Come Sing a Song of Joy!

NYE

“Shall we get dressed and go out this New Year’s Eve?” “Why?”

Once you get to a certain age let’s face it.  New Year’s Eve is about as exciting as taking out the trash.   In fact I can’t remember the last time I actually stayed up until midnight.

But there was a time when I drank champagne and toasted in the New Year in something other than sweats… really!

My most memorable New Year’s Eve was the inspiration for this scene from the Graduation Present:


I felt like telling Uncle Bob  that it was his fault for leaving me at the officers’ club, slightly tipsy and vulnerable. His fault that light snow fell as we floated along the river in a tide of other young people, Beethoven’s “Ode of Joy” blaring from every restaurant barge, café and tavern:
Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken.
And then, giddily we’d made up our own lyrics:
Weiner Schnitzel,
Bitte Danke,
Guten Tagen, Wiedersehen! 
We were in a snow-globe world. Sam from Colorado, Elkesnowglobe on the prowl, Gil, me and a few others whose names I never caught, shoes clacking on cobblestone streets, singing silly verses, laughing till our breath froze. We arrived at the station just as the last train to Heidelberg was pulling out. “Run!” Sam screamed as we joined the crowd of young Germans rushing the train. The conductor soon gave up trying to stop us, the joyous rapture having overcome even him.
The scene on board that train was so chaotic, rowdy, and full of drunken revelers it was impossible for our group to stay together. Gil grabbed my hand and pulled me through the mob. “Let’s go to the next car!” he yelled as I followed behind.
Two crowded cars down we finally found a seat and snuggled together by the window as the train rambled along. For once in my life, I didn’t feel the need to talk. I was content to listen to the clanking of the wheels and the laughter coming from the next car, while Gil fiddled with my hair “looking for split ends,” he claimed with a chuckle.
CastleHeidelberg Castle sits on a hill overlooking the town of Heidelberg. Its fortress walls, easily spanning several city blocks, were lit by a barrage of pastel lights. “Wow,” I blurted out. “It’s magical! Like Disneyland!”
The crowd on the train erupted as we entered the Heidelberg station: “Hoorah! Happy New Year!” The shouting continued as the train slowed to a stop and the doors opened. “Hoorah! Happy New Year!” the mob roared as they jumped from the train and began running up the hill. 
Along the route, street vendors sold beer and kazoos to hoards of half-drunk revelers. In that moment we were not German or French or Italian or even American. We were free from the past, free from our separate islands of prejudice as we sang “Come sing this song of joy” and marched uphill to storm the storybook castle with shared humanity.
fireworksWe’d just managed to reach the middle of town when the fireworks began, first as fizzles in the falling snow, and then, mini starbursts in the clouds, promptly followed by the crashing booms of hearts on fire. They continued for thirty minutes, gaining in intensity until the sky filled with iridescent glitter falling to earth around us. Redemption, absolution. The conclusion, a spectacular silver and gold explosion, lit the medieval castle, exposing the ghosts of past inhabitants, barbarians who, decked out in their armor and jewels, stood on the fortress for a chance at peace.
Come sing this song of Joy.

Just for you on the brink of a new year:

Ode

 

Against all hope on a darkening evening in a year of grief, in a year of pain, in a year of dim visions and dimmer thoughts, still sing, sing and share the dream.

Happy New Year’s Everyone!

Happy Hour and Frisky Little Titties

Map

Occupation of Germany post WWII

In the early seventies Germany was very much an occupied country. According to Wikipedia, at one time there were over 196 military “installations,” which could be anything from an army barracks to a training area, storage facility or depot. Gradually they’ve been closed or consolidated; today there are only 42 and that number will be dropping in the next couple of years unless the cold war heats up. Let’s hope, dear God, it does not.

The only Americans who really understand what it’s like to live an occupied county are Native Americans. The rest of us cannot imagine having foreign troops on our soil, driving their tanks down our roads, building their bases on land that could be used for housing, disrupting our festivals, and, in many cases, sadly, raping our women. I’m not saying it wasn’t necessary to have so many troops stationed there. I’m just saying it affected the psyche of both the occupiers and the occupied. From the German perspective: Americans bought their food cheaply on army bases, received gas coupons to alleviate the exorbitant price of petro, and, with the money they were saving, hired local women to scrub their toilets.

Happy Hour

The college students I met reacted by becoming well versed on American atrocities and thus were more than happy to jump at the chance to point out just what an evil group of materialistic, war-mongers we Americans were. I’d been raised politely and thus didn’t point out Germany’s recent past, besides I knew they were lashing out however they could. And the Americans? Well, they tried to maintain little oceans of Americana on the bases – softball games, Indian Princesses, Cub Scouts and of course that very necessary of American traditions: Happy Hour.

It was the night of a thousand peanuts; casings and skins littered the bar and floor. When one bowl emptied, another was brought forth from beneath the bar to replace it as gin and tonics replaced Heinekens, shirts were loosened, ties were flung to the side, and jokes became raunchier and raunchier. Happy hour at the officers’ club was in full swing.

This week I’m throwing in an extra excerpt from the Graduation Present.  Our young protagonist (Riley) has just been picked up from the airport by her uncle and they’re driving through the German countryside to his home.  The captivating Gil and Oncle Boob are in the front seat chatting as Riley enjoys the scenery from the back.

This green landscape seemed so clean, so pure. The land of happy villagers, peaceful, loving peasants and urbane, chic, and sophisticated Europeans. I’d arrived.
“Gilberto, did you get a look at the knockers on Lou’s new secretary?” Uncle Bob blurted out, destroying my revelry.
“Molly, you mean Molly, right?”
“Yeah, I guess that’s her name. You know, the big ones are fun to cuddle but there is something to be said for frisky little titties. The French have a saying that the perfect size tit fits into a champagne glass. What do you think of that Gilberto? You like the little bitty titties?”
“Ah, Uncle Bob. I’m in the backseat,” I reminded him.
“So? You got a thing against tits?”
“I can’t believe I actually thought you were a spy.”
UncleBobSpies don’t like tits?”

Through Other Eyes

The first time I went to Europe, so full of romantic illusions and so desperately naive that it’s painful to think back upon that time, many things took me by surprise. First, it wasn’t Disneyland.

"Jan at fifteen"  by Connemoira

“Jan at fifteen” by Connemoira

Second, the war which seemed so long ago to me, still hung over the continent as if it had happened the day before I arrived.  I will never forget seeing WWII, not from across an ocean, but through the eyes of people who’d lived through it and for whom it remained a constant shadow.

However, what gave me the most pause were the lowered expectations of the young people I met. In America, everyone wants to be a movie star or athlete. In America, it’s drummed into our heads that not only could everyone go to college but everyone should want to go to college, as well as buy a house, a car, twelve television sets and membership at the local golf course. To do otherwise was – for my generation – lazy, degenerate behavior, ultimately resulting in a life spent on the street with a bottle of gin hidden in a paper bag.

Thus, running into young villagers perfectly happy to remain at home, with a life no better than their parents, caused me to rethink American values.

I lived in a village unchanged for hundreds of years and populated by people of Slavic descent who’d migrated there for political reasons. As in many small villages in Europe, during the day there were practically no young people on the streets, only old women tending small children. The parents of the children and young people old enough to work, commuted to one of the larger cities nearby.villagepeg

I met Inga and Hans only because they were both on vacation; he was on leave from the army and she was taking a short breather before training to become a shop clerk. They lived with their folks and had no immediate plans to move out. Nor was college or a car a remote possibility.

From the Graduation Present: It depressed me to see young people my age without the hunger to change the world or to rise up the ladder to what we in American defined as success; more money, more power; greater knowledge than our parents. But, on the other hand, they were happy, content, and secure, on a path that wouldn’t lead to an uncomfortable place. I envied them in a way. If I told my parents: “I just want to live with you the rest of my life, work in the local store, maybe travel a bit,” they’d blow a gasket.

I regret to say that after I returned stateside, I got a letter from Inga and Hans asking if they could stay with me when they came to the United States. My life was then in such flux that I never responded.

Oncle Boob’s Fest Hopping Strategy

I found out the hard way that in many parts of the world smiling at strangers is considered very odd behavior –

Grandmother after more than a few vodkas.

Grandmother after more than a few vodkas.

which presented a problem for me as my father had ground into my head from early on that frowning causes your jowls to droop prematurely and if I didn’t maintain a cheerful countenance at all times I would look like my grandmother.

Riley O (in the Graduation Present) is similarly clueless as she wanders through the tiny village where her uncle lives for the first time:

 “The square plots of yard, along with driveways and garages, began disappearing as I neared the center of town. Ancient stone buildings huddled together on the streets, forcing the few pedestrians—primarily middle-aged women dragging children behind them on leashes while juggling canvas bags full of produce—to walk in the road. They scowled at me as if I were a child murderer. They even scowled when I smiled at them.”

In Germany this no-no flies out the window during fest season, a two week long orgy of beer, wine, sex, and singing during which the entire country sheds its stoicism in favor of a frat party mentality. To illustrate this point, an indiscretion committed during fest season cannot be used as grounds for a divorce so if you’re going to cheat on your frau, do it in September. During these two weeks, villages scattered throughout the wine growing regions throw street parties featuring bratwurst smothered in onions and sauerkraut, tastings of the local wine and beer, and sometimes music. In the larger towns the fests are held in giant, circus-like tents with picnic tables, polka bands and beer maids in their sexy costumes. Everyone drinks, everyone sings and a whole lot of flirting goes on.festjpeg

Many young people engage in the sport of “fest-hopping,” mapping out routes that’ll insure they hit the most number of beer-tastings possible.  Uncle Bob (whom the villagers called Oncle Boob after his niece Riley arrives in town) is a champion fest-hopper. In the following excerpt he is forced to re-evaluate his strategy while he and Riley await the arrival of a late friend.

 He had meticulously drawn out our route the night before on a map he’d attained of all the fests in the area. He’d rated each and every one in case we weren’t able to attain his ultimate goal of visiting them all. The prize, which he held a record number of times, was bragging rights at happy hour. On his map, the Must Visit fests were circled in red while the Nice to Visits were circled in blue. Each fest was also given a priority level of one through five.
“I’d better reassess my plans,” he complained after another half hour passed. He pulled out the map and began studying his fest-hopping route with all the seriousness of a four star general planning a sneak attack against a much better equipped enemy. “The Leusdorf fest will have to be downgraded to a four. It’s too far east. We couldn’t possibly swing back to Klingerbrick and still make Rheinfell. Goddamnit Newsome! It’s almost ten!”

Excerpt: In Honor of Those Boys

Cemetary-2

American Military Cemetery in Normandy

Ten years ago, just before the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day, my husband and I took a trip to Normandy. We stayed in the tiny fishing village of Grandcamp Maisy on the marshlands below Pointe du Hoc, a 100 foot promontory overlooking the English Channel. Because the cliff was the highest point between the beaches which came to be known as Omaha and Utah, the Germans massively fortified it.
Mural-1

This mural depicting the Siege of Pointe du Hoc

Every morning we would have our coffee beneath a mural depicting the US Ranger Battalion’s insanely brave assault and capture of the pointe using ropes and other mountain climbing tools.  Anyone traveling in Europe can’t help but be reminded of the war.  Even a naive and often silly young woman, like Riley O’Tannen is profoundly affected by the stories she hears.
OmahaBeach

Omaha Beach, Normandy, France

From the Graduation Present

“I thought of those young kids from small-town America, about to jump from a rattletrap plane into the unknown, for that one last moment believing Hollywood crap of fame and glory, then dropping with fewer chances than a duck in a shooting arcade into an alien land, a land they’d been assured would include cheering crowds and willing women, which they would never see because they would splat like frogs into marshes filled with dung or float to earth full of bullet holes. And they were the lucky ones.”

Excerpts – Putzfraus and Bidets

I always dreamt of seeing Europe (the castles, the quaint villages, the timeless cities) so as soon as I was old enough I jumped at the chance to study foreign languages.
My first French teacher, Madame Burkholder, had us spend all our time memorizing dialogues in which we pretended to be young French students going to the library. It must have worked because after three years, the only phrases I remember to this day are Ou est la biblioteque? and Le matin papa apporter mon frère, ma soeur et moi au musee du Louvre
Two phrases I have never ever used in all my travels.  Who asks to go to the library in a country where they can barely speak let alone read the native language?
In high school I decided to branch out to German.
HerrAsmusMy teacher, Herr Asmus (that really was his name), looked just like Ichabod Crane.  His class was held in the same room used for Sex Education.  Thus my most enduring memory of Hairy Asmus was of him turning to a diagram on the wall beside him and snorting in disgust “How can I be expected to teach German with this  giant penis staring me in the face????”  We spent most of our time pretending to be tour guides.  The only phrase I remember from that class is:  Im Jahr 1950 König Ludwig der Zweite hatte diese berühmte Schloss geschlossen.
 Since no one in Germany ever asked me when King Louis the Second closed his famous castle,  I never had a chance to use that phrase either.  In fact the first person in Germany I  tried to communicate with was a cleaning lady.  That experience inspired the following scene from the Graduation Present.  Riley O’Tannen has just spent her first morning in the tiny town of Gunthersblum trying to communicate with her uncle’s cleaning lady (Putzfrau).  Around noon she receives a call from her uncle and takes off for Worms where he works hoping to have her first real german meal, but instead she is picked up at the train station by the intriguing young man she met the night before, Gil, and driven to the Officers’ Club for a burger.
cropped-envelope21.jpg

From Chapter Two of the Graduation Present

 

 

 

 

“Your uncle’s only on his first martini,” Gil explained wryly. “So, he sent me to get you. He’s only got an hour for lunch which doesn’t leave a lot of time for …”

“Booze.” I muttered to which he laughed.

When I’m nervous or self-conscious I become a regular Chatty Cathy and so it was with poor Gil as we drove through the streets of Worms. First he had to hear all about the train station that was also the Post Office, the conductor who thought I’d changed identities between stations and kept demanding to see my passport, the Putzfrau and her cleaning fetishes and finally, regretfully, my confusion over the two toilets in Uncle Bob’s bathroom.

bidet

What do Americans use bidets for?  Soaking their tired footsies, of course.

 

“Well, that seals it,” he teased. “You are a country bumpkin! The second toilet is a bidet. It’s for washing up that part of your anatomy after you go.”

 

 

What’s the most useless phrase you ever learned in a language class?
Next time:  cooking lesson with Oncle Boob.  Eggs with Hats, the sure cure for any hangover.

Excerpts – Lapin au Jus

For the next couple of weeks I’ll be posting excerpts from the Graduation Present.  I’ve chosen these excerpts based on early reader feedback.  I hope you enjoy them!
The following scene takes place in a Parisian restaurant where the FrenchRestaurantmain character (Riley O’Tannen) is having dinner with her chaperone (the wealthy, mysterious  and very gay Lou Raferman) and Mrs. C. (an English acquaintance and founding member of the Deadly Dames Book Club)

****************

“How do you say ‘you are such wonderful waiters’?” I asked Lou, interrupting their conversation. He arched his eyebrows.

“How many glasses of wine have you had, my dear?”

“Oh, I dunno. They just keep giving me more.”

“Well, perhaps you should pace yourself. The main course is next and it’s something you want to save your palate for. People make reservations months in advance just to taste Chef Michel’s lapin au jus!”

Lapin, I thought. What the heck was that? Before I had a lapinchance to ask, the main course arrived. The lump of browned meat on my plate slightly resembled a very plump chicken thigh. It was covered with sauce and dressed with grilled celery.

“Doesn’t ‘lapin’ mean ‘rabbit’?” I asked Lou.

“No, it means ‘Hare,’” he replied rather stiffly.

I poked the meat with my fork. It jiggled. Not only did they expect me to eat a bunny, but an underdone bunny. A bunny butchered by some horrible man in a dirty apron, then hung outside a shop to drip blood onto the sidewalk. Once it had bunnyhad soft fur and a funny little nose. Once it had hopped merrily through fields doing harm to no one. Then it was slaughtered.

“I can’t eat this,” I said to the waiter. “I’m too full. J’ai trop mange.” The waiter looked at me aghast.

“My dear, it’s the chef’s signature dish! You must eat it.” Lou commanded, “Mange, mange!”

“It’s a bunny, Mr. Raferman. A bunny!”

“It is a hare and you must eat it!”

I began to sob. “I can’t.” Tears ran down my face and onto the bunny. The waiter grabbed my plate.

chef louis“Végétarienne!” He sniffed. Lou’s mouth fell open. He glanced towards the kitchen as though at any moment the chef would emerge with a cleaver. Then he stood up, threw money on the table, and announced we were leaving.

Motto: If you insult the chef in Paris, run for your life.