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2005-03-23 - 7:31 p.m.

...the choir comes to the USA....

Sunday, 20 March 2005 I am sitting now on the famed Acela Express train from Boston to New York City. It is a Monday morning and I should be working….but after an exhilarating and exhausting weekend, I’ve decided to take a few moments to relax and watch the last of the New England snow-covered scenery pass by my window. This weekend marked the introduction of my German choir to America, and it was a fabulous experience, more overwhelming than I could have imagined. Saturday morning I took a taxi to Penn Station, a train to Boston South Station, and the T out to Alewife. There I met Jakob (a piano player and tenor in the choir – he had just spent two weeks in Camden, NJ visiting his sister). Sandra, the choir director of the Nashua Unitarian Universalist Church, met us and drove us back to Nashua. She came in her champagne colored 4x4, equipped with son Jesse in the front seat. Jesse is an art student, complete with pierced lip, buzz-cut hair, and seemingly sardonic humor. It took a minute to get used to the mode of communication in this family – lots of bantering. We went directly to Sandra’s house – Jesse disappeared almost as quickly as the two cats appeared. And within minutes, the big grey coon cat Gabey was settled happily (and rather permanently) in Jakob’s lap. We enjoyed a fairly relaxed cup of tea/coffee (Jakob not moving, of course) before we left the house in a flurry of good-humored banter towards the church. “I told you, the bags are in the closet!” “Oh yeah? WHERE in the closet.” “Okay, so the bags AREN’T in the closet! You’re still lucky to have me around!” “Oh yeah?” “YEAH!” etc. etc…. Here the whirlwind began, and from the beginning I was overwhelmed by the hospitality of this group of people. We arrived at the church and immediately dove into the exercise of setting up chairs, tables, dishes, glasses…etc. Gradually the church members trickled in with their potluck dishes. Lasagne! Salad! Corned Beef and Cabbage! Pasta! more Salad! It was a feast of feasts. There was even a red jello salad (for what would a church potluck be without a jello salad?). And there the food sat….and there we sat staring at it..….fellowshipping….and fellowshipping….and waiting for the arrival of the Germans. I guess one large miscalculation in all of this planning was that the first experience on American roads was navigating out of Logon Airport directly into the battlegrounds of Boston traffic. It took many of them several hours to maneuver their way up to Nashua. One point of confusion that I had not even considered was the practice of highway exit labels that change from state to state, and that the exit numbers restart at 1 at the beginning of the next state. The Nashua exit was the 7th exit in New Hampshire. But the last exits in Massachusetts were numbered 31, 32, 33….And so some of the Germans spent hours circling Boston in minivans looking for exit numbers that might remotely approach the correct numbers… Okay, so by 8pm, the fellowshipping Unitarians and Jakob and I could stand it no longer. We dove onto the food just as the first Germans arrived, looking harrowed, jetlagged, exhausted..and relieved to be there. I hugged everyone of them. (or tried to). My hunger was pushed aside by the excitement of seeing old friends. Each time a new batch arrived, I leapt up to greet them. I felt it most strongly when the two Renates arrived – two who escorted and took care of me on our gospel trains to Dresden, and the North Sea, and the Baltic. I could hold back the tears no longer when “Flossy” (tall Renate) repeated, “Wir sind in Amerika!!” The feeling was unbelievable for me, too. As the weekend progressed, the sense of what an impossibility this visit would have been not so long ago. My heart has filled with such warmth and pride. I feel that I have been part of a truly good thing in helping this trip to happen. The Jena Jubilee Singers have made it to America. They have sung gospel music in America, and so far it has been received with such warmth and enthusiasm. Saturday night I was one of six or seven women who slept on the top floor of the church community room, and I suspect that I was the only one who was not too tired to fall immediately asleep. It took me a long time to wind down. I kept thinking of all of our prior trips where we slept in sleeping bags in common rooms on the floor, listening to Norbert and Frank-Reiner sawing a log the size of Kansas. This night I finally fell asleep...and woke myself up snoring! Fortunately, I knew that (a) I was the closest to the noise, and (b) everyone else was so exhausted that they probably heard nothing from me. Our Sunday morning started early (with our hearing Frank-Reiner's snores through the floor below us...) and began with a tremendous breakfast baked by church members. Eggs baked in cream, sausage, mushrooms and cream (did I say cream twice?), fresh bread, fruit, yogurt, cheese, meats, granola…COFFEE (and fair trade coffee, no less…). It was fantastic. We began our warm up and rehearsed with the church choir for a few minutes. It was wonderful to be so closely packed in a corner of the church to sing in a mixed group. Sandra has a casual style and I could see that the Germans were greatly amused by some of her onomatopoetic utterances… The service began and once again I found myself watching the Germans for their reactions to a Unitarian church service. I could tell that its more casual nature was a surprise to many of them. Announcements from the floor. Jokes. As the two choirs packed themselves like sardines into a corner of the church, one of the choir members yelled out to the congregation, “Why don’t you all just come up here, we can see how many will fit…” The comment was met with laughter. We were, in fact, doing a little bit of a clowns-in-the-Volkswagen routine. But it was a great way to begin our trip, singing in unison with a choir from America, and then to sit and listen to the music that they performed - a piece with somewhat complicated rhythms and very interesting harmonies (and a clarinet obligato! - after my own heart as I am also a clarinetist...). It has been many years since I’ve been able to attend a Unitarian service, but as the chalice and candles were lit, I felt another set of tears upon me. Mind you, I tend to have slightly incontinent tear ducts, but it was wonderful for me to be reminded of how I felt the first time I entered the First Unitarian Church in St. Louis. Something in my heart just said, “Yes. I can be in this sanctuary and still be true to myself.” I sat watching our German guests, wondering what they thought of the service. I am sure that it was strange. But alas, I think that the English was too quick, and the pull of jetlag too strong. Many were struggling against grogginess. We sang two songs in the service and were well-received by the congregation, and then the service was concluded. But the day was just beginning. Next came coffee and tea, and cakes, and then lunch…I had a long involved, and somewhat heated discussion with a member of the Nashua choir about our different ideas about how to improve our current political system. I didn’t agree with him on many points, but I nevertheless find it interesting and useful to listen to other people’s ideas. Discourse is sometimes difficult, but necessary. Nobody likes disagreement. But then again, it is refreshing to have the opportunity to disagree without yelling – to listen and be listened to. And then the rehearsals….They lasted a looonnnnng time. But the 2+ hours of rehearsals were needed. We were able to work with the sound technician and make the pieces very professional. And then began the concert. The church had a very good-sized audience, and we entered singing the Jubilee Singers song. From the start, the audience erupted into loud applause. I cannot speak for my fellow singers, but I was placed immediately at ease, and knew that this would be a phenomenal concert. It was the worst time of day for jetlag, and yet I couldn’t tell if they were suffering. Only in one solo by Trevor did I realize that we had been singing ALL day, but like the energizer bunny it just kept going! I came down to sing “I’m going to live the life I sing about in my song,” with Marcus, also our jazz church organist. Marcus has always been the jokester in our choir. He has the ability to say 3-4 words that cause the choir to erupt into laughter. For the longest time in Germany I could not understand his humor – a clever and quick wit – humor with words. Although I frequently could not understand him, I so appreciated this humor – because in English I like to do the same. In a sense I envied him, because in Germany, I was handicapped by the absence of words. Once I said to him, “I don’t understand what you’ve just said…but I know that it was funny.” About few years ago, Marcus approached me and asked if I would sing this solo with him. Having never sung a solo before, I gulped and said yes. Part of me was terrified, and another part thrilled by the opportunity given to me – in essence a dream come true. In 2003, we almost lost Marcus in a near-fatal car accident. His recovery would take months, but in this time I was determined to throw whatever German words I could at him on postcards, to let him know how much his recovery meant to us, to me. And indeed his recovery has been remarkable – reconstructed hand and leg – and he is back playing the organ as before. As I stood in this church in Nashua, I realized that this could easily be the last time that I could perform with this remarkable man, but the chance to sing with him in America was another gift, another dream come true. Once again, I choked back a few tears, and turned them into a determination simply to sing from depths of my heart. My heart made me forget the words. I sang the first verse twice…but I think that I was forgiven, for it was the feeling that mattered. The final teary-eyed moment struck during the performance of Fragile, a piece performed with bass guitar (Martin), keyboard (Jakob), percussion (Stefan), solo guitar (Yvonne), solo voice (Carsten), and choir (us). The piece is wonderfully performed. The musicians do a superb job, and Carsten has a wonderful, natural feel for the music. This time I listened to final text of the chorus, Within the context of the song, and our current political climate, it makes me think of the senselessness of war… “Blood will flow and flesh and steel are one…Tomorrow’s rain will wash our tears away, but something in our eyes will always stay…On and on the rain will fall, like tears from a star. On and on the rain will say how fragile we are..” This tear trickled fully down my right cheek upon reflection of the state of the world today. The concert and day ended in wild pandemonium of speaking with audience members, translating phrases, and more hugging. We went to margaritas for an open bar and snacks. Those pumped full of adrenaline were not so interested in food, but we certainly enjoyed some hours of conversing and chatting. I talked more with our choir members, and had another great opportunity to talk with Sandra and Stan. One point that I noticed and that impressed me greatly: in spite of the natural tendency of groups to congregate with the familiar, the majority of the tables at Margaritas were mixed. Americans sat with Germans. People were making a concerted effort to know and talk to each other. I have left with the feeling that the choir could not have started in a better, more open place than the Unitarian Church in Nashua. I have many lasting memories of the people of Nashua: * Don sleeping over in the church, and finding him early on Sunday morning with Annette, a pad of paper, and a dictionary, as he tried to find out just who she was. * Carol with her broomstick and her pillowcases, quietly arranging things, and making sure that I knew where the warmest water was and where the choir could sleep, and quickly fetching the marker for the plastic wine cups. * Beth and her son making a deep impression on my friend Anke with their knowledge and appreciation of Ramstein! * Don standing on the front steps of the church with Carsten at 7am on Monday morning – a time before my body has agreed to start BREATHING - dripping with sweat because they had just returned from a run together * Ellen in her black blouse and colorful scarf, directing organizational traffic, and in her kindness helping to resolve misunderstandings with humor and directness * Sandra and Stan offering to adopt Birgit (between bickers, of course) * Don offering his guitar to the choir for their entire journey * Trevor’s "host mother" expressing pride because HER guest sang a solo * Barbara’s gourmet delight: STRATA * The endless quantities of wonderful food, and smiles, and thoughtfulness: “Shall we translate the menu for them?” * My German friends saying to me, “These people are so warm and friendly!” There are many further examples. I just hope that the Nashua contingent realized how thankful we all were, and how grateful I am that they opened their hearts and homes to a group of Germans who have meant the world to me.

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