Archives for January 2015

Love Note to a German Castle: Farewell Schloss Lerbach

It’s New Year’s Eve, 2014. I’m playing the piano at Schloss Lerbach—the same procedure as every year. I’ve been performing here for almost fourteen years. Tonight will be the last time—the castle, in its current incarnation as a hotel, will close after this evening’s celebration. Three weeks ago, just fourteen days before Christmas, eighty hotel workers, myself included, lost their jobs. But there’s a party going on here right now. Our guests—titans of industry, beautiful people with nothing to prove, lovers, families, and boisterous  buffoons gather in the main hall. Parts of Lerbach are almost 800 years old. Some of the guests seem equally ancient. Tonight looks like the German version of Downton Abbey, with an unusually high percentage of women playing the Maggie Smith role. Draped in mink and satin and sequins and silk, they glide from one end of the hall to the other, clinking glasses, sipping champagne, and nibbling on mysterious gourmet tidbits. The black and white granite floor serves as a five-star chessboard for their social strategies. My colleagues, professional and gracious right to the end, coast along with them. There’s a silent pact among us—it might be the end of an era, but we’re going out with style.

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In front of Schloss Lerbach. Photo by My-Linh Kunst

 

I observe my young co-workers from my seat at the grand piano as they smile and nod and make nice-nice with guests they have known for years. It’s difficult to see the evening unfold without wondering why in the world such a beautiful place is closing.

“A little quail and tomato mousse, Frau Falswick-Weiss?” says a tuxedo-clad server to a stout woman wearing emerald green velvet.

“Why not?” she says as she pops a ruby-red square into her ruby-red mouth. “One last time.”

The owners of the castle and the current hotel management company could not come to terms on a lease renewal. That’s the diplomatic version of why we’re forced to close. My version? The negotiations were a big game of “chicken” and everyone lost. But what do I know? I’m a pianist, not Donald Trump, although I did work for him at one point.

Even the food seems to sparkle tonight. Shimmering dresses, jewelry, crystal, and candlelight twinkle in the golden glow of the Murano glass chandeliers. At the same time, a haze descends over the lobby. Has the Ghost of Lerbach  returned to remind us that the end is near? No, it’s just the midnight dance band —Upper Class, featuring Go-Go!—warming up the smoke machine.

In a few hours we’ll say goodbye. It’s just a gig I tell myself over and over and over again. Nothing more, nothing less. But still, I will miss these fine people, this noble place, this plush cushion of elegance that has softened my middle-aged landing in a foreign country. I slip into my next song, a piece I wrote called “December,” and try not to look back.

I’m not sure when I fell in love with Lerbach. It started as an infatuation—an impulse decision to go back to work after swearing off hotel piano gigs forever. I had played for fifteen years in Manhattan “luxury” hotels. After a decade and a half of performing background music for demanding tourists in big white sneakers, slightly-sleazy conventioneers and their margarita-slurping buddies, the rich, the homeless, the hookers, the haunted, the up-and-coming, the down and out—I was tired. I was tired of breakfast buffets on top of the piano, F&B managers who didn’t know the difference between a can of lard and a Steinway, and the way life seemed to be passing me by, one chorus of “Misty” at a time. I tried to get lost in the music during those years. Instead I just got lost. I moved to Germany with my husband. Clean start, full heart. I had babies. I had the  privilege of staying home for five years to take care of them. I played the piano for myself and never once thought about returning to hotel piano work.

One fateful night my bassist husband, John, played a jazz trio concert at Schloss Lerbach. I walked into the main hall of the castle, saw the grand piano sitting there, took one look at the guests, the fireplace, the winding staircase, and the shaft of light slanting through the tall windows, and I was smitten. “Well. Maybe I could play here,” I said to John. He introduced me to the director, and a year later—poof—I landed the job. Seems like yesterday or a million years ago; I can’t decide.

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My Colleagues

Right from the start Lerbach proved itself different from any gig I’ve ever had. If you play a solo piano job in a hotel, you have a lot of time to observe what makes the place tick (or, in many cases, tock). After a few years of playing every weekend at Lerbach, I figured out its secret. Respect. In such a small house, we all knew each other, worked together, and treasured our various contributions. Piano music created a warm and welcoming atmosphere in the main hall. I knew it; so did everyone else. The director of the hotel was in the lobby with me every night. He heard me play; he saw me work. I wasn’t just another expense on his balance sheet; I was part of his team, making an artistic statement that attracted customers. Because I had the respect of my peers I began to trust myself more and doubt myself less.

Little by little I got sucked in—the place became a second home to me. Working in a five-star hotel means mastering the art of smoke and mirror magic; creating elegance out of thin air and candlelight, enchanting guests with food too pretty to eat, wine they’ll never forget, and music that helps them remember. My colleagues and I have held hands and laughed and cried together. Even though many of my friends left the hotel long ago, I swear I sense their champagne-sipping spirits in the lobby tonight. They are all here with me as I play my last songs. This comforts me.

I sit at the piano tonight and  faces from the past fourteen years flash through my mind—a  Ken Burns slideshow of my extended castle-family. I will never forget our elegant Maître, Monsieur Thomann, pushing the stinky French-cheese wagon through the lobby every evening at 8:15—the only man I know who looks good in a pink suit; Rawi, the Sri Lankan valet, arranging flowers on my piano every weekend, using leftover petals from the arrangements of departing brides; lovely Andrea, raising the bar for graciousness and good humor during her many years at the castle; Sabine, the Front Desk Manager, asking me to name one of the black Ninja swans swimming on the little lake; Dieter Müller, world-renowned chef, taking time during the busy weekend dinner service to cook for dogs waiting for their owners behind the front desk; three sommeliers—the flashiest guys in the hotel industry—Silvio Nitzsche, Thomas Sommer, and Peter Müller—teaching me that every good Riesling, just like every good song, should tell a story; Benedikt Jaschke, now at the Adlon, who worked with me to initiate both a children’s Christmas program and a concert series—turning the castle into a cultural sanctuary for the residents of Bergisch Gladbach; Christian Siegling, Christina Esser, Thomas Tritschler, Nils Henkel—the housekeepers, the service staff, the banquet team, the kitchen guys and gals, the many apprentices who have been trained at the castle over the years—I raise a glass to all of you.

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With former Lerbach Director Christian Siegling and Michelin Star Chef, Nils Henkel.

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With Andrea (Goetze) Aldrup

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With Sommelier Thomas Sommer and his wife, Marcia.

The Guests

We’ve greeted international guests and local guests—couples from around the block and couples from Oslo and Israel and Russia and Spain. Wandering gourmets, galloping gourmands, and staggering oenophiles. Fashionistas and fops, foolhardy fellows on the fast track to fame; intellectuals and artists, poets and painters, interpretive dancers and Brazilian football stars—celebrities of all sorts, including  has-beens and wannabees, have drifted through the Lerbach lobby like glamorous dust particles suspended in moonlight. Tonight is no exception.

I’ve adored all of them, even the half-blind Lamborghini-driving wine enthusiast who used to make me play “Fly Me to the Moon” while he sat at the piano and wept. I marveled at the white-haired Professor who routinely checked two women into the hotel at the same time (three separate rooms) and kept them a secret from each other, turning the hotel into a Moliere-inspired, door-slamming French farce. I felt a particular fondness for Frau V., a woman in her eighties whose husband had been dead for twenty years. She arrived at the castle every Christmas and carried a silver-framed photo of him that she would place on my piano so he could be part of the celebration. Frau V., bejeweled, beloved, and bewildered, had a beehive hair-do so high that one of my colleagues thought her husband might still be alive and hiding there. I admired the Arabian princess who stayed with us for months and presented me with a chunk of gold the size of my thumb when she left. She still sends me a Christmas card every year.

I’ve written many stories over the years about Lerbach in my Piano Girl books—favorites include the tale of Herr Klingball, the ninety-year old who wanted to hear nothing but the Titanic theme; the diva bride who replaced my picture on the cover of my CD with a photo of herself, and then distributed the CD to eighty of her closest friends; Uncle Wilhelm and his two-hour speech; the relentless Wheelchair Guy and the piano crash that almost took off my leg; the rape of the Indian Runner Duck on the Lerbach pond; the Valentine’s Day visit from one of Germany’s most infamous porn stars. There are many more stories to write. I’ll get to them someday.

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The Piano

It kills me to say goodbye to this piano—over the course of a decade and a half, a woman can really get attached to her instrument. I’m on the Steinway Artist Roster, but, sadly, very few hotels can afford a Steinway. Yamaha, with a sales force that rivals the Green Bay Packers offensive line, has infiltrated almost every hotel I’ve worked in over the years. Generally, they are solid pianos. My Lerbach Yamaha C5 is a winner. It sits next to an open fireplace, unfazed by heat and blasts of cold air coming from three different directions. It is shoved and jostled on a regular basis when moved from the main hall into our banquet and concert room. In an episode I call the “Barenboim Bounce,” the poor Yamaha was dropped on the staircase when eleven kitchen workers attempted to carry it upstairs and into a suite for the Maestro, the day before he arrived at the castle. The Maestro’s manager wanted nothing to do with the Yamaha and had a Steinway delivered to his suite. Back down came the Yamaha. The piano, I am told, only bounced once, but still. Battle scars in the hotel business are common place—we all have them. Aside from a chunk of wood missing from the casing (artfully disguised with a few deft strokes of black magic marker), the piano survived the bounce, just like the rest of us. The carpet on the staircase did not fare as well.

Over the past four years I’ve served as Artistic Director of the Lerbach “Concerts in the Castle” series. Powerful musicians, including Benyamin Nuss, Martin Sasse, Gerald Clayton, Hubert Nuss, Thomas Weber, Barbara Nussbaum, Thomas Rückert, Michael Sorg, and Michael Abene have played this workhorse piano. Still, I think of it as mine. And it’s not. I’ve played well over 2000 jobs here, but the piano doesn’t belong to me. I have kept it tuned and pimped and well turned out. When tonight is over, I’ll probably never see it or play it again.  As hard as I’m trying to remain stoic, my eyes well up when I think about leaving it behind. My fingerprints are on this piano.

It’s just a piano. It’s just a gig. Right.

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The piano in the main hall of Schloss Lerbach. Photo by My-Linh Kunst.

 

Close to Midnight

“You’ll lose every gig you ever have,” my father said to me in 1976, when I began my career as a hotel pianist. “Don’t take it personally.” Ultimately, he was right. Over the years I have been replaced by the F&B director’s girlfriend, a table for two, and, after seven years of playing at the Marriott Marquis, by a player-piano and a mannequin that looked like a crash-test dummy in a tuxedo (I’m still not over that one). Call me paranoid, but I have never felt any amount of job security on any gig I’ve had. I take some comfort in knowing I wasn’t fired or replaced at Lerbach—I closed the joint. I’m going down with the ship, just like one of those Titanic musicians. Good thing I know the song. My heart will go on, and all that.

I look around the room on this festive night. The fake glee and forced fun wears me down. I am fifty-seven years old. Part of me thinks that this could be my swan song, as far as the hotel Piano Girl thing goes. I play concerts, compose music, make recordings, and write books. Maybe that’s enough. I claim my fourteen years at Lerbach as a victory—it’s almost unheard of to have a freelance piano engagement last so long. Part of me wants to jump up and yell “Hallelujah!” Part of me is determined to find another job that will be just as good, or better. Part of me wants to take a nap—saying goodbye can be exhausting, especially when you’re trying not to cry. Part of me wants to collect all these different parts of me and glue them back together in a new and unusual way. Piano Girl Jigsaw. That could be fun.

At 11:15 I play my last song, “Somewhere in Time,” which, according to my journal, happens to be the very first song I played at this hotel way back in 2001. I am secretly hoping for dozens of white roses, a standing ovation, a gold medal, or a purple heart, but no one presents me with anything. I hear chatter and clinking glasses. In a way, it’s exactly like my first job here. I’ve come full circle. As I’ve learned over the course of my career—first gigs and last gigs don’t matter much. It’s what happens in between that counts.

I close the fallboard over the keys of the instrument and place my hands on the polished ebony, almost overwhelmed by a feeling of gratitude—to the piano, my colleagues, our guests, and the bizarre magic we’ve made together. Look! Just look at what we’ve created! It took me a long time to find the beauty in my music, but this place—in all its whacky wonder—encouraged me to do just that. A funny thing happens when you finally find beauty in yourself—all of the sudden you see it all around you, wherever you go. It’s here tonight, for sure, and I’m carrying it with me when I walk out the castle door.

Two weeks ago, when I told my eighteen-year old daughter Lerbach was closing, she burst into tears. “They can’t close,” she said. “I grew up there.”

“Me, too,” I said.

Upper Class—featuring Go-Go!—takes over. The smoke machine cranks up; the guests start doing the rich-person lizard dance. My husband is waiting outside for me in the circular driveway, engine revved, anxious to whisk me away before the midnight fireworks start.

I grab a permanent marker and sign the inside of the piano. Robin Meloy Goldsby, I write. 2001-2015. Maybe someone, even if it’s just the Ghost of Lerbach, will remember the music.

I touch the piano one last time, put on my coat, open the door, and walk to the car.

It’s just a gig. It’s just a gig. It’s just a gig.

As we drive through the park, I look out the window to get one last glance at Schloss Lerbach. A thick veil of fog has dropped over the castle, and I can’t see a thing. It doesn’t matter. I’ll always remember what’s there.

Lerbacher Winter

 

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Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl: A Memoir; Rhythm: A Novel; and Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl. Four of her piano albums—Songs from the Castle, Waltz of the Asparagus People, Magnolia, and December—were inspired by her adventures at Schloss Lerbach.

Robin will begin playing at another five star hotel beginning this summer. Stay tuned for details. Sign up here for my  newsletter, featuring a new essay every month, concert appearances, and all-things Goldsby.

Stopping Traffic: Valentines’ Day at Schloss Lerbach

 

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It’s Valentine’s Day, another one of those holidays made popular by greeting-card companies. I’m driving to my lunchtime piano job at Schlosshotel Lerbach and thinking about Hallmark Cards. My sister, Randy, has a bad reaction to any Hallmark store. There’s something about the smell of the paper that causes her to have intestinal cramps. She’ll pick out a card, and before she even pays for it, she’ll have to race to the nearest ladies’ room, not always an easy jaunt in an American mega-mall. I have a similar reaction to the smell of auto-supply stores, but I think that’s fairly common among women.

For me, Valentine’s Day conjures elementary-school memories of shoe boxes decorated with tinfoil, pastel-colored ribbons, and paper doilies; lacy cards with dopey-looking angels and chubby cupids; and suspicious sentiments printed on dime-sized pieces of heart-shaped candy. Be mine. Love you. You’re sweet. Forever yours.

I’ve always worked on Valentine’s Day, just like I’ve always worked on Mother’s Day, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and just about every other major secular and religious holiday. I don’t complain. I show up and play the piano, happy to have the work, even happier that I don’t have to sit around at home waiting for presents and cards bought at stores that cause lower-tract distress.

Today I’ve dug my red gown out of the back of my closet and squeezed myself into it. I’m grateful it still fits. I don’t usually wear red, and I usually don’t wear full-length gowns at lunchtime, but if there’s a holiday that calls for excess, it’s this one. I’ve been told the brasserie at the castle is fully booked.

As usual I’ve left the house with just enough time to get to Lerbach. I can make it from my front door to the piano bench in exactly twenty-six minutes, as long as there are no traffic disruptions. I’m listening to Lang Lang play a Chopin nocturne on a Valentine’s Day radio program called Classics for Lovers. I’ve turned on my GPS system to see what Kate has to say about the route I’ve been driving for the past eight years. Maybe she knows a shortcut.

Traffic disruption ahead! Caution. Traffic disruption ahead! Kate sounds a little out of sorts. Her boyfriend probably gave her a Dust Buster as a Valentine’s Day gift. And what kind of traffic disruption could there be? I’m on a two-lane highway that winds through a nature reserve. I’ve run into parades and flea markets in some of the villages, but here?

Traffic disruption! says Kate. I’m about to turn her off when I round the bend and see two riderless horses coming toward me. Side by side, they amble right down the center of the road. A dozen cars creep along behind the horses, waiting for a chance to pass.

There’s something sad about the horses. They’re wearing saddles and they seem confused or lost. But I don’t know, maybe they’re happy. With horses it’s so hard to tell. Maybe they’re thinking, Let’s make a run for it—it’s our only chance! Why isn’t anyone doing anything? Surely someone will help. A man in the car behind the horses honks his horn, which seems like a bad idea. The horses look frightened.

Searching for an alternate route, says Kate. But it’s too late to turn around.

I pull to the side of the road. With Lang Lang still emoting from the radio, I get out of the car. My gown has one of those extra-long skirts with a small train attached to it. It looks good at the piano, but it’s a pain to walk in, especially on asphalt. The shoes aren’t helping. I make that kiss-kiss noise that works on most animals, and the horses allow me to approach them.

From the car they appeared manageable, but up close they’re huge. They’re chestnut brown with white faces, pointed ears, and twitching hooves. They check me out and do not look pleased. Unlike my daughter, I don’t have the best track record with large animals. Maybe they don’t like my gown. I wonder if horses react to red the way bulls do.

Kiss-kiss. Now what? Reins. Think reins. I let go of my skirt and grab the reins of each horse.

Kiss-kiss.

Shit. The horses turn sideways and block both lanes of traffic. The first horse is starting to back up into the other horse, whose nostrils are doing that thing that makes him look like the problem animal in The Horse Whisperer. The honking man hits the horn again. I try to channel Robert Redford.

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“Okay, boys,” I say to the horses. “Help me out here.” Kiss-kiss.

It works. They calm down. I tug on the reins and lead the horses toward the side of the road. One of them steps on the tail of my skirt. I’m wearing red velvet backless shoes, and I lose one of them when I stumble. I can’t reach down to pick it up without letting go of the reins, so I keep going, one shoe off, one shoe on, kiss-kissing my way to the curb.

Good. We’ve reached the side of the road. But I need a plan. I look down at the hoof print on my red gown. I look up at horsey nostrils. I look over my shoulder as the traffic begins to creep by. Dozens of drivers gawk at me as if this entire incident is my fault. I’m shocked that no one offers to help me. Where’s that Valentine’s Day spirit?

One of the horses chooses this moment to tinkle. I kick my skirt to the side to make sure it’s out of harm’s way. I decide to let him finish his business before we make our next move.

Wow. That’s a lot of tinkle.

Honk-honk. Some people are shaking their heads in disgust, while others are waving and laughing as they drive by.

This is one way to get an audience.

My shoe is in the middle of the road, and two cars in a row drive over it.

“Nice horsies,” I say. There’s a narrow grassy ridge by the curb and a bike path on the other side of it. If I can get the horses onto the bike path, they’ll at least be away from the automobile traffic.

Kiss-kiss. I slide out of my other shoe—if there’s anything worse than walking in high heels, it’s walking in one high heel—and we climb over the little hill that’s between us and the bike path.

“Come on, boys, you can do it,” I say. They get ahead of me and pull me over the ridge with them. At last we’re on the bike path. I look back at the highway, where my Mazda sits with the door open. The radio is blasting away—Lang Lang is now playing a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. Note to self: Rachmaninoff is way too frantic for Valentine’s Day. The other vehicles scoot around my car. My poor shoe. In Germany we have insurance for just about everything. I wonder if I’ll be able to file a claim for one shoe.

Should I just release the horses on the bike path and hope for the best? I wonder what time it is. I will surely be late for work. Now what? I’m standing barefoot on a bike path in a red evening gown at high noon with two very large horses looking at me as if I have all the answers. I’ll bet even Hallmark doesn’t have a card for this.

The lyrics to “Beast of Burden” run through my mind. I spot a pole about 100 meters down the bike path. It might be good enough for a hitching post.

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“Okay, fellows, let’s go.” They trust me. Off we plod toward the pole. Once we get there I throw the reins over the wooden post, which is chest height and painted black and white.

Stay,” I say. I’m aware that neither of these animals understands English, but I’m certain if I switch to German the confidence will seep out of my voice and the horses, sensing my panic, will take off at a gallop and drag me back into the middle of the road. I pat them on their very soft noses and wish them luck. Then I head back up the bike path toward my car. I’m shocked to notice how cold it is. Freezing, in fact.

I pick up the shoe I had kicked off by the side of the road and watch as the cars, one by one, continue to run over the other shoe, which lies squashed—Piano Girl roadkill—in the middle of the highway. Finally there’s a lull in the traffic, so I look both ways, grab my flattened shoe, and jump back into my car. My feet are numb and I can hardly feel the gas and brake pedals.

Drive straight ahead, says Kate. The traffic obstruction has been eliminated.

I’ll say. I turn off Lang Lang, turn off Kate, crank the heater, and drive up the road to the spot where I’ve tied up the horses. I roll down the window and go kiss-kiss. The horses are together; they’ll be fine. They look, I don’t know, settled. The car behind me honks. As I pull away, I spot two puzzled-looking young women in riding clothes emerging from the forest, holding hands and racing toward the animals.

Luckily I have my spare gold dress-up sandals in the back of the car, so I won’t have to play for a three-course champagne lunch barefoot, not that anyone would care. My coworkers are so busy they don’t even notice I’m late, nor do they see the hoof print on my evening gown. I start, of course, with “My Funny Valentine,” even though most of my audience won’t recognize the song. But what can I do? It’s a seasonal piece and it’s now or never.

“You okay, Robin?” asks Herr Schröder, the manager. “You look a little stressed.”

“Horse,” I say.

“Herr Schröder!” says a waiter. “The Northcott-Sampson party has just arrived.”

“Did you say horse?” he asks me.

“Horses, actually. Two of them.”

“Hold on a second,” he says, and rushes off to greet the Northcott-Sampsons.

I swivel around on my piano bench to face the restaurant crowd and see lots of middle-aged couples—women with cotton-candy hair drinking rosé champagne, accompanied by men with thinning hair who are also drinking rosé champagne but would rather be drinking beer. Several senior couples top off the crowd, including Frau and Herr Severins, who are in their eighties and manage to show up at the castle once a month. For them, each day really is Valentine’s Day. They’ve coordinated their outfits to suit the occasion. She is wearing a red silky dress. He has on a red tie.

I’ve almost forgotten about the horses. We’re coasting along at a relaxed champagne-lunch tempo when the manager tells me that Buttercup Blondeau, a well-known porn queen, will be joining us at any moment.

“For lunch?” I say.

“What else?” says Herr Schröder.

Buttercup (possibly not her real name) is one of those porn stars on the radar of most mainstream German citizens. A crossover artist in the truest sense, she has broken away from pure porn and appears regularly as a hostess on a popular television program about love, love, love. She shows up in tabloids, society magazines, at fancy parties, and political events. She’s a porn-industry success story—a cultural icon.

On Valentine’s Day? She’s coming here on Valentine’s Day?” I ask. I know there’s something’s wrong with this, but I can’t figure out what.

I’m playing “All the Things You Are.”

“She’s coming with a date,” says Herr Schröder. “She’s in love. What, just because she’s a porn star she’s not allowed to be in love? Au contraire. Look! He arranged to have a rose waiting for her on the table. Let me tell you, he’s one lucky guy!” I glance at the one empty table in the restaurant.

“Here she is now,” says Herr Schröder.

Well. Buttercup Blondeau, ready for her close-up, poses in the restaurant’s entrance like she’s waiting for the waiters to carry her to her table. If she stands there a second longer, I’m sure they’ll comply. Ms. Blondeau, who has the most extreme body imaginable—water-balloon breasts and a waist the circumference of a coffee cup—has been decanted into a black cashmere minidress. It’s a good dress, an expensive dress, but there’s no hiding the real Buttercup. Her makeup looks classy, but she has porn-queen bed-head platinum hair and big puffy lips. I try, really I do, not to think about those lips.

“Have you ever seen one of her films?” I ask Herr Schröder.

“Who, me?” he says. He rushes to greet Ms. Blondeau.

I hold my breath as she enters the room and realize that I’m playing the Lion King song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” A tune from a Disney movie probably isn’t the best entrance music for a film star whose recent releases include classics like Pass the Butter, Dodgeballs, and Bride of Spankenstein, but I continue playing. Everything around me shifts into silent mode. At Schlosshotel Lerbach I’ve played for European queens and Arabian princesses, Brazilian football players, and American film stars. But Buttercup is the first celebrity to bring the castle to a complete standstill. Wow.

I don’t even hear a fork clink on a plate. The men stare at Buttercup. The women glare at the men. Buttercup’s date, a handsome manboy with broad shoulders and biceps bulging through his suit coat, follows behind her. Right before she slides into her seat, he kisses her—I mean seriously kisses her—while grabbing her ample derriere. I’m playing in the key of D, and I hit an A-flat instead of an A-natural, the ultimate wrong note.

Herr Schröder looks at me and raises one eyebrow.

Gradually, after Buttercup sits down and crosses her very long legs—a spectacle that causes gasping at a nearby table—things return to normal. The guests eat and drink and chat, but I know they’re sneaking glances at Buttercup. Heck, I’m doing it myself. You can’t not look at this woman. I don’t know how she can breathe in that dress, or walk in those shoes, or negotiate her way through life with breasts that large. I feel a little sorry for her, but I admire her too. I wonder if she likes music or if she enjoys reading. I wonder about her hobbies. Gardening? Scrabble? Twister?

I begin playing “A Time for Us,” the theme from that sixties Romeo and Juliet movie.

An apprentice waiter, probably the same age as Buttercup’s date, walks past her table, steals a look at her, trips over his own feet, and almost drops a tray of empty wine glasses. The glasses clink together and wobble, but nothing breaks.

Love songs, love songs, nothing but love songs. My thoughts drift back to the horses. I hope they’re okay. I wonder if Buttercup is kind to animals. I’d like to see her leading a horse down a highway in those shoes.

I play “Wave.”

Later, Buttercup and her date get up to visit the dessert buffet, just as Herr and Frau Severins are leaving. “Auf Wiedersehen, Frau Goldsby!” says Frau Severins as she passes the piano. She bends down and whispers in my ear, “Interesting crowd you have here today.”

I start to answer but Frau Severins is now focused on her husband. He’s staring—open-mouthed—as Buttercup and the date make out like teenagers right in front of the dessert table. The date grabs Buttercup’s bottom again—who can blame him?—as she leans over, dangerously close to spilling body parts into the crème brulée. Not that I’ve ever watched a porn film—who, me?—but I can imagine this looks a lot like the beginning of a scene straight out of Buttercup Boffs Bielefeld.

Frau Severins grabs her husband’s arm and hauls him out of the brasserie. Buttercup and her date, still hot and bothered, dish out their desserts and sashay back to their table for two, all the while groping and gushing and making goo-goo sounds at each other.

Lunch is over. Usually on an occasion like this, guests linger over coffee and sweets. But today there’s a Buttercup-induced mass exodus. The other women in the restaurant, tired of competing for attention with an authentic pornography princess, wrangle their men and lead them to the safety zone—away from the crème brulée, away from the booze, the breasts, the eye candy, and the fun. As they’re perp-walked out of the brasserie, the men remind me of the horses. They’re a little happy that someone has taken the reins and a little sad to be reminded of where they belong.

Buttercup makes a solo pass by the dessert buffet for a plate of berries and cream. When she gets to the piano she stops and smiles at me. She’s older than I thought, maybe even my age.

“Thank you for your lovely music,” she says. “I can only imagine how hard it is to play for people who aren’t always listening. But you really made this day special for my friend and me. I love that Disney song you played when I came in—I’m a huge Disney fan.”

“Thank you,” I respond. “Sorry about that wrong note.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” she says. “It’s not always easy being an artist.”

“That’s the truth,” I say. I guess she would know. “It’s so nice that you could come today—I mean that you could show up and eat—I mean . . . it’s so nice to meet you. Thank you for being here, and I wish you a wonderful Valentine’s Day.”

She smiles, fluffs her hair, and says, “Same to you.”

I play “Beauty and the Beast” and call it a day.

Valentine

 

***

“Stopping Traffic” is an excerpt from Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl

©2011 Robin Meloy Goldsby, All Rights Reserved

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Enough

In the early eighties, I was living in New York City, wondering if it was remotely possible to have it all. Judith, my long-suffering therapist, said to me: “A career, marriage, and family? You can have it all. You just can’t have it all at the same time.”

Discouraging words in 1984, especially since I didn’t have anything, let alone everything. I was divorced, dating two completely inappropriate guys—one of them married, a compulsive gambler, and twenty-three years my senior; the other sneaky, smart, and movie star handsome. I almost married the handsome guy for his real estate, but found out that while he was seeing me, he was also dating a man-boy named Steve. My so-called career consisted of dashing from one five-star Manhattan hotel to another, playing the piano for chiropractor conventions and drunken delegates to the Toy Fair, and occasionally being cast in an off-off-awful Broadway show, with a script written by someone just as depressed as I was. I tried to have it all; instead I had nothing, except for a closet full of black evening gowns and a nice cat named Lucky. New York City, back then, was an artistic hamster wheel for people like me. The more we suffered, the better we fared, at least in our own minds. None of it mattered, because no one cared. Round and round and round we went, gritting our teeth, drinking over-priced white wine, and assuring each other that we were having so much fun.

Three decades later I’m shocked to find I do have it all—in a circus juggler, European plate-spinner kind of way. A musical marriage to the world’s best (and most appropriate) guy, two brave and funny kids, and, yes, a career. In many ways, Judith was right all those years ago—a woman’s life is one of compartmentalization. Most working mothers wear so many hats we could work as quick-change artists for the finest London milliner. Over the course of one day we might be chefs, taxi-drivers, glamor girls, math experts, IT queens, bartenders, craft masters, gardeners, toilet cleaners, laundry mavens, and soothers of broken spirits (sometimes our own). And that’s just in our down time, before we’ve started whipping up the crème brulée, toasting the goat cheese for the roasted beet salad, and heading to the office (in my case, the piano).

It’s hard to make a living while you’re trying to make a life.

Judith was also wrong in a way—occasionally it is possible, for one ephemeral moment, to watch various components of a life—career, family, personal values—collide and morph into a genuine feeling of roundness that produces a gorgeous boom of affirmation. I experienced one of these moments recently.

Geneva, Switzerland, November 3, 2014: The United Nations

boat

Mountains. Alps, actually. And a lake. My flight from Düsseldorf circles the airport and prepares to land. From my airplane porthole, Geneva offers itself to me with an touch of arrogance, like a well-endowed woman so certain of her powerful beauty that she only needs to strike a pose to soak up admiring stares. The words to Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” float through my mind. I don’t know if lyricist Mitchell Parish ever visited Geneva, but I like to think he did.

I am headed to the United Nations—the Palais des Nations­—to perform a song I was commissioned to write with my daughter, Julia. The piece, called “Maybe It’s You,” is the theme song for the NGO Beijing+20 UN ECE Regional Review, an international forum on the status of women. The event will be attended by over 700 of the world’s most influential and politically-active women. At the closing ceremony I’m going to play this song on the piano for them. And my daughter will sing.

I’m familiar with the United Nations in New York, and I thought that the Geneva branch would pale in comparison—sort of the European hillbilly cousin to the real thing. But when my train arrives outside the Palais I am stunned by the scope and beauty of the grounds. Julia, who has worked as a UN intern for the past week, runs outside the gate to greet me. She has been serving as a Youth Ambassador for FAWCO, a UN-accredited NGO, for the last five months, and I haven’t seen much of her. We wrote the song back in May, before she left on her travels. Julia is eighteen. Wearing a chic business suit she bought at Swiss Zara—the “UN intern look” she calls it—she bounds across the big square where we’ve arranged to meet, and escorts me through a security gauntlet to get me inside where the first general meeting is taking place.

We hold hands as we walk a long distance from the entrance to the main hall. I try to catch up on everything I’ve missed about each her. But the UN, with its audacious history, high ceilings, and glorious artwork, puts our personal conversation on hold. We stride through magnificent corridors.

Act/Advance/Achieve/Women’s Rights. Music will be the tiniest part of the equation. This is a serious conference on human rights for women and girls. We’ll learn about slavery, genital mutilation, the sale of girls for marriage, domestic violence; we’ll learn about our lack of reproductive rights, lack of equal education, lack of gender equality in the workplace. We’ll learn about how much we’re lacking, when it comes to human rights. And we’ll learn about the heroes trying to change things for the better, step by step.

“Look, Mom. Look at the way we’re walking. You can’t help it. When you’re in here you start walking like you’re important. Sort of like the principal of my high school, except faster. I call it the Important Walk.”

I know exactly what she means. It’s silly. I have been here for about twelve minutes and I am already feeling important, that the world respects my opinion. I haven’t done or said anything at all, but  because they let me through the front door I find that my head is higher, my shoulders are back. I am taller. We enter the Plenary Hall. Seven hundred women, wearing earpieces, sit at desks and listen to a panel discussion called: Women’s Rights: A Power to Create Change. I grab an earpiece and listen in.

The let’s make the world a better place energy is palpable in the hall. It’s contagious and waves of inspiration wash over me. It’s hard to believe that Julia and I, with our theme song, are part of this meaningful forum. Half of me feels overwhelmed, a little freaked out by the magnitude of the event; the other half feels ready. I feel important. As I will learn over the next three days, far too many women and girls in the world never get the chance to feel important. Maybe that’s the point of this conference. We’re important. We count. Every single one of us.

“Isn’t this the best thing ever?” Julia says.

I can’t answer because I am fighting back tears. That’s what feeling important can do to a fifty-seven year old woman. It can make her cry. I’ve lived a privileged first-world hamster-wheel life, but still, I’ve been waiting a long time for this. It is one thing to be acknowledged by my family and friends for being a good mom, or to hear the applause of a generous audience after a successful concert. It’s quite another to know that the world’s policy makers are listening to the concerns of mothers, working women, and girls. My concerns. My daughter’s concerns. Whether the world community will act on our concerns remains to be seen. But at least they’re taking notes. It’s a start.

Flags

November 4th, Sound Check

A perfect Steinway B had been delivered to the UN the day before the conference began. It now sits in the front of the Plenary Hall, close the speaker’s dais. The participants’ desks surround the piano in a “U” shape.

We are scheduled to meet with the head technician at 12:30 for a sound check while the conference attendees are having lunch. I’m worried about the sound situation—it’s a huge room and a technical nightmare. Every single desk has a headset and controls that allow the listener to switch from English to French to Spanish to Russian. It’s an amazing device, and an amusing distraction when bored—wow, wonder how this lady sounds in Russian. Here’s the thing—there is no “live” amplification in the room. You absolutely need the earpiece to hear what’s going on. How they are going to get around this for our song concerns me. But it’s the United Nations, so they must know what they’re doing.

The IT coordinator, Valerie, meets us at the appointed time. Smart and funny, she is also beautiful—a tall woman with long white hair and no make-up. She’s both Bohemian and elegant. But right now she has bad news, which she delivers in a Bohemian, yet elegant, way.

“There is no microphone,” she says. “There is no live amplification in the room.”

“What?” I say. “This can’t be.”

She calls the head technician to the floor. There is much shrugging of shoulders and use of the word “compliqué,” and I begin to understand that we are screwed. I suggest we bring in an outside sound crew. Valerie is willing, but the union technician won’t allow it—“a security nightmare,” he says. Plus the outside system would cause feedback on the 700 earpieces at the individual desks. I imagine the sound of 700 earpieces squealing all at once.

One would think this might have come up in pre-conference technical planning, but for whatever reason it didn’t. Merde. I know a losing battle when I hear one, especially when it’s in French, so I smile and say: “We’ll make it work.”

“We will?” says Julia. “How?”

“You’ll have to sing acoustically.”

“For seven hundred people? Are you nuts?”

Oui.”

“Well that’s stupid,” she says. “But I can do it. I’ll have to channel Aretha or something.”

I am very proud of my daughter right now. As the snarky sound guy sneaks away, Valerie apologizes a thousand times. We assure her that we will make the best of the situation.

“Of course,” she says. “This is what women know how to do. We make things work.”

We do a sound check even though there is nothing to check. The room is very bouncy and bright and performing unplugged might actually work. There’s no choice. If everyone listens, we’ll be heard—sort of the theme for the entire week. I wonder if the interpreters in the booth upstairs will translate Julia’s words as she performs. I wonder if they will sing along. In Russian.

Non Sound Check

Non Sound Check

November 5th, Show Time

Julia and I are staying outside Geneva in the elegant lakeside villa of former FAWCO President, Kathleen Simon, along with eight other FAWCO members and Kathleen’s good-humored husband, Andrew. Ten women staying in one residence, all of whom need to eat breakfast, shower, and dress for the day so we can leave at 7:30 sharp. The whoosh of blow driers, the gurgle of a designer coffee machine, the mingled scents of L’Oreal hairspray and Jo Malone perfume greet me as I round the corner into Kathleen’s kitchen. The irony of this scene—a gaggle of privileged women lining up for their organic morning beverages so they can adequately hydrate themselves before a dead serious meeting about the perils of being a woman in Sub-Saharan Africa—does not escape me. We are ten upper-middle class western women, decked out in cashmere and silk, off for a day of talk about saving those less fortunate. Yes, we have beautiful homes and enviable wardrobes; but we also have big hearts, working brains, and the desire to spend our time, energy, and extra cash doing whatever we can to make a difference. Maybe guilt has guided us here. Maybe we are saving ourselves.

Reeling from the previous day’s roundtable discussions—Women and Poverty, The Girl Child, Human Rights and Migrant Women, Violence Against Women—we’re ready to head to the UN for more, more, more. Julia and I are dressed for our performance at noon. We’re wearing coordinated black and white dresses and I’m hoping no one says we look like the Olsen Twins. I’m nervous about technical issues—is it really possible to sing acoustically for 700 people? Julia is worried about her panty hose, which seem to be slipping down. Crotch sag—any woman will tell you it’s a major drag. All this women’s rights stuff is important, indeed, but really, someone needs to invent suspenders to hold up our tights.

Oh wait; maybe we should just wear pants.

There is no backstage in the Plenary Hall—the space isn’t set up for theatrical events or concerts (UN, The Musical!)—so we sit at a front-row desk, close to the Steinway, and wait for our cue to perform. We whisper back and forth to each other as the former President of Finland gives a speech. I admit it, I’m a little nervous. I’ve played my share of state dinners, but this is different.

“Are you drinking enough water?” I ask Julia, who complained about a sore throat this morning, no doubt the result of the stadium singing she did yesterday at the non-sound check.

Oui,” she says.

“Are you warmed up?”

Oui.”

Do you remember the form of the song?

Oui, oui, oui.”

“Don’t forget the third verse.”

“Mom.”

“And to repeat the refrain three times at the end.”

“Mom. I am fine. Calm down. I just wish my tights would stay up. They’re halfway down my butt. This is making me nuts. I should have worn pants.”

Right.

Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, NGO CSW Geneva President, winds up the conference with a lovely speech about diversity. I have practiced saying her name over the last three days and now I can do it without stuttering. Nyaradzayi commands attention; she is strong and funny and controls this huge crowd with her rich voice and compelling speech. She calls several women to the stage—a ninety-year old delegate, a disabled women in a wheel chair, a female member of the Roma community, a Muslim woman, a Jewish woman, a token man, and then—big surprise to me—Julia, who at eighteen is the youngest delegate at the conference. She is also the tallest, although that doesn’t count. There Julia stands, front and center, smiling and representing her generation. For what must be the twentieth time since this conference started, I cry. And this is unfortunate timing, because we are on, now.

Simone Ovart, Forum Co-chair, moderates this part of the ceremony and begins introducing us in French. I wipe the mascara smudges off my cheeks and listen. I had provided a brief description of the two us in English, which was successfully translated into French. I sit at the Steinway, attempting to understand Madame Ovart—I don’t have a headset at the piano, so I can only hear the French, a very elegant way to be introduced. She finishes her brief words about me and tucks into Julia’s introduction. I glance at the FAWCO delegation sitting several rows back, listening—with their earpieces—to the simultaneous English translation of the French translation of the original English version. C’est compliqué. The FAWCO women burst out laughing at something they’ve heard. Later I will find out that the translator said that Julia received her PhD at the age of eighteen. Wow. Dr. Julia. And she can sing, too. I glance over at her and she looks completely relaxed. She looks focused. She also looks like she is trying very hard not to tug on her panty hose.

I take a breath and play an A major triad—an axis of wonder in a working mom’s world. Performing for these 700 women is like sliding into a warm bath. Dr. Julia and I are safe here with this audience. They support us, inspire us, and carry us as far as we need to go, which isn’t too far, since we’re only performing one song, but still I am glad they’re along for the ride. I play the piano, because that’s my job, but I listen to my daughter have her moment of importance, because that’s my job, too. I am a musician; I am a mother; I am a human being who cares about the status of women everywhere. And today I get to be all of these things at once. I can have it all at the same time. If this only happens once in my lifetime, it’s enough.

By the end of the song Julia has most of the women on their feet and clapping and singing along. The applause rings out and will echo in my heart for weeks to come. We hug dozens of our sisters and grab our coats. Then, bypassing the hamster wheel and still doing the Important Walk, we dash into the cold Geneva rain and think about flying home.

proxy

See the “Maybe It’s You” UN video here.

 

Maybe It’s You

©2014 Robin & Julia Goldsby, Bass Lion Music (BMI)

You’re as bright as the morning sunshine,

And you light up the day,

You’re as cool as a summer wind,

And you chase the rain away,

So look at me,

You are strong,

Look at me,

You are beautiful.

You can crash through the highest ceiling,

And you do it with grace,

Slaying dragons with words of kindness,

Putting peace in its place.

So look at me,

You are bold

Look at me,

You are wonderful.

Maybe it’s you,

You’re the one who’s gonna make it,

You—standing up tall and proud,

Maybe it’s you,

You can give it; you can take it,

And rise above the roaring crowd.

You are brave,

You are fighting for a change,

You’ll save,

The life you want to live—

You’re the queen of your private kingdom,

And you’re nobody’s bride,

Education is your salvation,

With your sisters by your side,

Look at me,

You are brave,

You are powerful.

Maybe it’s you,

You’re the one who’s gonna make it,

You—standing up tall and proud,

Maybe it’s you,

You can give it; you can take it,

And rise above the roaring crowd.

Rise above the roaring crowd . . .

FAWCO Youth Ambassador Julia Goldsby with the FAWCO Delegation to the NGO Beijing+20 UN ECE Forum in Geneva, Switzerland.

FAWCO Youth Ambassador Julia Goldsby with the FAWCO Delegation to the NGO Beijing+20 UN ECE Forum in Geneva, Switzerland.

Many thanks to the women who rise above the roaring crowd on a daily basis: Kathleen Simon, My-Linh Kunst, Monica Jubayli, Maggie Palu, Sara von Moos, Sallie Chaballier, Laurie Richardson, Paula Daeppen, Johanna Dishongh, Suzanne Wheeler, Valerie Bichelmeier, and Vera Weill-Hall—the FAWCO delegates to the UN conference.

You lift me up, you do.

Photos and video by My-Linh Kunst, Maggie Palu, and Johanna Dishongh.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.

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