Thursday, April 25, 2019

Guten Morgen and Other Words I Never Want To Hear Again

Every morning I wake up in Germany starts in exactly the same way. The bed shakes, my husband stands up, the curtains part, and the morning light pours in. I slowly open my eyes and my husband says, “Guten morgen!”

And I think to myself, “Oh, holy God: not this shit again.”

Because another day in Germany means another struggle with language: to watch TV, to read a newspaper, to buy a ticket for the subway, to talk to a clerk in a grocery store. I study, I memorize, and I get a little more confident. And then I pick up a German copy of Harry Potter and realize I can't make it through a paragraph. It's a little damaging to the ego when you realize you can't compete intellectually with people whose primary medical complaint is inextricable M&Ms.

It doesn't help that the Germans pretend that this is entirely my problem, because they do everything perfectly. They pride themselves on being amazing, a rumor I actually believed when I lived in America. The thing is, we're grading them on an EU curve. Yes, Germany is the most productive, most accomplished country in the EU, an organization that includes Italy and Greece. But it's easy to look intelligent next to a country that decides criminal trials with a dance-off.

Maybe at some point in the past Germans were perfect, but there are cracks in the pavement now.

The language has quite a few inexplicable rules, but the worst has to be this: sometimes words randomly divide, with one part running somewhere else in the sentence. "Anrufen," for instance, means "to call on the phone." "Ich kann sie anrufen" means "I can call them on the phone."

If you actually make the call, though, the "rufen" breaks off and moves forward. "Ich rufen sie an" means "I am calling them on the phone." There's really no equivalent in English: you won't really try to understand somebody and then, when the time comes, really stand under them.

"Umfahren" is an odd German word that has two opposite meanings. Originally it meant "to drive around," but then somebody decided that was too limiting so they added "to run over" too. I guess sometimes the thoughts merge in German heads. If you're still in the planning stages, it's "Ich kann sie umfahren." When the times comes, naturally the "fahren" scurries forward and it's "Ich fahre ihn um."

I'll admit this vagueness could actually be helpful. The policeman questioning you about the body on the sidewalk might glance off into the distance for a few seconds. He might shrug his shoulders and write something in his notebook. Regardless, you can drive off to fahre another ihn.

Desexing language also hasn't come to Germany yet. While we banished "actress" and "waitress" as being separatist and sexist, they still have "Schauspielerin" and "Kellnerin." In fact, they still have the word "Chefin," whereas in English I don't think anyone ever used the phrase "Lady Boss."

Germans randomly swap the order of nouns and verbs, while English-speakers like the noun first. I'm not sure if there's a rule, but it unnecessarily complicates things. I guess it's technically the same in English but nobody's actually going to say, "That's an unruly dog, think I."

I patted myself on the back for memorizing everything there is to know about baking: "In einer Bäckerei, sie backt im Backofen mit Backpulver." ("In a bakery, you bake in the oven with baking powder.") And then I went to a farmer's market, confidently ordered the Backfisch, and watched as the chef lowered it into the fryer. Apparently German logic was asleep at the wheel when somebody decided, "What's the difference? Hey, cooked is cooked!"

In some ways, though, German actually makes more sense than English. For example, German has a different "There is" depending on if you're saying "There is a dog" or "There is an overriding gender-based privilege inherent in the patriarchal paradigm." This makes sense, because in the latter example people shouldn't shoot quick glances around the neighborhood while asking, "Where?"

In Germany, as in America, animals and humans are made of the same stuff. In Germany it's "fleisch," while in America it's commonly "meat." Since Germans combine existing words instead of inventing new ones, they don't have random-letter sequences like "pork" or "venison" or "veal." They tacked "fleisch" onto the animal's name to get "schweinefleisch," "rehfleisch," and "kalbfleisch." They similarly dodged our rather odd "gums," too, by adding the suffix onto "tooth." Though it's easy to applaud their logic and it makes their language easier to learn, it can frighten visitors to hear someone say, "Ow! My tooth meat hurts."

A friend tried to further my education by warning that the German word for "birds" also means "to fuck." While "Er ist gut mit Vögeln" ("He is good with birds") might commonly be heard in a forest, you're more likely to hear "Er ist gut zu vögeln" in the trees by the truck stop. Sure, it's weird, but weird slang isn't exclusive to Germany. In America, if someone comes up to you in a bar and says they want to bang, it's up to you whether you have sex with them or stick a firecracker up their ass.

Still, the more I learn German, the more ridiculous it seems. For example, "kleid" is a woman's frock. The word "kleidung," though, means clothing for both sexes. Again they created a new word by reusing an old one, but this time they screwed up.

Now, every time I heard "kleidung" I hear "kleid," and I start picturing men in women's clothes. I start wondering why a word that includes men's clothing was built around a word for female stuff. And I imagine exactly how this stupidity came to pass.

GERMAN LANGUAGE EXPERT: We need a word for "clothing." Everything for both sexes, male and female.

ASSISTANT: Hmm. Okay, how about bra-lettes?

GLE: Hmm. Well, it’s not particularly great, but thanks for throwing it out there.

ASSISTANT: Better: how about girdle-ectable?

GLE: How about we think of a word that isn't derived from women's clothes?

ASSISTANT: Fine. You're right. (PAUSE) How about frilly-panty-tocious?

Yup, they went with kleidung. And this is a smart country? I'm actually supposed to learn this shit?

Not today. Not this guten morgen. And now, I’ve got to get dressed.

Himmelfahrt

I didn’t realize it before I moved to Germany, but the English language has some words that are kind of holy. They're words you almost whisper when you say them, because they're frought with so much meaning.

Like one day in March there’s a holiday for when Mary, Jesus’ mother, rose up to heaven. It’s called Anunciation Day, or the Feast of the Annunciation. Repeat that in your head a few times: Annunciation Day. Feast of the Annunciation. You kind of whisper it, right? It's soft, like cotton candy. It's so cool you're kind of in awe. Imagine it: picture a radiant Mary floating up to heaven as her flaxen robe swirls around her in slow motion, as chubby angels gaze in wonder and silvery stars glitter like they know that this is a special day.

In Germany, the Annunciation has a slightly different name: Himmelfahrt.

Like most German words, this train wreck breaks down into separate bits: “himmel” means sky, and “fahrt” means trip. So instead of that glorious Annunciation, the Mother of God takes a sky trip.

All of a sudden it doesn’t seem so majestic, right? It's kind of lost that "sacred" feel. In fact, now it sounds like an amusement park ride. Now you see Mary holding onto a roll bar and screaming, "Oh SHIT!" while a cherub sitting next to her throws up.

If there are holy words in German, I haven't found them. And I’m not even going to touch on the fact that “himmelfahrt” sounds like a painful bodily function, because you will definitely go to hell if you picture Mary flying around that way.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Germany for Vegetarians

I’m not sure if my boyfriend understands vegetarians. There aren’t many in Germany so it’s possible word hasn’t gotten out. In America every restaurant has a vegetarian option, so we can go out to eat anywhere, but with vegetarian food -- along with fashion, capitalism, and smizing -- Germany is a few years behind. You have to call a restaurant in advance and ask, "Do you have any vegetables there?"

Dieter had to go to a small German town for business, so I tagged along. Because he was so busy we ate in the hotel restaurant every night. Every entree on the menu had meat in it. The first night I was horrified to eat beef, the second night I was disgusted to eat pork, and on the third night I was fed up.

The menu listed something called "fleisch salad,“ so I desperately leapt at it. The word "fleisch," of course, meant there'd be meat in it, but I figured I could push it to the side and just eat the salad. When the waiter dropped it off, though, I discovered it's the "potato salad“ style of salad. You chop up a pile of something, add a gallon of mayonnaise, and ta-dah! "Salad" is done.

I took exactly one bite before turning to the parsley garnish. "You don't like it?" Dieter asked.

If there's anything I hate, it's being needy. I pride myself on being low-maintenance, but then what was I doing here? I felt guilty. We’d gone to a place that served salad and I STILL wasn’t happy. "I didn’t think it would be so meaty,“ I replied.

He looked at me the way you’d look at somebody who ordered potato salad but didn’t want potatoes. "You can take out the meat and just eat the mayonnaise,“ he suggested.

"Oh," I said, but I didn't eat it. I got a piece of cake.

The next time we discussed dining options I made the situation clear. "Anywhere is fine,“ I said. "Except I don’t eat meat. I. Don’t. Eat. Meat.“

"I know just the place,“ he said. With excitement and anticipation we drove a few miles, and then he pulled up in front of a cake shop.

"Okay," I said, "this is technically vegetarian, but I have some dietary needs that aren't met by cake."

"I thought you liked cake. Every time we eat out you get a piece of cake."

"Because I don't want to die of starvation in the center of Berlin."

Just in case I wasn't clear, I repeated these instructions the next time we went out for dinner. "No meat," I said, "but also no cake. Can we go to a restaurant that has meat-free dishes but something other than cake?“ He drove to another little cafe, we got a table, inspected menus, and I searched every line in vain.

"There’s something in here that isn’t meat or cake?“ I asked.

My boyfriend proudly jabbed a finger at a page. "Waffles!“ he announced.

After another cake dinner -- waffles say "breakfast" to me -- I figured I had to do something drastic. Surely I'd be better off eating fleisch than shaking like maracas from low blood sugar. The next time my boyfriend and I went out for dinner I had the word "huhn“ — chicken — memorized. I flipped through the menu, came up blank, and when the waiter appeared I asked, "Haben sie etwas huhn?“ ("Do you have any chicken?“)

He and my boyfriend had a nice chuckle. "‘Huhn‘ is an animal,“ my boyfriend explained. "‘Hähnchen‘ is food.“

Oh, I thought. That’s nice. Something else about Germany that’s inexplicably difficult. In English it’s simple. "Look, there’s a chicken!“ "There’s a whole field of chickens.“ "Look, there’s a chicken eating chicken!“ But in Germany the name changes when something is dead.

The waiter said something and my boyfriend turned to me. "It doesn’t matter,“ he said. "They don’t have any.“ I ordered my usual cake and when the waiter left I asked my boyfriend to explain.

"‘Hähnchen’ is food,“ he repeated. "It is not an animal. A female chicken is a huhn. Two female chickens are hühner. One male chicken is a hahn, two male chickens are hähne.“

"Okay,“ I said. "I got it.“ And then a minute later. "Could you run through those again?“

I’m not sure if it’s the language or my boyfriend, but it seemed like the words were different this time around. They were very similar, but with slight differences in spelling and pronunciation. Some meant animals, some meant food, some meant boys, some meant girls. As the words swirled around in my head I pictured a scene at a butcher shop:

"Four hundred grams of hahn,“ I’d say to the clerk.

He’d shoot me the curious look I’d gotten from everybody else in Germany. "Do you mean ‘huhn?‘“ he’d ask.

Honestly, what could I reply here? Once again I’d have to abandon my feeble German and fall back into English. "Look,“ I’d say, "I want some chicken. What its genitals look like are completely up to you.“

So, maybe I was delirious from starvation when I saw the mirage. It seemed almost real: in front of a hardware store there was a stand selling vegetable soup. I saw a folding table, folding chairs, and a kind of makeshift kitchen with a big grill holding two giant kettles. I even thought I smelled the soup.

I looked at Dieter. He looked at me. "Do you want soup?“ he asked.

I ran like a starving rat. In America I might have balked if anybody asked me, "Would you like to have lunch at the hardware store?“ But this was Germany. "Absolutely,‘ I said.

This exchange shows exactly how far I’d fallen. If I’d announced in New York that I wanted hardware-store soup any sensible boyfriend would have said, "Sweetie, are you sure? At a hardware store?“ Or even, "Honey, there are people we can talk to about this.“ But my German boyfriend had no problem with it. "It is probably delicious," he said. "The sign says it’s grandma’s recipe.“

That clinched it. Dieter spoke with the chef behind the counter, then translated for me. "What kind of soup would you like: lentil or pea?“ he asked.

"Definitely split pea,“ I said.

Dieter's forehead furrowed. "It is pea soup. It is made from whole peas.“

That made two of us who were confused. "Can you even do that?" I wondered. It's called split pea soup. Why they split them, I don't know -- I just know it's split pea soup. "They’re whole peas?" I asked. "They’re not cut in half?“

He spoke for a minute to the chef in German and now he was confused too. "They are whole peas,“ Dieter confirmed.

"Oh,“ I said. This was an unexpected quandary, but after a second I realized it didn’t make any difference. "I’ll have the pea soup.“

"Wait,“ Dieter said. "They cut peas in half in America?“

I shrugged my shoulders. "Always,“ I said.

“Do you buy them from the store cut in half, or do you do it after you get home?“

Another man walked up and looked like he wanted to order but the chef said something to him in German and suddenly I was talking to a crowd. "In America you buy a bag of dried peas and they are already cut in half. I assume it has something to do with them cooking faster. It’s like cutting a squash in half.“

Dieter summarized my words to the assembled multitude and now they looked even more confused than ever. "It takes fifteen minutes to cook a whole pea," the chef said. Everybody in Germany speaks English: you just have to get them really annoyed before they'll start. "Americans would rather cut two hundred peas in half than wait for fifteen minutes?“

Newcomer thought that standing there gave him the right to cut in. Germans are a friendly bunch. "So someone cuts the peas in half?" he asked. "Someone with a knife?“

I didn't have a clue, but the knife seemed so stupid I couldn't let it go. "No,“ I said. "It’s done by machine.“

There was a short conference, and then the three men laughed. "So," Dieter said, "because fifteen minutes is too long to wait, someone built a machine that cuts peas in half?"

When laughing resumed, that was it for me. Split peas are the correct peas, as far as I’m concerned, even if some goddamned old lady with a wire loop has to sit in a warehouse and garrote the fuckers in half. I wasn't going to put up with any more of this America-bashing, particularly in the country with the worst food in the world.

Naturally, thinking about lousy food made me think about currywurst. It sounds great. It looks terrific. But fork over your money with fingers crossed and ... it's the culinary equivalent of a Tim Burton film.

I'd heard so much hype in America about currywurst that after I got here I stopped by a stand to see what was up. A man grabbed a grilled sausage and stuck it in a machine. When he turned a crank, the machine sucked in the sausage and spat out chunks. He squirted catsup on the chunks and sprinkled curry powder on top.

I stared at it, thinking it had to be wrong. I watched the process repeat. Curry sauce, I discovered, is just catsup with curry powder. Bottled catsup, which has so much fructose it's actually closer to candy than food. And even worse: Germans are too lazy to cut up a sausage?

I looked at the soup crowd and knew my argument. "You know how currywurst is a cut-up sausage with catsup and curry powder on it? How does the sausage get cut up? Is it done by a guy with a knife? No. Somebody sticks a sausage in a machine, turns the crank, and it spits out sausage chunks.“

Dieter exchanged looks with the others, who shrugged and nodded. "A machine,“ I repeated. "Germans actually built something out of metal because it’s too tough to go chop-chop-chop.“

The crowd hemmed and hawed and visually deflated. Gone was the arrogance, replaced by sheepish looks. "You’re saying Americans are strange for cutting peas in half," I continued, "but you need heavy machinery to cut a sausage into chunks.“

That was it; the crowd was defeated. Nobody said a word. The chef finally picked up a bowl, filled it, and brought me my soup. He still feigned attitude. "Whole peas!“ he told me. "I didn’t cut them in half!“ There was a laugh, but half-hearted.

As much as it annoyed me to admit it, the soup was delicious. It was thick and rich and salty and sweet and -- meaty, I hate to say. It had that hint of smoky sausage that’s in every German food except cake. I wasn't going to admit it but the peas were better for being more substantial.

All eyes turned to me. "It's good," I announced. Everybody smiled. I was happy too. If it's possible, I think Germany has made me even more low-maintenance. Now I'm fine with fleisch. I'm fine with humiliation. In fact, I'm fine with just about anything, as long as I don't have to ask whether it has a penis or not.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

How To Cook

In America:

1. Leaf through a cookbook and pick out something that sounds exciting.

2. Go to the store and buy the ingredients.

3. Follow the instructions. When it's finished, pat yourself on the back for a job well done and enjoy your tasty treat!

In Germany:

1. DAY ONE. Leaf through a cookbook and pick out something that sounds exciting. Think, "Mmm, that would be especially delicious after a year of currywurst!"

2. Write up a list of ingredients and go to the grocery store. Then go to another grocery store, and then another. Return home eight hours later holding a can of kidney beans and parsley.

3. DAY TWO. Try to find a recipe that doesn't have weird ingredients in it. Unfortunately, it's impossible to know what's considered weird in Germany, unless you can figure out why they don't touch celery, corn tortillas, farro, peanut butter, porcini mushrooms, pie, canned salmon or chili powder while devouring mayonnaise, vegetables in Jello, and sausages floating in glass jars.

4. Go back to the grocery store but admit that you need help. Type "Where is the kale?" into Google Translate, and then ask a clerk: "Wo ist die grünkohl?" Watch the thoughts flicker across his face. He glances outside: yes, it is sunny out. He looks at you: yes, you have just asked where you can find a winter vegetable. You don't look like you are mentally defective, but looks can be deceiving. The next time he talks it will be very slow, since he's decided that you are not a person who understands that the earth spins.

"IT ... IS ... SUMMER," he will say. "THIS ... IS ... NOT ... THE ... TIME ... OF ... YEAR ... FOR ... GRÜNKOHL."

If he is feeling particularly helpful, he will tell you to come back between November 27 and December 3 -- the kale season -- and that he is sure you'll enjoy your recipe even more after eleven months of anticipation.

5. Go online and investigate this mysterious phenomenon. Learn that in some countries, like Germany, they anticipate the arrival of seasonal produce rather than institutionalize immediate gratification. It's like a cultural "glass half full" thing. For thirty days per year, Germans think, "Hooray! Asparagus is here!" Whereas for 335 days per year Americans would think, "Where in hell is the goddamned asparagus?"

German grocery stores don't have every fruit and vegetable on earth flown in from Peru; instead, they sell food from local farms. When a new crop arrives, they put up a banner on the front of the store saying something like, "STRAWBERRIES ARE HERE!" and within the next 24 hours every German will eat four hundred pounds. The next day they will be gone, and if you ask about them, the clerk will again answer you very slowly.

6. Return home and find another recipe while checking the Farmer's Almanack for each ingredient. Strawberries? Late summer. Mushrooms? Early summer. Fresh green peas? June. Corn? September to October. Rhubarb? May, July, September.

So, can you actually make that Peach-Pumpkin Parfait? Sure! Well, you know -- provided it's September 24th.

7. Decide to cook without using any fresh fruits or vegetables, and suddenly realize why the produce section in a German grocery store is just slightly smaller than the deodorant aisle.

8. Go back to the store and actually find some of the ingredients your recipe requires. Now go online to buy the rest. On Google, type in "store that sells [celery, corn tortillas, farro, peanut butter, porcini mushrooms, pie, canned salmon, chili powder]." See the long list of results and think, "Hooray! I found them! I can actually finish cooking!" Now look closer at the top result and see that since your query was in English, Google found your ingredient at a Walmart Supercenter in Coffeyville, Kansas.

9. Convince yourself that you can turn Google into something useful. Type in "store that sells [celery, corn tortillas, farro, peanut butter, porcini mushrooms, pie, canned salmon, chili powder] IN GERMANY." Be pleasantly surprised when Google returns another long string of results before noticing this line under each:

Missing: Germany ‎| ‎Must include: Germany

Understand that when you asked, "Where can I find porcini mushrooms in Germany?" Google decided that the "in Germany" part didn't really matter because, hey, UPS exists. And planes.

10. Spend a second trying to understand why Google does this. Now type in "HOLY FUCKING GOD YOU STUPID FUCKING IDIOTS, YES, I REALLY WANT A GODDAMN STORE IN GERMANY THAT SELLS [celery, corn tortillas, farro, peanut butter, porcini mushrooms, pie, canned salmon, chili powder]."

Notice the stream of remarkably similar websites that Google returns, and learn that the word "fucking" included in a query is weighted more heavily than a word like "mushrooms." The websites Google recommends will not help your meal but you may find it a nice change to hear people screaming, "YES, YES, YES!" after hearing "NO, NO, NO!" since the day you decided to cook.

11. DAY THREE. Go to the store and randomly grab substitute ingredients out of desperation. Just to make it easy on yourself, choose things you can easily find, like bratwurst, potatoes, or pretzels. Now it's finally time to cook!

12. Notice that instead of teaspoons and tablespoons your recipe calls for teelöffels and eßlöffels. Think that these sound pretty ridiculous, but then remember that in America you never ate tea or tables. Chalk it off to worldwide stupidity and turn to Google again:

Teelöffel (TL): ein Kaffeelöffel oder Dessertlöffel
Eßlöffel (EL): ein Suppenlöffel

Open your utensil drawer and pull out all the spoons. Hold them in your hand one at a time while thinking: "Would I use this to stir my coffee? Could I use it to eat dessert? Would I use it for soup?"

If the answer doesn't come to you immediately, run through all the different types of desserts and soups in your head. This is usually the highlight of cooking in Germany. Wonder why you like small spoons for tiramisu and vichyssoise, big spoons for ice cream and chicken soup, and forks for pie and chili. Now close the drawer and try to forget that you started thinking about pie.

13. Go to a restaurant and watch people eat. What are they using the tiny spoons for? And how about the big spoons? Yes, it's clear: big spoons are for soup, tiny spoons are for dessert. You're ready: go to a kitchen supply store and ask a clerk for measuring spoons. Watch him stare at you incredulously before he says that no such thing exists and then says, very slowly, that you should go home, open your cutlery drawer, pull out a big spoon and a tiny one, and then measure with those. Make a mental note of another difference between Germany and America: in Germany, the guy will not say "Duh."

14. Cook. Use the big spoon for EL, the tiny spoon for TL, the bratwurst for tuna, the pretzel for porcini mushrooms, the potatoes for cheddar cheese. Taste the result. Ask yourself: "Did I make the wrong substitutions? Did I get the TL and the EL mixed up? Did I measure the water in liters instead of grams?" Realize that you can never tell people that, after three days of effort, your Curried Asparagus Ratatouille turned into Cinnamon Wiener Soup. Take comfort in knowing that, tasting as it does, you will never need to.

15. Realize that you are going to live on this and currywurst for the next few years. Go over to your calendar, circle September 24th and think, "I am gonna fuckin' love that Peach-Pumpkin Parfait."

Monday, February 18, 2019


Today on German newsstands: a SPECIAL ISSUE of BEEF! about that special kind of cow called a “pig.”

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Germans love to make plans. They spend hours making incredibly intricate plans, and just when you’re ready to congratulate them on a job well done they start on the backup plan.

Of course this means Germans are great to travel with, because everything will be fine. When I get in the car with my boyfriend, I know he’s already checked the traffic, the weather, the tire pressure and the gas gauge. He's got bottled water and emergency sandwiches. And that’s when we’re going to the post office.

I actually appreciate the planning, since it's pretty much the opposite of my Brooklyn life. I've been to parties where the host forgot to show up. I've been to barbecues where nobody bought charcoal. I’ve heard all of the excuses for no-shows: their grandmother died, their subway train broke down, their boss kept them late at work. Everybody in Brooklyn knows these actually mean, "I got really stoned and fell asleep."

My friend Charlotte cancels plans if her dog coughs. Emma won't go if her horoscope is bad. It's a relief, then, to be in Germany and to know that if you have a party that ‪starts at 8‬, all the guests will be there by 8:01. If you say the party ‪ends at 10‬, everybody will be gone by ten. Brooklyn guests don’t show up before midnight, and that’s if you invite them to brunch.

When Germans are done with their own plans, they start making them for other people. “My niece is coming over tomorrow," my boyfriend announced the other day.

"That's nice," I said. "Why is she stopping by?"

I was expecting an American answer along the lines of, “Just to say hi.” Germans, however, are distinctly different people. "She will be driving past our apartment on the highway," my boyfriend said. “It is a five-hour drive, so she will park outside, sit on the couch, drink a cup of coffee, and use the toilet."

Germans plan to use the toilet a lot.

One day I noticed my boyfriend had a calendar with my name on it, and he was pencilling in entries for just about every day. "Are you ... filling up a calendar for me?" I asked. "Are you actually making a schedule for what I have to do next year?

He didn't look up but kept writing. "No, no," he said. "I am not doing that."

"Okay," I said. "Good."

"I finished that calendar hours ago," he announced. "This is what you will do in 2039."

German plans always start from the beginning and include all the mundane details. When I ask my boyfriend, "What would you like to do tomorrow?" I want an answer like, "How about if we do some shopping and maybe have lunch downtown?" or "We really should stay home and clean." A typical German answer, though, goes something like this:

"We will wake up ‪at 7:15‬. First you will use the toilet, and then I will use the toilet. I will check the weather while you take a shower, and I will take a shower while you brush your teeth.”

Unfortunately Germans get offended if you say, “Can you skip ahead eight hours, to when we’ve left the house?” You have to prop your eyes open and listen, because there’s always a step that’s a bit less mundane, like, “We will go visit my nudist friends.”

Germans are always thinking, usually about two or three things at a time. It’s exhausting just to sit and watch, but sometimes it can be frightening.

One day my boyfriend was in the garden chopping firewood. A chainsaw screeched and belched smoke into the air, and then suddenly it stopped.

I heard a scream in my boyfriend's voice. "OH NO!" it said.

I dropped everything I was doing and ran outside, expecting to see body parts. “WHAT???"

He put down the chainsaw and wiped his brow. "I just remembered I have a library book overdue."

Plus, common sense is wonderful in theory but not always in practice. When my boyfriend and I were looking at apartments, he said we shouldn't look at anything higher than the second floor.

I knew he’d have a good reason. "Because higher floors are more expensive?" I asked. "It'll be easier to move our stuff in?"

He shook his head. "The day will come when you will not be able to walk up stairs."

American wedding proposals start with something like, "I've loved you since the moment I saw you.” Skipping the schmaltz, German ones more commonly open with, “Experts agree you have eight to ten years left to live." My boyfriend used almost those exact words to propose to me, but for some reason I still said yes. Sure, it sounded creepy. And it wasn't exactly logical either: we were roughly the same age yet the sad claw of decrepitude was always knocking at my door.

Germans also don't waste time, so just a few days later he had an idea for a wedding ring. "I have a jeweler who can make anything we want," he announced. “How about we have simple silver bands engraved with our fingerprints? Your ring will have my fingerprint on it, and my ring will have your fingerprint."

The sentiment shocked me, his vulnerability contrasting sharply with the harsh accent. "So ... they're unique?” I asked. “Celebrating the two of us? Your ring says I am yours, and my ring says you are mine?”

He took a second to translate my words in his head, then he said, "Yes. That is exactly it."

I almost started crying. He wasn’t cold: he was an old softie suffering from the language problem. His sensitive soul was disguised by his broken English. I wholeheartedly agreed, and a few weeks after pressing our fingers into melted wax we got the breathtaking results. I slid mine on, this time unable to hold back the tears. He smiled and put on the other one.

We are a couple. My finger is forever holding his, and his is forever holding mine. I am getting married, I am moving to Germany, and I am never going to have to worry about the weather again.

If we were driving to a courthouse in Brooklyn and my friends were in the back of the car, I know exactly how the chatter would go. "This is sooo romantic!" Emma would say.

"I can't believe it," Charlotte would observe. "How often in this miserable fuckin' life do you get a happy ending?"

Instead, we are driving to a courthouse in Berlin, with my boyfriend's best friends in the back seat. He's already told me that my American best friends will be replaced by this heavily-accented trio: Rolf, Helmut, and Wolfgang. Rolf is a rough, butch doctor who’s also into leather and S&M. Helmut is breathtakingly handsome, and he goes skiing in the Alps every weekend. Wolfgang is an intellectual whose art collection includes a Dali, two Miros and a Cocteau. They seem friendly enough I think that it could work.

My boyfriend maneuvers the Mercedes into traffic. It beeps because he gets too close to a pole. It beeps because my seat belt isn't fastened. It beeps because someone is riding a bicycle fourteen miles away. It doesn’t bother me. I look at the people and the buildings we pass and barely hear the back-seat talk.

"I hope they have completed the paperwork in case one of them dies," Rolf says.

"They must have," Helmut replies. "It would be nonsensical to take such an important step without completing the necessary procedures."

"Did you see they have wedding rings with each others' fingerprints on them?" Rolf says.

Helmut nods. "That is a really wonderful idea."

"Yes," Wolfgang says. "It will help if they need to identify bodies."

Friday, December 14, 2018

Ezzelino Live Cams, Epilogue

I spent the next few hours in a daze. The way this encounter unraveled seemed impossible, unbelievable, or even scripted. From the beginning where I was dragged through the hidden door by the strange man, to the discovery of this strange troupe that lived in an abandoned mall, to the part where I befriended and bonded with them, to the ending where their innocent claims of creative freedom slid away to reveal a paid complicity with some anonymous, sociopathic billionaire.

There's not much I know about life, but I do know this: life is a series of dishwater-dull days that slowly slide by and leave us reassured that we're civilized, smart, healthy and invincible. Those days are occasionally shattered by unpredictable accidents that remind us that we are, in actuality, absolutely none of these things.

I knew the instant I set foot in the studio that this was an extraordinary day, but I didn't expect what had to be the opposite of an epiphany. I recognized that I was meeting extraordinary people in an extraordinary place. I wanted time to slow down so I could record every second in my head. I held onto every word, every image, desperate to remember it forever, letting go only when new words and images overwhelmed me and I had to throw something overboard.

I remember the instant when I realized it was a sham. What I'd thought was a parade turned out to be a car wreck, and I recognized too late that I shouldn't have looked. I'd gone from wanting my own disheveled bed with ROMAN scrawled on the wall above it to literally looking over my shoulder as I fled into the dark. I felt betrayed: not just by these people, but by myself.

I felt like an infant again, like everything I'd known about life had evaporated right in front of my eyes. Hadn't I constructed a persona that protected me from harm? Hadn't I learned to maintain a distance from con men, tricksters, Nigerian princes, and handsome, unemployed men who are absolutely crazy about me? I knew my safety could be violated by horror movies, and the images of people being stabbed in the eyeball that bounce back into my brain when I'm chatting at a dinner party. I know not to go on roller coasters, because I've had bodily trauma result from carry-on luggage and shopping carts. So what exactly had happened here? How had my defenses been evaded? I didn't have the faintest clue, and not being able to understand -- or even describe -- the experience upended everything I knew about myself.

Aimlessly walking the streets of Wiesbaden, I felt a scrap of paper in my pocket. I had yet to start processing the mental notes I'd made, and realized these were evidence of one. Merkur and Melanie had given me their business cards. Of course I'd wondered why they'd had them, since it didn't seem like "making fantasy snuff films for reclusive Swedes" was the kind of occupation you'd want to advertise. Both had said, coincidentally, that they'd given away all of their real business cards so they had to handwrite the information on cardboard.

Both cards gave the same website address in freeform scrawl. Melanie's card also listed an Instagram user name, so I took a table at a coffee shop, ordered a cappuccino, pulled out my phone and searched for her name.

I scrolled through thirty-something photos like the ones I've posted here. In her first post, on August 22, she wrote that she was excited to start working with a new customer.

The Swedish guy? That couldn't be right. That was just three weeks before I'd met them. They'd supposedly been there for two years, I thought: that's when Merkur took over the Spielhalle lease. Unless the new customer was --

Ezzelino?

Suddenly a sharp new thought sliced through my mental haze. I flashed back on the strange man who'd drawn me into the hidden room. We'd had a short conversation that I'd discounted at the time. One of the first things he'd told me was that there was an explanation for everything. And I'd emailed it to myself.

I switched over to my email account and there it was.

I parsed the words and they slowly revealed their meaning. The alternative scenarios I'd constructed in my head fell away one by one to reveal a truth still cloaked in impossibility.

But the email couldn't have been more clear. The whole thing was fake.

In 1992, the novel Assisted Living was published by the pseudonymous Nikanor Teratologen. Described as a Satanic work of unending violence, incest, pedophilia, racism and cannibalism, it caused a scandal that provoked equal parts repulsion and fascination. What was this work? everyone wondered. Was it an innocent allegorical construction, a boundary-pushing cautionary tale, or the authentically-debauched sickness of a demented soul?

When nice young Niclas Lundkvist came forward to announce he'd written it, the world exhaled, relieved to see the best-case scenario. The book became a best-seller, and then a cult classic. Everyone applauded his ingenuity.

Twenty years later, though, investigative journalists found Lundkvist had an alternative online identity named Ezzelino. Ezzelino was a sadistic, racist, misogynistic Nazi. His 2,000+ posts about concentration camps and gas chambers contained statements like, "The Jews are enemies of the Swedish, German, French, and English people."

Naturally, Lundkvist's work was reappraised again. The reaction to the new information was lukewarm, and many critics stood by Lundkvist. It was clear to everyone, though, that the repellent opinions Ezzelino espoused were offered fully-formed in Assisted Living, albeit conveyed through the fictional lead.

The artists Thomas Bo Nilsson and Julian Eicke created a similar paradox within a convoluted fantasy world. Their installation asked one of the questions this incident raised: could something that seemed innocent, creative, interesting or extraordinary turn into something monstrous with just one added piece of information?

I'd experienced exactly what the artists intended, and what newspapers said about the unmasking of Lundkvist's secrets: how sad it was when something thought to be beautiful, provocative art was, in fact, a terrible, provocative reality.

And finally we get closure. We are left to explore, experience, and, finally, applaud a seamless universe created entirely to explore a moral quandary. I am returned to the best-case scenario: we circle back to the beginning, and I discover a group of artists and actors creating something impossible to imagine yet equally impossible to forget. I offer my congratulations to everyone involved for their most affecting work.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Ezzelino Live Cams, Part Two

I was hooked. I'd entered a door into a magical realm that couldn't have contrasted more with the beer and bratwurst outside. I was Alice in Wonderland, and everyone surrounding me was young, fun, and infinitely creative. Sleeveless Black T-Shirt finished his introduction and I asked if I could look around.


"Absolutely," he said. In a dressing room to my left, the white-faced woman was painting a big red heart on her face. To my right, the costumed couple lazily lounged in the "kitchen" set, continually chatting but without emotion, their faces devoid of expression. I walked over slowly, mystified by their stilted acting and flat dialog, but Black T-Shirt Guy followed me. "A Swedish man sent us a script that we are acting out here," he explained. "It is about a young girl and her grandfather."

I stared for probably ten minutes. I couldn't understand anything they were saying but I was pretty sure I loved it. It definitely wasn't your grandma's Swedish cinema: while those movies are inarguably brilliant, they don't really comment on the world today, with eight hours of talking about truth and beauty before everyone dies on a beach underneath a burning scarecrow.

It reminded me of a play I saw last year called the Borderline Procession. A bunch of people sat around around in a bunch of full-sized houses constructed in a huge warehouse. One by one they were replaced by Britney Spears lookalikes. After everyone was replaced, they sang "Oops I Did It Again" and then the whole place went dark.

Because, you know, after you examine life, what's left to say? Nothing, really. There are no conclusions. So you'd might as well sing.

These two didn't exactly look like Britney, but I loved their postmodern clothes. I love it when characters are portrayed untraditionally to express the weirdness of their persona -- like having a person play a dog, or a bag of rocks portray a man. I was dying to know more but the German was impenetrable. Was the grandfather gay? No, that would be too obvious. He probably represented her burgeoning adolescent desires. With his porn mustache and hairy chest he certainly reminded me of mine.


Black T-Shirt Guy got involved with Heart-Face Actress so I walked over to a small room where a man and woman sat in front of a control panel. Mounted on the wall were eight small monitors, and a mixing board took up most of a table. They wore microphones and headphones but when I peered inside they stopped talking and waved me in.



The man introduced himself as Merkur, and he said his assistant was Amanda. He said he was the producer, which was a pretentious way of saying he sat there all day watching the rooms, making sure the actors followed the script, and sliding knobs up and down.

I glanced around the small office, overwhelmed. I couldn't begin to imagine the technological scope of this setup, even ignoring the artistic side. The TV screens, the microphones, the cameras, the internet setup: someone had a serious vision and the chops to back it up. I felt like the few scraps of information I had didn't really explain anything, and every time I talked to somebody it just raised more questions. Were the actors reciting memorized lines? Did the writers pay to get their work produced? How many subscribers did they have? Did they stick to avant-garde, allegorical pieces and hope people would appreciate them? In German I can barely ask people to point me toward a library so I started at the beginning here.

"So how did this end up in an abandoned shopping mall?"

"This is actually my second try," Merkur said. "I set up something similar but couldn't make it work. I had a job here, at the Spielhalle, when they went out of business, and they let me take over the lease. We've been here over two years."

"And now you work here full-time?"

"We all live here," he said, "in a big room in the back. We wake up at 4:30 in the afternoon and we work all night."

I absorbed this new piece of information and tried to add it to the picture in my head. Instead of explaining anything, though, it just made it seem more impossible. They lived here? For two years? The dedication, the artistry, the sheer edginess made Andy Warhol look like Chris Pratt.

"And all of this is happening because of some Swedish man?" I said, referring to their new script.

He shot me a surprised look. "Yes," he finally said. "Because of him. But we have had other customers before."

A red flag flew inside my head. I'd assumed the Swedish man had become recently involved, but his answer implied far more. Considering they'd had six studios for two years I'd assumed there'd been a lot of customers.

I sensed I'd worn out my welcome so I said goodbye and explored further, ending up at the communal bedroom. Yes, they clearly lived here. The refrigerator, the dirty clothes and the squiggly slashes of paint testified to that. It was three-quarters Salvation Army thrift shop and one-quarter artistic endeavor.



Eight beds sat side by side. Like in some demented Goldilocks set, names were painted on the wall above each bed.



While I was taking in all the details, a spunky young woman grabbed me from behind. "You speak English!" she said. "I speak English! I will explain everything to you!"

Melanie talked non-stop, mostly incomprehensibly. One thing I've learned in Germany is that the more someone insists they speak English, the less likely it is that they do. Maybe in her head she was fluent, but the sounds coming out of her mouth didn't even come close.

Melanie brought out an iPad and I thought I heard the word "chatroom." I still didn't know what their subscribers got for their money, so I looked with interest. The screen was completely blank.


My curiosity bumped up another notch. Melanie looked at it, then at me, and shrugged her shoulders. "No people yet," she announced. "I just turn it on."

One more question got added to the end of the list. How did this make sense? Wasn't it supposed to be a twenty-four hour operation? I assumed they had thousands of subscribers supporting them, so shouldn't there always be somebody in the chat room?

Still, I wrote it off. I glanced around the room and felt envious that people believed in art so strongly that they subjected themselves to this. Melanie practiced her English for a few more minutes and then held up the iPad again. "Busy now!" she said.

It wasn't busy. Two people were exchanging small talk. They clearly couldn't have been "subscribers," because instead of discussing art or film their conversation consisted solely of the lines "Where are you?" and "I'm in Australia."

We were staring at the iPad when we heard a scream. Melanie smiled and shrugged her shoulders again, not moving from her seat on the couch. I thought about ignoring it too until another scream followed, and then another. I ran toward the sound and discovered they came from the kitchen. The "young girl" was now sprawled on the ground and her "grandfather" stood over her.

He was trying to kill her.


The grandfather grabbed a hot iron and swung it at his granddaughter. She tried to fight him off but he was stronger. He pressed it against her face and she screamed again.


He grabbed the free end of the electrical cord and wrapped it tightly around her neck. He pulled on it, choking her, as she gasped for breath. That's when I noticed she was pregnant, probably five or six months along. He screamed in German. I didn't understand. He was mad about the pregnancy, maybe. She was too young. Maybe he didn't like the dad.

That's when he picked up a knife and started stabbing her in the stomach.


Or ... is it -- could he be the dad? I thought.

I took one last look at the pair and walked quickly for the door. On the monitors in the entryway the scene was playing out. I walked through the blackness of the abandoned mall as the questions circling inside my head were answered much too abruptly. Merkur had admitted it: there was no global audience that supported them: no, it was all for the Swedish man. He'd heard about Merkur's first, failed business, and then had him build the studio. He paid for everything. He scripted everything. These kids stayed locked away in this hamster cage and acted out everything he wrote. He had them perform everything he couldn't do in real life.

And so we abandon the Spielhalle, and our new acquaintances. We brush off everything we felt that afternoon: the jealousy, the admiration, the sense of adventure and fun. We abandon the young woman dying on the ground and we find our way back to the mall. It is dark and everyone is gone but noises still rattle the plywood boarding up the broken windows. Now the sounds evoke new images, of actors and a play about incest and infanticide. The meta-image of the author is also there: with his money, his power, and the lives he controls with his whim. Creating a world and then watching it, from far away, unfolding on the internet.

We glance over our shoulder for one last look. We know we've seen something we shouldn't have, as the images start to flash and swoop in our head like buzzards waiting for a kill.

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