It’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.”
“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.”
“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.