Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Part of the cover story for my being in Berlin is that I'm here to learn German. "Cover story" referring to how I justify my rather absolute departure to my parents, not in the sense of obscuring my true purpose here of espionage. Well, that and the formal reason required for requesting a visa, I suppose, but I don't think anyone expects you to fill that out in unlimited candor. Long story short: I'm not a spy.

Although my discoveries about the city would make an ... interesting chapter in the history of the American intelligence apparatus. "Dear CIA Handler, Although I understand the need for secrecy I feel odd not addressing you by name. May I call you the obviously pseudonymic 'Agent Handler'? I have discovered that beer here is very cheap. Also, they talk very fast and make unsuccessful attempts to be polite when they ask if you wouldn't rather speak English instead. The game is afoot, Agent Handler."

Back to learning German: It's actually something I'd like to do, as I'm getting embarrassed at my limited language skills. So I've enrolled in a language school, the one that The Roommate enrolled in for her own courses. As she speaks much better German than I do, it seemed a useful enough place to start. They gave me a quick interview, let me sit through a practice session of level A2, where it seemed I was probably best suited, and I paid my money and got ready to start the next day.

I have only the most obvious observations to make, but starting a new course in a language you already somewhat speak has this mildly schizophrenic feel to it, invariably---the chance that a new entrant knows exactly as much as the rest of the class is roughly zero, so there's bound to be some material the new kid is the only one not to know yet and also some drop he has on the rest of them. For me in this class, the rest of the class all know a ton of words from last week's lessons that I don't remember from sophomore year, yet the more advanced grammatical concepts and a handful of useful phrases that I know already perfectly well are still to-come, and get me nothing but blank stares when I answer the instructor's Kann mann seinem Vater Parfum schenken? that It's not impossible to give one's father a bottle of perfume, yet still it might come as something of a surprise. Yet my vocabulary's still limited, and my ability to understand spoken German still woefully below average, so moving up a level is, I fear, for the moment a foreclosed option. So I endure grammatical lessons I don't need, trying to amass vocabulary and remember the gender of all these damn words.

The word schenken, to give (as a gift), proved useful in demonstrating the difference between the Akkusativ and Dativ cases, or what we term in English that between direct and indirect objects. In grammar lessons the example was dissected "Jenna gave me a rash." Jenna: subject. Rash: direct object. Me: indirect object, and possibly projecting. It's not truly remedial school, but it's still pretty basic. I succeeded in containing my groan at being softballed through concepts I learned literally a decade and a half ago.

I was less successful with the groan that came when I realized how old that makes me.

When the mind isn't sufficiently challenged it tends to wander, to find avenues of amusement for the excess capacity not being required for the task at hand. So my suggestions to complete the model sentences tended not to resemble the offerings of the rest of the class. My brother gives me the same gift I gave him for his last birthday, in a resealed box. I give my parents heartache. I give Seth Rogan two more top billings to put it all together, tops.

I'm not relying solely upon German-for-Third-Graders to get me up to fluency. The classes are merely serving as the center of a makeshift language-immersion program. The plan for the next month is to spend as much time as possible in classes, or listening to my German tapes and podcasts, or reading the second-hand German novels I've purchased, or consuming German-language TV, movies, and radio. (I'm not sure how to fit in this blog without writing it in German, which the English-only readers won't like and the German-speaking readers will like even less.)

No time like the present to start, I supposed as I left the schoolroom, and on my way to the library to sit down with Schmidt's Bewährung, I slipped on my headphones and listened to DW's slowly spoken German news podcast. The first story was, to my still imprecise ear, about John Yoo, former Bush administration torture-enabler (big ups to Boalt Law School! by the way! great hire, fucknutz). However, as the word "Hollywood" and phrases that I gathered were the German translations for Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Home Alone came out, I realized it must have been John Hughes instead.

Holy shit, John Hughes died? I really don't know if I had heard and then forgotten that, or else if it was still news to me when I heard it. Much more than Farrah Fawcett, Hughes seems to me the third iconic corner of the triangle that passed this summer, along with Michael Jackson and Ted Kennedy, figureheads who got their rise in the 1970s, when I was born (albeit more of a resurrection in the case of the 1960s' Kennedy), became megastars in the 80s, when I was growing up, and started if not a decline than an extended phase of middling-through in the 90s, when I was officially entering adulthood and one starts to realize that the beautiful illusions of youth are invariably complicated, that heroic stories are all myths or else lies, that the real nemeses of adulthood are compromises rather than villains. That these deaths came during the summer as it turned to fall, as the days shorten and memories of winters past return, I'm sure, already has been remarked upon by abler chroniclers of the culture than I.

It wouldn't be so troubling if the Hughes obit were merely another of the headstones one sees when reviewing the landscape of youth. But his death itself had been news to me It's not that it's unusual---it's precisely that so much of this is news to me; I used to be a regular consumer of perhaps a dozen news blogs, the New York Times in physical format, and the New Yorker and Atlantic and Foreign Affairs. Now it's a handful of commentary sites that keep me vaguely apprised of the general tenor of news, but hardly in-touch. It were as if my connection to America were disappearing not only from the past forward, but also from the present back into the past, a candle burning at both ends, dwindling twice as fast toward a vanishing center. Is my identity as an American necessarily the casualty of seeking a new home in Berlin? Do the forces of History simply always work like that, erasing like some overeager villain in a clumsy spy thriller of crime caper the traces that bear witness to the past?

The plot thickens, Agent Handler.
[Update: More than merely clumsily, I inserted several egregious grammatical errors directly into the part where I was talking big about how all the grammatical rules are so easy for me; my face is quite red, and thanks for the correction, "beyondo98"... if that is your real name.]
Off-topic: If all the playoff games are like last night's one-game play-in, it'll do more to make me resent being in Germany rather than New York more than a thousand visa worries, bureaucratic snafus, and linguistic frustrations combined. Of course, if they're all like last night's game... buy stock in the suppliers of cardiac medication and devices, I guess.


  1. the sentence "Kann man sein Vater Parfum Schenken?" has a slight grammatical error that would never be problematic in speech. but it should be "Kann man seinEM Vater Parfum schenken?" it's also, i think, possible that there's a letter 'n' at the end of Vater to round out just how annoying the dative case is. but i'm not sure.

    so ends the lesson

  2. Nothing to add here. Except that I enjoyed reading this post.

    Recommend tackling a German book or reader: will be excruciatingly slow going, but satisfying to get through...

  3. Grr... do I feel dumb. If there's a silver lining it's that I'm only half as wrong as I could have been, as the -n only gets added in the dative plural (seinen Kindern). It's the genitive where shit gets fucked.

    Q---I'm trying, but "tackling" is far too vigorous a word for what I've been able to accomplish to Am Strand (or what in English was On Chesil Beach by McEwan) or Schmidts Bewährung (sequel to About Schmidt by Begley). If you would revise downward to, say, "losing a tickle-fight to," I could accommodate you.

  4. Unless you are losing a tickle-fight to me, I am disinclined to accommodate you.