Tuesday, May 03, 2016

A visitor in the gazebo

So my girlfriend and I had a very interesting interaction with a stranger today.

It all started when we went to the park to walk our dog. Because it was raining, we decided to head over to an area in the park where there was a gazebo.

We were sitting on a bench in the gazebo, just chatting — there was hardly anyone else in the park because it was coming down pretty hard — when a small guy with caramel skin entered our vicinity.

The guy was wearing a heavy coat and had a wine bottle in one hand, and the first thing I thought to myself when I saw him was “Oh no, here comes trouble.”

He walked into the gazebo and began talking to us, but it wasn’t in German. He was speaking French.

“Joli chien,” he said and pointed to our dog. I just nodded and smiled. My girlfriend knows a little French and is currently taking a French course, so she said something back to him.

Though I didn’t understand what he or she was saying, I was able to gather quickly that this guy didn’t mean any harm. And since I knew that he was going to be more interested in talking with my girlfriend, I figured I would just observe.

He put his wine bottle down on the gazebo’s cement floor and again took interest in my dog, a grey Weimaraner.

“Joli,” he said and petted the dog. He then said a few things that neither my girlfriend nor I understood. When my dog walked away and returned with a stick, he picked it up and made a gesture as if he would throw it.

“Puis-je jeter le bâton?”

We nodded and he threw the stick toward a childrens play area, which was nearby. The man then asked my girlfriend if she spoke French. Though she said, ‘juste un petit peu,’ he replied to her with a quick and abundant stream of words. Despite our inability to understand the majority of what he had said, we were able to gather at least that he was from Dijon.

He then said something that I was able to piece together, “Le monde entier sait Dijon à cause de notre senf.”

I knew that “le monde” meant “the world” and that in German “senf” meant mustard, so I was almost sure he had said something like, “The whole world knows Dijon because of our mustard.”

When the dog returned, he said, “Ceci est un bon chien.” My dog had dropped the stick right by his feet and was looking directly up at him, indicating that she wanted him to throw it again.

“Le chien a fait un nom français,” – the dog has a French name – my girlfriend said. Though the man didn’t seem to notice that she had said this, when she said, “Filou. Le nom du chien est Filou,” he snapped to attention. “Ah, Filou,” he said.

He then said a bunch of things that my girlfriend didn't understand. Miraculously, though, somewhere in the middle of all that he had said, I heard the words “pit bull.”

“Oh, pit bull!” I said. “Oui, oui, pit bull,” he replied and looked at me. He had a thick black beard made up of straight black hairs and his eyes were a shade lighter than his skin.

He then said something in French that I didn’t understand except for the word “malady.” Once I heard that word, though, I said, “Oh, sick, malady.” “Oui, oui," he said, "malady.”

He then held up four fingers and in German said, “ende.” We gathered that he was telling us that he once had a dog and that dog had died at age four from a sickness.

My girlfriend expressed her sympathy and then pointed down to Filou, who had rain drops on her forehead and was hunching her back, expectedly waiting for the guy to throw the stick again. “Trois,” she said.

“Ah, trois,” the man said, pointing to the dog. He then picked up the stick and with an excited and mischievous look in his eyes told my girlfriend to go pick up another stick. She complied and he then told her, or more like gestured to her, that on his signal she should run from him in the opposite direction.

When he gave the signal, Filou followed her and at this moment, the man took off with his stick and attempted to hide it from Filou. But the dog was too smart, noticed what was going on and immediately switched her course and ran toward him.

“Non!” he laughed when Filou caught up with him by the childrens play area. Filou tried to grab the stick but the moment she made a move for it, he threw it as far as he could. He and my girlfriend then came back to the gazebo.

“Ç’est froid,” it’s cold, my girlfriend said. “Oui, froid,” he replied. “But,” she said, “you’ve got your wine.” At this he took slight offence. He said that it wasn’t wine he was drinking but another kind of liquor. To me it looked like a bottle of white wine.

“Cette boisson est forte,” he said and then turned the bottle to show us the label, which said that the beverage was 11 percent alcohol by volume.

 He then opened the bottle and took a sip. After that, he said something in French that my girlfriend and I did not understand. When he saw we were lost, he pointed to the roof of the gazebo and then made a wagging gesture with his pointer finger to indicate “no.”

“You don’t have a home?” my girlfriend said in English. “No,” he said, “no home.” Then in French and a tiny bit of German, he told us that because he is French, the German government won’t give him any subsidies or benefits. “Ils me disent qu'ils ne peuvent pas me aider parce que je suis français.”

He then said something about being French and how he always has his French passport ready if the police harass him.

When Filou returned with the stick and dropped it on the gazebo floor, we all had to laugh at how consistent she was. When the man again threw the stick, he said something in French that sounded mirthful.

By this point, though, I was very cold — it was a cold, rainy day in Hamburg, after all — and when my girlfriend told me that she was cold, too, I asked her if she wanted to go. When she said that she did, I stood up and zipped my coat up all the way.

The guy saw that we wanted to leave but said he wanted to show us something first and it was at that point that I realized how difficult his situation must have been.

He unzipped that big coat of his and underneath it was another coat. And under that was a huge fleece zip up. And under that was yet another coat. And in the pocket of that last coat was his passport. He wanted to show us his passport, but I couldn’t help but notice that his attire was definitely consistent with someone who lives on the street.

“Je suis un Français,” he said. He then pointed to his name on his passport and we repeated it just to make sure that we got it right. As we were doing this, my girlfriend noticed that he had just had a birthday two days prior. “Oh, it was your birthday,” she said. “Oui, oui,” he replied.

“Herzlichen glückwunsch,” I said, thinking that maybe he would recognize those words. He didn’t and he didn’t understand “congratulations” either. But when I gave him a thumbs-up and pointed at his birth date on his passport, he smiled and rolled his eyes, like “of course!” “Je comprends,” he said.

We all began to walk out of the gazebo and as we did he said something to my girlfriend in a lower tone. “Oh, yes, OK,” she said. She then took out her wallet and gave him the rest of the change that she had. I looked in his hand after she gave him the money and saw that she had given him about one euro and 60 cents.

When we parted from the guy, I said to my girlfriend, “Geeze, a euro sixty. I don’t think you’ve ever given that much money to any person on the street before.”

“Yeah, what can I say,” she said. “He needs it. And he played with Filou all that time and I got to practice my French. It was worth it.”

I nodded. “Yeah," I said. "I liked that guy...There was something about his vibe that I liked.”

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The nicest act of kindness

Here is something I wrote in my personal journal. Enjoy. 

I witnessed the nicest act of kindness a few minutes ago.

I was walking down a street here in Hamburg called Steintordamm when I witnessed this act of kindness.

Steintordamm is near the Hamburg Central Station. More specifically, it’s near the southern entrance of the central station, which is known as "Hauptbahnhof Süd."

Hauptbahnhof Süd, to be frank, is kind of seedy. Usually, one can find all kinds of "interesting" people there.

Anyway, as I was walking down Steintordamm near Hauptbahnhof Süd, I saw a man completely passed out on the sidewalk. As I approached him, I didn’t think much of what I was seeing. I mean, I did think that he was in pretty bad condition, as he was totally laid out on the pavement. But for the most part, I thought that what I was seeing fit the bill for this part of town.

I was ready just to pass this guy like it was any other day, and that’s when it happened – the nicest act of kindness.

A teenage girl who was approaching the man from the opposite direction that I was knelt down beside him and put some change near his hand. 

After the girl got back to a standing position, I tried to make eye contact with her to express my approval, but she didn’t make eye contact with me.

I thought she was very kind for giving the man money, but it was only until I actually walked past the man and saw how much she gave him that I was really impressed.

There, next to his dirt caked fingers were three euros.

The man was just lying there, completely passed out, not doing anything to try to earn the money, not giving any sob story, not even holding up a sign...and then this girl, a girl who for whatever reason found it in herself to shell out money to a man who would never know who she was and could not thank her for her generosity. 

It was the nicest act of kindness.

Friday, April 01, 2016


Recently someone asked me if I was accustomed to living in Germany. I told the person I was because for the most part, I am. But today I had an experience that made me realize that I really am an outsider, that this is not my country and Germany is something I can only try to understand.

I was lying in my bed around 7 a.m. when I suddenly heard the sound of my next-door neighbor’s TV. But instead of hearing something recognizable, something that I might hear on T.V. in the United States around 7 a.m., I heard something else. An old German ballad. See, my neighbor was watching what sounded like a classic German film and in it, an actor was crooning.

As I lied there and listened to the actor singing, I realized that I was listening to a song I had never before heard and that this song belonged to a movie I had never before seen. I also realized that even if I was told the name of the movie, I would probably have no idea what the significance of it was or why someone would want to watch it, or watch it again, at 7 a.m.

Now, if I would have heard “Casablanca” coming from my neighbor’s apartment, I might have thought to myself that my neighbor was nostalgic for movies that came out while America was in the grips of World War II, or if I would have heard the “Wizard of Oz," coming from his apartment, I might have thought that maybe my neighbor used watch to the “Wizard of Oz” with his parents or with a grandparent and he just wanted to watch it again.

But I had no idea why my neighbor wanted to watch the film he was watching because I had nothing to anchor onto. The actors’ voices were not familiar and neither was the song.

Which sort of brings me to my next point. Had the lyrics of the song that the actor was singing been in English, I might have been able to understand what the movie was generally about and why my neighbor wanted to watch it. But the actor was singing in German, and I didn’t understand the lyrics. 

And as I lied there and listened to that song, whose lyrics I didn’t understand, in a country that was not my own, I was humbled.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Objects from my childhood

I was walking in a park with my girlfriend the other day when she asked me a strange question: “Are there free water fountains in New York City?” she wanted to know.

For a second, I wasn’t sure. I have been living in Germany for so long now, it’s sometimes hard to remember such things. But eventually the answer came to me.

“Yeah,” I said. “We’ve got free water fountains. But they’re usually in parks.”

“Oh, OK, that’s cool,” she said.  “I just wanted to know because my university is thinking of installing water fountains. I was just curious.”

I said that that was fine but for some reason didn’t drop the subject. “Yeah,” I continued, “the water fountains we had in our parks in New York City were rock solid. They were usually made of stone or concrete and looked like they could withstand a nuclear blast. I remember the one I used to drink out of at my old park. It was, like, a waist-high cement box with a cement footstool at the base.

“Really?” she said. “Yeah,” I replied, and then we both said nothing for a little bit. Eventually, I broke the silence.  “Jeez,” I said, “now you got me thinking of the water fountain that used to be in my old school yard!”

There was delight in my voice when I said this because I hadn’t thought of that water fountain in so long and thinking of it brought back a lot of memories.

After this conversation with my girlfriend, I began to think of other objects from my childhood, and I decided to write a post about them. Enjoy.

The Nintendo gun controller.

When I was about 4 years old, a family friend bought me a “Nintendo Entertainment System.” It came with two games, two controllers, some kind of robot – whose purpose totally baffled me at the time – and a gun shaped controller. This gun shaped controller, officially called a “Zapper,” was for shooting games like “Duck Hunt.” I remember thinking that this gun controller, which had a red trigger and a long gray muzzle, was the coolest thing ever. I still remember the clicking sound it made when you pulled the trigger.

The pennants on my wall.

In the very first apartment that I lived in, my mother and I shared a room. She slept in a king-size bed on one side of the room and I slept in a twin bed on the other side. My bed abutted a wall and I remember that I decorated that wall with pennants. One of the pennants was made to celebrate the Mets’ 1986 World Series victory, another had Epcot Center printed on it.

My mother’s silver cigarette case.

Until I was about 16 years old, my mom smoked one cigarette per day. Her brand was Marlboro Lights and she always got the soft pack. She would store the soft pack in a boxy silver case. The case, which I’m sure she acquired on one of her many trips, was embossed with a wavy pattern and was elegant looking.

The pack of nude women playing cards.

As far as I know, my mother is not gay and never has been gay. But for some reason, she kept a pack of nude women playing cards in her night stand. As a child, I remember looking at these cards with wonderment. The photos were not X-rated, but those were naked women all right. I remember wondering why my mom had these cards and thinking that maybe they belonged to my dad.

My Ivy League sweatshirts.

When I was in the third, fourth and maybe even the fifth grade, my goal was to go to Harvard or Yale. I told my mom about this – or was she the one who actually convinced me that I wanted to go to an Ivy League school? – and she subsequently bought me several Ivy League sweatshirts. I remember I would wear these Ivy League sweatshirts to school very often. I had Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Brown.

The swings at my old schoolyard.

Almost every day after elementary school, I would go down to the schoolyard that was behind the school and spend a couple hours there playing with my friends. We would usually play touch football or basketball, but sometimes we would just go down to the swings and hang out on them. I loved these swings because the seats were flat boards made of sturdy rubber, which meant you could stand and pump, too. I remember standing on one of these swings and pumping so hard and getting so high that my body was almost parallel to the ground.

My aviator sunglasses with the red frames.

One day when I was about 8 years old, I got it in my head that I was seeing “colors in front of my eyes.” Was I really seeing colors in front of my eyes? I’m not sure. What I think I might have been seeing were those color-fringed black spots that one seems to see after looking away from a bright light. Whatever the case, I thought sunglasses might make the color spots go away, so I asked my mom to buy me a pair of aviators -- these cool ones with red frames. I think I started to realize that maybe I was just being a little crazy after I went into class one day wearing these glasses and my teacher and classmates were like, “Uh...why are you wearing sunglasses inside?”

My boom box.

For my 7th birthday, I received the coolest present ever: A Panasonic boom box. Believe it or not, but right after I received the boom box, I walked around my neighborhood with it, blasting “La Bamba.” (I think I might have even worn cut-off L.A. Gear gloves while doing this.) Some other tunes that this stereo went on to play: “Ice Ice Baby” and “Hungry Eyes.”

The seats at the Baskin Robbins.

A main drag for shopping in Forest Hills, the Queens neighborhood I grew up in, was 108th Street between 63rd Road and 65th Ave. Among the supermarkets, fruit stores, drug stores, dry cleaners, pizza places and other establishments on this strip was a Baskin Robbins ice cream shop. I used to go to this Baskin Robbins often and I remember the seats that were inside the shop. The seats looked like something you might find in a classroom, as they had arm desks.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

interesting dream

I had a very interesting dream the other night.

I was sitting in my mother’s living room and one of the two cats I grew up with was by my side.

Both cats I grew up with, Maya and Amber, have since died, but in the dream they were alive and Amber was the one next to me.

I’m not sure why, but as I was sitting there with Amber, I began to get the feeling that there was a monster behind the door to my boyhood room. And I even knew this monster’s name, Org.

Now, one would think that I wouldn’t want to go anywhere near my room, considering that I believed a monster to be in it. But I decided to investigate.

I started walking toward my room and once I was outside the door, I got down on my belly and through the crack between the floor and the bottom of the door I peered into my old digs.

And what I saw was no monster. Quite the opposite, in fact. Filling up my field of view were four small paws and four legs. Maya, my other cat, was standing immediately on the other side of the door. There was no monster named Org in there, just a cute little cat.

An interesting dream indeed.

Monday, February 29, 2016

You know, sometimes it pays to have a little faith.

The other day I was in a flower shop trying to decide which flowers I should buy for my girlfriend. She had told me that she likes lilies, but the only lilies in the shop hadn’t opened yet and didn’t look very appealing.

Surely, it was a better idea to just buy roses. After all, the roses had already opened and were quite beautiful.

But my girlfriend had said that she likes lilies, and even though I had no clue what the lilies would look like once they opened up – in the shop they just looked like green stalks with green buds on the end – I bought them anyway.

And I’m glad I did.

The lilies have since opened and every time I see them in my kitchen, I can’t help but think how beautiful they are. The petals are red with black tiger spots and the flowers themselves just have a very striking shape.

I’m sure my girlfriend would have been happy with the roses had I chosen to get them. But I’m glad I trusted my gut. The reward was much greater.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

A while since I heard that one

Living in Germany, I always get the same question from people: Do you miss the United States?

And I always tell them the same thing: Not desperately, but sometimes I do, yes.

Well, something happened the other day that definitely made me miss the U.S.

I was in a class teaching English and one of my students — he was a clever guy, who I think had spent some time living in New York — said a phrase that I hadn’t heard in a long time.

See, for some reason, another student had asked me what would happen if she got caught cheating on a test in the United States. Would the teacher fail her automatically, she wanted to know, or would the teacher give her a second chance.

“Oh, you would definitely fail,” I told her. And that was when the student who had lived in New York spoke up, “Yeah, you would fail,” he said, “do not pass 'Go,' do not collect $200.”

And there it was. “Do not pass 'Go,' do not collect $200.” Wow, it had been so long since I had heard someone use that phrase, at least in a sarcastic way.

Now, don’t get me wrong, people in Germany speak English very well. They can hold normal conversations as well as sophisticated ones. But there are certain words and turns of phrases that only native speakers use or are aware of.

And “Do not pass 'Go,' do not collect $200” is definitely one of them.

Hearing the phrase after not having heard it for so long just made me miss being surrounded by people who really spoke my language, who I could communicate perfectly with, who really understand the humor behind certain sayings and the import of certain words.

After the student said the "Do not pass 'Go'" phrase, he looked at me with an expression that seemed to say, “You like how I know that, right?”

And I guess, in the end, I sort of did. Though the phrase made me miss home, it also, if just for a moment, brought me closer to it.