Purple Blue Hibiscus

Hibiscus

Chalk’s Airline

In business since 1926

We’ve never had an accident!

“What do you mean, you’re not flying today?” I say. The Chalk’s Airline counter man at the Opa-Locka Airport looks out the window and squints at the bright white sky.

“I have to be there by tonight,” I say. “It’s crucial.”

I’m trying to get a flight to Cat Cay, a private island in the Bahamas. Don Brockett has booked me to play there for two weeks. Don, his wife Leslie, and the other performers are flying into Miami on a private jet from Pittsburgh. There is no airstrip on Cat Cay, so Don and his entourage will be picked up by one of the island yachts and transported over to the island. Because I’m coming from Haiti I’ll have to take a commercial seaplane over to Cat. I’ve never flown on a seaplane before, and I’m a little nervous about it.

“These winds are blowin’ way too high for us,” says Counter-man. “No way we can fly safely in this weather. Can’t land a seaplane on water this choppy. Nope.”

“Oh, no,” I say. “Well then, I’ll just have to take a boat or something. Is there a charter service in the area?”

“Yep. But you won’t be able to take a boat either. They got the warning flags up. No go, Miss. Not today, anyway. You come back tomorrow. Things’ll be calmer then.”

“But I have to get there tonight!”

“You got an emergency or something?”

I don’t know how to answer this question. Most people would not consider a piano gig an emergency. But Don Brockett expects me to be there on time to play the job.

“Yes,” I say. “Yes, it’s an emergency. To me it is, anyway.”

“Talk to that fat guy over at the phone booth. He’s got an emergency on the same island, and he said something about chartering a helicopter. A chopper can fly easier in this weather than a seaplane.”

“Thanks!” I say. I look across the room. A morbidly obese man wearing a natty blue blazer and freshly pressed chinos is hanging up the phone. Wow. I had no idea Brooks Brothers made clothing that large.

“Hi,” I say. “I’m Robin Meloy. I understand you’re trying to get to Cat Cay this afternoon.”

“I’m Billy Berg,” he says. He gives me the once-over, as if he’s being hit on by the local Opa-Locka hooker. We shake hands. He’s got fat on his knuckles, and his palms are cold and clammy. Normally I would run the other way, but Billy Berg is my only hope for a flight. I give him my most seductive damsel-in-distress smile.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Berg,” I say. “Some weather, huh? Did you have any luck with the helicopter?”

“The commercial services won’t fly,” he says. I detect a New York accent. “But I found an emergency rescue helicopter to take me. Why?”

“Do you think I could come along? See, I’m a pianist and I’m supposed to play on Cat Cay tonight for a party hosted by the president of the island association.”

Billy Berg’s teeny-tiny eyes, surrounded by great mounds of cheek and forehead fat, light up.

“I mean, I’ll be glad to pay my share of the flight.”

“My dear,” says Billy Berg. “It would be a pleasure to have your company. I’m applying for membership on the island, and I’m sure the president will be thrilled to have me deliver his pianist in a helicopter.” He claps his chubby hands with delight.

Funny what people will do to get where they want to go.

We walk, or rather we’re blown, over to the helicopter terminal, where a pilot wearing a bright-orange suit waits for us. I’m right behind Billy, using him as a windscreen. The helicopter is tiny, with lots of open space where the doors should be. It’s a rescue vehicle, equipped to carry stretchers. A worker named Vicki runs out of the terminal, trying to look official. That’s an odd thing about Florida. None of the officials looks very official. You can’t wear a kelly-green blazer and expect people to take you seriously.

“Uh-oh,” she says when she spots Billy Berg. “You’re gonna have to weigh in.”

I don’t know what Billy weighs, but I weigh 120 pounds and the pilot weighs at least 170. She instructs me to sit on the same side as the pilot. Then she piles all the luggage on our side as well.

“Gotta balance this baby or she’ll tip right over. Here’s your life jacket,” she says. “Put it on. Now.”

“Now?” I say.

“You never know. Better to be prepared.”

Billy Berg and I slide the big yellow life jackets over our heads. I buckle mine around my waist. Billy slips his waist straps into the pockets of his navy blazer. I’m fascinated by his blazer. There’s enough lightweight wool gabardine in that one jacket to outfit the entire freshman class at Brown.

“Now look,” says Vicki. “In the event of an emergency, uh, water landing, you will unbuckle your seat belt, jump out, then pull the cord. Repeat after me, unbuckle, jump out, pull cord.”

“Unbuckle, jump out, pull cord,” Billy Berg and I squeak. We sound like the Alvin and the Chipmunks.

“Again. Unbuckle, jump out, pull cord.”

“Unbuckle, jump out, pull cord.”

“Again. Unbuckle, jump out, pull cord.”

“Unbuckle, jump out, pull cord.”

         Alright already.

Vicki makes us practice jumping out of the helicopter, but I think she’s really checking to see if Billy Berg can fit through the passenger-side exit.

“I can’t swim,” says Billy Berg as he heaves his way through the opening. He lands delicately on his Gucci-loafered feet. “Maybe I should call my wife before we leave. If this chopper goes down and I’m found dead, washed up next to a blond piano player, she’ll think I was up to no good. Are we anywhere near the Bermuda Triangle?”

“Let’s go!” says the pilot. “Wind is pickin’ up.” Vicki straps us in, and up, up, and away we go—the fat man, the piano player, and the emergency rescue pilot in the orange suit. As soon as we’re up in the air, I relax. The flight is smooth and graceful—beautiful, even. Billy Berg white-knuckles the strap hanging down from the roof. He yells at me from the front passenger seat, but with all the helicopter racket, I can’t hear a thing.

helicopter

 ***

Cat Cay is fifty nautical miles from Miami. The island has a spacious marina and hosts some of the largest yachts in the U.S. Registry. Membership on the island is determined by a board of directors that meets six times a year. Once an individual is “selected” for membership, he must pay a $25,000 initiation fee along with a $10,000 annual membership payment. Splendidly appointed rental housing is available only for members and sponsored guests. That’s what I am, a sponsored guest. Or maybe I’m hired help. Either way, I’m an outsider.

There are no automobiles permitted on Cat Cay, and most of the guests transport themselves in golf carts. There aren’t very many places to go: the Cone Bar for drinks, the Victoria Restaurant for more drinks, and then, if you’re feeling like a drink, the Nauticat Restaurant and Lounge, Bu’s Bar, or the Haigh House Bar for a nightcap. Most of the members of the Cat Cay Club are WASP-y Republican high-society types, the owners of big homes, big businesses, and big bar tabs.

We’ve been hired to keep the president’s guests entertained for two weeks. I play cocktail piano whenever there’s a piano handy—on yachts, in the restaurant, in the bars, at private homes. We’re scheduled to perform one big theatrical cabaret show at a sit-down dinner for seventy guests later in the week and do a couple of numbers with the Lester Lanin Orchestra out of New York at a big hula-dula dinner dance at the end of the two weeks. For the rest of our stay on the island, we’re expected to show up everywhere and be entertaining.

These people are lovely, really they are. Considering we’re a ragtag bunch of struggling-artist Democrats with several homosexuals in our ranks, I think we fit in quite nicely. But I can’t shake the feeling that we’re here as token bohemians—gypsies paid to titillate imaginations without threatening notions of the way things should be. Our group doesn’t drink nearly as much as they do, but we follow the dress code and show up—with cautious enthusiasm and carefully coordinated resort wear—to every gin-and-tonic pool party, champagne brunch, and Bloody Mary breakfast our hosts offer. We tell amusing anecdotes, conduct sing-alongs, and allow the rich right-wing titans of industry to think they’re being given a privileged peek into our flamboyant artistic lives. It’s hard work.

To blow off steam, we go out and race around in the golf carts.

Dave and I, tired of driving from bar to bar to pool to bar, go exploring. Dave is Don Brockett’s assistant, a handsome young man with a hearty sense of adventure and a great wardrobe. We commandeer a golf cart and drive past Windsor Downs, the pristine golf course; the tennis courts; and the Olympic-sized swimming pool. We come to a long path lined on both sides with purple hibiscus, drive past a couple of sheds that hide the garbage bins from the delicate eyes of the island members, onto a dirt trail, through thick jungle vegetation, and into a clearing.

“Vultures!!! Holy shit, Dave. We need to get out of here, fast. Those birds look like vultures.”

vulture

“Oh, my God,” says Dave. “ I thought vultures only lived in Africa. There must be a thousand of them.” Actually there are about fifty, but that’s still a lot of vultures.

In his hurry to get away from the menacing flock of birds, Dave mistakes the golf cart reverse gear for forward. We lurch up onto a big boulder and hover over the ground, our wheels spinning as the vultures begin to surround the golf cart. We look like Fred and Wilma Flintstone, out for a drive in Death Valley.

“This is excellent, Dave,” I say, trying not to panic. “We’re going to be pecked to bits by vultures. This is supposed to be a luxury island. We’re here for two weeks, and now look at us. Stranded on a rock with giant birds of death threatening to eat our eyeballs. Nice work.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose. You try driving this thing. It’s bad enough that I have to drive on the left. These damn foreigners. Why can’t they drive on the right like everyone else?”

“Dave, we’re on a path in the woods. Not a four-lane highway. And we’re down here with a bunch of Americans, for God’s sake.”

“Okay. Sor-ry. Maybe we should call for help.”

“Are you kidding? We’re on the ass end of the island and it’s cocktail hour. No one will hear us. I think I’m scheduled to play for dinner tonight. But they’ll be so squished by then, they’ll never notice I’m missing.”

”Here’s the way I see it,” says Dave as he smooths out the wrinkles in his white linen pants. Dave can be very analytical when necessary. I’m surprised he doesn’t take out a notebook and start making lists of pros and cons. “We can sit here and rot and wait for an inebriated CEO to find our bones, or we can get out of the cart, get it down off this boulder, and try to drive it back to Bu’s Bar.”

“I’m not getting out of this cart, Dave.” The vultures stare, just waiting for one of us to make a move.

“Think this through, Robin. Vultures don’t eat live people, just dead ones. We’re still alive. They won’t be interested in us. Plus I heard the club is serving grouper for dinner tonight. And key lime pie. And if we don’t get back soon, we’ll miss it.”

That convinces me. I jump down out of the cart.

“Shoo, shoo, shoo!!!” I say. The vultures just stand there like lawn ornaments in a George Romero zombie film.

“Shoo, shoo, shoo!!!” I say again. The birds cock their heads, unimpressed by my flailing arms. Dave shoves the cart off the rock. We zip out of there, race into Bu’s Bar, and tell the bleary-eyed crowd about the vultures.

“You never know what you’ll run into if you stray too far from the golf course,” says the president of the island association. His speech is slurred and he’s wearing bright yellow pants with little lizards embroidered on them. He winks at me. “The world can be a dangerous place. How about a little drinky-poo?”

“Ahhh,” whispers the Bahamian barman. “I see you meet our island turkeys. Dey live back there. Wild turkeys. Dey could fly away, but dey too dumb.”

***

Martini1

The golf cart gets us into lots of trouble. Our third night on the island we’re scheduled to attend a cocktail party at the president’s house. Dave and I drive the cart over to Don and Leslie’s beachfront apartment. The cart is designed for six passengers, but we can squeeze seven onboard. Don, wearing a snappy pair of Nantucket-red pants and a sailor-cloth shirt that laces up the front, lumbers out to the cart with Leslie, who is dressed in a batik-print caftan. Barb Russell, David Pressau, and Danny Herman run across the manicured lawn and jump onto the rear-facing back seat. We’re ready to go. Dave, once again intending to drive backward, shifts the cart into forward, hits the gas, and knocks Barb, David, and Danny onto the gravel driveway.

“Jesus Christ, Dave,” says Don, growling. “You don’t know how to drive this thing. This is a car for big babies in diaper-pants—how could you screw it up? Let me drive, for God’s sake.”

We change places, with Don grumbling and David and Danny brushing away the dirt from their evening clothes.

“I’ll be right back,” says Barb. “I gotta get a Band-Aid.”

“We’ll be late for the president’s cocktails,” says Don.

“Fuck the president, my knee is bleeding,” says Barb.

“You know, we finally get a job where they don’t make us come in the back door, and we’re late,” says Don.

“Yeah, well, being treated like a guest is hard work,” says Danny. “Can’t we just eat sandwiches in the employee cafeteria or something?”

“The employee cafeteria is on Bimini.” says Don.

Barb hobbles back to the cart.

“Okay, Don, are you straight on this forward and reverse shit?” she asks.

“Nothing to worry about, Milady. I’m at the helm,” says Don. We pull out of the parking bay and drive 200 yards to the president’s house.

It’s a beautiful home, right on the beach, surrounded by palm trees, exotic bushes, and peachy flowers that complement the dusky Bahamian sky. Our hostess, the First Lady of Cat Cay, stands in front of the garage door awaiting our arrival. She’s wearing a lemon-yellow Bill Blass sleeveless evening gown, and she looks stunning.

“Don, Leslie, kids!” she says, doing the queen’s wave with one hand and balancing a highball glass with the other. “How delightful that you’re here!”

“Okay, kids, everybody wave and smile!” Don whispers. “Leslie, get a picture of the First Lady.”

“Hiiiiiiiii!” we all say, in unison as Don pulls up to the garage door.

“Don’t park here. Park out by the charger,” says the First Lady. “That way you can tank up your cart while you’re at the party!”

“No problem,” says Don. “Hey, love that dress! Is that a Bill Bla—”

He throws the cart into gear and hits the gas pedal, but instead of reversing, we lunge forward, pinning our hostess to the garage door and throwing David, Danny, and Barb back onto the driveway.

Barb, who is picking gravel out of her knees for the second time in ten minutes, says, “Now might be an excellent time to get that picture of the First Lady, Leslie.”

I uncover my eyes, and there is our gracious hostess, stuck between the cart and the garage door. Amazingly, she’s not injured, but she’s trapped, with the headlights of the car pressing into her Blass-clad thighs. She has a smile frozen on her face and her hand remains in a waving position.

“Maybe somebody should go get the president,” says Don. “We need to unpin his wife.”

The First Lady, regaining control of the situation, sips her drink. “Don’t worry,” she says. “This happens all the time.”

“What drug is she takin’?” says Barb. “I want some.”

“Maybe I should just move the golf cart,” says Don.

“NOOOO!” we scream in unison. “Get her out of there first.”

The president rounds the corner. “Don, Leslie, kids! So nice to see you!!! Hey everybody, the kids are here! Now what’s this I hear about you pinning my wife to the garage door? Heh, heh, heh . . .”

“Hello dear,” says the First Lady with a girlish laugh. “Just a little, uh, problem with the gearshift thingy. Perhaps you could get me unstuck so I can serve the cheese ball.” A crowd gathers in the driveway.

“Anyone got a Band-Aid?” says Barb. Everyone laughs.

“What I need is a drink,” I say.

“No problem!” say three men at once as they run off to fetch a vodka and soda.

The president, Dave, and Danny push the golf cart back and free the First Lady.

“My goodness, that was exciting!” she says as she limps over to the terrace.

“Are you okay?” Leslie asks.

“Oh, I am fine, fine, fine. But I could use another drink.”

“What’s she drinkin’?” says Barb. “Get me one.”

“I’ll just park the golf cart,” says Don.

         Silence.

We all turn around to watch. Barb dives into the bushes.

Don, looking back over his shoulder, shifts the car into forward and drives through the garage door, putting a large hole in the white wooden paneling.

Everyone laughs. They think we’ve staged the whole thing.

“You kids are just a riot!” says the president.

I meet and greet and go to the living room, take a slug of my vodka, and begin playing the white piano.

***

Martini2

Doctor Love and the Bahama Cats, a Bahamian band from Bimini, has been shipped over to play with Dave and me as we welcome weekend guests who are just arriving in their yachts and seaplanes. We do one number together, “All Day All Night Maryanne” in the key of F, with the following lyrics:

 

         Welcome, welcome, to Cat Cay!

         President’s weekend’s gonna be,

         Time of great frivolity,

         Thanks to the Pres and the First Lady.

         Golfin’, swimmin’, fishin’ too

         Whatever is your whim,

         Maybe if the sun’s too hot,

         You’ll take a little swim,

         Drink a Cat Cay cocktail or

         Whatever is your choice,

         It’s president’s weekend party now,

         Come join us with your voice,

         Everybody now!

         Welcome, welcome to Cat Cay!

 

Dave and I have rehearsed this song with Doctor Love and the Bahama Cats. Last night, for two hours, we fiddled with the arrangement and sang it through with the band about fifty times. Now we’re in position on our little stage next to the immigration desk. The first plane arrives, and Don gives me the cue to start.

“Okay, guys, let’s go!” I say. I count off the tune.

“Hey lady, what we playing?” says Doctor Love.

Doctor Love and the Bahama Cats are stoned out of their minds.

“‘Maryanne’ in F,” I say.

“Who’s Maryanne?”

“The song! ‘All Day All Night Maryanne!’”

“Oh, yeah, we know dat.”

“So could we play it? Now? Please, Doctor Love.”

The first pink-and-green-clad ladies are ushered past us. A waiter hands each of them a cocktail and they stand there, in the blazing sun, with expectant smiles on their smooth faces, waiting for us to do something.

I count off again.

         You know, says Voice of Doom. There is nothing worse than snapping your fingers and saying one, two, one, two, three, four, and having a band just stare at you. Look at them! They have NO CLUE what they’re supposed to play. What kind of a musical director do you think you are?

“What kind of intro you want, lady?”

“The one we rehearsed last night would be nice,” I say. “Never mind, just play the song. In F.”

“Sounds better in G.”

“FINE. Just play it.”

Doctor Love takes a big swig from his rum-filled Coke can and plays. The Cats play along. Dave and I, dressed in flowered shirts and silly straw hats, do our little song-and-dance routine, and everyone starts to feel the Island Spirit.

“So why do they call you Doctor Love?” I ask as we sit relaxing after our afternoon gig.

“Why you tink?” says Doctor Love.

“Because you’re, uh, romantic?” I really sound like a twit sometimes.

“Oh, dat is true,” he says. “But I am also de fahder of twenny-two children, each one wid a diff’rent woman.”

I manage to resist Doctor Love’s charms in spite of his good looks and gleaming, gold-toothed smile. His band performs on Cat Cay several times during the week. Doctor Love and the Cats make a living playing for rich white folks who want a touch of island flavor added to their parties. They’re quite good—when they lay off the weed for a couple of hours.

 ***

fox trot

We’re invited to a big pool party. There are flowers and candles floating in the water, torches on the beach, and huge tables of food that everyone—except for us—pretty much ignores. At the far end of the pool is a large animal roasting on a spit. Dave and Danny and I balance oversized plates on our laps as we perch on the diving board with our feet dangling over the candlelit water.

“Long way from Pittsburgh,” says Danny.

“Yeah,” I say. “A long way from anywhere.”

“Anywhere real,” says Dave, licking his fingers.

“I saw one of those pig-on-a-spit things in Pittsburgh one time,” says Danny. “At a Tamburitzan festival at the Civic Arena. I think they cook stuff like that in Poland or Yugoslavia or one of those countries.”

“I think this one here is a goat.”

“Goat, pig, doesn’t matter. You cook something on a spit and dump enough sauce on it, it all tastes the same.”

“Look at Don and Leslie.” They’re holding hands and walking down to the beach. Making an escape from the party, no doubt. There is a full moon low in the sky behind them.

We’re quiet for a moment.

“I wonder how long it will be before someone falls in the pool.” I look around at the men in their jewel-colored dinner jackets and the women in their designer evening wear. They foxtrot around the edges of the water while Doctor Love and the Bahama Cats serenade them.

“Oh, my God,” says Dave. “Listen.”

“What?” I say. “That’s the same song these guys have been playing all week.”

“No.” says Dave. “Listen to the words.”

Doctor Love’s song is called “Sell That Pussy.” And that’s the tame part of the lyric. It’s probably the raunchiest tune I’ve ever heard. But it’s catchy.

“Hi, kids!” says the First Lady as she cavorts past the diving board. “Isn’t island life just fabulous?”

All I can hear is Doctor Love singing sell that pussy, sell that pussy, sell that pussy.

“Fab-u-lous!” yell Dave and Danny in unison. They get up, stretch, and mambo back to the buffet.

The invited guests don’t notice the lyric to the song. Or if they do, they ignore it. They frolic around the pool, a cotillion of madras jackets and Lily Pulitzer prints, swirling and swaying under the starlit sky as if they’re the lucky ones. The band is on one side of me, the guests on the other. I’m perched on a diving board over the deep end of an azure pool, not quite sure where I belong. The song ends. I look over at the band. Doctor Love nods, smiles, and toasts me with his Coke can.

sunset

***

Excerpt from Piano Girl: A Memoir [Backbeat Books]

Used by permission

©2005 Robin Meloy Goldsby, All Rights Reserved

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.

Image

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

 

 ***

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

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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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All I Want for Christmas

 1966: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh

On Christmas morning I sit with my brother and sister on the top step of a long staircase leading down to the living room. Cloaked in fuzzy red pajamas, we squash our little rinkies together on a narrow swath of Williamsburg blue shag carpeting, agonizing over whether or not Santa has shown up. We have been sitting here for an hour, waiting for the house to wake up around us.

“I know Santa came. I heard sleigh bells.”

“I heard reindeer.”

“I heard Mr. Wilson coming home from church, or somewhere.” Mr. Wilson is our neighbor. We are intrigued by him, because he works during the day, unlike our father the drummer, who works at night.

Holding hands, we wait for Dad to announce that Santa has indeed found his way to Mt. Washington and, despite our lack of a working fireplace, has somehow managed to squeeze through the vent over the stove and grace our living room with a smattering of toys, stiff new clothes, and yule cheer. The vent over the stove is good for two things—it lets bats fly into our house during the summer months and it allows Santa Claus to show up every year with a big bag of toys.

The suspense is almost unbearable. My mother makes coffee in the kitchen—we can hear the pop-gurgle-pop of the percolator. Dad prances around downstairs and pretends to trip over an empty plate of cookies.

“Santa ate the cookies,” he yells. “He was here! Come on down!”

We shriek and tumble down the stairs. I knock my sister and brother against the wall. We bounce off the pine-trimmed banister, and land like a three-headed elf in a heap by the nativity scene.

“Pick up Joseph and Mary,” says my mother. “And get the cat out of the tree!”

It’s perfect, like every year.

Our grandmothers, Della and Laura, having spent the night in the family room, have already settled into one of the Ethan Allen sofas, their hair cranked for Christmas, their make-up in place. They’re sporting velour robes with matching plush slippers in festive colors, and both of them are recovering from copious amounts of Irish coffee consumed the night before. With delicate plates balanced on their grandmotherly laps, they laugh and beam at us. Everyone says Christmas is for kids, but today the grandmothers in attendance are having more fun than any of us. Aunt Pinky is also here. She wears sequined reindeer antlers and a little red plastic nose.

“Rudolph!” we shout.

The twinkle lights dance, the perfume of cinnamon rolls wafts through the house, holiday music (Bing! Sammy! Frank!) plays on the Hi-Fi. Decades before Martha Stewart teaches us how to French-braid holly branches and make wreathes out of miniature peanut-butter cups, my mother pounds out holiday-themed parties with the expertise of a Santaland Express caterer. A working woman with three kids, she decks the halls and calls the shots, if not effortlessly, then with a huge dose of conviction. Last night, for Christmas Eve dinner, she made a tabletop Christmas tree out of six dozen boiled jumbo-shrimp, stuck into a Styrofoam tree-shaped form with tinsel-covered toothpicks. She decorated it with green and red vegetable garlands. It was a huge success. Stripey the cat made several attempts, one of them successful, at attacking the shrimp tree. Holidays are hard on cats. Last year he walked across the pumpkin pie, leaving paw prints in the filling. My mother covered it with Cool Whip and no one knew the difference.

Cat

But none of this matters. Today it’s all about presents. Two weeks ago, we made our wish lists and traveled downtown to visit a bloated and ruddy-faced Santa at the Joseph Horne department store. Santa repeated our wishes loudly, a style that might have been the result of too much bourbon, but had the benefit of letting our parents hear exactly what we wanted.

On Christmas morning, despite our better instincts and under the watchful eye of the Good Manners Police, we open our presents like civilized human beings. We go around the room and take turns unpacking our gifts. Our grandmothers spend ages unwrapping their presents—carefully folding the metallic paper and coiling the ribbons and placing them in a neat pile for recycling. One grandma gets a blue scarf, the other a green scarf. Great. When is my turn? Daddy gets some Old Spice. Mom gets a cheese cutter from my sister and a Chia Pet from Aunt Pinky.

Finally. I dive into the little pile of gifts at my feet.

I get a Spirograph. Just what I wanted! Not nearly as dangerous as the Twister game I received last year. I also receive a Dippity Glass craft kit for making “glass” flowers by dipping wire forms into vats of neon-colored toxic chemicals. I will make dozens of these ghastly plastic creations—quite possibly destroying half of my brain cells in the process—and peddle them door to door in my neighborhood. Dippity Glass might be a health hazard, but I prefer it to last year’s Rock Tumbler.

I am nine years old, but I still believe in Santa. I receive, direct from the North Pole fashion workshop—most certainly under the supervision of an elf named Mr. Larry and his team of very short assistants—a pair of orange crushed-velvet pants. Wow! In the coming months I will  make glass flowers and psychedelic Spirograph designs while dressed like a prepubescent Ann-Margret.

I carefully stash away my new loot and eat a cinnamon roll, then wonder whether these particular gifts are something I really want. Perhaps I would have preferred Chemistry Lab, Jr.? Or the Barbie Hair Coloring Station? But every girl needs a Spirograph and a pair of crushed velvet pants, right? I’m just not sure about the color of the pants. Maybe red would be better than orange. Or purple. But now I’m stuck with the orange. For the first time I’m starting to question the things I wish for. I am growing up and I don’t even know it.

2014, Cologne, Germany

Cologne

The Western Pennsylvania holiday tableau seared in my memory seems like a distant fantasy. As a parent I’ve tried over the years to make our holidays at home memorable. But we are an American expatriate family living in Germany, and there’s no possible way to recreate the half-silly half-wonderful traditions I knew as a child. This is a country that, for better or worse, does not sell Libby’s canned pumpkin. Santa, more often than not, is played by a skinny Turkish guy at a furniture warehouse. And if you do run into Santa at a kids’ party, he is likely to be accompanied by a very scary guy named Knecht Ruprecht who wears a black hood, carries a bag of ashes, and threatens to beat children with a big stick if they haven’t behaved. Plus Santa isn’t even called Santa. He is Sankt Niklaus, and he shows up on the night of December 5th and fills the scrubbed and polished boots of children with candy and gifts. Where’s Rudolph when you need him? Probably hiding from the guy with the stick.

Some of the German traditions—most of them involving marzipan—are lovely, but they make me feel unbalanced, out of sync, a little lonely. Our two children, now adults, have celebrated each Christmas with us in a quiet way. In an attempt to shield our kids from the evil Knecht, we told them that American Santa was in charge of their Christmas. We made sure American Santa called our house each year. Played by various English-speaking male friends and family members, Santa spoke through a paper towel tube in a big booming voice. Ho-ho-ho. We’ve invented our own traditions. Without grandmothers or aunts to help with the cooking and good cheer quotient, we’ve had to improvise a lot, even for a family of musicians. We’ve never attended a midnight Christmas Eve candlelight service, although once on Christmas Eve we went to the circus. One year I made spaghetti for Christmas dinner, another time we had vegetarian schnitzel. We’ve never had a shrimp tree, a pie, or a Chia Pet. But we have managed to have surprise bunny rabbits, wooden train sets, adventures with icing, and fun with gingerbread. With limited resources we managed to grant a few of the wishes on the kids’ lists. I hope that’s what they remember—that for a short time in their crazy expat lives, a few of their wishes came true. Mainly, I hope they remember they have been lucky. They grew up safe and warm and happy. And loved.

I stopped making wish lists decades ago, for obvious reasons. When you enter the parenting profession, you start granting wishes instead of making them. Besides, desires can be devious. I have what I need, I have what I want, I want what I have. But his year I’ve decided to give the list another try. If Santa has a mental health workshop, he might be tempted to send me directly to the multiple personality department, so diverse are the things I long for. Some of them are shameful, some are idealistic, some are simple, most of them are, well, complicated. Here goes:

The American in Europe Wish List

  1. A huge box of Arm & Hammer baking soda. I will clean everything with it—my teeth, the sink, the inside of my Nikes.
  2. A Target store in Germany.
  3. Pre-made pie crusts. I don’t eat pie, but I would enjoy knowing I could bake a pie quickly if I had a ready made crust. I have an aversion to rolling pins.
  4. Speed Stick, by Mennen (it smells really nice when my husband wears it).
  5. A visit from my sister on Christmas. We are still thin. Our rinkies will fit nicely onto one of the steps leading to the living room. If my brother joins us, all bets are off. He can have his own step.

The Healthy Woman Wish List

  1. Energy. Ready, GO, GO, GO.
  2. Balanced hormones. Really, I do not want to throw myself off a bridge just because the diesel-Frau cashier at a German supermarket is rude.
  3. A fit body that would look good in orange crushed-velvet hiphuggers if the hormonal balance thing doesn’t work out and I decide to find my inner (and outer) Ann-Marget.
  4. A few nights of uninterrupted sleep. The experts say this is impossible once you have had children, but I am out to prove them wrong.
  5. Peace of mind. A friend of mine, who is dying, recently gave me the best advice ever. Speaking of life in general, he said: “Don’t worry too much.”

The World Citizen Wish List

  1. A safe return for those kidnapped Nigerian girls.
  2. Adequate funding for Médicins Sans Frontieres as they continue to battle chaos and tragedy everywhere. The same for medica mondiale liberia.
  3. An end to human trafficking. Here’s a place to start: Free the Girls—the FAWCO Target Project.
  4. Clean water for everyone.
  5. Equal opportunities for women and girls (yes, USA, this means you, too).
  6. More energy (see above) to try and do my part to help.
  7. Gun control. Finally. No more murdered school children.

The Material Girl Wish List

  1. A black VW Eos convertible. After a lifetime of being the drummer’s daughter and the bassist’s wife, I long to scoot around the countryside in a little (!) car that’s not meant for transporting large musical instruments.
  2. A trip to South Africa, before I’m too old to recover from the long flight.
  3. A small apartment in Manhattan, while I’m still young enough to run away from trouble.
  4. A cottage somewhere, anywhere, right on the beach (occasional sunshine would be welcome, which doesn’t entirely rule out the North Sea).
  5. Any fashion item that comes from Hermes (yes, scarves count).

The Realistic Working Mom Wish List

  1. Two new pairs of black cashmere socks.
  2. A black cashmere turtleneck sweater.
  3. A new electric toothbrush.
  4. Homemade cards from my kids.
  5. Some gluten free cookies.
  6. A really loose cotton nightgown. White. No Schnick-schnack.

The Confused Mom Wish List

  1. Continued opportunities for my kids to get out there and see the world.
  2. More opportunities for them to stay at home.

The Working Musician Wish List

  1. An iPad preloaded with large-print lead sheets to every song ever written in the history of music.
  2. The chance to write music for a meaningful film. Documentary would be just fine.
  3. The opportunity to write the lyric to a hit tune (one I could live with) that would pay for my kids’ college years. I can do ooh, baby baby as well as the next guy, but I can also do better. And my rhymes are clean. None of this lady-baby stuff.
  4. A separate music studio (within walking distance of my home) with a Macbook, a Steinway, and a couch so I could take naps now and then. A mattress under the piano would also work.
  5. One perfect song played perfectly one time for one perfect audience.

Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, and a joyful December to you and your loved ones. May a few of your wishes come true. Fly away home. If you’re with people who love you, you’re more than halfway there.

Bird in Santa Hat

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl, Rhythm, and Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl. Sign up for Robin’s newsletter and you’ll receive a brand new essay every month, delivered directly to your inbox.

Mister President (from Waltz of the Asparagus People)

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Olives, Almonds, and Sauvignon Blanc: The Musician’s Guide to Losing (and Finding) Those Last Five Pounds

Considering I’ve spent most of my adult life playing the piano in a cocktail lounge, it’s amazing I’m not (yet) an obese alcoholic with salt stains on my fingers and a pickled liver. I have stared down more bowls of smoked almonds and wasabi nuts than most people do in a lifetime.  If I had the cash equivalent of every drink purchased for me by the lounge lizards and dapper dandies drifting through the world’s cocktail caves and five-star hotels, I’d be able to retire right now. A glass of the good champagne served at the hotel where I currently work costs forty-five dollars. Over the last twelve years I may have sipped the champagne equivalent of a brand new BMW.

Champagne

I’m not complaining.  I think too much about diet and nutrition. If you want to know anything at all about any diet ever invented in the history of food, just ask me. I could be practicing the piano, composing music, or working on another book, but no, I’m busy boning up on the virtues of yam chips, and wondering if pomegranate juice would be a nice mixer for vodka.

I’m addicted to diet stories. Makeover! Is any word in the style lexicon more full of promise? Give me a good makeover article and you’ve got me in the palm of your chubby little hand. At the doctor’s office I will pick up a glossy magazine, skirt over intelligent political commentaries about subjects I care about, and go right for the three-page spread telling me how Becky from Buffalo lost twenty pounds in twenty days by eating ham loaf and asparagus (Becky is now working in the shoe department at Target and loves her new “thinner” life).

I am not now, nor have I ever been fat. But, even at my skinniest—I looked like a zipper—I was still trying to lose those “stubborn last five pounds,” a phrase you’ll read a thousand times if you’ve got your nose in a diet book. They are indeed stubborn, those last five pounds, especially if they’re located in the fantasy part of your brain.

Over five decades I’ve lost and gained those same five pounds about four times a year. No matter where in the world I go, they hunt me down, stalkers on the prowl, never far away. I lose them; they find me again—rightfully so, since they belong to me. I try to give them away, but just like my old evening gowns and sparkling gig shoes from 1985—no one seems to want them.

Road trips, evil catering, unidentifiable bar food, vending machine Twix bars, buffalo wings, airplane pretzels, stale ham sandwiches, chocolate donuts, and, yes, those community bowls of goldfish crackers—as a musician I’ve survived most of these things. For better or worse, here are some of my favorite diet phases, many of them career-related.  Some diets were intentional; some were accidental. Most of them didn’t work. Proceed with caution. Or you can just skip to the end and save yourself some trouble.

1973: Eighteen Eggs in Thirty Minutes

I am sixteen years old and spend a lot of time playing the piano. My sister, Randy, is fifteen and likes to dance. Tonight we perch at the kitchen table, forks at the ready. Grandma Curtis, a youthful seventy-five, happily slings hash for the two of us. I promise to play “The Theme from Love Story” for her after dinner. Maybe Randy will do some interpretive dancing. Grandma hovers over a large skillet, scrambling eggs.

Randy and I have discovered a diet book on our mother’s bookcase called Martinis and Whipped Cream. We know nothing about martinis, but we do like whipped cream. We also think we need to be skinny, since we both spend a lot of time onstage. Tonight’s Martinis and Whipped Cream diet dinner features scrambled eggs cooked in butter, as many of them as we can eat. We’ve just arrived home from swim team practice and—after 120 laps of breaststroke—we’re famished. Between the two of us we consume eighteen eggs in thirty minutes.

Grandma keeps saying things like: “Girls these days sure can chow down. Do you think the chlorine in the pool is making you extra hungry?  Do you want a nice salad and a piece of bread with those eggs?”

“NO!” we scream in unison, a synchronized, carb-deprived, desperate diet-duo, lifting our utensils in unison.

At least the eggs are affordable. Tomorrow night’s dinner calls for unlimited pork chops.  Both of us are constipated for two weeks, but we each manage to lose ten pounds. We look svelte in our South Hills High School tank suits, even though we are weak and dazed. I watch my sister attempt to swim the 200 Meter Butterfly and by the end of the race only her thumbs are breaking the water’s surface.

“Never again,” we say. We go off the diet, eat a piece of toast, and regain all the weight we’ve lost.  We start winning our swim events again. And we swear off whipped cream forever. Martinis, well, that’s another story.

Shopping List:

Two dozen eggs, plus an extra dozen, just in case

One grandmother who doesn’t ask questions

1976: The Nantucket Diet

Ah, the Bicentennial Year. Two hundred years of American independence and what better way to celebrate? I leave my parents’ home (roast chicken dinners and chipped ham sandwiches for lunch) and head to the land of lobster, quahog chowder, and curly fries from The Brotherhood of Thieves. But this is not what I am eating on Nantucket. Lobster is too expensive and I’m trying to save money for college. I play the piano at a bar that caters to rich yachtsmen, salty first mates, and the occasional gay guy. While waiting for my tube top to slip down in the middle of my snappy Carole King medley, the sailors buy me drinks made with scotch and amaretto and Kahlua. For solid food, I rely on bluefish. I hate bluefish, but this is what my boyfriend reels in every day from the shores of Madaket and ‘Sconset and this is what we eat. I wrap it in aluminum foil and we cook it outside on the hibachi. I try not to choke on the bones.

Once in awhile, a sun-baked friend of mine named Peg—the manager of the Sweet Shop on Main Street—uses her key and flashlight for midnight raids on the ice cream counter. She takes me with her. A former Coppertone swimsuit model, Peg refuses to eat anything but vanilla ice cream with strawberry sauce. I can’t think of anything more glamorous than being a Coppertone model, so I do the same. It helps me forget about the bluefish bones and the sailors.

I do not lose weight or gain weight on this diet. The balance of alcohol, fish, and ice cream must be the key to good health and glowing skin. I forget that I am eighteen, sand-blasted, surf-struck, and love-stupid. I could eat (or not eat) anything and still look good. But I am too young to appreciate this.

 Shopping List:

Bluefish (see if you can find someone to gut them for you)

Cheap vanilla ice cream

Smucker’s Strawberry Preserves

Scotch

Coppertone SPF O

1979: The St. Louis Blues Diet

I live at the Chase Park Plaza for six weeks while performing in the hotel’s small theater on the ground floor. Our hotel rooms are luxurious, but we eat our meals in the  doom-and-gloom employee cafeteria, where several coughing, sneezing, mucous-spewing adults have been hired to serve our food. Hot dogs are the favored main course, served alongside unidentifiable vegetables.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” I say to the soup monger in the white hat, just as she wipes her nose on her sleeve. “What is the vegetable today?”

“That be squash,” she grunts. “It always be squash. Squash, squash, squash. Do you want some goddamn squash? If not, GET OUT OF THE GODDAMN SQUASH LINE!” Steam rises around her head and she looks at me, one yellowish eye askew, like she might stab me with her squash scooper.

Every vegetable is squash. Every hot dog is a vessel for typhoid, or worse.  Every meal is a trauma.

If one of us makes it to the table with an actual tray of food, the Head Hobbit—a man named Hank—sits down with us and purposefully coughs with his mouth uncovered, spraying us with God knows what. We duck under our napkins.

Hack, hack, hack.

Once Hank blows his nose on the table. We flee, convinced hotel management has hired Hank to prevent us from eating their free food. It’s hard to lose weight in a five star hotel, but our cast—grossed out and fearing for our lives—collectively drops about sixty pounds. Ken, our cross-dressing male lead (who stays in the hotel’s Joan Crawford Suite) begins ordering meat loaf dinners from room service. We follow suit, hoping that the  staff in the “real” kitchen practices better hygiene. We spend all our wages on fifteen dollar Ruben sandwiches and Welsh Rarebit. We lose our money and regain the weight. Plus some. Ah, the circle of life.

Shopping List:

Hot dogs (the older the better)

Squash (beaten to death)

Dirty person to cough on your food

 

 1980: The Stripper Diet

“The ships on her hips made my heart skip a beat . . .”

There’s nothing like taking your clothes off nightly in front of 1500 people to make those “last stubborn five pounds” seem like they’re super-glued to your hips. I am acting and dancing in a squeaky clean, but scantily costumed, show called Peaches and Bananas. Coached by both Tempest Storm and Ann Corio, I’m the featured stripper in the program. I play classical piano and stand up to disrobe while singing “Hard Hearted Hannah.” I also play a chorus on the flute. Note to the aspiring performer: If wearing a bikini, it can be challenging to suck in your stomach while playing a wind instrument. Better to stick with the guitar—full belly coverage, and no huffing and puffing.

For six months I strip at a dinner theater outside of Boston. Fast food not only pads my butt, but saves my butt late at night when I can’t find or afford anything decent to eat. Because I’m dancing in eight shows a week, I’m in good shape, in spite of these last five pounds. Along with the rest of the cast—assorted actors, dancers, and ancient Burlesque comedians from New York, I’m sleeping eight to a room in a sleazy motel located next to Radio Shack, sharing bath towels and leftover Chinese shrimp-fried rice with chorus girls and tap-dancing young men. It’s winter, and to keep the old rice “fresh,” we stash it in a box on the windowsill. We breakfast daily on Dunkin’ Donuts glazed crullers and coffee with four packs of sugar and non-dairy creamer. We drink cheap wine between shows. Sometimes we splurge on vodka and add sugar and non-dairy creamer (stolen from DD) to create a Bailey’s Irish Cream effect. It’s not very effective.

The show moves to Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and bruises begin to appear on my limbs. If I press on my skin, a blue fleck develops within an hour.  My arms look like road maps of places I never intended to visit. I can’t afford a doctor so I go to a Woonsocket pharmacist. He tells me I have a vitamin C deficiency. Unless the pickles on a Whopper count, I haven’t eaten a fresh vegetable or piece of fruit in months. In another few weeks I’ll  have Rhode Island’s first reported case of modern-day scurvy.

I swear off crullers and fried rice, which is easy because Peaches and Bananas closes—who wants to see a bruised piano-playing stripper, anyway? I move back to New York City where I can buy a mango for a pittance and a bag of spinach for even less. To pay the bills between show-biz gigs, I take a job as an exercise instructor at an Elaine Powers Figure Salon. But that’s another story.

 Shopping List:

A bag of Dunkin’ Donuts crullers (the kind with icing)

Cold shrimp-fried rice (as much MSG as possible)

Sugar packets and non-dairy creamer (as many as you can stuff in your pockets)

Coffee and really cheap vodka

1986: The Unhappy Piano Girl Diet

I am playing two or three gigs a day in Manhattan. A serial dater with no real hope of ever finding Mr. Right, Mr. Wrong, or even Mr. Single, I go on a lot of dinner dates but never really eat much dinner. When I’m working—pretty much all the time—I live on white wine, smoked almonds, and Valium. At my low point (in more ways than one) I weigh 105 pounds, about twenty pounds less than normal for my 5’8″ inch frame.

No. I am not anorexic. I just forget to eat.

I finally have enough money to buy decent food—no more crullers!—but I don’t care about eating. I’ve lost those stubborn five pounds but I’m too miserable to enjoy their departure. T-t-t-timing.

Sometimes after work I go to a fancy sushi place and force myself to order a nice meal. This works out well until the Japanese chef—a guy whose name sounds like Homo (even though I’m sure it’s not) starts sending out “special treats” along with my dinner. One treat features something that looks like crocodile testicles. He might be interested in me in a romantic way but I don’t think I can date a man named Homo who serves me eel brains and doesn’t speak English. I stop visiting his restaurant when he starts showing up at my piano with roses.

I find a sushi-to-go joint and cart the tuna rolls home with me, where I watch Oprah re-runs about losing weight.

This diet is very effective but not much fun.

 Shopping List:

Why bother?

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1990: Shaken, Stirred, Whatever

This is where the martinis come in, along with a good man. I have one, now. He plays the bass. We drink; we laugh; we love. Best diet. Ever.  Occasionally we eat dinner.

Shopping List:

Absolut Vodka

Olives

Nice lingerie

 

1992: The “Having My Baby” Diet

I’m pregnant and happy but not gaining much weight. I’ve been a vegetarian for a year and I’m determined to stick with it. I’m repulsed by red meat, I’m not allowed to eat sushi, and the chicken/salmonella thing freaks me out. That leaves pork (the other white meat), but I’m not interested—Wilbur and all that.

Between piano gigs I eat egg salad sandwiches on onion bagels and consume buckets of soba noodle soup. I can’t seem to get enough orange juice—I drink it by the gallon. I give up smoked almonds and white wine. Finally, in my seventh month, people notice I’m pregnant.  In fact, it looks as if a jazz quintet has taken up residence under my black chiffon Piano Girl tent dress.

One of my husband’s musician friends expresses concern that I’m not gaining enough weight. He becomes almost hostile when John tells him I’m a vegetarian. I don’t really understand it, but some people get weird when you tell them you don’t eat meat.

I gain twenty pounds. Our son is born, weighing over eleven pounds and setting a six-year record at NYU Medical Center, where one of the overworked nurses refers to him as King Kong.

“Well,” says John. “Good thing you didn’t eat the steak.”

 Shopping List:

Egg salad from Zabar’s

Onion bagels (also from Zabar’s—see if you can get a volume discount)

Soba noodles (with mystery broth that could possibly be vegetarian, but don’t ask questions)

Orange juice (buy stock in Tropicana)

1994: The Nothing but Cheese Diet

I move to Germany and find myself in the land of cheese. I’m still a vegetarian, so the cheese solution seems obvious. The cheese in Europe is nothing like what we have in America—the stuff here actually tastes good. I find myself buying huge chunks of Parmesan and eating shards of it for dinner, along with salad and crusty French baguette. There’s a place down the road from me that makes its own goat milk cheese with an herbed crust. I can’t stop.

I should mention that European chocolate also plays a supporting role in this nutritional phase of my life. Those last five pounds not only find me again, they bring along some of their friends and have a party. I score a job playing the piano at a German castle, home of a Michelin-starred restaurant. The bar snacks are heavenly. The wine is divine. I am doomed.

Shopping List:

Cheese (but only if you’re on this side of the Atlantic)

An occasional grape

2008: The Wagon # 36 Diet

After a decade and a half of my cheese, wine, and coffee diet, I develop stomach problems. One incident, involving two hours on a grimy floor next to a toilet bowl in a long distance train from Berlin to Cologne, my roiling stomach feeling every rumble, grumble, and swerve the train makes, almost kills me. For 120 minutes, I shiver in the tiny restroom, staring at a sign that tells me I am in Wagon #36.

Then there’s the Barfing Fairy Event, which occurs during the run of a children’s musical I wrote. I’m wearing wings, a tulle skirt, a Dolly Parton wig, and rubber boots. It’s not possible to look cute while tossing one’s cookies, but I come close.

Another harrowing heaving episode takes place while I’m playing Music for Lovers at a Valentine’s Day dinner at a German castle.  I start the evening in good shape, but ten minutes into my second set (right in the middle of “All the Things You Are,” which absolutely no one recognizes) I find myself racing through the restaurant—dodging goo-goo eyed couples sitting at tables strewn with rose petals—desperately trying to reach the ladies’ room. I make it, but barely. I quit early and stagger into the parking lot. Somehow I survive the drive home. My beautiful red chiffon dress does not fare as well.

What’s that line in The Devil Wears Prada? “I’m one stomach flu away from my perfect dress size.”  I am one stomach flu away from being dead. I honestly believe I’m suffering from multiple episodes of the Noro virus and there’s nothing I can do about it. At least the five pounds are gone. But I am constantly nauseated and fearful of the next siege.

Enough. I visit a doctor. She tells me an inconvenient truth: I haven’t had twenty-four cases of stomach flu in the last nine months.  It turns out the things I’ve been eating and drinking have trashed my tummy. If I want to feel better, if I want to get my head out of the toilet, I have to makeover my diet. Makeover!—my favorite word. But this makeover sounds more like serving a life sentence in Food Prison. No meat, no problem—but no cheese, no eggs, no coffee, no wine, no sugar? No fun.  Evidently  I have to do this if I want to stay out of Wagon #36.

I embark on a vegan diet and regain my health.  I feel so much better so quickly that it’s surprisingly simple to stick with the program. But I wouldn’t have gotten this far if I hadn’t gotten sick first.

Shopping List:

Costumes appropriate for dramatic dashes to the toilet (avoid long scarves and shawls)

Acid producing foods  (pretty much anything you enjoy)

A high-speed train on a bumpy track

As much coffee as you can consume, topped off with a wine chaser.

Rubber boots

2013: The Silver Lining Cookbook

I stick to my vegan plan. Maybe it’s because I feel great, maybe it’s my refusal to ever again bow down to the porcelain queen, maybe it’s my fear of ending up on a train to nowhere with an upset stomach. For whatever reason, I’m still on the program. Honestly, it doesn’t really feel like a diet anymore, which may be the whole point.

I learn how to cook the kind of food that keeps me healthy. I’m not weak or dazed; I don’t have bruises; I’m never nauseated. My weight remains stable, which I find slightly disconcerting, as if I’ve been robbed of one of modern life’s most amusing themes. My friends talk about their latest diet adventures and I want to jump into the conversation, but there’s nothing exciting to report about brown rice and broccoli.

I have friends who fast, friends who drink tree juice, and friends who think bread comes from the devil’s bakery. I have friends who go on the Paleo program, forgetting that cavemen not only ate meat, they also went out and walked for weeks trying to find an animal for dinner. I know people who have gone on raw food diets, people who swear by kale, and people who drink shakes that taste like raspberry Kaopectate. I have thin friends who think they’re fat, and fat friends who think they’re thin. It’s a crazy world.

Frankly, I feel a little left out. I’ve been living on vegetables, whole grains, and tofu for so long that I forget what it’s like to tackle a new diet program, the thrill (!) that comes with the promise of a complete body makeover in fourteen days. Food for thought: women who diet all the time are the ones most likely to be overweight. It took me decades to figure this out.

My accomplice in the Great Egg Diet, my sister, Randy, wouldn’t touch an egg these days if I held a squash scooper to her head. She owns and runs a restaurant called Randita’s Organic Vegan Cafe, a name that simultaneously intrigues people and scares the seitan out of them. She believes in tasty, organic, non-GMO food, humane treatment of animals, and a plant-based diet for a healthy lifestyle. Who can argue with that? Go, Randy. Her husband, Dale, plays the guitar at Randita’s on weekends. Live music, healthy food, not a processed smoked almond or martini in sight. Maybe I’ll get a gig there someday.

My husband follows a vegan diet. My daughter is a vegetarian. My son (King Kong) is a lanky young man who, given a choice, would go for the cruller and the shrimp-fried rice every time. Yes, I cook meat for him. I serve cheese and yogurt to my daughter. Sometimes my husband and I feel like short-order cooks, but we do our best to keep everyone happy.

I don’t believe in being militant about food. Basically, if I’m halfway sober and in my right mind, I’ve always eaten what I need, when I need it. Sometimes I need a martini, a cruller, or a block of cheese. Sometimes I don’t.

Right now, I need to be healthy.

As for those last five pounds—they’re not up for discussion anymore. I feel great; I’m a normal weight, and, at this point in my happy life, there’s nothing left to lose or gain.

Shopping List:

Vegetables

Fruits

Whole grains

Organic soy products

Wine, every once in awhile (just because)

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl, Rhythm, and Waltz of the Asparagus People.

Home for the Holidays

HandsLet’s break it down. H-O-M-E.

H could stand for happy or hideous, heartwarming or heartbreaking, heavenly or hellish. It could also stand for hopeless. Or hungry. Hungry for home.

O stands for ocean—that big salty stretch of water we cross so often. We glide over and back, shedding tears of sadness, anticipation, loneliness, or elation. Across the water we go—we can always head home again. But we don’t. Not really. Sometimes I imagine the ocean is made up entirely of expatriate tears.

M might stand for marriage, or motherhood, or menopause. If you’re like me—an American expat in Germany—you’ve lived through all three phases while uttering words like Unbefristigteaufenhaltserlaubnis, Kaiserschnitt or Wechseljahren (Green Card, C-section, menopause). Or maybe M stands for magic, which sometimes seems to be the only thing keeping us here—a happy-go-lucky chain-smoking Beamter at the Ausländeramt waves a magic wand over our heads, stamps our passports and gives us permission to stay. If only he would grant us permission to feel at home.

E could stand for enchanted—the feeling we get when we stand on the Dom Platz in Cologne and gaze at the cathedral’s silhouette against a clear blue autumn sky. It might also stand for Error, that sinking sensation we get when we realize our children have never eaten a popsicle, a Pop-tart, or a piece of candy corn.  They have never met a proper American Santa Claus. Are they missing anything? No. But we are.

Home. It’s a four-letter word jam-packed with enough emotional gunpowder to send even the most hardened expatriate running for safety. Quick! Duck and cover! Hide in the bushes (but watch out for the Brennessel). The subject of home pops up and the expert cynics among us—expat “lifers” with no hope of ever again feeling at home anywhere at all—dodge the topic with a joke, an anecdote, a shrug of our proud American shoulders. “We are foreigners no matter where we go go,” we say with a casual smile. “Even when we go home.”

What do we care? We’re sophisticated European residents now—citizens of the world! We’re following in the footsteps of expat giants like Bobby Fisher, Julia Child, and Ernest Hemingway. Like them, we’re a little drunk on our worldliness, a little melancholy about what we might be missing back at home. Pass the wine, please.

Expat Americans who have been here longer than five years don’t return to America and automatically feel at home. We’re concerned with the obvious—violence, politics, the religious right, lack of health insurance. Little things sometimes get to us even more: No sidewalks, bad grammar, tank-sized SUVs, tank-sized young people drinking tank-sized soft-drinks. On a holiday trip we find ourselves in rural Pennsylvania at a restaurant that proudly calls itself “Home of the Deep Fried Pickle.” Not as bad as deep fried butter on a stick—another local specialty—but still.

We listen to a CNN report featuring Howard Schulz, the founder of Starbucks. “Guns are not part of the Starbucks experience,” he says, trying to convince the American public he is not on the side of the National Rifle Association, even though, probably out of fear of being shot, he will continue to serve NRA members five-dollar cups of half-caf extra-froth low-fat no-fat crusty-caramel Christmas-cookie Venti latte-lite to go. We’re not sure what the American Starbucks experience is, exactly, but we’re glad guns are not part of it.

And we’re glad that we’re not part of it. And we’re grateful that we’re not sipping our cappuccinos next to a posse of rifle-toting rednecks. Or sending our children to schools that require metal detectors at the front door. With all that’s going on, how can America ever feel like home again?

We gripe about the USA. We find fault, we convince ourselves we’re the lucky ones—we got out just in time, we say.

But then it creeps up on us—the National Anthem Moment. We watch the summer Olympics on television with our children. Michael Phelps wins his eighty-fifth gold medal and ascends to the podium. The Star Spangled Banner blares and an official raises the American flag. Tears squirt from our eyes. Projectile crying. We feel patriotic about a place that’s no longer home. We are ashamed to feel so patriotic. And then we are ashamed to feel ashamed. We still love where we came from. And that makes us cry more.

We are here for a variety of reasons. We have been welcomed by assorted neighbors and work colleagues. We belong and yet we don’t. We struggle with language and cultural differences, but we muster our courage, gather our baskets, and collect experiences of a lifetime—photos and boarding passes and postcards we will glue to the fragile and transparent pages of our personal scrapbooks. We adjust. Constantly, we adjust. We take in the new, always the new—new words, new customs, new, new, new everything—until we realize we’ve crowded out the old. There is nothing to do, except add more pages.

My daughter, at the age of twelve, wrote an essay for the Clements Youth Expatriate Scholarship competition:

If home were a color, it would be blue like the ocean that stretches between where I live now and where I come from, a wide sparkling sea with patches of shallow and deep water, filled with mysteries and secrets. Or maybe home would look like the blue sky on my birthday in June. Every year in Germany I blow out the candles on my cake and imagine the same sky over my grandparents and cousins, many thousands of miles away from here. If home were really a color, it would be blue like my grandmother’s eyes, the same silvery blue she passed on to me. I sometimes close my own eyes and dream of when I’ll see her again.

If home were a song it would be a soft and warm melody, a familiar tune that always pops into my head. If the song played on the radio, I’d recognize it right away, and I’d sing along, knowing every word and note.

If home were an animal, it would be a bird, maybe an eagle soaring from one hilltop to the other, reminding me that home is a place where I’m free to be myself. Or maybe home is more like a dove, a symbol of peace. But sometimes, when I’m feeling lonely, home seems more to me like a bird without wings—maybe even a lonely penguin. Like the eagle and dove, I want to fly back and forth between places I love, but all I can do is waddle along, knowing that I can only visit everyone I love by using my imagination.

If home were something I could touch, it would be a scrap of velvet fabric with hidden thorns that I can never remove, no matter how often I try. Home sometimes seems like sandpaper. When I run my fingers over it, it feels scratchy, in a nice way. But when I do it too often, it starts to hurt.

If home were a nuisance (which it isn’t, at least not all the time), it would be the hiccoughs. No matter what I do, the idea of home keeps popping up and reminding me that there’s something different, in a good way, about the way I’m growing up.

To me, home is more than a place—it’s a feeling.

***

She won the contest.

I recently asked Julia—now seventeen—if she feels differently about the concept of home—now that she’s almost an adult.

“What makes you feel at home?” I asked.

“That’s easy,” she said. “Home is any place at all where you feel loved. And understood.”

That is this place for me. Here in this castle, when I play this piano, surrounded by friends and family, I feel understood, and occasionally loved.

Mister Rogers, in all his wisdom, used to say this: “Take a moment and think about the people who understand you—the people who have loved you into being the person you are right now.”

Some of them are here with me right now, some are far away, some might bump into me only in my dreams. All of them understand me, on one level or another. For better or worse, they have made me who I am.

We sing holiday songs, we paint pictures, we travel far, we journey wide, hoping to be understood, but trying just as hard to understand the new culture swirling around us. When we forget to listen—we’re lonely. But when we get it right—when we open our ears and eyes and hearts to the magic of our expatriate lifestyles—we’re content. Peaceful, even. We might be starving for home during the holidays, but we sit at a banquet table laden with thousands of delicacies.  When we stop trying to go back to an emotional place that’s no longer there, when we embrace the place that nourishes our souls, when we give ourselves permission to be loved and understood by those around us, a miracle happens.  Call it, if you like, a Christmas miracle. We notice that we’ve arrived. We realize, wir merken, that we are zu Hause. Home. At last.

Hallelujah.

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The Fast Lane: Passing the German Driver’s Test

The Fast Lane

DSC00148.JPGHere I am, a blond American woman in a short skirt racing down a busy stretch of the German Autobahn at 150 kilometers an hour. I’m too busy driving to calculate the conversion, but I must be approaching 100 miles per hour. I negotiate a curve, my knuckles grip the steering wheel. I pick up speed and feel the G-force—or whatever it’s called—push me back into my seat.

Überholen,” says the elderly man sitting in the passenger seat. “Pass the car in front of you.”

“No, thank you,” I say. “I’m going fast enough.”

Überholen!” he says.

“No! Please. Bitte.” There are four of us in the sedan. I glance in the rearview mirror and see a smug-looking German official strapped into the seat next to my shocked and silent husband.

“You must do this,” says the man next to me. “You will do it!”

With my heart racing faster than my speeding car, I overtake the silver Mercedes in the center lane.

“Now, was that so difficult?” he whispers. “I can see you are ready for the next challenge.”

 ***

This is not a scene from The Bourne Identity. This is the German Driver’s Test—a complicated fifty-minute obstacle course that involves driving at high speeds on the Autobahn, parallel parking in a space the size of a paper towel, and manipulating a car through narrow European streets at rush hour while dodging grocery-laden pedestrians, bicyclists who insist on riding in the middle of the road, and small yipping dogs who should be on leashes but aren’t.

Before moving to Germany, John and I were told that obtaining a driver’s license here would be a simple matter of exchanging one license for another. It turns out that the rules—and there are a lot of rules—changed shortly before our arrival. Only citizens of European Union countries (and an odd smattering of American states like Wisconsin and Iowa) qualify for a license trade; those of us with New York State licenses must muddle through the system. This means numerous visits to modern offices with stern-looking administrators wearing designer eyeglasses in abstract shapes, an eight-hour Unfall-sofortmaßnahme (first aid) class, a tricky theoretical exam, and a fifty-minute hell ride with an official yelling commands in German, a language that, in spite of our twice-weekly lessons with Frau Ernst, continues to baffle us.

My dad taught me how to drive when I was sixteen years old. He owned a big old Chevy station wagon that cruised through Pittsburgh like it ruled the town. It almost drove itself.

“Here’s the main thing,” my dad used to say. “Speed. Think about speed. Whatever you do, don’t drive too fast. And remember that every single car you encounter could have the likes of Mr. Phillips behind the wheel.”

Mr. Phillips was the half-blind dry cleaner whose shop was on Mt. Washington, not far from our home. Dad warned us to dive into the bushes whenever we saw his car approaching. “Phillips!” we would yell, leaping over shrubbery as he careened down Virginia Avenue, going way too fast and threatening to take out anyone not wearing a blaze orange vest and hat. Dad always said Phillips had a prescription windshield, but I think that was a joke.

Like every teenager in the city of Pittsburgh, I got my license by driving slowly around a parking lot with a chubby and very nice Pennsylvania State Trooper named Officer Mike, who offered me a rainbow-sprinkled donut after I completed the exam. The written test took only ten minutes and involved multiple-choice questions about what to do when you come to a stop sign and what the yellow light in the middle of a traffic signal means. Between my father’s gentle instruction and Officer Mike’s good nature, I snagged my license, ate my donut, and became—over the course of the next few years—a pretty good driver. I even learned how to make minor repairs to the car I was driving—impressing boys in the neighborhood with my ability to start my car’s finicky engine by holding down something called the butterfly valve with a Popsicle stick.

My accidents were few and minor. When I was eighteen and driving a Plymouth Valiant I had a fender-bender with a Ford Pinto driven by an eighty-two-year-old man. Shaken, I went to his car and saw him slumped over the steering wheel. I honestly thought I had killed him, but he was just resting. When I was nineteen I drove under a bus when my brakes failed while driving down McCardle Roadway, a long hill that leads from Mt. Washington into the city of Pittsburgh. A policeman pulled me out of the car. My father came to rescue me, assuring me that crashing into the bus hadn’t been my fault.

“There’s a difference between driving too fast and driving without brakes,” he said.

When I moved to New York City at the age of twenty-one, I traded my Pennsylvania license for a New York State license but gave up my car, choosing to take taxis rather than participate in the alternate-side-of-the-street-parking drill that took place every morning at the crack of dawn. Sleep-deprived, hungover, and pissed-off car owners would race from their apartment buildings at 7:55 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to move their vehicles—if they could remember where they parked them the night before—to the opposite side of the street. This highly volatile early morning bumper-car action cleared the curbs for street cleaners, who hardly ever showed up. So I became the taxi queen of Manhattan. In my peak years I spent upwards of $400 a month on cabs, a bargain compared to what some of my friends and neighbors were paying for the privilege of owning a car in the city.

With the exception of a couple of car rentals, I didn’t drive for fifteen years. Instead I relied on my stable of cabdrivers, car services, boyfriends with cars, and—when I was dating a compulsive gambler with Atlantic City connections—the occasional Lincoln Town Car or stretch limousine with a driver in a uniform and a chilled bottle of good champagne at the ready.

I still wonder how I survived the taxicabs. Every night for over a decade I would step into the city’s nocturnal traffic, raise my arm, and hope my taxi luck would hold for one more day. I had deaf drivers, drivers who claimed to speak three languages perfectly—but not English—and drivers who didn’t know the location of Central Park. Some cabbies watched Spanish soap operas on little dashboard televisions while speeding up Madison Avenue; others flew down Fifth while counting their money and conducting heated radio discussions about Haitian politics. These rides always had soundtracks with booming bass lines—salsa or merengue, hip-hop or opera or bluegrass or jazz. Sometimes the music played in my head long after the ride was over.

“Hey! You’re going too fast!” said my dad to a cabbie once. Dad had come to New York City to visit me and was hanging onto the plastic strap dangling from the ceiling of the taxi. “Slow down!”

Bada, bada, bada,” said the cabbie. He turned up the radio—was it Greek music?—and picked up speed.

On one bleary night in 1988, after a rehearsal for a musical that no one would ever see, I had a couple of vodka martinis with my friends. Sufficiently calm and happy, we stepped out of the bar onto the sidewalk along Eighth Avenue just as a cloudburst hit. A springtime Manhattan monsoon. We huddled on the sidewalk and cursed the sideways rain. The Broadway theaters had just let out, and there was taxi mayhem on Eighth. Trucks sprayed God knows what over the curb, and pedestrians dashed from one side of the street to the other with soggy newspapers covering their heads. It would have been a miracle to find a cab in that weather.

“What to do, what to do,” said Andy.

“Another drink?” said Kenny.

“Allow me,” I said. “I have good taxi karma.” I stepped onto the avenue, raised my taxi arm with the right amount of flair, and out of nowhere, a Yellow Cab screeched to a halt. Kenny, Andy, and I decided to share the cab, since the likelihood of finding another one in the storm was slim. We slid inside, all three of us hunched in the back, our wet jeans sticking to the vinyl seat. I sat in the middle.

“Where you go?” said Jim the driver (possibly not his real name, but that’s what his ID said). Back then I always liked to call drivers by their first names, I felt the human connection improved my chances of arriving at my destination in one piece. This was a lesson my mother taught me. Always make the human connection.

“Good evening, Jim,” I said. “We’ll be stopping first at Thirty-fourth and Twelfth and then heading over to the Upper East Side.”

Jim sighed and pulled into traffic just as a large dark sedan sped past on the left and cut us off.

“Hey, you big motherfuck!” yelled Jim. He hit the accelerator, blasted his horn, and the chase was on. Andy and Kenny grabbed their plastic ceiling straps. I covered my eyes. Our car was going way too fast, threatening to hydroplane, and the three of us whipped back and forth and smashed against each other every time the cab swerved left or right. Finally, the brakes squealed and we came to a halt. The black sedan was next to us, wedged between the cab and a row of parked cars. The sedan’s windows were tinted, and I couldn’t see the driver.

“Big motherfuck,” yelled Jim through the closed door of his cab. “Big, big motherfuck!’

Kenny and Andy slid to the floor of the cab.

“Get down,” they yelled at me.

“Excuse me, Jim,” I said. You really should just KEEP DRIVING. You never know. The man in that car might have a gun. New York City can be very dangerous.”

Kenny stuck his head up from the floor. “Right!” he said. “Listen to her. She’s right. That guy might have a gun.”

“I got gun, too,” said Jim. “I am professional killer in my country.” And with that, Jim reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a pistol.

“Jesus Christ,” yelled Kenny, pulling me back to the floor with him.

Jim got out of the car and slammed the door behind him.

“What do we do now?” I said.

“So much for your taxi karma,” said Andy. “No wonder there was no one riding in this guy’s cab. He’s a trained assassin.”

“What kind of trained assassin is named Jim, for God’s sake?” said Kenny. “Is he a trained assassin from, like, Wales?”

“He doesn’t sound Welsh,” said Andy.

“Is he shooting?” I asked.

“I don’t know, I don’t hear any shots,” said Kenny.

“That’s because he’s an assassin,” said Andy. “He’s probably using a silencer.”

We couldn’t see what was going on, but we heard a lot of shouting. Then Jim got back in the car, looked over the seat, and said, “What you do there on floor? No sex in my cab!”

“No, no, no sex!” I said, crawling back onto the seat. “Listen, Jim, we’ve decided we’re hungry, so, uh, maybe we can just get out here, because—look—there’s an all-night diner right across the street!”

“Oh yes,” said Kenny, “they have the most divine meatloaf.”

I meant to look at Jim’s last name and ID number so we could file a report, but all I wanted to do was get away from him. I threw some bills on the front seat. We leaped out of the cab and ran across the street holding hands. We sat in the diner and thought about calling the police. Instead we had another drink and ate meatloaf. The rain eventually stopped. We found separate cabs and headed home.

Those days, thankfully, are over. Now I’m out of practice, I’m living in the land of expert drivers, and I need get back in the driver’s seat. From what I’ve heard the German Driver’s Test is difficult. Officer Mike will probably not be waiting for me with a donut at the exam site.

I’m a little concerned about the stick-shift thing.

Like many American women, I’ve only driven cars with automatic transmissions. Okay, my mother can drive a stick shift and could probably drive an eighteen-wheeler, a train, or a stagecoach—just ask her—but she doesn’t count, since she learned to drive before the automatic transmission became popular. Just about every man I’ve known has tried to convince me that driving an automatic isn’t really driving—that the feel of the road can only be experienced with a stick shift. In most cases these are the same guys who enjoy spectator sports like boxing and American Gladiator, take vitamin pills with beer, and swear that with a little practice I’ll be able to throw a baseball really far without dislocating my shoulder.

“Don’t be such a girl,” one of them—the compulsive gambler—told me. “It’s easy. Here. You can practice on my car.”

“Fine,” I said, and took the wheel of his BMW convertible just outside of the Carnegie Deli. I drove a couple of blocks, then stalled out at the intersection of Fifty-seventh Street and Sixth Avenue, not only blocking the box, but creating one of those classic dumb-blond spectacles. Two screaming UPS men and a red-faced bus driver entered the fray, and, by the time I lurched my way out of the intersection, I had a bigger audience than most Off Broadway theaters on matinee day.

In Germany I’ve got little choice about the stick shift. Almost all cars here have standard transmissions. My American license—valid for a year after moving—is about to expire. I’ve been practicing basic driving skills on a used Citroën with a leaking roof and an automatic transmission. I could take the test with an automatic car, but then my license will forever limit me to an automatic—not such a good thing in Europe. John, who doesn’t know about the Manhattan BMW incident, convinces me that I am 100 percent capable of learning to drive a stick shift.

“It’s easy,” says John. “Just a matter of timing the clutch release.”

“It’s easy,” says my mother on the telephone. “Don’t be a wimp.”

“It’s easy,” says my dad. “But whatever you do, don’t drive too fast. And remember Phillips. There’s someone like him in every country.”

We buy a new car—a Volkswagen Passat station wagon—with a manual transmission. I prepare to join the ranks of stick-shift drivers.

Everyone applying for a license in Germany, regardless of age or previous driving experience, is required to attend an accredited Fahrschule (driver’s school). These guys charge about thirty euros an hour for a lesson. A trainee isn’t permitted to practice driving with anyone else but the Fahrschule instructor—none of this business of driving around the Walmart parking lot with your mother clutching the dashboard and slamming her foot into an imaginary brake. A student can practice only with the teacher, in the teacher’s car.

Seems like a Fahrschule Mafia to me. Only the teacher can deem the student capable of taking the actual test, and the test itself must be taken in the Fahrschule car. A less-than-ethical instructor can clock a lot of extra hours by convincing vulnerable students they’re not “ready.” To get a license, an average student driver will typically spend upwards of 1,200 euros on training and test fees.

We don’t want to get ripped off, so I ask my nineteen-year-old babysitter, who has recently passed the test, to recommend a teacher. She suggests a school in the neighborhood with a good reputation, run by an elderly man with Coke-bottle glasses, a froth of white hair, and a truckload of patience. He is a Phillips look-alike. We call him Magoo.

He’s a nice guy, but I don’t think Herr Magoo can actually see what he’s doing. Maybe a semi-blind driving instructor isn’t the greatest idea, but we sign up, mainly because Magoo seems fair, treats us with respect, and agrees to allow John—a skilled New York City stick-shift driver—to take the test with just one lesson. He thinks I might be ready after five or six hours of stick-shift training.

The cars used by Fahrschule teachers have double gas, brake, and clutch controls, allowing the instructor to override the trainee’s bad judgment. The cars also have large signs that say Fahrschule, turning the vehicle into a target for experienced drivers having a bad day.

I jerk-jerk-jerk my way around town while other drivers tailgate me, blink their lights, and honk their horns.

“Don’t mind them, my dear. You’re doing fine. Just keep the pace and stay calm.” Magoo is the sweetest guy, even though he keeps calling me Frau Neu. “You take your time, Frau Neu,” he says.

“Herr Magoo,” I say. “I’m not Frau Neu. I’m Frau Goldsby.”

“Yes,” he says, “but you look like Frau Neu. Please forgive me.”

Like a bat or a toddler’s mother, Magoo seems to have built-in radar for dangerous situations. His dancing feet hover over his own clutch and brake pedals, taking action in dangerous situations. Gentleman that he is, he creates the illusion that I’m in control, and I start to think of myself as a pretty smooth driver, maybe even one of the boys, maybe even ready for baseball throwing and Manhattan intersections. Until we get to the hills. On our fourth lesson Magoo forces me away from the flat roads of the valley and up into the mountains, a novice stick-shift driver’s worst nightmare.

Dozens of times the clutch slips, the car stalls and rolls backwards. Once I almost slide into a red Porsche while attempting to cross railroad tracks. While the words to “Teen Angel” run through my head, Magoo and his happy feet save the day. My Magoo is so brave; he never even gasps or utters an obscenity. Only once, in six lessons, does he lose his cool. We’re exiting the Autobahn, and I stop where I should be yielding.

“My God, Frau Neu, you’re going to kill us both.”

I burst into tears. Magoo doesn’t notice.

After my sixth lesson he proclaims me ready for the road test. First I must have my vision checked, attend the daylong Unfall-Sofortmaßnahme class—which includes resuscitating a rubber dummy named Manni—and pass the driver’s theory test. Nervous about the German technical language, we pay extra for an English study guide and another fee to take the test in English. John fails the theory test the first time, because—in true guy fashion—he refuses to study the manual he has paid for. The manual, it turns out, is daunting, and the English, obviously translated by a non-native speaker, is counterintuitive. There are over 900 questions in the manual, many of them with photos and diagrams designed to baffle those of us suffering from hysterical comprehension disorder. But if I want the license I have to pass the test. So I hit the books and learn to answer questions like these:

• What is the maximum speed you are allowed to drive a truck with a permissible total mass of 3.0 tons on roads with one marked lane for each direction outside built-up areas?

• How must a load be marked in darkness or bad visibility when it extends laterally more than 40 cm beyond the side-lights of the vehicle?

• Your vehicle loses oil. How much drinking water can be polluted by a single drop of oil?

The day of the theory test, John goes with me so he can have a second try. This costs another 100 euros. I’m unsure of myself and sit next to him so I can copy, but the authorities give us separate tests. We both pass, which is a good thing since we’re running out of money.

Now we’re qualified to take the all-important road test. I’m dreading this. Magoo, having received the results of our written exams and permission to schedule back-to-back tests for husband and wife, arranges the date and time for our two-hour brush with divorce. Our slot is at eight on a Monday morning, not exactly a convenient time for a jazz musician and the mother of a two-year-old.

I’m still quite concerned about the stick shift. On the appointed day I wear a short skirt; if I strip the gears of the Fahrschule car, perhaps this will distract the officer in charge.

“Go ahead, wear the skirt,” says John. He’s a little miffed that I passed the theory test the first time and he didn’t. “You need all the help you can get.”

My stomach rumbles. John volunteers to go first. He sits in the front with Magoo; I sit in the back with Officer Schweinsteiger, our designated government driving official, a pleasant guy in a gray shirt who smells like the two packs of cigarettes he smoked the day before.

As John pulls into the morning traffic, Officer Schweinsteiger shouts orders in German, all of which John obeys. But halfway through the test—in between commands—Officer Schweinsteiger starts gossiping with Magoo. It becomes difficult—novices in German that we are—to distinguish the all-important Driver’s Test command from the chitchat. Is he talking about FC Köln, last night’s Westernhagen concert, or telling John to stop at the next corner? Hard to tell.

After fifty minutes of John’s perfect driving, including fifteen minutes on the Autobahn, it’s time to head back to home base. But something odd happens. With a twinkle in his eye, Officer Schweinsteiger begins yelling, “LEFT TURN! LEFT TURN! LEFT TURN!”

Don’t fall for it, I think, because I can see the smirk on Schweinsteiger’s face and, even though he may be an officer of the law, I know he’s up to no good. I can also see the Do No Enter sign.

John turns left and drives the wrong way down a one-way street.

It’s a trick, but there’s nothing I can do. Also, there are cars headed in our direction, and I’m worried we’re going to crash. I cover my eyes.

We do not crash. When we drive back into the parking lot, Officer Schweinsteiger grins and tells John he has failed the test. He tells him he needs more practice, that he doesn’t swivel his head enough when merging on the Autobahn, and that he shouldn’t drive the wrong way on one-way streets. John starts to defend himself, but really, it’s difficult to argue that last point.

Now it’s my turn. I think it’s a silly waste of everyone’s time. John is the best driver I know and he has failed. I am currently the worst driver I know, so what are my chances of passing? I’m upset for John and concerned for myself, and I just want to go home, play with my son, and drink a dozen cups of strong coffee. I feel stupid for being such a lousy driver. And I feel stupid for feeling so stupid.

There’s a moment of petrol-scented silence as all four of us sit in the car, waiting for me to turn on the engine.

“Frau Neu?” says Magoo.

“It’s Goldsby,” I say.

“Sorry. Frau Goldsby, it’s time for your test. Are you ready?”

“Yes,” I say. “Let’s do it.”

Magoo pats my hand, signaling, in a Magoo kind of way, that everything will be okay. I pull out of the lot and the car stalls a handful of times. Onward. I drive two blocks with the emergency brake on and come close to a head-on collision with a garbage truck on a hill. All the while, I’m swiveling my head, looking out for Phillips, and making sure I don’t go over the speed limit. Good.

Now it’s time for the Autobahn. I merge and get us into the slow lane without an incident. I’m doing this. I am. I catch John’s eye in the rearview mirror, hoping for a nod of compassion or pride or something. But he’s busy trying to figure out how to stuff Schweinsteiger’s head into the ashtray.

I cruise along in the slow lane until Magoo tells me to pass the car in front of me. I panic and say no. He uses his pedal to floor it. The speedometer reaches 140, and, because I have no choice, I clutch the steering wheel and pass the other drivers. I glance at John, who has snapped to attention. He doesn’t know that Magoo has overridden my controls, and he thinks, as does Officer Schweinsteiger, that I’ve gotten into the fast lane all by myself.

Whatever you do, I hear my father saying, don’t drive too fast.

But maybe this speed is just right. Officer Schweinsteiger grunts, which must be an encouraging sign.

John looks horrified, as if his nice slowpoke wife has been possessed by an evil Autobahn spirit and is now part of a miniskirted Formula 1 team.

Go, go, go. All on my own I keep up the speed and coast past the other cars in the slow lane. Magoo, Schweinsteiger, and John are my reluctant cheerleaders, coaxing me toward the exit with a conspiratorial silence.

It’s easy, I say to myself. Before I know it, I’ve reached the Ausfahrt.

I pass the test. Whether this is due to my outfit, my expertise in head swiveling, or Officer Schweinsteiger’s gratitude that I avoided a Massenunfall—massive pile-up—I have no idea. I don’t say this out loud—divorce is not on this morning’s agenda—but I like to think I’ve passed because I’ve managed to avoid driving the wrong way on a one-way street. Maybe I should suggest we go home and watch a boxing match or toss some baseballs around.

A week later John takes the road test again and passes. This costs another 200 euros and most likely saves our marriage. Guys don’t like to be told they’re lousy drivers. For that matter, neither do women, but we’re used to it. By the way, if a student driver fails the test three times, he’s required by law to seek the help of a German psychologist, one of the all-time great incentives for passing any kind of test.

I’m now the proud owner of a German Driver’s License. It’s candy-pink and the size of a passport and looks like a certificate of merit I once received in the seventh grade for swimming twenty-five laps of the Prospect Junior High School pool. Two years will pass before I’m comfortable driving a stick shift, during which time I’ll remain convinced that the automatic transmission is one of world’s finest inventions.

Sometimes, if you want to get where you have to go, you need to learn a few new tricks. Will I ever be one of the boys? Don’t think so. Am I grateful to all the men who have contributed to my driver’s education? Yes. Let’s hear it for the boys. It took my dad, Phillips, Officer Mike, several hundred thrill rides piloted by an international squad of part-time taxi drivers—including a professional killer—a gambling man with a charming smile and a stalled BMW, a patient husband, Magoo, and Officer Schweinsteiger, but now I’m on my own, and I’m cruising.

Not too fast, not too slow. Just right. Next time I’m in Manhattan, I’m thinking about heading for Fifty-seventh and Sixth.

 ***

“The Fast Lane” is an excerpt from Goldsby’s book Waltz of the Asparagus People. Permission to use granted by Bass Lion Publishing. ©2011 Robin Meloy Goldsby

 

Last Train to Clarksville

Train_TunnelRobin Meloy Goldsby, stripped of her middle-age invisibility cloak by an unshaven train engineer, tries to find her way back home.

I stand on the train platform and wait for the 5:54 to Overath. Rays of late summer sun cast crooked shadows on the determined faces of commuters. We’re at the main train station in Cologne, Germany, and all of us are trying our best to get home. Students in jeans, musicians with guitar and trombone cases, office workers in Esprit mix and match suits, and senior-citizen shoppers lugging cloth bags of discounted groceries—we crowd around information boards, benches, and vending machines. We are Germany’s middle-class—daytime travelers waiting to be whisked from the city to another place. A robust man with a rosy face sells Bratwurst and Brötchen to those who have skipped lunch or are thinking about skipping dinner. I have been eating all day, but still, my stomach growls at the smell of the grilled pork. I don’t eat meat—so I ask for a plain piece of bread. It is crusty, white and carb-laden.

I met my friends Christina and Christina for coffee today. They are willowy blonds, both of them twenty years younger than I am. Christina One has a new baby; Christina Two has a new career; I have an odd feeling that I am morphing into their Great Aunt Edna—a nutty and slightly eccentric older woman, reasonably well-preserved, but, like the September sun poking through the smudged glass ceiling of the train station, maybe trying a little too hard to keep on shining. I love my circle of young friends—I have about six good pals who are in their thirties—but they are just so, well, young. They still have menstrual cramps and waistlines and instant-recall memories. Some of them even have mothers my age.  Not one of them, as far as I know, actually has a Great Aunt Edna.

I rip off a piece of bread and glance at the automated board overhead. Good. My train is coming. The S25 to Overath—right on time. How I love rail transportation in Europe. Moving more slowly than usual, the long red train creeps into the station. I chew my Brötchen as the lead car, the one housing the engineer, edges past me. The engineer, let’s call him Axel, leans out the window. Axel is hot. Axel knows he’s hot. Axel is literally hot, too—sweaty and dirty and just a tad unshaven, and he smiles in my direction. Whoa. Smile is not the correct word. He leers in my direction. Shouldn’t he be watching the track? I turn around to see where he’s looking—must be a college girl in short-shorts, or a super-model wannabe, or an Eastern European pole-dancer in thigh-high boots—but I stand in a cluster of forlorn looking teenage boys and men in dark suits. The brakes of the train squeal. I turn back around and face Axel. He grins at me again, runs his eyes up and down my body, and does a funny thing with his tongue. He points and me and nods. Oh! I don’t know what to do. As a happily married fifty-five year old woman, I’m out of practice with nasty-nasty flirting.

I’m so flustered that I salute Axel with my half-eaten Brötchen, a gesture that immediately makes me a strong candidate for Desperate Woman of the Year. Saluting with a Brötchen? The heat rises in my face as I step onto the train.

I sink into my seat. What in the world was that? I guess I don’t look so bad today. Quick, what am I wearing? White linen pants, tennis shoes, and a black t-shirt. There are breadcrumbs on the t-shirt, but still, it must be a pretty hip outfit. Axel is like, what? Twenty-eight? I wonder what would happen if I went up to his cockpit (is that what they call the engine car of a train?) and knocked on the door. Not to jump on him or anything, just to ask him personally why the hell he glad-eyed me. I’ve spent over a decade being ignored by guys like Axel, and I’m curious why today, of all days, I’m a target.

My fantasy conversation goes like this:

“Was it the linen pants?” I say. “Or the Brötchen crumbs?”

“I love mature women,” he replies. “And you, with those adorable little Ecco sneakers in just the right shade of taupe? You, baby, turn me on.”

“Oh, thank you, Axel,” I say, feeling a little shy, but not the least bit tempted by him.

“You’re so youthful, so full of vitality,” Axel says. “Your face isn’t falling down at all. You’re hot.”

“Me? I’m hot?”

“You. You’re hot.”

Never mind that Axel would be speaking German—guys who look like Axel don’t speak English—his words would be poetic and warm. He would be polite in a sleazy way. He would never once mention the term MILF. He would smell like grease and engine dirt and Mennen Speed Stick deodorant, even though it’s not available in Europe. He would run his fingers through his filthy hair, bat his sleepy (and slightly bloodshot) eyes at me and say: “You, little lady, do something to me, and it ain’t just the shoes. Come on up here and sit next to me; I’ll let you drive the train.”

I go on and on like this, eyes closed, deep in a menopausal Thomas the Tank Engine fantasy. Funny isn’t it, how one lascivious look from a train engineer could set me off this way. I have gone from Great Aunt Edna to Sydney Leathers in a mere ten minutes. The words to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” flash through my brain. Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah . . .  ah, a mid-September reverie. I wonder if I should wave to him when I get off the train. Or leave a trail of breadcrumbs. Just before I get to the Dinah won’t you blow part of the song (an ill-advised lyric if there ever was one), I open my eyes to see how close I am to home.

“Holweide. Next stop Holweide,” says the computerized voice over the PA system.

Holweide?” I say to no one in particular, but everyone hears my panic. “Where is this train going?”

“Holweide!” several people answer in unison, a Greek Chorus with a smidgen of Schadenfreude.

I am on the wrong goddamn train. That goddamn dirtball Axel, or whoever the hell he is, tricked me. He did that tongue thing, I turned into a wobbly-kneed idiot, and I got on the wrong goddamn train. He probably has a scorecard on his sooty engineer’s desk, where he keeps track of how many pathetic middle-aged women he can confuse. I feel like charging into his cockpit and kicking him in the caboose.

I’m fuming. While waiting for the train to reach Holweide, I have another fantasy conversation with Axel:

“What’s the matter with you?” I ask. “Do you think this is funny?”

“Not my fault you fell for it,” he says. “Works every time. You MILFS get all steamed up and just step right into my clutches.”

“I didn’t step into your clutches. I stepped onto the wrong train.”

“Gotta double-check the board, lady.”

“I didn’t double-check the board, Axel, because you were drooling at me from your cockpit window and I was distracted. Shame on you. And I am not a MILF. I am a well-adjusted and happily married mother of two grown children. I don’t need looks from guys like you to feel good about myself.”

“Could’ve fooled me. And it’s not a cockpit, you know.”

“Whatever.”

***

I get off the train at Holweide, humiliated, tired, and wishing I hadn’t thrown away the rest of my Brötchen. Axel leans out the window, doing his engineer thing, and pulls away from the platform without giving me a second glance. Maybe he never even gave me a first glance. I wonder if I’ve imagined the entire episode. I am now sure that my face really is falling down and that these shoes are not very cute at all.

It’s not like I haven’t dealt with a leering man before. It’s just that it hasn’t happened in ages. I’m out of shape, so to speak. I used to sit at my piano and laugh at guys who acted like Axel. Buffoons! But now, a dozen years after donning my middle-age invisibility cloak and my Great Aunt Edna shield of elegance and eccentricity, I’ve been reduced to blushing and performing the Brötchen salute. And if that’s not punishment enough, I’m in some God forsaken place called Holweide with nothing to do except wait for the train in the opposite direction to get me back to where I started.

Life. One step forward, two steps back. Just once, I’d like to go sideways.

***

“John,” I say to my husband. “I am in Holweide.”

“What?” he says. “Hole what?” The phone connection is dicey.

“Holweide!”

“What are you doing there?”

“I got on the wrong train.”

“How in the world did you do that?” he says.

“Long story. I’ll tell you later.” I’m not sure if I’ll confess or not. John—handsome, intelligent, and  the polar opposite of bad boy Axel—is the love of my life. It seems pretty stupid to tell him I got on the wrong train because a hunky pervert with dirty hair and a long tongue cast his roving eye in my direction. We hang up and I sit and wait an hour for the next train.

I decide I must be the victim of the German version of “Candid Camera,” an awful show called “Verstehen Sie Spass?”—the English translation of which is “Do You Understand Fun?”

The answer is no. I do not understand Spass, at least not the German kind.

Out of boredom I fall into a Zen-like state that’s one stifled yawn short of unconscious. I wish I had another Brötchen. Why oh why am I always so hungry? A man with a shaved head sits down next to me. He wears a ribbed sleeveless undershirt—we used to call them muscle shirts back in the day: now they’re called wife beaters. Tattoos cover the man’s burly arms. Sadly, one of his arms stops at the elbow. Little fingers stick out of the elbow joint. The little fingers are also tattooed.  I try not to stare, but I’m fascinated. There are skulls on each of the little fingers, and right above the stump is a heart with an inscription that reads: Forever Christina.

Three Christinas in one day. Really, it’s almost too much.

With his other (full-length) arm the man removes a packet of American Mac ‘n Cheese casserole mix from his jeans pocket. Grasping the packet with his teeny tiny tattooed elbow fingers, he begins to study the instructions. There are little American flags on the package, and a photo of a delicious looking bowl of Mac ‘n Cheese on the cover. I have nothing with me to read, so I’m grateful to look over his elbow and read along with him.

This is what happens to women who end up in Holweide. It seems a fitting punishment for my gullibility.

Finally the train arrives. I nod a silent goodbye to the muscle man (he is still memorizing the Mac ‘n Cheese packet), take the train back to the main station, and begin waiting again. Twenty minutes later, the train to my village arrives. The engineer drives right past me, the breaks do not squeal, and the doors open efficiently. There are no seats available—the car is packed with boisterous young people, returning home from Games.com, a trade show that features the latest ways to waste time and have fun shooting virtual bad guys. I have wasted a lot of time today myself, but I didn’t have any fun and I certainly didn’t shoot anyone, although at specific points in today’s voyage I might have been tempted. My feet hurt, my back aches, and I just want to sit on my living-room sofa and eat a bowl of Mac ‘n Cheese.  But I don’t eat cheese anymore, so it would be Mac ‘n Mac.

“Excuse me, Madame,” says a teenage girl in a tight black mini-skirt—exactly the kind of thing I would have worn at her age. She radiates confidence and youthful energy. “Would you like to sit down?” She jumps up and fluffs her hair. “I’ve been sitting all day, and you look like you could use a seat.”

“Thank you,” I say, in my best Great Aunt Edna voice. “Thank you.”

I sit back and settle in. I’m exhausted. In the course of two hours I have lost and regained three decades. I have traveled back and traveled forth, on the rails and in my mind. Now, thank goodness, I’m traveling home.

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl; Rhythm; and Waltz of the Asparagus People.