13 March 2012

Bah, Humbach

I can't believe I haven't shared this story with you yet, but there are some vague references to it in upcoming recipes, so study up!  (The unabridged version can be found in my book of essays, Driving a Rental Car in Heels ...and Other Adventures of a Traveling Musician).




Just after I graduated from college, I headed off to southern Germany for three months to participate in
an opera festival.  I never completely understood the circumstances of this festival; the singers were a
mixture of students in supporting roles and up-and-coming "stars" in the lead roles.  The orchestra, which
had been whittled down from full size to chamber, comprised students from my alma mater and a couple
others.  I auditioned on campus for some very serious German people whom I never saw again, and one
month later the letter came in the mail that I would be spending my post-graduation summer in Bavaria.  I
felt just like the ivy-leaguers of yore who did those post graduation European trips, only I'd be working it
off in my first real, paying gig!  How cool was that?  How cool, indeed...

The flight was a blur of pure agony, waiting in lines for what seemed like an eternity, a six hour
plane ride sitting next to a graduate voice student who fancied herself the supreme diva, if not in talent,
then certainly in demeanor, and a very cranky German stewardess who guarded the water and orange
juice as if it was her own personal supply for the entire of the flight.  When we arrived at the airport in
Munich, we were herded through customs in a daze, exuberantly hugged by a very tall gentleman we
would come to call our boss, and herded again into a few vans for a 90 minute drive through the Bavarian
countryside to the charming hamlet of Humbach.  I passed out soon after taking my seat between a
sweaty, morbidly obese tenor and a wiry, foul-mouthed violinist.  I came to, crammed into a kitchen with
many long, narrow tables set up picnic-style. Seriously, I don't remember how I got there.  Did someone
carry me?  I just hoped it wasn't that sweaty guy, who was already starting to give me meaningful glances
from across the room.

We were seated amidst big crusty loaves of bread, plentiful carafes of red wine, and piles of
plump gray sausages while listening to a rousing welcome from our previous airport greeter (and boss),
Marco.  I skipped the sausages and loaded up on carbs and booze (a habit I would repeat daily for the next
three months in Germany, where vegetarians are tolerated but not welcome), tried to focus my vision on a
single object (any would do) and concentrated on what sounded like directions and pertinent information.
I failed miserably at the last two tasks, but the cellist took me by the arm and filled me in while leading
me back (egad!) to the van.  And then it was on to my new summer home, a quaint little bed and breakfast
located along a picturesque pond on the edge of the Black Forrest.

We met our haus frau, whose English was horrid, but she managed to gesture toward things
enough to communicate that she would take our sheets and towels for cleaning and exchanging.  What we
didn't understand at the time was that she was telling us this would only occur once per month.  I looked
out the window to the pond.  Guests (the ones who were actually paying) lay out on the little rickety
docks with picnic baskets nearby, catching some sun in these pre-cancer paranoid days.  They all seemed
pretty old and wrinkly, and the women didn't look particularly enticing in their white two-pieces.  Come
to think of it, why were they all wearing white two-piece suits?. . .  It was their underwear.  These
grandmothers were sunbathing in their skivvies, not a care in the world.  Welcome to Germany.
At dinner we met the leading ladies and men of the two operas we would perform.  They were
definitely older and had the aura of seasoned performers, at least to my 21-year-old sensibilities.  I would
later learn that they were mostly Canadians who couldn't find work in North American companies
because the competition was too stiff, and they had singing problems or acting problems that were
hanging them up, not to mention their drinking problems.

Dinner was, of course, more grilled meats, which in Germany are rarely identifiable slabs cut
from single animals, but rather ground up bits from various animals and body parts reconstituted into
palatable shapes.  There were some mayonnaise-based salads, some over-cooked green beans, and lots of
bread and beer.  I felt like I hadn't left the Midwest, except that I couldn't understand a word anyone was
saying.  It was disconcerting when middle aged men seemed to be laughing and pointing in my general
direction, but otherwise it was really quite freeing.  I was like a child, a dazed child who relies on the
kindness of strangers and trips through the day oblivious to the complexities around her.  It was a bit
magical, especially in my jetlagged state.  The multiple steins of beer didn’t hurt the situation, either.  

Rehearsals, we learned at the end of the night, would commence in the morning (why give
directions to a bunch of drunks?  I mean, really) – so, 8am for the orchestra, 10am for the singers so as
not to strain their voices.  We would break for lunch, which we could make in the theater with the
groceries we kept there once we got to go grocery shopping, rehearse again, separately, in the afternoon,
have dinner in the theater (needed groceries again for that), and then we’d put things together at night.
We would work this way for three weeks, at which time we would then open the theater for 10
performances.  Once we began performing the show, we would have more free time; mornings off to
recover from hangovers, rehearsal in the afternoon, dinner and the show for the first week, then just
shows.  So, slave labor to start would eventually give way to some great opportunities to slip away and
enjoy the area. But first, we had to get through these three weeks.

There were drivers assigned to our various homes who would pick us up at designated times for
rehearsals, performances, and errands.  These drivers were all power-hungry idiots.  Actually, ours was
not power-hungry, just an idiot.  He was the nineteen-year-old boyfriend of my whiniest, most grating
housemate, and therefore had to obey her every whim before taking care of basic responsibilities like, oh I
don't know, taking me to rehearsal.  And because I was the only instrumentalist in my house, stranded
amongst a sea of singers, my schedule was different from everyone else in my area and often caused
much confusion.  The first morning, at 7:45am, I started to panic and began randomly calling drivers'
numbers.  I was still out here!  Was anyone coming to get me???  I shouldn't have worried.  Brett
appeared eventually--at 7:58.  Brett was not good at estimating how much time it took to get from point A
to point B, so we were, despite some very dicey moments on those narrow, winding mountain roads, five
minutes late.  When I arrived, the conductor looked at me sternly and said something severe-sounding in
German.  I had no German skills so I sheepishly apologized in English and explained that my driver was
very late picking me up.  He said, in pinched English, "Ach, don't be such a tattle-tale, vill you?  Ees OK."
Alright, then.


Rehearsal went pretty well. The problem came when we broke for lunch.  Recall that we would
be allowed to use the kitchen when we had food to prepare, but we hadn't been given the opportunity to
get groceries, the nearest full-service store being 30 minutes away.   Now we had exactly one hour before
we had to be back in our seats for the next rehearsal, and there was no food to eat.  Well, actually, the
fridge was loaded with food--some of the more enterprising singers had gone shopping before their 10am
rehearsal while we were slaving away in the pit.  But we all knew we'd be starting some kind of war if we
took their food and promised to replace it later.  So we did what any enterprising musicians would do—
we found a bottle of tequila and a bottle of red wine tucked away in the pantry and we pounded that stuff
like it was liquid gold.  Afternoon rehearsal was a bit like an out-of-body experience, but our stomachs
stopped growling.

**************
Our little adventures were really the highlight of the gig.  Once the show began, we went to Vienna,
where we spent two days locked out of our rental car before we had managed to get out of the expensive
inner ring of the city for the night.  So, two of us checked in to the swankiest hotel I have ever laid eyes
on to this day, and the other four snuck up the stairs when no one was looking, all sharing two
complimentary toothbrushes and towels.  We had the time of our lives.  We saw naked people wandering
around the city park (we found this in Munich, too--interesting that the saggy-breasted in central Europe
are so comfortable with themselves) and had some tasty coffee.  In Venice, a vendor on the piazza gave
me a pair of lovely earrings because I reminded her of her sister, and in Milan we lived the highlife in a
time when the American dollar traded very favorably against the Italian lyre.  In Salzburg we ate our
weight in beautiful, chocolaty Mozartkugel (alright, that was just me) and enjoyed amazing free concerts
at the Mozarteum.  It slowly began to dawn on me that we were living in a rather posh little vacation area
of Bavaria and that we were actually cheap labor and entertainment for rich business people and tourists.
I was foreign labor without a work permit!

The next two months were a haze of rehearsals, performances, trips, and booze, but I do recall
that our last night in Germany was rather exciting.  The local news channel had come to broadcast clips
from the show and do some interviews with the cast in a special feature about the festival.  Of course, the
old drones down in the pit weren't asked any questions--the boob-popping singers' costumes proved far
more enticing--but I'm pretty sure half of my left ear made it on screen.  After the show, there were lavish
bouquets of flowers with cards for each of us along with mini bottles of champagne, which we
unceremoniously slammed as soon as we could figure out how to open them.  We were cheap dates after
not eating for so many hours, and only after we began stumbling around did it become apparent that the
theater had been reorganized to make room for dancing on the floor, with a lot of well-dressed, middle
aged people standing around pumping our boss, Marco's, arm.  For the next several hours (who knows
how long, really?), we young gals were introduced to the wealthy-looking men while the male leads were
cloistered over near their yuppie wives, trying to remain standing upright (there was a lot more wine and
beer available after the champagne) and refusing or accepting offers to dance or sing at the piano.  I'm not
implying that Marco was trying to pimp us out, but these people's names did appear on the programs as
donors.

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

I don't recall how I got home all that clearly.  I remember drinking a lot of tequila while crammed in to
my friend's guest room across the pond later that night, and I vaguely recall being rather crabby and
dehydrated the next day at the airport. I can say that I learned these things:  Tequila is very cheap in
Germany. . .  Those charming, authentic cuckoo clocks?—they’re not worth shipping home; they're made
in China. . . . .  And don't be such a tattle-tale, vill you?  Ees OK.

Not amused.