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2005-04-02 - 12:35 p.m.

..Jena Jubilees – New York Reprise..

I’ve made it to Saturday again, thank goodness, and I am sitting at my computer with the obligatory black purring cat in my lap. Classes were cancelled on Tuesday because of the Easter holiday. I took this to mean that I could zip away to visit the choir once again.

On Monday afternoon, my landlord kindly gave me a ride to the subway station with my luggage (it was pouring rain, just like today), and I headed to Grand Central Station where I took a train up to Garrison, New York, and then a taxi over the Bear Mountain Bridge to the Bear Mountain Inn. I arrived at exactly the same time as one of the choir minivans, and we discovered that the Inn is actually closed for renovation, which meant that we needed to go to the Overlook Lodge that was once more around the traffic circle and up the hill into the Park.

It turns out that the Overlook Lodge was far superior for our purposes! It was a small block-shaped building on the side of Bear Mountain, with large rooms off a dormitory hallway. There was no restaurant, but instead a large common room with tables and sofas, a fabulous balcony, a huge fireplace, and a stunning view of the Hudson River Valley – we used all of these things extensively.

Klaus, Anke, Beate, Annett, and I went directly to Highland Falls to pick up some food for the evening. Our drive was an adventure, and one common theme of the trip was “it’s just a ten minutes from here.” Turns out that the actually duration of ten minutes is rather flexible (read: usually longer than what you think.) We arrived at Key Foods and narrowly avoided driving into a sign post before going in to shop.. I was fascinated to watch how long it took my German friends to find what they needed – it reminded me so much of my shopping tours of Tegut and Globus in Jena. It’s simply not easy to find what you need in a foreign shopping center, where the names and organization are so different! But one thing that we all had trouble finding was the wine. This is because there was no wine, apart from a $4 bottle of some low-alcohol variety. I declared this unacceptable, and sought out directions to a wine store, the closest of which was “just a ten minute drive” over Storm King Mountain in Cornwall.

So over the mountain we went. By this time, darkness and a thick fog had descended over the highway. Now, anyone who has been on the Storm King highway during the day knows that it is a rather stimulating ride. Imagine, then, a winding road up over a mountain, with shear cliffs off to the right, at night and in a fog. After a six-hour drive from Niagara Falls, I can imagine that Klaus was rather tired, and he exercised the German driving practice of using both lanes while moving over sharp turns going over the hill, which causes my blood to pump a little more quickly than normal. In fact, all of the rest of us were rather awake as he took the turns at a somewhat uncomfortable speed. It is my experience that the person behind the wheel has a better feel than the passengers for how the vehicle responds to bumps and turns. Nevertheless, Anke sat alert from the back seat announcing, “another turn to the left. Speed limit, slow down please…water on the road ahead. Turn to the right coming up…” For which we were thankful. Our drive took us to Cornwall, a right behind the hospital, to the liquor store. Our drive home took us somewhere else (i.e. we got lost). We had another freaked out driving moment when Klaus executed a five-point U-turn in the middle of a highway, in the dark with traffic oncoming in both directions. I was able to handle Storm King Highway in the dark fog, but this particular maneuver shortened my life by a few days. Our next adventure occurred at the gas station, where the car keys decided to hide between the seats. Five of us were out with flashlights searching the station – after 5-10 minutes of searching Annett found their snug little hiding place. And so in the end, our “just a ten minute drive” took us close to two hours. But we made it home, and were prepared for a wonderful party at the Lodge.

Apparently we were not the only Jubilees who experienced an adventure reaching the Lodge, and Jubilees gradually trickled into the lodge looking a bit frazzled. One van missed a turn and wound up an hour south on the New Jersey border. Another wound up being directed to the Holiday Inn in Highland Falls, after seeing that the Inn was closed. Carsten was driving this van – he came in with a six-pack of beer and sat in a corner until he had finished five of them. I gather it was a stressful, long drive from Niagara. But apart from these adventures, it was a rather fun evening in front of the fire. It was particular special for me because I had the opportunity to ask a few of the choir members about their visit, and about their experiences. It turns out that many of them were very skeptical about the trip from the start – and each had a good experience to share. They were all fortunate to have had opportunities to speak with host families – so they had the chance to speak to actual Americans who were interested in their having a positive experience in America. I was especially pleased to speak with Marcus. I was made more sentimental because of the wine, but I was glad to have had the chance to share some moments with him.

The next day we divided into groups – several people were going to visit New York City, and several of us hiked up to the top of Bear Mountain, on part of the Appalachian Trail.

Notable was our forging of the creek that was overflowing with Spring meltwater. Some of us (Jakob and Annett) took off their shoes and waded straight across. Some of us (me) went far upstream in search of a more stable crossing. Gratefully, Peter helped me across the water….although I still wound up baptizing my left foot.

It was an exhilarating albeit WET trip up the hill, and the view from the top of the mountain was rather cloud-covered so we didn’t see very much. But I could feel my face lit with a smile the whole time. I suppose my decision to bring the choir to Bear Mountain was a bit selfish – it is only 30-40 minutes from where I lived for seven years, and it was a favorite escape for me during my years in the Hudson Valley. I love the glacially striated blocks of granite, strewn below the trees, the hint of fiddleheads on their way up. Harriman Park will always be a beloved place for me – one with which I associate wonderful memories, and now I can also associate it with the Jubilees.

Our hike down the hill wound up taking quite some time, especially for those of us with old knee injuries (me). I love hiking UP. I have this image of myself hiking higher and higher – as high as I could go – until I reached the top of Mount Everest….And then, like a cat in the treetops, calling from my cellphone and saying, “help me doooowwwwnnnn.” Well, this time fortunately we had a roadway to follow – it was less of a strain on the knees, although it meant that our route was a rather long and wide corkscrew turn down the mountain. A group of us started from the beginning on the road, a group decided to take the trail down. Even though the road travelers were taking a circuitous path, we actually moved a bit faster than the trail hikers who encountered a rather steep, snowy, slippery, and muddy hillside. In the end all but two mountain goats (Frank-Reiner and Jakob) decided for the roadway. Again, it was longer but nevertheless still enjoyable as the road was closed to cars. And as we made one of our last turns down the road, the clouds opened up and the sun shone directly on the Bear Mountain Bridge and the Hudson below it – it was beautiful.

I was fortunate to have the chance to speak to several folks along the trip. Peter and Wolfgang and Holger all took turns carrying my backpack. Renate and Hilde and Walther walked a bit more slowly down the hill with me. Ultimately we were picked up by three of the minivans and we went en masse into Highland Falls for lunch. This time I shared the minivan with Wolfgang, Ulla, Ingrid, and more folks in the back. In four years of knowing Ingrid I have never seen her frown – she is always cheerful. But this was really my first chance to interact with Ulla and Wolfgang, and I have to say that I laughed more in this van than I did over the whole trip. They were hysterical as a group, and bent on having a good time no matter what. Of note on this particular trip was our wrong turn that took us directly through West Point Academy gatehouse. Oops. It was rather comical to watch all three minivans dart through West Point in front of the guard and conduct a quick U-turn back to the parking lot.

We lunched at little place called the Park Restaurant. Here the Jubilees fulfilled a stereotype that my German friends (K) had prepared me to anticipate. They complained openly about the quality of the food. Not to the wait-staff, fortunately, but certainly loud enough that I was aware of it. I sat there wondering what they expected for a meal that cost less than $5…. There were many times in Germany that I ate with the Jubilees, and many times I sat thinking that the food was below par, or at least completely strange (ask me about Gehacktes Fleisch, Banana juice and beer, or Fat on Bread someday). But I would not have thought to let them know my feelings during the meal. I confess I sat in horror as they all put sugar and vinegar in their lentil soups…A moment of culture shock.

Our return took us back to the supermarket, back over the mountain to the wine shop (this time in glorious sunshine), and then back to the lodge. I think everyone enjoyed a brief afternoon nap – Birgit and I spent the two hours lying on our beds and chatting about the choir – about the organization and just about everything. She and I had worked quite a lot together over the past year to organize this event. We were both exhausted from the effort but I think also both pleased with the results. I should have taken a nap, because in the end I was so tired that I only spent a brief time with the Jubilees that evening. I stayed awake until 9:30pm, just long enough to make preparations for our trip to Manhattan the following morning. Yes, that’s right, we planned a trip to Manhattan – something that I had actually avoided in the initial planning. Birgit sat up each evening like a mother hen worrying about the safe arrival of each minivan – I was about to become a nervous sheepdog in Manhattan, herding choir members through the streets saying, “People, please stay together…” Nevertheless, it was going to happen, and I needed my energy.

We woke the next morning and left at 8:30am to make a 9:20am train in Garrison across the river. I was rather embarrassed that we arrived at the station so early. But by the time we had paid for the parking and purchased our tickets, it was already 9:10am. Our timing was rather good. We used these ten minutes to put together our plan for NYC, which included walking across the Brooklyn Bridge (free), taking the Staten Island Ferry (free), and then making a short walk through Central Park (also free – do we detect a theme, here?). Well, it becomes very clear that you can do quite a lot in NYC without spending money on anything but the subway. Our trip on the Hudson Line was especially wonderful for me, because as I sat next to Frank-Reiner and Peter, I had the opportunity to point out Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow, Nyack, Piermont, and Palisades – all of my old haunts. I’m a sucker for nostalgia.

We took 20 minutes in Grand Central Station to organize ourselves and to think about how to purchase our tickets. We acquired subway maps and money, and checked out the overcrowded bathrooms….and then we had our first experience with the NY Subway system. I have to confess that when we first tried to pile all twenty-one people into the number 6 train, my heart skipped a few beats for fear that someone would get left back on the platform. I had told them all where we were going in advance so that if someone were lost, we could wait. Fortunately, we all made it into the subway car and exited as a group. At City Hall it was clear that we would need to take another bathroom stop at a neighboring Starbucks. Another near-heart attack as Renate walked in front of a moving bus. But fortunately no accident ensued, and we all made to the Starbucks bathroom to pee. I tipped the staff heartily for allowing us to use it. A funny moment occurred when a lady behind us said, “Well this group is all together – they’re from Scandinavia or something..”

At last we made it across the Bridge. And I swelled with pride as everyone seemed to get the same feeling that I get on this Bridge – in the sunlight it is spectacular – we saw all of the beautiful old buildings in the Manhattan skyline. I tried my best to identify them for everyone. I am not the best of tour guides but I was able to hit the highlights: Empire State Building, Woolworth Building, Chrysler Building (my favorite). The trip was going very well! We then walked from City Hall down Broadway to the Staten Island Ferry, and on our way we walked right past Ground Zero. As long as we were there, we decided, we might as well see it. Norbert had described it correctly when he said, “it will just look like a construction site.” It did. But nevertheless I find it very hard to visit Ground Zero without thinking about Kay – I still get emotional and very tearful when I remember that day, and thinking that Kay was on the 102nd floor, and then learning that she had switched jobs and was two blocks from the towers when they fell. My imagination moves on from there. I tried to relate the stories she told me, about the mounds of ash, and paper and scraps of metal everywhere, and her walking home across the Brooklyn Bridge that we had just visited.

After a few moments we walked back to Broadway, and we came upon the Trinity Church. We entered and saw one of the most stunningly beautiful churches I have experienced in the USA. I went to the guard and asked him, "Please, I am with a gospel choir that has come all the way from Germany. Your church is so beautiful and we would love to sing one quiet song, if it is okay with you. We do not wish to show any disrespect." The man walked me directly to the front of the church and lined us up on the steps. I think we were all feeling a bit somber after visiting Ground Zero, and so we chose to sing "Keep Your Lamps." The acoustics were spectacular, as the ends of our chords lingered in the air above us. It was extremely moving. I signed the guestbook, and we all thanked the guard for letting us sing a song in a church in Manhattan. Later I went home and looked up information about Trinity Church on the web. The church was founded in 1697, and was the first ministry for African Americans in New York City. Sometimes you are brought mysteriously to just the right place.

Our walk continued down to the Battery where we went to the Staten Island Ferry. When we entered the ferry I had not had the chance to tell everyone that at the end of the ride we needed to exit the ferry, walk in a big circle around the hall, and then get in line to get onto the NEXT ferry back to New York. They did ask, “Why do we need to exit the ferry?” To which I could only reply, “Because it is the rule.” Anyway, I was concerned because I was not able to find all of the Jubilees to ensure that they knew about our embarkment plan, and so I hoped that they would just “follow the branch.” Before we left Bear Mountain, the Jubilees had given me some lovely gifts – a framed picture, a card, and a maple branch with two glass eggs hanging from it. I love all of these gifts, but this maple branch turned out to be the most useful of the gifts, because it served as a flag that I waved way above my short little head all through Manhattan so that I could always be spotted. As we made our way downtown, we looked a bit like a political ensemble demonstrating for trees…we elicited a few wary stares, but also some positive comments such as, “nice branch.” Anyway, the branch led us all safely onto the return ferry, thankfully.

I had never been on the this ferry but I see now that it is the most fantastic way to see the southern tip of Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. And in the sunlight with a cloudless sky, it was truly spectacular. The golden torch of Lady Liberty shown so brilliantly and brightly in the sunlight, it was an incredible illusion. This was kind of how I felt, too. On the one hand symbols like this make you feel very patriotic. On the other hand, it is important to remember that symbols can reduce themselves to mere illusions of what they were meant to represent. As I was thinking these thoughts, Norbert found me on the front of the ferry and made a different, interesting observation. “Karen, I am amazed that here we are in the mecca of Capitalism, and yet this wonderful ferry is free.” True.

We exited the ferry and walked through the “Valley of the Buildings” (as I called in German) back to another subway stop. Here we had a chance to see the New York Stock Exchange and Federal Hall, and various other traditional New York historic landmarks. Mostly we looked at the beautiful old facades. We spent our time looking up and gawking. Myself included. It was wonderfully touristy.

We ultimately made it to our subway stop at Fulton and took the train up to Central Park. We walked a ways through the park and stood and sang one song on one of the big boulders in the park – “Climbin’ Up the Mountain.” Shortly thereafter I hugged each one of them goodbye. I felt a little bit like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz – when she says goodbye to the Scarecrow and the Tinman – except I gave and accepted 20 hugs and she only had four. It was sad to say goodbye, and then to return to the homeworks and exams that needed grading.

The Jubilees had their last concert in Wellesley last night, and they will be getting on a plane back to Germany today. Now I wish that I had been able to take off for the entire duration of the trip, to join them in all of the concerts. But I was so glad to talk with them at Bear Mountain to hear some of their opinions about the USA. I had not thought of this trip as a means of breaking down cultural barriers, but it did. I heard many times:

"I wasn't sure what to expect of Americans. I know only what I have seen on television. But these people have all been so warm and welcoming. Americans are now people to me, and no longer cliches."

What more could you ask?

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