Enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

boat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flags

November 4th, Sound Check

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

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

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

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

“What?” I say. “This can’t be.”

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

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

“We will?” says Julia. “How?”

“You’ll have to sing acoustically.”

“For seven hundred people? Are you nuts?”

Oui.”

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

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

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

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

Non Sound Check

Non Sound Check

November 5th, Show Time

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

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

Oh wait; maybe we should just wear pants.

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

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

Oui,” she says.

“Are you warmed up?”

Oui.”

Do you remember the form of the song?

Oui, oui, oui.”

“Don’t forget the third verse.”

“Mom.”

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

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

Right.

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

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

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

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

proxy

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

 

Maybe It’s You

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

You’re as bright as the morning sunshine,

And you light up the day,

You’re as cool as a summer wind,

And you chase the rain away,

So look at me,

You are strong,

Look at me,

You are beautiful.

You can crash through the highest ceiling,

And you do it with grace,

Slaying dragons with words of kindness,

Putting peace in its place.

So look at me,

You are bold

Look at me,

You are wonderful.

Maybe it’s you,

You’re the one who’s gonna make it,

You—standing up tall and proud,

Maybe it’s you,

You can give it; you can take it,

And rise above the roaring crowd.

You are brave,

You are fighting for a change,

You’ll save,

The life you want to live—

You’re the queen of your private kingdom,

And you’re nobody’s bride,

Education is your salvation,

With your sisters by your side,

Look at me,

You are brave,

You are powerful.

Maybe it’s you,

You’re the one who’s gonna make it,

You—standing up tall and proud,

Maybe it’s you,

You can give it; you can take it,

And rise above the roaring crowd.

Rise above the roaring crowd . . .

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

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

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

You lift me up, you do.

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

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

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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.

Music of Goodbye

IMG_7423It’s August 1st. Exactly nineteen years ago today I got on an airplane with my husband and toddler son and moved from New York City to Germany. I love my life here, but I miss New York. Or maybe I don’t—maybe I just miss the idea of it. I’m glad I left. I’m sad I left. I swing both ways.

Happy Anniversary to us. Moving to Europe was the biggest—and maybe the best—decision of my life.

Here something I’ve figured out: When you’re happy, you’re home, even if you’re not.

Let’s celebrate with a look back at 1994 and an excerpt from my book, Piano Girl: A Memoir .

***

Music of Goodbye

 “I can’t believe you’re leaving New York,” says Robin Spielberg. “It doesn’t seem real.”

We stand, holding hands, by the turnstiles leading to the N train at Fifty-seventh Street.

My family will be moving to Europe next week. Robin and I have just recorded my first solo piano CD, Somewhere in Time. She pitched the idea to a small record company in New England, and they hired her to produce the recording. I’ve never pursued a recording career, so I’m blown away by the very idea of the project. Hard as I try, I can’t imagine that anyone will buy one of my CDs in a record store unless they want to recreate that hotel-cocktail-lounge environment in the privacy of their own homes. Why not throw in a package of salted nuts, an overworked waitress, and a crowd of noisy chiropractors. But Robin Spielberg has more faith in my music than I do.

After a pleasantly intense six hours at Nola Recording Studios in Midtown Manhattan, we’ve got the makings of a nice CD. Ten years of rehearsing in Manhattan hotel lobbies gave me time to prepare.

***

The timing of the record contract is ironic. After a decade of playing in Manhattan piano bars, my time in New York City has come to a close. John has accepted the jazz bass chair with the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) Big Band, a jazz group sponsored by a large public television and radio conglomerate in Europe. I’d like to say that we’ve struggled with the decision for months and that we’ve lost sleep wondering whether we should leave New York. But we haven’t. We’re ready for a change. Both of us are working round the clock, our son spends way too much time with the babysitter, and the cost of private schooling in New York City looms like a five-headed monster. The job in Germany will mean a better education for our son, a chance for him to be bilingual, a great salary and benefits for my husband, and time for us to be a family. More than anything, we want time together, a luxury that too few American families these days can afford.

We’ve hired a very serious German teacher named Brunhilde, given notice on our apartment and various jobs, and called the German moving men. In five days they will pack all of our belongings, large and small, into organized boxes, stack them in a container, and ship them across the water to our new home.

 ***

I’ve never been good at farewells. Saying goodbye to my friends isn’t easy. I know that the promises we make to stay in touch, as well-intended as they may be, will be eaten alive by distance and time. In the end I’ll be left with an overstuffed photo album, scraps of conversations that cling to my memory, and the echoes of songs that remind me of a place I once loved. I know how much kindness I’ll be leaving behind. All I can do is trust that, no matter what, the memory of these friendships will sustain, nurture, and guide me. It won’t be enough, but that’s the price I’ll have to pay for moving on.

Robin and I embrace one last time before going to our separate subway platforms. She gave me a blue crystal globe at the recording session this morning, and I feel the weight of it in my pocket as I wave to her on the opposite side of the station. This phase of my life—the New York phase—is coming to an end. Trains roar and squeal in the station, but in my mind I hear Robin’s laughter, her words of encouragement, her gentle reminders that my music has a place in the world. She has been my cheerleader, my sounding board, my fellow musician, my friend. I’ll never replace her. I start to cry. A train pulls up to the platform between us. When it departs, she is gone.

 ***

The last hotel piano job I play in New York City is right where I started—in the Grand Hyatt. It’s a warm June afternoon, a perfect New York day. The lobby swarms with tourists eager to eat and drink and get outside to experience the city I’m preparing to leave. It’s an odd feeling, playing my last job in Manhattan. I want something meaningful to happen, but it doesn’t. I’m disappointed but not surprised. Last jobs in the lounge-music field are just like first jobs. The interesting part is what happens in between.

Today at the Hyatt, I play all of my favorite songs and end my last set with Carole King’s “Far Away.” Some of the regular Lobby People pass the piano, but not one of them even bothers to say hello. The sunlight filters through the skylights and reflects off the shiny surfaces in the marble lobby. I notice the mottled patterns of shadow and light on my hands. I long for fresh air. It seems a perfect time to leave.

***

“Hey you, Piano Girl!” yells Virginia the street lady as I pass by her corner. I’ve just been to the babysitter to retrieve my son, and we’re going for a last walk around the neighborhood.

“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” she shouts.

It’s almost 100 degrees today, but Virginia is wearing a heavy winter coat. I try to ignore her, like always, and hurry past with my head down. Curtis waves at her. He waves at everyone.

“You think you’re going somewhere better, but you’re not, you know. Anywhere you end up is good enough for the likes of you.”

 Well, that’s sort of a compliment. Or maybe not. Virginia confuses me. How does she even know I’m leaving the city?

“You’re not the mother of that baby,” she says. That stops me dead in my tracks.

“That baby belongs to everyone else. Not you.”

  Oh, brother.

“Goodbye Virginia,” I say. “Good luck to you.”

“But you’re not going anywhere. Not really. Your spindly legs won’t carry you far. You’ve ascended to your level of incompetence. The rest is futile. Everyone leaves. No one stays. Not even babies. Not even music. Time moves past you before you have a chance to grab on and go for a ride.”

I push the stroller up the avenue and hope she’s not right.

***

We call two cabs on the morning of our departure: a van for John and the bass in its big white fiberglass flight case, and a station wagon for Curtis and me, all of our suitcases, and the baby paraphernalia necessary to travel anywhere with a toddler. As John and the drivers load the cars, I walk around the apartment one last time, with Curtis in my arms. He is eighteen months old.

“Here’s where you took your first steps,” I say. “And here’s where you said your first word. Hot. Your first word was ‘hot.’”

“Hop,” he says.

“Here’s where you liked to sit and swing while Daddy played the bass. And here’s where Mommy’s piano once stood.”

“Panno,” says Curtis. “Mommy panno.”

“Yes,” I say. “Mommy’s piano. Where Mommy hung out and wrote songs about someday meeting a man like your daddy and having a baby boy like you.”

“Mommy music.”

“This is your first home, Curtis, the place where I dreamed about you before you were even you.” I whisper. “Your first home. I hope you’ll always remember it.”

“’Member,” he says. “Curty ’member.”

I take him downstairs and strap him in into his car seat. It’s sweltering outside. John peers into the open window of our cab.

“You okay?” he asks. He knows I’m not.

“Yeah,” I say. “I’m okay. Let’s get this show on the road.”

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl: A Memoir, published in 2005. Since then she has written two other books, a kids’ musical, and has recorded five solo piano CDs. Robin has lived in Germany since 1994, with her husband John and their two kids, Julia and Curtis.

 

 

 

The Magnolia Sessions: One More Project

Robin Meloy Goldsby checks in with an off-the-record account of her newest album, Magnolia.
 
Goldsby's new CD, Magnolia, features the composition "Mirage," a mother-son collaboration.

Goldsby’s new CD, Magnolia, features the composition “Mirage,” a mother-son collaboration.

“Hey, Momma, I want to write a song for you,” says Curtis, my nineteen-year old son.

“For me?”

“Yeah, for you. You know—for your new recording. I’ll compose it. You play it.”

Curtis is eating ramen noodles—the consumption of which seems to be a rite of passage for most boys his age—while constantly checking his phone for text messages, Facebook alerts, Four Square check-ins from his pals at the university, and emails from his boss at the language center where he teaches English. It seems impossible that with all his ramen-slurping, techno-toy-fidgeting, learning-teaching multi-tasking he could find time to compose a piano piece. But I’m not about to turn down the chance to work with my adult child on one more project. We see each other far too little these days. We clog dance in widening circles around each other and prepare for the day he moves out. It could be tomorrow, next year, or next decade. The uncertainty makes us both a little cranky.

“Look, Curtis, I’m recording in January. It’s already November. If you want to compose something for me I’ll be happy to consider it, but it has to be finished soon so I can get it into my fingers before the first studio date. And no hip-hop. Hip-hop solo piano won’t work for me.”

“Okay, Momma,” he says, rinsing out his ramen bowl and heading down into the music room. “I’ve got an idea. Let’s see what happens. Oh, by the way, if I compose this and you record it, I get money, right?”

“Yes. But it will take a long time before GEMA and BMI royalties kick in.”

“How long?” he asks. “I need to buy some new shoes.”

“A year,” I say. “Maybe longer.”

“Really?” he says.

“Yep. Welcome to the music business. You want new shoes, you really have to plan ahead.”

Two days after his initial trip to the basement music room, Curtis emerges, flushed and nimble-fingered, ready to perform his piece for me. “Are you ready?” he says.

“Sure,” I say.

“It’s in F minor.”

“Okay,” I say. “I like F minor. F minor is good.”

He sits at my 1961 Baldwin grand—a gift from my grandfather—and rips into the composition. I’m right in the middle of hacking onions for lentil soup but I stop mid-chop, because, frankly, what he’s playing is beautiful—influenced by his father’s music but leaning unabashedly in my direction. It’s the best gift he has ever given me. Because of the speed, and because his hands are so much larger than mine, I know it won’t be easy to learn. But now I’m on a mission. One more project.

“What’s it called?” I ask.

“I like the name ‘Mirage,'” he says. “You know, when you think you see something, but it’s not really there.”

“Perfect.”

“What’s up Momma?” he says. “Are you crying?”

“No, no, no. Just the onions.”

“Okay.”

“Okay,” I say, wiping my hands on a dishcloth. “Show me how it goes.”

And he does.

 * * *

I prepare like crazy for my recording sessions—even with five solo piano albums under my skirt I’m not the type of musician who can mosey into a studio and wait for magic to happen without doing my homework. My creative process has never included dewdrops, angel voices, spiritual transformations or sparkling moments of enlightenment. Where, oh where, are those lovely muses in flowing white robes—the ones with lilting accents and fluttering wings who might drop into my consciousness and gently guide me through my projects? I have never met these fantasy ladies, but I hear they’re out there somewhere, probably perusing the flowing robe department at Bergdorf Goodman. If you run into one of them, send her my way.

My recording journey has to be carefully plotted and mapped out, which makes it less like magic and more like work. It’s a process I’ve learned to respect, the same way I respect other things I adore—fierce and foamy waves in an unsettled sea, a bowl of fiery chili peppers, a frosted bottle of really good vodka. I proceed with caution. I practice and pound the music to a pulp, hating it a little before I start to love it. And love it, I do. When the melodies and rhythmic patterns are so ingrained that nothing trips me up—I fluff the stuff back to life, head to the studio and hope for the best. Sometimes, when I’m calm, I scatter my musical thoughts like stardust onto the keys. Sometimes it’s more like sawdust. No big deal—I brush away the detritus and start over again. Unlike real life, the “take over” option is always available. This comforts me. I enter a mental Piano Zone, a warm place that’s quiet and a little bit gilded.

Almost two decades ago, I recorded Somewhere in Time, my first album. It was 1994 and my dear friend Robin Spielberg had brokered a record deal for me with a fledgling record label called Evergreen Music. I didn’t think I was up to the task, but she yanked me into Nola Recording Studios (in the Steinway building on Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan) and sat me down at Erroll Garner’s Steinway B. I had been playing in Manhattan piano lounges for eleven years, so I knew I was ready, but still, my knees knocked together, my hands sweat, my heart felt like a metronome turned up to tempo tantrum. I wanted to sound perfect, a concept that now makes me laugh. Back then, at age thirty-five, it wasn’t so funny. Perfect was perfect and that was that.

We recorded about twenty tracks that day. In six hours. Spielberg wore the producer’s hat; she had the lights in the studio turned down low, tea candles on a nearby table, the temperature in the room set at just the right level. I felt like I was in a velvet-lined cocktail lounge, minus the bowls of smoked almonds and tables of chattering orthopedic shoe salesmen. She talked to me between takes—in a way that only a best friend can—and convinced me to play just for her. We soldiered through and got the damn recording in the can. No magic, just trust and a lot of hard work. I kept waiting for the ladies in the flowing robes, but they didn’t show up and we didn’t need them. Spielberg and I toasted each other with Diet Coke and Fig Newtons. Then she bought me an egg salad sandwich, we cried, I moved to Germany, and my music career was punted like a football to the other side of the Atlantic. I arrived in Europe just in time to catch it and run.

My dad always said to me: “The key to sounding good is to know when you don’t.” I like that. Stay focused, stay real, and remember my limitations.  And forget about sounding perfect. Since that day in 1994, I’ve learned to treasure every imperfect minute in the studio. No more anxiety attacks. No more second-guessing or losing sleep. I still have moments of indecision and confusion—all artists do—but I don’t let them slap me down. Or if they do, I slap them back. Many voices crowd into my mental control room during recording sessions—some of them judgmental, some of them kind and supportive, others philosophical or whimsical or whacky. I hear my parents, my best friends, my piano teacher (“curve those fingers!”), my kids (“what’s for dinner?”). In between bouts of intense playing and concentrated listening I hear the roar, the cheers, the boos and hisses, of my personal crowd. If you were beamed into the studio during one of these sessions, you might think I look lonely—there’s something melancholy about a middle-aged woman sitting at a very large piano in a darkened room—but honestly, there’s an invisible party going on in here. Have a drink. Pull up a chair. Tell me what you think. Everyone else does.

* * *

On the day I’m scheduled to record Curtis’s “Mirage” for my Magnolia album, Curtis and I arrive at Topaz Studios in Cologne, Germany. I’ve asked Curtis to sit in the producer’s chair for this session. As any mother will tell you, our children—one way or another—produce our lives from the moment they’re born, so today shouldn’t be any different. He folds his lanky body into a chair in the control room and we wait for Hans Giese, the piano technician, to finish his work. Reinhard Kobialka, the sound technician, chats easily with Curtis about how he has miked the piano and how the recording will proceed.

When Hans finishes tweaking the last few notes I head into the main room and sit at the Steinway. I feel happy here. I’ve been recording on this instrument for so many years—my hands feel like they’ve arrived home. The keys are warm, a regimented welcoming committee smartly dressed in black and white. I play a few scales, a few arpeggios, a few chord progressions. Then, after Reinhard checks the levels of his many microphones, I start to record Curtis’s piece.

I’m here at the piano, Curtis is in the control room, and a thick wall of glass separates us. I close my eyes to play, but my eyelids won’t block the slideshow in my mind. As I move through the piece I see all nineteen years of him, from babbling baby boy, to sullen eight-year-old with skinned knees, to sultry hip-hop teenager, to now. A feeling of calm drops over me and I have the sensation that everything in my life—my children, my marriage, my music—all of it is turning out okay.

Magnolia is just one more project, but right now it seems essential to push the notes out of my fingers and into the world. To get it all down for later. When I’m a wobbly—but hopefully hip—old lady in a lavender lace dress I’ll look back at my audio scrapbooks and be reminded of the things that counted enough to make me run to the piano and play. My records are, in a way, public musical diaries—finger paintings of small moments I want to remember. My albums aren’t really “released” into the world—they break out and escape the boundaries of my control, gallop into the distance, and leave me empty-handed but with plenty of freedom to move on. I guess they’re a little like children.

The music I’m playing is fast but it can’t sound hectic. “Mirage” needs to flow like brook water on a spring day; like amber lava on a steep volcanic mountain; like magnolia petals in a sudden breeze. The song should sound like a nineteen-year-old’s idea of the future—unexpected, forward moving, optimistic. As Curtis has said, the piece should sound like we’re seeing something that isn’t really there.

I finish playing and glance at my son in the control room. He smiles, nods, and says quietly into my headphones: “Let’s try it again, Momma. One more time.”

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. Magnolia is her fifth solo piano recording. Her other albums, Somewhere in Time, Twilight, Songs from the Castle, and Waltz of the Asparagus People are available worldwide. Along with songwriting partner Peter Fessler, Goldsby recently performed for Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. As a solo artist she has played on concert stages in Vienna, New York City (Steinway Hall), Marrakesh, Dublin, Hamburg, Berlin, Stockholm, and Vilnius. Goldsby has also been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland. Robin is the author of Piano Girl : A Memoir; Rhythm: A Novel; and Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl.

 

Music for Naked People

Piano Girl Robin Meloy Goldsby revisits the neighborhood sauna. This time around, they’re playing her song.

An unidentified model and Sauna Guy.

An unidentified model and Sauna Guy.


It’s ten minutes to noon at Mediterana, a pastel-colored award-winning sauna and wellness spa located in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany, about twenty minutes from my front door. Mediterana, with its spacious gardens and multiple thermal pools, saunas, and steam baths, hosts up to 1000 guests a day. For me—a middle-aged health-obsessed woman—having this place so close to home is like having Disneyland in my backyard. Spending a day here offers the bargain-basement equivalent of a mini-vacation to the south of France, a Spanish island, or a Moroccan beach. For thirty-eight euros (about fifty dollars), I can show up at nine in the morning, sweat, soak, soap, and sleep the day away, and emerge in the evening feeling like I’ve peeled off a couple of years. Amazing what a little exfoliating can do.

Today I’m meeting Andrea, my friend and the resident director of the Mediterana. Her expert  team of employees has put together a sauna ceremony called “Piano del Sol,” which features solo piano music from two of my recordings. “Piano del Sol,” a twelve-minute sauna odyssey with music piped through an expensive sound system, takes place five times a day. We will attend the noon ceremony, and, along with thirty other naked people, listen to my piano music and perspire. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I’ve been known to sweat while listening to myself, but usually it’s while I’m playing and wearing a black evening gown. I feel naked enough when performing, actually being naked seems like one naked too many.

Right now, I’ve covered myself with a plain white bathrobe and a pair of flip-flops. I pace on a lavender-lined path while waiting for Andrea to show up. Guests of all shapes and sizes—don’t get me started on that theme—carefully hang their fairy-cloth designer robes on wrought-iron hooks attached to Moroccan-tiled walls. One by one, naked as the day they were born, they open the door to the Candle Sauna and meander into the heat.

Andrea, the busiest gal in the sauna biz, careens around the corner at one minute to noon. She is wearing a pink bathrobe—not her normal workday uniform, but an appropriate costume for onsite inspections of the dozens of ceremonies and aromatherapy sessions offered at Mediterana.

“Woo,” she says, glancing at the clock on the wall. “Just made it. Busy day!” It’s not easy to look professional and stylish in a fluffy pink bathrobe, but she manages to exude an air of complete confidence. I am fascinated by her job. I can’t imagine working for a multi-million dollar business where all of my clients were buck-naked.

“You ready?” she says, shedding her robe and revealing a plaid cotton wrap around her mid section, discreetly covering all of her private parts.

“Hey!” I say. “What’s that? You get to wear a towel in there?”

“Yeah. I’m the boss.”

“Oh great,” I say. “But what about me? The featured piano player?”

She laughs. I laugh. I take off my robe. I’m at ease in the naked sauna these days, but only when I can be anonymous. Because they’ll be playing my music, and because there’s a framed poster with my photo hanging next to the sauna door, I feel a little, uh, exposed.

“Wait a minute,” I say. “The sauna guy conducting the ceremony isn’t going to introduce me or anything is he? I mean, he’ll just turn on the music and conduct the ceremony and no one will know I’m here, right?”

“Hmmm. I’m not sure,” Andrea says.

“Okay,” I say. “But if I have to stand up and take a bow I’m going to die. I draw the line at naked bowing. As Ellie Mae Clampet would say, ‘It just ain’t dignified.’ ”

“Who’s Ellie Mae Clampet?” she asks. I guess The Beverly Hillbillies never made it to Germany.

“Never mind,” I say. “Let’s go.”

**

It seems fitting that my piano career has taken this rather unconventional turn. I’ve performed live in fancy-pants concert halls, castle cocktail lounges, embassies, third world countries, and roadside dives. My recordings have been used occasionally in television and film productions, but they also have been played in hospitals and schools, funeral homes and birthing rooms, hotel restaurants and furniture store cafeterias. As far as I know no one is playing my music in elevators, at least not yet. I like to think—and hope—the songs I compose and perform are relaxing without being mind-numbing, meditative without being boring. I live with two sophisticated teenage pop-music-experts and a jazz-bassist husband whose nickname is the Chord Doctor. The three of them keep me from falling into a New Age tedium pit. I admit to having tendencies in this direction, so I’m lucky my kids and the Chord Doctor patrol my practice sessions like an in-house harmony task force, making sure I don’t write anything that sounds like whale song or subliminal chimes.

Everyone in this house has a few suggestions about how to make my music hipper. In a nice way, they let me know when I’m too boring, too lackluster, too monotonous.

John: “Maybe you could add a b9 to that F#7 chord.”

Curtis: “That bridge needs some kind of groove. Try this. And play it faster.”

Julia: “Have you heard the new Ludovico Einaudi soundtrack? You should go in that direction.”

When I’m smart and feeling open-minded, I listen to their tips.  When I’m stubborn I don’t. It’s composition by committee. I end up with a kind of Meno-Mom-Meets-Meldau fusion that, in the best-case scenario, chills people out while they shop, heal, sleep, or think. I write music, record it, and release it into the world. Who knows where it will end up or how it will be used? I like to think that what I record belongs to me—and during the creative process, even with the input of my in-house advisory team, it does. But once it’s out there? All bets are off. It could end up anywhere at all. Anywhere.

Not long ago, on a storybook-perfect Christmas morning at Schlosshotel Lerbach, a castle guest—dressed to the hilt in mink and velvet—charged into the lobby and zig-zagged through the crowd to the piano.

“Merry Christmas, Frau Schnitzler-Herkenrath,” I said.

“Merry Christmas,” she replied. Then, right there in the midst of all the German Christmas cheer—we’re talking gingerbread, mulled wine, candles, and real chestnuts roasting on a real open fire—she burst into tears. I abruptly stopped playing my joyous version of “Hark the Herald,” stood up, and hugged her.

“Whatever is wrong, Frau Schnitzler-Herkenrath?” I asked.

“My father died last week,” she said.

I had known her father. He was a sweet old man with a winning smile. Detlev—that was his name—had a chronic dripping nose. I would dodge the drips while he stood over me at the piano and showed me American business cards he had collected in the early thirties, before the war. He kept the cards in his wallet, held together with an old rubber band. In halting English, he would read the addresses to me and ask if I knew any of the men. I always suspected there was something more to the story, but our conversations never progressed to the point where I felt comfortable asking.

“I am so sorry, Frau Schnitzler-Herkenrath. You must be very sad.”

“He was a day short of his ninety-seventh birthday. When he took his last breath he was listening to your music.”

I paused for a moment. “Really?” I said, halfway hoping this wasn’t true.

“Really,” she said.

I sighed. I knew she meant this as the highest compliment, but still. I gave her one more hug, perhaps a tad less sincere than the first embrace. Frau Schnitzler-Herkenrath composed herself, dried her tears, and went off to eat the Christmas goose.

I stayed at the piano. I got a little weepy and nostalgic, thinking about old Detlev, with his stack of antique business cards and drip-drip-dripping nose. The last thing I wanted to do was play “Jingle Bells.” My husband, on a break from his jazz gig in the castle Brasserie, came to meet me in the lobby. He noticed my blotchy face and smeared mascara.

“What’s wrong?” he said. “It’s Christmas! Joy to the world! Deck the halls!”

“Detlev Schnitzler-Herkenrath died last week while listening to my Songs from the Castle CD.”

Really?” he said.

“Really,” I said.

Silence.

“Huh,” said John. “I wonder which track did him in.”

**

Back to the sauna.

Maybe my melodies will help the naked folks relax and unwind. Maybe the songs will help cleanse away the effects of too much stress, too much gin, too little sleep. Maybe they’ll like what I play, maybe they won’t. I just hope they won’t die while they’re listening. I really hope they don’t dance. If there’s anything worse than naked bowing, it’s naked dancing. I don’t know. Hope this, hope that. There’s a lot of hope in this essay. But maybe that’s what making music is all about.

We enter the sauna. About thirty very toasty Germans sit or recline on tiered wooden benches. They look pretty relaxed. They look hot. I mean that in the traditional sense. Hot, as in warm.

A3_2

I clutch my towel to my chest. The towel is a critical accessory in the German sauna. Skin is not allowed to touch any part of the wood. To comply with this very strict rule, you need a very long sauna towel, or you need two bath towels capable of stretching the length of your body. Getting your feet, your butt, your head and your arms all lined up on the towel can seem like a round of naked Twister.

Not that anyone is looking, but I doubt I’ll be recognized in here. In the photo hanging outside I’m cloaked in black velvet, spackled with M.A.C. Studio Fix, and photo-shopped. In here I’m stripped bare, clean-faced, and well worn. I look around carefully. Nope. No one cares. I wrestle with my towel and get all of my body parts situated on a lower bench. Better to stay on the bottom—reaching the higher benches involves stepping over other people, which I refuse to do without underpants. Plus, it gets really hot up there.

Andrea lounges on one of the top benches, but she is a sauna pro and can take the heat. I eye her wrap. Because everyone else is naked, the wrap gives her an air of authority. I never thought I would covet an orange plaid cloth (with fringe!) that looks like a North African dishtowel—but I would give anything to be covered up right now.

At the stroke of noon, Sauna Guy enters the room and closes the door behind him. Like most of the employees at Mediterana, Sauna Guy is pony-tailed, buff, tan, and looks like he never breaks a sweat. He carries a huge wooden bucket of ice. He adds a few drops of aromatherapy essential oil to the ice and places it in a large Moroccan metal bowl—suspended from a pendulum in the center of the wooden ceiling. He sets the pendulum swinging back and forth over the sauna rocks. The ice drips onto the hot stones and sizzles.

We have only been in here for forty-five seconds and it already feels like it’s 1000 degrees.

What better time for a little music!

“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Piano de Sol sauna ceremony. The ceremony will take approximately 12 minutes and will be divided into two parts, featuring two solo piano recordings composed by American musician Robin Goldsby.”

Sauna Guy seems a little nervous, but I’m sure it’s because Andrea, his boss, is in the audience. By the way, Sauna Guy is also wearing one of those plaid dishrags. He has it wrapped around his waist like a loin cloth. It’s a look.

“We’ll be enjoying lavender, lemongrass, and eucalyptus essential oils during the ceremony. You’ll have the chance to leave the sauna between songs. Otherwise, please remain seated. And please remain silent.”

This is new for me—I like the idea of a guard in a loin cloth who forces people to listen, sit still, and not talk.

The music starts. The ice pendulum drips. The rocks sizzle. Sauna Guy parades around the room, majestically waving a large flag. This circulates the scented hot air, wafting it into our faces and melting away the stress of the day. I can’t decide if this experience is ridiculous or wonderful. Maybe a little of both. Once again—this happens to me about twice a week here in Germany—I feel as if I’ve been kick-dropped into the middle of a Mel Brooks film.

My neighbors on the lower bench take deep cleansing breaths. Inhale. Exhale. The first song, “Flying, Falling,” comes to an end.  Sauna Guy opens the door for a moment, but no one leaves. I’m sweating like a Schwein and would like to flee but I can’t run out on my own recorded performance, so I stay put. My second song, “Magnolia,” starts. Because I recorded the damn thing, I know that it will play for exactly four minutes and fifteen seconds. Inhale. Exhale. I float into the music and listen, halfway expecting to hear careless phrasing, places where I should have listened to the Chord Doctor, or slipshod technique. But it all sounds okay to me—not great or glorious, but somehow perfect for this particular moment. At one point, I even forget I’m listening to myself.

No one dies. No one dances. Everyone sweats, but that’s to be expected. I do not have to take a naked bow—the applause at the conclusion of the ceremony is not for me, but for Sauna Guy, who has expertly guided us through our twelve-minute easy-bake musical ritual. I collect my towel and file out of the sauna with the other naked guests. I’m hungry for cool air. I’m relaxed and naked and one of the crowd. I’m—dare I say it?—hopeful.

**

The Mediterana Wellness Field.

The Mediterana Wellness Field.

Bonus Naked Story! (Something extra from the Goldsby Archives)

In 1994, when I first moved to Germany, I wrote a long story about my first visit to the naked sauna, called “Naked.” I learned a valuable lesson from the publication of this piece, mainly that success in literature often involves including the word “naked” in the title. David Sedaris found this out with the 1997 publication of his hysterically funny book, Naked. My pal Robin Spielberg is publishing her first book, a memoir called Naked on the Bench: My Adventures in Pianoland. Watch for it this fall. With a title like that, she can’t go wrong. 

Anyway, I’ve been getting mileage out of this naked sauna thing for a long time.  In case you’ve never read the first piece, here it is. Various forms of this essay have appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (1995), Expatriate Living (2005), and, most recently, in my book: Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl (2011). Happy reading!

Naked

Excerpted  from Goldsby’s book,  Waltz of the Asparagus People (Bass Lion Publishing)

I’ve always been a big fan of the sauna. A good sauna can relax you, clear your head, and make your skin look great. And all of this for a mere fifteen minutes of sweating. Not a bad deal, when you think of it. I would love to go to a sauna right now, but I’m tangled in a web of German red tape and boxed in by stacks of moving cartons crowding our new apartment. I’m busy trying to unpack music books, learn how to pronounce unbefristige-Aufenthaltserlaubnis (the German version of a green card), and teach my son how to say danke to the cheese lady at the local market. A neighbor, sensing my need for a time out, tells me that the very pretty Sülztal Family Sauna is right up the hill from our home. I’m ready.

In Germany saunas are for naked people only. Bathing suits are verboten. Fine. But I’m an American woman. I’m fond of Lycra tank suits in dark colors, preferably with invisible lace-covered support panels. These days I worry that my six-pack looks more like a one-pack. A naked debut in public should be left to those on the prettier side of middle age.

Or?

One of the great things about moving to a foreign country is getting a chance to discover just how brainwashed we are by our own customs and traditions. The Germans pick wild mushrooms from the forest and eat raw pork for supper with no worry of falling into a trichinosis-induced coma. A lot of Americans—who would never ever touch a wild mushroom, let alone eat a piece of pig meat that hasn’t been cooked in a blast furnace—eat peanut butter and bacon sandwiches and deep-fried Twinkies served on sticks. After just a few months in this country, I can see the German catalog of odd customs is just as wacky as its American counterpart. The trick, I suppose, is to figure out which American habits to toss and which German habits to adopt. Maybe the sauna would be a good place to start.

I’ve always worn a damp bathing suit in the sauna, because that’s what we do in America. Never once, as I stepped into the tiny sauna at my New York City health club, did it occur to me that wearing a sticky garment in a sweatbox might not be a great idea. Maybe naked would be better. It would certainly be more comfortable. With this in mind I set off for the sauna. My husband stays home with our young son, who yells on my way out the door, “Get NAKEY, Mommy.”

I enter the Sülztal Family Sauna—an oasis of tranquility tucked into a corner of meadow next to the Autobahn. I pay my fee for a day pass, tuck my hang-ups in the locker with my underpants, put on a bathrobe, and step through the heavy wooden door into an airy room filled with fountains, pools, and sunlight streaming through generous windows. There are men everywhere. Old men. Young men. Naked men. Water, water everywhere and not a gal in sight. I thought this was supposed to be a family place. The last time I saw this many naked men was at the Continental Baths, a gay men’s health club in Manhattan that offered cabaret entertainment (Bette Midler! Peter Allen!) on the weekends. But most of those guys wore towels around their chiseled waistlines. The guys I’m looking at now, thick-bellied and heavy-balled, are not wearing towels. They stroll aimlessly, the way men do when visiting the home improvement center on a Saturday afternoon.

I try not to stare, really I do, but I’ve got a front-row seat at the Penis Parade, and it’s a spectacle I’ve never seen before. These guys have other remarkable features, I’m sure, but all I see are penises. Fat ones, skinny ones, dangling and dazzling, the long and the short of it. Who knew there were so many varieties? And look! That penis marching toward the waterfall? It’s wearing a little hat.

Flip, flop, flip, flop. The sound of the naked men’s pool shoes flapping on the tile floor slaps me back to reality.

Brauchen Sie Hilfe?” says a middle-aged man with a friendly penis. I mean smile. I have no idea what he’s saying. In addition to my lack of German-language skills, I am also suffering from hysterical deafness.

I put on my very best face, the one I once wore when asking for assistance at the Chanel counter at Saks Fifth Avenue, cinch the belt on my bathrobe, look him in the penis, I mean eye, and say, “I am lost. Where is the door? You know. Door. Go outside.” I am speaking in a very loud American Indian voice, the one I use when I think I’m talking to non-English speakers. I sound like Tonto.

“You are standing right next to it,” he says, in perfect English. “Here, allow me.” He is a gentleman with no pants on. He opens the door and I step through.

Olive trees and eucalyptus line the curved paths that wind through the landscaped garden. If it weren’t for the naked men and the crisp November air, I’d feel as if I had entered a Provençale fantasyland. Or Oz.

Germans love fresh air, even when they’re naked and the temperature is cold enough to stun a polar bear. I walk through the garden, shivering. I sneeze. This is ridiculous. I’m at a place that specializes in heat, and I’m out here freezing my ass off.

Hey, look at that guy there. The one with the blond penis, I mean hair. Well, that too. He looks like Sting.

I follow Sting because he looks like he knows where he’s going. He jumps into a pool, and I continue on the circular path until I’m back at the entrance to the main building. I spot the steam room and peer through the glass door. Two women. No men. This I can handle.

I look over my shoulder to make sure no one is staring, remove my bathrobe, yank open the door, and enter the steam room. The two naked ladies acknowledge me with a hearty “Guten Morgen.” In Germany, when you enter a bakery, the waiting room of the doctor’s office, or a sauna full of buck-naked people, you are required by some mysterious code to shout out a greeting. Then you sit down and completely ignore everybody until it is time to leave, at which point you walk to the door and shout out a spirited goodbye. This custom can be particularly daunting for a foreigner. Especially a naked foreigner.

Guten Morgen!” I yell back at them. Silence. I sit. I wait. The steam hisses and covers us in a translucent fog. The mist airbrushes my stomach wrinkles and the voices in my head are quiet. It’s peaceful in here, a rain forest without the forest. Okay, maybe it’s a tad too warm. Just a tad, but I’m coping.

The two other women stand and stretch. Before leaving, they turn on a hose and spray off the bench for the next guests. What a nice country, I think.

Auf Wiedersehen,” they shout.

Auf Wiedersehen,” I respond. I’m one of the crowd now. No one would ever guess I’m American. I’m just another naked Frau out for a steam.

It feels so luxurious, so decadent, being in this huge steam room all by myself. But warm. Very warm. Some might say hot. Boiling hot. Jesus Christ. Time to get out of here. I teeter toward the exit. Just as I reach the door, two barrel-chested men barge into the steam room.

Guten Morgen!” they shout.

Guten Morgen!” I say. Now what? If I remain standing I’m fully exposed.

I sit down. I cross my arms and my legs, hiding my private parts by turning myself into a human pretzel. I’m sweating like a Schwein. If I don’t get out of here soon I’ll faint. Shit, shit, shit. Worse than having these two guys see me naked in a steam bath would be to wake up in a German Krankenwagon with nothing on. Or what if I die from the heat and end up in the Nakey Morgue with a coroner making snide comments about my lack of muscle tone?

Enough.

Just as I’m about to flee, I remember that I’m obliged to spray off the goddamn bench. I grab the hose and turn on the faucet. The hose flies out of my hands and sprays one of the men in the face with cold water. He yells. The hose—which has a life of its own—writhes on the mosaic tiles like a snake in an Indiana Jones movie. I hit the floor and crawl around—buck-naked—wrestling with the hose as it jerks up and down.

So much for dignity.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck sorry sorry sorry. I slide back toward the faucet. As I turn off the water I hear the men muttering something about foreigners. There goes the neighborhood, I imagine them saying.

I do not spray off my seat, and I do not shout a cheerful “auf Wiedersehen” as I drag myself out the door. I lean against the cool tiles of the shower area, gulping at the fresh air. For just a second, I forget that I’m naked. I notice my skin is as soft as a baby’s behind. A middle-aged baby, but I’ll take it.

**

I learn to love my neighborhood sauna. I experience one minor setback when I turn on the automatic “back massager” in the outdoor cold-water swimming pool. It unleashes a powerful stream of water that catapults me like a nude Scud missile to the other side of the pool, right in front of the folks having lunch on the terrace. By the way, when the weather is warm, many of the diners are also naked. I haven’t yet mustered up the courage for nakey dining. Somehow drinking a cup of hot coffee while topless doesn’t seem like the wisest choice.

My husband now enjoys the sauna as much as I do. He has become an expert in the Sauna Step-over Technique, a tricky procedure that involves lifting one’s leg and stepping over other naked people. Some folks recline in the sauna, and the step-over is the only way to get to the higher benches. Without the benefit of a bathing suit, or, at the very least, underpants, this can be difficult to master while maintaining a sense of decorum. Years will pass before I’m brave enough to attempt a step-over—I learn to look for a person with closed eyes, step lively, and try not to cough.

A decade after my first sauna experience I visit the brand-new Mediterana Sauna in Bergisch Gladbach, thirty minutes from my front door. Recently the Mediterana was voted one of the best spas in Europe. A day trip to this place seems like a mini-vacation. I’m particularly fond of the Himalaya Sauna, a golden-rose underground cave lined with 100 tons of healing salt crystal. The aromatic Candle Sauna offers a romantic view of the lake that borders the Mediterana property. The Rose Temple sauna smells like an English garden in mid-June. Heaven. It is the opposite of New York City.

During the regularly scheduled Mediterana Aufguss sessions, the sauna boy—muscular, shining with sweat, and wearing a plaid loincloth—comes into the sauna, drizzles a magic potion over the sauna rocks, and swings a towel over his head to circulate the aroma. There’s a Greek God vibe to the routine, and some of these guys put on quite a show. Very quickly I learn to lean back so I don’t get hit in the face with a wet towel.

Our kids, before they reach their adolescent years, will occasionally accompany us to the local sauna. Every so often I’ll catch a glimpse of them wandering around naked with all the other naked people, and I’m stunned by their innocence and lack of modesty. They seem so European. Still, with two American parents, I don’t imagine they’ll be picking wild mushrooms or ordering the pork carpaccio at the local Kneipe any time soon.

I’m at home in the German sauna now, even though, deep down inside, I still feel slightly embarrassed—and very American—when I enter the land of the unclothed. I’ve stopped staring at penises, chasing hoses, and flinging myself across swimming pools. I don’t know why the naked sauna was such a big deal for me in the first place. No one stares, no one cares, because naked, we all look pretty much the same—vulnerable, fragile, and flawed. Every so often I run into one of the gorgeous people, a Sting look-alike or a supermodel or a champion figure skater. We avoid eye contact and sit together and sweat. German or American, we all carry the weight of our nakedness, light as a feather, heavy as the past. Maybe it’s a burden worth sharing.

“Get nakey, Mommy!”

Yes. Why not?

**

 Robin Goldsby’s new CD, Magnolia, is now available for pre-order from Amazon and iTunes (Release date May 7th). Goldsby is the author of three books: Piano Girl: A Memoir; Rhythm: A Novel; and Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl. Goldsby lives outside of Cologne, Germany, with her husband, jazz bassist John Goldsby, and their two kids. Most of the time Robin is fully clothed.