Jewish.”  

But I’m finding something else now.  I’m finding the rhythm.  Last year was my first time through The Book.7  And so last year meant reading every single day, my face buried in a dictionary.  But I’ve done the hard work now.  I’ve got four notebooks filled with vocabulary. Which means, now, I can just read. Read the text, read the commentary. 

And now, it’s three days a week.  Which Is what it’s really supposed to be.  Even if you go to shul every day, the Torah only comes out three days a week. So I’m on schedule, as a I should be. Reading each weekly reading in the prescribed week.

That’s what I mean by rhythm.  Like, whatever else is going on in my life, there’s always8 Torah, three days a week.  And you know what?  It’s almost always super peaceful.  Like, it’s my time to shut out the world.  Crack a beer, light the pipe, read some Torah.  Sure, that’s probably not what משה רבנוhad in mind when “he” “wrote” the damn thing.9  But it works for me.

And look, that doesn’t mean I always love what I’m reading, right?  I mean, בראשית ושמות– Genesis and Exodus – are pretty fun. Cosmogony, Garden of Eden, Noah and the Flood, Tower of Babel, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; Moses’ origin story, the ten plagues, leaving Egypt, splitting of the waters, revelation at Sinai, Golden Calf and subsequent shitshow.  I mean, it’s good storytelling.

But man, after that?  You know Torah means “law,” right?10  It’s three books of Do This, Don’t Do That.  You Fucked Up But God Is Merciful…Unless You Really Fuck Up In Which Case Look Out.  Also, the original DIY guide on How to Build a Tabernacle.  And of course, the bestselling “How to Survive 40 Years in the Desert on One Serving of Manna per Day: A Wanderer’s Guide.”  

All I’m saying is, it’s not necessarily the content what keeps me coming back.  It’s the ritual, the rhythm.  Which isn’t to say it’s not interesting.  I mean, I’m learning a lot.  It’s fascinating to see what our greatest minds have made of this text through the centuries, even if I don’t agree with all of it.  

And to be fair, I do like quite a bit of it.  There’s a lot of stuff about how you ought to treat people, how you ought to help people less fortunate than you.  But also, just because you’re poor or powerless doesn’t mean you can’t do anything.  Whatever. Now I’m getting into content, which I didn’t want to do.

I just wanted to say that it’s becoming a part of the background music of my life.  And in a way that’s somehow quite reassuring, quite peaceful.  It’s just always there.  It’s “me time,” when I can work and think (and drink and smoke) alone. But also a way for me to connect with my people across space and time.  

And it weaves itself into the rhythm of the year itself.  You know, reading Genesis is just part of the fall now. And the new year brings Exodus. You remember where you were and where you are.  Like there’s this poetic passage towards the end of Genesis, which – let’s call a spade a spade – is a real bitch to read.  But the first time I read it, I was staying at Charlotte’s place in Nice, for the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  So now, whenever I read that passage – which I guess will be every year now for the rest of my life – it’s always gonna bring me back to that week in Nice, and all the good memories that come with it.

Are there weeks when it just feels like homework?  Sure.  There are definitely weeks where the text is so…ugh, boring.  When I’m like, “OMG, I don’t care about anyof this!”  Oh, also, reading Torah has in no way limited my use of “God” as a swear word.  Like, pretty sure I say “Oh my fucking God, what the actual ice-cold fuck?!?” 87 times a day.  Like a Facebook status, it’s complicated.

All to say, this whole reading Torah thing has become rather important to me.  Last year – the first year – it was a challenge.  Just to see if I could read the whole thing, on schedule, in a year. And I did, mission accomplished. But now, it’s become something more. Like I said, it keeps me “Jewish,” in a land where I feel really very alone as a Jew.  But also, it’s become a part of the rhythm of things.  And that ain’t nothin’.  

One last thing before closing.  I signed up for a week long Yiddish seminar.  It’ll be held in Weimar, the last week of July.  I’m so excited, you guys!  Also a bit nervous.  I signed up for the intermediate course.  There were four options: Beginner One, Beginner Two, Intermediate and Advanced.  Well, I’m clearly past Beginner One and just as clearly not ready for Advanced.  But I was sorta stuck between Beginner Two and Intermediate.  Would the former be too easy?  Would the latter be too hard?  

But I wrote an email to the administrator, and he said I should take the Intermediate, if I was up for a challenge.  Which I am.  Anyway, point is, a weeklong intensive Yiddish course!  I can’t fucking wait.  Also, it’s part of a larger program which includes Klezmer music courses. I won’t be taking any of those, but there will be concerts.  And also, opportunities to jam with people, apparently.  So I’ll definitely be brining my guitar.  And who knows?  Maybe I can meet a nice Jewish girl.  We’ll see. Point is, I’m amped.  

Anyway, that’s enough for now.  Obviously I’ll have more to say on the Yiddish course after it happens.  In the meantime, the Yanks just keep rolling. 

Oh, baseball!  I bought a second baseball glove.  So Joschka has promised to have a catch with me at Tempelhoferfeld at some point during the summer.  And maybe I can snooker one or two other friends into throwing the ol’ apple around. Funny how much you can miss such a simple thing has having a catch when you live in a foreign country…

זײַ געסונט

  1. I always knew there was a hostel in our building.  I didn’t know it was for refugees.  Pretty cool, no?  Good on you, Berlin. []
  2. “What the ice-cold fuck” is actually what came into my head.  I know it’s not a thing.  But I think it sounds great, and I would very much love for it to become a thing.  So please, can you all start saying “What the ice-cold fuck?”  Let’s make it a thing, you guys. []
  3. My first reaction to this final point was to be somewhat incredulous.  I mean, there’s McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway all over the place.  Half the country is walking around with iPhones. But the more I thought about it – and discussed this with other people – it does seem that these companies seem to be the exception and not the rule.  So he may actually have a point there. []
  4. Which is true.  Tempelhof airport has a whole colony of prefab metal shacks for refugees.  And as I later learned from Good Sir from Syria, they’re living in hostels for years on end. []
  5. Such people absolutely exist, though what percentage of the homeless population they make up, I have no idea.  I should add that my friend was in no way disparaging the social welfare state (nor am I in repeating her argument).  She was simply saying that, to the extent that there’s a problem of people taking advantage of the social welfare state, the problem lies far more heavily with native Germans than with refugees, who would like nothing better than to have a job and be able to support themselves. []
  6. Vigorous, but always polite, always civil. []
  7. The Scroll?  No, but actually, it is in bookform.  I’m reading from a Chumash, with vowel-pointing, translation and commentary. I am definitely not anywhere near good enough to “just read” from a sefer torah, the actual scroll, with no vowels, no translation and no commentary. []
  8. Always.  I should say usually.  I still have a life, right?  So some weeks – this week, for example – I need four days.  Some weeks, even five, if time is tight.  But such weeks are exceptions; three days a week is the rule. []
  9. משה רבנו.  Moshe Rabbeinu: Moses, our teacher.  Tradition has it that Moses himself wrote down the Torah, literally transcribing the word of God, as given to him on הר סיני, Mount Sinai. []
  10. Well, it does mean “law.”  But it also means “teaching.” []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
26 August, 2019

OK, so I think this is gonna be a short one.  See, I’ve got like two or three unpublished posts in the pipeline.  It’s just that I haven’t had time to proofread and edit them. And by “proofread and edit,” of course, I simply mean, give them a sober once-over.  Which is probably what I should be doing now.

Except that, today (Saturday), I had my first post-Weimar Yiddish experience.  I mentioned in that post that I had made plans to meet with one of the guys on Skype1 to do some reading and have a bit of schmooze. So that was today.  But before I get into that, I should probably introduce this “one of the guys.”

That would be a Polish goy by the name of Bartek.  Actually, I’m pretty sure his name is whatever the unpronounceable-unspellable Polish version of Bartholomew is.  But in Weimar, everybody got a Yiddish name, and those were the only names we used. So he’s Bartek.  And for the record, I’m Dovid (yes, with an ‘o’),2 or sometimes Dovidl, which is the diminutive.3

Two things about Bartek. First, he’s just a lovely human being. You know, one of those genuinely warm and kind mutherfuckers.  Also, he’s a total language whiz, or Sprachgenie.  And look, I know some of you think I have some kind of knack for languages.  I’ve never thought that.  I just find them fascinating and apply myself.  But nothing about language comes natural to me. And to the extent that some things come to me a little easier, I put that down to experience rather than any innate skill.

But this guy.  Sheesh. He goes to polyglot conferences. Hell, he’s Turkey right now.  Just cos he wants to learn Turkish.  And the only book he brought is a Turkish-Arabic phrase book.  (Yes, he speaks Arabic).  And he’s just all, “Yeah, I’m basically gonna work backwards from the Arabic and just try to listen to people and put myself out there.”   You know, the way nature intended.

Anyway, this is the guy I was reading with today.  As for the text, we picked to two short poems by Itzik Manger. One was about Esther getting ready to see the king; so a Purim story.  And the other was about Rachel and Leah and how they both loved the same guy.4

We prepared the texts in advance.  Which means we did the work of looking up the words we didn’t know (if we could find them; which was not always the case) and reading through the poems a few times to try and get a basic understanding.  Needless to say, poetry in foreign languages is not always the easiest thing.  So that was kind of the starting point.

Naturally, he calls me up from a café somewhere in Turkey.  And I’m like, “Are you sure it’s OK to speak Yiddish in public over there?”  And he’s just like, “If anybody hears me, they’ll probably just think it’s German anyway.”  Fair point.

So the little video window opens up, and there’s Bartek.  “Vos hert sich?” he says.  The Yiddish “What’s up?”  To which the answer is, of course, “Vos zol sich hern?”  “Up? What should be up?”  And from there, a bit of catching up before getting down to business.

Ah, the business.  Now this is the shit that I love.  First, I should explain that each poem tells a narrative story.  And the poems themselves are divided into four line strophes, or stanzas.  So we would take turns reading a strophe out loud.  Then we’d go back over it and deal the vocab word by word before finally coming to some kind of agreement on what the whole thing meant.  

As I mentioned, the vocab was not always easy.  Neither of us have access to a top-notch dictionary at the moment,5 so we were both working with second rate resources. Add to that, Yiddish was standardized pretty late in the game, so the same word can be spelled in a variety of different ways.  And finally, it’s poetry.  So sometimes words are used metaphorically in ways that are not immediately obvious. Sometimes words are straight up invented for a one-time use.

But even just this process – trying to determine what a given word might mean – was fascinating.  Sometimes only one of us found a definition.  Sometimes each of us found a different definition.  Sometimes he’d know a word from Polish or modern Hebrew; and yes he also speaks Modern Hebrew.  Or I might recognize something as being similar to an obscure-ish English word.  Or we might both recognize something that looked German.  And yes, he also speaks German and English.

And, you know, sometimes you just have to settle.  Like, there was this one word ‘lak.’  And the sentence was something like, “and he gave her shoes of lak.”  The best we could do there was to say, “Right, well, it’s obviously something nice and something you can make shoes out of.”  Well, you can’t win ‘em all.  At least not without a better dictionary.  

As for what the poems actually fucking mean…well.  We had some good discussions there.  I mean, there was a lot of, “OK, the way I read it, it means xyz.  What do you think?”  “Oh, that’s interesting.  I had read it as abc.”  And then you present your argument.  Sometimes I convinced him.  Sometimes he convinced me.  Other times, we just sort of agreed that both readings were possible.

And all this is happening in Yiddish, btw.  I mean, at times we would re-state things in English, just to avoid confusion.  But really, we were discussing the texts in Yiddish.  And just, that was so much fun, you know?  I mean, this kinda shit is fun anyway, right?  Like, this is what I do with Phil, my professor, with Greek.  So it’s a good time regardless.  This is my jam.  But to be able to do it with Yiddish texts, inYiddish?  Achievement unlocked.

All told, we chatted for like 2.5 hours.  And at the end, we were both pretty well overjoyed.  Beyond the obvious fun-ness of the whole thing, we both also walked away from it with a very strong feeling of, “Shit, I understand these texts so much more than before we spoke!”  Which, of course, was the fucking point of it all anyway.  

So where do we go from here?  Well, Akivele is super keen to get in on this reading group business.  He didn’t join us today, obvi, bc Shabbos. But he’s already picked a new text for us; by the same author, as it happens.  

Interpolation: This has nothing to do with anything, but.  As I’m writing, I’m listening to the first Diamond Head album.  This is a band that made, I think, a grand total of two albums.  And in the big picture, their biggest contribution to metal is their influence on Metallica, which could not ever have been Metallica without them.6  In fact, I’m pretty sure Metallica has covered literally every song from that first Diamond Head album.

And with good reason.  It’s what I call “internally perfect.”  What I mean is, as a complete whole, it cannot be improved upon in any way. If you changed any aspect of it, even in the slightest, it could only be worse.  That’s not say there aren’t “better” albums.  Albums with a couple of true classic hits, or superior production. But even better albums have that one track you don’t love.  Or the production could be better.  Or whatever. Not so this album.  Every song, every note, every sound, it’s all as perfect as it could possibly be.  How many albums can you say that about?  It really is something special, that first Diamond Head album.  :End Interpolation.

Anyway.  Going forward with the Yiddish stuff.  Bartek and I agreed that we could probably manage this amount of text and two hours of discussion once a week or so.  For now, at least.  So that’s the plan.  And I’m super jazzed about it.  Plus, it’ll be great to get Akiva in on the action.  

Two thoughts on all this, and then I’ll wrap up.  Cos like I said, this is gonna be a short one.  The first thought is not a new one.  But how fucking lucky am I to meet people like this, to have people like this in my life?  I mean, if I had gone to this Weimar Yiddish thing a different week, or a different year, I wouldn’t have met these bochayrim, these fellas.  It’s pretty amazing.  

And look, there’s no way of knowing how long these people will be in my life.  Akiva is in the states, Bartek lives in Poland.  But for however long it lasts, it’s a fucking win.  I mean, I know people will say you’re probably gonna meet interesting people wherever you go, whatever you do.  That is, it’s self-selecting on some level.  You are who you are, and as such, you’re going to meet like-minded people.  

But it always feels so random, so down to chance.  Anne, Joschka, Vinny, Charlotte, Esma,7 and so many others.  And now these two.  But always in the back of mind, there’s this sense of, “Damn, you know, if just one little thing had gone differently, you never woulda met this or that clown.”  I may not always be lucky.  Lucky in love, I sure as shit ain’t.  But this kind of luck?  I just keep coming up aces.  And I’ll never not be thankful for that.

Second Interpolation: The Diamond Head album has ended, on this playlist I’m listening to, and now the first Def Leppard album is playing.  And look, I’m not – broadly speaking – a fan of that band.  Way to cheesy, poppy, whatever you want to say.  But the first album is so different from everything that would come after. It’s very much a NWOBHM album. And all things NWOBHM have a very special place in my heart.  But really, it’s a very very good record.  Not as good as the Diamond Head, mind you.  But good enough to be on the same playlist.8  :End Second Interpolation.

I said I wanted to end with two thoughts.  The first was how lucky I am with the people I meet.  The second…umm, I got distracted by the Def Leppard.  And now I’ve forgotten.  But I thinkwhat I wanted to say was, just how bloody well pleased I am to have an opportunity to speak Yiddish.  Like, it just makes me happy, you know?  It just feels right.  

Akiva put me in touch with this Jewish couple in Berlin.  The husband and wife, they’re both rabbis. And every week, they host a Shabbos dinner.  So I went Friday.  And it was great.  Which, that’s an entire post to itself.  But just to say, there were 12 people at this shindig.  And with twelve people, there were a lot of languages on offer. English, German, Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian.  But not one Yiddish speaker in the bunch.  

So even in a situation where it’s like, omg finally, other Jews in Berlin!  Still, not one person with whom I can kibitz in Yiddish.  Which only serves to emphasize both how lucky I am to have met Bartek and Akiva, and how truly grateful I am for that.  Because those guys are giving me something that I don’t just want, but something which I really kinda need at this point.

Put it another way.  I’ve decided to make reading Torah something central to my life.  But like, not cos I enjoyit, you know?  I mean, there are times when I do enjoy it, of course.  There’s a certain sense of peace that comes with reading Torah with a beer and my pipe.  Which, granted, is probably not what Moishe Rabeynuhad in mind.  But it’s a time to shut out the world, and think and study and learn.  Cheesy, I know.  The truth is though, I do it in large part out of a sense of responsibility. Like, ich bin nicht keyn gleybiker. I don’t believe in God, per se. I don’t keep kosher or observe the Sabbath.  I mean, I’m generally breaking most of the first four commandments.9

But I’ve come to the opinion that, if I’m going to actively identify myself as Jewish, if that’s going to be important to me – and I do, and it is – then I need to act on that.  And if I’m serious about that – and I am – then, if nothing else, I should know the Torah.  Because without Torah, who are we?  What are we? 

So I read – I hesitate to say “study,” because that’s so freighted a word in this context – but I read Torah, as I say, more from a sense of responsibility than anything else.  It’s a mitzvah.  Maybe themitzvah, I dunno.  When I was growing up, my mother used the word ‘mitzvah’ to mean “a good deed.”  Like, if you help an old lady cross the street, you’ve done a mitzvah.  

But really, the word ‘mitzvah’ means “commandment.”  Something, in other words, you mustdo, because The Big G commands it.  And that seems to carry the sense of, “Yeah, dude, it’s a fucking burden, I get that.  But it’s a burden with rewards.  That’s why y’all mutherfuckers are my chosen peeps.”  I paraphrase, of course.  

To put it another way, I guess, I do it to feel connected with my people.  Yeah, it’s a burden.  I mean, it’s real work.  Setting aside an hour-plus a day, three days a week.  Every fucking week of the year.  Anyway, it’s more responsibility than fun, was the point of this whole fucking detour.

But Yiddish.  That’s fun. Just plain fun.  There’s no responsibility there.  Unless you wanna get super meta and somehow wrap it into honoring your parents and grandparents and your family’s heritage, and all that jazz. And yeah, that’s in there.  It’s very much in there.

But at the end of the day, dude, it’s just fucking fun.  And fun in way that touches my heart and shit. Like, I’m just fucking happy when I’m chatting away in Yiddish.  To the point even where it’s working its way into my German.  But that’s for another post.  One of those aforementioned written-but-as-yet-unedited posts, btw.

So lemme end this already-too-long post with a little dedication to Bartek and Akiva.  A sheynem dank, fellas.  A dankfor coming into my life and being generally awesome.  But also for giving me an opportunity to speak some Yiddish. Y’all don’t know what it means to me.

זײַ געסונט

  1. In the event, it was actually WhatsApp. []
  2. Or a qometz-alef, if you spelled it out phonetically in Yiddish.  Which you wouldn’t, because it’s a Hebrew word/name, and loshen-koydishe verterdon’t get spelled phonetically, they get spelled Hebraically; in other words, without vowels. []
  3. Apparently, Dovidl is how the Hassids call DVDs.  A little DVD is a dvdl, or dovidl. []
  4. And both married the same guy.  Because Torah? []
  5. I’ve ordered one – well, two actually – but they haven’t arrived yet. []
  6. One of the guys from Metallica once said, “There are more great riffs in one Diamond Head song than on the first four Sabbath albums combined.”  That should tell you everything you need to know. []
  7. Esma, my former student, is “the Turkish girl” from previous posts.  It’s time a put a name to her. []
  8. Also on this playlist are Motörhead’s “Bomber” album, which fits perfectly with the other two.  And also AC/DC’s “Razor’s Edge.”  Which fits less perfectly.  But hey, it’s my playlist, bitches. []
  9. The whole ‘graven images’ thing is pretty easily avoided.  As for the other six, I can generally manage to honor my parents, not to murder, steal, commit adultery or covet shit what ain’t mine.  Generally. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
18 August, 2019
Schlepping Goles Edition

So as some of you know, I recently completed a week long intensive Yiddish language class.  It was part of larger, month long cultural program called Yiddish Summer in Weimar.1  And omg you guys, did I love the ever-loving shit out of it.  And I’ll tell you all about it.  But first, a bit of background.

As I’ve written about previously, I’ve spent the better part of the last year methodically working through a Yiddish grammar book.  Which I finished literally the week before the class started, btw.  In addition to that, I had also started reading articles in Yiddish in The Forward (or Der Forvarts, if you prefer), which is a newspaper/magazine out of New York that still publishes weekly in Yiddish.

All of that was proceeding nicely, if slowly.  But as the course drew nearer, I started to worry that I had literally zero contact with the spoken language.  I mean, sure, I have a small vocabulary of assorted words and phrases dating back to my childhood.  But that’s a far cry from being able to speak, to understand.  

So I started digging around to see if there were any podcasts that might help with this.  And I discovered that there’s a weekly, hour-long radio program out of Boston, entirely in Yiddish.  Tchikave.2  (That means ‘interesting’).  So I downloaded an episode and sort of held my breath, you know?  Like, what am I actually getting myself into here?

Anyway, I hit play. And you know what?  I fucking understood that shit!  Like, 90%.  First time listening to real, spoken Yiddish and it’s just like, I got this!  Now, to be fair, speaking German is a huge leg up. Yiddish is classed as a Germanic language, after all, with roughly 80% of the vocab being straight up teitsch– German.  And while it stems from a different dialect than what predominates in modern Germany, and while it’s like 1000 years old on top of that, it’s nonetheless quite accessible.  And where it differs from modern German in grammar, syntax and vocabulary, well, my grammar book and readings had prepared me pretty well for all that.  

So in the span of one hour, I went from fearing that I would be way over my head in this Yiddish course (I signed up for the intermediate level class), to being like, “I fucking got this!”  That was a pretty great feeling.  And that was just the beginning.  

Right, so the class itself. What a joy.  The format was as follows.  10am-1pm with one teacher, Khayele.  And then 3pm-6pm with a different teacher, Mendi.  That’s six hours a day of class time, if you’re counting at home.

The morning teacher, Khayele, is this tiny little old lady who is also a total spitfire.  And straight off the bat, she’s just talking Yiddish.  No English, no German.  She speaks English with a rather posh British accent.  She knows just enough German to know the mistakes it causes in Yiddish, but she doesn’t speak the language.  So there were times when she would resort to English for a definition or a short explanation.  And she might shut down something you said with a headshake and the words “That’s German.” But really, she just spoke to us only in Yiddish.

And it was fine.  I mean, I’m sitting there listening to a person speaking Yiddish to me for the first time in my life, and I’m just fucking getting it, you guys.  But more than that, I love listening to it.  I love just hearing it.  Because even though it’s mostly German, it doesn’t feellike German.  The rhythm and the melody of the language are totally different.  

Different from German, but totally familiar.  There’s a word for this.  The word is heymish.  It’s hard to translate the full force of it.  The root is heym, “home.”  So it means something like, “feels like home; cozy; warm; comfortable; familiar; full of love.”  Heymishis somehow all of those things at once.

What I mean is, as soon as I heard her speak, I realized that I’d been hearing Yiddish my whole life. Just with English words.  Her rhythm, her melody, the words she chose to accent in a sentence, all of that kinda stuff.  I mean, she speaks Yiddish the way my dad speaks English.  Like, I literally felt at times like I was listening to my father speak.  

It was the same with Mendi, btw.  He speaks a different dialect, with a different accent.  But that rhythm, that melody, the rise and fall, it’s all the same. It just sounds and feels like home. In a way that German never does or can. S’iz geven a machaya.  It was a pleasure.

So that’s the listening side of things.  Speaking though, whoa.  That was a mindfuck, in the beginning.  It was a mindfuck because it required a total re-writing of mental pathways I’ve spent the last 3+ years in Germany writing.  Changes in pronunciation of the most basic words, changes in word order and sentence structure.  

Perhaps counterintuitively, the easiest part was adding in all the loshen-koydishe verter, all the Hebrew and Aramaic words.  Because, really, that was just a matter of dropping in new vocabulary.  This actually creates new problems now that I have to switch back to speaking German all the time.  But I’ll come back to that later.

In any case, the first two or three days were pretty rough going, in terms of speaking.  But we all got the hang of it sooner or later.  And by the end, we were all kibitzingandschmoozing with each other outside of class.  Which, I mean, so much fun.

Anyway, they called it an “intermediate” class.  But man, that was some kind of intermediate.  I mean, yeah there was some basic language instruction.  And Khayele particularly spent time on tog-tegliche leben conversational stuff, the stuff you use in every day life.  Which was as fun as it was necessary.  But we also read a lot of poetry, literature and even songs.  We did some of that with Khayele, but that was really Mendi’s side of things.  Especially the songs.

Mendi, man.  This guy is one of a kind.  Whereas Khayele is very much an academic, Mendi is definitely very much not.  And where Khayele is super secular, Mendi is…well, also secular.  But secular in that old school Jewish secular way.  The way where you don’t keep kosher or regularly observe Shabbos, but you also know all the prayers and are steeped in the traditions.

So with Mendi we read a bunch of poetry and literature.  And like I said, songs.  Which was weird on the first day.  Like, right from the get, he’s just “OK, lomir zingen.”  Let’s sing. And it’s like, uh, what?  I think it took us out of our comfort zone a bit in the beginning.  But by the end of the week, we were all singing along, full throatedly.  

In any case, the course itself was a huge success.  Between the two of them, we got a ton of culture, built up our listening skills and learned to speak the language rather well.  Now, obviously, “rather well” is open to interpretation.  So I’ll come back to that.

But the language course was just one part of this whole thing.  Every night there were what I’ll call “formal” performances.  In other words, events – usually concerts – which required buying tickets, were open to the public and held in a large theatre. I skipped all but one of those. Mostly because I needed that time to get away from people and also to catch a nap.

That’s not a knock on my classmates, btw.  They were honestly all fantastic, and many of them were kindred spirits.  I plan/hope to stay in touch with at least a couple of them.  But more on that later.  The point is – and I said this to them – we’re together six hours a day in class, plus lunch and dinner and then again for the cabarets (more on that to come!).  How do you people do this?  I was loving every second of it.  But, personally, I was also at the limits of my social interaction skills.  So I was skipping the concerts to get some alone time, which usually took the form of a nap.

Ah, but after the concerts…the cabarets.  Friends, these were emes chanoya, truly proper fun. Mendi MC’d these events, which were held in a little coffee house.  I’ve never really been to a ‘cabaret’ before, so I don’t know if this is the standard. But basically, it was just a lot of singing, dancing and drinking.  

Mendi sang a bunch of tunes just with an accompanying piano.  But it was open to anybody and everybody.  But we’re talking Klezmer here.  Because while we were doing a language class, there were also music classes. So those students got up and did various Klezmer tunes.  It was all great.

On the first night, I just sorta hung out in the back with some of my classmates and drank and observed. That all changed, though, on the second day, when Akiva showed up.  And so now, I gotta make a little detour and talk about my new friend Akiva.

So on the second day, this tiny little dude sporting a huge jew-fro with a yarmulke pinned to it shows up in class.  And he’s just this little ball of energy and positivity.  In other words, the sort of person I normally struggle to tolerate.

Except, this guy is so earnest and so warm and so kind and enthusiastic.  I mean, it’s like he danced his way out of some old folktale and into our classroom.  And he was really the only religious person in our group.  Out of fifteen or so people, maybe ten were Jewish.  And of those, none of us are observant.  

Then there’s this kid, with the Yeshiva education.  Shomer Shabbos, davening three times a day, keeping kosher, citing Talmud, the whole nine. And he’s from Boston.  But hey, nobody’s perfect.  Anyway, we hit it off straight away.  It helped that he had brought a harmonica with him, and I had my guitar. So on the breaks, we were always popping out for a quick jam.  But there was also a bit of a brother vibe there.  Because he’s 22 and I’m, achem, not.   

Anyway, dude shows up to cabaret, and all he wants to do is dance.  And he’s like dragging me into the circle dances and shit.  Which, anybody who’s ever been to a wedding or a bar mitzvah with me knows, is not really my thing.  But hey, the beer is flowing, the Klezmer is playing, and my little folktale friend is just lighting the place up.  So why the fuck not?

And that’s when it hit me. I was supposedto be there.  I mean, I’ve gotten so used to being the only Jew in my circle here.  The only Jew in my world, really.  Erm, I said “gotten used to,” but that’s not quite right.  I’m not used to it.  It’s very lonely, in fact.  I have a world of references, a treasury of vocabulary, a life of experiences, all of which mean nothing to nobody here.  I read Torah.  But I read Torah alone, holed up in my room.  It’s lonely being Jewish in Berlin.  And I’m not “used to it.”  But I have accepted it.  

Anyway, all of a sudden, I’m in a circle dance, listening to Klezmer, people are speaking and singing Yiddish all around me.  And it’s just, hang on, I belonghere.  I’m not lonely here.  I was gonna say, it felt like a weight had been lifted.  But that’s not quite right.  Better to say, I felt like I could put down my burden for a few minutes. 

You may have noticed that the subtitle of this post is “Schlepping Goles Edition.”  ‘Goles’ is the term for diaspora, although also with the stronger/sadder force of “exile.”  And for the handful of goyim reading this, “schlepp” means something like “carry a heavy burden.” And that term, “goles schleppen” showed up in one of the poems we read.

And as soon as I read it, it resonated with me.  It hit me hard.  Because it described for me, in two words, all that I’ve been feeling here.  Exile is not something you live.  It’s something you carry.  On your back.  Every minute of every day.

Now, traditionally, goles schleppenis meant with respect to Isreal. The Jewish diaspora and exile from our ancestral home.  That aspect of it doesn’t get very far with me.  For whatever reason, I’ve never felt any great connection with die heylige medinah, eretz ha’koydesh, Israel. But Berlin, at least from a Jewish perspective, is a sort of Babylonian exile.  Only, from New York, not from Israel.  What I mean is, you can live and prosper in this land.  You have the freedom to be Jewish.  But it is not, and never will be, home.  Your family, your friends, your community, your history; they’re all somewhere else.

All to say, I’m at these cabarets, and I’m drinking and dancing and singing.  And I’m going around in a circle, holding hands with the person on my right and the person on my left, and I’m just smiling.  And I just had this moment of, omg, I can finally put down the goles.  Even if it’s just for a few minutes.  You can’t put a price on that.

Also, the lads from our class performed.  Man, this was the fucking tits, you guys.  Seven of us in total, I think.  We did Somewhere over the Rainbow.  In Yiddish, obviously.  Side note, and I did not know this.  Whoever wrote the lyrics to Somewhere over the Rainbow was Jewish, and apparently the song is quite intentionally a metaphor for Israel.  The Holy Land isthe somewhere over the rainbow land.  That was news to me.

Anyway, Akiva and me worked up a really nice intro with the harmonica and guitar.  Then we all got to singing.  But wait, there’s more.  Mendi procured two people from the Klezmer class to play with us; a fiddle player and a clarinetist.  So they each took a solo in the middle of the song.  It was really fucking special, y’all.  Somewhere there’s a video, but I haven’t got my hands on it yet.

Also, the clarinetist was this (super-pretty-not-that-it-matters) French girl. So I chatted with her for all of two minutes.  At first, I just wanted a chance to talk a little French.  Which, you know, fine.  But then we switched to Yiddish.  And just, wow.  Friends. Yiddish with a French accent.  It may be the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard.  And then I asked her what her name was.  “Leah,” she said.  This Genesis-old name, with a French accent.  Out of a mouth that makes the clarinet sing in the key of Klezmer.  

My little friend Akiva may have danced his way out of some old folktale.  But this dame was like one of those messengers in Genesis, where you’re never really sure if they’re humans or angels.  Loshen-koydeshmeans something like “the sacred tongue.”  And as I said, it traditionally refers to Hebrew, and to a lesser extent, Aramaic.  But for me, the emeser loshen-koydesh– the true sacred tongue – is Yiddish with a French accent.  Just, wow.  

Tellya what was really beautiful though.  After the cabarets, we would spill out of the coffee house and onto the street, to make our ways to our various accommodations.  And in the dark of night, in the still of small-town Weimar, we would speak Yiddish, all the way home.  Yiddish af der gas.  Yiddish on the street.  

It was beautiful, but it was also bittersweet.  Because, like, it wasn’t real, you know?  We were all there for this festival/course/thingy.  So it’s an illusion, right?  I mean, it’s real, insofar as it’s happening.  But this doesn’t exist anywhere in the real world. Like, where’s the place where you can party all night and then just bullshit in Yiddish in the streets as you walk home?

You know, on the one hand, it was some kind of powerful.  What I mean is, you felt connected with your ancestors somehow. Like, maybe, over a hundred years ago, my parents’ great grandparents were also spilling out of some tavern, and just yakking away in Yiddish as they marched drunkenly aheym.  And in that sense, it was an emese simcha, a true joy.

But it was also some kind of heartbreaking.  Like, in a few days, we would all disperse back to our respective cities and countries. And then there would be no opportunity for this.  In a few days, I’d have to pick that golesback up again and get back to schlepping.  

As long as I was there, though, I tried to push those thoughts away and just enjoy it.  And I think I did a pretty good job of that.  Yeah, it hit me pretty hard when I got back to Berlin.  But while I was there, I loved the shit out of it.  I forget where our how it came up, but in reviewing my notes from class, I found that I’d scrawled the following sentence into my notebook: ich hob gefunen an oytzer af der velt. It means something like, “I’ve found a treasure in the world.”  Well yeah, I have.  

I have so much more to say about all this.  And perhaps I’ll return to it in future posts.  Like, I want to talk about the teaching styles of Khayele and Mendi. Both for how it relates to my own teaching style, and what I learned and observed from them.  And also to talk about what they both did for me on a more personal level.  

This whole experience also got me thinking about what I’m doing with my life, and, more to the point, what I shouldbe doing with my life. But there’s no way I’m getting into that now.  So what I’d like to do, is end this on a positive note.  Which I will.  But before I do, there’s another sadness that came out of this, that I’d like to briefly touch on.  And that’s do with a girl.

I should recognize a good omen when I see one.  What happened was, I had received some wrong information about where exactly our class was being held.  And the only other person to receive the same wrong info was this madel.  With the result that the two of us showed up over 45 minutes late on the first day, while everybody else was on time.

And in the course of this being in the wrong place-being lost business, we, well, maybe ‘bonded’ is too strong a word, but I mean, we definitely developed something there. And over the first few days, we were getting on pretty well.

But see, I’d had this idea in my head that maybe, just maybe, I might meet a nice Jewish girl at this thing.  And this girl was definitely not.  She was very German.  In fact, we only spoke German for that first hour or so before we got to class.  So yeah, we got on pretty well.  But a lot of good that does, when you’re sort of pre-disposing yourself to meet a Jewish girl.  

For context, on the first day, she showed up straight off the train.  By which I mean, she’s slumming it in her travel clothes, schlepping a giant backpack and just looking the part of the weary traveler, you know? Day two, though, that was a different story.  Because by that point, she’d a good night’s sleep, a shower and a change of clothes. And by change of clothes, I mean gray pencil skirt and black sweater.  I kinda had to pick my jaw up off the table.  Like, no way this is the same broad, right?

Oh, and also, she’s interested in Yiddish, speaks Polish, and is doing a Ph.D.  So she’s clearly got a brain.  And I’ll take a brain over legs any day.  But she’s got both.  Or is it all three?  Nevermind. Point is, gorgeous and brilliant. 

So now I’m going to give what I think any normal red-blooded male would say in this situation:

Hmm.  I seemed to have developed some kind of rapport with this young woman yesterday. This young woman, who is as smart as she is pretty and who is also interested in my culture and this language I’m trying to learn.  Let me bend heaven and earth to try and make something of this.

And now, I’m going to give you what this idiot said:

Meh.  Shixa.

Like, what the actual fuck is wrong with me?  Anyway, to make a long story short, I think there may have been an opportunity.  I think she may have had interest.  I mean, I’m notoriously bad at reading these things. So maybe it’s all in my imagination anyway.  But I think all this in hindsight.  In the moment, I was horrifically oblivious, and if there was a chance, I missed it. And after I missed it, it was too late. Because she was clearly done with me at that point; at least on that level.  I think.  Like I said, maybe I’m making this all up.  

But if this really happened, if I really fucked this up, well, I didn’t realize how tremendously I’d fucked up until the last day.  Because on the last day, Mendi made us a Shabbos Kiddush party.  With wine and kugel and all kinds of foods.  And he explained the week’s parsha– Torah portion – in Yiddish.  And we sang songs and did the prayers.  Hell, I even did the brucha– the prayer – for the candles. 

To digress but a moment, this was so great.  It was Shabbos, it was a Kiddush, but it was somehow secular.  What I mean is, it was more about the tradition than the belief. Like, this is what wedo.  This is what we’ve always done.  It doesn’t matter if you believe in God.  It doesn’t matter if you go to schul.  We’re Jews. We celebrate the shit out of the Sabbath, and we have a good time doing it.  Traditionnnnn….Tradition!

But back to the madel. She was all in on it.  In fact, she was all in on the Jewish stuff (as opposed to the language stuff) the whole time.  She sat next to me for most of the class.  And she was always asking questions about this word, or that prophet, or some or other Jewish thing.  Just really keen to learn, you know?

Anyway, at the Kiddush, Mendi needed something done.  Maybe with the lights, I don’t remember.  Whatever it was, it was something you’re not supposed to do on Shabbos.  And she just throws her hand up in the air and is like, “Do you need a Shabbos-goy?”3  And in that moment, I was just like, “Oh, hang on, this girl is amazing.”  

Like, I’d had my head so far up my own ass about meeting a “Jewish girl.”  Which, yes, is important to me.  But it’s not a deal-breaker.  Never has been.  What is important to me, what is a deal-breaker, is having somebody with whom I can be myself; somebody with whom I can not just pursue this part of my life, but actually share it with.

I mean, I don’t know how this whole Torah thing works with somebody who has zero interest in the whole “Jewish thing.”  Like, hey, just so you know, I need at least an hour a day, three days a week to study Torah.  It would be kind of disappointing if whoever-she-is is just, “Sure, you go do your thing,” in the same way she might say that about playing video games with my friends.

Meanwhile, here’s this girl – brilliant and with the legs (not that they matter) – who’s showing a genuine interest in all this.  Which is not to say she’d have any interest in actually reading with me.  But at least that she’d appreciate it in a way that would matter.  

And I could only put all this together after it was too late?  Because sometimes, Davey, you’re afucking idiot.  

So much for girls.  I said I wanted to end on a positive note. So here it is.  And you know what?  Let’s make it two.

At the end of the course, I was talking with one of my classmates and we were talking about what we could do to not lose what we’d just learned, and, if anything, even progress a bit.  So we hit on the plan of trying to organize a skype to do some reading.  The plan is to start with some of the texts we received in class but didn’t actually get around to reading.  So we would prepare a text, meet on skype, schmooze a bit in Yiddish and discuss the text.  It hasn’t happened yet.  But we’re still talking and planning.  So if we can pull it off, that would be pretty wonderful.

The other thing is, my boy Akiva was in Berlin for a few days after the course ended.  So we met each other for dinner.  Which was fun on the merits.  Good food, good drinks, good company.  But also, we sat in a restaurant in Berlin and spoke nothing but Yiddish for three hours.  And I couldn’t have been happier.

He too has expressed interest in some kind of reading group.  Which would be grand.  Azoi, mir vellen zen.  So, we’ll see.  But both of these guys are people I would be well pleased to have in my life going forward. And if we can read and talk in Yiddish too?  I’m ready to call that a big win.  

I’ll have more to say about this if it actually pans out.  But until then…

זײַ געזונט

  1. Weimar, of course, being a city in central-east Germany. []
  2. I’ve chosen to transliterate all the Yiddish words in this post into the Latin alphabet.  Partly because I’m pretty sure nobody reading this can read Yiddish as it’s normally written, in the alef-beys, the Hebrew letters.  But mostly because typing in Yiddish on this machine is a godsdamned pain in the ass. []
  3. Shabbos-goy is the term for a person Jewish people hire to perform necessary tasks which we ourselves our not allowed to perform on the Sabbath. []

Word Play

Write.  Write when you have something to say.  But also, write when you have nothing to say.  Who knows what might fall out of your fingers?  Or run off your fingers?  Or, making your fingers the subject, who knows what they might…what is the present tense of wrought?  Is it wright? As in ‘playwright.’  Or ‘wainwright,’ if you prefer wagons to the theatre.  In which case, your fingers can both write and wright.  But your ears surely won’t know the difference, even if your eyes do. In other words, you can see what has been written, whereas you can hear what’s been wrought?  

For that something be written, one first must write.  For that something be bitten, one first must bite.  Yet one can also bite what has been bought.  But only because it’s a tad rude to bite what has been stolen. Though, in times of need, one might steal, that one may bite.  But one certainly wouldn’t want to bite steel.  

If a community has but one bicycle, to be shared by all, is it a common wheel for the common weal? And suppose this community should be by the sea, on whose shores dwell plump, seagoing mammals.  And suppose they should make such a mammal the symbol of their land.  Would they have their national seal upon their national seal?

Suppose further that the commerce of such a place was built upon the trade in these animal hides. Then must they sell seals.  Unless business were bad.  Then seldom would a seal be sold.  Or so I’ve been told.

For that something be told, one first must tell.  Well, I’ve heard tell of a bell, courageous in winter.  That is to say, bold against the cold.  Yet if that bell should, after many a year, come lose and plummet to earth, you must tell that it fell.  Though it would never be told that it fold, no matter how old.

Suppose then, that there were two bells.  The one which was built the first must be the elder, yet could it never itself be eld. And if this be true of bells, so must it be with berries.  Yet what is younger than an elderberry?  The cran, the rasp and the straw, to be sure.  

Now suppose you have a tisket, at tasket, a little yellow basket of strawberries.  And suppose you drop your basket, and the fruit thereof scatters hither and thither.  Your former strawberries would now be strewnberries.  Amusing perhaps, but not half so clever as Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury. Which thankfully still runs. Though when it eventually ends, must, of necessity, become Donesbury.

So long as it runs, it is Doonesbury.  And when it runs no more, it shall be Donesbury. But in hindsight, shall we say that so long as it ran it was Dansbury?  Which sounds like a town in Connecticut.  A place where, I think you’ll agree, manners are highly esteemed. In other words, the name of the the game in Connecticut is etiquette.  

That a male should conduct himself with proper etiquette, he is said to display good manners.  May we then conclude that for a female to do likewise, she would display good womanners?  In any case, etiquette in Connecticut.  But what is of prime importance further north?  That is to say, what’s the main thing in Maine?  

Whatever question one might ask in Maine, there’s only ever one answer.  “You can’t get there from here.”  It’s all you ever hear.  Or so I’ve heard.  I mean, of course, the past tense of hear; that’s ‘heard.’  Not to be confused with many a cow, which is, naturally, a herd. Whereas ‘flock’ is the word for many a bird.  Which, you must admit, is rather absurd.  

Ah, see the bird take wing. It flies.  Flies, however, are a nuisance.  But if we speak of yesterday, they both flew.  And indeed have flown many times afore.  The bird has wings, as does the fly, and so they fly.  The airplane has wings but no mind of its own, and so it is flown.  The leaf has neither wings nor mind of its own, and so, it is not flown but blown.  

And the leaf was blown because, of course, the wind blew.  Although the sky was blue.  ‘Tis true! And that which is true, must then be truth.  But the one who speaks many true things does not speak treeth, whether his mouth have but one tooth or many teeth.  

Suppose now that the one who says true things should inhabit but one tiny room.  Then the one who speaks truth lives in a booth.  Whereupon would we do well to name his abode The Sooth Booth. Let us suppose then that persons in distress should address themselves to The Sooth Booth.  And suppose further that upon hearing the truth, their troubles should be assuaged.  Then would the sooth soothe. 

But perhaps the truth might not assuage.  It may be, rather, that the truth would rouse one to anger.  In which case, one might be said to seethe at the sooth.  And should the worst transpire, and one should strain one’s muscles in a state of a rage, then one might be said to be seether sore.  These, then, are the two potential outcomes of hearing sooth.  Happiness, or seether sore.  One or the other.  That is to say, either or.

“Either or,” said the miner. “What do you mean?” I asked him. “I just want to strike it rich,” he said.  “I don’t care if it’s gold or silver.  Either or.” 

“Ah, I understand,” quoth I. “You don’t mean ‘either or,’ you mean ‘either ore’.”

“That’s right,” said he. “Either ore or ore.  So long as it’s ore.”  

I’m sorry to say, that for this poor fellow, it wasn’t so much ‘either ore’ but ‘neither nor.’  But for me, that’s neither here nor there. For, in the end, it was his mine, not mine.  And that’s the risk one takes in mining.  You might strike silver.  You might strike gold.  But just as like, you’ll strike neither ore nor ore.  

Ores are more important to a miner than are oars to a sailor.  After all, a sailor can work with wind as well as an oar.  That is to say, for the sailor, it’s either oar or wind. But of course, if one is to row, one needs two oars.  And yet, the oars are identical.  Any oar can be used just as easily by the right hand as the left.  So while it may be either ore for the miner, it is surely either oar for the sailor.

It is a difficult thing, rowing.  It is easier when one has help.  Ideally, one oarsmen will sit behind another.  In which case they row in a row.  And if they are strong enough, they might even drag another watercraft behind them. Whereupon do they row in a row with a boat in tow.

And if the following boat is connected to their own boat by some sort of cable or rope, then it must be said that they not only tow the boat, but that they tow the line as well. Whereas, if it is the policy of their shipping company to tow other boats, and they do adhere happily to this policy, then we must admit that not only do they tow the line but also that the toe the line.

But do they do so because they agree with company policy?  Be that the case, then they toe the line because they think it fine.  Conversely, if they adhere to such practices because they dread punishment, then we must admit that they toe the line because they fear a fine.  Fine or fine? That is the question.

Write when you have something to say, I said.  Write also when you have nothing to say, I also said.  I think have done both.  I have written.  The apple has been bitten, the beast smitten.  Should not then a small kite be a kitten?  A small glove a glitten?  A bat flies, as does a dove.  Yet it’s a cat that’s kitten and a glove that’s a mitten.  English is fine thing.  And this post is now Donesbury.  

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
10 June, 2019

A couple of weeks ago, Joschka and I drove down to Bavaria to visit our friends there.  Always a good time.  Last time we went, J took a train down and I took a bus.  The bus is certainly cheaper than renting a car. And of course you can read or sleep on the bus.  But there’s something about a roadtrip.  

There’s the freedom, sure. Stop when you want to.  Leave when you want to.  You’re not a slave to the bus or train schedule.  And also, you guys, this is Germany.  Mercedes Benz.  Autobahn.  You pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down?  You can mutherfucking fly, y’all.  I mean, normally, when I have the wheel, I’m cruising at around 180 kmh (111 mph); which is downright conservative in this country, no joke.

But I had to see what this car could do, just once.  So on one wide open, flat piece of road, with no other cars around, I floored it. Pedal to the metal time.  I got up to 217 kmh (136 mph), before I got scared and backed off.  Because I’m old?  I dunno. It certainly wasn’t because the car didn’t seem like it couldn’t handle it.  Smooth as could be and quiet as a whisper.  

But you start to feel the wind at that speed.  And you realize – or at least I realized – there’s no margin for error going that fast. So I took my foot of the gas and let it float back down to an even 200 until we started seeing other cars, or the road stopped being straight and flat.

Man, that was fun though. “German engineering.”  Yeah, it’s for real.  If you don’t have a reference frame, you can creep up to 200 without realizing it.  You don’t feel it and you don’t hear it.  You just look down, and it’s like, “Oh, I’m going 125 mph.  Who knew?”  And then some dude in an Audi blows by you like you’re standing still.

Here’s another thing about the Autobahn.  People follow the fucking rules here.  People really actually just drive in the right lane and only use the left for passing. And if someone does happen to be in the left when a yet faster car comes up behind them, they just nonchalantly slide back into the right so Mr. Audi can scream past on his merry way.  Oh, and Mr. Audi hardly ever tailgates either. Like, he knows he doesn’t have to. Because the guy in front of him will yield.  Because dem’s the rules.

A student played me this joke a while back.  It’s a conversation between a British guy and a German guy, about driving without a license. It goes like this:

British Guy: So like, what happens in Germany in if you get caught driving without a license?

German Guy:  You can’t drive without a license.

BG: No, I know.  But I mean, ifyou did.  What would happen?

GG:  You can’t.

BG: I understand that. I’m just asking, hypothetically, what would happen if you were to drive without a license?

GG: It’s not possible. You can’t drive without a license.

And it goes on.  But you get the point.  And it’s really like that here.  People just actually follow the fucking rules.  All the damned time.

Anyway, Joschka asked me if I wouldn’t mind taking some of the driving, so he could “work” in the car. I told him I’d take over once we got out of Berlin.  I wasn’t about to drive in the city.  So that’s what we did.  Except he didn’t actually get any work done.  We just talked the whole way down.  Because roadtrip!

So Bavaria.  I’ve written before about how lucky I am with the people I’ve met here, the friends I’ve made.  How it all comes down to luck, and how good must my luck be, etc. And our trips down south are no exception.  Apart from me and Joschka and the Bavarians themselves, a friend form Joschka’s hometown (and also from the metal festivals) – Björn – joins us too.  And it’s just an amazing group of people.

What I struggle to wrap my mind around, though, is the extent to which they treat us like family when we’re down there.  I’m not exaggerating.  There’s so much love with those people.  We usually stay with Anna and her family.  But that’s not even the right way to say it.  We stay with Anna and Stefan and Lisa, the latter two being her parents.  And our adopted parents for the weekend.  

Because it’s not like we visit our friend and stay in her parents’ house.  We all hang out together for the weekend.  We eat together, drink together, play games together, stay up all night together.  Usually Anna’s sister will come by with her little daughter too.  Which I love, cause you know me with kids.  I’d usually rather play on the floor with a child then sit at the table with the grownups.1

And there’s so much affection.  Like, just the way they hug you.  Stefan has this way of hugging; not just me, all of us.  He’ll hug you.  But then, after, he’ll sort of take you by the forearms and and look you in the eye, and he’ll just say your name and smile.  And Lisa, man, she hugs me like I’m her own flesh and blood.  These people love us, and that’s the word for it.  And we love them.

So there’s all this love there.  And it’s beautiful.  But I can’t say I totally understand it either.  I mean, we see them maybe four or five times a year.  Where does love like that come from?  How does it develop?  I feel truly blessed by it.  Like, I hit the lottery to have people like this in my life.  But I struggle to understand it.

I was outside with Björn at some point.  He was having a cigarette and I needed some fresh air.  Anyway, we got to talking, drunkenly.  As you do. It was kinda funny.  I don’t know how we came to it, be we decided that he would speak English and I would speak German.  

Anyway, it somehow became one of those drunken “I love you, man” conversations.  I mean, it started with him saying to me a lot of what I just said.  How great the Bavarians treat us whenever we visit, how lucky we are to know them, how much love is in that house.  But then he got to giving me the “I love you, man” spiel.

I shouldn’t say “spiel.” He was 100% genuine.  But he was explaining how he has friends he’s known his whole life, Joschka who he’s known forever, and so on.  And even though he sees me just a couple of times a year, he loves me the same we he loves those guys.  How music brings us all together.  And other things I’ve forgotten in the drunkenness of it all. Everything he said to me, I could have – and did – say to him in return.  

But I walked away from that conversation thinking, “Shit, this makes as little sense to him as it does to me. He’s struggling to understand this as much as I am.”  Like, how do such people just fall into your life?  How can it be that, even though you hardly ever see them, you love each other like family?  Like, we’ve all of us received this wondrous gift that we treasure.  But why?  How?

One way – maybe the only way – you know you’re talking about genuine love, the real McCoy, is when people see you at your worst and just don’t give a shit.  That’s certainly true of Jared, Joschka, Anne, Charlotte.  They’ve all seen the worst of me.  They’ve all seen the depths to which I can be an asshole. They’ve all seen my cry, not for nothing.  Never batted an eye.  Not one of them.

Well, I’m happy to say I’ve never cried in Bavaria.  And I don’t think I’ve ever been a proper asshole down there either.  But I’ve certainly been not at my best.  They don’t care.  Friday nights are always rough.  You travel all day, and then you drink all night.  Not much time to rest or eat in between.  The result is, I’m usually a hot mess on Saturdays.  Tired, hungover, grouchy.  And really, who wants a tired, hungover, grouchy guest in their house?

But they see me.  They see I’m riding the struggle bus.  And you know what they say?  “Dave, why don’t you go upstairs and sleep for a bit?”  That’s it.  No pressure to be “on.”  No pressure to be “a good guest.”  Just sympathy, if that’s the right word.  Or patience. Understanding.  Just, here’s some Gatorade and go take a nap.  No, sympathy isn’t the right word.  Grace.  These people have fucking grace.  I fucking love these people.

Meanwhile (mittlerweile),2 the guitar.  I’m trying to up my game here.  At 38, I’m trying to be better at this instrument than I’ve ever been before. Which isn’t saying much, come on. But still.  Also, I’m talking about classical guitar, just to be clear.

Anyway, I’m trying to up my skill level.  I’m working on this Carcassi study, Matteo Carcassi being a musician.  His opus 60 is a series of 25 estudios.  Each one is designed to develop a particular skill.  Study number 1 is written to build your finger picking skills, particularly your index and middle finger.  

The piece itself is deceptively difficult.  It’s in C major, and it’s 99% scalar or arpeggiated chords.  And if you don’t pay attention to the fingering, you could learn it in an afternoon.  What I mean is, the left hand work is child’s play.  But man, the right hand.  Fucking brutal.  For me, anyway.  That is, if you do it correctly.  

Look, I could bludgeon my way though it with any old fingering.  It’s easy enough, both in terms of tempo and left-hand work, that it should be super easy.  But that’s the point.  The fretwork is supposed to be easy, precisely so you can focus on your right hand. And the right hand is…and this is an adjective I don’t normally use…wickedhard.  

Deceptively so.  It’s just constantly index finger, middle finger, index finger, middle finger, on and on.  But it’s not instinctive.  That’s the problem.  And it doesn’t give a shit.  It’s like Goodfellas.  Switching strings?  Fuck you, keep the fingering going.  Going up the neck?  Fuck you, keep the fingering going.  Going down the neck?  Fuck you, keep the fingering going.  It’s the “Fuck you, pay me” of guitar work.

And it’s super frustrating. Like, I’ve been playing guitar for some 25 years at this point.3  How can I not just do this?  But I’m working on it.  And I’ve got the first 8 measures pretty solid now.  Only 30 more to go.  And then after that, just 23 more studies.4  The point is, though, I’m building skills I didn’t have before.  I am, in theory, becoming a better player.

The other piece I’m working on is Gaspar Sanz’ Suite Española.  I’ve mentioned this before, because I was also working on it last year.  It’s a long piece.  It’s got 10 movements, the last of which is the Canarios.  I mention it by name because it’s what my mom calls “a Starr piece.”  Something both my uncles and I myself have been playing forever. 

But as I say, it’s just the last part of this bigger work.  I learned the first seven pieces last summer.  I’m working on the 8thnow.  I’ve nearly got it to a good place.  Probably needs another week or two.  The 9thbit has an A and a B section.  The A I’ve already got down.  So when I finish this part, it’s on to 9B.  And then I’ll have the whole thing.  At which point, I shall give myself a little pat on the back.  And then also curse myself for not being good enough.  But that’s how it goes.  No, but really, I’m looking forward to having this whole big work under my fingers, because it really is a wonderful piece of music.  

I mean, the music itself is gorgeous.  But it’s more than that.  For one thing, it’s sounds “Spanish,” if I can say that.  Like, just when you hear it, you think of Spain.  Which, I dunno, how can I put this?  It transports you.  It brings you somewhere.  You hear it, and you’re in the Spanish countryside, or in the court of the king and queen, sipping wine in summer.  Or something, fuck do I know?  

But also, it’s not (mostly) a fast piece of music.  There’s so much room for expression.  I love the slow bits.  You can just wring out a vibrato or linger with a hammer-on and pull-of and it just sings, you know?  

It’s really the first piece of music where I’ve felt, jeez, you know, I need a better instrument. Shit.  I feel guilty even writing that.  Because I love this guitar.  Her name is Outis, btw.  And that’s a story too.  

My electric guitar, my Gibson SG Standard, cherry red, the apple of my eye, her name is Rosie.  But for a long time, I never named my acoustic guitar.  And then, in Greek II, we read Book IX of the Odyssey.  And there, the Cyclops asks Odysseus his name.  Which of course he doesn’t want to give.  So he says, “My name is Nobody.”  And in Greek, ‘nobody’ is οὔτιϲ, outs.5  And I was like, Shit, that’s perfect!  So my acoustic guitar is Outis.  

Anyway, I feel guilty saying I need a better instrument.  Because I love Outis.  She’s my first classical guitar.  She’s the guitar I learned to sing with.  The guitar I learned how to write my own songs with.  The guitar I’ve turned to when I’ve been sad or lonely or happy or just so full of energy I needed to rock.  She’s the guitar I’ve stayed up all night making music with Charlotte with, the one I pay extra to bring to Nice or Brussels or the Great American West for that same Charlotte, because making music is a language for us as much as French or English, and man do we love language.  She’s the guitar I brought to the metal festivals and entertained my friends with, the guitar I bring to Bavaria and make up silly songs for and about those same friends with.  I love her.  Always have, always will.

But also, she’s a starter guitar.  Cost something like $200 bucks, and sounds like it.  And when you’re playing rock or folk or just having fun, she’s worth her weight in gold.  But she has her limitations.  The sustain’s not great, and neither is the tone.  And when you’re trying to play classical music, you hear that.

Margit has a wonderful guitar.  My uncle Richard buildswonderful guitars. And when I play instruments like that…when I try to play a Bach prelude on instruments like that, I hear the difference.  And look, nobody is going to confuse me with Segovia.  Like, ever.  But I know I can sound better than I do, with a better instrument.  And so, if I’m serious about making myself a better player – which I am – then it’s probably time to start thinking about getting myself a better axe.  

Which I can do, I think. I mean, I’ll have to save.  It won’t be cheap.  But I’m setting that as a goal for myself.  Because I want this.  I love playing guitar.  And I can do it well enough that it brings me peace.  

Something piano never brought me, btw.  You know, my parents made me take piano lessons when I was a kid.  As many parents do.  And I’m grateful for that.  It gave me a lot.  It taught me how to read music, it taught me how music works.  And it absolutely furthered and deepened my appreciation for classical music.

And in college, I took piano lessons.  Freshman year, I practiced like a mofo.  Every free hour, I was off to a practice room.  And I got nowhere with it.  I ran up against my own limitations.  No matter how much I practiced, I could only do so much.  And I hated it.  I loved – still love – Beethoven and Bach.  I knew what I wanted the music to sound like.  I knew what I wanted to do with it.  And I discovered that I was entirely incapable.  I found out the hard way that, no matter how much I practiced, I would never be able to play a Beethoven sonata or a Bach fugue and get it to sound the way I heard it in my head.  And I hated it.  Hated myself. It brought me something worse than disappointment.  It brought me rage.

But the guitar is different. I’ll never be Segovia.  I know that.  But it’s ok.  Because I can do enough.  I can make the music I want to make.  And I can do it well…enough; for me.  The guitar, in a way that the piano never could, brings me joy.  And on good days, it brings me some kind of peace.  So yeah, I’d like a better instrument.  I’d like to have a tool that can help me get more out of myself.  So that’s the goal.  All in good time.

Welp, it’s 4am.  And here in Berlin it’s the…un-gloaming? Gloaming.  That’s a word I love.  It means ‘evening’ or ‘twilight.’  But the root of the word means something like ‘glow.’  The way the sky glows between afternoon and night.  Gloaming.  Just, what a great fucking word.  And now, at 4am, the sky is the same color.  Only, going in the opposite direction.  So, un-gloaming.  Or maybe Second Gloaming.  Or, better still, maybe First Gloaming.  It all depends upon your point of view.  Thus spoke Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Right, well, if I’m quoting Star Wars, it’s surely time for bed.  Whereupon do I bid ye6pleasant dreams.

זײַ געזונט

  1. They didn’t come this time though; I gather the kid was a bit sick. []
  2. Mittlerweile– this word looks like it should mean ‘meanwhile.’  And maybe it does?  Sometimes? But it also means other things. People use it all the damn time and I’m struggling with its usage.  My current goal – Germanwise – is to get a handle on this word. []
  3. I’ve been playing guitar for 25 years? Fuck me, I’m old.  Feels like yesterday I was begging, yes begging, my parents for my first guitar.  Which I still have.  A POS Lotus, a Strat knockoff, that buzzes up around the high frets because the strings touch the pickup if you’re not careful.  It also has a picture of The Rock and a printed “The People’s Guitar” label. Also a Gore/Lieberman 2000 campaign sticker.  And it weighs a ton.  But it was my first guitar.  And it has a single coil, which gives me that Ritchie Blackmore sound (kinda), and also sounds like a beast on my ‘Midnight’ solo.  Justin knows what I’m talking about. []
  4. Study number 7 I learned in college and still play.  Oh, and that’s a badass piece, I ain’t even kidding. []
  5. In Latin, this is ‘nemo,’ btw.  Which is why in 20k Leagues Under the Sea, the captain’s name is Nemo.  He’s a man without an identity.  He’s nobody. He’s Outis. []
  6. Did you know ‘ye’ is plural and ‘thee’ is singular?  I love English, y’all.  But we’ve lost some shit.  Shit we maybe shouldn’t have lost.  Just saying’. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
31 May, 2019

It’s funny how things connect, things that you would think couldn’t be further apart.  So, remember back in December 2017 I visited Charlotte in Nice for Xmas?  Well, part of the deal with all that was a gift exchange.  Everybody was randomly assigned somebody else to give a gift to. Not like a Secret Santa, of which there was also.  In this case, you knew who you were getting your gift from.  

Anyway, I was assigned to Charlotte’s friend Rapha, who is fantastic btw.  At the time, I was just finishing (or had just finished) the Three Musketeers.  So her gift to me was an annotated edition of the 3M and the sequel, Vingt Ans Après, which had at one point belonged to her grandfather. Which, to me, is just so special. Because I love things that have history, that have a story, that have a personal connection.  

But she also gave me another book, which seemed to me, at the time, to be totally random.  It was by an author I’d never heard of, it was modern, and it seemed to be about a subject that would not normally be in my wheelhouse.  The name of the book is Rue des Voleurs– Street of Thieves – by one Mathias Enard.1  

I asked Charlotte if she’d read it, but she said she’d never even heard of it.  She simply said, “It’s from Rapha,” or words to that effect.  Which either meant that Rapha had read it and liked it, or that she had picked it off the shelf at random.  I don’t honestly know.

Anyway, going by the back of the book, it looked like it could be interesting.  But it didn’t really fit into my schema of alternating Dumas and Verne.  So I kinda just stuck it on the shelf to be read at some indeterminate future date.  

Fast forward to January of this year.  This Turkish girl shows up in my class.  Well, born in Turkey, but she’s a German citizen now.  I mentioned her once before; wears a headscarf, curses like a sailor, cool af.  Well, a while back, she asked me if I wouldn’t mind taking a look at something she had written in English.  Which of course I was happy to do.

Turns out, what she was working on was a sort of memoir/autobiography kind of thing.  At that point, she only had a couple of pages in a notebook.  But you could see immediately that she had a helluva story to tell.  And her English wasn’t bad.  I mean, it was full of all the mistakes you would expect.  Wrong prepositions, idioms that weren’t quite right, that sort of thing.  

More interesting to me, as an English teacher, was the structure, the nuts and bolts of building sentences and paragraphs.  Because you could see that this was a person who, on the one hand, was clearly intelligent, thoughtful, well read.  But on the other hand, clearly didn’t have a whole lot of experience or training in formal English writing.

Which made this exactly the kind of project I love to work on as an English teacher.  You have somebody who already has a voice, who is smart, who wants to learn.  I mean, what else can you ask for, right?  

So we’d sit down after class for an hour or so.  And the small corrections go quickly: change this preposition, put the adverb here, that sorta thing.  But then we can work on style.  I’d present her with several different options of how she might compose a sentence; paratactic, hypotactic, subordinate clause first or last, all that jazz.  

And she’d learn it, you guys.  Sit down the next week, and shit I showed her last time would be cropping up in the new stuff.  And the process is fun.  Like this weird bilingual conversation goes on.  She’ll explain an idea in German and I’ll offer some ways of dealing with it in English.  Or I’ll explain a grammar point in German and she’ll turn around and work it out on the page in English.  

Also, she pays for my alcohol while we work, which is just all of the winning.  And also funny, because she doesn’t drink on religious grounds. So you have this American alcohol-imbibing Jew working with a Muslim tee-totaling Turk working on an English memoir in Berlin. 

So I said she’s got a helluva story to tell.  And it’s hers to tell.  So I won’t say much about it here.  But briefly, she comes from a religious family and she’s kind of the black sheep. She’s making a life in a country she wasn’t born in.  She’s been through a lot of shit.  I think I can leave it at that.

Well.  I had to take a break from my boy Dumas.  The first three Musketeer novels were some of the best shit I’ve ever read.  The stories are epic, the characters are badass,2 and his style is just a pleasure to read. So I was on the fourth book.  Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, vol ii.  And it picks up where the last one left off, still kicking ass.  

And then, all of a sudden, that shit hit a wall.  And fast. One minute, I’m reading about middle-aged D’Artagnan and how he’s basically completely out of fucks to give. And then, next thing I know, I’m in the middle of some gods-awful love triangle between a young, angsty Louis XIV, some other even angstier clown, and this horrific, absolutely useless woman. And just, omg you guys, I couldn’t. I had to put that shit down.

Naturally, at this point, I turned to my boy JV.  Jules Verne has never yet let me down.  This time it would be Le Cinq Cent Millions de la Bégum.  Hoo boy, this was a good one.  Dark. I love when JV goes dark.  I mean, there’s always a happy ending with this guy. But you can tell he had a dark side. And from what I can gather, it was really his editor who reigned that in, who pushed the happy ending shit on him. Although maybe he still had some embers of optimism burning.  Who knows?

Point is, shit was dark. And excellent.  And totally relevant to my life.  The premise, in short, is that a French guy and a German guy each set about building their own competing Utopias.  But each man’s vision was based on his cultural-national identity, as Verne understood them.  So the French utopia was based on education, the arts and humanities.  The German utopia was based on industry and cold Prussian efficiency.  

And that shit spoke to me. Now look, obviously, he was playing up the stereotypes.  There’s not a lot of nuance there.  But reading it, I was just like, man, the French are soFrench!  And the Germans are sooo German!  In ways that I have personally experienced.

More than that though, it had the usual touch of Jules Verne prophecy.  Because the German industrial utopia was basically a giant Krupp Werk– an arms factory.  Like, the sole purpose of this city was to manufacture artillery.  And not just artillery, but bigger, stronger, more destructive than anything that had ever been built before.  We’re talking Dicke Bertha, Schwerer Gustav level shit.3  Except he’s writing this in the late 1800’s.  

And of course the Germans are aggressive, expansionist.  The German guy’s sole purpose is to wipe out the French utopia, thereby establishing the supremacy of German culture for all the world to see.  I mean, he’s basically predicting major elements of both world wars, decades in advance.  

Fine.  So I finish Bégum.  And I look over at Bragelonne, with the bookmark sticking out from 200 or so pages in.  And I know I should finish it.  But also, just, really?  I mean, can I make myself care about this love-triangle cluster-f?  Like, I know at some point the Man in the Iron Mask is gonna show up.  But when? Fuck it, says I.  I can’t, says I.  

So I think, Hey, maybe this is a good time to crack into that random book Rapha gave me over a year ago. Which is what I do.  And at first, it’s slow going.  I mean, it’s one thing to read “the classics.”  When you read Dumas or Verne, you’re reading “textbook” French.  What I mean is, you’re reading the language as it’s taught in schools; not as it’s spoken on the street.  

Well, I’ve gotten pretty good with “textbook” French.  I don’t pretend to be native-speaker fluent.  I absolutely use a dictionary.  But I can read that shit on the subway, no problem.  This new book, though.  Different kettle of fish, friends.  Horse of a different color.  Slang.  Modern idioms.  Informal constructions.  There’s also just a lot of everyday vocab.  Like – and I’ve already forgotten the word – but the other day, I came across the word for “bra-strap.” That’s just not coming up in the Three Musketeers, know what I mean?4  So it’s something much more in line with what you hear on the street (or hanging out with friends in Nice), than what you learn in school.  It took some getting used to, is what I’m trying to say. 

So it’s slow going. My dictionary is my new best friend. It’s “work.”  But that’s OK.  The first Verne that I read was Around the World in 80 Days.  That was slow-going too.  Needed the dictionary ten times a page.  But I got through it.  And now I read JV on the subway.  Like a boss, y’all.

I’ll get there with this book, too.  Just, it’s slow going now.  But it’s fun. I enjoy it.  If it’s “work,” it’s rewarding work.  And it’s opening me up to a new kind of French.  A “real” French, in a way that Dumas and Verne have ceased to be “real.” 

What I mean is, last time I was in Nice, I would occasionally say things and people would laugh at me.  Like, “What century are you from?”  Because the only words I had were from these oldschool dudes.  But now I’m getting exposed to a kind of French that real people are speaking, today, in my time.  And that’s fun.  So I’ll report back when I finish this book. In three-to-six months, or however long it takes me to get through this.

All that being said, it’s a great story.  The main character is this Moroccan kid.  Comes from a religious family, but isn’t himself religious.  Loves to read, dreams of seeing the world.  Runs away from home and winds up getting taken in by a Mosque, which gives him a job in their bookshop.   Only the Mosque turns out to be pretty fundamentalist, in the middle of the Arab Spring.  There’s a bombing, maybe the Mosque is behind it, but he doesn’t know.  Shortly thereafter, the Mosque itself  burns down and all the people disappear, including his best friend.  Meanwhile, he gets a new job and falls for this Spanish dame. And that’s about where I’m at.

Anyway, I’m really enjoying it.  Both for the story and for the challenge of this new kind of French which I’ve never read before.  But I’m reading this, and I’m thinking, Hey, you know, that Turkish girl might like this. She might identify with some of what’s going on here.  So I recommend it to her, thinking there’s probably a German translation out there, based on what the back of the book said.  I wasn’t really expecting her to dig around for it, if I’m being honest.

But then, one day, I meet her at Potsdamer Platz, and she’s sitting there reading some book.  And she’s all, “Look!”  And she turns the spine towards me, and I see “Straße der Diebe” – Street of Thieves.  Oh shit!  She found it! And homegirl was already halfway through the damn thing.

I asked her what she thought.  She said she was loving it, but also, it was pretty…I think starkwas the word she used – strong, but that’s probably not the right translation.  I gather it was hitting pretty close to home.  But like, in a good way.  Not easy, maybe, but good.

“But you know, Suzyn, you just can’t predict baseball.”  I mean, in December 2017, I get this random book for Christmas from the friend of a friend. It sits on my shelf for over a year. Finally, I start reading it just as this Turkish girl shows up in my class.  And it’s like, Hey, you might dig this.  And lo and behold, she totally connects with this book.  It’s funny how things connect.  

In other news, my beloved Islanders are done.  Out in the second round of the playoffs.  Heartbreaking, yes.  But also, they got much farther than anybody had predicted, back before the season started. So I’m proud of those guys.  And it was a great ride.  Can’t wait til next year.

For my actual day-to-day life, though, I’m (ever so slightly) relieved that it’s all over. The games were starting at 1:30am, Berlin time.  And being the playoffs, I was naturally staying up to watch the whole damn thing. In other words, I was routinely going to bed at like 4:30am and waking up two hours later for work.  It was tough, I ain’t gonna lie.  The sacrifices we make, amirite?

But I had fun.  One night during the playoff run, I made myself a little viewing party.  Homemade buffalo wings, roasted potatoes (tossed in buffalo sauce – omg, so good!) and carrot sticks.  First of all, best wings I’ve yet made.  Still not Inn Between good, but real progress here, folks.  In any case, I enjoyed the shit outa that.  Great way to watch the game.

Oh and speaking of great ways to watch the game.  Canadian French, you guys.  Lemme explain.  See, the games were being nationally televised.  Which on the one hand is great, because national exposure for my boys. But on the other hand, we lose having our hometown guys call the came.  

Now on the internet, where I was watching, you had two viewing options.  You had the US national feed (NBC) and a Canadian national French broadcast.  Well, obviously, if I couldn’t have my own home-team guys, I was gonna go with the French. And what a joy.  Really, I love Canadian French.  And here’s why.  It’s my first French.

I’m sure I’ve written about this, but back when I was in grad school, I had to pass a French reading comprehension exam as part of my degree.  So I taught myself to read French.  And hockey was my way in.  Every day, I was reading game recaps in French on the CBC website.  I was listening to Montréal games on French radio. 

The result being, Canadian French has this dual attraction for me.  It’s my first real exposure to the language, and it’s inextricably linked to this game that I love.  Which, in 2019, feels like another life.  I live in Europe.  I have French friends – Charlotte, Anne – from actual France.  I don’t play hockey here.  I read “real” French: Dumas, Verne.  

And all of a sudden, I’m watching my favorite team…over a French Canadian broadcast.  And it’s like, well, can I say this?  It’s like, if you grew up in the country, with a backwater version of the language, a version that doesn’t have international prestige.  Then you move to the big city and leave that behind and become all cosmopolitan and shit.

But then, years later, you go home.  And you’re hearing this “provincial” language that you “grew up” with.  And it’s like this warm cozy blanket, you know?  Like, tuck me in and tell me bedtime stories about les faits glorieux demes gars, the glorious deeds ofmy boys.  

As always, my French experience stands in contrast to my German experience.  Or maybe, actually, they’re finally aligning.  

My thing with German is, I love the spoken language.  And yet, I have almost no interest in the written language.  Which is not something I’m proud of, not for nothing.  But the written language strikes me as artificial.  Nobody I know speaks that way.

And above all, I just want to communicate.  I want to be accepted by my friends.  I want to be taken for one of the group.  I don’t want to be seen as an outsider.  To that end, I’m not trying to speak “correctly.”  And reading, I dunno, Goethe, for example, ain’t exactly at the top of my to-do list. 

I’d much rather be able to have a conversation, trade insults, make jokes, listen to and tell stories.  That’s where German is interesting to me.  I guess that’s where I’ve always sorta been with it.  

Sure, there are days when I think it would be nice to be able to code-switch up.  To be able to speak formally.  But only when I needto. Only when it would be to my advantage. Not as an end, but only as a means to an end.

There are other days, though, when I reproach myself for this attitude.  When I think that this is an incurious way to deal with the language of the country in which I live.  And that to be incurious about anything is a grievous sin.  One should always be curious.

But in my heart, I know, it just doesn’t interest me.  What interests me is the spoken language, as I’ve said.  And to that end, I think it’s time to admit something.  I’ve leveled up.  Which means, it’s time to grow up.

I’ve “leveled up.” What do I mean?  I mean, it’s time to stop patting myself on the back for the little things.  Up til now, I’ve considered it an achievement when I’d hang out with German people and we’d speak only German.  Well, no more, I think.  Or, I hope, anyway.

I saw Margit a while back. We played music with her guitar teacher and afterwards, she took me out for dinner to celebrate my birthday.5  All in German.  Two days later, I met a former student for drinks and dinner.  Previously, we’ve only really ever spoken in English.  This time, the first beer in English.  But after that, we had several more beers and a long conversation about politics and culture, all in German.  The next day, jammed with Bibi and Ralph, all in German. Two days later again, lunch with former/current students, all in German.  The following weekend, dinner, drinks and board games with Joschel and Cindy, all in German.  

Hell, on my birthday, the Bavarians called me – actually called me, on the fucking telephone – to wish me happy birthday.  All in German.6  And a few weeks ago, dinner with Jules at her boyfriend’s restaurant – where he’s the head fucking chef – in German.  And after hours, he and the cook joined us at our table.  More German.

The point is, it’s time to stop thinking of pulling off a night in German as some kind of accomplishment. I’ve been in this country for 2.5 years. If I couldn’t swing that, I’d be doing something wrong.  So this will be the last post where I write, “Oh and we spoke only German the whole night, look how much progress I’m making!”

Which is great, right? That’s 100% a positive.  But also.  But also, it resets the counter to zero.  I’m back to square one.  Here’s what all this means.  It means, if the people around me are now comfortable enough with my German that the idea of switching to English would never occur to them, it also means, the bar has been set to a whole higher level.

It means, getting through a night without English isn’t good enough anymore.  It doesn’t deserve a pat on the back anymore.  It means, I’ve actually got to be goodat this.  Somehow. It means getting things right without being corrected.  It means telling a story without boring the shit outta people because I can’t find the right vocabulary.  It means, I gotta be better.  That’s the next step.  The next goal.

But I think I can do this, you guys.  Not because I’m smart or because I’m somehow gifted with languages.  But because I have awesome friends.  I have friends who are not only willing, but actually happy, to help me.  Friends who are patient, and who don’t get annoyed by my mistakes or by my asking them to repeat shit. 

I’ve leveled-up once. If I can get to the next level, it will be because of my friends.  So to them I say, in advance, thank you.

Meanwhile, all that being said, things have a funny way of happening.  After class one day, one of my students comes up to me and gently, politely says something along the lines of – and I’m gonna paraphrase here – “You should make an effort to hang around the universities.  You’ll meet more ‘educated/academic’ types.  And they’ll speak a ‘better/higher’ kind of German. Not the ‘street’ German you’re picking up here in this school.”  Again, I paraphrase.  And she was bending over backwards to not sound narrow-minded or racist or anything like that.  Her heart was in the right place.  But I kinda pooh-poohed her.  Like, a) not interested, when you put it that way and also b) hey, that’s my friends you’re talking about.  I might have been a little defensive.  

Well, not long thereafter, I found myself sitting next to this girl with a laptop, who was clearly working on some kind of presentation.  So I asked her politely what she was working on.  I forget the details now, but it was some kind of presentation on German Lit that she was going to give at an academic conference at Princeton.  

And bang, just like that, for the first time in all my time here, I was embarrassed by my German. Embarrassed that I didn’t have that ability to code-switch up.  And again, that’s not how I actually want to talk in my everyday life.  Just that I’d like to be able to.  

So after all that business about, Meh, I don’t really want to read, I just want to sound like my friends, blah blah blah…after all that, I find myself talking to an academic and sounding like, well, sounding like a person who doesn’t read.  

I just got done saying that it’s time to level-up again.  And I just got done saying that if I succeed in leveling-up, it’s gonna be because of my friends.  Which is true.  But also, maybe it’s time to pick up a fucking book already.

But like also, when exactly? Because I still have the weekly Torah readings.  I still try to read some Homer every night before bed.  And Herodotus on Mondays with Phil.  And Yiddish.  And Old English.  And French. And Spanish, apparently.  When, pray tell, am I supposed to find time to slog through a bit of German?  

Well.  Clearly I have a lot on my plate.  But things are mostly good, outside of the never ending apartment hunt #fml.  And it’s finally starting to summer around here.  Which means I can finally start wearing linen and only linen all the damn time. Oh, linen, how I do love thee.

And that, I suppose, is as good a place to stop as any…

זײַ געזונט

  1. According to the back of the book, Enard won the 2015 Goncourt prize (no idea what that’s awarded for, btw) for a different novel.  The back of the book also mentions that his works are translated throughout the world. This last point will become relevant later. []
  2. I heart Athos and omg, you guys, Richelieu. []
  3. Not for nothing, I’ve named my cast iron Dutch oven “Dicke Bertha.”  And I’ve decided that when I buy a cast iron skillet, it will be named “Schwerer Gustav.” Also, whenever I get around to buying my own set of quality knives, I will name them after First Age Elvish blades. But that’s another story… []
  4. Although that may have something to do with the fact that in Duams/Verne’s time, ladies were all girdled up to the point of near suffocation… []
  5. She’s a doll. []
  6. Except Anna, who wants to speak English and doesn’t have much opportunity to do so down there.  So for her, I’m always happy to speak English. []