Friday, September 25, 2015

Stay While I Go

Tall, blond, all in black, she stood outside the toilet stall door. She smiled at me as I exited the space. “Do you mind,” she said, “Staying while I go? I am claustrophobic and don’t like locking the door.”

Not a problem.

Women just have to go more often than men, cubics in bladderland, metrics it is rumored are involved. Once out of the tram, up the wide ramp into the hospital before my appointment, I made a bee line for the ladies not because I had to go but because I suspected I had to go. In passing on my way to the bathroom I briefly made eye contact with the tall blond senior citizen as I walked past one of those terribly bland but trying to be homey cubby spots found in hospitals. Obviously she had been closely observing the door to the ladies room.

Dependence. “Who are you going with?” People ask me when I mention my next vacation. There had been no negotiations for my booking. I made my reservation without consulting a fellow passenger.  I still can, I thought happily while waiting outside the bathroom stall, be fairly independent.

The flu season started early this year in the Netherlands.  People have already been complaining. Concerts cancelled, my colleague hospitalized for a week, I had a weekend free.  Honestly, I liked it. Well not of course that my friend was seriously gasping for air, but the extra time without feeling driven to Eat-Sleep-Practice-Eat-Sleep-Practice was unusual. But given that Saturday I still thought I had to sing on that Sunday I was, in my mind, half off the hook, semi dependent. I could go out for a few hours and do Something Else but I still had to practice for Sunday.

It so happened that it was Open Monument Weekend, a day in the whole of the Netherlands when doors are thrown open to places not usually open to the public. I ducked out around the corner before going to the supermarket, and visited the Makelaers Comptoir built in 1634. I had been wanting to visit it for more than a year, whenever my nose was pressed to the tram window or stumbling by on a foot errand. Once inside I stood under the rose. Business was always done under the rose, meaning that it was confidential and discreet. The brokers’ guild gilt rose was set into the ceiling of the main room.  A large rose above our heads, signifying A Gentleman Never Kisses And Tells.

“Incoronar di rose..” Sings Susanna in Mozart’s famous aria “Deh vieni” in the Nozze di Figaro. She’s waiting for her wedding night to finally arrive; the aria dives into low notes, singing of fleshy longing as she knows her beloved is hiding nearby and can hear her. This line translates as: I want to crown you with roses.  One opera coach I once worked with was graphic.  He poked his finger through the closed thumb and forefinger on the other hand to demonstrate his point. I sat this week listening to a version of the aria in rehearsal. I don’t think the singer had been told this earthly information. She was singing it straight like an eight year old at First Communion. “It would do if she could get a bit more grovelly and growling for those low notes.” I surmised silently of “dirty” business.

In the Makelaers Comptoir I looked up at the rose and thought about something other than a rose, trying to recall the exact words on some obscure BBC program I had once watched about the significance of the rose in church architecture fertilized with the notion of what blessed place was found between Mary’s holy legs. I proceeded after lunch to the Anatomy Theater, the infamous place once painted in way of reference by Rembrandt. I admit I was disappointed that the interior, the operating table and benches, was no longer in place; it was a circular bare room with a painted ceiling featuring noble coats of arms. Still, my curiosity was satisfied.

By Saturday night our concert on Sunday was also cancelled. Sunday morning I stood in line for a tour of the Royal Industrial Club, normally closed to non-members, on the Dam Square. By the time our little group had entered the dining room, past the bar with the statue of Hermes declared “the best bar in Amsterdam because of the view,” past the lounge with the crackling fire in the fireplace --- “Here at the club, we offer a fire every day,” our guide said snappily, oblivious to practicality, outweighing seasons, the must of the must because of club principles – one lady was in tears.  She leaned towards the guide, a steward of the facilities. “When my husband was a member, I came here so many times, such good times, the parties…” Her voice wobbled, she searched for a tissue in her bag. “But since he died, I haven’t been back. It’s all over.” The steward tactfully placed a hand on her arm and whispered, “After the tour is over, stay a while.”

Back in the day, when I lived in Singapore, I looked at club memberships. I collected brochures and considered the matter. “Absolutely not.” My other half stated baldly. I silently totaled up the social benefits, work contacts, easy diners, pool and sports facilities, and moaned inwards. It wasn’t about being top of the heap, it was about constructing a life. We could have chosen either the Dutch club or the American club both with benefits and detriments. We did neither. I stood there in the dining room at the Royal Industrial Club, surreptitiously eyeing the menu prices, and wondered would my life had been over if I couldn’t get into the club, presuming that I had been in the club?

In rehearsal for the reduced version of Nozze di Figaro, always held in the small chapel of a retirement complex, we rehearsed the trio. Again. The baritone began to sing my part, instead of his, out of tune and entering at the wrong time. I stared at him in incomprehension, while next to me I heard one of the people who come every week to observe the rehearsal, sang my line to me from his wheelchair. It dawned on me that the several inhabitants of the place who come faithfully to listen to the rehearsals, know and even understand Mozart’s entire score much better than any of the singers, mostly amateurs struggling with the language and notes and memory skills.

I watched the teary woman duck into the ladies at the Royal Industrial Club. The stained glass Art Deco door swung behind her.  As usual I had been eyeing the door during the tour, planning to visit before leaving assessing hidden architectural details and discreet cubic bladder signals. But watching her disappear into the sacrosanct I decided not to ask the guide whether I too might visit the loo at the end of the tour, before heading down the staircase to the lobby, no, I thought -- let her stay while I go someplace else.


Thursday, September 17, 2015

Let’s Spray Paint the Ivy

“Women are difficult.”
“Yes,” I joked, “Always difficult.”
He searched in the cupboard. “Difficult,” he repeated. Then he said the whole sentence all over again, laughing. He’s a very kind man really and means well.

 “I don’t know what language he speaks,” his wife said to me once. “He can’t speak English, Dutch, German or Vietnamese.” The last one is his native language. We’ve all known each other for years. We used to live together when I was a student renting the extra room in their apartment. I still go to get my hair cut at her house, a train and bus ride away. This occurs about twice a year because I am most remiss in hair care and like to keep up our social contact. My friend tightens her lips whenever she sees me, “Yes Behsephone,” she says (Vietnamese people have a hard time differentiating between a p and a b) holding up some of my split ends, “It’s been six months. Time for you to look like a woman again.” Hmmm. I don’t hold it against her, I feel terrible the next day because I can’t style my hair and then it all goes up again in a little less of a mess on the back of my head.  My friend knows this, she’s hardly a fool. If it’s not wash and stuff into a chignon, it’s not happening. I also know time is fluo at her house.
I arrived early. I don’t believe I have ever arrived late. Her husband was home while I waited for her to return from some mysterious errand. Her husband made me tea and searched for biscuits to serve his difficult guest. I didn’t think it was wise to try to explain my gluten allergy in either Dutch or English.  I couldn’t recall that I had attempted clarification the last time. He joyfully came up with the “women are difficult” mantra. In the background a computer program was playing, spinning out conversational English. It’s never not been this way.  Had he ever really studied English? One could believe he never ever studied German even though he lived there and holds a university degree issued to him in German; he must believe languages come by way of osmosis and in most cases I think he is correct, the exception being himself. I listened to the subtler points of using the word “some” in English and disjointed conversations masquerading as educational tools while I drank my tea.  To replace another ineffective conversation he turned on the television.  Now that the space was adequately filled with noise from every direction, he left to hang up the laundry. 
My friend returned from her errand. “Jesus,” she exclaimed, “Your hair.”

The bus ride out to the burbs is always fascinating to me. There’s never anyone on the street except for a dog walker or a teenager with a sports bag running for a bus. It’s the Garden of Eden with freeway access where you can go home to your open plan living room after work and all be deathly quiet together on a tip top block in the evenings.  It’s not my kind of place. “Overrun by people and noise,” people say referring to my neighborhood in Amsterdam. I won’t have it any other way. Out in the burbs people put up those stone fences, rocks placed in steel cages to deter graffiti artists, or grow vertical fields of ivy. In my neighborhood the alleys get routinely sprayed. “I am just going to help a neighbor paint over his wall, get rid of the graffiti,” one of my building’s inhabitants cheerfully told me on a sunny day as we crossed paths on the doorstep.
You must be really desperate or stoned to go out and paint a wall of ivy in the dead of night, I thought sitting on the bus rolling past vacant sidewalks towards my haircutting appointment.  I am sure the ivy doesn’t mind a bit, such a hearty plant. “I wish we had stayed in the city,” my friend said mournfully to me shortly after moving to the burbs. She had been battling the overt racism she faced in paradise when trying to promote her Dutch Asian children into the better schooling options. Her sons are now attending university.
“Social media,” another friend recently blurted out to me, suddenly seeing the usefulness of the medium after turning up her nose on the subject for years. “You can go hand out some sandwiches to refugees on the border.” Her eyes sparkled. “What do you think of this?” she prodded me. I would certainly go hand out sandwiches. She expected me to make some grand statement about the refugee crisis. Until our spending habits change, there will always be a refugee crisis, I thought silently of the war in Syria and the economic repression in Africa.
“I am grateful we were picked up by a Dutch boat.” My haircutting friend and ex cohabitant confided to me years ago. “We were all hoping to get to America, but Holland is much better in the end.” She and her brother had taken their teenage lives into their own hands, said goodbye to their parents, and sailed out in a dinghy to the middle of the ocean to be rescued by whatever patrolling ship would happen to find them.  This week during my haircut she wanted to pick my brain about her office work woes. “I said, and it’s my own fault being so easy going, okay sure I would be happy to take the communication course. Two days.” she snorted, “I had to be enthusiastic so I was enthusiastic. Yeah, super a communication course. What did I learn in two days? Then they ask, so what did you learn in two days? Assholes. Repeat after me.” She considered the matter, she is by far one of the most communicative women I have ever met. “This week I have to go in and state my goals for the coming year in their non-lingo terminology, applying their two day communication course points, and what I say now will be evaluated at the end of the year.”  That would be spray painting the ivy.



Thursday, September 10, 2015

Am I Poor?

The idea was presented to me recently that the separation of the wealthy from poor was unnecessary back in the days and terribly unchristian; that people were allowed to purchase their seating arrangement in the past in churches, the reserved pews for the elite, was thus presented as evil and immoral.  My mind baulked at this sweeping proposal.  I began to silently categorize the ills of humankind’s general health and states of degradation; woes arranged by the lack of dental care, various scourges and afflictions dependent on salves and balms in bygone and not so bygone times. Frankly, that one should welcome or prefer to sit next to whatever brand of humanity should appear on the pew with us by whatever mishap is more a modern concept and it is not necessarily the wealthy that have the sweetest breath.  “I met the most interesting person,” people relate, “He has a PhD in astronomy from MIT and has been living under a bridge since even before the millennium. What a great guy!”

This is about survival via charity. All religions hold a not so exclusive warrant on the matter. That is the nature of the beast, righteousness.  We should be so righteous as to sit beside whomever is destined to suffer our presence. If you disagree, you are a poor loser.  If you agree, you even may be poor in spirit, or, worse, poor in pocket.

In most ways I didn’t “make it” as a singer. Sitting in a comfortable Volvo sedan on my way back to Amsterdam one late evening after a rehearsal the retired tenor was telling me about the perks of the opera choir career. “One gets to sing the little roles as a choir member,” he said. Having been there for a short while, I suddenly summoned up the squeaks “Herr Baroni has arrived!” sung by a light tenor, nude torso half dressed in powder blue breeches, as a footman into my mind’s eye and ear.  The one solo phrase of an elite choir member waiting in near pain in the wings, eyes glued to the monitor to figure out when to take that all important breath and Go Solo for Three Seconds. “Those were the raisins in the oatmeal.” He said with great satisfaction. By raisins he meant both the remuneration and pecking order in the choir, or oatmeal.

Everyone needs their moments in the sun, those all-important jaunts of self-esteem building. I deferred to the retired tenor because he was a. a man and expected it, b. an established member of the music community with years of service behind him and c. was not unkind.  He had attained something I had not and he had fought for it.

Am I poorer for it?  Am I richer for having chosen a different pew? Am I poor in spirit for essentially having bought a place in a pew of my choice? Who do I want to sit next to and what sort of conversations do I entertain? Am I elitist? Do I bestow charity? Am I chasing righteousness? Are these questions that matter these days? Why must I accept everything that comes, and even welcome it, make it feel at home?  In addition I feel partially set upon because I am female and I am supposed to accommodate by tradition.

Listening to the sermon the other day, I resolutely decided not to accept this admonishment, and not because of designations on wealth, poverty and illnesses or robust health, but on being capable of accepting the quality of life that I would like to experience, and hope and expect that all others are able to do the same because the government should care about the people and be supportive of equal opportunity.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Glass House

“You’ll stay with my sister,” she said instantly and that was that, settled. In the back of my mind I continued to weigh my obsolete options, balloons blown away high in the sky wafting out of sight.  I had been tentatively planning to make a free fall call for accommodation via the artistic community I knew; I had at some point worked with some lovely people who might be kind enough to offer me a bed, but I had noticed a tendency to demonstrate deficiencies in advanced conversational skills such as listening and patience is not my middle name. Sensing danger, I stayed put with the unknown, the winning lottery ticket.

The sister of my friend didn’t look anything like my friend and was just as charming.

“I keep thinking up titles of books,” the sister’s husband said. “Whenever I see a title of a book, I become instantly wary.” He pulled his chin back to demonstrate.  “Because of the title.” He confessed comically. “And I often like to think about the title of the book I would like to write.”

We were speaking German. My German is very rusty. In fact it’s never been anything but rusty. “Here,” the sister’s husband said while showing me to my room, standing on the stairs midway, “Is a closet.” He turned, “There are the doors. I started ten years ago on this project.”  The closet doors were on the landing, leaning against the wall.  The fastenings were also present and unfastened.

They speak German because of their daughter.  S. only speaks German and might have initially spoken Russian, but she was never taught in the orphanage.  S. is tackling German. My friend’s sister, English, is also tackling German, she’s been going at it for years. The only person who hasn’t been going at the language as a second language is the sister’s husband. We were all bravely tackling German. S. wanted to tell me about the wasp situation. In German of course.

“There are many types of wasps,” her father took over the topic. “Some live in nests like the one in the back of the garden.” He gestured past the tomato plants, past the sturdy quality swing set with climbing facilities. “The neighbours suggested I take it down. But it is empty.” He stated over the breakfast table. Wasps are an inexhaustible topic in August in Berlin. Every drink comes with a beer mat across the top of the glass because tankards are not in fashion these days and look nicer in museums. “These wasps,” he swatted, “Live in the ground.”

I had never heard about wasps that lived under ground. We looked at the map. “In the street,” my hosts tapped the Brandenburg Gate, “You can see where the wall was by the stones set into the road.”

I’d never been to Berlin before, nor had I stood before Queen Nefertiti. I’d been an Egypt buff as a child. I was still thrilled to be standing in front of Nefertiti. She looked like a woman other women look upon in awe.  Come to think of it three women were with me standing in awe of the bust of Nefertiti. Many guards were with us in the room with the Queen on the second floor, more than three in uniform, shaking each other’s hands for it was lunchtime. The museum was a great place, a receptacle of the objects of dreams; Schliemann’s chase after a poet’s story. If you dig in the ground long enough and you’ll come up with gold and another woman encased on the ground floor. Congratulations then on Helen too.

Ah, sniffing the air, those past summers in Germany came back to me, the familiar sights and tastes; the Nordsee sandwiches and fishy snacks, the biergarten, ice-cream -- the ice-cream always disappoints me. I’d turned over a concoction in my mind at lunch on the Spree while swatting away wasps with the menu. The menu pictured a crimson coagulated cherry in a sundae photo, heavy menstrual chunky fruit flavour on clouds of whipped cream that didn’t deter wasps.  I wanted it, but I didn’t order it.

I quite believe that I still owe the bill for a Spaghetti Eis I ate back in 1984 in Osnabruck. I think about this often, as it happens. I was young and in Germany for the first time, and it was still in a Cold War. “You can go talk to an American.” My host father suggested. He was worried I didn’t have anyone to talk to because I really didn’t have anyone to talk to and he’d noticed this problem. So I met this American on an average street in July on a day when it wasn’t raining in Northern Germany, in front of a building with grey walls and an ice-cream parasol parked outside. I sat there on the pavement thinking, was I expected to pay my share because I was in Germany or was this American boy going to pay my share because he was American, but then again would he because we were in Germany? I was very sensitive to cultural expectations and I was a silent cheapskate. I only wanted to buy shoes and I wasn’t very interested in this person and I didn’t like the Spaghetti Eis in front of me and I was bored.  Americans were everywhere in Germany around that time of the last century, all hopeful humanitarians selling Cheetos and Mrs. Duncan’s in special stores, the soft homey pitch to ease the occupation. “Gee, what a pre-packaged life we could all live, without bombs or guilt, a fantasy world of Kansas fields and lumbering automobiles.” Even in 1984 this was still the dream even though California had been taken over by economical Toyotas.

“Look,” my Berlin host said. “There’s the greenhouse.” I looked. “At the back.” I could see tall weeds in an organic barricade that was made of even taller river weeds past the first set of weeds.  Beyond all the weeds, a rectangular patch of land was obviously laid out with the expectation that the greenhouse would arrive and fertilize the air with exotica. “It’s been a couple of years now since we cleared the ground area.” The soil is sandy, nothing really grows, I was told. “We have two seasons, hot summers and cold winters.”

Berlin is still designed to challenge the inhabitants.  I started speaking German immediately upon arriving at the train station, it was sheer instinct.  “Do you have Wifi?” I asked at a cafĂ©. “Nein.” Neither in the train, neither in the museum. The freedom of communication is still a bit remote. I began to suspect I might have to locate a Starbucks.

“That’s Hitler’s old airport.” My friend’s sister informed me as they dropped me off at Tempelhof Station. “Now you can…” and she ratted off a long list of sports activities, “There.” My train passed alongside the old airport via an elevated track. I gasped when the train overlooked Tempelhof Airport -- it was still clearly an airport in airport mode with runways but filled with people having fun on a Sunday. When would the greenhouse land as per the good witch’s orders?

“Do you have wifi?” I asked the proprietors of the Ferienwohnung when I reached the ex DDR countryside, the masterclass location south of Berlin. 

“ Nein.”