Looking back

Well, it’s about that time. I’ve got my boarding passes printed out, my bags … ready to be packed, and my very successful going-away party taking its toll. And so I’ll take a moment to reflect back on my year in Berlin.

In short, it’s been a hell of a year. Work-wise, I’m honestly a little surprised at how productive I’ve been. I’ve written 61 stories and posts for 11 publications, including The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Slate, The American Prospect, Monocle, Der Spiegel, die tageszeitung, Handelsblatt, and, most frequently, the Los Angeles Times. I’ve covered everything from nuclear power to the euro crisis, from museums to the topless girl on page one of the Bild tabloid. In the process, I’ve probably learned more than in any other year of my adult life.

My reporting has taken me to Dresden, Leipzig, Hamburg, Erfurt, Brandenburg, Düsseldorf, and the tiny village of Kleinensiel. And my leisure travels (thanks, Easyjet) have seen me off to Amsterdam, Barcelona, Brussels, Bruges, Luxembourg, Marrakech, Budapest, London, Warsaw, Krakow, and the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.

Here are a few things I’ll miss about Berlin:
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It’s the moon, by Jove!

Last night featured a clear sky and a rare alignment of the moon, Venus, and Jupiter. It’s hard to say which is the more unusual occurrence in Berlin.

But the conjunction of the two was worth taking a peek at, and peek I did. Here are a few snapshots of the view from the corner of Metzer Straße and Straßburger Straße:

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I love German trains

And I should know: I spent about eight hours on them yesterday.

I was on a reporting trip to the tiny northwest German village of Kleinensiel to learn about the aftereffects of last year’s shutdown of the town’s nuclear power plant. The reporting was interesting — more on that to come — but when the transportation’s what makes the strongest impression, it’s really something special.

Gliding along in an ICE train at 250 kilometers an hour (155 mph) in smooth near-silence, on comfy reclining seats, is truly special. Will America have anything like this in my lifetime? God, I hope so.

An emergency quiz

If you wanted to specify, in writing, that an ambulance’s siren was the type you hear in Europe rather than the American kind, how would you do it? I might try something like, “It makes an EEEE-oooo EEEE-oooo sound instead of an oooOOEEEEEeeooo.” It’s not terribly elegant.

But I don’t think you can beat David Foster Wallace on conciseness. In Infinite Jest, he coined* the term “Eurotrochaic”: “the Eurotrochaic sirens of ambulances.” I’m quite taken with it.

*I have to assume he coined it, because a Google search of the term yields only nine results, one of which is a page-by-page annotation of Infinite Jest, which I probably should have figured existed but still boggles my mind. (N.B. The preceding rambling sentence was unintentionally but undeniably an example of Wallace’s writing style rubbing off on me. Guess it’s kind of inevitable when you’re 543 pages into a 981-page book, not counting 98 pages of endnotes.)

Don’t let the door hit you on the way out

I suppose that’s a rather Schadenfreude-filled way of encapsulating the meaning of another difficult-to-translate German noun, Torschlusspanik. The word makes a top-10 list of the world’s most untranslatable words. The literal meaning is “gate-closing panic”; a fuller definition would be — and I quote the listmaster — “the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages, … most frequently applied to women who race the ‘biological clock’ to wed and bear children.”

It’s a useful word. But some of the others on the list make me really wish we had words like that in English. “Prozvonit,” in both Czech and Slovak, means to call someone but only allow their phone to ring once, so that they have to call you back and thereby get stuck with the bill. “Tingo,” in a language spoken on Easter Island, means to borrow a person’s possessions one by one until you’ve taken everything they own. The Congolese word “ilunga,” considered by many to be the most untranslatable word, is roughly “a person who is ready to forgive any abuse the first time it occurs, to tolerate it the second time, but to neither forgive nor tolerate a third offense.”

But the most useful of all, to me, is the Scottish verb “tartle,” meaning “to hesitate while introducing someone due to having forgotten his/her name.”

I, I must confess, tartle on a near-daily basis.

Concertgoing gone awry

Last night, courtesy of my roommate, a violinist with the Berlin Philharmonic, I watched Daniel Barenboim lead the great orchestra (plus choir and soloists) in a rendition of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. It was a fantastic concert, and I felt lucky to experience it (free of charge, no less).

I felt even luckier this morning, when I read about just how badly a trip to the Philharmonic can go.

Glory Hallelujah!

The shortest day of the year is behind us. It won’t be long now before we see sunlight at 4 p.m. again!

On the other hand, it ain’t getting warmer anytime soon. Might have to flee to Spain for a bit…

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