And All That Jazz

One of the best ways to ensure you never get bored in Berlin is to find yourself a jazz musician and then follow the music. I’ve recently become an expert on this particular type of adventuring, and while the preliminary steps now seem to have been quite easy in the remembrance of them, I feel I must provide a small caveat: the search can seem long and fruitless, and perhaps you don’t even like jazz music at all. In that case you might want to go for the late-night DJ’s, but then of course there are the drug problems to deal with. All I have to deal with is a series of interesting people to talk to, all seemingly different from anyone I’ve ever met before, all, I am still shocked to learn, as fascinated by me as I am by them—because I am an American who chose Germany, and because I don’t really belong at their party but they are happy to have a distraction, and because, well, “what the hell am I doing here anyway?” (A question I find myself repeating with amusement, out loud and to myself, every time I end up at one of these places.) Of course I am aware that it helps that he is a musician; if he were a writer like me, perhaps we would never go anywhere; he would retreat into himself as writers do, proclaiming with a glass of strong alcohol in hand, “I must be alone! I need to write!” But that is the nature of writing versus performing I suppose: that the acts of writing and reading—of both making the art and consuming it—must be lonely ones, while music making and music hearing are activities meant to be shared with others. And so he goes out to play at different places and I come along, always ready for the next shared experience, always open to another story to be told.

The first time I accompanied him on one of these jaunts was to a private party he was playing way out in Steglitz, which is in the southwest corner of the city, where mansions sit comfortably as they have for over a hundred years, and Berlin begins to look like any Western European capital. I hadn’t even planned on going, but when I showed up at his house earlier that night for dinner, he proclaimed that I looked dressed for a party and that I should come with him, and suddenly it seemed like a slightly silly but nevertheless intriguing idea. Why not?

I was told we would be going to the mansion that housed what was called Schlagendeverbindung, a kind of Catholic brotherhood that in years past had cut their cheeks to make scars symbolizing their union. I immediately imagined dark hooded cloaks and glowing pale skin, sort of like the monk with license to kill in The Da Vinci Code. What I found instead, once we had arrived and I stood there awkwardly as he unloaded his keyboard and gear, was something entirely different. I saw jolly and friendly old men with large stomachs adorned with medals and chests crossed with different colored ribbons, and younger men—boys almost—still a bit awkward in the presence of a woman their own age. Suddenly they were coming up to me. “Who are you here with? Where do you come from? Can I get you a drink? Food? Can I give you a tour of the house?” I used the opportunity to ask them a bit more about their organization, and found that they were really just a group of normal and unslashed people—young students who had first come to Berlin to study, and older men who agreed to become their mentors—like a fraternity only without the keg parties (I’m assuming). The musicians were playing in the main hallway where a staircase curved up to the second and third floor, and so I staked out this staircase, at the place where it curved, as my perch for the evening. Sitting there as the music started and looking down through the vertical bars of the banister, I had the sense of doing something illicit, like I was a child past my bedtime, creeping downstairs to see “what mommy and daddy were up to.” Once, twice, or many times, I was hit with that “what am I doing here?” feeling, but again, it was with a sense of fond amusement, of realizing that this Jewish girl from New York City was now sitting in the house of an old German Catholic Gemeinschaft.

Next of course I would have to mention the evening less than a week ago, which occurred up in the Brandenburg town—more like a village actually—of Parstein, about an hour North of the city, on a lake called Parsteiner See and a quick drive or slightly longer hike to the Polish border. Parstein is where he spends his time when he’s not in Berlin, at a house that could house ten people, with a garden and a barn and an attic full of possibilities. Apparently in this area, different people from the surrounding towns host evenings of food and music associated with the church, and he had been asked to host one. Undoubtedly the newest member of the small town, he had just started renting the house that previous spring. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the evening, and the thought of being in a room full of people speaking German did not exactly put me at ease, but nevertheless, I had agreed to come up for the night, and I was determined to at least appear relaxed, even if I wasn’t.

We started late and the first guest—a cheerful and patient older woman named, of course, Frau Krause—arrived early, but by the time the room filled up, we had brewed enough _Glühwein_—the German Christmas and dark weather staple—to keep a small village wonderfully drunk, and the dried apricots and plums that I’d carefully arranged with bacon wrapped around them were finished and beckoning. It seemed that everyone who walked in the door had brought some kind of highly fattening and delicious food as well, and pretty soon two tables were completely full. So was the room. And when I came in from my back-and-forth rushing (perhaps a bit unnecessary, but the more occupied I was, I reasoned, the less I would actually have to talk to people), there was only one seat left for me by the door. I filled a glass with Glühwein and sat down to watch him play, but as I looked around at this room full of people, barely one of them under the age of fifty, I could not help but smile. It was either that or laugh out loud. Again, what, exactly was I doing here, and, well, how did I get here? (The words of the Talking Heads song echoing in my head.)

At one point, he signaled that we were going to sing a hymn, and Frau Krause scurried out of the room and brought back hymn books, and everyone turned to the right number and began to sing. I felt like I was infiltrating some secret society, like I was a spy and no one knew I wasn’t supposed to be there. What on earth was I doing there? How crazy! Again, a year and a half ago I didn’t even know I was going to be in Berlin, and now here I was sitting in a house kilometers north of the city, singing a hymn in German. Of course I should have already presumed that people were wondering about me, but the moment of both embarrassment and delight came when he stood up, indicating towards where I was sitting, and said the German equivalent of “Ladies and Gentlemen, my girlfriend Giulia, who came here all the way from New York City.” The laughter was riotous. All the way from New York City to Parstein? Honestly, what on earth was she doing here?

The third event happened last night, and really convinced me that this was fast becoming a trend, and not simply a series of coincidences. He was asked to play the music at the Christmas Party for _Tagesspiegel_—in English the Daily Mirror, a respected German newspaper—and suggested that I come along, noting that it might be a good networking opportunity for me. Since I already had plans to go to a concert that night, it looked like it wouldn’t work out, but at the last moment the concert fell through and it turned out I would be able to go to the party after all. It was set to start at 6, and it only occurred to me at around 5:30 that I might be in for a bit of a challenge. Well, more than that really; I was suddenly frantic at the idea of walking into a room where I knew no one and even worse, would have to speak a language that was not my own in order to even introduce myself. It’s hard enough when you have to make an impression in English.

At the last minute I invited Cora to come too, sure that the entire thing would go smoothly if I had a friend with me. I found the Tagesspiegel office, waltzed in the door like I was supposed to be there and right past the guard at the front desk, and following the sounds of piano and saxaphone, found myself in a bright room with tables adorned with oranges and holly. People were just starting to come down in the elevators from their offices. It was the end of the workday. I caught his eye and we smiled at each other as he played, but I was not yet quite sure what else to do. I got a glass of wine and proceeded to stroll around, observing the people as they came downstairs, their ages, their dress, and how they related to others around them. I am always fascinated by the look of those who work at newspapers, perhaps because I myself would like to work at a newspaper or magazine. It surprises me how normal they all look—these humans who have achieved a position I want—how casual and unaware of what they have already accomplished. I could easily tell that the youngest members of the staff, those who came downstairs dressed sloppily in jeans and sneakers, were looking around with the same sense of anxiety in their eyes that I felt, looking anywhere, for anyone that they could talk to.

I noticed a girl who looked a bit Russian, in a sweater with a striking black and white geometric pattern and perfectly straight black hair, and we just sort of gravitated towards each other and began to talk. I told her I was waiting for a friend and she was too, and we decided to stick together until our respective friends showed up. She admitted to speaking only the slightest bit of English, but I have always found this makes it all the more easy for me: if I have to speak German as the only way to communicate, it suddenly opens me up and takes away my self-awareness. It becomes a necessity instead of a strange conceit that doesn’t really feel like me. Her name was Manja, and she was indeed half Russian. She worked as a graphic designer doing layout for the magazine Tagesspiegel also produces.

She ended up introducing me to her friends, especially a very goofy middle eastern man named Utzi who proceeded to ask jokingly, every time I brought up the name of a female friend, whether she was single or married.

“But you’re married and have three children already!” Manja pointed out playfully.

“No, he’s probably asking for his sons,” I suggested helpfully and hopefully.

“They are eleven, seven, and five,” Utzi replied with a grin.

Others who knew them came up to us at the table where we ate together, and eventually I found myself speaking to a political columnist who gave me his card. Perhaps Christmastime is not the best time for making new job contacts, since no one is really thinking about work, but the fact that I spent hours speaking German at a party and in fact made fast friends with people who took me under their wing and introduced me to others (always with “Sie ist die Freundin des Pianists”—“She is the girlfriend of the pianist” of course) seemed like an accomplishment in and of itself. When the music was over I said goodnight to my pianist, telling him not to talk to too many girls while I wasn’t there, and left the party elated, content, and proud.

There are undoubtedly more occasions such as these, but these are the ones that stand out. These are the ones for which I feel lucky, and for which I must thank him. For without him I would surely have far fewer “what on earth am I doing here?” moments. I would probably be far more complacent by this point, my life far more routine.

Get yourself a jazz musician; you’ll know what I mean.