Tag Archives: Germany

A small town near my home.

German Schools

Do not despise your own place and hour. Every place is under the stars, every place is the center of the world. ―John Burroughs, Studies in Nature and Literature

I am feeling very grateful today that I grew up in the US, that there is the great college system and that my parents were able to finance my dream to study music. It was an amazing privilege that I didn’t recognize at the time but the contrast of how things work here in Germany is bringing into focus.

In Germany, most schooling is “free” including University. For college, you have to pay a nominal fee, somewhere around 500 Euro a year or semester but as a result the universities can be and are very choosy about who they take and who they don’t take. There is no such thing as elite university but there is a “numerus clausus”, which means you have to have a certain grade point average to study the most popular subjects. That is supposed to restrict the number of people who study subjects like law, medicine and psychology (which in some schools is a grade average actually higher than for medicine or law).

In the performing arts, there is an intense audition process where people get bounced out like at a Broadway Cattle Call. In music, you not only have to show your abilities in your instrument in an audition but also usually in piano and music theory. Regardless of how good your audition is, if your scores in the other tests are not high enough you are not considered. There are also very limited places available in each department because each teacher only has a few open spaces each year, especially since in Germany you can study as long as it takes. I met singers in my first summer in Germany who were in the mid-thirties and officially still considered university “students”, which means they were holding places in a teacher’s roster at a school although they were working professionally as singers. The best way – if not the only way – to get a place to study is to be studying with a teacher privately outside of the university so that they can fight for you with the audition committee.

As a result, only a chosen few are allowed to study music in Germany. That doesn’t mean that they are the best. A friend of mine was on a placement committee at her university and a singer made it into the school only because his teacher sat on the committee and insisted that he be taken although my friend thought he should take up plumbing. I taught a young singer with lots of promise and a great desire to be a singer, excellent piano skills and had been taking music theory classes for 3 years. We made a connection for her with the head of the voice department at the school where she wanted to study. She took a lesson with him. He promised he would fight for her. She didn’t get in. When she tried to contact him to find out what it was that she was missing – if for no other reason than to help her improve – he never responded to her inquiries. She was so devastated that she ended up choosing a totally different subject to study.

Another student of mine who was also promising left me to work privately with different teacher because that teacher as much as promised that she could get the student into the university where the teacher worked. That was important because this student didn’t have piano skills and had never had any music theory classes. I lost track of her and only recently found out that she didn’t get in to that school. According to social media, she doesn’t have a job, isn’t working on something else. Another sad case.

In the US, it is all about money – even more now than when I went to school -but at least there was a chance for someone coming from a middle class family and of course we took out loans. I don’t know if I would have been taken by an elite school like Julliard or Cincinnati but I never auditioned there because the tuition was way beyond my parent means. I had piano lesson but I wasn’t particularly good and the only music theory I had was in a self taught class in high school. But I skinned through the entrance exam and apparently showed enough promise at the audition to be accepted (funny enough I never considered any other possibility) and I was able to start the incredible journey that I have had. What a privilege. What would my life have been like if I had grown-up here? Amazing thought.

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The white queen next to the green.

First Green

Shall I not have intelligence with the earth?
Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself.
– Henry David Thoreau

It is spargel season in Germany. Spargel (pronounced “sh-pahr-gel”) is a white asparagus that is actually grown underground, one of the reasons it is white and not green. It has to be dug up by hand, cut off with a special tool and the rest of the plant reburied. The skin is thicker than on green asparagus and it has to be peeled off like peeling potatoes. Spargel has a light, special taste and the Germans have hundreds of ways of preparing it – soup, salad, whatever – but the most common is just peeled, boiled and usually served with hollabdaise sauce, boiled potatoes and thinly sliced cooked or cured ham. I had never eaten spargel until I had lived here over a year and friends prepared it for me. It was weird to me eating a meal where everything was white (they didn’t serve ham) but it was delicious and I was hooked! Interestingly, Spargel is one of those things that doesn’t grow all year round. The season usually starts about middle April and ends the end of June. The start of the season is usually a media event and June 24th is usually the day they celebrate the end of Spargel season.

I like that things aren’t always available. It used to be that there were lots of things you couldn’t get all of the time, only the special times when they were ripe: Blueberries in June, peaches and corn on the cob in August, pumpkins in the fall. Nowadays you can get almost anything almost all of the time. Apparently kiwis and such grow somewhere on the planet all year round. I remember not being able to find cranberries in Germany for Christmas baking. I had to order them online. Now they are in every store. Apparently the transportation methods – deep freezing and the like – have made it all possible to have fruits and vegetable from all over the world.

Somehow that makes life a little less interesting. Well, not really that but it dulls us to some of the joys of life. When I can eat peaches all year round – even if they don’t taste so much anymore like peaches – I will never know what it is like to bite into a full ripe fresh peach on a hot summer day, having the juice drizzle down my chin. Oh well.

And most vegetables and some fruit have been so hybridized that they don’t resemble or taste like they used to be. In an attempt to make fresh produce survive the long transport routes that they now have to go on, they have sacrificed taste and texture. Romaine lettuce used to be light and easy to tear. Now I need a really sharp knife. And has anyone tried to cut a tomato these days? Impossible.

At any rate, we will enjoy our 3.5 lbs of spargel we will eat this year (that is apparently the average intake of spargel by every German). And blueberries in my breakfast every morning are also nice. I guess I have thought of being more mindful to only eat what is in season. I have even thought of only eating what is available here in the area. But then I see those mangos and can almost taste that peppery flavor and somehow they end up on my grocery cart. Well, there is always next time!

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beech treesThe beech tree forest by my house

Into the Woods

We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole. In my children’s memories, the adventures we’ve had together in nature will always exist.
― Richard Louv

The house I grew up in was near a small river surrounded by some woodland. It was actually called Turtle Creek but in Southern Minnesota no one would every pronounce it creek and we always just called it „the Crick“. We skated on it in the winter when it froze – my younger brother lost his front two teeth playing hockey there – and I remember playing in the long grass and on the bank in the summer. There was even a swimming hole in one bend but I don’t remember ever swimming there. I think my mother thought is was dangerous. I just remember thinking it was too scary to swim there and watched other kids do it with the hair standing up on the back of my neck.

We never played down by the crick at night. There were animals in the area, mice and deer, I am sure, opossums, I think. I know there were at least grass snakes because I kneeled on one once and got my sock all full of blood. I promptly burned my sox because I was in the long grass smoking my mother’s cigarettes – I must have been about 8 at the time – and I didn’t want her to know I had been there. Somehow she never noticed the missing sox. At least I don’t have a memory of getting yelled at.

I remember climbing trees and playing hide and seek and watching the water. I think we spent quite a bit of time there, at least when we were younger. At some point the marsh and river lost their mystery and we played mostly in other peoples yards – kick the can, capture the flag and war were the usual choices. I only remember that we didn’t go down to the crick anymore. No real idea why not.

Now I live again near a woodland, this time with a small stream. Again there is wild life in the woods, foxes and deers. There is also wild boar but they mostly sleep all day. And mice and snakes but the snakes aren’t poisonous. There are also large toads and salamanders because there is a marsh around the stream where they breed. And all the other miriade of creatures that populate nature. What there are not is children. In the five years I have lived here, I have never seen any child playing in the woods. Not a single one. And I walk in the woods a couple of times a day.

Some of the teenagers in town go into the woods to drink but rarely. I sometimes see their garbage laying in out of the way clearings. Maybe they don’t need to hide their drinking from their parents as much as we did. Underage drinking seems to be tolerated in Germany maybe in part because they can only get a driver’s license when they are 18. At any rate, of all the children in this little town who are the age we were when we spent virtually every free moment outside and racing through the woods, none of them do it.

Has the world changed that much? Are the things you can do at home, watch TV, play on the computer, talk on the computer, are all of these things more interesting to children these days than they were all those years ago? Is the fantasy and mystery of nature something you only see from the comfort of your living room even if the real thing is just outside your door?

Or is parent’s fear of what could happen to their children if they are not within sight gotten so great that they don’t allow their children to play in the woods? There are „dangerous“ wild animals and the local hunter seems to hunt pretty often but still. I never see them at the edges of the forest, exploring the stream, looking for salamanders, catching toads. Never. It might be a cultural thing. German housewives (can you use that term anymore?) are very conscious of dirt. Actually, I mean OCD about dirt. Our neighbor behind us hoses his dog down in the yard every time he takes it for a walk because otherwise it would bring in too much dirt. (Imagine that in an area where it basically rains every day so all the paths are mud tracks and you know how much work that man takes on!) Maybe the kids aren’t allowed in the marsh because they would come home covered in dirt – God forbid!

It is for me a „puzzlement“. But maybe the world has just changed so much I don’t recognize childhood anymore. Could be.

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Weia in her favorite cuddle pose

Dogs in my life – Part 1 / Dogs 1 and 2

Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.
― Milan Kundera

When I was a kid we had a German Schauzer named “Whiskers” and if you know the breed and you know how they are clipped you’ll know why. He was a little dog but he was full of spunk and stronger than an ox. He used to drag us all down the street. He was really my mom’s dog, although she wasn’t particularly fond of dogs in the first place. But we all loved him and cried when he died.

For a long time, I couldn’t have a dog. Too busy, too much moving, living in an apartment, never at home. But when my husband and I moved into a house in the country together, suddenly my desire to have a dog got really strong. I talked to Wolfgang about it and he said, “It will cost too much”, and I said, “If it’s too expensive, I will pay for everything”. He said, “We don’t have time, we’ll be tied down…” and my response was to cry and that did the trick!

I wanted to rescue a dog and so we went to animal shelters in the area. This was shortly after the law in Germany changed and you had to pay more tax to own a pitbull – yes in Germany you pay taxes on owning a dog although not on cats – and the shelter mostly had pitbulls and that kind of breed. I have nothing against terriers, etc. but I prefer long-haired dogs. There was one cute German Shepherd mix but the woman in the shelter said that we couldn’t possibly let him from the leash and that was something Wolfgang was determined to be able to do with his dog.

So we went to another animal shelter and there they didn’t seem to want to get rid of any dogs. With every dog that we named to the woman in charge, she came up with some reason why that dog couldn’t be placed. With one dog, she said it was sick and when we asked if they would call us when they knew that is was going to be ok, she said no. And when we asked if we could call to find out, she said no. We decided to try another place.

At the third shelter, they were very strict about people getting near the dogs so we had to be led around the place in a group of 6 to look at the dogs. When we finally got to the cages holding the dogs, there was one large, shining, white dog who seemed to be looking directly at us and calling to us. We weren’t allowed to get next to the cages so we could only stand several feet away and look at this beautiful creature from a distance. At the end of the tour, we were asked if we had an interest in any dog and we said we would be interested in the white one. Suddenly it was ok to get really close. Wolfgang left his ID and we took the dog for a walk.

She was big and had unbelievably soft curly fur. Her name was “Halina” at the time, a Polish name. She was so incredibly sweet, she came when we called and we fell in love immediately. We went back to the shelter and it turned out that we couldn’t take her with. I had assumed we would just pay the money and get to take her home. They told us that they would need to check our living situation before they could give her to us, which actually seemed very responsible especially because she had been returned twice already. We asked how long it would take to get an appointment and they said two weeks. I was shocked. We begged them to come earlier and they finally gave in and made an appointment within the week. That appointment only lasted 5 minutes and the next day we picked her up. We changed her name to “Weia” (pronounced like Vaya) because I was singing the Ring at the time and the song of the Rhein maidens “Weialaia, laia la laia” was ringing in my ears. It didn’t really matter, she didn’t listen to her name anyway.

She became Wolfgang’s dog. After all my drama about wanting a dog, she was much more attached to him than to me. It turned out that she was already four years old and a pure bread Kuvasz, a Hungarian herd protection dog. Her instincts told her to protect us, protect the house from any danger. We lived where sheep grazed in the field and her instincts told her that those sheep were meant to be kept in a group and so she would run towards the sheep, not realizing that they were protected by an electric fence. One time she misjudged her speed and touched her nose on the fence by accident. It took us weeks to convince her to walk that way again. She thought it was too dangerous!

She was herself somewhat dangerous. After paying a few Vet bills, we decided that we couldn’t allow her from the leash except when we were absolutely sure there was no other dogs around. She also had a knack for catching hedge hogs, grabbing them on the neck, shaking them and throwing them away. Her mouth would be full of spines but she wouldn’t stop. We tried to keep her from it but she would always find them before we saw them. Unfortunately, hedge hogs are a protected species in Germany and we had to cover up her killing as best we could.

Weia on the Dunes of Denmark

Weia on the Dunes of Denmark

She was unbelievable sweet with people though. Everybody loved Weia and she went everywhere with us. She radiated a kind of peace and love that drew people to her. Everywhere we went, people wanted to take a picture of our dog. She was always the star. Once we left her with a colleague outside of Notre Dame in Paris so we could go inside. When we came out, he was furious because more people seemed to want to take a picture of our dog than of Notre Dame. When I taught, she lay under the table in my studio all day long. I think she must have been a little deaf. When a tenor friend came to coach with Wolfgang – she especially loved men – she rolled herself around his feet and stared up at him most of the time he was singing. We used to joke that the only reason a Polish orchestra hired Wolfgang to conduct was because they all loved the dog so much. When we were there, she had free reign of all the orchestra offices backstage.

She lived till she was over 14, a “Methuselah” age for a large dog according to our Vet. In the end she had cancer in a front leg which couldn’t be operated because her back legs were weak from a nerve problem in her back. The doctor convinced us to “put her down”, something I regret doing. At the time, it seemed like what we had to do. The Vet was kind enough to come to our house, which is not usual in Germany . I asked him to because she had always been so petrified of the Vet’s office and I didn’t want her to be afraid at the end. We both held her as she drew her last breath.

I was devastated. I thought I didn’t want a dog again for a really long time. But the heart is unbelievably elastic. After only a couple months I was looking in the internet for dogs. But that is another story.

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Playing Frau Holle

The German Air

Fresh air is good if you do not take too much of it; most of the achievements and pleasures of life are in bad air – Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Germans have a very special relationship with “air”. Air is a thing for the Germany that is measurable and recognizable, that has a “flavor” and a smell, almost like a good wine. There are many cities in Germany that have a special distinction because of their “air” that is supposed to have healing properties. Before I moved to Germany I never really thought about “air”. Maybe when the local meat packing plant was doing something that smelled bad but the “quality” of air? Went by me.

Germans can immediately notice the quality of “air” in a room and ask for the windows to be opened if they don’t find it good. I have to admit, I hardly notice it myself but I have gotten into the habit of “airing” the bedroom in the morning. I also open the window in the studio where I teach after every lesson just so that no one complains. They also “air” their bedding by hanging it out the window in the morning, something I have also taken on. One of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm – who lived most of their lives in the German state of Hessen where we live – tells the story of a girl who is put through many tests. When she comes to “Frau Holle”, she has to shake the bedding out of the window and that is why it snows. When the Germans hang their bedding out the window, they sometimes say they are playing “Frau Holle”.

The other thing that Germans are obsessed about is “draft”. I never really thought about this concept before either. Draft to me was a good thing. Until I got an air conditioner, I learned to sleep with a fan on to drown out the noise of the New York streets. When I moved to Germany, I was so used to the flowing air, I bought a fan and had it on even though the nights were really quiet. When I met Wolfgang and we spent the first night together at my place he went ballistic. “How can you have that on? There is a draft!” He drove a little convertible at the time, a Mazda Miata. I found it confusing that when we had the top down, everything was all fine but when we had the top “up”, we couldn’t have the windows “down” because then there would be a “draft” and he would get a cold. It may sound crazy but I have experienced the truth that he indeed gets a cold if the windows are open in the car. Makes for hot driving in the summer since we don’t have air conditioning in the car.

Germans know no pity when it comes to “draft”. Many’s the time when riding on the train with the window open because the air conditioning didn’t work, I would be amazed that someone would come from a seat some way away and demonstratively shut the window by my head muttering the word “draft” as if that would explain being so rude. They have unbelievable antennae for such things.

But the funniest thing is that after living almost twenty years in Germany, I now feel a “draft” and ask people to shut doors or windows. I rarely open the window in the car or in the train anymore. And I may even be noticing the quality of air in some of the rooms or places I walk into. I don’t know if it is my imagination or indoctrination but there you are. Air had become a “thing” for me, too.

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