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2005-08-07 - 1:38 p.m.

...Reflections on the North Sea, or memories of Germany and Russia...

I found the following from my record of a choir trip to the North Sea in the summer of 2002. I used to write stories about the choir's trips, to give my family some word pictures of what I experienced in Germany. A favorite adventure was when they took the American to the nude beach...

I remember this year's journey in particular because it marked sharp transition in my feelings towards the choir. We entered a phase of growing pains - the choir was changing and stretching in so many different directions that I felt it would burst. It marked the growing influence of one woman, whom I still feel splintered the community that I had held so dear. So along with the good, this reflection still feels very sad to me.

I'm including this as an unfinished story obliquely about my first chance ever to sing a solo, but now I see in it more a sadness at the recognition of how things change.


27-28 July 2002

Some people seem to expect a North Sea Choir story from me, and in some trivial ways I think that I could oblige.

I could remember Marcus's comment at breakfast as we fruitlessly searched the Gemeindehaus kitchen for knives: "Sheesh, ten years after reunification and we STILL have to bring cutlery to West Germany."

Or, I could dwell on Wolfgang's pointed observation about the infamous "shelf toilet" that was so prominent on the Ostsee. We have now discovered that this engineering masterpiece is ubiquitous to West Germany as well (or at least, NORTH Germany), leading me to the conclusion that (a) this splendid device is actually a North German coastal phenomenon, or (b) the shelf toilet was a primary export and source of revenue for Eastern Block Countries. Given that I have sat upon shelf toilets in Gera, Moscow, and Prague, all of which were decidedly in the Eastern Block and decidedly NOT on the north coast, I am now inclined to believe that the export of shelf toilets was someone's idea of a brilliant financial endeavor (which in the end may explain why so many eastern block countries went bankrupt..).

But these two trivial points aside, I'm having a difficult time finding a thread, a tale, that I can share. In the end I feel that there may be just too many stories of this trip to tell. More than any other time with the choir, I am aware of the body language I see. Perhaps this is because I can still shut off the German sound in this movie and focus much more keenly on the gestures, the eyes, and the faces. Two people leaning in very close, and wanting so very much to touch each other. Another person wanting very much to touch and be touched, but her companion seeming almost to trivialize any contact between them.

And then I remember the comment of Young Andreas, who is occasionally very perceptive. As we were deep in conversation one evening he said to me, "It is always difficult in this group because we are always watching each other." Wolfgang once long ago called me a quiet observer of people, and sometimes I feel a bit guilty -- almost intrusive -- about being this way. At other times I suspect I am the most vulnerable to be observed, because my face and heart, in the best of circumstances, are transparent to all. So no grand story about naked Germans this year. Just my own reflections.

The area around Cuxhaven is not new to me, but so many of the experiences here are unique for me, a first time with a solo in a church, and with that, thanks to Marcus, a dream realized. Also, perhaps equally notable, a first time for me to dance on the top of a table to a Russian folk song that was capitalized upon by Joan Baez or Judy Collins or someone of that era (although I can safely say that this was not a long-standing dream of mine, merely a fleeting crazy impulse.)

The choir were sitting around the table with candles and food, passing the guitar between one another and sharing quite an abundance of wine and song. Then, as Sepp strummed the notes on the guitar, somehow I felt the spirit of the song (and the dance) within me:

Those were the days, my friend
We thought they'd never end.
We'd sing and dance, forever, and a day...
..Because we were young, and yes, those were the days.
((insert table dance here to the long la la la part))

Such a bittersweet song. My indulgent, uninhibited stomping on the table top created a new and very different memory compared with the last time I heard this song when I was in St. Petersburg with Alosha. It was many degrees below zero, and we were admiring the immense stone statue of Peter the Great in the late afternoon, overlooking the icy Neva River. We were pondering whether to walk across the ice just as Kitty and Ivan did in Ana Karenina..

An amazing combination of sights, sounds, feelings, and smells this place held. The ice-cold wind biting through my clothing and stinging my cheeks; the old church spires cutting through the strange light of the grey winter sky, the smell of old automobiles and coal-burning Russia. And the mixed feelings of fatigue, love, passion, trust, and awe of St. Petersburg, Russia, and Alosha, who confidently guided me through it all.

It was, indeed, a fairytale. And to reinforce this feeling, as we stood by the water in -15C temperatures, a host of bridal parties came around in their tiny sleeveless white gowns, painted up like antique dolls, wearing furs, driving in limousines, riding on donkeys, drinking champagne and tossing the glasses carelessly against the stone of old Peter. And in the background a brass band played: "Those were the days my friend, we thought they'd never end..."

Alosha told me that this kind of absurd extravagance (and I'm sure that my ever-practical Alosha found it very silly) was a common characteristic of the New Russians, who spent their money and their lives wrecklessly. In this sense, the song is so suitable to my one day in St. Petersburg, Russia, and to the whole Russian character. Even on the most optimistic and hopeful of days - a wedding day - there is a sense in the back of our consciousness. We know that this wreckless folly will someday be out of our hands. Somehow the music also reflected my feeling towards Alosha: sentimental, wreckless, a time never-ending, and now, a memory. Alas, I don't know the Russian text to this song - perhaps it is something less melancholy. But given that it is a Russian song, I doubt it. Now for the first time in 2 years, I wonder where those Russian newlyweds are. I wonder equally about my dear Alosha.

But as for me, I have now single-mindedly cavorted upon a table and added my own personal carefree wrecklessness to this song, and recaptured those feelings of standing on the Neva. To feel as if you could sing and dance, forever and a day. Perhaps this song is meant to make you enjoy the moment ... one should literally seize it and feel it to the fullest, take it and make it yours while you can, before you inevitably lose control again.

Would any of my friends at home believe me if I said that all of a sudden I found myself on top of a table? Actually, I suspect my friends have seen the wreckless twinkle in my eye long before I knew it was there myself. One does some crazy things in a foreign country - some totally unexpected, and others that you have dreamt of for a long time.

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